You Want to Be a Writer? Learn to Love These Four Things
Cliché enough for you? Writers get rejected. A lot, in fact. My advice is to not only endure it or to develop a thick skin, but learn to love and seek rejection. Wallpaper your writing space with rejection letters. That’s what I used to do back when I was submitting a ton of short stories. I got stock rejections at first by the fistful, then they turned into handwritten rejections asking to send more work. Finally I got my first acceptance. Then it was on to novels and a whole new experience with rejection.
By the way, rejection isn’t just an editor not wanting your work. Even when you’re accepted, you will never fully avoid rejection. I have a book out through a mainstream publisher, and NPR hated it. Goodreads reviewers have sprinkled in those snarky one-star reviews. Amazon reviewers don’t always consider your feelings. You know what I think of those reviews? I love them. They add more legitimacy to the five-star reviews, and they tell me that I’m doing something right if I can create a visceral reaction with my work. Even if it’s hate or disdain.
Let rejection flow through you, like the force. Don’t treat it like turbulence, treat it like jet fuel.
I recently had someone tell me they enjoyed writing but didn’t read that much. That’s like saying you like directing movies, but haven’t seen that many.
There are only two things that are going to help you become a better writer — writing a lot, and reading a lot. The prescription really is that simple. Those fancy MFA programs are just writing and reading with an expert to help you learn how to read critically and improve your self-editing function. Read a ton of stuff, read things outside of your comfort zone. Read carefully some sessions, read casually other sessions. Take note of what works, what you like, what you hate.
The great thing about reading is it makes you a better writer without much perceived effort! It’s like one of those magic ab belts that helps you get thin by just sitting there getting your belly shocked. You just start to absorb the different voices, techniques, vocabulary, stories and plotting tricks. You learn by osmosis.
Love reading, practice your writing, and improvement is inevitable.
Your Day Job
Are you writing so you can quit your job? Are you in college thinking you can come right out as a novelist and never work in a normal profession? I can confidently tell you that’s not going to happen. Sure, a small percentage of you might get a good “I told you so,” but I have my doubts and the great majority simply aren’t going to profit enough from fiction to sustain a household or lifestyle. Trust me on this, I have a contract with a mainstream publisher and I’m nowhere close to seeing “retirement” in my sights.
I have had phenomenal success and tons of fun treating writing as a hobby I love. People ask me, “How do you make time for writing with a full time job?” and to me that’s like asking someone how they find time to play video games, or knit, or golf, or go hunting, or go shopping.
I can approach my writing with passion and without the burden of financial pressure. My day job lets me do that. It keeps my family fed, a roof over our heads, the sails of health insurance and retirement savings at our backs. If you love writing enough, you’ll find the time to do it and get better at it. You may even get some dough off of it eventually. But the sooner you accept your day job as a rock solid foundation for your dreams, the better off you’ll be.
Process (not results!)
This goes hand-in-hand with “love your day job,” and I keep pitching “love the process!” to aspiring writers. And I mean it! Learn to love the process. Don’t worry about results.
Recently, I did an event with Chuck Palahniuk and a young girl in the crowd was adamantly trying to get Chuck to read her work. She wanted legitimacy, she wanted to be published, she wanted to be successful. And I get that. But those are results. You truly can’t control them. What can you control? The process, and that is writing and writing until you write something good enough to possibly, maybe achieve the result you’re hoping for.
The baseball player who is successful never says “I’m going to hit a homerun. I want to hit a homerun.” He focuses on the process. “The ball is coming, I just want to put my best swing on it and the results will come.” He doesn’t practice homeruns. He practices taking a good swing. He focuses on the process.
I don’t care if it’s writing or baseball, if you just love the process and focus on the process, the good results will come. If you focus on the results, you’ll get frustrated and switch between wild fantasies and crushing hopelessness. You won’t settle into a good routine, a level-headed approach, a professional state of mind.
If you love to write, write. Concentrate on writing, not getting published, or being on the New York Times bestseller list, or getting a movie adaptation, or having Stephen King blurb your book.
You have to write well to get those things, right? So do that. Write! That’s your process! Love it, improve it, keep your head down, push forward, and then you’ll be detached from the results and be absolutely thrilled, surprised and grateful when the good stuff starts happening.
Write, finish, on to the next thing. Rinse, repeat. If that’s your mantra (it’s my mantra) I promise you at some point the results you want will start happening.