Why you shouldn’t necessarily take advice from people who are very good at what they do.

SubmissionsOn a writing forum that I browse, an up-and-coming science fiction writer with a number of good sales to his name wrote that a majority of the stories he completes never go out for submission because they don’t meet his personal standards of quality and that, furthermore, there are only about 5 or 6 short story markets that he submits to, since very few short story markets have a significant readership. If a story is rejected by those markets, he pulls it and stops submitting it.

It’s hard to argue with his results. Although he’s sold few stories in absolute terms, he’s sold some huge fraction of the stories that he’s chosen to submit. And the stories that he’s sold have gotten a significant amount of notice.

Nevertheless, I strongly disagree with his methods. I mean, it hasn’t hurt him, because he’s good writer, but I don’t see how it’s helped him, either. It seems to have two problems with it: a) What if you’re wrong? Maybe some of those unsubmitted stories are actually good? What if someone of those overlooked markets actually have a respectable readership? and b) this seems like a lot of unnecessary angst.

I think this is particularly a waste of time when you’re not a good writer. Why worry about whether this story is good enough to submit when the real answer is that none of your stories are actually worth submitting? Why worry about whether this market is “worth” more than that market when the answer is that no worthwhile market is going to take anything that you write?

For most aspiring writers, that is the reality. You’re just not good enough yet. No idea, no story, is going to sell, because your sentences don’t look and sound professional. When people read your writing, there’s just this fatty quality to it that instantly dooms it. Some people can sense this about their writing, and they despair over whether they’ll ever get better. And some people can’t sense it, and they blithely write on, always thinking that the next story is going to be their big break.

Personally, I spent a really long time in those trenches. I wrote 60 stories before selling to a pro market. Even after that, I wrote another 60 stories before I started selling semi-regularly. And when I did start selling, it was all very strange. Even now, I’m never sure which stories will sell and which ones won’t. If I only submitted half the stories that I wrote, then some of the ones I’ve sold would be in the bottom half.

I think of submitting as being about developing the habit of continuing on, despite adverse reactions. Sometimes, when you don’t believe in yourself, when nothing is selling, when you’re not getting a positive notice from any quarter, the only thing that’s left to you is habit. Even if you don’t believe in yourself, the habit of writing and the habit of submitting can carry you through to a better place.

I won’t say that the following is true of the person I am talking about, since I know nothing about his life or his path to publication, but I will say that I’ve noticed that people who achieve success with relatively little struggle (usually due to their own native talent, energy, and intelligence), tend to be a little bit less resilient than those who have to work harder for it. I have a lot of theories on why this might be. Sometimes I think it’s because people don’t place as much value on something that they don’t have to work hard for. I’ve sunk so much time and energy into writing that I’m just unable, psychologically, to walk away from that investment. For someone who’s put less effort into it (while still achieving similar results), quitting might be easier. And they could also (perhaps rightly) think that their talents will let them achieve similar results in other fields with a similarly small expenditure of energy (whereas I simply don’t have enough time left in my youth to work as hard at something else as I’ve worked at writing).

But I also think that more-talented people might not have built up as much of an ability to cope with rejection and despair and the apathy of the world. If you never had that five or six or seven years when you literally couldn’t even give away your writing, then you might not know how to persevere when the downturn hits (as it inevitably will).

When you second-guess yourself during the submissions process, you rob yourself of a bulwark against fallow periods. You increase the chances that, instead of persevering, you will spiral down into self-doubt. There are times, in life, when you need to write or submit stuff that you know is bad. Either because you might be wrong about it being bad or because writing the bad stuff is a necessary precursor to getting better.

This is yet another reason why it’s sometimes not the best idea to take advice from very talented people. Sometimes they can succeed despite very non-optimal tactics. For instance, I don’t think it’s a good management tactic to be a huge jerk to everyone who works for you. Nevertheless, because a design genius like Steve Jobs was able to succeed despite being a huge jerk, I’m pretty sure that Silicon Valley is now full of people who think that being horrible to your employees is one of the keys to success.

3 thoughts on “Why you shouldn’t necessarily take advice from people who are very good at what they do.

  1. debs

    Submission fear/ennui is a great barrier to publication. Many’s the writer I’ve met in person who doesn’t sub to the pro press because it ‘isn’t worth it.’

    One of the most intriguing and annoying aspects of the writing game is my inability to predict what’s going to sell. And I’m no subbing novice. Submit like a machine, devoid of emotions is a useful strategy, for me at least.

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