On Monday, I brought up some thoughts inspired by 10 days spent watching the recent winter Olympics in Vancouver on TV. Here are two more lessons I culled which offer relevance and perspective for writers:
◊ Expect to earn your medals every time.
Snowboarder Lindsey Jacobellis kinda blew it in Torino. She hotdogged her way to a second place in women’s snowboard cross when she had the gold medal practically around her neck on that last slope.
Jacobellis has had to live that down for the last 4 years and went to Vancouver hoping to redeem herself. It didn’t quite happen: this year, she DQ’d in prelims and had to duke it out for 4th place, even though her odds of taking home a medal were just as certain as they had been in 2006.
I’m not judging. It’s gotta be tough to perform in such a public mainstream arena because, frankly, if you fail, everybody knows about it. Even people from the mainstream, who really don’t know the bigger score in such a specialty sport. For Jacobellis, it’s her 2009 first place ranking in World Cup ladies snowcross that folks overlook while calling attention to her failure in 2010.
Writers have it slightly better: if they fail, usually they just get rejected and no one but the writer and the prospective publisher are the wiser. Still, failure can be self-destructive. There isn’t a writer alive who has been rejected who doesn’t see “No” as evidence of failure.
But failure isn’t always what it looks like. Sometimes a good writer doesn’t fail so much as they lose to another–usually better–writer in competition for the same publishing real estate. As an editor, I’ve had to reject perfectly successful stories from good authors because other authors have already beaten them to the punch. It’s unfair and editors hate to have to send good writing away, but it happens.
The bigger, more common reality, however, is not the tragic story of the near-miss, but this: just because you have published one manuscript does not guarantee that you will publish all of your manuscripts. Every time you submit your work, you enter it into conditions which you can’t completely predict or control. Just because you may have landed your work with one publisher doesn’t mean you’re going to walk into a publishing house in the future and sign the dotted line with your next manuscript without first submitting your new work to intense scrutiny. Your next manuscript, and the one after that, and so forth, will have to earn its way and survive on its own every time.
That’s not to say there aren’t some conditions you can control: your effort to make your manuscript the best ever, your careful consideration of markets, your voice and style are things you can focus on to improve the success rate of an individual piece sent out into the world to find its place.
But there are always going to be conditions you can’t control: the competition, the amount of space available for work like yours, the practical needs of an editor that go beyond the value of a well-written manuscript. The sooner you make your peace with this reality, the better.
Lindsey Jacobellis didn’t fall out of the snowboard cross universe because she failed at the Olympics, after all. She just didn’t win that particular race in Vancouver, just as you will not publish every single manuscript you submit to that particular publication. What to do? Keep going and remember, you win some, you lose some.
◊ Sometimes you have to ski blind.
German sisters Susanne and Maria Riesch had big hopes of sharing the podium this year in alpine skiing. Maria took the gold, while Susanne ended up in a collision that cost her the chance to join her sister.
Susanne’s “failure” mirrored the “failures” of many other world-class skiers at this year’s Olympics. Deteriorating slope conditions and visibility issues were a major contributing factor for many, with luck being a larger-than-usual part of the equation. It’s risky business, skiing when you can’t see ten feet in front of you.
But anything worth doing requires an assumption of risk, and those who take the chance–though they are likely to fail big–are also likely to win big.
So it goes with writing. It’s important for writers to stretch their skill sets beyond what they know they can accomplish. Leading a successful writing life is not only about publishing every piece you’ve ever written. After doing this a while, you can find yourself in a rut on the safe path, where you risk parodying yourself. Writers who dare risk to stretch their skills also take a chance at failing big.
Chicago mystery author Sarah Paretsky ventured from her VI Warshawski series to write Ghost Country, a magical realist departure which, though it received high acclaim, did not seem to go over well with her established readers. She took a risk and lost some readers, but found others. For instance, I had not read a single of her mysteries before I read Ghost Country, and I found I really liked her street-level feminist narrative style. I’d read Paretsky again. No doubt Paretsky learned some things about herself as a writer in the bargain, things that may have improved her VI Warshawski series.
I have my own–though far more humble–experience with taking risks with my writing. I took one summer off from my writing group and wrote a weird story I couldn’t categorize (I learned later it was magical realism). I took it to my writing group in the fall; they hated it (except for the one fan of magical realism). But I blindly stuck to my guns and sent it out into the universe anyway. It became the first short story I ever published, and it earned me a Pushcart prize nomination and Rosebud magazine’s accolade as one of their best published stories for that year. Who knew? Not me. I was “writing blind,” but the reward I took away was all I needed to keep going, to keep writing even when a rejection from one of my favorite magazines came only a couple of weeks after I’d found a home for that first oddball story.
Remembering that risks can often lead to great rewards can be motivation enough for writers. And don’t forget; you’re less likely to break a leg while trying something new! Even if you don’t succeed right out of the gate, you’ll still have more opportunities to turn your luck around. The Riesch sisters will compete again for the shared podium, Sara Paretsky continues to be successful, whether writing mysteries or something else entirely, and I’ve published more than one piece of writing since that fateful day in 1996, so take heart: assuming risk may not guarantee success but it will guarantee opportunity.
Coming Friday: “Find your sanctuary” and “Stay classy.” See you then!