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An author of no particular popularity

Jay Lake
Date: 2010-07-15 05:18
Subject: [process] Advice for mid-career writers, and the lack thereof
Security: Public
Tags:process, publishing, writing
From yesterday's Link Salad:
How to soar when you’re already in flight… — A.M. Dellamonica asks a really interesting question about how writers talk to one another. My facile answer to her is that aspiring writers outnumber established writers by a ratio of thousands:one, so the audience is distinctly different. But that's a lousy answer. I need to think on this.

This one's still on mind. First of all, to address my lousy answer of yesterday, I'm going to throw out a couple of numbers. It's early, and I can't be arsed to do real research right now, so take these with a small grain of salt.

In the field of sf/f publishing, I estimate there are less than 2,000 active, working professionals. (If I'm wrong, it's certainly not an order-of-magnitude error.) The bulk of those are writers — novelists, short fictioneers and us multimodal types — but I also include agents, editors, publishers, critics and whatnot.

Now, consider that the last time I looked, a trade publishing house might get 20,000 novel submissions a year from aspiring or early-career writers. (Again, if I'm wrong, I don't believe it's an order-of-magnitude error.) So figure that not every one of the same trade houses gets all the same novels at the same time, let's say there are in any given time period 50,000 would-be novelists with enough gumption to complete a novel and send it out. Let's take a flyer and say there's another 50,000 would-be short story writers pursuing their craft and submitting to those markets.

So what I said yesterday is wrong. The ratio isn't thousands to one, it's fifty to one. That is, 100,000 aspirants to 2,000 working professionals.

Still, that's a very different audience than mid-career writers. There are probably hundreds of aspiring and early-career writers who read my blog. If more than a few dozen mid-career writers read my blog, I'd be surprised. Just by the numbers, I can reach more people and hopefully do more good offering advice and examples to the larger audience.

All of the above and a $1.25 will buy me a Coke.

More to the point, Alyx observes in her original posting on this topic that people who've arrived at the mid-career point generally have developed enough awareness of their own process and craft to self-direct their developmental issues. With rare exceptions, this is notably not true of new writers, or, frankly, people new at any complex undertaking. That's why we have critique groups and con workshops and (sometimes) editorial feedback. To guide people whose vision of themselves is not yet suited to the task.

There is a complex interchange between ego, motivation and experience, and I've generally found that more established writers are less certain of themselves than people just setting out. That phenomenon is probably a good thing, given the psychotic persistence that it takes to succeed in this field. If you approach writing without a lot of ego strength, or some fungible substitute such as alcohol or money, you are in for a rough ride. Again, there are always exceptions, but they are rare.

For my own part, I find that Alyx is right about developmental issues. I'm painfully aware of certain deficits in my craft, just as I'm aware of my strengths. A few examples of my deficits: I still don't write female characters as convincing as my male characters, I skim over the depth of relationships and emotions that could really make my work pop out, I haven't mastered the subtleties of POV as well as I'd like, I rely on rhetorical tricks and clever language to wallpaper over cracks in my work. A few examples of my strengths: good world-building, clean line-level prose, a strong sense of style, a protean literary voice, decent mastery of the telling detail/crunchy bits.

As Alyx asks, how can someone dispensing generic advice on the Internet address my issues as a mid-career writer? The further along I get in my career and my work, the more idiosyncratic those become. All new writers need to learn about manuscript format, submission processes, what editors really do, storytelling basics and intermediates, the whole process of 'breaking in', and so forth. Mid-career writers are like Dostoevsky's unhappy families; each is developing in their own way.

I'm not sure what I'd say if I were dispensing advice to mid-career writers. I think I'd talk about meta-issues of ontology, self-critique and the learning process of writers. Or cite cases in order to extract principles. It would get pretty airy pretty fast, methinks. Still, I wish I knew the answer.

What do you think? What advice would you offer me or Alyx? As she asks, Is there something about character or plotting that’s general enough to make a good post but so advanced it’ll spark growth in someone really seasoned… a Cory Doctorow, say? A Connie Willis?

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User: joycemocha
Date: 2010-07-15 14:35 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Based on my anecdotal exposure and experience, I'd say that early aspiring writers are more concerned with the process of submission/marketing and mastering a particular form--short story or novel. They've not acquired the level of subtlety and self-awareness to go back to their own work and tear it apart, or see the holes without assistance. They have particular strengths, but glaring weaknesses. It's also unlikely that they can tell you what those strengths and weaknesses are.

Higher-level writers at the aspiring level have acquired that self-awareness, but haven't quite figured out the quirks of their style/voice, haven't figured out targeting their markets, and while they may be able to identify their strengths and weaknesses, haven't a clue about how to fix the weaknesses for voice, style and the like. They can't write to a specific length, or estimate what their final word count will be in a novel (within 20k words).

Mid-career writers, on the other hand, are painstakingly self-aware about process. The best process discussions I've been around have been with mid-career writers. While the aspiring writer is looking for publication, any publication, the mid-career writer is looking for that breakthrough that will take him or her to the top. The "breakout," so to speak. The marketing discussions are more nuanced and detailed; they're able to take an anthology premise, write directly to it and sell it; they've somewhat conquered the mysterious worlds of synopsis and outlining to the degree that they can sell a novel based on outline.

I'm in a weird position here, because I'm at two different places in my writing career. When it comes to nonfiction, I'm a dead solid pro. Should I choose to aggressively pursue nonfiction to the degree I have my fiction, I'd be a definite midcareer writer. I can pitch and sell a concept; write to the marks and land them; adjust my tone to the market; and look at an idea and tell you how to modify it to be a service piece, a feature, or an interview. I have more paid acceptances and sales in nonfiction than rejections. I know what I need to work on to improve my sales (and all that tech-type professional writing I've done for work does not hurt it one bit).

Fiction, however...I have that same awareness but the execution and sales are a different story. Part of that is the market is more competitive (and subjective); another part is that at the moment I seem to be writing ten years ahead of the market (when most of your sales are stories that are ten years old or older, that's a sobering thought). I also need to adopt a different voice for fiction than nonfiction, and sometimes that's a bit of a challenge. I'm still wishing I'd not turned off the path of fiction in the mid-90s to write nonfiction and make jewelry, but OTOH, that's probably what I needed to do. Still, if I'd continued, I'd be further along in the fiction career. I learned a lot about successful pitching and writing from the nonfiction writing and that was good.

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