Dear Story Nurse,
I’ve been working hard the last year on putting my work out there: shopping a fully edited novel round to agents, pitching and submitting short fiction/game writing and putting some stuff up for free. While I’ve had a good response when I have a direct audience (i.e. with my alpha readers, free work and blogging), I’m hitting a huge wall of rejection with anything that requires investment from professionals. I’m very aware that this is exactly the problem plenty of writers have (and there are so many examples of famous writers getting rejected a lot) but it feels like such a roll of the dice every time, without any way of improving the odds. I’m never going to stop writing, but I’m losing confidence in my ability to be more than an amateur.
Right now I’m at a crossroads where I have to choose where to put my energy and time: do I keep hacking away at the cliff-face of novel revisions, knowing it’ll take me at least another year before something else is ready for submission? Do I try and cultivate other outlets I enjoy such as RPG writing or short fiction, which are much more limited in their scope for professional gigs but have a more direct audience reach? Do I focus more on my blogging, which I keep as a background thing right now, but is probably my most successful outlet?
I’m not asking you to decide for me (I’m aware it has to be my decision), but I am frozen with indecision right now. Any one path takes time from the others, and while I enjoy moving between them, taking a dilettante attitude towards writing or editing a novel will mean it takes even more time. None of my choices are wrong exactly, but any of them could be frustrating and fruitless very easily.
Unfortunately I can’t even consider which of these I might find most fun right now – not because it’s a bad idea, but because I can’t relax until I find some measure of professional success. My mental health becomes worse when I’m not making progress towards becoming published, which means I have to keep moving forward. Any tips on facing these kinds of big decisions in the face of rejection and loss of confidence?
Thank you for being such a force of positivity in the world.
Thank you for the kind words! I will be glad to be a force of positivity for you.
First of all, I encourage you to chat with a mental health professional if you don’t already have one on Team You. It’s not great for you to have your mental health so closely linked to something that’s out of your control. I hope you have access to mental health care and can get some help untangling your sense of self-worth from the trajectory of your writing career.
Second, let’s talk about progress and success.
When I was a high school senior, I landed a coveted internship with a publishing company. I was absolutely thrilled. Other people who had had that internship were later hired to work there, which I hoped would be my path too. Instead, through a combination of things that were my fault and things that weren’t, I got fired halfway through my second semester.
That was the only path to working in publishing that I knew of, so I gave up. I went to college and majored in math and computer science, with a minor in linguistics. I quit college and worked a bunch of odd jobs: selling and fixing computers, tending bar, teaching video editing at an arts camp for teens. I was aimless and had no trajectory at all.
But I couldn’t stop thinking about books and writing and editing. As a side gig—more of a hobby, really—I started reviewing books. Then I did a bit of copyediting for a magazine. Then I got to know a lot of writers on social media. Then I did more reviewing, and more editing, and that went on for about five years while I worked as a cashier and a legal secretary and a customer service drone and wondered when I would ever have something like a career.
One day I got a call from one of the magazine editors I did freelance reviews for, asking me to come in and interview for a part-time entry-level editorial job at his magazine. I was 29; I had no college degree, and nothing like the sort of work history that one thinks of as leading to a job like that. But I got the job, because all that sideline stuff, that hobby and dilettante stuff, was my publishing career trajectory, and this is where it was leading me. I’d had no idea.
I’ve had that job for 12 years; it’s now a full-time job and I have “senior” in my title. Story Hospital is my sideline these days, and for all I know, 12 years from now my sideline will once again have become my main thing and I’ll be a writing teacher or motivational speaker. You really can’t know where you’re going to end up until you end up there.
So let’s talk about your desire for success, and for progress toward success. Both of those are extremely slippery things. That’s part of why it’s not great to pin your mental health to them. If you do sell a book, will that feel like success, or not until you sell a trilogy? Would self-publishing feel like success? Would publishing with a small press feel like success or does it need to be a name everyone knows? If you end up writing RPGs for a living, would you feel like you ought to be writing novels, or vice versa? Will you ever let yourself feel that you have succeeded? And if you did, what would your life look like after that?
Progress, especially in artistic fields, is not linear. Author Jim C. Hines makes annual blog posts about his writing income, and this year’s graph looks like a mountain range. He writes, “2016 was my best year as a writer, thanks in large part to a three-book deal I signed with DAW. I spent the next two years working on those books.” That’s a very common thing in fiction careers, where a big advance has to be carefully husbanded to pay the bills during the subsequent period of doing the actual writing. That doesn’t mean Hines was less successful in 2017 or 2018; he was, in a weird time distortion way, working toward the success of 2016, writing the books that would make his publisher feel justified in having paid him a lot of money up front.
I’ve been in and around publishing all my life, and to my eye that is a successful writing career: current books being published, older books bringing in royalties and rights sales, newer books being shopped around, even newer books in process, occasional short fiction being written and sold, respect from peers and fans, enough money coming in to live on if you manage it well and the roof doesn’t cave in. If you had a career like that, would it feel successful to you? Would you be willing to put in 16 years (which is how far back Hines’s graph goes) to get there?
This line from your letter caught my eye:
Any one path takes time from the others
You say this like it’s self-evident, but it’s not necessarily true at all. While blogging, you may make the connection with the novel editor who will eventually buy your book. While doing RPG writing, you may hear about an opportunity to write a tie-in novel (a foot in the publishing door for many, many writers). While workshopping your novel with your writing group, you may meet an influencer who can boost the profile for your blog. All these things can build on one another, creating a strong three-point structure that means you always have a fallback position if something fails to gel.
You are very concerned about time, and I encourage you to allow things to take time. Every fiction writer I know has additional income streams—a Patreon, a partner’s income, freelance editing, freelance journalism, even writing catalog copy—because it’s extremely rare for someone to be able to make a living on fiction alone. Putting time and effort into building up three or four ways to make connections and make money is how you establish a solid foundation for a writing career. It’s much more practical than putting all your eggs in one novel-shaped basket and then being a basket case while gatekeepers decide your fate.
And let’s not discount joy. If what you enjoy is doing three things at once, then do three things at once! Why not? Yes, writing and revising novels takes years, especially when you’re new to it. Yes, RPG careers are not thick on the ground. Yes, blogging can feel less real or important or fun than creating fiction. But those truths aren’t reasons to turn away from what you enjoy. Following your joy, fiercely and with determination, is what will get you places where you get to do more of what you enjoy. That tends to be what feels like success, regardless of whether it reaches your or anyone’s (constantly moving) goalposts.
You’re early in your career; take the long view, and realize that you’re going to spend decades at this. There will be ups and downs and big checks and difficult struggles. What gets you through the harder times is remembering that you’re doing this because you love it. You say that fun and relaxation have to give way to the drive toward success. I say that there is no success without fun and relaxation.
If you stay stuck in this mindset, you will never feel as though you’ve done enough to justify enjoying your life. I urge you to work with a therapist to understand what’s underneath this desperate, anxious yearning for publication, and then do whatever you can to let go of that and focus on the part of this that is under your control: choosing to spend your time and energy creating art in ways that feel satisfying and right.
I wish you happy writing now and for a very long time to come.