[Wrap-up 2013] Post-mortem on a decade of writing and submitting

I submitted my first story on or about December 20th, 2003. That means that today marks the end of a full decade of writing and submitting! Probably the easiest way to sum it up is to just give you the numbers:

Screen Shot 2013-12-19 at 9.52.32 PM

These numbers are clipped straight from my Excel spreadsheet, so there are some disclaimers. The numbers for 2013 are only for the year to date, of course. I only started tracking daily reading time and writing time in the middle of 2012, so the numbers for that year don’t cover the full year. The rows that say “120”, “240”, etc refer to the number of days in which I wrote for at least that number of minutes.

I wish I could write a really cheery decades-end post about this, but I just can’t. It wouldn’t be honest. You know, every time I read on someone’s blog that they’ve turned 30, the post is always, like, “Yepperee, I feel great about this!” But sometimes you reach the end of a decade, and you don’t feel great about it. On a day-to-day level, I generally feel pretty happy. And I enjoy writing, it’s my passion and my vocation and what gives my life meaning, etc, etc.

But when I think about my writing career, I do not feel good. Until now, at the end of every year, I’ve always thought, “Wow, I did a lot of work this year. And since these stories (or this novel) are gonna hit the slush piles next year, then it’s totally possible that next year will be the year that I really take off!”

But that’s never happened. At best, I’ve only ever had incremental progress over the year. The only story of mine that even came close to breaking loose was “What Everyone Remembers,” and I sold that two years ago (almost to the day). My career (such as it is) peaked two years ago. Since then I’ve actually gone backwards. Something’s wrong, but I have no idea what it is. I’ve produced some of my best and most interesting work–stuff that’s much better than what I’ve sold–in the last two years. And it’s all been rejected. It’s not the fault of editors. No one owes me a publication. But, at the same time, a person who’s put in as much time as me should be having more success than I am. If I was someone else, and I looked at the stats above, I’d wonder what that person was doing wrong.* Most writers don’t get rejected as much as I do when they’re at this stage of their career.

With regards to myself, I don’t know. The only thing that occurs to me is that I’m too productive and don’t revise enough. But, if anything, I revise much, much more than I did two years ago. It’s not out of the ordinary for me to go through ten drafts of a story.

I don’t know. I just don’t know. In my opinion, the stories I am writing are much better than what gets published in the magazines. But the results speak for themselves. If you send out your stories again and again and again and people don’t respond to them, then the problem isn’t with them, it’s with you.

It’s a very strange feeling, to write a story that makes you so happy and to know that it’s better than anything you’ve ever published…and to look it over and then force yourself to accept that no one is ever going to read this story, because the thing that you see is something that’s not apparent to anyone else…

You’re not supposed to admit that you feel that way. It’s pathetic. Because that’s the delusional thinking of a newbie writer. I felt that the very first story I ever wrote (back in 2003) was a magnificent achievement that was destined to sell to a big magazine and win awards. Now I can’t bear to read it. And whenever I talk about my failures to any of my writer friends, I can always hear them thinking, “Oh, well, I guess you’ll have to try harder. The story probably isn’t that good.”

But I can’t help it. Because the story is that good. Oh, it’s not Tolstoy. But it’s good enough to be published in a big magazine. I know it is, because I know the difference between good and bad. I can accept that editors don’t see it that way….and I know that just means I’ll need to be better: my stories need to be so good that they teach people to recognize the good that is in them. But it still sucks. A person’s aesthetic faculty is what they use to write stories. If my aesthetic faculties are this out of line with the general tastes, then it’s going to be a hard road ahead.

Despite it all, I still believe, deep in my heart, that next year will be the year when I take off. But, at the same time, I keep telling myself, “No. That’s a stupid belief. It’s exactly what you believed in all those other years. You just need to accept that that’s not going to happen.” 

Anyway, this is not some kind of “I’m on the verge of quitting writing” post. I’m going to keep writing. But this is definitely one of the dark times.

*Note: If you chime in with some smarmy suggestion about what I could be doing wrong, it will make me so incredibly angry that it will seriously damage any friendship we might have.

9 thoughts on “[Wrap-up 2013] Post-mortem on a decade of writing and submitting

  1. debs

    oh rats! I’ve just managed to delete my comment. How did I do that?

    I think I’ve said this before. But I don’t that you don’t appreciate the spectrum of writers’ experience. Some writers get rejected a lot and others don’t. Getting invited to anthologies seems like a smart thing to do, but I’ve hardly ever managed that. I’ve got 30 pro sales in my purse. I get rejected as much or more than you. I know other writers who are the same.

    Is it discouraging? Well, sometimes. If I could up my sell rate, I would. ‘Course I would. But believing that your sell rate is not comparable to other writers is just not correct.

    1. R. H. Kanakia

      I’ve asked around on Codex and gotten some rejection tallies that would seem to indicate that you’re wrong and that I (and perhaps you) are abnormal outliers.

  2. Morlock Publishing (@MorlockP)

    “Variance.”

    Take a coin, flip it four times. 3 heads, 1 tail.

    Now do another run of four flips. 1 head, 3 tails.

    Has your “success” rate fallen?

    Yes. Catastrophically.

    …but your “measurements” are measuring two things: underlying reality (the weighting of the coin / your skill as a writer) and a second thing: random luck in the universe.

    Your sample sizes are far too small to be effective at revealing much about how good you actually are as a writer.

    In the fields of physics, public health, etc., people think about this a lot, and they quantify just how effective their measurements are at finding the truth beneath. If you’d run this writing test and saw that your success rate had fallen a bit, but the confidence ratio was only 42%, you’d be able to tell yourself the truth: “it’s not me; it’s just random fluctuation”.

    Unfortunately you’re not a statistician (nor am I), and publishing isn’t a well characterized system.

    It’s like being on a diet: if you measure yourself every ten minutes you’re really measuring the defects in the scale more than you’re measuring your progress.

    My advice (not that you asked for it): keep doing exactly what you’re doing, and discount the feedback as being far too coarse grained to be of much use.

  3. Sunday

    On one hand I think you are being too hard on yourself, but on the other I appreciate your honesty. I’m like the opposite of you productivity-wise. Last year I wrote two stories and they both sold. This year I wrote two stories and neither has sold yet. So a 100% acceptance rate for last year and a possible 0% acceptance rate for this year. That’s the thing about small sample sizes. And I really feel like I should be writing more, but I’m also happy with the work I am doing, so I am reluctant to change my work habits for fear of harming the quality of my output. But then I also kinda wonder about the ways in which a writer’s opinion of her own work could be divorced from reality.
    I think the hardest thing about being a writer is that there is no clear relationship between hard work and success. Best of luck to you in 2014!

    1. R. H. Kanakia

      Thanks. I’m glad you liked the post. I think the question is not of how productive you should be, but about how productive you need to be in order to achieve your long-term career goals.

  4. Kat

    So, I’m not going to be like “Dark times? Buck up and try yoga!” or any other fake nice-nice response, but I do want to say, genuinely and from the damn heart, that whenever I read your blog or your facebook posts about writing, I am inspired by your drive and work ethic, and I admire and respect them tremendously.

    1. R. H. Kanakia

      Thanks. That means a lot. It’s the work ethic that gets you through the dark times, in the end. I’m glad you’re reading. I definitely take note of your writing (and teaching) travails as well.

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