Part One: Take Yourself Seriously

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This is a two part blog post. Part one is “Take Yourself Seriously,” followed by its counterpart: “Calm the Crap Down.” Both are important and I think highlight one very important truth to the writing business, that there is never a singular right answer or way of doing things.

I want to start by posing the same question Elizabeth Gilbert posed on her Facebook page a week or so back.

What are you willing to give up in order to have what you really want?

Gilbert says, “A great teacher I knew once asked me that, and it felt like the world stopped for a minute, and all the birds ceased their singing, and every car on the highway paused and the universe just looked at me and said, ‘Well, lady? Your answer?’”

It’s easy to like writing. It’s easy to say, I want to be a writer. But how seriously are you taking your desire? Do you really believe this is a viable career for you—or deep down do you already assume it isn’t going to work out? There will always be an excuse as to why it’s too difficult to write for a living. Please remember that it’s normal for there to be things you have to do before you can get to the place you want to be. No one expects a doctor to waltz out of high school, strap on some surgical gloves, and successfully remove someone’s appendix. Most of us have to go through the writing equivalent of medical school.

We aspiring writers are quick to complain that there is no way to get into traditional publishing now. No Way. Or that literary agents are only available if a writer is “connected.”

I’m calling bullshit friends, sorry.

You don’t need to know anyone special to get a literary agent. In fact, literary agents want nothing more than to find the best writing they ever read . . . from a complete unknown.

It took one my favorite writers, A.S. King, 8 novels and 15 years to get published. She got over 400 rejection letters. She started writing novels at age 24 and saw her first novel on a bookstore shelf when she was nearly 40. I’m so happy she never gave up because I love her writing (and also her, but first her writing).

On her blog years later, she wrote: “After 300 of those 400 rejection letters, I stopped and asked myself what I was doing wrong. I knew my work was good enough—not the first six novels, mind you, but the ones after that. I knew I was ready to give my agent search more than a half-assed try. I had the Internet by then. And I stumbled upon Miss Snark. I read every post on that blog in a 7-hour binge. I stayed up until 3 in the morning. I even remember the date. It was January 31st, 2006.

Up until that day, I didn’t realize how not-serious I was. I was a serious writer, yes. I was a serious reader, sure. But I hadn’t realized just how serious getting into this business is and how that package I first sent—a query and whatever sample an agent wanted to see—was an introduction to me. Up until that day, I didn’t realize that my work had cliches in it, was sometimes too out-there, was hard to categorize (even just a little), was sometimes lazily written, was simply . . . unpublishable. Up until that day, I whined about how different agents want different things. I complained that writing synopses is hard. Miss Snark’s archives made me see just what it would take to get here. Sounds crazy, but it’s true. February 1st, 2006 I became deadly serious about what I had been trying to do for 12 years.

I got an agent a few months later.”

I experienced something similar my junior year of university. I knew I wanted to be a writer, but at the time, I was an English Teaching major, which meant yes I wanted to write, but I would be a high school English teacher in the meantime to help pay the bills. I went to a popular science fiction and fantasy writing convention that year and I remember thinking to myself, “I don’t even have a finished, polished novel to talk about with these people.”

For about a month I was having trouble sleeping and concentrating and I finally I realized . . . I want to be a writer, not a teacher. When Neil Gaiman gave his commencement address to the University of Arts, he said: “Something that worked for me was imagining that where I wanted to be – an author, primarily of fiction, making good books, making good comics and supporting myself through my words – was a mountain. A distant mountain. My goal.

And I knew that as long as I kept walking towards the mountain I would be all right. And when I truly was not sure what to do, I could stop, and think about whether it was taking me towards or away from the mountain. I said no to editorial jobs on magazines, proper jobs that would have paid proper money because I knew that, attractive though they were, for me they would have been walking away from the mountain. And if those job offers had come along earlier I might have taken them, because they still would have been closer to the mountain than I was at the time.”

All the hours I would spend working to get my teaching license would be moving away from the mountain. So I dropped it. I switched my major to creative writing (an entirely unnecessary move, but in this instant, was symbolic as well as literal). Writing is serious, serious work. Sometimes it’s much harder than it sounds and sometimes it’s much easier than you imagine. It’s definitely not easy deciding whether or not the path you’ve chosen is the correct way. As Gaiman also says in the same address, “. . . you’ll have to balance your goals and hopes with feeding yourself, paying debts, finding work, settling for what you can get.”

I went to that same conference the next year (this year, February 2013), had two completed novels under my belt and stepped into the fray with my first pitch session. I now have a publishing contract and a literary agent and have signed up to teach on panels of that same 2014 conference. A friend recently said to me, “So I know a lot of people who talk about writing, but you’re the only one I know who seems to be getting paid for it in the near future—or you just actually really good, or what’s going on?” (Note how doubtfully she seemed to suggest this was based on talent).

My answer was to tell her that, no, I wasn’t that good. In fact, I was probably a lot worse than any other friends she had when they started. “I work really hard,” I said instead. “I can’t even tell you how many hours a week I put into it, how much time I spend practicing [in other words, reading and writing]. I’m a little bit obsessed.”

There are always obstacles. Sometimes it seems there are nothing BUT obstacles.

But in the end, the question is the same: “What are you willing to give up, in order to have what you really want?”

I don’t know what your answer is or would be, but I know what mine was. How about you? What are you finally ready to be?

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One thought on “Part One: Take Yourself Seriously

  1. Thank you for being slightly obsessed with writing and sharing your experiences. I, at the age of 38 1/2, just started getting serious about mappIng out my first novel and appreciate the no-excuses perspective you share.
    You rock, McKelle!

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