The 'right' publication won't save us
We need practice
Hey subscribers. I’m thrilled to be talking to you again.
I want to dive deep into something I’m trying to figure out for myself. Hopefully, you guys can reply, add to my thinking, and we can take some real steps forward. Let’s see if we can figure it out together.
There are 3 parts:
The myth of “overnight” success
For years, I worked on a novel behind closed doors—polishing and hoping. I would submit to agents and publishers and always got nothing back. I had this false belief that if I could get through the gatekeepers, I would finally be famous… It’s their fault.
Of course, this is toxic to believe. One, because I start to resent "gatekeepers” like they are choosing my fate for me. Two, because I think I automatically deserve the responsibility of being a great storyteller. I needed a big dose of humility.
It’s tempting to think you can skip the line, think of your best idea first, and not have to go through all the bad ideas. That’s not how it works, unfortunately. You have to have your own bad ideas for them to count. You have to have them in public—on a stage that you can actually procure.
Luckily, a stage is easy to get these days. Publishing online costs nothing. The courage to stand on the stage is another thing altogether.
A lot of writers think, “If I could only get…” Some huge publication, some amount of followers, etc. I know I do. The problem is that it’s not an exposure problem. It’s an us problem.
The problem isn’t that people can’t see our work, or that the editors are out to get us, or if we could get an agent, or they would change the algorithm. Those are contributing factors, but nothing will sustain our careers until we get better at our craft.
“Craft” is an interesting term, too. It’s useful to think of writing as a craft, but it can be frustrating because it sometimes feels like I’m on a hamster wheel. Am I improving? You know when you’re getting better at glassblowing, for example. The glass takes physical shape! With writing, progress can be hard to measure. Are we even learning anything by writing and publishing? If it falls on deaf ears, was it worth writing? The short answer is yes.
The long answer has to do with trust and faith. Writing is a strange phenomenon. As I write these words, ideas bubble up from somewhere deep in my mind—I don’t really know how it’s happening. I copy them down the best I can. I judge them and keep going. Over time, I write and publish, and the parts of my mind that bubble up these ideas learn from that whole process. My experiences shape them in ways that I can’t really sense.
The writing gets better as long as I am writing and publishing work—even if I can’t tell. It’s that simple. If I’m not where I want to be, I need to write more and publish more.
It’s that simple. Write. Publish. Repeat.
So, there are a few ideas here:
Most of our work won’t pay off. That’s OK
Exposure isn’t going to magically save us.
We need to better our craft.
Have faith that humbly doing the work is enough
The conclusion is simple. But it helps me to think a little harder about how we come to these conclusions. Knowing the reason can make or break my motivation. Let me know if you’re the same.
Doing the work is important. It’s OK if almost all of it falls flat. Keep doing the work—and one day, something will launch into the stratosphere.
Remember, reply to this and help me with these ideas. And lead any other writers you know to our community so that we can continue to grow and help each other out.
Thank you for being a part of this.
Ok, deep dive eh? I’ll share an extended metaphor that might be helpful.
Being a writer, for me, is like being a sculptor. The sculptor takes an idea, bare stone, and chips away at it. In the beginning she gets rough, awkward shapes that seem abstract or alien. As she progresses, she begins to make sculpture that looks more like an imitation of the masters, but still wonky. Perspectives are off, one eye bigger than the other, huge thumbs and tiny fingers, etc.
After years of work, a number of things may happen. The first is that she may decide that sculpture is something she’d rather set aside for evenings and weekends. She may come to love her wonky half alien pieces and decorate her home with them, maybe even sell one or two to a friend.
The second is that she may, in her years of chipping away at the stone, find that she likes the wonkyness so much that she really leans into it, making the strangest hybrid alien human machine cyborg sculptures yet. She may come to find that these works don’t really sell at all, and nobody cares for years, until one day out of nowhere a patron contacts her and offers to buy all of her works and fund her next year of work.
The third thing that may happen is that she may progress through her wonky phase and begin to make beautiful and graceful works that showcase the human form in movement with a stunning degree of realism. Reviews praise her work and she goes viral, shared by millions. She may also find that nobody cares to purchase her sculpture because 3D printers can now do what she does in a fraction of the time. They rip her work off left and right.
I used to think of writing like this, chipping away at something, waiting for a form to emerge and guide me.
Now, I realize I’m chipping away at myself, finding out what sort of man I am through the process. And I write accordingly. The difficult part is balancing what I want to write about with what people want to pay me to write. That classic struggle...it’s where it gets fun!
In all three of these scenarios, the sculptor leads a full and happy life. In all three, she learns to express herself and feels fulfilled in that expression.
It’s about the process and what it does to you that makes it worthwhile. If that process turns you into a bitter person, follow that further, ask what you’re really looking for.
I’m looking for legit community. Writers who will tell me that what I’m writing sucks. Writers who will tell me how to make what sucks better. People whose opinions I can take or leave because I know them personally and deeply as writers. Sometimes one persons critique is garbage, while another’s is dead on.
Online, this sort of working relationship rarely happens. True writing happens in conversation and exchange. I share this story to evoke a response. I’d share a different story if I wanted likes. I’d share a different one if I wanted followers. Or money. I’d share a course of stories if I wanted money...
We cast words into an echo chamber hoping to hear ourselves reflected back through others. Writing is dialogue. It’s the exchange that makes it worthwhile. With yourself. With the page. With the reader. And with us, the other writers.
Also, I’ll humbly disagree - ALL the work pays off, just often in forms and realms that are mysterious and often non-monetary. Have faith.