Writing: Having Not-So-Great Expectations

Break time in Wherever-Whenever land. Leaning back against one of the giant oaks and squinting up through the canopy to the bright blue sky, you doubt that’s actually the name of this strange place.  Of course, that name is as good as any other having never been told where you really are. Creatures chatter and flash through the branches overhead and a fragrant pine-laced breeze sighs in your face. You’ve been through two of the twelve talks promised you. So far it hasn’t been too bad. Of course, you never really expected to be here, wherever or whenever this was…

Tapping the stylus on your knee and looking out across the meadow you see two dozen or so other students at their ease. It’s evident from the stiff bearing of some, their furrowed brows and narrowed eyes that some have become preoccupied with speculations about this isolated location. Reading lips is no specialty of yours, but the word ‘home’ is easy enough to discern. When the course ends, how exactly will you get home? You feel your own chest tighten there had only been instructions on how to get here. You can’t recall reading anything about how you got back to where you started…

A male voice, soft and unassuming, speaks behind you. “Mind if I borrow some of your shade?” he asks in a vaguely British accent.

You look up and notice he’s carrying a stylus and tablet like yours; another student a writer, or a prospective one anyway. You nod to him and gesture beside you. The man smiles and sits down. He has a broad olive-skinned face, curly black hair and dark eyes, and is dressed in white button-down top and blue-jeans. His accent is western European, but his features are Mediterranean Italian or Greek perhaps.

“Have you heard what some of them are saying?” he asked.

You shake your head. “I can guess. They’re wondering how we get home.”

“Right,” he scratched his head and frowned. “A small oversight…”

“Complete serendipity,” you answer. “It’s a writer’s dream. Let’s worry when the class is over. Speaking of class there’s the lecturer.” You rise and get your tablet. “On to our next installment.”

The man stands beside you and looks across to other side of the clearing where the class that sits opposite yours is also gathering. “You know what’s going on with that ‘other’ guy? Think they’re twins or something?”

You shrug. Speculation is fine, but it’s only good for stories. You walk over and settle yourselves in the fragrant grass as the lecturer sits on a tree stump and taps the wood with his pointer.

“We trust you’re all having a good time,” the thick man says rubbing the back of his neck. Across the clearing you hear his identical words spoken just slightly out of sync. What was with that other guy? “This segment we dedicate to expectations. Expectations of yourself and of this art form…”

Writing requires a healthy dose of look-before-you-leap

Writing: Having Not-So-Great Expectations

Expectations, be they great or little, most people have them when starting into an endeavor of any size. With writing you can count on these ten real life expectations that can (at your choice) either motivate or depress you:

  • Writing will get easier, but it will never be easy.
  • You can reach the end of a story, but it will never be ‘finished’.
  • Your story can be of the highest caliber and somebody will call it crap.
  • When you think it’s horrible, someone else will call it genius.
  • Count on experts to humble and confuse you.
  • Count on amateurs to confuse and anger you.
  • Critics will often tell you what’s broken, but rarely how to fix it.
  • Editors will tell you what they want, then reject it once they get it.
  • Cynics will try to convince you it’s a waste of effort.
  • ‘Excusers’ will spend hours explaining to you why they have no time to write.

There you have it writing expectations to live by. A little terse to say it’s the entire subject… As it says, you can reach the end, but you’ll never be finished… 

About those expectations…

If even half those statements are true, why would anybody ever want to write a novel or short story? Love. You really do need a passion for the form. If you don’t, it’s unlikely you’ll have the heart to keep going for any length of time. When you write, you must EXPECT to write only for yourself. Take joy in the your ability to create a world and the gift of being able to live in it vicariously. Don’t EXPECT to become the idol of adoring fans. Love your writing—good or bad—because that’s what you like to do and narrating the story is what gives you intellectual stimulation and pleasure. Have that attitude and any successes you have will be gravy. Strive for the best, expect the worst, and you’ll never be disappointed.

