As referenced in my blog of 1-20-23 …
Department Of Here We Go Again
Sub-Department OF Preview Of Coming Grievances Attractions
( Sub- Department explanation: the next three blogs will deal with various aspects of The Writing Life As Moiself Sees It ®) …
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Occasionally moiself is asked, by those who self-identify as either writers or “aspiring writers,” for my advice via my AS-A credentials (“As a published writer, could you give me some tips on….”). The advice being sought typically has to do with how to get published. However, on some occasions it has also been – and I am so not making this up – on *what* to write:
“I really, really want to write fiction, but I don’t have any ideas for a story. How do you come up with your ideas?”
I was gob-smacked the first time I heard that question, but managed not to blurt out my first thought: “Holy self-awareness, dude, then fiction writing isn’t for you.” Instead, I leaned closer to him (this was at a book/literature fair) and said, sotto voce,
“Just between you and me, there’s this guy wearing a dark gray trench coat who hangs out in Pioneer Square on Thursday evenings between 10-11 pm, and for $50 he’ll give you a list of story ideas he found that fell off a truck….”
Last year I received an inquiry from the adult son  of a friend of a friend who wanted to pick my brain about the writing and publishing worlds. This prompted me to organize, in a marginally coherent form, the notes I’d been taking notes for years on the subject. Thus, the following essay (which may be of little interest to those outside the writing “world,” and if that’s you, not to worry – the usual amalgam of political rants, feminist/humanist daydreams, punz and fart jokes will return next week).
Although what follows is quite lengthy – and by lengthy I mean, thoughtful and detailed – it is the gist of what I might say if someone held a gun to my head (and moiself really hopes that nobody will do that) and ordered me to answer the question,
In five words or less, what would you advise to aspiring fiction writers who want to write for publication?”
My answer, under those circumstances:
Ha! Don’t do it.
And if those four words are enough to discourage you from writing for publication, then you shouldn’t.
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“Sometimes your job as an artist is to be invited somewhere
and ensure they never invite you back.” 
(Robyn’s Advice To Aspiring Writers Of Fiction – yes, I know I need a better acronym).
Once upon a time, Writer’s Digest  asked a handful of writers the following question: “What advice would you offer a person who aspires to a writing career?” My favorite responses included:
“Sorry – if I had any advice to give I’d take it myself.”
“The…writer needs talent and application….
If you want to write just to make money, you are not a writer.”
“Beware of advice – even this.”
Despite my relative-to-almost-complete lack of literary notoriety, I’m occasionally asked what advice I would give to aspiring writers. I have two bits of counsel. The first: never ask other writers for advice. The second (should you dare to proceed after the first) is a two-parter: aspiring writers should stop aspiring and start writing, and just as importantly (if not more so), they should read. If more guidance is requested, well, then, you asked for it…
My Advice To Newbie or Aspiring Fiction Writers ®
- Don’t do it.
- If you ignore #1 and proceed, develop a hide so thick whale sharks envy you. 
- Aspiring writers should stop aspiring and start writing.
- Anyone who can be deterred from writing fiction should be.
- Never ask other writers for advice.
- There is no #6. What were you expecting, after #5?
Aren’t those bits o’ counsel a tad harsh?
More like honest and direct.
Writing fiction, like old age, ain’t for sissies. You must tell the truth and run, in both the writing itself and in the dicey area of offering — or accepting — advice. And yes, my Prime Directive of Fiction is, “Those who can be discouraged from writing fiction should be.” Or they should at least be strongly encouraged to analyze their motivation for writing, as opposed to their motivation for “being a writer.”
Do you feel as though you have to, need to, write — as if you’ve received The Call to do so, and that you in some way have no choice in the matter? If so, I’d recommend seeing a mental health professional to help you figure out the neediness part.
“I love living the life of a famous writer.
The trouble is, every once in a while you have to write something.”
The most important questions for an aspiring fiction writer to ask are, Do I like to write? Do I want to write? Do I have ideas, and do I want to do — am I able to do — the actual process of writing?
