Culture of Giving Won't Let Writers Give Up
I am a writer.
One thing I've learned since becoming a self-described writer (AKA aspiring author AKA slush pile contributor AKA internet stalker AKA slowly-starving artist) is that a writer's world is infinite. I guess I shouldn't be surprised. Humans have long been obsessed with the inexplicable. With magic. And what, if not words, are magic? Words hold meaning. They are the key to sharing across all boundaries. Words, words, words. The power of language is immense. Artefacts of language, like books, hold immense power.
Awesome. Now, what about it?
The thing is, it's very easy to become lost in an infinite world. Even if it is one that I've always dreamed of stepping into. Everybody knows this. Successful authors know this. Literary agents know this. Even non writers, know this. I know that everyone knows this because every single person I've spoken to about what I'm doing, and all the resources I've found for myself, share the same rhetoric: don't give up writing. Never stop trying, and never give up hope.
In other words: don't let the enormity of the ecosystem trump your drive and desire to be successful because eventually, you'll figure it out.
I say 'Maybe' because what I've learned is that there's a second rhetoric that's actually more important (and insidious) than the first, but always plays second fiddle. What follows platitudes of, "Don't give up," is: "Just be careful not to burn any bridges because you only have one shot."
I have one shot at this?
Now, I'm somebody who learns by doing which makes that a pretty tough pill to swallow. I try and if what I've tried fails, I iterate and try again. I suppose I'm lucky that I don't really believe in burning bridges (if you make something that people want then you will find that bridges that you once thought were burnt, can still be crossed).
All that said, I do believe in learning from those who have come before me to avoid needless destruction where possible, which brings me to the reason why I'm writing this post: this infinite world that's convoluted and full of conflicting messages is beautiful and it wants writers to succeed.
Sure, it has its ugly spots. It also has its beauty marks. Most of all, it has an underlying culture of generosity and giving that no matter what, seems to persevere.
Creative writing is a world overflowing with people who believe in one thing: the magic and power of words. Because of that, it is full of people who believe that anything is possible.
Yes, the power dynamics suck. They really do. For me, they suck because they seed self-doubt like nothing else I've ever encountered.
As someone who is used to 'figuring things out on her own' (yes, self-publishing is still an option), having to rely on 'literary agents' and 'publishers' and 'editors' to get me from point A to B, is a difficult thing. But what I've learned these past months is that it's also an exciting thing because once I overcome hurdles of entry (staying positive), I'll have people who know things(!) on my side. The cheerleaders of this literary world want champions to cheer on.
Even aside from all that, the fact that power dynamics exist means they can be learned, they can be navigated and ultimately, they can be turned in my favour.
Did alarm bells just go off?
If so, it could very well be because no one likes feeling manipulated. No one wants to be sold to. People want to fall in love. Especially in this world of writing. Which brings me to the underlying problem of being a debut writer: how do I make the professional world fall in love with me and my manuscript(s) without making them feel manipulated or overwhelmingly sold to?
In other words: How do I sell art?
I think I've learned the answer to this, or at least I have a working hypothesis, and it's surprisingly simple. Do it by providing value and being honest.
The first step of selling anything is to become someone who can (and does) sell. This is often referred to as, 'putting yourself out there,' for good reason. Selling my art feels painfully self-serving and a lot like I'm bouncing up and down at the end of a long plank, about to plummet headfirst into an ocean full of sharks (where the ocean is self-doubt and the bouncing, about-to-snap plank, is my self-confidence).
A recent blog post by Susan Cain discusses ways in which writers can learn to overcome the fear of putting yourself out there. In other words, how to get over the fear of selling your art. I like the eight strategies she provides because they're a good mix of adopting new perspectives (ex. 'When it comes to social media, think self-expression, not self-promotion'), and specific actions you can take that'll make a difference (ex. 'Work at night when your cortisol levels are lower' and don't forget about your caffeinated friend, coffee).
The thing is, you can't begin to sell your art by providing value and being honest until you overcome the fear of 'putting yourself out there'. The strategies Susan Cain provides are solid ways to overcome this fear. I have another suggested strategy. It's not exactly a fit for number nine on her list of eight, it's more of an umbrella to everything you do. What I'm suggesting is that no matter what you do as someone who wears the hat of 'writer' (whether it's reading a book, writing a blog post, or reaching out to an agent with a question), you should think about how you can provide value, and be honest about your approach to doing so.
Take reading a book for example. While reading (or once you put the book down), think about how you can take that action and provide value from having done it. Can you post a book review somewhere for others who have yet to read the book, to consume? Book reviews are valuable. They help people buy gifts. They help people make decisions. Goodreads is one such place and the wonderful thing is, Goodreads is part of this vast world of writing. Goodreads is a platform you can use to 'put yourself out there' while providing value. Your honest review will help others.
Providing value doesn't mean 'provide something invaluable'. What it means is that you shouldn't lose sight of the fact that everyone you interact with is a person. Consumers of the internet are people. They have needs. They have an agenda. They have dreams, too. Be thoughtful about your actions. If you can consistently provide the world with value (ie. instructive blog posts, a brilliant masterpiece, a funny joke, etc...) and you're honest (with yourself and everyone else) then you will not only be putting yourself out there, but you'll also also be giving back.
So to come back to my debut author's dilemma: How do I sell art? Again, the answer is (relatively) simple. I will sell my art by being OK with putting myself out there. I can be OK putting myself out there by providing value and by being honest.
This approach isn't one that I've adopted overnight. I've been mulling it over for awhile now, because I have doubts. How do I know that what I'm doing is actually providing value? How do I know that I'm not deluding myself? How do I know that my efforts are productive?
