Monday, February 4, 2013

NINJA STUFF: Why We Write (Part One)

Esteemed Reader, I could tell you no small number of horror stories relayed to me by my many writer friends over the years. Stories of unsold, unread books, unfair shakes, and of writers toiling in obscurity to an early pauper's grave after a life during which the sun never shone and babies never laughed:)
Not every writer who dreams of being published will be, and certainly not everyone who wants to be a widely read writer will be. If you doubt it, let me refer you once again to Peggy's Tierney's straight-shooting interview. If you don't remember the quote, here it is again: 
If you are wondering why it is so hard to get published, the answer is in the numbers. Even a tiny publishing company like Tanglewood gets, literally, THOUSANDS of manuscripts a year. I have an acquisition editor just to deal with them. Out of those thousands that she reads, she passes on to me maybe forty to fifty manuscripts. Out of those forty or fifty, I maybe pick one or two.  
It’s not over. Even if it is published, it is competing with thousands of other books published, many by established authors -- authors who already have a name readers are looking for. There are only maybe 200 slots for new children’s books in a particular format for any one season and 5000 books that publishers are pushing to fill one of those slots. Did I mention that it’s a tough and competitive business? Yes, it is.  
I want to be Han Solo (who doesn't?). I want to say "Never tell me the odds!" and pilot the Millennium Falcon into the asteroid field and to heck with the consequences, let the chips fall where they may. But those are long odds, even for the most optimistic of writers. 

Now don't you get me wrong, Esteemed Reader. I've talked with Peggy and I know she's no negativist--quite the opposite. She's combing those manuscripts because she wants to find the next Ashfall and create another literary super-star like Mike Mullin. She shares those numbers with us not to discourage would-be authors, but because she was good enough to give us real-world, hard-learned practical advice. If you haven't read her full interview, make sure you don't miss it as it's incredibly useful, funny, and charming.  

Read all the editor and literary agent interviews posted here and at other sites and what you will find over and over again is sincere people who want to help writers make their dreams come true because that's their dream. Honest and for reals. I may be prone to buying some conspiracy theories, but I will never believe editors and literary agents aren't on our side. 

Yet, I know you've been discouraged, Esteemed Reader. I know you've met with disappointment and hard knocks. I know how hard you've worked to hone your craft and I know how bad it hurts you every time rejection comes, despite that tough skin you've tried so hard to grow. Rejection and heart ache are not simply risked by being a writer, they're guaranteed

And here's something to consider that really hurts: You ever read a bad book? The Ninja has read plenty (not the ones reviewed here) and in light of Peggy's quote, those bad books were published in place of an untold number of manuscripts that might've been good or at least better than the garbage that made the cut. Which begs the question: is the publishing world based entirely on a meritocracy? Surely only the best books get those few publishing slots available because that is just and good and right, right? 


And to top it all off, writing is hard. If it weren't hard, all the big mouths who talk about doing it one day would actually do it. Every morning before my 10-hour shift at my day job, I'm up at 4:30 am, hopping on the elliptical machine while my coffee brews, then I'm here in my writer's loft staring at the empty page and not leaving until it has something on it--which usually takes 2-3 hours, 1 of which is spent writing, and the other 2 of which are spent raking my fingers through my hair trying to figure out what to write. 

So why do we do it? Why, why, for God's sake, why? 

I don't for sure know why you do it, Esteemed Reader (you might be crazy), but I can tell you why I do it and why the writers I know do it. We do it because we love it and we can't not do it.
There's a ravenous hunger in me that gives me no rest until it is satisfied by crafting words on the page and by getting the stories that are too big to keep inside me outside. If Peggy had said the odds were five million to 200, or even five gajillion to 200, instead of a mere 5000 to 200, I would still write because it's what I do. It's what I'm made for and everything else I do from working my day job (at which I'm decent) to feeding and clothing myself is to enable my writing (and to have a lovely life with Mrs. Ninja). 

If I should die in a pauper's grave unpublished and unread, so be it. I will still be happy to have been a writer and I will not regret having spent my mornings creating worlds meant for readers, but loved most by me. For all the pain writing has caused me, and to be sure, there's been some, it's given me far more than it's taken. To love is to be hurt, and I love writing.

And I'll tell you a secret: the numbers don't mean a thing. Know them, then forget them. Not all manuscripts are created equal and here's how I know: I've written some bad books. I love them, of course, but they're bad--they just are. My first manuscript was a big deal to me, but editors did the right thing in rejecting it and thank goodness--how embarrassed would I be now if my first manuscript were someplace other than my shelf where it might be read by people who are not my mom?

And I sent out mass form queries to every editor whose address I could find in Writer's Market, queries addressed to "Dear Editor." And my terrible query was taking up time in an editor's day (probably not much) that could've been spent reading your better query. 

Later, I had a manuscript that was of a quality as to be considered by publishers, but still not quite there. Ultimately, it wasn't published  and again, thank goodness. The abysmal sales of that book would've wrecked the possibility of my publishing a second, better book. And again, that manuscript was clogging the system and taking up space where your better manuscript might've gone. 

And most writers competing are beginning writers. Go to a conference and get to know the unpublished writers there. Many of them will be attending for the first time. Why? Because most readers want to be writers and trying your hand at writing is a natural outgrowth of loving books. But a year or two of rejection tends to separate the real writers from the audacious amateurs. These folks stop writing and if they're still at conferences, they'll be the ones with the sour grapes stories. 

I think we can whittle the odds down considerably by remembering this. If you have the strength and the courage to weather the beginning phase of seeking publication, however long yours lasts, you become something more: competition

Check back Wednesday for Why We Write: Part Two. Same Ninja time, same Ninja channel...


  1. Great post Robert! My debut novel comes out in September and I know it's going to be so tough to get the books sold, but like you said, "We do it because we love it and we can't not do it."

  2. I write because it is much more socially acceptable to call myself a writer than to admit to all the voices in my head. Dodging a bullet on the cost of therapy. If I write what they say, they quiet down. Everyone's happy.

    Thanks for this post, MG Ninja. I loved how you crushed my hopes and then lent me a hand to pull myself out of the gutter. Here's to one day being in the competition.

    1. I hope I didn't pull you too far out of the gutter. That would be stepping on the toes of Wednesday's post:) Monday, I bum you out, Wednesday, I try to encourage.

      And yes, writing is the best form of therapy there is.

      By the way, for anyone reading these comments (join us), I'll let you in on a secret: tomorrow, we're reviewing Ghetto Cowboy by G. Neri and we'll have him here on Thursday:)

  3. I'll be writing whether or not I get published. It's what I like to do!

  4. Great post Robert. It's so true that not everyone will be published, even if you get an agent. I think persevering, having thick skin, and being realistic are essential.

  5. Excellent post! I have no plans on giving up anytime soon, despite the odds. At this point, I comfort myself by knowing that I'm way better at this writing thingamabob than I was a few years ago.


Thanks for stopping by, Esteemed Reader! And thanks for taking the time to comment. You are awesome.