*Disclaimer*: I debated whether to post my thoughts on this particular topic then kinda went, “Fuck it.” You may not agree with me on this one, and if so, please comment BUT be nice! That’s what I’ll try to be…
So yesterday I went to a local outdoor festival. Orlando has many events like these, and I usually attend them for the food trucks (no shame) and the local artists and craftspeople (all the prettiesss!). Back when I lived in Jacksonville I’d attend these kinds of events as well. For many years I’ve found joy in them. The food’s interesting. The art’s abundant. The crafts interest me. Sometimes I discover a local business or volunteer organization that shares my passions. I find myself having meaningful conversations with these people who’ve carted their trades to this event and others like it. Over the years pursuing my writing mostly in private (my blog wasn’t public until 2011-ish), I felt a kind of awe at their choice to bring their passions to the public.
The kind of “awe” I’m talking about here may be a relatable feeling to you if you’ve ever kept a hobby private and then seen someone else take that same hobby public, and put themselves out there in front of you.
My journey from amateur hobbyist to serious writer
Back in college when I started attending these events (the years 2008-2011 when I was 18-21 years old), I considered myself a writer but not publicly. I’d spent my high school years before then taking creative writing electives at a magnet arts school, so I had some talent and knowledge but not nearly enough. I declared a major in English when I started university, taking a myriad of arts & humanities electives… that’s a fancy way of saying I didn’t know what the hell I was doing, but I was doing it.
I kept my English major but pursued journalism as a potential career. I over-worked myself at the school paper for two years before I experienced what many people do–the “This-isn’t-the-right-career-for-me-oh-God-what-do-I-do-now” crisis. I took an advanced creative writing course around that time–one that required an “in” with the professor, which I had. He became my mentor.
When I wrote a deeply personal piece about a recent break-up, I sent it to him even though it wasn’t for a grade or assignment. Before that I’d never shown my personal writing to a professional. Yeah, I’d turned in assignments, some of them personal, but I’d never written something only for me and then given it away to someone I wasn’t sure I could trust. It was one of many “leaps of faith” I was making at that point in my life. A sort of, “Well, universe, what I’ve done didn’t work, so how about I try doing this instead?” I knew I loved writing in its purest form–the visceral, the personal–but was I brave enough to bring that kind of soul out into the public eye? Not really. My professor’s email inbox would have to do.
In that moment, it did. He gave me some feedback and encouraged me to keep working on it. Little did he or I know that this piece would go through another five years’ worth of edits. Little did I know it would become the first piece of mine that I felt comfortable enough to submit to publishers.
Graduation for me was an “all bets off” time in my life. I didn’t have to read what other people wanted me to. I didn’t have to write what other people wanted me to. I didn’t have to do anything that another person wanted me to do. I felt totally free to pursue my own passions.
I finally felt I had a huge amount of choice in my life. And I made so many choices every day with that in mind: how to spend my time, who to spend that time with. The biggest choices I made were to do with my writing career–I did not at that point consider it a career but wholeheartedly do now–which books to read, which authors to keep up with, which writing events to spend money on, what to focus on in writing research.
I’m opening my chest even further at this point in the post to say I’ve learned just as much, if not more from those post-collegial choices as I did taking college courses. I wrote publicly on my blog documenting that journey but was unsure of myself for most of said journey. I’m still on that journey, the only difference being that time and affirmation have made me more sure of myself: my identity as a writer and my potential for success.
I believe everyone who’s serious about a writing career has to go through this journey (it won’t be mine; it will be yours, with some similarities as well as differences). And that brings me full circle to my original point…
21 year old me had very different visions for the future than I do now at 25. The “awe” I felt then was the awe of a private hobbyist, an absolute amateur in the field of writing. I felt “awe” at the simple act of sharing my writing with only one unexpected person. My life is much different now; I share my writing with many people on a daily basis, so it’s not exactly awe-worthy anymore. But I tell you what I still haven’t done–receive my first publishing credit. And I am still in awe of the people who have. This is my dream now–to see my writing in the most publicly accessible form. To become published.
Taking your time to do it right
Doing it wrong because you’re not ready
Let me pause here to insert an applicable quote from a favorite author of mine, Patrick Rothfuss, who spent most of his life unpublished before he let his epic fantasy novel out into the world, where it soon became bestselling. It’s from the dedication page of “Name of the Wind“:
“To my father, who taught me that if I was going to do something, I should take my time and do it right.”
I am in awe of published authors, especially at in-person events; it takes guts to pitch your book to readers in person and it takes experience to do it well.
