It’s been a good year, even if I did have a lot of hopes for 2010. If 2008 was chock full of life events—getting married, moving to the other side of a large continent—and 2009 was about adjustment to those new environments, I figured the next year, this year, would show up with big rewards for my good behavior. And it did, kind of. It’s been hard work on top of more hard work, and a lot of it has been frustrating (I’m looking at you, rejection letter). All told though, I can look back and see several important lessons. Which leads me to:
1. Look out for your fellow struggling writers, and they’ll look out for you. Not all of them, and not every day, of course, because they have their own lives and careers. But if you show a genuine interest in another person’s work, you can identify connections. I know I’ve passed on information I have about specific agents, editors, and opportunities, and I’ve been happy to receive the same. Networks are vital.
2. Since networks are vital, find a network. For most of the time, I write in Walla Walla, where I only know of one writer, and he’s fairly inaccessible. So I get out of town. Going to the Pacific Northwest Writer’s Association conference in July was the best decision I made all year, because it gave me access to other writers in the region, and face time with agents and editors, who even if they weren’t into my memoir project, were more often than not professional and congenial. And the ones who weren’t? Their behavior told me a lot about the mix of people in publishing, which was also helpful. And when I got back to my small town, I didn’t feel as isolated.
3. Spend some time on other projects. They can be other writing projects, sure. But all work on one project and no play makes Jack kind of an ass. Get out in the world, because that’s where the stories are. You never know what you can bring back to that great novel. In general, it can be creatively inspiring to change it up. Working for weeks/months on a historical novel? Write a short mystery, just for a hoot. Look at what kinds of similarities between the two pieces you’ve written. Where is the voice unquestionably yours? Should it stay or should it go? Rinse and repeat—it will make your work better.
4. It’s about the writing, silly. I devote lots of blog space to jumping up and down to motivate myself and other writers, I know. I do this not for a love of jumping jacks (second time I’ve written “jack” in this post), but because I’ve spent decades learning and thinking about the art and craft of writing, and anyway, there are loads of other people who do it better than me. Besides, I don’t see that as the stumbling block for writers. I see demoralization and a lack of insight after rejection as the bigger hurdles for us. But in the final analysis, if one’s goal is to get published—and I trust that this goal is predicated on the belief that the writing is fantastic and needs to be in the market for some reason—the writing needs to sing. And not have too many adverbs. Because agents don’t like those anymore. Which reminds me of something.
5. Stop worrying. Agents say different things; they’re all over the place in terms of what they think the publishing world desires. Read their blogs, and find which ones say things you like. Like I said a couple of months back, don’t query them first. Figure out your query language by sending it out to five agents who seem solidly interested in the kind of thing you’ve written. And don’t worry if you get rejected. You will get rejected. Go read Johanna Harness’s blog—she’s on my blogroll—and go feel better and get back to work. Stop worrying that your project isn’t commercial enough. Write for yourself first. Read anything by Erika Lopez and get angry, and then focus back on your writing, without pulling your punches. But for the love of Pete, stop worrying. It only stops the process.
I want to cheer you on, because it is a lonely endeavor, and it often feels like a waste of time. In those times, remember that this means you’re doing it right. Writers write. So get to writing, and you can thank me later.