Sunday, April 15, 2012
I like to call myself an “emerging writer.” The government of Canada agrees with me, as I apply (and am rejected) for grants under the Emerging Writer category. What does this mean? Their definition means you’ve been published at least once (self-publishing doesn’t count). When you’ve gotten published a few more times, you get a bump up to a new title (I don’t know what it is, as I see no point in learning it until I’m there). For myself, an emerging writer is someone that writes on speculation and has absolutely NO guarantee that the next thing they choose to spend a year of their time on will meet with anyone else’s approval. You make a story and you go to editors, hat in hand, and hope one of them likes it (or at least thinks it’s marketable). Most times they decide in the negative so you keep on trying.
Contrast this with an established writer, who pretty much knows when he types “The End” (I don’t think anyone does that anymore) someone is going to happily take the manuscript and leave money in its place, sort of like a literary version of a Tooth Fairy. The process, in many ways, is just as magical. Imagine being paid to make up stories. Getting dollars for telling lies. Amazing. It’s a pretty sweet gig, though I’ll tell you, it doesn’t cover the mortgage when you’re still “emerging.” (This should come as news to no one.)
But so what? The term itself is positive. It speaks of hope and potential. Roses “emerge” from buds. Butterflies “emerge” from cocoons. The process is undefined, so it doesn’t limit you in terms of how long it takes you to reach your potential. Of course, a butterfly that takes twenty years to come out of its shell can be said to be stagnating (or dead). There may well be a shelf-life for writers after which “emerging” becomes “DOA” but I haven’t reached it yet (at least, I don’t believe I have, and that’s probably the most important part. You’re only as young as you feel, and you’re only finished when you give up.)
Living the process of emergence is a funny thing. In many ways, it’s like constantly looking for a new job. You get a lot of rejection, you get the occasional hire, but you must always be on the hunt. Each job you get, after all, only covers one month’s hydro bill (if a short story) and a novel buys you maybe a year of rent if you're super lucky and live in a dive.
When you submit a story and get rejected, you rarely know why. Like employers, few editors sit you down and say “your cover letter sucked, and I hated your tie.” Why should they? They’re busy people, and you’re just one name among many. Truthfully, I’ve often heard writers say it would be nice if editors gave more feedback, and it would be, but when have you ever been taught how to better yourself on a failed job application? I’ve never had a prospective employer say “the position’s been filled, and here’s why you didn’t get it.” It’s our responsibility as job hunters (writers) to do our research, find out what the company (editor) tends to hire (buy), and give them what they want.
There’s another, blunter potential reason editors avoid being too free with their suggestions. While writing, like acting, is a rejection-filled career choice, a lot of people aren’t cut out to be told “no” time and again. I am sure every editor could tell a hundred stories of rude, offensive letters or emails they’ve received from disgruntled writers. “My novel is the best thing ever written, and you’re a dummy-head for not buying it! When I make my first million I’m going to buy your magazine and fire you!” Some of these letters might tick you off, or they might amuse you, but they are all just another demand on already busy schedules.
Some rejections come in less than a day. Some take months. Both have their own agony and joy. A quick rejection can feel contemptuous, like they barely glanced at your submission before killing it. At the same time, you can move on and try to fix the story or submit it to a more appropriate market. The slow rejection gives you hope that ends up being dashed, but even crushed hope makes you feel “I got close. Just a little tweak or two and I’ll have a winner!” I appreciate (and dread) both types. Ideally everything would be a “yes” but just like a job hunt (or dating) you tend to miss more than you hit. That’s the nature of the game. It certainly makes the rare nod of acceptance all the more appreciated. (When I get an acceptance I have to make sure my kids are out of earshot as my language can get a little “salty” with exuberance.)
There are major positives to being on a constant job search, too. If you and your boss don’t get along, neither of you have to put up with the other for long (I haven’t had this problem yet, but I hear it happens). You’re always exploring new territory and meeting new people. There’s no “daily grind” to get you down, no “same ol’ thing” routine to crush your fragile human spirit. And best of all, as I mentioned earlier, you experience no greater thrill than getting that email that says “We are interested in buying your story.” [Insert joyous expletive of your choice here.]