One of the questions I get asked a lot is “how did you decide to be a writer?” And the short answer is, I didn’t. Oh, I’ve been writing since I started my first (unfinished, unpublishable) novel in seventh grade, but it was always about writing, not about being a writer.
Part of that was because I had no idea you could actually make a living as a writer. I knew people got paid for their stories, but I had no idea how much – and I certainly didn’t know anyone else who was a writer (or who wanted to be). No, I take that back; I knew my mother, who wrote for the Confessions magazines for a few years as a hobby when I was in my early teens. So what I thought I knew was that you could write and sell, but it wouldn’t be your full-time job.
But somewhere along the line, I decided that it would be kind of neat to be a “career writer,” whatever that meant. Being me, I sat down and worked out a plan: I would keep writing in my spare time, as my mother had, until I improved enough to sell a few stories. I figured that twenty-five years ought to be long enough to learn to write one or two short stories that would be good enough to sell (I was, at this point, around twenty). That would take me up to age forty-five or so, which gave me plenty of time to both start selling and build up a nice fat savings account to live on. Then I could have a major mid-life crisis, quit my job to write, and maybe even tackle a novel…and I’d have at least a minimal track record from those two or three short stories I figured I could sell, plus that nice bank account to live on.
Things didn’t work out the way I expected.
For starters, I turned out to be a natural novelist, not a short story writer. I tried and tried to write short stories, but what I produced were unsellable plot summaries and things that read like awkwardly excerpted things from much longer works. (Not that I realized that at the time.)
The second problem was, I’m not very patient. I think that if I’d stuck to my plan and kept at the short stories, I probably could have learned to write well enough to sell a few in twenty-five years’ time, but after about two years of trying, I got this idea that I knew was a novel. And, not being a patient person, I started writing it.
I didn’t take it seriously, of course. I was still stuck on that plan, so working on the (unsaleable, horrible) short fiction came first. I worked on the novel other time, when I knew I was likely to be interrupted – lunch hour in the cafeteria, coffee breaks, waiting for my grad school class to start when the bus got me there early. Bits and scraps of time. The two- and three- hour blocks of time I carved out of the occasional weekend morning were for the (dreadful, unreadable) short stories.
And then one day, the novel was finished (there’s a whole ‘nother story behind that, but that’s a different post). And there I was, seventeen years ahead of schedule, with a complete novel manuscript and no track record of short story sales to help me sell it.
I could have stuck it in the bottom drawer of my desk, but at that point blind, dumb habit kicked in. I’d been trying to sell short stories, and I’d learned enough by then to know that the way you sold something was to keep it in circulation. Finished manuscripts got sent out, and if they came back, they got sent out again (the same day, for preference, but next morning was OK if the mail delivery was late). Sending things out was just what you did, as soon as the manuscript was as good as you could make it.
So when I finished the first book, I sent it out, not because I thought it would sell or thought it was particularly good, but because I couldn’t think of anything else to do with it and sending it out was what you were supposed to do if you were gonna be a writer.
Just like the short stories, the finished manuscript came back, rejected. It just took a little longer. And, just like with the short stories, I sent it out again as fast as I could turn it around (which also took a little longer, as I hadn’t been prepared with the right mailing supplies when it showed up the first time.)
And then one day it didn’t come back for the longest time (and there’s a whole ‘nother story there, too), and the next thing I knew, it had sold. By then I was nearly finished with my second novel (once I put the first one in the mail, I thought “Hey, that wasn’t so bad; I could do that again” and gave up on the short stories), and when I mentioned that to the editor, she asked me to send it along. So I did, and they bought that one, too.
The decision to quit my day job and write full-time came five years later, after I’d published five books and had another couple of novels in the pipeline (and finally learned how to write a halfway decent, saleable short story at least some of the time). By then, I already was a writer, and it was more a matter of not having time for two full-time careers and having to choose between them. And my two-short-story-sales-by-age-forty-five plan was long gone.
I still think it was a good plan, though.