I used that quote from Kesey not just to engender a chuckle of wry appreciation; it illustrates an Important Point (the capitals and italics also help). Many more people want to Be a Writer — supposing it (the writing “lifestyle” or profession) to be glamorous, well-paying and prestigious — than actually want to write, which can be lonely, frustrating, tedious, and which, especially for the free-lancer (working in any genre), requires an enormous amount of self-discipline and motivation.
Competition and “Success”
– For every Big Name Writer® whose byline is familiar even to non-readers and whose works are ubiquitously displayed in the high-profile stands at bookstores and in racks at the supermarket checkout stand, there are thousands (a conservative estimate) of unknown writers, slaving away at the office or classroom or café during the day and at their desks or computers at nights and on weekends.
– Several years ago The Writer magazine noted that, of the 275+ million people living in the USA, approximately 60 make a “good living” writing fiction; i.e., they are able to support themselves solely by writing and are not dependent upon another income (from a spouse or family member or two or three “other” jobs of their own). Sixty out of 275 million. DO THE MATH.
– Full-time fiction writers make an average of <$7,000/year from writing fiction (The Writer, 1993…adjusting for inflation will not make this statistic any more palatable). 
– The National Writer’s Union’s survey found that most freelance fiction writers make under four thousand dollars a year from their writing, and only sixteen percent made over thirty thousand a year. 
Fun with Statistics (read: How good are you at dealing with rejection?)
I hope you like dessert, as in, the writer’s daily slice of humble pie:
Someone out there always say no.
The vast majority of queries you send out, whether to editors, agents or publishers, will receive a standard rejection. That’s the way the business is. You won’t be told why they rejected your manuscript (which can be frustrating), but there’s a good reason for that: what doesn’t work for one agent or editor might work for another.
If this happens over and over and you really want to know what’s “wrong” (or just not working well) in your manuscript, get it critiqued by a professional, neutral party.  But keep in mind that even if your work is brilliant, it might not be the right match for particular agents/editors/publishers. It’s analogous to finding someone to marry: it has to be the right person at the right time, and there are many other fish in the sea (especially for agents, editors and publishers).
Here is an example of one of the more gracious rejections letters, from the literary journal Zyzzyva, which also contains an important truth for writers to keep in mind (my emphases):
“Thank you for offering your work for consideration. I regret to say that we do not have a place for your work at this time. Please forgive us for passing on your work and for doing so without further comments or suggestions.
I would like to say something to make up for this ungraciousness, but the truth is we have so little space, we must return almost all of the work that is submitted, including a great deal that interests us and even some pieces we admire.“
The grim stats: Duotrope (a service for writers) keeps track of submission and rejection stats, and has this standard disclaimer for these stats: “Rejections are often underreported, which skews the statistics in favor of acceptances. Most publishers have a lower acceptance rate than indicated here.” For Zyzzyva, the reported rejection rate is 98.73%.
* Typical statement from a literary journal (this one from anderbo, which, although a non-paying market, is flooded with submissions), re their stats: “We are able to use less than ½ of one percent of submissions.”
* Milkweed Press, a respected literary publisher, receives over 3k submissions per year and publishes ~15 books per year (a 0.5 acceptance rate). Albert Whitman Publishers (children’s literature) receives 5,000 manuscripts per year and publishes 30 titles.
* The New Yorker, arguably the most renowned/respected/influential market for fiction, receives 4000 submissions per month (and tends to draw from its stable of “established” – read: “name” – writers). It publishes one story per issue, has 47 issues per year, giving it an acceptance rate of < 0.01%.
* From an agent’s website: “We receive 1,000-1,200 queries a year, which in turn lead to 2 or 3 new clients.” (acceptance rate 0.03 %, rejection rate 99.97%)
Unfortunately, I could go on with the grim statistics citations. Everyone loves an overnight success story, which is why those stories of the author with the hit first novel – a truly rare phenomenon, which is what makes it newsworthy – is what you hear about (and not about the 19,000 other authors who have had rejection after rejection). And many authors/books now considered classics had quite the rocky road to being published (and some of the most critically praised authors and artists never had their work bought or published while they were alive). Just a few examples:
* Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time was rejected by 40 publishers until it found a home.
