One thing all successful writers have in common: a stomach for failing. Repeatedly. Perhaps for years on end. –Larry Wilde, Chicken Soup for the Writers’ Soul
Plant a tree –Geri Larkin
I recently joined a writers’ group. One member had written a story for a market that paid one PDF copy and two percent of royalties. Translation: bupkes. That’s fine if you just want to practice and get some sales under your belt. But why not aim high? You might not sell, but a) on the other hand, you might, and b) you’d probably force yourself to work harder, playing up to the game.
The real reason why not? Rejection hurts.
You have to be able to stomach that, to develop what Karen Joy Fowler called the _pachydermal skin_ of writers.
Let’s start with some basic tools. You have to know where to send your work. You already know that you should read the book imprint or magazines that you submit to.
Duotrope lets you search by genre, length, electronic vs. postal submission–a stroke of brilliance.
Ralan covers a lot of speculative fiction markets. I always check the “pro” and “anthology” sections.
For books, I pay $20 U.S. a month to Publishers Marketplace so I can search deals and cull email addresses and figure out who’s buying what. Publishers Weekly is great, but I don’t have easy access to it. In Canada, the equivalent is Quill and Quire.
I also search for editors’ conference bios, interviews and blogs to get more of a feel for what they like. I read book acknowledgements, noting the editor or agent being thanked. I like the movers and shakers, but if they’ve got a little spark to their personality–they buy books that push the envelope, or they say something that makes me laugh–that works better for me. I’ve had at least one editor tell me straight that she wasn’t sure her readers would connect with my voice. That means she didn’t like my voice. Which is fine, but it means I have to find the people who do. (Just like I enjoy wearing my Fête Montreal leggings with one black leg and one white leg. A guy in the grocery store glanced over me and I could see he thought, “Freak.” But it didn’t bother me. He is not my tribe. If he were an editor, he wouldn’t buy my books.)
Contests. I generally don’t pay to enter contests because, as Kris Rush and Dean Smith emphasize, money should flow to the writer. I made an exception for the CBC and Golden Heart–basically, if I think the benefits outweigh the pain of forking over the money. I prefer free contests by generous souls like Brian Agincourt Massey and the Glass Woman Prize, individuals who take their own time and money to foster the arts.
Education. I attend Kris and Dean’s workshops as often as I can to force my writing craft to a new level, to learn about the business, and to meet a ton of dedicated, hilarious fellow writers.
Finally, if you are at all serious about making your living through your work, read Kris Rusch’s Freelance Survival Guide. She covers everything from the nuts and bolts of negotiation and when to quit your day job to how to deal with mental mind traps. If you can’t afford their workshops (or even if you can), read these as an excellent roadmap on how to deal.
Now I hear you asking, where’s the Zen buddhism?
A lot of people think Buddhism means aspiring to nothingness, but the tenet I apply here is that clinging causes suffering. So if you are stalking editors at conferences while they try to use the bathroom, you are clinging. If you are beating yourself up (Why didn’t I start writing seriously when I was 16? Why don’t I submit more? Why did I eat a bag of chips and watch _What Happens in Vegas_ instead of writing tonight?), you are clinging. In fact, you are practicing mental violence against yourself.
C’mon. We’ve all been there. If I’d been a risk-taker, I would’ve skipped medicine and arguably university altogether and started writing seriously out of high school. I never market as much as I want to. And I just watched _What Stays in Vegas_ as a reward for finishing my novel. I ate chips, too. I could cling endlessly about that and many other issues.
Buddhism doesn’t mean you shouldn’t strive. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t write or try to achieve publication. It just means you should do your best every day, in this moment, without attaching yourself to the outcome.
Who knows? All I know is this: I set a daily goal for writing and marketing and then I try to just enjoy whatever I’m doing, whether that’s playing Thomas the Tank engine with Max or cleaning up the kitchen with my husband. I know that makes my life sound super glamourous, but that’s where I find joy every day.
I can’t redo my life. And when I’m honest with myself, I like the intellectual challenge and economic security of medicine (my father called it my “iron rice bowl,” meaning it was a solid way to earn my living). Plus the whole life-saving thing is pretty cool. Even if I don’t achieve as much as a writer or doctor or a mother as I would if I’d concentrated on one job, overall, I am happy. And that is what matters. See Anna Quindlen for more about figuring out your own measure of success.
I keep writing. I market. I plant my trees. Even if the world is heating up. Even though we are all going to die.
I’ll end with two Geri Larkin stories. I can’t find her books, so I’m paraphrasing. The first is from _Plant Seed, Pull Weed._ She’s agonizing about global warming and what to do. An enlightened guy keeps responding, “Plant a tree.” “But what if it’s your absolute day on earth?” “Plant a tree.” “What if we get hit by meteors?” “Plant a tree.” In other words, keep going.
The second is from _The Chocolate Cake Sutra_, I think. Geri’s teacher sends her out with a difficult problem and says, “You have 24 hours to solve this.” She meditates, she prostrates, she tears her hair out for the next day, but she can’t figure it out. In the morning, she goes to see her teacher and says, “I’m sorry. I failed.” He looks at her with great compassion and says, “You have 10,000 years.” Her whole body relaxes, just knowing that she has time.
This is what I’m trying to do. I’m planting trees. I’m sending my stories out. And whether I have 10,000 seconds or 10,000 years, I’m putting one foot in front of the other.