© 2000 by Tom Piccirilli
Let's define an important term here and decide what it is to write "professionally."
Professionalism is not merely an attitude. It's also more than a mind-set, and a hell of a good deal beyond a bad act put on by the tortured literati wannabes.
For our purposes, let's say that you write professionally when you've decided that writing is not merely a hobby, a performance or a passing interest, when it's not solely a dream or goal you've set yourself to attain in the far-flung future.
You write professionally when you regularly complete stories and submit them to the marketplace. The same holds true when you work on a novel with the hopes that when it's finished you'll send it out with the expectation of getting it published. Soon. Not in thirty-seven years when you retire and have nothing better to do but dictate your memoirs about your wild freshman experiences with your roommate Vegetable Fat Vinny, or when you finally decide to name names and blow the top off the Pez industry.
This is an objective you have a burning passion to achieve now. Nobody ever said that to be a proficient, capable author you had to be well-paid or even successful, but you do have to be working.
If you rewrite one tale endlessly and never finish a second, then you've got no right to walk around claiming to be an author. If you jot stanzas of scribbled verse in your pocket notebook only so you can spout drunkenly to your girlfriend in the middle of a downtown club, then you ain't a real writer yet, kid, buck up and face the fact. If you have seventeen half-completed books in your trunk then you don't have the accurate outlook to be a credible writer. Worse is if you have seventeen completed novels but have never even bothered to submit any for publication. (And yes, I know that Emily Dickinson only published four poems in her lifetime and is still a literary cornerstone, but she wasn't a professional, and do you really want to live her life?... unwilling to leave your house or stand in the same room with your visitors?)
J.D. Salinger can make a lifetime career out of one brilliant novel and a handful of shorter fiction. Thomas Harris can afford to take eight or nine years to put out a novel. The rest of us have to produce fairly quickly and write very efficiently.
Okay, so this isn't a game to you.
Writing, even if only for the small press field, means that you put your ego on the line every day of the week. You learn to live with the smirks of your friends and family-or their outright frowns and grimaces-when you tell them you're a "writer." You put up with them asking you how much money you've cleared when you've made a whopping $2.16 on your most recent sale or only get a handful of copies. When your Uncle Morris shrieks giddily, "What the hell are you going to do with that pitiful amount?" you want to tell him how you'd just love to clean out his throat with it.
And why do they smirk and sneer as much as they do?
Sadly, they've got a pretty good reason.
Writing is more than a profession, it's also an affectation adopted by those who do not write, or write very little, yet enjoy believing themselves to be artists. Here you are marketing your second unsold 100,000 word novel and some guy who's written two bad prose-poems for his creative writing class exercises is also telling people that he's a "writer."
You are a professional though because you act professionally and get the job done where it matters most-on the page. Your intentions are noble: you want to do the best job that you can, and you want to be read.
In college I knew a "writer" (it's okay to snicker in this case-in fact, I'd really enjoy it if you would) who claimed that fifty years after his death his progeny would open a trunk in the attic, discover his unsold manuscripts, sell them to a major publisher where they'd all become instant bestsellers, and he'd finally be acknowledged as an unheralded genius of the ages.
Pardonez-moi ma Francis, but I say that's pure grizzly shit.
Claiming you're actually an unappreciated sage of the century isn't only the last salve to one's brutalized ego, but it's also a conceit that only serves to undermine your own values and credibility.
So how do you put up with it?
How do you pull yourself together enough to put another story in an envelope and mail it off to yet one more magazine when you can feel your heart slipping through your ribcage?
How do you learn to live with rejection letters that are barely comprehensible and written by near-illiterate editors?
The answer is as simple to say as it is difficult to accomplish-you have faith in yourself.
You must realize that the struggles and setbacks are all part of the process. Getting rejected is a part of the plan, and so is being discouraged and angry.
It's difficult as hell to know what to do with your rejection letters when you first start getting them. Do you rip them up or wallpaper your bathroom with them? Are they worth the paper they're printed on? Should you actually listen to the comments?
Most editors don't have much time to comment on each individual story. If you're lucky you'll get a couple of kind sentences and some sort of reason why the editor is passing on your tale. Remember that it is not the editor's job to teach you to be a better writer. His only job is finding the best stories for his magazine. You shouldn't expect lengthy explanations on the strengths and weaknesses of your work.
