Over at Inpunks a few weeks ago, Erika Holt asked the question “Why do we write?” She comes up with the same fundamental answer that I would give — because it’s fun.
There’s another reason to write, of course, and that’s to make money. But implicit in almost any discussion of writing is the notion is that many of us who call ourselves writers don’t really have to be doing this. In fact, many of us who call ourselves writers will probably never make much money at this. Most of us will always have “day jobs”. We’re in it for something else — we’re in it, presumably, for fun.
So yes, writing is fun. I try to remember that when things aren’t going so well. It’s why I let myself write stories that I enjoy but that I doubt will ever sell. (Sometimes they do anyway.) It’s why I submit to markets that I think will be excited about my work (even if they’re not “prestigious”), rather than trying to bend my stories to whatever specifications I think the “top” markets are looking for.
But there’s always a question in the back of my mind — why publish at all? If I write for fun, then why do I bother with this other part which is often not that much fun? Why do writers deal with the waiting, the rejection, the editorial revisions, and the minor disappointments and slights that can come even with acceptance and publication? Why do we put our stories into somebody else’s hands, knowing that we can’t always control what will happen to them?
I’ve posed this question on Twitter a couple times, and I’ve gotten some good answers. Some folks say they publish for validation. Others do it because they want to be like the people whose stories they’ve been reading all their lives. Others because they hope that someday they might be one of the few to make a living at this, and publishing is how you do that.
Those reasons are all true for me — or at least have been true at some point in my life. These days, I’m not sure I’d want the life of a freelance writer with its manifold uncertainties. And by and large, I’ve already gotten all the validation I need. I don’t mean to say I’ve accomplished everything I’d like to or that I have no room to grow — there are always new challenges to surmount (which is part of the fun). But I’m comfortable enough with my own writing that external validation is no longer a primary motivation. I suspect this is true of many, many other folks who write primarily for fun as well.
So why then? Why do I publish?
For years, I didn’t. For years, I wrote stories and didn’t try to sell them at all — or hardly at all. There were several reasons for that, but one big reason was that I didn’t enjoy it. Getting published just didn’t seem to be worth the hassle and disappointment.
And this wasn’t sour grapes. I was published several times in my early twenties, culminating in the cover story in an issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction in 2005. But then, after that — nothing, not for another six years. I had done it. I’d been validated, and I wasn’t sure I enjoyed it. So, for a long time, I stopped trying.
Earlier this year, I gave a talk to some college undergraduates about the life of a writer. I tried not to let my early experiences with publishing color my talk — just because I didn’t enjoy the life of a writer in my early twenties didn’t mean that these kids wouldn’t.
Things are different now, anyway. With Twitter and other social networks, it’s much easier to build up a support network. It’s also easier to see that other writers (and even editors!) are real people too and that everyone gets frustrated sometimes. There’s less of a sense of isolation, even if you (like me) don’t know any folks in “real life” who read science-fiction magazines, let alone submit to them.
But I wanted to be honest with those students, and one of the things I told them is that, for a writer, rejection is the expected result. During my talk, I framed this in the context of submitting work and querying agents. If you send out twenty stories, expect nineteen (or twenty!) to be rejected. Rejection is not failure — it’s the expected result. Even very good writers are regularly rejected.
But I had other things in my mind besides just submissions. Even when a story is accepted and published, rejection is still the expected result. In this case, rejection can take the form of deafening silence, “bad” reviews, or “bad” reader comments. Of all the stories that get published, only a few get noticed and fewer get praised. A tiny handful get nominated for awards or reprinted in anthologies.
Usually a story appears and disappears without seeming to cause a ripple at all outside of the writer’s own social circle. It’s easy to wonder if anybody’s out there — if anybody is reading — if anybody except the editor even liked what you wrote.
This is what happened to me in my twenties. My stories appeared and disappeared. My friends and family bought that issue of Asimov’s, of course, but that’s all I would expect. If I were writing only for my friends and family, there would be no need to involve a publisher. I could have just given them copies of my story and bypassed the whole submission process.
Thirsty for more, I searched for mentions of my stories online. I didn’t find much, and most of what I found wasn’t that encouraging. Science-fiction fans can be vocal when they don’t agree with something. Some of them found things in my stories to disagree with, and I ended up reading those thoughts.
Rejection is the expected result.
Fast forward to today, almost seven years later. After taking several years off from trying to sell my stories, I’m submitting more now than I ever have before. I’ve been fortunate to have several stories accepted, and a few have already seen print (digitally speaking). The first to generate any real response beyond folks I know is a story from the May 2012 issue of Redstone Science Fiction called “Imagine Cows on Mars”.
Here are the two reviews of that story that I found:
- First, Lois Tilton in Locus takes vigorous exception to my main character on moral grounds.
- Second, Jo-Anne Odell in Tangent doesn’t think my story makes sufficient use of the sci-fi setting.
