When I got serious about writing, I was just as focused on getting published as I was on developing my craft.
Alright, well, maybe I was more focused on getting published.
I thought that if I could get one story out there—just one—that I’d have made it. I’d be a professional. The floodgates of publication would open, and my career would take off. Goodbye, nine to five day job. Hello, sleeping in everyday, spending my mornings and afternoons in front of a word processor, making a living telling stories.
I was a college student, and I was naïve. I also had my priorities wrong (and not just about writing, either!). While I spent huge amounts of time reading and writing (good), I spent an awful lot of time trying to figure out the secret to getting published (not so good). Blame it on youthful impatience, sure. But the truth is, I spent a lot of time focusing my energy on this, when I could have been writing. When I could have been reading. When I could have been in writers’ groups, getting feedback, developing my craft. When I could have been doing the work.
Now, I know that for many writers without publishing credits, that seems like a cop-out. I know had I read someone telling me just to focus on my writing as the best way to get published, I would have dismissed it. But it’s true. It’s the only advice to give, really. Getting your work in front of editors and agents is actually relatively easy. There’s a number of good resources out there that list markets looking for unsolicited work. (I’m in horror fiction these days, so I spend a lot of time looking at the listings at DarkMarkets.com and HorrorTree.com—check those sites out.)
Putting together a good pitch letter for your short story, novella, or novel is as easy as spending some time reading the market’s guidelines online and getting some feedback from a friend on the materials you’re about to send out. Sure, there’s skill and craft involved in assembling and developing your pitch letter, outline, and manuscript format—but what counts the most is the work itself.
In 2014, I started my own small press (because why not?) called Muzzleland Press. For our first project, Spooklights, we opened up submissions to the general public. Were the pitch letter and formatting of the manuscripts sent in important to me? Absolutely. But what really mattered was whether the stories were engaging, well-written, and polished. Let me say that another way: it was very easy to get me to look at the submitted work. That wasn’t an issue for most of the writers who submitted. The story—the craft, the work mattered most. And it was very easy to tell who was serious about their writing, and who just wanted to get something published, damn the torpedoes.
So, if you’re unpublished, or in a dry spell between new credits, don’t freak out. I know there’s a drive to get your work recognized, to get some acclaim, to build your c.v.—or even to make some money from your work. I get it. We all have that drive. If we didn’t, we’d never show our work to anyone else. But, as much as it is a cliché, focusing on the work is the quickest way to get you those things. Developing your craft is the surest path to success.
I know Do the Work isn’t sexy, and it sure as hell ain’t a shortcut. But that’s the best I got for you. Keep at it.