* Emily Dickinson died unpublished.
* C.S. Lewis sent more than 800 manuscripts out before he made a sale; Ray Bradbury, also around 800.
* Gone With The Wind was rejected by more than 20 publishers.
*Jerzy Kozinski’s The Painted Bird was rejected by the same publisher several times, and one of those times after that same publisher (a different editor) had accepted it.
* F. Scott Fitzgerald was told by an agent, “You’d have a decent book if you’d get rid of that Gatsby character.”
* Karl Marlante’s debut novel, the widely praised Matterhorn, languished in literary purgatory for 30 (yes, thirty) years before the author could find an agent/publisher.
Even if you are published, what are your chances of having your book reviewed? From Authors Guild Bulletin and Publisher’s Weekly (2007): “Three thousand books are published daily (1,095,000 per year) in the U.S. Six thousand were reviewed, less than one percent of the total published.”
* From an article in The Writer: “It isn’t enough to have an incredible story, a well-written manuscript, and a dream. Did you know that out of the hundreds of thousands of books published each year in this country (by traditional brick-and-mortar publishers), about 95% of them sell fewer than 500 copies?”
“Anyone who can be discouraged from writing fiction should be.”
( R. G. Parnell )
How I love quoting myself. And I’m not the only writer who does so:
“I often quote myself. It adds spice to my conversation.”
( Variously attributed to Oscar Wilde and/or George Bernard Shaw)
But seriously, as you may have deduced by now, “Anyone who can be discouraged from writing fiction should be” is my writing advice motto. Because if that’s all it takes – *my* discouragement – to discourage you, then you haven’t got what it takes. And even if you do “have what it takes,” (however that is defined), the art and craft of writing is one thing…and the nasty, competitive, scam-filled and financially unrewarding (for 99% of writers) business of getting your writing published – that’s quite another thing.
The legitimate  publishing opportunities for beginning (and even veteran) fiction writers have drastically shrunk over the last fifty years. No longer are most mainstream magazines publishing fiction – whether short stories or novel excerpts – and the few remaining ones which do will not even look at your work unless you have a “name” or are represented by a literary agent.  So, the markets for your work are mainly literary journals, most of which are associated with university English departments and thus staffed by (cringe) MFA writing students. Translation: your work is going to be “judged’ by those people who are stupid/vain/gullible/pretentious/naive ignorantly idealistic enough to be paying tuition (or worse yet, accruing loan debt) for an MFA. All this, and no pay for your work. 
Yep: you will be paid nothing, but it will cost you something. The majority of literary journals and other venues for fiction writing “pay” in the form of free copies (or, worse yet, that dreaded word, “exposure”).  (Because you of course can turn around and pay your SCBWI and Author’s Guild  dues and Poets & Writer’s and The Writer subscriptions, as well as postage and toner cartridge and paper supplies, by trading those free copies….)
What with the “digital revolution,” markets for writers now include online journals. Some of these online journals are associated with universities and MFA programs and some not…and all mostly have the same “pay” policy ( “We regret than we cannot pay our contributors…but we offer exposure….” ).
Many journals, and even publishers, have started charging submission fees for potential contributors, (even those journals which are non-paying markets). Or, they only publish via their contests. There are thousands of literary contests (it seems like every journal, and a growing number of literary presses, has one nowadays, in addition to – or sometimes replacing – their regular submissions venues).  This has the effect of diluting the distinction of winning a writing contest or award – it’s about as meaningful as a kids’ soccer team award (“Every kid gets a trophy for participating!”).
There are so many literary contests, it seems that sooner or later every writer will be able to claim to be “an award-winning writer.” (for more fun-poking at this trend see my blog, The Awards I’m Not Winning 1-27-23) Some of these contests have nominal financial prizes for the winners (which are funded by the contest/award entry fees), but, other than The Big Ones (The Pulitzer, et al), don’t be fooled into thinking that your “winning” the Michael Shaara Award For Excellence In Civil War Fiction  gives you publishing cachet, or ultimately means anything to anyone inside (or outside) the publishing world.
