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Confessions of a Writer: The Ugly Truth About Being a Writer

“I am a writer.”

When I say this, people stop in their tracks and say, “Oh, how cool…” and then the questions start. “What have you written? Do you have any books? Have you ever done a book signing?”

Writing seems to be considered a glamorous job, and many are envious of my ability to write, my career working from home, my published books, you name it.

Writing is not a glamorous job at all. I’m not up in the ranks of Grisham or Brown or King, and I’ve never had anything hit a bestseller’s list (yet), and perhaps the fame that comes with writing bestselling novels does appear a bit glamorous, but when it comes right down to it, writing is just a job, like any other job, and you do have to work at it.

Don’t get me wrong, I love to write, to create, build characters, build worlds, build fantasies and nightmares. I wouldn’t trade what I do for anything. However, if you’ve never been up against a deadline, 3am, when the passion has burned out of you, and your editor has flat out said it MUST be on his desk in the morning and you are 60 pages short… well, let’s just say, writing doesn’t seem quite so glamorous in those moments.

So let’s dispel some of the mystique and glamour many associate with a writing career:

Rejection Stings

When I first started writing as a hobby, everyone told me I was good. My friends, my family, strangers, blog readers… all of them said the same thing – you’ve got talent! They loved to read my writing, and I loved the feedback and the ego boost that came from it.

So I finally sat down and wrote my first novel, pouring my heart and soul into it, bleeding my emotions on the page, building characters that became my best friends and my worst enemies while I wrote. I believed I was good, and I believed my manuscript was good too.

Then the torture began. I submitted it to agents and publishers alike. The rejections rolled in. Some didn’t even bother to read it, just sent me back a generic, “Thanks, but no thanks.” Others read part of it and basically sent me a letter telling me that the novel I’d put more than a year of my life into was ‘trite’, ‘boring’, ‘not unique’, ‘not compelling’.

Every rejection was like a knife wound to the soul, diminishing my ego, deflating my pride, and destroying my self esteem. Why did everyone say I was good?

The Curse of the Red Pen

Alas, I was finally accepted for publishing – one kind hearted editor appreciated my novel, liked my work, and then offered me a publishing contract – whoo hoo! All the pain and rejection was worth it. I was about to join the ranks of the elite – a PUBLISHED author. Maybe I really AM good!

That’s when my novel moved into the editing stage of the publishing process. The publisher I was working with, which shall remain nameless at this point, still worked with hand editing – in other words, I received my manuscript back through a courier service with red and green pen marks hand edited, with comments in the margins and scribbles all over the document.

There were more red and green pen marks on my manuscript than there were typed words. I flipped through the pages and promptly sat in my desk chair and cried. I’m serious, I literally cried. They had torn my novel apart. They had torn my characters apart. They wanted me to make changes to ‘my baby’ that when finished, the novel would barely resemble the original story. Maybe I wasn’t so good after all.

Ego Versus Desire

I suppose I could have argued the changes the editor wanted to make to my manuscript, but I also wanted desperately to be published, so I sucked it up, and I went through my manuscript, page by page, line by line, word by word, and made the changes they suggested.

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When the manuscript was rewritten and edited per their specifications, I held a new manuscript in my hands, one that resembled what I had written, but somehow, even though I had done the work on the edits myself, I did not feel as though *I* had written the novel!

Patience is a Virtue

While your editor or publisher or agent will tell you, “I need this revision on my desk no later than Monday!” and expect you to jump for them, they do not jump for you. You may stay up for three days straight working on your masterpiece, turn it over to them, and not hear a word for days, weeks, even months.

The industry doesn’t move fast. It took me a year to write my first novel, another six months to properly edit the manuscript, and six more months of queries, submissions, rejections and the like until I finally landed that contract – and that is FAST in the literary industry.

Once the manuscript was accepted, it took three more months just to receive my contracts, two more months before I was even assigned an editor, and eight more months before they finally sent me the edits.

After this, the publication date was set for my manuscript – 18 months from the day I returned the revisions to the publisher-18 months!

All Work and No Pay

While I was offered an advance on my first book, it was not a large one. Additionally, the advance would not be sent to me until the revised manuscript was received. So I worked on this novel for almost three years before I ever received any type of compensation for the work I had poured into the manuscript.

Trust me, the advance, while not a tiny one, was not in the hundreds of thousand dollar range and surely didn’t cover three years worth of income for me. Plus, I wouldn’t receive any royalties from the book until that advance had been made up in sales, if it ever did, and believe me, in this industry, it is not uncommon for a book to not sell enough to cover an advance.

I’m not saying there’s not money to be had in writing; there surely is, but being a novelist, you will be expected to put a lot of work into something up front, and whether or not you’ll ever receive compensation is a gamble with odds of winning the lottery or scoring big in Vegas being better than the odds of making a fortune on your novel.

Eventually, if you make it to the ranks of the big boys, novels can indeed provide a nice chunk of change and manuscripts that command good advances, but that isn’t going to happen overnight, if it ever happens at all. If you can’t write for the love of writing and are only writing in order to make a ton of money, you might as well hang up your pen now.

You Mean, I Don’t Have a Say?

Just when you think the worst is over, the manuscript is perfected, the editor has signed off on it, and you are getting ready to go to print, even more fun begins. There’s proof copies, galley copies, choosing artwork, approving fonts, and on and on and on.

Guess what? For the most part, your opinion means very little. Why they send you ‘approval copies’ on your book, I will never know, since the things I thought would be best are not what the final version used.

