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Don’t quit your day job: how to be a writer

It’s not easy to get published these days.

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By Alexei Summers (The Cascade) – Email

Print Edition: September 12, 2012

I’ve been involved in journalism for a number of years now, and I’ve been involved in Canadian University Press journalism for exactly one year as of this issue being published. However, I only consider journalism to be my day job. While it’s a pretty damn good day job, I am first a foremost a writer of fiction who only writes journalism as a means to make ends meet. It’s a cliché, but it pays the bills.

It’s not easy to get published these days. The days of prolific authors who made a living on writing fiction are almost all but gone. Today the big names are almost all postmodernist writers, such as Tao Lin, Chuck Palahniuk and Brett Easton Ellis.

I’ve had three short stories published, and nothing else. Only one of the magazines in which I’ve been published in was remotely reputable – it was based out of Istanbul. I didn’t get much money for my stories, and I don’t have much to show for all the hard work. Of course, not all of us do it for the money. Although – money is nice. I like money. Don’t you?

Writers write because they love to – at least, real writers do. But when the story is over, and you want to publish it, you can’t always forget about how difficult it is to break into the industry.

The American scene is even more impossible to break into as far as publishing goes. In order for a writer to be published there is a certain formula he or she needs to follow. First you write a short story that appeals to people. Even if it sucks. Then you must send this story to around 100 literary magazines. Possibly more. Again, bear in mind your story probably sucks.

Even if it’s good, it doesn’t matter. Publishers are overly cautious and usually reject you for the stupidest reasons. When the responses come back, wade through the rejection letters, rinse and repeat until a really lame literary rag accepts your shitty story. You probably won’t get paid, so be prepared to live off of fingernails and black coffee for the first little while. Don’t quit your day job.

Repeat these steps, adding each time, a publication to your resume of published stories, and then hope and pray that a slightly better literary magazine editor will take pity on your worthless subhuman writer soul and publish your next work.

Well, maybe it’s not as faceless and cruel as all that. But, it’s true that writers write so that readers can read. They’re often not good at selling themselves. The publishing industry overlooks this. We’re not all Don Draper.

The Canadian writer W.P. Kinsella, who won the Books in Canada First Novel Award in 1982 for his novel Shoeless Joe said in an interview published in The Winnipeg Review, “Unlike me, don’t quit your day job.  I was lucky to be in the right place at the right time, and was able to make a good living for many years. It is almost impossible to do that today. The markets and the money are just not there.”

He went on to state that he did not think that if he tried to make it as a writer in our current day and age that he would be successful.

These are discouraging words to those of us who write fiction. It’s not that we’re not good enough – though certainly some of us who consider ourselves writers, in fact aren’t. It’s that the publishers don’t want to take any risk. They’ve backed themselves into a corner. Imagine for a second if these changes to the publishing industry had occurred in the early twentieth century instead of in the 1990s.

Imagine a young Ernest Hemingway approaching a certain Maxwell Perkins at Scribners and Sons, with his new novel The Sun Also Rises, and being rejected, going undiscovered. Imagine if Scott Fitzgerald never being able to publish The Great Gatsby because nobody wanted to take a risk on him.

Imagine JD Salinger not publishing Catcher in the Rye, or Kurt Vonnegut not publishing Slaughterhouse Five. These are books that changed the world. And if they had been ignored by the publishing industry, the world would be lacking something because of their absence.

So how many Hemingways and Fitzgeralds have we missed so far? How many have gone unnoticed – their voices unheard? Their words never printed. Too many, I’m sure.

Like I said, it’s a difficult industry to break into. You need perseverance, and patience. You need confidence to take the rejections – and there is plenty of rejection along the road to success, assuming you ever see it. It’s a bleak picture, isn’t it?

So take my advice, if you’re a writer, don’t quit your day job.

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