However, if you do receive a lengthy rejection, I suggest you listen to all the editor has to say with an open mind. Some editors can be incredibly helpful with their constructive criticism. Some can be vicious and degenerate, with their own axes to grind, who enjoy their position of power and like nothing better than to watch newer writers twisting in the violent winds of the small press. Over the course of your struggles you'll probably run into each type.
You are charged with remembering that all rejections are merely one person's opinion. Perhaps it's a professional opinion and perhaps it's not, but it's still only a single view of your work. If you can take something positive from the comments then do so, if you can't then leave them aside. My suggestion is that you save all rejection letters for the first couple years of your writing life, for one important reason. Eventually you'll be able to go through them and see how many of the magazines have folded up and blown away while you are still working towards your goals, meeting them, and exceeding them. It's a powerful validation, and one you deserve for continuing to strive forward.
You might expect me to put in here that it would be a wise move on your part to join a writer's group so you can share your sorrows with like-minded folks. Actually, I'm here to warn you away from most writers groups. For three reasons.
First: if the group is composed of only beginning writers they all might feel reluctant to actually give an honest opinion, especially if it's a negative one. Instead of a furnishing a truthful critique they might feel inclined to simply give empty words of encouragement or a vacuous "This is great!" You need to know the difference between constructive, helpful advice and vacant stab at support. That's going to take you time.
Secondly, some groups are made up of rabid complainers and naysayers about the publishing field. They tell you it's not what you write but who you know. They squeal that real genius will forever be buried beneath piles of worthless fiction and only sell-outs and hacks can get shelf space for their insipid rubbish.
You have enough travails of your own, and you don't need to deal with their despairing rancor as well. Take it from me, we've all got the same tales of woe. It's how we deal with those troubles that separate those who will continue forward and those who will stew in their own toxins. In any case, you're much better off not having to deal with these kinds of embittered folks at this early stage of your career.
Third: even honest critiques are difficult to deal with, especially when you're a beginner. You'll get a variety of opinions about your work, and you'll have no real idea about who to listen to or why. You'll sneer at wonderful advice and listen to soothing assurances that you're as good as any best-selling author out there, which may or may not be true. You'll face one member who loves the opening of your tale but hates the ending, and another who feels the exact opposite. Until you develop a certain security about your writing and understand your own narrative strengths and weaknesses, you might be best off staying away from opposing group dynamics like these.
Also: don't ask for comments if you're not ready to hear the worst. I don't necessarily mean nasty remarks about your story, I mean the worst kind of responses.
You might be smiling and bright-eyed and eager to hear what your sister Ellen has to say about your tale, expecting her to rave about your genius. Instead she winds up telling you, "I don't get it." Or, "Why don't you write something that people want to read! Write a happy story!"
Don't set yourself up for that long a fall. If your mother has never read a fantasy, horror or science fiction story, then don't expect to get anything more from her than a dazed look of confusion no matter how wonderful the piece might be. Others might give an accurate critique and find genuine flaws in your story-you have to be willing to keep an open mind and not drop into a well of frustration because you're not as perfect as you'd hoped.
So, exactly how do you combat discouragement? Write another story. How do you fend off depression over lagging sales? Write another story. How do you get by your own euphoria, giddiness, self-doubt or disappointment? Write another story, and try to make it even better than those that came before it.
Face the page.
Remember you're here not only because you want to be, but because you have to be.
Forget about everything else but the work that comprises your art.
© 2000 by Tom Piccirilli
from WELCOME TO HELL: A Working Guide for the Beginning Writer (Fairwood Press) ISBN: 0-9668184-2-3
$6.99 + $2 s&h Ordering info:
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Tom Piccirilli is the author of nine novels, including HEXES, THE DECEASED, THE DEAD PAST, SORROW'S CROWN and the forthcoming A LOWER DEEP. An omnibus collection of 40 stories entitled DEEP INTO THAT DARKNESS PEERING became a finalist for both the Bram Stoker Award and World Fantasy Award for best collection. Tom lives in Estes Park, Colorado where he's currently working on his next macabre novel A CHOIR OF ILL CHILDREN.
© 2000 by Tom Piccirilli. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced or distributed without the author's written permission. Permission is granted only for posting on the World Wide Web at http://www.horror.org/, though hyperlinks to the article at this URL are encouraged.