The give-and-take with the audience at any bookstore or convention appearance I make usually comes around sooner or later to the topic of publication. How to get published, how to stay published, what it’s like working with publishers; all that inside baseball. It’s probably a dreary subject to the folks that just love the stories or the genre, yet it’s like Kryptonite-laced catnip to those who want to write professionally. I know the feeling intimately. I was hungry to be published from about the age of five, and none of my less realistic career fancies (Air Force F-15 pilot long-haul trucker cartoonist!) ever truly displaced that yearning.
Most of the publication-hungry folks I’ve ever met have struck me as honest, receptive, and realistic, but there’s always a tiny minority I can spot by the nature of the questions they ask and the statements they fixate on. They’re not interested in hearing about hard work, study, or self-improvement. Their eyes glaze over when I talk about concepts like effort or practice. They want nothing to do with developing actual skills, and in a few cases they don’t even want a damn thing to do with me or my work. They just want me to tell them how to duck under that imaginary velvet rope.
It doesn’t fucking exist, this shortcut. This magic steam-catapult to perceived stardom. This underground railroad for misunderstood slacker geniuses. It’s just not there! Yet these people keep on renewing their memberships in the cargo cult and imagining that all they have to do is catch a published author in a particularly off-guard or generous moment, and they’ll receive The Secret. I don’t know exactly what they envision. Some kind of handshake? A special phone scrambler? A certain Masonic arrangement of manuscript pages that slush readers can detect with their activated third eyes?
Cripes. Once I spot them in an audience, I’m pretty sure I can see them actively translating my words to their sub-reality. “I’m not saying networking isn’t useful,” I might say, “but you’ve got to have something worthwhile to sell before you start selling!” In their heads, this transmutes to “ZOMG! THERE REALLY IS A SECRET CLUB!” And don’t even get me started on what happens when I talk about work or discipline; I can see my advice turning into the noise the adults make in a Peanuts cartoon: “MWA MWA MWA MWA MWA, MWA MWA.”
Look, read this next bit very carefully: Famous useless idiots get book contracts all the time. Let us assume that we are not famous useless idiots, you and I. Therefore their situation is not germane to ours. Terrible, terrible writers also get book contracts all the time; this is because there’s no accounting for taste and because there is no accounting for taste and because, if you dig, there is no fucking accounting for taste. I can’t teach you how to get hit by a meteorite; I can only tell you about the “actively try to not be a terrible writer” approach, because it’s how me and most of my peers end up on the shelf at Barnes & Noble. This situation, which is my situation and, not to put too fine a point on it, YOUR situation if you’re unpublished and want to kill that ‘un-,’ is defined by the following equation:
Hard work + self-awareness + perseverance = MAYBE
“Maybe?” you say. “What the hell do you mean, maybe?”
What I mean is welcome to the universe, kid. No guarantees about anything, and the clock is already ticking. Try the potato salad. But that MAYBE is a golden result compared to the way the equation turns out if you subtract hard work, self-awareness, or perseverance. When you do that, MAYBE becomes NEVER. In fact, it becomes NEVER in bold followed by THIS MANY EXCLAMATION POINTS. !!!!!!!!!!!!
So I suppose it’s only natural that a tiny but aggravating minority of wannabe writers out there prefer to keep putting their chips on:
Fucking around + resentment + begging for mercy = SHORTCUT!
And they keep coming to my readings and convention panels! It’s just too damn bad that shortcut doesn’t exist.
(“But Scott,” you might be saying, “you’re talking about traditional publishing! How is this applicable to the bold new world of self-publishing and e-publishing?” Well, the answer is that not a damn thing changes. I don’t look down on self-publishing. I admire it! And if you’re the sort of non-trad-publisher who works diligently for years to hone your craft, understand your markets, broaden your literary comprehension, and generally avoid being an asshole, then you have as solid a shot as anyone at that bright golden MAYBE. But if you’re the sort of person who wants to self-publish the first and only ten pages you’ve ever written because HA THAT WILL SHOW EVERYONE AND THEN YOU’LL BE A MILLIONAIRE, you’re still looking for the imaginary shortcut and you’re totally going nowhere at the speed of uselessness squared.)
How long does the process of hard work + self-awareness + perseverance take? I don’t know; how long is a string? There is no RIGHT path. There is no IDEAL way. There is no PROPER length of time. There is only your right path, your ideal way, your proper length of time.
I sold my first novel in 2004, to an editor I’d never met, halfway across the world, on the strength of about sixty pages and an outline. That doesn’t happen very often. I don’t have an office wall papered with rejection slips (which many superb, successful, award-winning authors do), because I have never received one for my fiction.* I’m not trying to be egotistical, I’m just stating bare facts: There was no secret handshake. There was no clandestine society ritual. An editor saw something worth cultivating, worth publishing, worth taking a chance on. He took that chance. The rest is my Wikipedia entry.