Writing classes and workshops and conferences and MFA degree programs
I do not recommend any of the above and have boycotted them on principal. Thus, I cannot offer any advice from experience if you’re interested in attending, say, a Sci Fi writers conference.
The thing about writing fiction: except for fiction’s “one percent” (the Stephen Kings, et al) it is difficult-to-impossible to make a living doing what you do. Even if you are a regularly published author, so you have to cobble together other gigs:  speaking/reading/workshops…. Imagine a profession where you can’t make a living doing what you do, so you have to scheme to get paid talking about doing what you do…which isn’t doing what you do.
“The only way to make money from writing is to fleece (other) writers.
Exposure! Networking! Sigh.”
(Anonymous writer, on a SCBWI forum )
My lack of interest in and even objection on principle to writing classes and workshops is that they cannot help but be formulaic; also, I think that they either consciously or inadvertently promote art by consensus. It’s possible, of course, to learn or to be taught basic elements of composition, grammar, spelling and punctuation, from a teacher or from your peers – you can even get some pointers on point of view, and you can certainly learn through the example of writers who inspire and impress you.  But I think the proliferation of writing classes, programs, and “How to Write a Damned Really Good Novel” seminars has more to do with the infiltration of the Cult of Celebrity into the writing profession than from any demonstration of these programs’ supposed “effectiveness.”
There is a desire on the part of many beginning and intermediate writers to rub elbows and Ipads with famous, beloved, or (often self-professed) Important and Successful ® Authors. It’s possible that many authors who teach writing workshops, classes and speak at seminars sincerely love teaching and value being someone’s mentor or muse. However, a driving force behind the workshops/classes/seminars business is one of the literary world’s dirty little economic secrets: teaching and lecturing to wannabe fiction writers provides a more reliable source of income than does writing fiction.
“It is a sad fact about our culture that a poet can earn much more money
writing or talking about his art than he can by practicing it.”
( W.H. Auden )
BTW: Conferences and workshops where you can meet editors and agents and get two minutes to pitch them your manuscript and/or ideas – you will pay for this (such conferences and workshops charge hefty fees to attendees), as the editors and agents are usually paid to be there. It reminds me of a Tupperware party, or those other home businesses in which the hosts are making money off of their friends, relatives and neighbors.
My advice re writing classes and workshops and conferences and MFA degree programs: save your money and buy more books instead! Which is related to:
“Bad news: everything of (human) significance has already been written.
Good news: most of it is out of print & long forgotten.”
(Joyce Carol Oates)
“If you want to get rich from writing, write the sort of thing
that’s read by people who move their lips when they’re reading to themselves.”
( Don Marquis, American humorist, journalist, author 1878 – 1937 )
My advice re fiction subject matter: write something just out of your reach. Try to write the stories someone might tell you you’re not ___ enough (young; old; experienced; successful; American; European….) to write. However, given the current political climate of fiction publishing, be prepared for someone from the self-appointed Literary And Imagination Appropriation Police ® to tell you that you don’t have the “right” to write that kind of story or character (insert world weary sigh).
Most likely, you already have ideas about what you want to write about, whether your interests and story ideas might be classified as literary or genre. So, go for that. And (1) read *everything* – across categories and genres – but (2) craft your own voice. And remember: the first is relatively easy, and no one knows how to tell you to do the second (no matter how much they are willing to charge you for their “sure-fire” Find Your Own Voice Writing Technique Seminar).
Miscellaneous principles, opinions, and unsolicited advice
“Of all the higher arts, it (writing) is the most self-taught…in the end, you have to find your own way.”
(John Updike, from an interview published in The Writer, June 2001).
I couldn’t agree more or say it better…which is why I find myself using another writer’s words (ahem) to illustrate one of my most strongly held convictions: that fiction writers should walk their own paths and develop their own voices. This conviction is one reason I never advise fiction writers (actual or aspiring) to take writing classes and/or workshops, whether one-time seminars, intensive weekend retreats, or MFA or other degree programs in “creative writing” or whatever. (And if I ever am found to be making bucks from teaching a writing seminar or somehow profiting from the promotion of such programs, you’ve my permission to pelt me with a ream of plutonium-laminated rejection notices).
