I became serious about publication of fiction back in 2013, starting the process about learning everything that I can about what it was really going to take to publish fiction. In 2015, I chose to retrain as an editor. And every single day since I opened up for business, there has been this underlining doubt.
How can I prove that I know what I'm talking about when I'm haven't got the proof in the pudding?
Every time I encounter a writer who is focused on books that I've published, I find myself in a position where I have to defend my choices, which is something I shouldn't have to do. And when I get accused of being a hack because very few of my clients are published, I get defensive of my clients and want to go in for the attacks.
I thought I had come to terms with my demons and had developed strategies to get past them so I could do my job. However, a recent interaction via Instagram brought all the insecurities flooding back, making me question all of my choices—yet again.
It was an innocent interaction…
It started out as an innocent interaction, though I'm fairly confident that there was some hidden motive behind the initial contact.
I got a private message from another writer asking what genre I write. Me, being me, did some quick research into the guy's profile and discovered that he was another thriller writer.
Cool. I need to meet more thriller writers.
So, I responded by saying that I write thrillers too, but I also write sci-fi, fantasy, and nonfiction. And I mentioned that I'll be publishing another nonfiction book next year. I even put a date on it!
Next came the link to his books. It was going to happen at some point in the conversation. It always does. I really wish that the "exchange of published book links" didn't happen, but I'll get to that in a moment.
I was then asked if he could "see [my] books as well?" So, I posted the link to my website, telling him that all the information about my projects was listed on my website.
Then it was the gut punch that wasn't intended as a gut punch, but it still sent me spiraling, anyway.
"When are you planning to publish your books?" And I was fairly confident that he was referring to my fiction, because earlier in the exchange, I had already mentioned by plans for publishing the nonfiction.
I hate this question with a passion! Not only does it bring up all the insecurities, but it also tells me about the priorities of the person that I'm interacting with. Their focus—and possibly their sense of self-worth—is tied to the publication concept. And for some writers who seem to be so focused on publication, they look at me and they question my abilities… because I'm not published in fiction yet. It doesn't seem to matter that I've been serious about writing fiction for over a decade. Nope, it's only the publications that matter to them.
I'm published in nonfiction and have been for years. We're talking decades! I have scientific publications that go all the way back to before my kids were born. I think my first paper was published in 1998. (Don't quote me on that. I don't have records for that paper at my fingertips anymore, and I would have to dig through the books boxed in the garage to find a copy of it to check the date.)
And I do have published books listed on my personal website: a nonfiction anthology that I had three chapters in; my 2017 nonfiction book, which will be replaced with a new version next year; and an anthology that published one of my poems.
But for a variety of reasons that all stem back to various choices that I've made over the years, none of my fiction has been published.
So, I keep writing. And keep working. And keep learning my craft.
The choices that have led to this prepublished state
When I first started down this publication road, seeking publication for my fiction, I decided that I wanted to be traditionally published. There were so many reasons for this decision (and those reasons have been challenged in my head on multiple levels over the years). But because that was my focus, it pushed me to learn all I could and become a better writer.
Sure, I could have self-published the first novel I wrote all those years ago. However, when I look at that novel now, it wasn't ready. Nowhere near it. Granted, I'm looking at it through more experienced eyes, but that's the point here. Because of a choice made to focus on traditional publication, I forced myself to learn all I could about writing and learn how to write better manuscripts. A different choice would have led to a different outcome.
In 2015, I decided to put into the metaphorical drawer my high fantasy series and shifted into more contemporary stories. I decided to write a thriller. My brain still threw in science fiction elements, but that was a different issue.
Come 2017, I had two manuscripts fully drafted, and in 2018, I started working with a developmental editor of my own. Come 2019, I was finally ready to really give the querying-agents road a shot. I had a solid manuscript with a tight plot and narrative. I had a killer query letter. And I even started getting requests for more materials. And the second manuscript was also going through the tight editing process.
I started querying in earnest in February 2020. Then a little microscopic bug decided to sweep through the world and shut down the entire industry!
And that's where any momentum I had got derailed.
It took forever for the industry to kick back into gear again. And when it finally did, the nature of the stories that were being sought by agents and publishers were completely different from the ones I had written. They wanted happy endings… and I don't do happy. They wanted optimistic… and I don't do optimistic.
Fast forward to today, and I'm sitting on two highly polished, squeaky clean manuscripts. Two totally different worlds.
And the rejections flood in.
