Saturday, February 26, 2011

Twenty Years, Twenty Minutes

Let's take a trip in the KindaWayBack machine to 1989, to when most of the world had yet to discover cyberspace. I started writing in 1974, but I didn't really get serious about pursuing publication until '89.

Back then it was a very different world for writers. Imagine: no internet, no e-mail, no social media, no cell phones, no Twitter or Facebook, no nothing for the writer but the writing and us all alone by ourselves.

I've talked to other writers of my generation, and we all went through pretty much the same thing. We wrote all the time, endlessly, wildly, often shivering with the delight of it because we were so close to it. None of us were perfect, either. We fumbled, we ran out of steam, we crashed, we burned, we resurrected ourselves only to do it all over again. We wrote clunkers and stinkers and failures. We began piling them up along with legal pads filled with even more ideas and story fragments and mini-rants.

After the work stopped sucking quite so much, we decided we were good enough and dared to write up a submission. This we typed on a typewriter with a correcting ribbon, because no matter how thinly we applied it liquid paper (aka white-out) could never look anything but globby. Also, sometimes the ink from the typos would bleed through and leave a little dark ghost of what we never meant to say behind the correct words.

I'll tell you a secret: sometimes I still miss the smell of metal, ink ribbon and white-out. It was our writing perfume.

Anyway, twenty-seven or forty-nine drafts and at least one typewriter ribbon later, we mailed off our submission in an unpadded envelope with rows of stamps we had to lick to make them stick. A week later we went to the mailbox with all our expectations, which were naturally dashed when no response appeared among the bills and junk mail. A month later we started waiting at the box for the postman to arrive. Three months later we suspected the postman had delivered it to the wrong address and went around asking the neighbors if they'd gotten it by mistake.

Six months later we got a thin white business envelope with vertical creases on it from the publisher we'd submitted to. We knew this because it was the SASE we'd sent along with the submission, on which we had neatly written our own address in ink. We put it on the kitchen table and stared at it for at least an hour, afraid to open it for fear it would actually kill us.

When we finally tore into it, the outpouring of praise and admiration we expected was actually a one-page form rejection. Thank you for your blah, it's not for us, good luck yada yada. Sometimes it was even signed. We carefully enshrined that first rejection somewhere so nothing would happen to it (and also so we didn't have to look at it) and then dragged ourselves back to the keyboard. By that night we convinced ourselves of a thousand reasons (all mistaken) for the rejection, and made up the next submission.

Now read the previous paragraph again. Read it ten times, fifty times, a thousand times. We didn't spend a year or two doing that every week. We spent five years, or eight, or ten, until our shrine/hiding place began to overflow with rejections. We shrugged them off in public and wept over them in private. We drove ourselves mad with wondering: What was wrong with these editors? Didn't they read that amazing opening line, the one we spent two years thinking up? And what about the rest? Nobody was doing anything like us. Was that it? Were we too different?

And on and on and on.

The only thing we ever figured out for sure was that no one was going to answer our questions. Ever. We had to find the answers by ourselves.

As the years passed we still wrote endlessly, but the wildness and delight subsided and became a more deliberate, focused quest. We looked at everything in our bag of writing tricks and started sifting and sorting through them. We weeded out what seemed wrong and kept what felt right. We studied how-to books for writers and subscribed to writing magazines (the sum total of available information for poor writers back then.) The more our submissions were rejected, the more determined we became. We would write the book that would sell, by God, or die trying.

New and interesting torture came in the form of editors who would write to request a full manuscript only to reject it three, four, five months later. We began to loathe the words Not what we're looking for and I just didn't love the story. Sometimes -- more often than you imagine -- the responses were personal, and nasty. We stood at the mailbox and imagined socking the postman right in the nose the next time he gave us a sympathetic look. No, what we really wanted to do was call those editors and demand to know what, exactly, they were looking for, and why the hell their love had anything to do with it.

As for the editors who got nasty, we indulged in vengeful thoughts as a kind of anger management self-therapy. We saved all the really inappropriate responses in a special file marked with something like "Send copy of first book" along with more scribbled, rehearsed lines for when we signed it for them: Too bad you passed on this one. Thanks for sending me to a way better publisher. Hey, nitwit -- looks like you were wrong. We prayed our first book would go platinum overnight, not so we'd make a ton of money, but just so we could also include a copy of the Times bestseller list in the nah-nah-nah-nah-nah packages we'd send to every pinheaded editor who'd stomped on, spit at or sneered over our work.

Then something actually happened; usually when we'd hit a really low point, and were thinking about throwing in the towel, admitting defeat, and finally putting an end to the torture. Another envelope with a single page arrived, but this one wasn't a form bounce, or the lukewarm invite for more humiliation.

No, this one was serious. Bizarre, too, for it offered praise mixed in with all the nitpicking. It asked if we were willing to make some changes. It gave us a phone number to call, and a name to ask for, and when we called it, we found ourselves stammering like an idiot and agreeing to everything the editor said because oh dear God the last thing we were going to do was piss off the one person who could make all our dreams come true.

