The Secret Club
I venture to say that for writers, a mystique persists around publishing, as if all the published writers and people in the business were part of a secret club where they shared special handshakes and insider knowledge. I suspect it has something to do with rejections, and the polite but impersonal way editors and agents say no to projects they must decline. Writers outside the circle might well wonder why they can’t get in when the rules of admittance seem so capricious. To make it worse, there’s a sort of unspoken heartache behind the conferences, forums, and workshops I see offered for unpublished writers. Even the word “aspiring,” so often coupled with “writer,” hints at hope and longing, as if all dreams would be fulfilled by admittance into the club, if only someone would spill the secret password.
For a long time, I’ve felt like there was no real difference in people inside and outside the club. We’re really all just writers, all equally deserving of respect, all doing what we love. But a few things lately have made me wonder if there is a difference after all. It isn’t that crossing a publishing threshold magically changes a writer. It’s more that experiences start adding up, and there’s a different, deeper understanding of how things work. I can look, now, at a friend’s query letter and see pretty quickly the tip-offs of a novice, but beyond that, I see more clearly, at least for myself, the complicated relationship between creativity and business.
A key thing is my relationship with my agent, Kirby Kim at WME. Unpublished writers, wary about what agents even do, ask questions like, Do I need an agent? That question would never occur to me. These days, my agent and I talk about specific book concepts, the merits of building on the base of my Birthmarked novels when I work on next projects, the trade-off of writing in multiple genres vs. writing rarer books where each is an event, the unspoken etiquette around option clauses, the risks and importance of emotional honesty in business dealings, and the value of having people you like to work with. These issues are a reality for me, with subtleties and complexities I wouldn’t perceive on my own. My agent and I are a team, and I depend on his advice and expertise from the perspective of looking back and forward for years.
Another element that matters is my relationship with my fellow writers. I’m part of private, online group of about twenty published writers who check in once a week to see where we all are, and that is a vital source of support for me. By talking about the challenges we’re facing, our victories, families, and other jobs, I see that other writers are finding their own ways through some complicated times. Similarities abound. I don’t know why it makes such a difference to know someone is experiencing the same thing, but it does. I also have a handful of ongoing email correspondences with other full-time writers where we talk about the slowness of receiving contracts and money, how option clauses impact when a next project can be submitted, expectations of our editors and agents, how publishers are fulfilling marketing promises, cover problems, waiting for approvals of novel outlines, travel envy and burn out, tax issues, and deadline extensions. My friendships help me learn what questions to ask, especially when I see how others assert themselves, and they give me a clearer sense of how the system works for more than just me.
I was Skyping with a school book club yesterday, (Hello, Bookaneers!), and one of the readers asked me about what I was writing next. I started explaining this interesting situation about my new projects and my editor’s maternity leave and the publishing timeline that projects out to 2014, and I ended up saying that what I do is keep writing. My job is to keep working, developing projects, completing first drafts, revising, and pushing myself to explore new ideas deeply. That’s what I try to do. Where and if the projects will fall in a publishing schedule is, to a degree, outside my control, but the writing is always mine. The writing is my responsibility. I think that’s something I’ve learned by being in the secret club, but it’s suspiciously like what drove me before I entered it.
In the end, the writing is the writing.