I have actually given up on the agent route for the time-being and have already started the research into small presses. But it still takes time.
Everything about the querying process is hurry up and wait.
But even if I ultimately decide to self-publish, there are other decisions that have impacted on my trajectory.
I don't want to be a one-hit wonder. I know of too many writers who have written one book, released it, then decided that they didn't want to write another one in that world… or decided that they didn't want to write another book at all. So, their entire writing career vanished.
That's not me. That's not what I want.
I know that the expectation in my chosen genre is to release at least one new title a year. And I know how long it's taking me to write these stories. So, I know I need to build a back catalogue of draft manuscripts before I even contemplate self-publishing the first one.
So, I just keep writing, crafting more stories in other worlds.
I do have series planned, but until I know the fate of the first book of those series, my brain won't let me get into the nitty-gritty detail of any sequels, for fear that something fundamental changes during the editing of the first book that has a ripple effect on the rest of the books. I have enough of the next books written so I can write a synopsis if asked for one, but that's as far as I got.
But if I chose to self-publish any of those books, then the whole series will be self-published because traditional publishers don't want to publish "part" of a series.
Are you starting to see the compounding problem that I've created for myself?
I'm 100% confident that when faced with a deadline that is tied up with money, I will be able to produce the writing much faster. I won't be stacking my days with other tasks that get in the way of the creative cycle.
But none of this solves my insecurity problem right now.
Right now, I still don't have any fiction published. I have made choices that I'm happy with, but it also means that I don't have stuff to share with complete strangers to show them that I know how to write.
I don't have the proof in the pudding.
A shift in mindset is needed
I really hate the "publishing" conversation, because it puts the focus on the output rather than the process. And it creates a glass ceiling that was shattered long ago… but people keep trying to put it back together.
When it comes to memberships for certain organizations, I understand why they have chosen to tie certain membership tiers to the publication status. It really is the only measure that writers have to show that we know what we are talking about.
But that in itself is a problem.
While a new writer has a lot to learn, they can still take part in the conversation, because they still have knowledge and experiences that are valuable to the community. Why should the new writer be locked out of the conversation just because they aren't published?
And what about me? I've been at this game for over a decade. I certainly don't classify myself as a new writer, nowhere close. But I'm being locked out of certain conversations too, just because I have yet to achieve that publication status with my fiction.
I'm already a proven writer in the nonfiction sector, yet for some people, that doesn't matter.
And that is actually the source of my insecurities. For some people, it doesn't matter that I have a decade of experience of tearing apart manuscripts and putting them back together. Just because I don't have published stories to my name—because many of my clients have yet to publish themselves—I must not be that good.
Bullshit! It's utter bullshit!
And the mindset that needs to change is entirely focused on the publication cycle.
There is only one conversation that I've ever had with other writers that was amazingly open and welcoming. It was during the Writer Unboxed Oncon (the 2022 online conference they had), and I somehow found myself in a video call with David Corbett. And if you don't recognize the name, that's okay. Just know that he's a prolific thriller writer.
Anyway… Here I was, in this conversation with David Corbett, and not once did the conversation turn to books we've published. It was 100% focused on writing craft and our current projects. I was suddenly on the same playing field as everyone else in that room.
And David Corbett actually made a point in saying that it was one of the things that he loved the most about Writer Unboxed conferences. No one cared about what you have published. They were only interested in what you were working on right now. They were focused on the fact that we were all writers trying to beat that manuscript into submission.
It's this shift in mindset that I feel more writers need to take on board.
Don't ask about the past projects. Ask about the current one.
Whenever I have a conversation with a writer that I've only just met, I tend to ask one of two questions:
1) What do you write? (I ask this as an attempt to understand the nature of the other person's writing preferences.)
2) What are you working on now?
That second question is open-ended and allows for the conversation to dive into the current project being drafted… or edited… or in final publication stage. It allows for the other person to talk about whatever issues that they might be having and for them to discuss what they might be learning about. It's a question designed to allow for the sharing of information about writing craft and industry knowledge. And it's through conversations that were started with that question that I have learned the most about what I don't know.
And the irony of all of this is that when talking about the current projects, I never feel bad about the choices I've made. I never feel the urge to defend my choices either. The choices are what they are, but the issues I'm facing are unique in that moment.
So, the next time you meet a writer that you've never met before and strike up a conversation with them, don't focus on the projects of the past. Ask about the current work-in-progress.