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How the Writer Survives (and how to cope)


So it’s your dream to write novels? Be a freelance writer and make a living off of your articles? Or maybe you nurture an ambition to write and sell enough short fiction to put bread on the table, like those writers of the golden age of the pulps?

Well, those are all noble dreams to have. I’m smitten by the writer’s glamour myself. Also I’m grateful for the others who were, those authors whom I love to read and return to time and again. I’m grateful that they possessed not only their artistic vision, but also the sheer stubbornness and will to persevere and see their dreams become reality.

So we’ve settled on the fact that we want to be writers, and that no other dream will do. Now let’s take a look at what this is likely to mean in terms of the sacrifices we’ll have to make along the way.

1. Misunderstanding.
Make no doubts about it – even those closest to us may not understand or even sympathize with our dream. Young authors still in school or living at home should prepare themselves for the advice of well-meaning but frightened parents; which typically will be encouragement in ANOTHER direction. With all that time spent on the computer, you could build a career as a typist. How about data entry? Web design? They have a lot of great courses at the college for that.

Adult writers can oftentimes expect a similar reaction from their significant others; though in this case, the motivation might be someone different.

Why don’t you pursue something that there’s a FUTURE in?

People who give this sort of advice are doubtlessly well-steeped in all the lore of the suffering artist. Parents don’t want to see their children go through it; husbands and wives aren’t all that eager to see their spouses get caught up in that trap either.

But the real question here is this: are YOU ready to believe in yourself enough to persevere even in the face of this negative (though well-meant, perhaps) feedback?

2. A social life? What’s that?
To finish a novel could easily take up a thousand hours or more of your time. That means almost three hours a day if you want to get it done in a year. And this is a modest estimate. Now maybe you’re willing to give up T.V. time, leisure reading, evenings out with your sweetheart, etc. You want to be a novelist that badly. But wait! The trials don’t stop there.

Your friends and family will want explanations. WHY can’t you go over to Lucky’s and hang out tonight? Why do you never pick up the phone at night (or in the morning or whenever you write)?

Now it’s one thing to have college papers to write, or mid-terms to study for, or overtime hours at work. Those are all socially acceptable obligations. But tell your friends that you’re staying in every evening to write and probably the best reaction you can hope for is a blank stare.

Are you ready to say: “Too bad if they can’t understand”?

3. Rejection upon rejection.
Let’s say we pass the first two hurdles. We don’t listen to people’s attempts (however well-intentioned) to dissuade us, and we plug away at our stories even though it means we can’t enjoy the leisure and down time of “normal” people. We put those thousand-odd hours into our work, and when it’s all done we’re proud of it. We write query letters, mail submissions, and sit back and dream of that fat advance, the book signing tour and the movie offers.

Then the unthinkable happens. We get one return letter after another, and all of them are variations of this: “Thank you for sending us [our work]. It was indeed interesting, but not quite what we’re looking for at this time.”

This happens to everyone. It has happened to me numerous times, and if it never happens to you then you will be entered into the history books of publishing. You may reach the point where a PERSONAL rejection letter instead of a pre-printed rejection feels like an accomplishment.

Remember the dream. Remember the passion that drove you to devote all those hours to writing in the first place, at the expense of your social life and leisure. Then send your work out again, because you didn’t pass the first two tests for nothing. When and if you get feedback, see if there’s anything constructive within it and learn for next time. You’ll be another rung up the ladder to success.

We writers survive and find our way because we weren’t meant to BE anything else.

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