Marissa Lingen (mrissa) wrote,
Marissa Lingen

How I keep going

So shamaneyes asked me:
This might be a sensitive subject but... How do you continue working on your novels when you haven't sold any yet? Do you just have faith that they'll get sold eventually? Do the short stories serve as an anchor and a promise right now? Or is it something else?

I don't have any published short stories (only essays and interviews); I tell myself that the hardest part is writing a novel, that selling it will be the easy part, because if a work is solid, there will be a home for it somewhere. I know I've heard that the best thing to do after finishing one novel is to write the next, that most writers have several books in their cupboard when they make their first big breakthrough. But how do you keep writing in the face of rejection? Short stories I can understand, but novels are so all-consuming to get through (this will be my third or fourth attempt at finishing one).

I'm sorry if I've said anything to give offense, I'm just...wondering if I'm telling myself a lie at how easy it would be.

Short answer: I don't know if you're telling yourself a lie about what will be hardest for you, but selling a novel is not easy. Not in general, anyway. Not unless you get phenomenally lucky. Not even if it's a good novel. Not, not, not.

And if you're telling yourself that it would be easy for you because your theoretical books would be good, please don't say that to me. (Not you-specific, shamaneyes, a general-you.) Think of what it says by extension about my books. If you're thinking that it's taking awhile to sell the books I've actually written because they suck and the books you hypothetically might write would not, do not say it to my face. If you have actually read my books and have some suggestions for how to improve them, that's good. But if you're assuming things will be easy for you because you'll lack the suckage of the rest of us, do not say it to us; it will not be appreciated. And if you give us a list of your favorite published authors, it will probably be demonstrably untrue; at least some of them will have struggled. Odds are you will, too. It's certainly something to plan on. Then you can rejoice at your good fortune if you're wrong.

Because here's the thing: it takes forever the first time out. ForEVer. I have run across people on this lovely internet thing who say they will try to sell a novel for a year to see if it's worthwhile. Or for two years. And I think, "What, that's one editor's desk? Two or three if you're lucky?" Assuming you don't have a magic get out of slush free card, you will be waiting on the order of months, not weeks, to hear from an editor. Many months. To hear, in some cases, whether they even want to read the whole book. Same deal with agents: not short response times. Lots and lots of people think they can do this, and that's not even counting the people who already are doing it and need to be handled first lest book production grind to a halt. Which is not what anyone wants.

So here's what with me: I'm 26, as of almost a month ago. I started writing a novel at 21. I didn't intend to. It seemed like a much better plan to write short stories, establish a name. Then Fortress of Thorns fell on my head. (I believe that at that point someone ran away with my silver slippers while I was still woozy under my book. All this would probably be much easier with them, so if you've seen them....) So what can you do? I wrote it. I think that in this life some people pop up and you look at them and think, "I didn't have time for someone else to love, but here you are, and I guess I have time after all." You can control some categories of these people technologically (yay, the Pill!), and you can just avoid meeting people, but often the small cracks in your life will let them in. For me, books are like this. I did not have time to write Fortress. It showed up in my head. I wrote it. I revised it. I started sending it out. By the time I had thought through the theory of which novel I should write next (it's not written yet, nor will it be soon, but the theory was pretty sound), I was 2/3 of the way through the sequel to Fortress. Oops. My third book I actually intended to write, but they more or less keep sneaking up on me and ambushing me. I have been lighting novels from the embers of the last novel since 2000. If I can manage to wait that long to get serious about them, if I'm not dealing with two at once.

You know what this makes me? It makes me a novel writer. It's not the only way one can be a novel writer. But it's pretty definitive. The all-consuming parts of writing a novel are scary as hell to me, but they are also how my brain consistently works, and if the workings of your brain don't scare you sometimes, I suspect you may not have read enough neuropsych, because there's some weird-ass stuff going on in there, even if it doesn't manifest itself as people and places and events you totally made up. Being consumed by something isn't a reason not to do it. Being truly all-consumed by it is a reason to learn to do it differently.

Short stories are short stories. Novels are novels. They're not the same stuff, and short stories are nice, but even though I do them, somewhere in my head they are not what I do.

Do I want my books to sell ten bazillion copies and make myself and everyone connected with my publishing house extremely wealthy? Oh, that would be nice. I would also like it if I could win every major award and have some new ones invented just for me. Possibly named after me. That would be nifty. And if people could contact me to say how much my books meant to them...yeah. I'm just sayin'. If you could arrange that, go on ahead. Please. This week would be fine for me. I could fit it in with Michelle and Scott's wedding stuff, even.

However. That's not why I write novels. I hope they sell, but I have mentally addressed the idea that at least some of them may not. Or that they may get lovely deals and people may hate them and they may sell only two hundred copies and one hundred of those will be to my grandmother and I may have to get a pseudonym and start writing the mysteries and historical novels I have rattling around in here. I write novels because if I don't they stay in my head, and there's not that much room in here; and I write novels because I want to have them to read and I want to hand them to some very specific people to read. Those are things I can control. I don't write novels for reasons I can't control. Fame, fortune: not my jurisdiction. Finished, polished novel: my part of the deal.

Writing a good novel is hard. Yes. Revising a good novel until it's the best good novel you're capable of at the time: hard. Submitting a good novel and getting form responses: hard. Submitting a good novel and getting enthusiastic no's: hard. Listening to the way your family members' and friends' voices trail off when they ask how things are going with the book that you wrote, you know, a couple years ago...: hard. And if writing a good novel is not enough to get you through that stuff, I'm not sure what will.

Except here's this: okay, no, I have no novels on the bookstore shelves. I am not, however, devoid of positive editorial response. One doesn't -- at least I don't -- count one's chickens in this regard, but one has at least gotten some preliminary X-rays of a few eggs to find that they at least contain chicken embryos. One works on other things and makes the best try at patience one can, because one assumes that editors are doing the best they can to be both speedy and competent in all aspects of their jobs. Still, some positive feedback, some continued interest: it helps.

A couple other things keep me going. People mistake my manner for confidence. No. That's Marissa Lingen, Girl Phyicist you're seeing. That's "physicists can smell your fear." I've said this before: what I am is bloody stubborn. This is not the same thing as confident. It is better than confident, from where I sit. Confidence can be shaken. Stubbornness is in the bones. Confidence says, "This is a great book!" Stubbornness says, "This may suck, but it will suck as well as I can make it, and it will go out again to get rejected, dammit, because that's what we do here." Confidence has a whole race in mind. Stubbornness takes the next step, and the next, and the next, and just keeps walking for as long as it takes.

Then...then I'm fast. You wouldn't know it from the Not The Moose pair, but I can put out clean prose in less time than many, and I'm allowed to do so as my job. So by the time I've sat through one or two rejections for one book, I've already got another started. Or finished and sent out. And so far I've written YA fantasy, children's SF, adult SF, and adult fantasy. I do different stuff. I can keep doing different stuff. I have the ideas for all kinds of different stuff, not as hack-work but as projects that really interest me. I didn't plan to have six-nearly-seven finished novels and no contracts. It happened a book at a time.

Selling books sounds awfully nice, but what I really do here is I write them, and I try to keep writing them better, and I send them out. I get through it by focusing on the bits I control, not the bits other people control. If you've got some other method, or had one before you became a Big Famous Published Person, please share.
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