Let me repeat that last part… It takes experience to do anything well. A lot of people have the guts but NOT the experience, and those people, simply stated, are not ready to be bringing their work to a public space.
There are some writers, traditionally as well as self-published, who are at the beginning of their “writing career journey” when they decide they’re ready to go public with their work. I met such a lady at the event yesterday. She was selling copies of her book. I’ve met other writers like this at some conventions, also sitting at their own booths, stacks of their books for sale. They’re sitting there, living the dream, but they’re not ready for it. That’s one of the saddest things I’ve ever typed… but true. Here’s how I know they’re not ready*:
– When I ask them about their book, they can’t tell me what genre it is.
– They can’t think of any other books like it in their field.
– They don’t have any other book or author recommendations.
– Their premise may sound interesting, but their pitch falls flat.
I do not buy their book, and I walk away disappointed.
Disappointed, because I know I’m looking at what would’ve been me four years ago if I had decided to publish at that point. I hadn’t read enough books in my field. I didn’t have any authors I followed. I wasn’t aware of most of the terms of the publishing industry. I hadn’t taken the time that’s required to learn all those things. I just wasn’t ready.
But here’s the thing… I knew I wasn’t ready; a lifetime of specialized education (a magnet arts high school and university thereafter) had taught me that ego is killer to art and the best artists are the humble ones, the ones who know how to evaluate their own strengths and weaknesses.
I can’t tell you how many published authors sat on the panels at the Speculative Fiction Convention I recently attended and said, “I wasn’t ready when I published my first book. And it wasn’t ready to be published. I wasn’t knowledgeable about the industry. I made mistakes publicly that I wish I could go back in time and make privately. And my advice to you is, learn the most you can before you publish, because you only make a first impression once.” Of course, these authors bounced back from their mistakes. Some pulled their books. Other just wrote new, better ones. But they all admitted that most writers that go public too soon do not bounce back. That advice has stuck with me, and I wholeheartedly agree. I think Patrick Rothfuss would too. He waited a long time before he pursued the world of publishing.
I wish I could’ve sat down with the author I met yesterday and said these things to her in person.
“You don’t know what genre your book is?” I would’ve said, and placed my arm around her shoulders. “You’re not ready.”
It’s harsh, which is why I didn’t say it. I nodded and went along to the next booth. The author in question will learn that lesson, but it won’t be from me. The readers who may show up for her work will most likely see that kind of inexperience shining through the copy. That’s also harsh… but true. They’ll leave negative reviews. Or, worse, no reviews or sales at all.
Knowing that you don’t know
If writing is your trade, then you need to know what level you’re at. Know yourself. Know that you don’t yet know enough. That’s the first step toward getting up and getting some learning done.
But if you don’t know that you don’t know, and you put your work out for the public before it’s ready (before you’re ready), the awakening will be ruder than you hoped. The lesson will be a harder one to learn.
Sure, I could say some negative things about the education I’ve received (what English major can’t say that?), but without education I would never have learned the important lesson of knowing that I didn’t know. Ask any college student who’s dropped out in their freshmen year; they’ll say they expected it to be like high school, they didn’t like the way their professors challenged their beliefs, they weren’t ready to be told how inadequate they were. That’s true education for you. You learn you are inadequate. Then you root out those inadequacies and squash them with knowledge. And you never believe yourself to be 100% adequate ever again.
However, if you learn you are inadequate because you put yourself and your inadequate work out there too soon… man, that is such a harder lesson. Harder than any freshman scenario I can think of. Much harder to bounce back from.
You know that old adage… start before you’re ready. That’s true. If you let your inadequacy scare you into inaction, you won’t get the learning you need done. You won’t get the practice in. You won’t improve. But if you pretend to finish before you’re ready to finish, that may be just as bad. You’re still an amateur but pretending you’re not, and your readers (or lack thereof) will quickly inform you of this ego-shattering fact.
How do you know you’re ready?
Well, knowing the answers to the four questions I’d asked above* is a start. Reading profusely, especially in your chosen genre, is a must. Feedback from other writers and readers may help. Self-help books may teach you. And lots lots lots LOTS of research into the areas you’re unsure of. Beyond these things, it’s safe to say it’s a personal journey, so it’ll also be a personal answer. A certain amount of inner monologue and intuition goes into these things.
So I leave you with some philosophical questions:
What aren’t you ready for? And how are you working to become ready?
And if you’ve learned the hard way that you aren’t ready, what are you doing to bounce back?