Monday, January 23, 2012

Persistence Isn't What It Used to Be

My senior year in college, I was the editor of the student literary magazine. My associate editor, Vance Wissinger, was ten years older than me, and far wiser in the ways of the world. He was a poet, and he'd been writing and submitting his work for a long time, and one day when I wondered aloud how my own writing career would develop, he said, "Why don't we consult the I-Ching?" Small-town southwestern Ohio boy that I was, I had no idea what he was talking about. He took a yellow-covered hardbook book out of his briefcase -- a lot of us used briefcases instead of backpacks in those days; blame the 80's -- along with several Chinese coins. I did as Vance instructed. I held the coins, concentrated on my questions, Will I be a published novelist?, shook the coins, and dropped them on top of a desk. Vance looked up the pattern the coins made in his book, and the corresponding prophetic message listed there:

Perseverance furthers.

I was kind of bummed. I would've preferred a Yes or better yet a Hell yes, and soon, with truckloads of money, too! But even at the tender age of twenty-two, I recognized those two words for the wisdom they were. And when it comes to writing careers, they're just about the only advice that really applies.

Fast forward two-and-a-half decades and change. There was a time when old pros would tell you the formula for writing success: TALENT + PERSISTENCE + LUCK = A PUBLISHED AUTHOR. They used to say you needed any two of the three elements in the equation to succeed, but as publishing began to change and become ever more competitive, they revised that to say writers needed all three elements.

But today writing and publishing are very different gigs from when I dedicated myself fully to them at the even more tender age of eighteen. Thanks to the ease of self-publishing, you no longer need any of those once so important qualities. Talent? Doesn't matter if you don't know how to shove a noun up against a verb. You can still self-publish your work. Persistence? What's that? All you have to do is write something, format it, and upload it for sale. No problem. Luck? No need for it, not when anyone who wants to can publish his or her work.

But to paraphrase a writer far better than I'll ever be, I come not to bury persistence, but to praise it. It may no longer be necessary in the Brave New World that's upon us and the Even Braver and Shinier New World to come. In fact, it's probably already viewed as a quaint anachronism by most self-published writers these days -- if they even think about it at all. But I believe there's important growth writers need that can only be gained through persistence.

If you're truly (and not self-deludedly) a brilliant writer right out of the starting gate, or if you don't mind taking risks and maybe falling flat on your face as you publicly learn your craft, feel free to stop reading right now and start self-publishing. Otherwise, consider the following:

When self-publishing eventually becomes the only publishing, it will no longer matter who is publishing you (because -- duh -- you are the publisher), how big of an advance you got (advances will also be quaint -- and in the case of my generation of writers, sorely missed -- anachronisms), or how many books you sell (especially when you price the damn things at .99 cents apiece or worse, give them away). Only two things will matter: Is your work read and do those readers respect it? Your reputation, your brand, will become your biggest selling point. if you, like most of us starting out, write books that are, shall we say, not ready for prime time, and you put them out there for the world the see, you'll be taking quite a risk. Back in Bedrock, Fred, Barney and I used to call those less-than=glittering works or art trunk novels -- works created while learning, full of clunky prose and tortured plots, best locked away, never to see the light of day. And if the Bedrock gang and I were tempted to submit these learner-novels to publishers in the almost assuredly vain hope that they were good, despite the sneaking suspicions we had that they were crap, an editor would soon set us straight. And after enough rejections, we either revised those learner-novels or trunked them and wrote something new and -- hopefully -- better.

We were able to make our mistakes in private, without anyone seeing them which, while potentially embarrassing personally, would've been disastrous professionally. Because if somehow those learner-novels had gotten published, we would've gotten reputations as sucky writers. Really, REALLY sucky writers.

But that might not have been fatal. Back then, all information wasn't accessible to everyone all the time. Reviews weren't permanently preserved in electronic amber for eternity. You could've kept on writing, could've eventually convinced agents and editors that you'd grown, that your work had improved. Reviewers soured on your earlier work would give the new stuff a try -- especially if a publisher vouched for it by bringing it out to the public with their stamp of approval -- and, with any luck (remember the formula?) you could leave your bad rep behind you and continue on to brighter days.

But that was then.

Now, the reader reviews of your self-published (and probably learner) novels -- if they are, um, less than enthusiastic -- will haunt you forever. Worse, new potential readers will see those reviews and decide to download someone else's book instead of yours. Imagine if you were a self-taught chef whose food was awful. Think you'll keep customers if you tell them to be patient because you're going to become a better cook in a few years? Customers will flee your restaurant in droves, never to return. And they'll tell all their friends to steer clear of your place. The same thing will happen with your self-published learner-novels.