If you are seriously taking up writing for the first time, what should you be prepared for? Be prepared that in the very beginning it will seem simple, then as you learn more it will get hard, and then with experience it will get easier again. This easy-hard-easy pattern is because when we start, we typically don’t have a clue as to what’s publishable and what isn’t. When we finally learn up from down, it’s a lot of work to make the grade until we develop a voice, style, and shortcuts that work. Still, even when we’re over that initial hurdle, getting a piece into publishable form can still be a nightmare.

Non-completion—the real-life expectation that frustrates.

The most commonly misunderstood and mishandled problem for beginners and experts alike is the problem of getting “stuck” or blocked. When you start out, simply finishing that first project can seem like an insuperable obstacle. Many folks fall prey to a pitfall that we’ll call being trapped in a “vicious revision circle” or VRC syndrome. If you have any experience in writing, or friends who do, the symptoms of VRC will sound familiar. The VRC victim gets part way through the narrative and for whatever reason simply cannot continue the story. They decide, and reasonably so, that if they can’t add new material, that they can at least clean up or improve the chapters or sections already written.

Beginners fall prey to this not because they’re beginners, but because they’re learning as they go. Most people’s writing ability matures over the course of creating several chapters. They realize, or it’s pointed out to them by reviewers, that the quality or coherence of the initial parts of the story are lacking in some way.

It is the misguided desire to make those first sections “perfect” that merrily leads the VRC victim down a primrose path that can in some cases keep a story in limbo for literally years. While suspended in “limbo” the work often gets hacked apart and reassembled, tweaked and manipulated like some incomplete Frankenstein monster. In pursuit of “perfection” they continually patch, revise, and rewrite. What exists of the narrative becomes a leaking dike with new leaks springing up every time one crack is filled.  In extreme cases, the loop tightens down to redoing that first chapter, over and over, and over

For those who have or are suffering from VRC, or know someone else so afflicted (nearly every writing group has one victim), take heart there is a solution. Realize that VRC syndrome is matter of self-confidence and plain simple fear. Many writers are insecure and coming up against a block always raises questions as to their ability to write. Often it is interaction with other people that cause VRC. Someone’s lame two cents of advice can create a virtual fortune in headaches. Some beginners get a little negative feedback on their material and suddenly they’re ready to scrap the whole thing. Whoa! Time out! Worry about the fine tuning when you’ve COMPLETED a whole draft. Anything you (or anyone else) thinks about those initial sections IS NOT VALID until you’re finished. REALLY. Why? Because EVERY story evolves. Even the tightest outliners vary from the plan because of unexpected revelations an unforeseen dramatic possibilities. Look at the beginning once you have of the perspective of the whole story to judge from. Otherwise, unless you are very experienced, any changes you make simply won’t resemble what you’ll have once you know exactly where you end up. There are few writers alive who can claim to have left the opening sections unchanged after they finish. The adage “great books aren’t written, they’re RE-written” is particularly apropos in this discussion.

The other reason revising before completion is unwise is that every time you stop and go back you rob yourself of storytelling inertia. Not only don’t you get anymore of the story completed, but the left-brained repetitive rehashing of the material distances you from the inspiration that sparked the story to begin with. Too much time spent away from that creative energy and you will lose the enthusiasm to continue. End result the work goes into the drawer or circular file.

VRC is a far more common problem than most realize. Nearly every writer with any experience has suffered from it at some point. You’ll hear the horror stories of the chapter they rewrote 30 times… sometimes ironically to put it back the way it was to begin with!

If you’re starting out, count on experiencing the threat of VRC. In the course of any given project, you will get stuck to some degree or another—everybody does. If you do, resist the temptation to keep bashing your head against the problem. It often doesn’t help, and many times it hurts. If you don’t know where to go, or how to move the story forward then it’s probably time to step back and get some perspective. For myself, I hate when I’m not productive during the writing time I’ve set aside—it makes me crazy. For that reason, I usually work on multiple projects. If I can’t move forward on one, then darn it, I’ll move forward on another. For the less ambitious, simply going back and reading through the material can help. Note, I said reading NOT revising! If you see a typo or something simple okay… but read as a READER, not as an editor. As you look through the material, try to recapture the state of mind you were in when you wrote it. Often that process of simply re-entering the story will spark ideas and give you some inspiration to move on.  