This is the same kind of commentary that I read back in my early twenties, and it’s the same kind of commentary that contributed to my feeling that getting published wasn’t really worth it. But today, even after reading those reviews, I’m still submitting — still trying to get published. I’m even a little excited at the thought of what these reviewers might say about other stories I hope to see in print soon.
But why? What’s different?
The difference is not that I’ve grown a thicker skin or that I don’t care what other people say. I do care — in fact, that’s the whole point. That is exactly the answer to the question of why I try to get published.
I try to get my work published because that’s the only way it’s likely to reach people outside of my social circle. That’s the only way to get it front of folks who don’t already have an opinion about me… Folks who may have wildly different ideas from mine… Folks who may be different from the kind of people I interact with on a daily basis.
Every story is like the opening of a conversation. Once they’re published, it’s up to other people to pick up that conversation and continue it. As writers, not only do we not get to control other people’s reactions to our work, but we shouldn’t want to.
If I were having a beer at the bar with either of the two reviewers I linked to above, I’d probably listen to what they had to say and then respond with, “Yes, but…” They both looked at my story in a different way than I did, they both saw things that I hadn’t thought about, and their perspectives are pretty interesting. I don’t agree entirely with their conclusions, but so what? They don’t agree entirely with my perspective or priorities either — and that’s part of what they’re expressing.
What I’ve now come to understand is that disagreement is not rejection. Even a “bad” review or a “bad” comment is really, at heart, an acceptance — acceptance into a broader discourse where (guess what?) not everybody thinks the same as I do. If I were at the bar saying “Yes, but…” to either or both of these reviewers, we could probably disagree all night and still shake hands afterwards. The Internet is a more impersonal, more faceless, and (alas) more beer-deprived environment, but the principle ought to be the same.
I feel downright silly for not having understood this before. Part of the reason is probably because there aren’t that many people who engage in this particular discourse. Most short stories will still appear and disappear without so much as a ripple — including most of mine. Locus and Tangent make an effort to review as much short fiction as possible, but the vast majority of publications below the pro-paying level will escape notice, simply because there are so many of them and so few people devoted to the task.
If more folks expressed their opinions and engaged in these conversations — if there were five or ten or twenty capsule reviews of “Imagine Cows on Mars” — then there’d likely be a greater diversity of perspectives on display. Heck, there might be folks out there expressing those diverse perspectives right now — but doing so somewhere out of earshot of my extremely cursory Google search.
I still have too much of the undergraduate English major in me to think of the great conversation of literature as primarily concerned with quality assessments. If Edith Wharton or H.G. Wells or Vladimir Nabokov could read the term papers that I wrote about their works in college, they’d probably all say, “Of all the things I put into my story, why on earth did you focus on that?”
The answer, naturally, is because that is the part of the story that struck me most as an individual. That was what happened to ignite my curiosity or raise my hackles or inspire my imagination. That was what was illuminated or obfuscated some broader theory of my own. That was what gave me the needed hook to say what I wanted to say.
It turns out that there’s no cosmic critical teacher handing out “pass” and “fail” grades — there are just people sharing their thoughts and reactions, shaped and proved in crucibles that are highly individual and highly dependent on the context of the moment. (We’ve all, I’m sure, read the same story at two different times in our lives only to have two very different reactions.)
I don’t mean to minimize these reviews when I say this. They are what they are — well thought out, well written, brilliantly economical, and expressions of honest opinion. And they are exactly the critical conversation that I declared I wanted to be a part of as soon as I submitted my story for publication. There are far quicker and easier ways to earn $150. So such reactions as these are obviously the reward I was working for. And these reviews are the physical evidence that those reactions exist — that people really did read my words and that they accepted me as part of their critical universe, even if they didn’t like what I had to say.
But this ultimately isn’t about me or my stories. To be honest, I’m as likely to avoid commentary on my own stories as I am to read it. (There are reams of reactions to Machine of Death that I haven’t looked at — but then again, most of them aren’t written for my benefit.) And even though there are points where I disagree with Lois Tilton and Jo-Anne Odell, I don’t feel any need to respond to them. I already had my say when I wrote the story, and too much additional explanation by authors is more likely to suppress conversation than to encourage it.
What I can do, however, is be better at engaging in conversations about other people’s work. Like I said, that’s the whole point of getting published. (In my view, anyway.) Yet how many stories do I read each year without commenting? How many half-conversations do I let hang there unanswered? I’ve written a few blog posts over the past six months where I’ve tried to point out some stories that I like, but surely I can improve on that substantially.
I’m not going to promise to write about every story I read. But I can try to write about more of them — and to write about them in a more thoughtful way. I can be a little less concerned about causing offense and a little more concerned with adding constructively to a critical conversation. I can try to do my own little part to ensure there are fewer stories that appear and disappear without leaving a ripple behind. After all, the Internet makes it easier than ever to get stories published — but it also makes it easier than ever to talk about the ones that are.