Words of Writerly Wisdom or the Discouragement of Dastardly Doomsayers?

There was an interesting discussion recently (10th April) in the Purple Zone (nickname for the Australian Voyageronline Message Board), on whether published authors were mean – or wise – to tell unpublished writers horror tales about how hard it is to get published.

One writer said, and I have compressed his commentary: Sometimes I wonder at the impartiality of writers advising others not to try competing with them. The cumulative effect of all these well-meaning pieces is to discourage writers. Think of the stories we’re losing because we as an industry pride ourselves on the mass of broken bodies outside the front door!

He has no problem with the majority of the advice offered by writers, but is not convinced that the constant flow of discouraging comments to new writers is becoming to us as writers, or to the industry in general. Sick of all the negativity, his advice is: If you’re planning to write a novel, go right ahead! Be aware that the path to publishing is a difficult one, but by all means have a crack!

Another writer said in reply (also compressed): The easily discouraged and defeated may give up, but those who are determined to break through, come hell or high water, are more likely to take on board the info they need with a “forewarned is forearmed” approach.

She thinks the negative approach is really designed to stop people making stupid mistakes and to educate them about the realities of a very tough process. She feels that, for the most part, the writers who do talk publishing turkey are trying to help, not hinder. She says, I guess the nub of the question is: are they discouraging, or are they being honest about a difficult and unpalatable truth? Getting published is like wanting to be an actor, or a dancer, or a singer. The cold reality is that many many many more people want to achieve the goal than will achieve it. Do I think anyone at all should be told give up, don’t bother? No. I do think that those who wish to pursue the goal should do so with their eyes open, fully cognisant of the pitfalls, the drawbacks and the basic tools necessary for the journey. And if other writers don’t make them public, how else are people going to best help themselves?

It was an interesting discussion, quite a bit longer, with other participants, than what I have summarised here.

I must admit that – having had an enormously long and difficult road to publication in spite of having an excellent agent – I am more of the school that thinks unpublished writers need to be told. They need to be realistic.

To be skilled in anything at all usually takes practice. Usually YEARS of practice. It takes experience. Usually YEARS of experience. It usually involves good advice/teachers/role models/mentors/or similar. You rarely win a game of any kind the first time you try. The unpalatable truth is that most who begin, never win. In the Olympic 100m sprint, there is only one gold medal, one silver, one bronze. Think of how many start along that road and never end up on the winning podium.

I would like to think that my kind of “negativity” is designed to make the best writers more determined never to give up – and to be prepared to do the hard work getting published usually entails. I’d like to think that my story is more inspirational than off-putting.

And, as I have said before, if you enjoy the journey, then your time will never be wasted, no matter what happens at the finish line – because how can a feeling of joy or achievement or satisfaction or pleasure in creativity ever be considered a waste?


Words of Writerly Wisdom or the Discouragement of Dastardly Doomsayers? — 6 Comments

  1. There’s negativity and there’s realistic advice and information. I’ve found most published writers, like you, Glenda, are happy to share their experiences without being overly discouraging but still “telling it how it is”.

    OTOH, I do know at least a couple of writers who pretty well got published on their first try and are horrified to hear other writers’ horror stories! However, they have also met with disappointments along the way, sometimes with their second or third book. As in most games, there’s no free lunch.

    I’m always disappointed when people give up too easily. I’ve been in several writers groups where members, sometimes the ones with the best stories and imaginations, have dropped out, discouraged by criticism. I guess you just have to develop a thick skin and keep plugging away if you’re to have any chance of publication at all.

    I’m still plugging!

  2. Being one of those desperate wannabes, I’ve heard all the horror stories, and rather than be discouraged, it has all just encouraged me to keep at it, even if not at such a hectic pace or with exhausting vehemence. I haven’t sent out any queries in around ten months and I probably won’t send any out for a while yet. Don’t get me wrong, my aim is to hit bookstore shelves with a bang, but I am willing to let take its natural course and not try to force the issue.

    Having said that, and having spent years wondering how the likes of Kylie Minogue and Bernard Fanning and suck ilk like the idea of Australian Idol basically catapulting new stars into the stratosphere with hardly any of the years of struggle the others have had to endure, I was recently put in the postion of by passing much of the initial publishing woes. I got the chance to pitch two of my mss to an editor with Voyager over Easter. As scared and freaked out as I was, it was one comment from Cory Daniels that really put me in my place. “Most of us (herself and the other authors involved) never had this chance. You are passing over a lot of the usual steps required to get the chance to face an editor.”

    If anything comes of this pitch deal, I apologise in advance to all published authors who had to slog it out to get an agent, and then to keep pushing it with various publishers. If nothing comes of it, then I retract said apology because I will be back in the slush pile with all the other wannabes (this is my prefered bet). 😉

    Cheers, Lisa.

  3. No need to apologise, Lisa – you got that far because you had something to offer. I don’t want to wish a long hard path on to anyone!

    I think the biggest advantage writers have nowadays, that my generation didn’t have, is the internet and the ease with which you can seek help and find info. Imagine, if you can, how difficult it was to find out even the most basic of things – the name of an agent, or the address of a publisher in Oz or UK – when you lived in Malaysia as I did, in the pre-internet days!

    How on earth did I ever find a beta reader or someone to crit my work? I didn’t even know anyone who read sff! Let alone someone who wrote.

    I couldn’t even find “How to Write” books in Malaysia back then. Libraries were pathetic or non-existent. Bookshops were terrible. I didn’t even know that there were conventions for sff!!

    Those difficulties were a major stumbling block for me.

  4. Glenda, in the 80’s in the pre-internet days, it was already very easy to source out names of agents/editors/publishers here in Malaysia. Yes, the British Council Library in Malaysia was wonderful and ever so quick at getting updated copies of the A.C. Black’s Writers & Artists Yearbook and other writer markets abroad. That was the directory that also introduced me to (at the time) my wonderful poetry editors in the UK. And my post took just about 6 days to reach London from Petaling Jaya where I used to post my manuscripts (Section 14). – perhaps I just got lucky with the post but I know my other writing friend did as well. *best wishes*

  5. It would be terrible not to have the help and encouragement of other writers! I did experience a bit of that lost feeling with my first novel, but for the last five years I’ve belonged to writers groups (both face-to-face and on-line) and been to many workshops and several conventions, too. My writing has improved out of sight as a result. The fact that you got published at all under those circumstances, Glenda, suggests that you have a talent way beyond the ordinary. (As if we didn’t know that!)

    What a wonderful opportunity, Lisa, to be picked for that select group to pitch to an agent! I do hope something comes of it for you. If not – well, your pitching skills have probably improved heaps!

  6. I first came here in 1970, Susan. I suspect I should have pursued the UK connection a lot more than I did, though. I wasn’t really aiming there at the time! When I did start sending off MSS, I found the cost prohibitive for repeated submissions, and tended to try just once or twice before giving up. In retrospect that was really, really stupid – because I was getting handwritten encouragement from those I did approach. Innocent me had no idea how rare that was!

    Looking back on the whole journey, I realise that I could have been published earlier if I’d tried as hard as beginning writers do these days.

    But also looking back, in some ways I am glad I didn’t. Because I know I am a better writer now that I was then, and I know my stories have more maturity to them…

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