The self-publishing ecosystem will be a Darwinian nightmare. Only the best writers will attract and continue to attract readers, and the rest will wonder why only their friends and relatives downloaded their first novel and why even they won't download the second. I suspect that gatekeepers of one sort of another will arise to assure some measure of quality for readers, but that's a blog topic for another day. Instead, I want to talk about how the self-publishing generation can acquire the benefits of persistence in a world where persistence is no longer necessary. Supposedly, the great thespian Sir Laurence Olivier, was once asked what the secret to great acting was.

"The key to great acting is sincerity," he said. "Once you can fake that, you've got it made."

So how do you "fake" persistence?

A huge service that agents and editors at publishing houses used to supply was feedback. When I started out, I submitted to small-press publications because I quickly learned they were more likely to provide feedback along with their rejections. I gathered personalized, detailed rejections for two years, then one day I sat down and collated and charted all the comments. I saw clear, specific areas where my writing needed improvement, and I got to work on making my writing better. It's no great surprise than I began selling much more regularly after that.

So if you're not working with agents and editors, and not getting feedback, what can you do?

Find a writers' group

Yeah, there's always the danger of "the blind leading the blind" with writers' groups, but if you gather a group of well-read, honest, self-aware writers, you can all help each other become better by simulating the submission and response process of Old Publishing.

Take a writing class

Try to find a well-published professional who teaches. All too often, creative writing classes are taught by college professors who have published little or nothing. Don't just look in your area. A lot of colleges and even individual writers offer classes online.

Get a writing degree

Whether you go for a certificate program at a community college or an MFA, going through the rigors of a program will definitely help teach the lessons of persistence, as well as giving you tons of feedback. Creative writing programs have grown exponentially since I was in college, mostly because they're moneymakers for schools. I suspect they will grow even more in the Self-Publishing Future as writers seek to gain an advantage. Again, make sure you select a program with well-published faculty and graduates who have gone on to publish their work successfully.

Get beta readers

Gather a cadre of trusted readers -- regardless of whether or not they're writers themselves -- who will read a draft of your novel and provide honest feedback.

Invite online feedback

Use your website or other sites where beginning writers can post their work to invite feedback on your learner stories and novels. You'll have to deal with some trolls, of course, but ignore their comments and take the decent feedback you get.

Give readings

Whether live or video-recorded and presented online, readings can be a great way to test your work before an audience. Invite feedback, not so much on your performance, but on the work itself.

Hire an editor

The bad thing about the Self-Publishing Future is how much money writers will have to lay out in order to by truly competitive. A whole industry of freelance content editors, copy editors, typesetters, and cover artists is already emerging, and if they're any good, they won't work for free. If you decide to go this route, make sure to hire someone with expertise and a track record, who will refer you to past and current clients who can vouch for them.

Enter contests

A little competition can be good for the soul -- especially if you get feedback from the judges, win or lose.

Attend conferences and workshops

Look for conferences and workshops where you can get feedback on your work. Check out the conference/workshop's reputation and quality of faculty first, though, before deciding to attend. You may have to pay a fee to have your work read, and it's doubtful you'll get feedback on an entire novel, but it's a good chance to get your work read by a pro writer. At some conferences, you can pitch your work to Old Publishing editors and agents. These pitches are usually verbal in nature, so you probably won't get detailed feedback on your actual writing, but the feedback you do get will still be valuable.

Read interviews

Read interviews and biographies of Old Publishing authors to see how they persisted in their careers and what they learned from it. It won't be the same as gaining experience for yourself, but it can still be instructive.

And by the way . . .

Don't ask pros for free feedback. We're too busy writing. If we choose to teach classes or give workshops, that's a different matter, of course. But don't come up to us at conferences or send us emails out of the blue asking us to read your stuff. We won't.

In summary . . .

A writing career has always been about producing the best work you're capable of at any given time, and then trying to make your next work even better. It's still true today, and -- if you want to be read -- it'll be even more true tomorrow.


The new edition of my surreal horror novel Like Death is still available in both print and e-book formats. You can pick it up online at Amazon or B&N or direct from Apex Book Company:

I have an essay titled "I Dream of Zombies" in the recently released book Zombie Writing!:

Recently, my college recorded a video interview with me for their Office Hours series. If you want to see and hear me in all my glory, you can check out the interview here: