I’m well aware of the ridiculous odds against creative writers making a living from their art. Therefore, I judge prospective clients on their ability to contend with relentless pressure. As an agent, I hope I can help ease the stress, but I can’t compensate for an aspiring author who isn’t driven beyond logic to succeed. By driven, I mean insatiably curious about how to be a better writer, how to connect with readers, how to market written work. I mean highly motivated to learn, create, and compete. I don’t mean inspired by a sense of superiority.
It’s easy to confuse desire with drive, because they can evoke the same emotions in people. The difference is that desire can flourish as pure fantasy, while drive pursues measurable progress.
Aspiring book authors might be surprised to learn how obvious their lack of drive is to those working in the publishing industry. We all tend to see these symptoms as evidence that drive—drive that leads to action—is missing:
Expectations of effortless entitlement or instant gratification
Dishonesty, and its offspring:
Blaming others for one’s own failure to make progress (not to be confused with taking a stand against unfair, systemic discrimination)
Lack of technical skills required for editing, messaging, and online networking
Most of us give novice writers the benefit of the doubt, once, because inexperience can look a lot like the absence of drive instead of a simple lack of knowledge. However, when it’s necessary to point out a writer’s professional shortcomings, then we expect a person who is sufficiently driven to follow up by remedying the problems, by taking action.
The funny thing (which creates an opportunity for aspiring authors who are driven) is that almost no writers make effective use of the advice they’re given. In other words, by far the majority of aspiring authors drop out of the running when faced with work they don’t want to do. That’s good news for writers who are on a mission, because it eliminates most of their competition. It’s also bad news for writers who are on a mission, because rivals who put in even more effort and time can gain an advantage over them.
Maybe you have a better word for it. What does an absence of drive look like to you?
Casual conversations often give me ideas for listicles that might be helpful to creative writers who are trying to get their work published.* Along came the topic of dying, and I realized that I didn’t know of many publications specializing in literary works and straightforward personal essays about the end of life.
In poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction, deaths are plentiful. Meditations on the end of life are published in all variety of media. Crime fiction, which often revolves around death, has its own imprints. Narrowing down to publications devoted significantly or entirely to the subject of dying, however, was an interesting challenge. The following publications that include creative writing seem to meet the criterion.
I’ll continue to update this list whenever I can. Please leave a comment if you know of a relevant niche publication I haven’t mentioned—or even if you want to link to a favorite book, poem, or short story on the subject of death. Of course, death is a common topic in literature and many wide-ranging publications occasionally include creative writing focused on the end of life. There’s no need to limit submissions to only these listings.
Why are so many aspiring authors reluctant to ask questions about what they want to know? It would be comical—like a hopelessly lost motorist refusing to ask for directions—if it weren’t actually sad. Generous, knowledgeable people are offering assistance online. Almost nothing about the process of creative writing and book publishing hasn’t been revealed somewhere by someone. The information is there for the taking. For free.
I’ve posted just about every piece of advice I could think of on this blog over the years. Much of it addressed questions that were posed to me offline. I enjoy gathering the information so I can share it, but the longer I do this, the fewer unanswered questions remain.
Today, I’ll simply offer an observation for your consideration. I communicate with hundreds of aspiring authors each year, and by far the majority seem to have no clue how many personal qualities they must possess and how many professional skills they need to master in order to become successful enough to make their living as creative writers.
Granted, the necessary skills take lots of time and effort to ace, but the sooner you begin learning, the sooner you’ll acquire the expertise. I shouldn’t feel sorry for those who are going around in circles in order to avoid whatever it is they don’t want to do.
Where to start
In these fairly comprehensive lists, identify the unfamiliar concepts or the skills and strategies that you know you haven’t picked up. Then get busy learning in 2016. No excuses.
If you still can’t pinpoint your manuscript’s weaknesses, then you can obtain a professional evaluation. The capacity and willingness to learn are two of the personal qualities you’re going to need to succeed.
For the past several decades we’ve been teaching children that doing their best is all we expect of them. What happens when a child who has received and internalized this message grows up with the dream of being a book author and confronts the reality that his or her best isn’t the stuff of a career, or even a brief moment of notoriety?
Well, for one thing, a throng of entrepreneurs pitching services and wares to creative writers are happy to assume the voice of nurturing parents by insisting that persistence and inspiration will make anyone into a successful writer. By defining success as trying one’s best, I suppose they’re equivocally correct.
It also might be argued that boosting a writer’s self-esteem, giving the person hope, or telling the eternal optimists only what they want to hear indeed are valuable services. What writer wants to pay to be told that he or she still has a lot to learn? Or to put it another way, an unscrupulous company will find it much easier to sell an illusion. Evidence that aspiring authors are being misled comes to me in the form of query letters from writers who describe the same unimproved manuscripts year after year.
Over on Jane Friedman’s blog, freelance editor Rebecca Faith Heyman reports honestly that “difficult-to-agent books often have significant problems.” The completed manuscripts may be the results of writers’ best efforts, but that alone doesn’t make them good enough. Fortunately, educational resources, very often free of charge, are available to writers who are capable of recognizing their own shortcomings and willing to work to improve their chances of success. The public library loans excellent reference books, and my blogroll is another place to begin the search.
I’m so grateful to Susan Cain, Elaine Aron, and Brené Brown for popularizing the perception that sensitive, quiet, questioning, imperfect introverts often are contented people with ways of experiencing the world that can be valuable to others. These brilliant women have discredited our society’s tendency to label as a misfit anyone who isn’t bold, gregarious, charismatic, and extroverted.
Writers, photographers, and other creative professionals who work alone do not only show me the way, they teach me how to see what I might otherwise overlook and how to understand what isn’t immediately clear. They reinforce the notions that the solitude I crave enables me to find the splendor in my surroundings, that sensitivity allows me to listen wholeheartedly, and that silence makes me receptive to a deeper awareness. By serving as role models and interpreters, they grant me, and others like me, permission to resist the pressure to conform. They’re the gentle inspiration we need.
On Delicious, I continue adding to my lengthy list of all types of publications that include creative writing in their pages. The list is a good resource for writers who would like to accumulate publication credits. The last time I counted, it included more than 4,000 sites. Most writers are aware of relatively few of them, just as they’re unmindful of how many creative writers are competing to be published. It seems to me this is the hidden source of immense frustration: an unrealistic or uninformed perspective, easily rectified.
I appreciate the fact that technology has permitted writers to connect directly with readers without first obtaining the approval of literary tastemakers. The big picture (which I should refer to as the market), inclusive of all readers, is far beyond the scope of what interests me personally. Occasionally, I encounter a writer whose work is likely to meet with commercial success, although it isn’t work I would want to endorse. When it comes to selecting writers to represent, my criteria are miles apart from other literary agents.
Naturally then, the literary publications I find appealing will amount to a tiny subset of what’s available. More than ever, there’s something out there for everyone—readers and writers. To each his own.
Many writers hope to earn enough by being published so that someday they can give up their day jobs and the wretched “normal” existence that has inspired so much of their material. Never mind that writing full time might tend to insulate creative writers from the rest of the people in the world who aren’t creative writers, which can result in stories whose supposed realism seems to be based on television crime dramas or whose narrative tension is built entirely from a kind of introspection that denies, or is oblivious to, the universality of human experience.