So I’ve decided to try to do something a little more consistent with this space than just using it for news about publications and the occasional bit of thinking. Partly inspired by features on other writer blogs regarding tips they’ve picked up and things they’ve learned, I am going to start doing a regular column on what writing has taught me, what I’ve figured out about the creative process, what’s involved in trying to sell and market work, and some combination of all or none in general. I’m calling it The Object Lesson, and I’ll be trying to do one every Sunday, though they may become more irregular as the semester heats up and my workload increases.
I am speaking from no position of authority except as regards my own experience. Your mileage may vary.
Today: It’s lonely out here.
This is a lot more to do with one of the specific differences I’ve observed between fanfiction and original fiction, especially original fiction written for eventual publication. I want to stress here that it isn’t a value judgment; it’s merely a statement of fact, or at least fact as it is observed by me (and therefore probably questionable, but me is pretty much all I have to go on). With fanfiction, you’re dealing with fandom, and fandom is an extremely focused beast–it tends to be all about specific characters, which are pre-existent and established for you; your audience and your community are therefore generally pre-existent and already interested in what you have to say. Everyone knows the characters, everyone knows why they’re there and what they’re about. You pick up the thread and run with it, and there’s usually a strong sense of community around it. There’s usually a lot of encouragement, and often a lot of praise and positive comments to go around. This isn’t to say it can’t be mean, cold, and unpleasant, as far as online environments go, but there’s still something there.
This is generally not true with original fiction, especially when the author in question is just starting out and still largely unknown. There are naturally exceptions–authors that already have some kind of fanbase focused on them specifically in addition to the fandom itself, authors that have “made it” and have an established name, and writing communities that exist to lessen the sense of being out there on one’s own–but for me, at least, the feeling of writing into a vacuum isn’t a rare one. Work written to be sold usually can’t be posted online, at least not publicly (and in fact there is a real value in “writing with the door closed”; perhaps more on that later), and the audience that exists for a lot of the established characters in fandom is usually not there for new characters tottering into the light and stretching their muscles for the first time. Once work is submitted, it’s not uncommon to receive no reaction to it other than a form rejection–and those tend to sting no matter what. Even if a piece is accepted somewhere, it may slip mostly out of sight, exciting little in the way of comment from readers or reviewers. Or the reviews may well be negative. Not much stings like a bad review. I’d say a rejection pales in comparison. At least only two people ever have to see that.
None of this is to complain (or, again, to put down fandom or fanfiction in any way–it’s where I found my writing legs and I’ll always be endlessly grateful for it). It’s merely to point out what most people writing original fiction already know: you need to find encouragement where you can, because there’s probably not a lot of it out there to be had.
One upside of this is that every positive comment, good review, and acceptance takes on huge amounts of significance, and can deliver a high that I ride for days. Sometimes it can be what gets me through the next few rejections until I hit on another winner. This makes writing and submitting original stuff a fantastically fulfilling thing–I’d venture to say that it’s probably one of the most fulfilling things I’ve ever done.
There’s also fulfillment in the work itself, in the simple act of storytelling and in the craft of stringing words together to create a mood or convey an image. Words are powerful things; they’re at once paint and canvas, the making and the made, and when they work they can move people. There’s real joy in being able to step back and know, regardless of what anyone else may or may not say, that you’ve created something beautiful. And at the best times, that, even if no one else ever sees it, is enough to keep you going. For a long time, I wrote in a fandom that no one besides me and maybe one or two other people cared much about. At times that was frustrating–but when the frustration got bad, the writing made it better, because the writing itself was a joy, and it was something to lose myself in. I was telling myself the stories I wanted to read, and I think–I hope–I’m still doing that today. I think that’s why I started writing in the first place.
But the loneliness is still a fact. To keep working in the face of it takes toughness and it takes joy, and it’s so, so worth it. I wouldn’t even say it’s all bad. Sometimes it can be one of those things you hold onto and use to drive you further. And learning to do that… well, that’s probably just another part of the process.