I wrote this in response to a thread on how much rejection to expect when you start submitting stories that has been going on on the OWW mailing list.
Greg Byrne said:
>Whatever. But it won't deter most serious writers from writing.
>Writing is breathing.
And quoth I:
Ah, sahib, I beg to differ. Breathing is something that happens automatically, day in, day out, will you, nill you.
Nor is writing like childbirth, where there is a little pleasure, much gestation, a short critical effort and then done.
Back to the odds:
No, it's more like childREARING, mountain climbing, driving in heavy traffic on an icy road, or whatever. You don't expect to walk into the Louvre, plunk down your easel in front of the Mona Lisa, and turn out a copy your first time out. no, it's boxes, boxes, boxes... hands, hands, hands. Drawing I and Drawing II and Still Lifes and The Human Figure I, II, III.
Writing fiction well isn't any different from any other incredibly difficult task. Because most people can write, they think they can write fiction. And yet they don't think they can handle theoretical physics because they can balance their checkbooks.
First you have to have a certain measure of native talent: it is difficult to become a better than adequate musician with a tin ear. It helps to have a sense of story and a sense of the poetry of language. To be able to feel and hear the story. Empathy and an attitude problem (IE, some strong opinions) are a good place to start too. A cache of cool ideas and a burning curiousity help.
Then you have to have the dedication to fall of the mountain. A lot. To try things you can't do yet and fail and fall on your butt and dust your self off and get back up. Turn your head, spit, and get back in there, champ. There's an expression in horseback riding: "If you ain't falling off, you ain't riding hard enough."
Then you have to have the drive to get up the mountain. Being a successful writer does not involve very much talking about being a writer. It involves a lot of reading, of critiquing, of learning and identifying skills and talking with other writers and most of all, because there is no substitute.....
It involves a HELL of a lot of butt-in-chair.
No, more butt-in-chair than that.
Actually, a little bit more butt-in-chair still. The Germans have a word for that. See above.
(COMMENT re: the below. I ain't trying to scare anybody off, but I'm afraid this is the God's honest truth. And the answer to how do I change this is, "You can't learn brain surgery in under six years, so how do you expect to learn writing? Do it anyway.")
It involves getting those million words of shit that Stephen King claims every writer must work through out of the head and onto the page. And then the realizing that they are shit. (By the way, if you write 500 words a day every day except Leap Day, it will take you 5.5 years to write a million words. Better get busy now. That's a lot of shit.)
Greg knows this. I know Greg knows this, because he's been walking the walk. Greg's been writing for twenty years.
There are exceptions out there, of course. People with stories burning in them begging to be told. Peter Beagle wrote "A Fine and Private Place" when he was 19 or twenty. Janis Ian wrote "Society's Child" when she was 15.
I'm 31. I was unemployed more than half of last year. I had the luxury of spending eight or ten hours a day writing, and in that time I wrote over half a million words.
Been doing this as a hobby since I was in second grade. Seriously since I was 24 or 25. Last year I racked up 69 submissions. Out of those, I made two pro sales (one poem, one short story) and one semipro sale, and had a novel manuscript solicited for submission.
It's my best year so far.
That's what it takes to sell stories. This is not me being a jerk. This is me telling you what to expect. You will be rejected. Your best stories will be rejected with forms. You will wail. You will gnash your teeth. If you're going to be any good, you will keep writing, and in six months you will look at those best stories and go, "God, I can't believe I let anybody *see* that." You will believe that nobody in the history of the world has ever sucked so much. You will question your talent, your calling, your sanity. You will fail. You will cry. You will alienate friends. You will piss off your spouse.
There are people who write for the pleasure it brings them to put words on paper. There are people with very good jobs and loving families who write because they have something to say. There are brilliant writers who sell one story a year, who write five books in a lifetime. There are people to whom writing brings money and recognition.
They are the exception.
This is not glamorous. It does not pay well when it pays at all. It is lonely and hard and it hurts if you're doing it right. It will win you neither fame nor fortune. It is done because it has to be done. Or it is not done at all.
You may keep writing.
If you do, you will write better.
And someday you may sell, and hold in your hand a book or a magazine with your name on it. And then the hard part starts.
Give or take 5.5 years. Or fifteen. Or twenty.
If it was easy, everybody would be doing it.