13 February 2016

Good enough VS. right time, right place

I recently spent an afternoon speculating with another writer about how aspiring (and emerging) authors can properly evaluate their progress. (For the purposes of this post, writer is to author as dog is to poodle, author being a writer who creates books, primary fictional novels.)

Firstly, you question yourself abstractly as a creative and concretely in terms of presence in the world of book publishing. Is your voice fresh, interesting, and distinctive? Are you getting published? (Or posting novels for self-published authors.) Do you have readers? Are you making sales? (Read: earning money.) Has your work received favourable reviews?

Secondly, there is a major question underlying all of the above. Are you 'good enough' to justify the endeavour as a whole?  Should you be plugging away at something that takes time from your family, friends, and career when your chances of success (even broadly defined) may be remote? (Even authors who refer to their writing as a 'hobby' must make a substantial commitment to bring a book into the world. Publishing a novel is a major undertaking including writing, editing, pitching, and never-ending marketing if you're doing it properly.)

The larger question cuts to the heart of many authors in a way I don't think copywriters, journalists, bloggers, and most other forms of professional writers encounter. At least in my own experience, I don't spent time in corporate or office settings wondering if I'm any good at my job. As an author at my home computer, I wrack my brain regularly trying to objectively evaluate my fiction. I thought I would gain confidence in my fiction over time, but it hasn't worked out that way.

I have come to the conclusion that (at a certain point not clearly defined) an author needs to concede, for the purposes of simply getting on with the business of creating fiction, that she or he is 'good enough' and try to suppress future tornadoes of self-doubt.

Rejection letters and negative reviews (both necessary and valid) can have the effect of stripping away all literary achievements and positive reinforcement. It is VERY important that an author understand the function of rejections and reviews.

The reason rejection letters flow like spring runoff is that book publishers have the daunting task of branding themselves and standing out in an increasingly chaotic industry. Publishers receive books that don't fit their mandate or don't suit their editors' tastes (authors, you want your editor to LOVE your work and get invested in your success). And less frequently, publishers receive books that are poorly written or ill conceived. As the author, it can be very tricky to properly identify a truly bad book rather than one that needs editing and revision.

Negative reviews are equally vital to encourage full and lively discourse about subjective creative works. I don't have extensive experience delivering or receiving negative reviews, mostly because I don't review other authors very often and I haven't achieved enough exposure for my work to garner the full range of feedback. But I do view reviews in that light; the more exposure you receive, the broader the spectrum of opinions you'll hear about your work.

What is truly terrifying is that no matter what you hear - or don't - from publishers, editors, readers and reviewers, you will NEVER receive a conclusive answer to the question, Am I good enough?

If every author listened when a piece of negative feedback implied he or she should give up on writing fiction, we would likely have zero novels in the world. Conversely, if every author who received a compliment or proverbial thumbs up developed an iron-clad ego and rock-solid confidence in every word he or she writes, no editor would ever be able to do his or her job properly.

So is the answer simply write fiction because you love it? No, not for me. I don't believe in becoming an author solely because you love to write fiction. Yes, for many of us the drive to create characters and plots and worlds in which they unfold is somewhere between an all-consuming passion and a self-destructive compulsion. It's an endeavour that can take over many of your waking thoughts. I wouldn't run a marathon simply to say I'd done it. I wouldn't join a band just because I liked to play an instrument. To me, devoting a chunk of yourself to a pursuit must have meaning. I'm the sort of person that needs to feel that one foot in front of the other is actually taking me somewhere. The only way to turn uncertainty into accomplishment is to spend a lifetime chiseling away at the mountain. It's exhausting to think about the number of hours involved and exhilarating to imagine my future self with a long, varied career behind me.

At the end of the day, I don't understand why I do what I do. I don't expect to earn a proper full-time wage with fiction. I still expect to give up on it at some point. I know most authors fall short of their aspirations.

Over the years I've come to view my path through publishing fiction like a driver in a car with a broken fuel gauge. I'm driving down an unmarked endless highway with who-knows-how-much fuel in the tank. There could be a hole dripping fuel and I'd have no idea. Or I might run out of fuel before I get to a destination. But there's hope that I might pass a gas station. The road might lead to Shangri-La before the tank runs dry.

Writing fiction is not rational - it never has been and never will be. But you won't win the lottery if you don't buy a ticket.

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