The most hurtful expectation—scrapped projects…

After saying everything above I’m going to contradict myself and say that some projects do turn out to be lost causes and it will be discovered before you reach the end (hopefully). Sometimes what seemed like a good idea at the start just doesn’t pan out. It happens. Mostly it happens to people who don’t plot out the story beforehand but the meticulous writers experience it too. Please recognize that I don’t advocate giving up. A truism is that any story, no matter how flawed, can be salvaged. The question you must ask is, “Is it worth the effort?”

The key thing is really knowing when to throw in the towel. Beginners who get stuck often discard a project because they get overwhelmed or lost and simply don’t know how to finish. That’s a bad reason to submit the latest entry to the void of lost manuscripts. More experienced writers may halt a project when the complexity reaches critical mass—they’ve simply bitten off more than they can chew and feel that they can’t do justice to their idea. Let it cool off, put it in the drawer, not in the garbage. Sometimes what seems overwhelmingly complex really isn’t. It just requires perspective. Some judicious pruning and elimination of non-essential story threads may fix the complexity that’s throttling your creative drive.

For those without significant writing time behind them, there’s no hard and fast way to determine that something unsalvageable. Know one thing though—if you lose faith in the story—it will die. The axe should always be a last resort. Be willing to struggle and grapple a bit that’s part of learning. Don’t just throw up your hands at the first stumbling block. Give things time, keep the story in the back of your head, and start something else. Often times, working on something else will provide the inspiration to move on.

If you’re lucky enough to have a trusted mentor willing to look at your story, that’s always the best course. However, if they’re responsible experts, they’ll never advise canning the story. In twenty years of helping writer’s plow through problems I never told anyone they had a lost cause on their hands. However, there were a few where it boiled down to it. The changes I felt necessary to make the story work involved compromises the author felt ‘betrayed’ the spirit of their original idea. Faced with such a deadlock the story might as well be in the garbage. If you’re wondering, none of the works in question ever sold.

Fight to keep the story alive. Be willing to retreat and take up the sword again at a later date. Only lay your head on the chopping block when sanity or productivity are threatened.

Forget that nonsense—I finished a story/article and I want to be published!

Publishing, ah yes, great wealth awaits—not. Many non-fiction writers and journalists do make a living with their writing. Larger non-fiction publishers will pay good bucks, but competition is fierce and most of their writing is done by salaried staff. For example, a big magazine like Cosmopolitan pays $2000-$3500 USD for a feature, and $1000-$1500 for a short piece. They buy 350 scripts a year, or around 30 a month. They buy 45 columns a year (750 words each) and pay $650-$1300. However, I stress again that “competition is fierce”. These limelight or “four star” magazines often already have a backlog of two years or more of articles at any given time. Expect three star publications to pay upwards of a $1000. Two star serials pay $100 – $500. One star magazines pay by the word, ranging between 4 and 10 cents a word.

Freelance publishing is all about research and marketing, marketing, marketing… You must know your markets, see a need, then work, and work fast, you must be able to tune your voice to the magazines you target, you have to be efficient, concise, credible, and ready to set aside other considerations to get the writing done. I know travel writers who make $20000 a year in addition to their day job. These people know their niche and a have a rapport going with enough editors that they already have a home for their articles before they write them. There is a whole art form in querying and getting the up-front nod before you put one word on paper. There’s nothing romantic about this kind of writing. It’s business, pure and simple.