Some writers join or form writers support groups, wherein group members meet on a regular basis to network, offer support in the never-ending struggle to attain publication, and/or critique one another’s work. While I can appreciate the appeal such groups hold for some folks, I’ve never had any interest in them. My time to write is limited and therefore valuable to me; also, I have a life inside, outside, and intertwined with writing. I’ve been doing this for a while; I’ve a tough hide and can handle rejection (and acceptance) without group therapy or validation. I am fortunate to enjoy doing what I do (well, the actual writing part – it should be obvious by now what I think about the Biz of Publishing). I like to write; however, talking about writing — even with other writers — isn’t writing. Besides, I can barely stand my own first drafts – why would I want to read someone else’s? 😉
“The rise and influence of MFA programs is not nearly as pernicious as the whole notion of ‘workshopping’ literature. In what other art form would a creative artist claim as his own a work that has the thumbprints of a dozen or more people on it?
The best that can be said of MFA programs is that they give participants a sense of community, time and space to write, and exposure to the business of literature. The best that can be said of workshops is that they train writers to respond and compromise rather than to catch fire. These developments may account for the blandness of much contemporary literature. They also say something about the character of our culture and the ability of workshops to really impart anything except the tyranny of taste. Finally, it might be that good reading is actually the portal to good writing. How much better time would be served by carefully reading Joyce and Proust.”
(Michael Keating, from his letter to the editor,
Poets & Writers, July/August 2003; emphases mine)
So, after all that, you still want to write fiction for publication?
Here’s what you need to do:
- READ! Anything and everything, non-fiction as well as short fiction, novels and poetry.
- WRITE! Yep, there’s no way around it. Write whenever you can, whatever you can. Keep a folder or journal of observations, ideas, opinions….
- GET AN EDUCATION! (But major in something — anything — other than “writing.”)
- GET A JOB! Find or create something you enjoy doing (or can at least tolerate) that pays the bills AND leaves you with enough physical and emotional time and energy to write. You will not be able to support yourself or your family solely by writing fiction — get used to this idea.
- GET A LIFE! What do you expect to write about? And I must firmly explain what I mean here, lest it be thought for one nanosecond that I would encourage anyone to pen anything resembling a memoir. It’s not that there is a ready-made audience for the incredible story of YOU, thinly disguised in every tale you tell. Rather, this advice is meant to encourage you to collect experiences and observations, from and about which you and the characters you create may extrapolate, imagine, expound upon, confirm, deny and challenge. A writer is (or should be), above all else, naturally curious. Live, look, listen, imagine, question…and then write.
- READ! And encourage others to do so (do you want a market for your work, or what?)
Oh, and one more fun thing
When word gets out – to family, friends, co-workers, neighbors – that you are a writer, be prepared for the following “I-Just-Have-A-Small-Favor-To-Ask-Of-You” scenario (from a letter to Carolyn Hax’s marvelous advice column, “Tell Me About It”):
I am a writer by profession — meaning I get paid to do what I do. I am constantly asked to edit someone’s community newsletter, write something about someone’s kid who plays lacrosse to send to college coaches, or write someone’s family Christmas letter. (I hate those things, but anyway.)
When I quote my hourly rate, I get the hurt look and, “Oh, I thought you’d just do it for me as a friend,” or — in the case of a newsletter — “Oh, I just thought it would be fun for you; it is a good cause and probably would not take much time.”
You wouldn’t think of asking your son’s soccer coach, who is a podiatrist, to fix your bunions for free (“I thought it might be fun for you – it’s probably be easier than your other surgeries, and you’re so good at it”), or try to wrangle a free housecleaning from your neighbor who works for Merry Maids. But there’s something about knowing that you work in an “artistic” field which brings out the mooch in everyone.
It doesn’t even matter to these freeloaders favor-askers, when you protest that you are a writer of fiction, not grant proposals/term papers/college essays/office brochures. In their eyes, you are a writer, which means that you can just whip out anything, right? Your writing and editing skills will be coveted by others, enough that they will ask you to do work *for* them, yet not enough to be compensated *by* them.
