Thursday, April 29, 2010

No Such Thing As Failure

How do you measure success as a writer?  Certainly, there are milestones an author reaches that confirms success:  securing agent representation; publishing a book or short story; being paid for your work; etc.  But what if you haven't yet reached any of those milestones?  What does success mean then?

I believe every draft is a success, even unfinished stories.  Each time I sit down and write, I learn a little more about the craft.  I may only have one gem sentence in 500 words, or one interesting character out of a cast of five, but that sentence or character is worthy of success.

My current WiP is my "starter novel."  I've said from the get-go that my goal is to finish it, learning the process along the way.  I believe I'll one day write a novel worthy of publication, but it's probably not this one.  I'm struck by both comfort and stress in this statement.  Comfort because it gives me the freedom to just write, but stress because writing a novel takes a lot of time and energy.  Sometimes I ask myself, am I wasting my time?

I read an interesting article on Writer's by John Smolens that answered that question for me.  In "There's No Such Thing as a Failed Story," Smolens says, "For every five completed rough drafts, you’re lucky if you find one that you can develop into a finished short story, one that you feel is as good as it can be, one that you feel is ready to be sent out to editors."

Not only did this article reassure me about my current project, it provided a couple a-ha moments about writing in general.  Smolens talked about his mentor, the late Andre Dubois: "Most fiction writers, [Dubois] believed, are .200 hitters, meaning they hit successfully twice out of every 10 at-bats...For every five stories you send out, you’re lucky if one of them is accepted for publication." (Quote taken from same article.)  Having penned thirty-two short stories in the past two years, I can say with certainty that although I'm pleased with most of my work, there is only about twenty percent I would consider great stories.  And of those six, I've only had one accepted for print publication (and two more submitted that I'm waiting to hear back on).

From this article, I now realize I don't have to polish my current WiP, once the first draft is complete.  If, at that time, I don't feel the story is strong enough to peddle to agents, then I will move on to the next project with confidence that I'm not short-changing myself in any way.  I'm simply moving forward in my craft.

Published authors:  Have you written significantly more stories than you have sold?  Aspiring authors:  Does it encourage or discourage you to hear a successful writer say the majority of work by all fiction writers is unpublishable ?