Wasn’t this a shortcut? Not even having a finished novel? In a way, sure. My editor, may he be blessed and protected from paper-cuts forever, thought the unfinished fragment was so good it was worth securing before someone else could notice it.
However, the part you didn’t see before that “shortcut” was the long span of years I spent writing miserable, pretentious, silly, derivative nonsense before I became capable of writing those sixty crucial pages. I went through a Lovecraft phase. I went through a Poe phase (Gah! My Poe phase. Welcome to Farcetown, population ME). I went through a confused Clive Barker-y phase. I wrote a looming shitstack of Vampire: The Masquerade fanfic and character fic that made later Anne Rice look respectable. I wrote and desktop published a series of roleplaying games. I wrote marketing crap, memos, and business letters. I did freelance editing and PDF self-publishing. I wrote hundreds and hundreds of pages of stuff that had to be presented with a modicum of competence and clarity. In those days, a modicum was about all I could manage. An older friend once took me to a Disney animated film, and as it started he whispered “Dude, you really need to pay attention to this. I’ve already seen it, and I brought you because you need to learn how basic story structure works.”
I was also reading. Hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of books across the years. In the months right before The Lies of Locke Lamora sold, I was knocking back two novels a week, dissecting them, hungry to learn everything I could.
And that’s the secret behind my “shortcut.” I decided to pursue serious writing around the age of 15 and I sold my first novel at 26. Eleven years filled with piles of books and thousands upon thousands of pages, most of which were tripe and bullshit. Eleven years filled with a ludicrous amount of youthful time-wasting… but just enough hard work, self-awareness, and perseverance. Just enough by a narrow margin.
Being good is a great way to get noticed. But you can’t simply dance past the work it takes to get good. Would you expect to be invited to play first base for the Red Sox without the need to go through that tedious training, scouting, and development process? Of course not. So why the hell would you ever expect that I (or anyone else in my position) could just sort of hide you in a coat and smuggle you into a publishing career?
Still, some people do. If you read all of that and saw actual words, you’re probably not one of ’em. If you read that and all you saw was MWA MWA MWA MWA MWA, please be advised that I’m fucking bringing garlic, holy water, and a shovel to my next convention appearance near you. Truly I am. Because mere words don’t seem to dissuade you and I’m more than willing to try burial at a crossroads.
Now, people don’t just go shortcut-stalking in person. These days, I’m a Free Special Secret Bonus Guest Lecturer and Stevedore at the Viable Paradise writing workshop on Martha’s Vineyard. VP is an emotionally intense, mentally and creatively demanding experience administered by a bevy of zero-bullshit fully-credentialled pro writers and editors. VP is not a Writing 101 sort of affair, and the staff and instructors spend weeks in unpaid and largely unheralded examination of manuscripts submitted by prospective students, winnowing applicants down to a maximum annual class size of 24.
I can’t tell you anything specific about this process, but I will tell you that the scrutiny is intense and the discussion is quite involved. What the instructors are looking for is evidence of the three qualities I cited above: hard work, self-awareness, and perseverance. That’s it. That’s the secret. That’s all it takes to make you the “right sort” for this kind of literary boot camp. A willingness to learn and grow and toil on your own behalf. Viable Paradise is not about fluffy generalities. It’s about learning how to command and harness your creative skills to produce an original, working story on a very tight schedule.
The applications that are marked for rejection most quickly are the ones that are clearly fishing for that mythical shortcut. What boggles my mind is that people imagine they can actually get away with this shit… that they can send text plagiarized straight from published works (hint: professional SF/F editors have read a lot of books), or keep offering up something that was rejected in a previous year, without alteration or improvement, in the hopes that the instructors will suddenly drop their standards or experience total group amnesia.
If Step 1 is “write something,” Step 2 is “write something new while you shop it around,” not “sit on your ass for the next twenty years and keep petulantly holding out the Only Thing You Ever Wrote.”
If you want to be a writer who occasionally sells to professional markets, that’s one thing. But if you want to be a professional writer, you must understand that this is not a one-time gig you’re applying for. You will be expected to do this hard, lonely, brain-bending thing, and then do it again. And again. And again. Imagine yourself as a bright little kid who comes home with a graded paper, which your parents pin up on the refrigerator for everyone to admire. Then they roll out a clean new refrigerator and stand there waiting for you to decorate that one, too. Your life is now an endless line of refrigerators, kid. If you’re lucky, it rolls on all the way past the horizon and into the graveyard.
You can’t fake the ability to meet that challenge. You can only train yourself up to it. So don’t talk to me or anyone in my shoes about shortcuts, because the concept of the shortcut is like the Easter Bunny– something cuddly and reassuring and totally fictional.
*I did receive a firm but gentle e-mail rejection from Steve Jackson many, many years ago, in response to a proposal to write the introduction to a certain GURPS book. A proposal I only belatedly realized could be used as an object lesson in how to NEVER EVER structure a proposal. Still, I was chuffed. Rejected by Steve Jackson himself! I wish I’d printed a copy of that e-mail.