I can count on the fingers of one hand – if that hand had lost three fingers in a tragic panini press accident – the number of times someone has asked for my professional writing skills and what I would charge for the project they had in mind. In every other case, I very quickly discovered the Favor Asker’s assumption was that I would do the work for free…for them…for the honor of being asked, and…for “the exposure….”
If you still want to write fiction (or already are writing, and are ready to start investigating publishing opportunities), here are some resources to help you navigate the logistics of submitting your work to publishing venues.
Self-publishing disclaimer: I have not gone that route and thus will not offer advice to anyone who wishes to self-publish, except to note that I have negative opinions as to that option – which seems to be one of last resort. If your work wasn’t good enough for regular publishers (something several self-published authors I’ve met at book fairs and/or literary events told me was their opinion – about their own work! – which is why, they said, they “had to” self-publish…and gee, could I give them some tips about how I got published by a “real” publisher?), self-publishing won’t make it any better.
Self-publishing seems to be a workable option for some writers in the non-fiction genres. Still, every self-published fiction book I’ve read (this an anecdotal opinion, not scientific data) has literally screamed amateurish, from the cover art and font and graphics to the content and copy editing, and I’ve noticed that their authors have scrambled for “real”/traditional publishers whenever they can.
( The rest of this article contained three pages of the resources previously mentioned. Moiself shall spare you the effort of skipping through them. You’re welcome. )
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May you treat yourself to something amazing – if you‘ve managed to make it this far, you deserve it;
May moiself be done with critiquing the writing/publishing profession…for now;
May you ignore that inane groundhog prediction and hope for an early spring;
…and may the hijinks ensue.
Thanks for stopping by. Au Vendredi!
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 The advice I give in this article is not what I would say to a child interested in writing.
 Variously attributed…to someone. Who knows, maybe I said it.
 Way back in September 1961.
 From the Nov-Dec 2005 SCBWI journal. These stats are still valid when adjusted for inflation and population changes, as per current Authors Guild and other sources. I am too lazy to update the citations.
 As in, not anyone who knows you personally; not your uncle, no matter how much of a great English composition teacher he is. You will need to pay for this service.
 Having your story “published” on your or your friend’s blog or website does not mean that your work has been published.
 Although, like The New Yorker, they will lie about this in their writers’ submissions guidelines. That is, they will claim that they are “open to unagented submissions,” but, as one former TNY editor staffer revealed, they have *never* published anything from the slush pile ).
 Beckett, the avant Garde/tragic-comic/black humor Irish novelist, poet, playwright, director, essayist, most famous for his play,”Waiting for Godot.” Becket also provided one of my favorite anti-privilege quotations, regarding his peers studying modern literature at Dublin University (“Dublin university contains the cream of Ireland: Rich and thick.”)
 And you have to report the cover price of the “free” copy as income. So, you received three copies of The Gnarled Kneecap Quarterly ($10.95 per copy) upon their publication of your short story. Come time to do your writing business income taxes, you have to report $47.85 worth of income for which you received no cash payment.
 The SCBWI – Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, and The Authors Guild, are the two preeminent associations for writers. Members receive their quarterly periodicals, and access to their online data bases of tutorials, publishers, markets, etc.
 I wrote an essay making fun of that phenomenon, which one editor told me was unpublishable because, as he pointed out to me, “…practically all literary journals have contests and lack a sense of humor about it.” But it was published, in a (now defunct) Portland-based journal.
 other than to you, your grandmother, and perhaps Michael Shaara’s son, who started that award in remembrance of his father, a writer of – wait for it – Civil War fiction. Yes, there’s a genre for everything.
 This, of course, is common to any artistic field. Very few artists, from painters to potters to sculptors to musicians, can support themselves by sales of their art alone, and most teach classes, have “day jobs,” or arrange other gigs from which they cobble together a living wage, or may be supported by their spouses, or have a patron, which was especially common during the Renaissance. And you may have heard of the stereotypical actor/screenwriter who waits tables at nights and goes on auditions (or hassles agents or publishers) during the day….
 And you can (and should) do this by reading their writing.