I've been thinking lately about the long and strange trip from when I submitted my first short story while I was still in high school until I took the plunge last year and became a full time writer.
I'm a slow learner, and I didn't have much success in the early days. It took three years before I placed my first short story in a small press magazine and seven years before I made my first professional sale. I wrote either thirteen or fourteen novels (depending on how you're counting) before I published my first. You can read more thoughts about my persistence here.
At what point did I consider myself a real writer? From the moment I started working on my first, abortive attempts to complete a story. At what point would I say now that I became a real writer? The answer is 1995, when I sold my first professional short story to Kris Rusch at The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.
It was not the selling of the story, however, that turned me into a real writer. It was a change in attitude that occurred earlier that year. That attitude had been slowly turning more professional over the years, starting with my volunteer work at a semi-professional science fiction magazine, and progressing through the six weeks I spent at Clarion with seventeen other aspiring writers. I recognized early on that most of the people I knew who said they were writers or wanted to become writers didn't actually write very much. They loved talking about writing or attending writing conferences and sitting on panels. They might knock out a story or two a year and maybe even sold some of them. Some of these people were better writers than I was even though they wrote less. Did I mention I am a slow learner?
I found this enormously frustrating, but I consoled myself with the fact that I was producing much more, at least eight or ten short stories a year. Practically one a month.
It was only when I attended the Kris and Dean Show in early 1995, a workshop given by two professional and very hard working writers, Kris Rusch and her husband Dean Wesley Smith, that I realized how I was falling short. I shouldn't be comparing myself to other aspiring writers, they pointed out, I should be comparing myself to professionals. How much did professionals produce and how did I expect to join them if I didn't produce as much?
Dean said that if we wrote a short story ever week(!), we could almost guarantee that we'd sell a professional short story within a year. For the next fourteen weeks I wrote a short story every week. And it worked! A Dog's Night was picked up for publication in F&SF. I sold several other shorter pieces, mostly to semi-pro magazines, but also to The Atlantic.
It turns out that I'm not a short story writer, I'm a novelist. But those lessons held for novels as well. Once I realized that I was more suited to the long form, I committed to write a new novel every year until I got published. I didn't quite make it, but from 1996 until I achieved success in early 2011, I wrote eleven novels. Some of those books will never see the light of day, but some are pretty good. Thomas & Mercer has picked up some of them, publishers have expressed interest in others (although I like being an indie writer so much I doubt I'll turn them over for the modest advances on tap), and last month I crossed the 300,000 sales threshold for my combined indie and traditionally published novels.
I owe a good deal to Kris and Dean for their great advice, but especially to Kris, who was also the first professional editor to put faith in my writing.
When someone tells me she's a a writer, I don't accept or dismiss this based on professional qualifications or whether or not she has an agent. After all, I was a professional for sixteen years before I started earning a living. What I want to know is this:
1. Do you write? Writers write, they don't talk about writing. One story a year does not make you a writer. I'd say fifty thousand words is a bare minimum.
2. Do you submit what you write? These days this can mean self publishing or podcasting, or any number of things that don't necessarily mean "pursue an agent and a publishing contract with a leading house," but it does mean getting your work in front of readers and seeking to earn an income.