You don’t want to be published.
And, yes, I know you disagree. You’re an aspiring writer. You’ve worked hard at your craft. You’ve been getting rejection letter after rejection letter since you started sending your work out. All you want, more than anything in the world, is to get published. It’s the focus of everything you’re doing.
But the truth is, you’re wrong. You don’t want to be published; you’re just using those words as a short-hand for a goal that you aren’t willing or able to articulate yet.
I work in a writer’s centre four days out of every five. My job is literally answering the questions new writers ask about how to get published. I’ve done it on the phone, in seminars, in person, and via magazine articles. Now I’m doing it here, and I’m sharing the one truth I’ve learned after three years at the centre and nearly a decade of teaching creative writing classes before that.
You don’t want to be published.
HERE’S HOW I KNOW
Realistically speaking, getting published is easier now than it’s ever been. You want to get published? Go to wordpress.com. Fire up a new, free blog. Post your work to the internet. Boom. You’re published. Go to the pub and get a celebratory beer.
Now, if you’re like most people, your first response to that scenario is is yeah, but…, and it’s the things that follow that but that really identify what you really want.
Yeah, but…I’d like to make money out of my writing.
Yeah, but…how do I get the readers I’d need to make it worthwhile.
Yeah, but…I don’t want to put in the effort of building up a blog.
Yeah, but…well, insert your favourite excuse here.
People mistake getting published for their goal, when really it’s just one step towards the thing they’re really after when they started writing. We just use getting published as an goal because it sounds so much cleaner, and it seems achievable.
One of the big problems with seeing the world in those terms is the way it opens people up to making mistakes, from the costly (like working with a vanity publisher or one of the scams we’re routinely warned about on Writer Beware) to the irritating (giving work away “for exposure” thinking it’ll build their career, or going with a small press and expecting it to have the reach of a big five publisher).
The other problem – and this is somewhat more drastic – is that lying to yourself about what you really want can actually take the fun out of publishing. You invest so much in the first thing you have out, and it ends up feeling a little…well, empty. It didn’t make you famous. It didn’t attract thousands upon thousands of adoring readers. It didn’t even earn you all that much money.
That’s no big deal if you’re only taking the first step on a path, but it can be crushing if you’ve let yourself think that your first published work is the end of the road.
Don’t be that writer.
Few people put much thought into what they want from writing – generally, writers are pretty reactive bunch, simply doing whatever comes next – so figuring out what you really want from this gig can go a long way towards keeping yourself motivated on the weeks when writing is kicking your ass.
SO, WHAT DO YOU REALLY WANT WHEN YOU SAY “TO GET PUBLISHED”?
Figuring that out is the trick.
In Why I Write George Orwell put forth the argument that there are four impulses behind the desire to write and be read: sheer egotism; aesthetic enthusiasm; historical impulse; and political purpose. The proportions may be different in each individual writer, but all four elements are there.
I’m not entirely sure we want to get published for the same reasons, but spend enough time talking to an aspiring writer, and you can usually dig out some common themes:
ONE: I WANT A CAREER
The most common reason people want to get published is the desire to have a writing career or walk away from a day job (note: these are two different things). The how of this is rarely thought through: people are so ill-informed about the realities of writing that they either assume all writers are making Harry Potter money or that having a writing career is impossible ’cause no-one pays for writing.
In either case, the theory seems to be: publish one book and quit my job
Truthfully, these folks are usually the easiest to give advice too. You can educate them about the realities of the publishing business. You can point them towards all sorts of writers who make their career as a living and resources for improving their craft. And when it comes to the I want to get published statement, you can give them a goal to work towards: Five books.
I got this number after reading Donald Maass Writing the Breakout Novel a few years ago, after hearing it referenced by Karen Miller at a conference. Maass refers to five books as the time it takes to build an audience in the traditional publishing arena; it’s the point where you can be confident that there are people who are interested in what the author is doing and willing to show up, regularly, when new works are published.
Five books. Five fucking books. That’s when Maass believes you’ve got a decent shot of making writing a career.
TWO: I WANT AN AUDIENCE
The second-most common goal hiding behind I want to be published tends to be the desire for an audience. Particularly in the non-fiction and memoir crowds, and the my fiction will change the world types, there is an enormous hunger to tell stories and have them heard by a mass audience. Some want it ’cause they believe they’ve written something that will legitimately help the world; some just want to be the literary equivalent of a rock star.There’s a reason Orwell put Sheer Egoism at the beginning of his list of writers motivations, and it’s hard to argue with the space he devotes to the concept.
These people also get the five books advice mentioned above, plus all sorts of advice about author platform and engaging with an audience. Ironically, many of them probably should fire up a blog and start posting regularly, but there aren’t that many that are willing to work to earn their audience (getting published, in some of these instances, is short-hand for a cheat code that will make me instantly famous).
THREE: I WANT FAST MONEY
There are people who legitimately believe that getting published is the path to getting rich quick. It’s easy to laugh at them, if you know the realities of the publishing industry, but take into account the examples they’ve been given: writers usually only get talked about they’re outliers like Stephen King, Stephanie Meyer, or JK Rowlings.
The two writers who immediately leap to mind from film or TV include Rick Castle from Castle – a veritable rock-star author worth millions – or Carrie Bradshaw from Sex in the City who…well, survives in New York despite writing a single column in a moderately haphazard fashion.
We do not have realistic examples of how writers make money. In fact, the entire process seems shrouded in mystery until you really start looking at the ways full-time writers keep their head above water.
FOUR: I WANT THE LIFESTYLE
What lifestyle? It changes from person to person, but there’s definitely a streak of people who see aspects of the writer’s job that they think they’d enjoy. From the people who want something they can do while travelling, to those who just enjoy the prospect of working for themselves and “being creative,” people entertain ideas about the realities of the freelance writer’s life that range from the profoundly accurate to the bewilderingly wrong.
This also manifests in people who write specifically to engage with a particular community as a practitioner (See, for example, my recent attempts to try and write romance).
FIVE: I REALLY DO JUST WANT TO PUBLISH THIS ONE THING, THEN GO AWAY
A relative minority of people really do just want to publish the one thing they’ve written, then go back to their ordinary lives. They may still have concerns about the size of their audience or the money they earn, but ultimately they’re just looking for the best deal they can get for their one thing, rather than talking through the various options available.
SO WHAT’S YOUR MOTIVATION?
The five examples above cover a lot of ground, but they’re only really offering the broadest of strokes. Figuring out what’s really going on in your head is a highly personal thing, a refinement of those broad strokes. There’s rarely a single clear-cut reason writers want to be writers, but there are often layers where one thing is more important than the other. Me, I’m a massive egotist with a healthy side-order of mercenary impulses. I want the audience, and I want a long-term career.
And yet, within this spectrum, one of the most powerful realizations I ever had about what I really wanted came from an off-hand comment in a review, which references my short-fiction popping up everywhere that year. The frisson of recognition when I read through that was eye-opening – being thought of as prolific brought me a kind of satisfaction, far more so than any of the individual publications did on their own. It immediately coloured my long-term thinking and shifted my approach to new work.
So how about you? What do you really mean when you say “I want to be published?” What do you want to get out of writing that being published will get you closer to?