Practise Makes Perfect - "I Want To Be A Writer" Part 2

   Submitting your work to a literary agent or publisher is a very scary and very exciting thing. The best advice on what you should temper that combination into is cautious optimism - after all, there are so many reasons one can be rejected, and writing quality is genuinely just one in a list of possibilities. Others are market timing, the agent's own contacts for your brand of the genre (ie dark fantasy or urban fantasy), or perhaps you've simply not done your research and either sent it out to people who aren't currently accepting submissions or don't deal with your genre at all (and have no contacts to take your work anywhere), both of which are immediate rejections. Regardless of how good you think your work is, they can only handle so many clients, and once that list is full, it's full. Plus, while you might think 'any representation is better than none at all', that's not the case. The more clients for either publisher or literary agent, the less time they can afford to promote and help each individual writer. You don't want to be in a partnership if it's stretched that thin. Plus, if you didn't bother to do your research on the people potentially representing you, how would you be as their client?
   But another reason is, unfortunately, that you just might not be very good. And that's not to mean that you're a terrible writer, it's to mean that you're just not ready yet. Not just the book itself, but you; you could be a loaf of delicious bread that just needs a little more time in the oven. Just because the dough has been rising on the side for ages, or sitting in the oven while your tummy's been rumbling and smells like it should be done by now, doesn't mean that it is. Trust me.

At the same time, there's not really any knowing when you are ready. So, if you've written something you believe really is wonderful, you've read it, you've edited it, and you can fully stand behind it, then submit it. Always submit it. Even if it is your first book. Just don't expect instant success.

   The expectation of instant success is something common in new writers, especially in their mid-20's to mid-30's - young enough that they have plenty of time to make a career out of it, and old enough to realise that money makes the world go around. And, in some cases, old enough to feel somewhat entitled to success given how much of their valuable time has been poured into a book, who may have spent 1-3 years writing a story with the sole intention being to publish it.
   There's not necessarily anything wrong with that, if you're looking at the difference between writing something to share with the world or writing something to share with their family - the problem comes when that story they want to share with the world is the first they've ever written.

   I mentioned in a recent article - "I want to be an author - where do I start?" - that, like playing an instrument or learning to draw, writing takes so very much practise. Your first finished piece - be that a short story or a lengthy one - will be on par with a first recital of Three Blind Mice on the recorder.
   I've been writing since I was 12 - writing nearly every day, even during lessons at school, writing things I wanted to publish as a kid and obviously never did, coming up with idea after idea, writing gradually longer, better things. None of this could ever be published as it was (though of course at the time I didn't really give it that much thought), because I was too young, both as a person, and as a writer; the experience with life and with words just wasn't there, and I hadn't yet found my voice. I was writing like the authors I was reading, and while that wasn't a conscious decision, my own 'voice' wasn't developed enough yet to shout out above it. I didn't know words as well as I thought I did - I still don't - but it was all such valuable practise.

   This isn't an 'age' thing, it's an 'experience' thing. If you write your first story at the age of 50, it still probably won't be published, because age has no hold over your ability with the written word. Because no one is exempt from the need to practise.
   This is, in part, why successful writers are usually 40+. You don't always know what you want to do with your life. As a kid, you'll probably be playing games, and that's good. Then you study in school and take a more conventional route, a career, and that's good, too - you meet people, learn things, both professional, specialist and about the world, all of which is great passive research for future books. Then, you finally realise what you truly want to do, and when you sit down and make a start writing, it takes a very long time to produce a single piece - especially when you don't quite know what you're doing and are second-guessing everything because you don't have the experience or self-trust yet.
   If it takes 5+ stories to hone your craft into something genuinely readable and enjoyable (or 25+ illustrations or recitals), then that's a lot of practise time, and is one of the reasons most people don't bother. Why they say "I'd love to write a book" but never try. Because it's not something that is going to come so easily. It's not just about having an idea, it's about knowing how to present it, too.

   I make no claims to being the exception whatsoever. I've been writing devotedly for 16 years and still have a very long way to go. But I have been writing long enough to make lots of mistakes, identify some of them, fix them, learn from them and overcome them (read The Archguardians of Laceria - yikes - and then The Zi'veyn and you'll see what I mean. It also reveals the problem with the ease of self-publishing: anything can be published, even if it's not ready). And those mistakes were not just because I was a young human bean, they were also because I was also a young writer.

