Your Opinion Is Only Worth 48 Cents
In fiction writing, you have a lot of enemies and obstacles to overcome. The very initial one, the step that many never get past, is the fear of failure that is so crippling it prevents you from actually opening up a blank window on your computer (or, for the oldtimers and sentimentalists, rolling a fresh sheet of paper into the carriage).
If you do manage to beat back your doubts long enough to jump into the fray, you very quickly realize that its a draining task that takes much more than it gives. With luck, patience, and plenty of stubbornness, you might actually hack your way through that first story.
Then comes the hard act of having to read through the story and compare it to the works of your favorite writers, whose words probably sit on the shelf across the room from you. Thats when you realize that you have no talent and maybe this writing thing isnt for you. Heres where ninety percent of those who actually attempt it decide that theyve had enough.
If you get through that first story and start the next, you might be tempted to send that first story to an editor just to see what happens. Because some small part of you, no matter how humble you are, thinks its pretty darn good and that other people will want to read it. You stick on the stamps, cross your fingers, and send it on its way.
You finish the next story before you hear back on the first, and because youve found that writing has become a wee bit easier and you are starting to learn from your mistakes, you send this one out to a different editor, because you are now getting impatient and believe this way youll be famous twice as fast.
You are working on your third story when you finally hear back from the first editor. The letter seems like a misunderstanding. Not because the editor didnt want the story (even the vainest writer doesnt completely expect to hit a homer the first time in the box). Whats amazing is that the editor seems not to have read your story, because the salutation says "Dear Sir/Madam." You have received a form letter, the most impersonal of responses, after you have poured your heart and soul out onto the page, bared everything for all the world, and got a cold "no, thank you" for your show of passion.
Its too late to climb into the mailbox and retrieve that second story, and besides, the third one is going swimmingly and you already have an idea for a fourth. And you decide maybe this first one isnt so bad after all, you just caught the editor on a bad day, or he or she just bought a similar story, or you find two or three correctable errors that weakened the first draft.
Out it goes, along with that third one, and you find yourself getting caught up in the endless trips to the mailbox, the daily battle with those pesky sentences and interesting-but-elusive characters. You open each response with that same held breath, and your sighs are briefer and your depression less noticeable with each new form rejection.
By the hundredth rejection, you would have probably quit if you ever gave the matter any thought. By then, though, you have over 20 stories circulating and, besides, this writing game is fun, and what would you do with all that extra time, anyway?
Somewhere along the way, you decide to start a novel, at the point where even those who have become comfortable with short stories are often daunted. Why not double your pleasure and pain? By now you know that if you write every day you will eventually have the 400 pages or so necessary to tell a complex story. Many writers never get past that simple fact, that 400 pages are written one page at a time.
So what if the novel takes you six months, nine months, a year, two? Now you have a big stack of dead trees that the publishing world is bound to take seriously, by virtue of its sheer mass if nothing else. So you send that off as well (the postage is more expensive and the wait is often longer), and then comes the first cold rejection letter.
My goodness, you should have quit during that second story after all, but too late, because you started a second novel while the editor was choosing from among the half-dozen various form slips that all equal no." And, blissfully unaware of the shameful manner in which you are wasting your life, you send that first novel out again, just as you did with the first story you ever wrote. You get that second novel finished and, wonder of wonders, you are feeling pretty good about yourself and your chances.
Somewhere along the line you gave up your dream of topping the bestseller lists and decided that if you could only be published, that would be enough. If you could get your book into the hands of readers, who would share their souls with yours for the space of several hundred pages and a few hours, then that would be a magic beyond the bestsellers million-dollar deals and a glow far more lasting than that cast by a mention in Publishers Weekly.
You keep on, writing a third novel, and compiling ideas for even more, and suddenly you notice that years have passed and you are creeping toward your ever-receding goal while your youth is slipping away. The fingers on the keyboard have somehow grown a few wrinkles and age spots along the way. You are no longer innocent, virginal, and so sure of your ultimate success.
One lucky day a publisher takes a chance on you, sees something in your work that the other 100 editors failed to note. Your novel is going to see light, its going to get out there into the world. The book is printed, you feel the blush of success at having a long and nearly impossible dream fulfilled. You have arrived, and the journey is over.
Except the feeling only lasts for a day or two, a week at the most.
Because that novel you were working on before all those new distractions set in is still waiting for you to finish it. And now that your novel is out, you realize that not everyone likes your work, that the nine months you spent on the novel is not worth the three hours it takes to read, much less the six bucks.
You agonize over how you could have failed those readers, even though a much greater number of people say they like it. That old fear of failure is back, the one that plagued you during those first few tentative sentences, that exhilarating moment of freefall when you cut your first lies from whole cloth.
They dont all love the book. You gave them the secret inner workings of your soul and they found only flaws and problems. The book gave them more misery than joy, and they reacted by proclaiming to the world just how obscenely you have disturbed and disappointed them. They took it personally, as if you owed them more than the 48 cents the book earned in royalties.
The people who hate the novel are certainly entitled to their opinion, having earned the right by virtue of purchasing the book.To those who were short-changed, send me an SASE and the book and Ill refund your 48 cents. Youre welcome to pursue the publisher and try to recoup the rest, for all the good it will do you. For those who got a free review copy and still hated the book, send me an SASE and Ill send it back empty.
If you love the novel, I love you in return, because you are golden. Its a mutual understanding, an intimate union, a spiritual marriage, an unspoken bond. Neither you or I need to feel shame or pride. Its simply there, a miracle beyond words. We know. We've been there.
When I pounded out those initial sentences, when the buzz lit the back of my brain and the neck hairs tingled, the unbearable thoughts of rejection, failure, disappointment, and psychic agony all somehow fell away. I reached for a fistful of magic and passed it on to you. The novel is my gift to the world, and to you, even though not all gifts are welcome.
Confidence is a strange creature; success is a moving target; readers are more important than writers. You dont answer your critics, you outlast them.
Ill go back to that novel in progress, and I promise Ill do better next time. Not to please those who were displeased, but to thank you, the ones who stuck with me, who took that ride of the mind with me, who let me inside your hearts. You and I have a lot more to share. Weve got wonderful places to go yet, and I wouldn't miss this journey for all the world. I'm glad you're with me.
Because of you, I'm no longer afraid.
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