Sunday, June 27, 2010

False Starts

In his recent Poets and Writers article about his experiences self publishing a couple of books, Steve Almond (who, it should be noted for the sake of credibility, had published several books with actual publishing houses prior to his foray into the self publishing arena) points out that “for most of us mortals, the path to publication is littered with false starts” (68).

Let me just say that Almond is so right.

The climb upward as a writer is slow going and is full of small successes, which don’t end up meaning much in the big picture but which sometimes may feel much more significant than they are. Your first publication, for example. Can you remember the adrenaline rush that one gave you (or will give you, if that milestone is still hovering somewhere in your future)? The first story “acceptance” I received was from an online journal whose editor, I very quickly found out, accepts almost everything that gets submitted to her. I felt, for maybe a day or two, like I could finally say that I was a “real” writer, until I figured out that all getting published by that site proves is that I know how to attach a word document to an email.

But that’s just an extreme example of the very common false starts we all experience. My first real acceptance was equally exciting, although the issue of the journal came and went and for all I know, nobody ever even read the story once it was published. My first acceptance by a paying journal was another of those false starts. It felt huge to me to actually be getting paid for something I had written, although since then I’ve sold a handful of stories for actual money, and I’ve learned that the paying markets aren’t necessarily any more well regarded or widely read than the non-paying ones, and the money never really adds up to much.

First manuscript request from an agent, that one felt huge at the time. Prior to that I firmly believed that if I could just get an agent to read my book, he or she would see how good it was and it wouldn’t be long after that before the book was published. That first post-manuscript request rejection was a reality check, let me tell you. As was the first (and so far only) time I was contacted by a literary agency asking me to query them. The result? The assistant requested a partial and then sent a polite rejection, saying that the novel was very well written but the story didn’t suck her in enough.

Pushcart nomination—yeah, but I didn’t win. Semi-finalist for Leapfrog Press’s fiction contest—again, I didn’t win, and that book is still unpublished and collecting virtual dust on my jump drive.

Don’t get me wrong, these small milestones still get me excited every time. I have this image of a writing career as a nightmarishly long ladder. It takes such effort to get one rung higher that it’s impossible not to be excited when you do, but then you look up and realize that there are still so many rungs to go that you can’t even see the top yet (probably because, in fact, there isn’t one, but don’t let your mind linger too long on that truth). And then you look down and realize that while you have made it a few rungs up, you’re really not that high yet. You could easily jump back down to the ground and not hurt yourself.

False starts? Yes, sometimes it feels like there’s nothing but false starts. But maybe the best thing to do is to focus on the writing itself and not worry about where you’re headed. What’s that old saying? It takes thirty years to make an overnight success? The truth is, individual wins and losses don’t amount to much in the end. In the end all that matters is that you never gave up.

(In case you’re wondering: Almond, Steve. “Self Publishing Steve Part 2: Making the Dream a Reality.” Poets and Writers July/August 2010: 67-70.)

1 comment:

Jayme said...

Great post. I just hate waiting in line to get onto the ladder.