In my previous post I talked about writers needing courage. This post is about persistence. I do believe for writers persistence and courage are linked, but I do not believe they are identical. Courage is about overcoming and surviving discouragement and disappointment; persistence is about the daily discipline that writing requires.
Persistence is actually a well-worn topic among writers and those who instruct others on how to write. Lewis Shiner once said that if someone can be at all discouraged from writing, then they should be. Bridget McKenna, years ago in a writing panel at Norwescon, told all of us eager young wannabe writers that getting published is 90% persistence (and if you can’t trust Bridget McKenna, damn it, who can you trust?). Google “writing persistence” and you’ll get a screenful of links to websites and videos on the topic.
But hold on– many of these sites talk about persistence in the context of getting traditionally published. Keep submitting, keep sending out your work, that sort of thing. But this is the new, glorious age of self-publication. Does perseverance mean anything when a new writer can take their very first ever short story and publish it online within 24 hours?
Yes, because persistence in writing has more dimensions than simply getting published. And it always has.
First, for the overwhelming majority of writers, learning to write takes time. Lots of time, lots of words, lots of trunk novels and short stories. Most of us learn to write by writing. To become competent as a writer, most of us need to persist and persist, through bad draft after bad draft, lousy grammar, awkward sentences approximately the length of the Great Wall of China, failed short stories and novel. The cliche is that your first million words are crap. The only variant I have seen on that is that it’s actually your first two million words that are crap.
The new opportunities for self-publishing have not changed this reality. If anything, this is proven by the quite simply enormous (and growing) pile of terrible-to-poor self-published works out there. If a writer wants to be other than a sad joke, they still need to learn the craft of writing.
Persistence is also part of the daily- or as near to daily as you can manage– discipline of writing. This is one of the hardest things a writer has to internalize. Writing is not dependent on inspiration or mood– it is a task you take on and do, the same way you go to a job or brush your teeth every day (at least, I hope you brush your teeth daily….). It took me years to learn this lesson myself, which is largely why I didn’t start writing in a serious way until I was well into adulthood.
If you are pursuing traditional publication, persistence is, indeed, needed, and, given the state of trad publishing, more than ever. If it was hard to get published thirty or twenty years ago, it is orders of magnitude more difficult now, as the publishing world petrifies into a living fossil, stuck in the adaptive rut of doing the same thing over and over again because it sold last go-around. The inability of traditional publishing to break out of that rut is leading thousands of authors to abandon trad publishing for self-publishing. It is very much like a torrent of water, dammed in one direction, finding an outlet in another. Another way to think of it is to say that people’s patience with a log-jammed process is not infinite.
Self-publishing, though, is not a golden road. Getting your writing in order, formatting everything correctly and uploading your story to Kindle or Smashwords is, unfortunately, no guarantee of winning an audience. The dirty secret about self-publishing– which isn’t much of a secret– is that getting noticed in the ever-widening sea of self-published material is very, very difficult. There is no sure-fire way to publicize a self-published work, certainly no one way that works for everybody, and building an audience takes time and patience– in other words, persistence.
Part of that audience-building is creating a body of work, instead of publishing a single story and retiring. That means more writing, and probably re-writing (certainly it does in my case). And so we come full circle back to the need to keep writing and to keep on learning how to write, because hardly anybody ever completely perfects this craft. In other words, once you’ve signed on as a writer, it’s for life.
Personally, I can’t imagine doing it any other way.
Next topic: Study.