Confidence and Myths of the Writing Profession

I’ll never be an Olympic gymnast, but watching these young athletes spin and flip through the air only solidifies in my mind my utter lack of agility. This doesn’t happen to me when reading other authors. Instead of intimidation, I feel relief, a boost in confidence. I can’t help saying to myself, Dang, if this can get published, I know I sure can! The intimidating thing is never the reality, but what I imagine the competition is. Which is why, sometimes, a good imagination can be a bad thing. Like when you’re an aspiring writer perusing your local Barnes & Nobles’ New Science-Fiction and Fantasy section. The number of titles may as well be endless and the beautiful cover designs (with some books of up to 900+ pages) can be intimidating. Based purely on the illustrations, my mind conjures bits and pieces of brilliantly realized worlds and utterly fantastic stories, and the overflowing praise on the back flap doesn’t help matters.

My biggest anxiety, however, is not that I can’t or don’t measure up, but that the literary world is quite simply saturated. Where does my book fit on the shelf? Who has time for one more fantasy adventure? Our society is currently suffering from information pollution and I am not helping the situation with my fiction. I’d wager there are enough decent books to satisfy an avid reader for a lifetime. Quite frankly, we may not need any new publications. My only saving grace is knowing that in most cases, the story is rarely as good as its artwork, and the praise is completely overblown. The snake oil salesmen of the modern age are book critics. How often does a book come out that you truly can’t put down? And is that even a good thing? You’ll never see a movie trailer claim to be so entertaining that you can’t look away. It’s gotten to the point where true masterpieces like Frank Herbert’s Dune or Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles need new monikers to set them apart like grand masterpiece or supreme masterpiece. But I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before your read-it-and-forget-it novel goes under the heading of grand masterpiece too, which makes me wonder what reissues of books like Dune will say in the future, super-duper-ultimate masterpiece? Point is, there’s a scarcity of great books in the world, or if many exist, they’re buried beneath the dreck. The reality makes the bajillions of new books seem less intimidating.

Imagination can also hamper confidence with the many ridiculous (and imaginative) misconceptions and misrepresentations about writing and writers. Hollywood would have us believe five year old prodigies can write operas or that masterpieces can be knocked out in one sitting. Even experienced writers get taken in by these myths, such as Conan creator Robert Howard, who insisted each of his works were completed in one draft during sweat-drenched nights of terror (research has found numerous drafts). And who remembers D.O.A. (Dead on Arrival) a story about a piece of fiction so incredible, people are murdering each other just to get their hands on it? What’s really frustrating is that, even if you don’t believe the myths, other people do, so if you’re not writing like Shakespeare by age five you’re just not cut out for the job (see: my Dad). When I tell people I’m a writer, they either treat me like a genius or like some delusional hack (which is why I usually don’t tell people). They simply can’t conceive of a person who just works really hard everyday at getting better.

I am always annoyed when people ask me, “So, did you get your book published yet?” It’s like asking me if I took out the garbage. Honestly, most people have no clue how daunting the task is. Or worse, they think it’s like winning the lottery, all luck and no hard work. Worse still, if you don’t get published right away, it automatically means you are hack and will always be one. That’s the misconception everyone has, that there’s some guy in some lofty literary tower somewhere, some wizard of words, reading every submission from cover to cover. The truth is, neither publisher nor agent is in the business of achieving or even understanding literary excellence, that’s our job. They’re just salesmen. Their job is to facilitate the sale of books. Typically, the primary deciding factor is whether your book looks like another book which sold well, which might explain the half dozen or so hooded rogues brooding on covers these days. Whether a book is good in some grand artistic sense is irrelevant. For this reason, writers are often at odds with the business side of things. Herman Melville’s Moby Dick was a financial failure, but what writer wouldn’t want to have written that book, one as immortalized as Melville’s? Often times, great books see a lot of rejection, like Dune, which was turned down 11 times. Question is, did anyone bother reading it before throwing it in the trash? Was it rejected on the basis of Herbert’s query letter or did someone actually read through it and say no thanks? Nobody probably knows, but I imagine Dune was way over the heads of most editors. Cinnamon like drugs that make you see into the future? Giant worms the size of skyscrapers? NO THANKS!  

At thirty-seven years, I’ve become aware of the realities of the publishing world, and that only helps to boost my confidence. Ages of Aenya doesn’t have to measure up to Melville or Tolkien, or anybody for that matter. People just have to like it. I am certain a segment of the Fantasy/Sci-Fi crowd will no doubt hate it, based on their own misconceptions, and I’m prepared to ignore them. Only the fans matter, and if the fans I have represent a sample size of the reading public, then it’s just a matter of time before Ages of Aenya is sitting pretty on a shelf with other titles with great covers, making young aspiring writers everywhere feel anxious.

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