You would think that since it is your book, you would get a say in how the final product looks, wouldn’t you? Perhaps with a small publisher, you might. If you self publish or use a vanity press, you probably do have a say. But when you play with the big boys, they pretty much control every aspect of your book, and about the only thing you have left is the fact your name will be on the cover as the author – and did you know, if you have a common name or a name they don’t like, they may even suggest a pen name for you too?

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Kill It – A Kill Fee?

Okay, so the sleepless nights are over, the manuscript is perfected, all the cover design and other decisions have been made, a publication date has been set, and now you are in queue to wait for the manuscript to go to print.

Then one day, you come home, and you listen to your answering machine messages, and an editor from the publishing company has left you a message to call back. You call back as requested only to be told your book is not going to print after all. The publisher has decided that the book is no longer inline with what is hot in the industry, so they are shelving it in the storage of their dead manuscripts, and perhaps they will bring it back out later.

The good news: “You can keep the advance as a kill fee on your contract.”

Wow. All that work, all those adjustments, the changes I made to ‘my baby’, all my integrity down the drain because I wanted to be published, and now, the book will not be published after all.

This happened to me on my second contract. Fortunately, my first contract did go to print, but my second contract was killed. It’s devastating. Additionally, the publisher actually held the print rights on that book for the duration of the contract, even though they were not going to print it. When the contract expires, I can shop the manuscript around again, but until then, it sits, unpublished.

Is It Worth It?

You’ve poured your blood, sweat and tears into your novel, worked and reworked it, and given all you had to give to the writing process, and dealt with all the things I just described above. Was it worth it?

Let me tell you something – the day I finally held the completed, bound, perfected copy of my first novel in my hands, shipped to me at my front door before the books went out for distribution, with MY NAME in big letters as the author on the cover of the book… well, that day ranks right up there with the days my children were born as one of the best moments in my life.

No One Loves Me

However, the pain and rejection doesn’t end with the book actually being published. Now the book has to sell. You go to Amazon.com daily to check your rankings. You check the bookstores every week to see if you’ve received shelf placement yet. You ask the publisher until they are tired of answering you about how many books sold that day, that week. Every day that passes with no sales or very few and you wonder if anyone will ever buy your book.

Then there is the book signing, when the bookstore orders in fifty copies of your book, sets up a table for you, and you dress up in your best, with your fancy pen and a nervous smile, and sit and wait for people to show up to buy a copy of your book and get it signed.

And then only ten people besides your friends and family show up and out of those, only six buy your book.

Yes, this is what happened to me at my first book signing ever. Granted, it was a poetry reading and signing, and my second book signing went a lot smoother, but still, there’s nothing quite so demoralizing than to sit there for two hours with a fake smile plastered on your face and nothing to do, your books stacked neatly around you.

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Was It Worth It?

Hell yeah!

In fact, it was so worth it that I began the process all over again with another novel, and then another. Right now, I have three completed manuscripts out for queries and submissions and seven more manuscripts in various stages of completion, and a concept that one publisher has said they want first crack at when it’s finished.

Call me a glutton for punishment, but this torturous process of writing, submitting, waiting, changing, editing, groveling, and waiting some more, rejection, approval, acceptance, and finally PUBLISHED will be a process I repeat time and time again.

I live for the thrill, the rejection, the pain, the sleepless nights, the characters that haunt my dreams and follow me around, taunting me in my head.

I am a writer! It’s not what I do; it is who I am.

But is it glamorous?

Well, perhaps it can be, but if you were to see me at three in the morning after two days with little sleep, hair piled on top of my head, a cup of cold coffee sitting on my desk, the pizza crust and box on the floor beside me, the cigarette burning untouched in the ashtray while I stare at the computer screen with wide, glazed eyes, looking like a mad woman – well, you wouldn’t find it quite so glamorous then.

There is a myth running around that you have to have talent and skill to be a writer. I disagree with this. Skill can be learned, and while talent makes writing easier, it isn’t necessary for someone who is dedicated and determined to write a novel.

However, I do believe there is one element every successful writer shares, one common thread you must have in order to be a successful writer, and if you don’t have it, you will never succeed as a writer, no matter how good your writing is:

In order to be a writer, you must be insane, certifiably, completely insane.

Without that element, you may write, but only insanity causes a person to keep submitting over and over after rejection, after rejection, after rejection. Any sane person would give up and move on to other things, but only a true writer will continue torturing themselves in the face of all opposition. Only a writer, when ego is destroyed, pride is non existent, and hope is all but lost, continues subjecting themselves to the harsh criticism of the literary industry.

If you are a writer, and not just someone who writes, keep this in mind:

Jack Canfield, the co-creator of the Chicken Soup for the Soul series, was quoted in an interview with by Charles Creekmoore as saying, “We were rejected by at least 220 publishers before Health Communications accepted Chicken Soup for the Soul. Most people don’t know that this book, which is now a kind of icon in publishing, was rejected by every major publisher in New York. The obvious lesson is perseverance. Don’t give up if you really feel your dream and have a passion for it. That book was a calling. I was driven. It was truly a divine obsession.” (retrieved January 22, 2007 from: http://umassmag.com/2006/Fall06/Features/Soul_Man.html)

Can you imagine what would have happened, after 100 rejections, after 200 rejections or more, if Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen had said, “Maybe we aren’t that good after all.”

Never give up, never surrender, and keep writing!