becoming a working writer

Becoming a Working Writer: The First, Terrible Year in Review

In October 2019, I took the plunge. I made my first short-story submission to a paying market. The rejection came twelve days later. It was a higher tier rejection—the best kind, short of one bearing a personal note from the editor. I felt energized. I was—to steal Mur Lafferty’s phrasing—a working writer.

Let me back up. I have always wanted to be a writer. Always. I only learned how to finish a project in the last ten years or so, however, and I didn’t learn how to revise until about five years after that. It took me twenty-nine years of living on this deathworld to realize that the fear of failing right now, the fear of having my stories rejected by paying markets, was going to ensure that I failed completely. I would never become a working writer if I didn’t get off the pot and start submitting.

So I did.

Starting out with a tiered rejection made me feel like an acceptance was right around the corner. I sent that story out again the same day and got a second rejection two days later. Not a problem! I submitted it to a third market, which took only four days to reject. I pressed pause, took some time to revise, and sent my story out again, only to receive a one-day rejection. And not just any rejection, a form rejection.

The Pandemic Forced Me to Take a Break

In my first two months as a working writer, I submitted three stories and received seven rejections. The next two months brought eight rejections for five stories.

I stopped submitting. I wasn’t discouraged, but my priorities shifted. The threat of COVID-19 made it impossible to write anything that anyone would want to read. As the pandemic kicked into high gear, I had to make the decision to euthanize my 17-year-old cat, Feline—a homophone of “felony”—after working for a year to keep her alive.

The idea of a potential layoff terrified me, but I was just as scared for my essential-worker partner. We didn’t see each other for almost three months, just to be safe. To avoid another months-long stint separated from him, I poured my energy into the home-buying process and came close to a mental breakdown while moving into our new home.

(Seriously, the next time I buy a house, I want People to do it for me. That’s my goal: to have People. How does one acquire People? Asking for a me.)

As we got settled in, I started revising, submitting, and accumulating more rejections. I joined Habitica and set writing goals for myself, including a plan to get fifty rejections by the end of 2020. As the rejections began to trickle in again, I felt my hopes renewed. Every rejection put me one step closer to my first acceptance.

Rejection Depression Set In

I don’t know why the rejection I received on September 16 hit me as hard as it did. Maybe it was because I had been reading the market’s output for two months straight and just knew my story was a fit. Maybe it was because my rejection took less time than the market’s average response. I don’t know. All I can tell you is that that rejection left me unmoored.

With a little liquid courage, I pulled out my rejected story and looked at it. I’d started reading slush for a similar outlet the week before, and, for the first time, I could see many of the same elements I was rejecting other writers for in my own work. There was the sophomoric clunk of certain sentences. There, the awkward pacing at the story’s climax.

That story was the second one I’d ever submitted to a paying market. I’d been working on it for nearly a decade. I’d put it through several workshops. I believed in it. But it was shit.

I was shit.

I retreated into Stardew Valley, where the rejections don’t feel so personal. Except for Shane. Fuck you, Shane, I just want blue chickens. You can just say you don’t feel like chatting! You don’t have to be such a dick about it.

But I digress.

Becoming a Working Writer Meant Going Back to Basics

The rejection bruised my ego and shattered my self-image. I was supposed to be a good writer. I should have been published by now. How was I ever going to sell a novel when I couldn’t even get a short story fucking published?

One thing became clear: I could not write and edit my own work without outside input. Most of my writing friends had stopped writing after college, and none of them had time to help me workshop my stories. So I joined some online writing groups where I could commiserate with other working writers at all stages of their careers.

I put the story rejected on September 16 up for a workshop and got some excellent feedback. While re-reading my work with another writer’s questions and comments, I realized the piece needed a total overhaul, which meant I had a long-term project to work on in the weeks leading up to NaNoWriMo 2020.

And yet, none of that made me feel better. Sure, having a writing community was fantastic. Meeting new people in a low-risk environment gave me the serotonin I needed to feel less crabby at home, where my depression had become visible in every room.

But that fear of failure, the fear which had driven me to start submitting in the first place, loitered at the back of my mind. If I wasn’t a pro-level writer now, I never would be. I should give up. Should stop writing. Should…

After a week in this cycle, ping-ponging between capitulating to its demands and fighting back against them, I was ready to give up. I had spent that week working on a story I’d abandoned earlier in the year, and the words were coming out in true, shitty-first-draft form. It would take so much re-writing to make this story any good, the fear of failure said, that I should just abandon it. Hang up my hat. Go learn a trade.

Kill Your Darlings and Stuff Them in a Trunk

I started to think about two other stories—one horror, one science fiction—that I’d written over the last few months. Both were out on their first submissions. The horror story was approaching the end of its first week at a market I’d never submitted to. The sci-fi story had been out for two weeks at a market that rejected my previous submission after only one day.

I knew those stories are better than the one rejected on September 16 in almost every conceivable way. Writing every day for months on end had made me a demonstrably better writer than I was the year before. That realization was my light at the end of the tunnel.

The same night, I found Zen Cho’s blog post on submitting to SFF markets, and that little light got a whole lot closer. In her post, Cho tells writers to:

Decide how many times you’re going to send your story out before giving up or substantially rewriting it. Mine is 10, and then I’ll consider posting it online on my blog/website. It’s not a hard and fast rule — I’ve probably gone over 10 submissions before, and I’ve abandoned certain stories long before hitting 10 submissions. But I find it helps with the brain gremlins to have a figure. “OK, I got a rejection. Two down, eight to go!”

Zen Cho, “A Quick and Dirty Guide to Selling SFF Short Stories”

Now, I had definitely googled “how many times to submit before giving up,” which doesn’t produce many helpful results. I had listened to Mur Lafferty talk about the number of rejections you should expect before your first acceptance. I knew, on an intellectual level, that every writer had trunk stories.

What I didn’t know, somehow, was that I could choose when to trunk a story. No one had ever mentioned setting finite number of submissions before. Cho had just given me the greatest gift of all: permission. I could kill my story myself. No one else needed to tell me it was shit. I knew it was shit, and I had the power to do something about it.

Becoming a Working Writer Means Knowing When to Let Go

So I retired the story, Rick Deckard style. It’s not in the trunk, but it’s close. It’s sitting near the trunk, up in the story attic, waiting on some substantial re-programming before it sees the light of day.

Then again, I may never publish it at all. Twenty or thirty years ago, it might have been a better story. Now, I’m starting to think it’s old hat. And I’m trying to be OK with that.

At the time of this writing, I’m eight days out from my eleven-month anniversary as a working writer. That’s close enough to a year for me. In that time, I’ve submitted eight short stories and eight poems to twenty-four markets. I’ve received forty-two rejections. Eight pieces are still waiting on a response.

And I’m still writing. If my new stuff turns out to be as bad as my old stuff, there’s no reason not to retire those stories, too, because there’s nothing stopping me from writing more.

I contain multitudes, and I’m opening the floodgates.

Image credit: Toa Heftiba on Unsplash