We made the requested changes, and more changes after that, and more changes after that, always frantically cheerful and ridiculously willing. Of course we would change anything, anything at all, because obviously this editor was the smartest one on Earth. It didn't matter how many times we had to redo this or rewrite that, we had his/her attention. Attention meant they liked us. They wanted us. If we did everything right, they would be very pleased and request approval to purchase us.

The final phone call came, and at last the editor uttered the words we had been waiting to hear, praying to hear, working our ass off to hear: "We'd like to make an offer." Once we finished silently shrieking, we dislodged our heart from our tonsils and offered joyous yet still humble thanks. We would not let the editor down no matter what. Then (if we were stupid) we agreed to accept an offer for a manuscript we had been working on for three or four years, an offer that was equal to the pay a worker at McDonald's earned in ninety days, and a month later signed a contract that deprived us of most of our rights as an author. If we were smart, we promised to call back as soon as possible and started (hysterically) looking for an agent to represent us.

Either way, from there we turned pro. The euphoria of selling the first book did give us temporary amnesia, so (fortunately) most of us didn't mail out those F-Y packages to all those cruel editors. If we were lucky, we survived our rookie year. If we were very lucky, we got through everything else Publishing throws at a writer. If we were very very very lucky, we even sold a lot of books.

And then came the internet, and everything began to change.

Today -- right at this very minute -- there is a writer out there who has just received (electronically) their very first rejection. Tonight that same writer will format their rejected manuscript into an e-book, upload it via digital self-publishing to an online bookseller and begin selling it immediately.

Just like that. No muss, no fuss, no heartbreak, no torture, no problem. From there the writer will move on to penning their next work, untroubled by the depression, anger and self-doubt inflicted by the harshness of a lengthy traditional submission process. They need not analyze, improve or even compromise. They might even get lucky and sell a lot of books.

When a writer can do in twenty minutes what it took me and other writers who came up before the internet so many years to accomplish, I'm thinking it has to be better. More tempting, too. How could anyone resist something so easy and painless as self-publishing just to put themselves through the innumerable levels of hell that is (even with the internet) still the traditional submission process? Believe me, I totally get why so many writers are abandoning the still-dismal chances of publishing with a major house in the rush to self-publish for profit. If I was part of this generation, I probably would have, too.

Am I sorry I'm not? Nope.

Don't get me wrong, it's not because my twenty years of slogging my way toward publication makes me superior to someone who does the same in twenty minutes. Technology marches on, and even though the Publishing industry has had to be mostly dragged kicking and screaming along with it, things do have to change. If they didn't, we'd still be writing novels in longhand with quills on parchment and vellum (and just imagine what those writers would think of my speedy little manual typewriter.) Also, plenty of writers are still doing things the old-fashioned way, mailing off hard copy submissions to publishers and waiting months if not years for responses. I don't think that will ever go away.

But for all the speed and ease and no-hassle perks that today's technology offers for writers pursuing publication, I feel like something is still missing. I think it's time. For all the hell I went through, I also got a huge amount of time along with it to find out who I am as a writer.

I had -- literally -- two decades to practice and think about the work, and study it, and develop it, and try things and discard things. During the last ten years, I had all the time I needed to develop theories and work habits, look and find ways to improve my productivity, and teach myself how to be a working writer. Every day I did this; I thought about it, I was obsessed with it. Before I published one word I had like seven or eight different major shifts in what I wrote, too, the same way a painter goes through a blue period or decides to change mediums.

If you ever wonder why I never run out of stuff to talk about writing, it's probably because I spent all those years alone thinking about it.

The solitude, waiting and wondering what would happen, yeah, was not so great, but because I am self-taught I definitely needed the time to grow and mature as a writer. I didn't simply find out what I could do, I had the time to understand it and get it under control and channel it and learn to live with it. It's all the things that have nothing at all to do with Publishing and everything to do with who you are as a writer. I don't know, maybe today's writers can figure all that out in twenty minutes, too.

I am all about speed and efficiency, and I think being able to publish almost instantly is an amazing thing (another reason I've been playing with self-publishing as promotion for ten years -- it's quick and easy.) This is the first time since I turned pro that I feel some optimism for the future of Publishing, too. But as a member of the old typewriter and snail-mail generation, I hope self-publishing and technology doesn't eliminate the entire journey of self-discovery. As arduous and heartbreaking as it can be, I don't think it's a trip any writer should take in twenty minutes or less.


  1. No issues with self-pubbing (I may try it myself sometime)...but I do think there's a learning process that comes with time and effort spent.
    In a way, I can almost thank God it wasn't available back in the day. Most of the stuff I wrote then makes me cringe a bit now.

