This was a big year for me. I graduated from college, moved into an apartment by myself and tried to sell my fiction. This was a year of major successes and humbling failures. I hope you will learn from my mistakes (and I hope I do, too). So, without further ado, here are the top 5 things I learned about writing in 2012 — because everybody loves lists.
5. Writing Doesn’t Pay Well
Earlier this week, I was rushing off to work, throwing on shoes and socks in a mad frenzy, a half-eaten bagel held in my teeth, when I noticed a tear. The fabric on my right sleeve, just above the cuff, had given up its long struggle for survival. The shirt was used when I got it and one of the few dress shirts I own that fits correctly. A replacement will not be coming any time soon.
This is the life of a writer. Most of us are not Stephen King, J.K. Rowling or even Stephanie Meyer. We don’t make bank selling our work. To survive in this business, you have to struggle. You have to hold down a day job or three to support your passion. You have to tear a few sleeves.
Last January, I thought I could sell a few stories and cash some checks with a few zeroes on them. But that’s not how it works when you’re just starting out. In the beginning, sometimes getting published is enough. If you’re passionate and persevere, money may follow. Or it may not.
4. First Drafts Are Supposed to Suck
I’m a perfectionist and it’s killing my writing. I edit as I write. You should never, ever do that. I get so caught up in making my writing polished from the first draft that it’s paralyzing. Nowhere was this more apparent than in my draft for NaNoWriMo. I was supposed to write a 50,000 word novel in 30 days and I barely eked out a 6,000 words. Why? Because I edited as I went. I censored myself.
Creativity needs the freedom to suck. And the truth is no one writes a great first draft. You just have to get the story and the characters out in your first draft. Don’t worry about it being any good or making sense. You can and should deal with that when you revise. Let it be bad or it will never have a chance to be good.
3. Don’t Give It Away in the Cover Letter
In April, I submitted a short story to a major literary journal. I waited for weeks before getting a form letter rejection. At first, I didn’t know why. My story was brilliant, tragic, a metaphor for the sluggish American economy and our collective denial. How could they not like it?
Then, I reread my cover letter. There, in the second paragraph, after introducing myself and my previous publications (namely my newspaper work and this blog), was the sour milk that made the whole fridge stink. I told them what the story was about. I ruined it. Before they even read the story, I spoiled it. I’ll bet they didn’t even read it.
Editors want to experience your story without an preconceived notions about what it’s supposed to be. Like a great magic trick, it’s no fun if you know how the illusion is accomplished. A cover letter is a place to introduce yourself and your writing chops — not to give away the ending or preach the “moral of the story.” Doing so is not only pretentious, it destroys the illusion.
2. Learn to Love Rejection
This year, I was surprised to learn that I’m not the second coming of Ernest Hemingway. Okay, maybe I wasn’t entirely surprised, but I’ve spent most of my life being told that I’m a great writer. This year, I learned that there are a lot of great writers out there and a very small percentage get published. Even less make money.
Rejection isn’t bad. It’s part of the process; how we pay our dues. And every time I get a rejection, I put it up on the bulletin board in my study, right where I can see it. It reminds me to never be complacent. Some rejections even include helpful advice on how to improve your writing. Rejection isn’t the end of the world — it’s a step in the process.
1. There Is More to Life Than Writing
Writing is my love and my passion, but if it’s all I do, I’ll burn out or run out of material. Probably both. It’s important to stop writing every so often. Life is a wealth of plot points and and settings and characters. You have to go out there and live it. Eat new foods, get lost in a strange city, date people who tell good stories, answer ringing pay phones, spend all night talking to a friend at a 24-hour diner, tear your sleeves.
The more you experience, the more you’ll have to write about. The world is your notebook and life is your story.
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I’m a writer, photographer and filmmaker in Flagstaff and trying to make it as a writer with a day job. If you liked this list, please like, comment, share or follow me on Twitter: @jonnyeberle.