Breaking in is almost as confusing as being an aspiring writer, except with more internal validation. You sell a story, then two more, maybe even to a top-level market you've dreamed of since you were a kid hiding in the library bookstacks during the dodgeball games. Suddenly your writer friends start looking at you funny, while your non-writer friends (and likely family) have no idea what the big deal is.
It feels different when editors write you back personal notes, or recognize you(r name) at conventions. Like, hey, you slipped in while somebody else opened the door to the Cool Kids Club. You've ached for this for years, promising the Universe if you sold just one story, you'd shut up and quit whining and die with a happy smile on your face. As soon as that first check was cashed, you forgot the promise of course — a second story to that market, a bigger market, what about one of those cool anthologies next to some Big Name Authors?
Instead of wondering if you're good enough for this market, you start to wonder if that market is good enough for you. You begin to understand more about publishing as a business, and why a bunch of seemingly random or unfair stuff makes sense, seen in the right light. The self-righteous conspiracy theories which drove your late-night bull sessions after critique suddenly seem callow in the context of your newfound professional status. Then you walk down the hall at a convention and realize that none of the 300 people you can see around you know or care who you are. The External Validation Fairy has become both your closest friend and your most mortal enemy.
Pretty soon you realize that pro-dom has layers. Layers and layers. The BNAs disappear into private suites and unannounced parties at conventions, and you wonder why you weren't invited. Your newbie friends wonder why you're hanging out with the accessible pros rather than being part of the same posse you've always run with. You wonder why people you see every week are being jealous idiots about your rare chance to talk to matociquala or jaylake. You realize matociquala and jaylake are wondering where the hell matt_ruff is.
Everybody looks up to the next layer and forgets about the last one. That's the weird, uncomfortable lesson of becoming a pro. It's not a big happy club of peers, it's just like the rest of humanity — cliques and groups and friendships and feuds and common interests and divergent interests and us and them. Some pros are very nice to you. Some pros talk through you like were made of air. Not much different from high school, really.
And that's the secret of being an early career writer. You realize it's just a big high school. Chess club geeks? They're all writing gaming tie-ins. Band geeks? Over there doing high fantasy. Jocks? Baen authors, mostly. On and on and on. The eerie thing isn't how different things are, it's how familiar things are.
Except things are different. Life is on permanent fast forward. Some of your friendships change. Fewer non-writers, more writers. Some of the writers drift away too, jealous of your success or annoyed at the lack of time you have to devote to them. A bunch of people rearrange their relationships around this point, for good or ill. You begin to have a glimmer of understanding of what you're doing, or think you do, and people who really do know what they're doing begin to focus on you and give you high-level advice, peer-to-peer, without the sugar coating or coup counting of workshoppery.
One day at a con you walk up to a lifelong writing idol to say something, and they smile as they see you coming and ask the person next them, "Do you know who this is?"
But still you go home every night and write, go to the post office every few days and mail out submissions, and hammer endlessly on the door of agents-and-editors in New York hoping for that big break.
Another time, I'll talk about the first time novelist.