Paying Dues

In the year 2000, I wrote my first novel. (This means that this year I’m hitting ten years exactly. Some of you may know that I’ve been saying for years I was going to give the trying to be published game ten years of my life. I’m not prepared to write that post today, though. Stay tuned.)

So ten years ago. First novel.

When I finished it I sort-of revised it and sent it to the Delacorte contest for a first young adult novel. And I got a form rejection–the first of many. This is not surprising, because while that first novel is not as bad as it could have been, it’s certainly not very good.

I knew that, at the time. But sending the book out was something I needed to do. If I was going to be serious about writing, I felt a need to keep my head in the game–to put myself out there and take the rejection.

I was honestly excited to receive my first rejection letter, because it meant I was beginning a journey. I figured there were years more rejections to come. I was paying my dues.

I still believe that was a good decision, as the practice taught me how to shrug off rejection rather than be crushed by it. (This staved off pain until 2009. Oh 2009. You were not my friend. Let’s just go our separate ways, okay?)

I told this story a while ago, and a friend of mine who has not been accumulating rejection for the last ten years looked worried. “I don’t think you have to pay dues,” she said. (I’m paraphrasing here.)

And I told her the truth: I really think you do.

But then I started to think about what I meant by that. Did I mean that I thought it impossible to get published without spending ten years getting rejected? This is certainly untrue: it’s a touchy fact with me that a great many of the recently published authors I know were not writing ten years ago when I started. (Every time I hear people talking about the long four years, or long six years that they worked for this, I want to cry. It doesn’t make me jealous; I’m happy for my friends. But it does feed the self-doubt voices in my head.)

Back to dues paying. I don’t believe that writing a publishable novel is something that just happens to people one day. There has to be some degree of dues paying, but the key here I think is to remember who you’re paying those dues to. The reason I haven’t been published in those ten years is not chance. It’s not bad luck. It’s not the impossibility of the industry. It’s me. I have not yet succeeded in writing a publishable novel. I’m still learning core things like structure. (Oh, structure. You are my nemesis.) My learning process has been trial and error. It’s been a good learning process. It’s getting me where I need to be. Slowly.

But that doesn’t mean that everyone needs to pay those dues to themselves the way that I do. I know writers who have come to fiction writing from all angles. Some wrote professionally in other fields, and were able to transfer over some of their skills from those areas. All that professional writing might not have given them the instant ability to write a novel, but it was certainly a form of dues paying, a form of practice.

I have friends who worked for years on a single novel, pushing at it until they got it right. For some of them, this was an effective way to hone their skills. (It comes with the danger of getting stuck in that novel forever, but that danger is not an inevitability.)

I know writers who hid their writing in their first years, incubating themselves before sending their work out into the world.

Some writers worked in publishing in one form or another, some wrote short stories before moving into novels, some wrote blogs. These are all ways of skill-honing, of dues paying, of learning the craft.

And of course I know other writers like me, who wrote a pile of novels, sent them everywhere, got rejected lots and lots. Some of these writers are now impossibly successful. So are some of the writers from all of these other backgrounds.

There are many paths to the same goal. I am happy with mine. I still think I made the right choice, but that doesn’t mean that my way of learning is the only way.

And if I believe that my choice was right for me, I have to be happy with the place it’s brought me. Frighteningly near ten years later. Holding my breath to see what will happen. Hoping 2010 will be different from 2009.