    And although I still have yet to get a phone call--
    I still have my old typewriter. An Underwood of very solid metal, that rang that silvery little bell when you approached the end of a sentence, which was a charming way of letting you know you were making progress.
    And it still works. ;)

  2. I wholeheartedly agree with you. Writing is a journey and the best ones last a long time. 20 minutes, 20 weeks, 20 months is not enough to completely learn who you are as a writer. I was born in 1983, caught between the old world and the new and I waver between both all the time. But, in all honesty, taking time to develop myself, my voice and my story can never be replaced by the quickness that technology provides us today.

    I look forward to my journey to self-discovery as a writer, no matter how long it takes.

  3. Nora Ephron wrote a similar op-ed in the NYT about 15 years ago, noting that for her (and I count myself in that because my first ten years of writing was done on a typewriter), the very act of retyping the manuscript as we rewrote made us far better writers than being able to just make changes to the manuscript.

    I'm inclined to think so, too, without denigrating anybody who writes now. The mental processes have changed with word processors and computers. Retyping a manuscript, as laborious as it was--and it sure as hell was--forced our brain into a deeper interaction with our manuscripts. Also, for me, it made my first drafts significantly better over time simply because I wanted to think more about what I was doing and NOT be forced to retype the damned thing six times. That's served me well in the long run, I think.

  4. I went from hand writing (no typewriter here, that was a luxury I couldn't afford) to setting everything aside for years to starting over about three years ago. I read through what I wrote on my laptop three years ago and cringe. I know I have a long way to go, though I do think I have good stories in my head. But I won't learn the craft the way I need to if I just pop out stories and then self publish them without thought to making them as good as I can.

    Besides, I harbor this secret that someday, I really will be published the traditional way and that's important to me. I don't need to make a lot of money though if I made enough to pay someone to clean my house occasionally, I'd feel like I hit the jackpot ;o) , I just want to know that my hard work paid off.

  5. I started writing seriously in '95 so I had a pretty similar experience. Except that when I finally made my first sales in 2004, they were ebooks. (I was slow to catch on to the ebook market; if I'd realized how viable it was in 02, I might have jumped on it sooner.) I like the epublishing option we have today, although I am glad I've had time to think through a lot of things, during that writing in obscurity time and also in the last year when I stopped to reevaluate.

  6. I want to start off by saying I am apart of this word-processor generation. I'm actually so apart of it my writing was birthed during it, so I never had to deal with the agony of traditional publishing. I think that the creation of the internet has transported writing into something of beauty. Anyone can, and should, write now. The fact that if you don't like what you've just written you can do it over is liberating! I can become more intimate with myself as a writer along with what I've written. As far as I'm concerned you can keep the old typewriter. In fact, if I were writing back then, I probably never would have started writing in the first place.

    On the other hand I do appreciate what writers of the past had to go through. The works that were brought to us through the written word, which were bought with the pride and sometimes dignity of other writers, is nothing short of miraculous. Thanks!

  7. Keita Haruka11:25 AM

    I do agree. All skills require a certain discipline that one has to work to aquire. Whether it's self-taught, or not, the value lies in the journey, and the reward in the enjoyment. I wouldn't say that those who put their stuff up online learn's just a different learning experience. SOmetimes you get useful comments about your writing, and of course it's nice when someone likes your work and "follows" you. And whn you get no comments...then it's almost like a publisher rejecting your work.'s rejected by readers. I don't self-publish. I just put my writings our there for "my people" to enjoy, and if they do, I write more. I guess I could "self-publish" and make money off it...but for some reason...I enjoy doing things this way more.

  8. Enjoyed the read, thanks for sharing. I loved the day I bought my typewriter. I recall I saw it sitting in the window of a shop in London, I said someday soon when I have saved my money I am going to buy that typewriter. Oh but how many times over to do the words count by hand, that is the only part that I don't miss.

    And Yet there is so much stuff I have on old computer discs I haven't retrieved from so many changes to upgrade during the 80's/90's I seriously wonder about finding again.

    Writing is a life time! Its your souls journey.

    I think writers are just at the beginning of wonderful things in the changing industry, as demanding as it may seem.

  9. I enjoyed reading this it somehow seemed quite timely to me. Many of the writers I know, have begun sorting out their work - never to throw away, granted but keen to share stories, poems and take part in spoken word events. Myself, I want to self publish through I know I'll still be keeping my bill paying day job for a while yet. You writing about your typewriter made me think of my first one I received as a gift when I was 10 years old at most. These day, using my computer for writing has made me feel a bit lazy compared to the way I once worked on my writing. Even as a child. Time has a habit of vanishing.

  10. Beautiful expression of how we, of a certain technological generation, learned to write salable books.

    I buy a lot of Kindle books and sample many more. The samples that don't result in a purchase from me are replete with grammatical errors and lacking in craftsmanship. Though many of these writers have storytelling talent, they've rushed to publication because of the ease of the digital process.

    Writers who lack the depth of experience engendered by the process you described would be wise to adopt a rephrasing of the old wine commercial adage: "we will sell no book before its time."

    When is it time? When the work has been subjected to an objective critical assessment -- hopefully, more than once.


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