Fiction publishing is a whole different animal. It too is research, and a lot of marketing, the difference is the material is much more subjectively judged so luck becomes a major factor. The other big difference—there’s no such thing as a four star fiction magazine (not by comparison with non-fiction ones). You can make good money if you do your research and chance into selling a fiction piece to a non-fiction publication—then you can get non-fiction rates BUT they buy abysmally few. As an example, Playboy buys a couple straight (non-kinky) fiction shorts per issue and pay handsomely (around $1000+ USD). The problem is because they get a thousands of submissions a year and place only 24. They are another magazine that builds up huge backlogs.

Primo fiction publications like the Analog, Asimov’s, or Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction all pay a piddly (by comparison) 6 to 8 cents (USD) a word. Most Sf&F short stories are around 5000 words—that’s an average of $350. That’s double the length of an average non-fiction feature, and 6 times the length of a column. The words are tougher to write too. If you are good and never experience problems in writing that story—you are probably going to spend on average of 30 hours to write and polish a story of this size. Let me stress that this is really OPTIMISTIC—people often invest five or six times this number of hours. Do the math—so for all that work you get paid what? Roughly $12 an hour. The horrible thing is that it’s a hard sell too, with tremendous competition for slots. It’s easier to place in the smaller publications, but the pay is commensurately less. Actually, some of this is whining on my part because my focus is Sf&F and there is a very limited number of markets for this kind of work. If you write children’s, mainstream, or women’s fiction then your horizons are opened considerably and your chances of placing a fiction feature in a non-fiction magazine increase dramatically—and so does your pay! Still, you must pay the marketing game, and once you start you’ll never confuse it with being easy.

Forget stories and articles—I finished a book and want to get published!

Oh yeah? Join the club. Most of the time, non-fiction books are not written, they’re proposed and THEN written. Fiction books are written and then rejected—over and over and over. Notice a difference? Again, mostly it’s an issue of a limited number of slots and a flashflood of submissions glutting the market. The fiction market is a strange beast. A person can write doo-doo and sell. Another can create wonderful masterpieces and can’t get a lick of interest to save their soul. I honestly don’t know anymore if that’s in the average writer’s favor or not. Today’s market is a whimsical and chaotic realm with a jumble of rules that will make you pull out your hair. It won’t stop you from trying of course (if you’re determined) but don’t count on success.

For a first novel, the typical advance is $2500 with a 10% royalty paid after the book publisher makes the advance back. A typical book is 100,000 words. That works out to 2.5 cents a word—ouch. Because publishers rarely push a first time book, if you do well you may sell 10000 copies. Of the $6.50 cover price about $2 is profit and 20 cents is yours (18 cents if you had an agent). So, your wealth to show for all that toil—$2000. Bringing your total to 5 cents a word. Makes you want rush out and start a novel right now doesn’t it?

If you really want to be depressed consider it costs about 25 dollars to mail the novel and you have to submit on average 30 – 40 times to place it. That’s $875 in postage. Stephen King sent out the book Carrie over a hundred times before it sold.

If you do break in, things look up, but then you face another crisis, the “mid-list syndrome” which can be even worse than not selling at all. We’ll talk about that at a later time as we’ve spread enough gloom for one session.

I don’t have to sing you sunshine about what’s possible. There are legends by the score of gigantic advances and huge fortunes being made. Those people are the few. The rest of us are the many. We do have something in our favor. Eventually some of them will die, giving one of the rest of us a chance to get a leg up.

Expectations—the final word.

Now that I’ve sung you my depressing song of writing shortfalls, I go back to where I originally started. Write for yourself. Enjoy it. Love it. Get good at it. Keep doing your day job and learn to manage your time. Make your marketing like playing the lottery with some insider information. You buy a few tickets every month or so (submit something) and if you don’t win, well, you didn’t expect to. If you do hit one (and if you are doing your job right you will eventually), then break out the party favors and the champaign and enjoy the good fortune bought with your efforts. The best expectation I can leave you with is that the more you sell (the more credits), the easier it gets.

So, get out there and sell.

In our next article we’ll get away from the realities of finishing your writing and pushing your product, to simply finding ways to make time to write with.

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