The problem is, doubts like these are what will stop me from trying. If I never try, I will never know. This conundrum brings me to the crux of it all: this beautiful, infinite writer's world, is one that appreciates and encourages learning. That second, insidious rhetoric (the source of my ocean of self-doubt) is cautionary. The message of not burning bridges isn't meant to block me. It's encouraging me to be thoughtful. In being thoughtful I've discovered that not only do I have to keep trying, but that trying alone isn't enough. I need to learn from what I do and when I learn something, I should share it. I should give back.
I was already onto this idea before I encountered Wattpad. Two-and-a-half weeks ago I began to release one of my manuscripts on the platform and doing this has firmed up my hypothesis. I'm now a member of two Wattpad book clubs (I've never been a member of a book club, before). I've had conversations with authors about books in more than five different countries. I've had the opportunity to share advice with a young aspiring author who sought help crafting his opening line for 'his book about love'. I've in turn received tips on how to improve my own writing. I've been captivated by the magic in the words that I've read there.
I dipped a toe into the deep end and was immediately met with ways to help and give back, because right away there were people offering to help me. Wattpad is a community of people helping people be better. Authors helping authors. Experienced helping inexperienced. Inexperienced helping experienced.
Everyone helping everyone... for what?
For the love of writing.
Millions of people around the world supporting each other because they share a love of words. All for the love of magic. It's basically magic inception and, as I said before, it's beautiful.
Now, I'm an introvert and as Susan Cain points out in her aforementioned blog post, this makes the dilemma of putting oneself out there, uniquely painful. A problem that's pretty much universally shared amongst authors. No surprise there. It makes jumping into these communities intimidating as heck. But what I've learned is that these communities are filled with introverts, too. They don't mean to be intimidating. They mean to be helpful.
Twitter (yes, groan, Twitter) is a way for introverted folks like myself to 'safely' put feelers 'out there' without stepping on people's toes. You can consume tweets for as long as you need until you feel comfortable creating your own.
That said, I've been tweeting since March and I'm still not comfortable doing it. I will never become comfortable tweeting for a number of reasons. One reason why I'm so cowed by Twitter is because I'm consistently humbled by the incredible things people in this world are up to. I consistently ask myself, 'How do they have the time to be so dang productive and helpful?!'
Since tweeting regularly, I've had authors volunteer to be a second set of eyes on my manuscripts. I've received words of encouragement from strangers who seek to gain nothing by showing me support. I've had interactions with professionals who I'd otherwise have no access to. Every day (literally) I discover new expertise and read new and precious insight that will help me improve my pitch, queries, and even my manuscripts. As a member of Twitter, I can participate in pitch competitions. I can get feedback on my pitch.
Every day I see people giving bits of themselves (in 140 characters or less) so that others, like me, can be better. It's a competitive industry that wants people to compete. This world is filled with rejection, true, but the same people that reject authors want authors to be successful and because of that, they give back. All the time.
On that note, if authors make up the cells of this ecosystem, then I'm convinced that industry professionals are the mitochondria. By 'Industry professionals' I mean literary agents, literary assistants, editors, publishers, and everyone else in between. The power houses inside a cell. The unstoppable cheerleaders of the publishing world are the people who not only deal in its tragedies, but they are also those who deal in its successes. They believe so strongly in those successes that they are always giving back.
Dear authors: if you have yet to encounter Jessica Sinsheimer, Carly Watters, Brenda Drake and L.L. McKinney (to name but a few) then you're about to be astonished. What each of these women has accomplished is astonishing and inspiring (and depending on which side of the bed I wake up on, mind numbingly overwhelming and intimidating). At the end of the day, people like these energize me. I see what they do for writers and for the love of writing, and they make me want to try harder. I want to be better. I want to give back more.
The world of writing won't let writers give up because it is filled with people who believe in the power of words. It is filled with people who believe in magic. It is filled with people who never stop giving the best pieces of themselves to other people who in turn, do the same.
I'm not a literary genius. I'm not a creative genius. I'm just not a genius, but that's OK. I haven't been picked out of the slush pile for having written a mindblowing query letter (yet ;)), I really don't like blogging (....yerp), and Twitter gives me anxiety.
So, what am I going to do to succeed in selling my art?
I'm going to be a dirty shirt. The kind of dirty shirt that's someone's favourite, and will keep someone in need warm and dry. I'm going to provide value as regularly as I can. I'm going to be honest with myself (and everyone else) about my art and what I'm hoping to achieve. Most importantly, I'm going to keep writing. I'm not going to stop learning, and I'm not going to give up hope.
I implore anyone who has questions about any of these topics, to reach out. If you have questions about websites (I made this one), Wattpad, Twitter, blogging, anything... don't be shy about being in touch. If I can help, I will.
To everyone else who has done the same for me: Thank you. You who have supported and expected nothing in return, are the reason I've been able to get as far as I am today. Thank you to all the people whose toes I've stepped on as I tromp through this brand new world and learn my P's and Q's (the arts are different than non profits, which are different than venture backed tech startups... who knew?!); and Thank you to all the people who have asked ME for help because it's through you that I can take what I've learned (even though it's still not that much) and give back.
The writer's world is on my side, and I'm eternally thankful for it. The members of this ecosystem channel their passion and they've demonstrated, time and time again, that they're not willing to give up on writers. So why, as a writer, would I ever stop learning and trying? Why would you?
The answer is simple: I won't stop. Because I too, believe in the magic of words. This infinite world of writing doesn't seem willing to give up on my ability to create magic, and that's beautiful.