   19 times out of 20, your first book won't get published. That's not to say your first submission won't - I wrote 22+ pieces before finally approaching any literary agents - but the first thing you've written, regardless of how long it is, or how good you think it is, is likely to be cast aside.
   Your first story might be published, your first idea might be, but the time and practise it takes to make that idea into something that can be read and enjoyed by someone who won't need you standing beside them to explain the bits they don't understand is greater than you think. You'll have probably rewritten it a number of times to get it to that point.
   And just because you've put a lot of your time into a story, doesn't mean it's readable, either. It's an investment of time to write, certainly, but it's an investment of time to read, too. You may have enjoyed spending your free time writing something that mashes together all your interests, participating in a hobby that really relies heavily on creativity and is just so much fun to do, but that doesn't mean that someone who spends their free time reading it is automatically going to enjoy it, especially if it's not up to standard. Their enjoyment comes not from the creation, as it did for you, but from the feelings the finished piece will evoke - the joy, the anger, the tension, the laughs, the affection - that can only come from a well-written piece.

You could have put a year or more into something, and it won't matter, if it's the only year you've put in. Because that's still just practise.

   But never ever ever let this put you off. You should be writing because you enjoy it, not because you want to make money. If money, or fame, is your driving force, you're doomed to fail at your first rejection. And this is a problem largely with 'young' writers (fresh, inexperienced writers) of an older age. As a kid of 12 years old, writing vigorously at every possible moment, money was far from my mind. I didn't need it, so I was free to pour everything into it. I was incredibly lucky to have discovered the passion so young because it means I've already barrelled through some of the hurdles I would otherwise still have to face if I'd started later. But, as we get older, we tend to want instant gratification, instant reward, and we overlook the technical side, the truly important side, especially if we have put a year or more of our life into writing a book. We behave, in short, as though we're entitled to succeed with it, and that makes criticism and rejection harder to take.

   Yes, older people will have a better relationship with words than a kid. Yes, older people will have read more books and have a better understanding of how stories work. Yes, older people will be able to study writing and storytelling where a kid has all their time taken up by school. Yes, older people will have a broader vocabulary and more 'war wounds' that will both thicken their skin to rejection and expose hard life truths that will make a story more believable. But that's no guarantee that they'll be able to put all that together with everything else that makes a good story - heart, daring and sacrifice - nor the technical structures of writing, and especially not on the first go around.
   And editing doesn't count as a 'rewrite' or a 'second go'. While editing, you're constrained to the original draft and original ideas. Rewriting is maintaining only the core details, the necessary bits that make your plot work, and starting otherwise from scratch, throwing away past notes and even quite possibly a number of characters. The Archguardians of Laceria, I've learned after writing The Zi'veyn, needs (read: needs) a rewrite, not an edit.

   It's worth noting here, too, that book length does not make for a good or bad author. It's what you do with those pages that count. Deleting lots of words doesn't improve a book; deleting pointless filler, yes, or excessive description, but not deleting whole chunks of plot or compressing passion (be that romance, rage, madness or joy).
   My books are lengthy because I love a lengthy book and a winding plot, and I have the experience to make it work better now than I did 10 years ago. My favourite books are also the longest and most involved. I don't force a complicated plot because I think that's the 'right' way to make a story, or even because it's to my tastes. It's just what comes out, and as a science-lover, I enjoy thinking of the large-scale repercussions of the actions of single people or whole nations. "What would happen if magic started ripping apart the earth?" In The Devoted trilogy, I'm thinking on just that. And while plenty happens besides, that fact is an ever-lingering threat causing ever-expanding chaos that both helps and hinders characters' plans on all sides of the story.

Ultimately, shorter books, short stories, they're a brilliant place to start. The best, in fact. 

   In short stories, your plots will be simpler, worlds smaller, characters fewer, and you get the chance to zoom in and practise smaller things before trying to take on a whole world, or trying to learn too much too fast. In books, lots of things have to happen. In short stories, only one thing has to happen. And then there's the added benefit of it not taking anywhere near as much of your time as a book will, and ultimately giving you more scope - more variety and room to practise other things.

   The base-line, here, is that your first finished story probably won't get published (though never say never - some people have a natrual talent). The idea could, if you re-write it, if you keep at it and apply whatever you've learned over previous years of practise, but you have to realise that age and time spent is no guarantee of a good book, nor, subsequently, of getting published. Always, always, always write for you. Submit to agents and publishers, absolutely, but take a level-headed approach to rejections. Don't ever assume you've been rejected because you're a bad writer - it's just because you're not ready for it, yet. Failure and rejection are some of the best teachers, and sometimes it takes the action of putting your work in front of a professional for you to reflect back over it with a more critical eye of your own and see the problems yourself before you're given any feedback from them.
   And, as they say: practise makes perfect.


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