One of the toughest questions I’m asked by aspiring writers has to do with how I got started in the business — how I got published the first time, how I got published the second time. It’s not that I don’t know the answer, it’s just that I’m not sure it’s that relevant to someone else.
The road is different for everyone, which is why it’s so important for writers (and any creative person — or actually anyone at all!) to cultivate flexibility in order to succeed. A writer unwilling to change her tactics won’t do as well as one who will. Remember, the path to success (whatever success means to you) is different for everyone. If you talk to five writers who have been published, you’ll hear five different stories about how they got their foot in the door and convinced a publisher to take on their first story or article or book.
If there’s no one way to get where you want to go, then you need to be willing to try alternate routes. If one approach isn’t working for you, it doesn’t mean you have to abandon all hopes for writing success. Maybe you just need to try a different approach. If you’ve been sending out five query letters a week for the last two years with no nibbles, maybe you should try going to writers’ conferences to meet editors and agents and learn their needs. Maybe you need to take a writing class at a nearby college. Maybe you should find out if Erica Jong needs an apprentice.
Being flexible pays off in ways you may not expect. When I was very young, I knew I wanted to be a writer. I also knew that I wanted to be a novelist. I wrote my first novel when I was eleven. But no one wanted to publish my fiction. I kept trying, although by the time I was in my mid-twenties, I was trying less hard. But when I began training in martial arts, I began looking at my writing differently. I saw that I could be more flexible. Sure, I had always wanted to be a novelist. But was that the only way to be a writer? I decided that more than anything I wanted to be a writer. It didn’t matter what kind.
I investigated a little further and learned that it’s easier to get non-fiction published than it is to get fiction published. So I wrote a proposal about a book on country music (which I love). I found a publisher within two months. Next, I wondered what else I could write about. I realized that I loved martial arts, and that most martial arts writing was . . . err . . . terrible. Surely someone would snap up martial arts writing by a person who could string together an entire paragraph without making six grammatical errors? So I proposed an encyclopedia of martial arts. Again, the proposal sold within two months. I was on my way.
Little did I know that I would end up the Queen of Martial Arts writing. It wasn’t quite where I intended to go when I started out, but it combined two of my passions in one career. Had I insisted on writing only novels, I would probably still be unpublished today, teaching classes at the local community college instead of pursuing the career I’ve always dreamed of having.
Even better, having established a non-fiction career, I have found it easier to publish my fiction and essays. I have more confidence in myself as a writer, and I know enough about the business not to take rejection and negative feedback personally. Some of the contacts I’ve made as a non-fiction writer have served me well as I work toward developing a fiction career.
Here’s an exercise I like to do every now and then:
Ask yourself what preconceptions you have about writing, being a writer, and living the writing life. Are any of these preconceptions getting in the way of your success? Can you be more flexible in your definition of writing, being a writer, and living the writing life? If you’re a poet, can you write magazine articles to supplement your addiction? I once spent a summer writing greeting card sentiments so I could spend an autumn writing a dark, terribly moving novel that no one wanted to publish. I’m proud of both projects. If you feel that writing brochures for the travel agency down the street would be selling out, ask yourself how working as a claims adjuster for the insurance agency is not selling out. We often worry about keeping our writing “pure,” when if we would look at it from another angle, we would see that we’re limiting our chances for success.