The other day, a friend of a friend emailed asking for some publishing advice. I sighed, muttered something under my breath about deadlines that have to be met, but finally replied that I'd be happy to help. (It was one of those days when I was looking for any excuse not to actually write.)
So I composed a lengthy reply, going through the whole drill, including my own rather uneven road to publication -- all the books written before I found an agent, the books then written that didn't sell, the books that did sell but not very well, the option dropped, more books written that didn't sell, finally ending up where I am now. Which is, I am the first to admit, in a very good, very unbelievably lucky, place.
I emphasized the hardships; I emphasized how important it is to learn the business end of publishing. I detailed what a query letter is, how to write it, how to research agents, the amount of time it usually takes -- all that. Above all, I emphasized the rejection. I shared how important it is to understand that the ability to absorb rejection and somehow soldier on is a job description, really; I pointed out how much rejection I had received in my career, even after my first book was published. (And when I looked back at it all, I had to tell my husband it was a wonder I hadn't been on medication. He then confessed there were times he thought I should have been.)
I was about to hit "send" when suddenly I took another look at the original email. It was only then that I realized this advice was being sought by a mother of a 14-year-old girl who had written a book that she, her mother, just knew should be published.
Suddenly all my advice seemed pointless. Not only because it was unlikely this 14-year-old, no matter how talented, had really written a book that should be published.
But I was reluctant to send my rather lengthy piece on the perils of publishing for one major reason. And that was because at 14, this girl should still be experiencing the pure joy of writing. Without any thought to publication.
Why are we all in such a rush to be published? With NaNoWriMo currently going on, it's a question I ask myself a lot.
Just when did writing for the pure pleasure of it fade away? Does every artist sit down to paint a beautiful sunset thinking, "Oh, boy, I just can't wait until this thing sells and is hanging on some cafeteria wall"?
Somehow, I don't think so -- although perhaps I'm being naïve. Yet so many writers these days, it seems to me, write joylessly; they join writers groups, participate in NaNoWriMo, all with the goal of writing quickly. Finishing that book ASAP so it can be published. Publication is the goal, the one and only point when a writer can sit back and allow himself a sense of accomplishment.
But is that necessary? Is that even right?
I finally told the mother of this girl the plain truth: That at 14, she needs much more time to write, to learn, and most of all -- to experience the pure pleasure of creativity. To learn to love her craft. Because it's that love that's going to see her through the inevitable rejection. And at 14, she doesn't need to start experiencing that rejection yet.
She needs simply to enjoy herself. As a writer, as a story teller, as a creative person.
I love writing; I love writing now, when I know I have a contract and a deadline and people eager to read what I write next. I loved writing before, when I didn't know that. But it was harder then, that's for sure; it was difficult to separate the business part -- the buying and selling and being told that there wasn't a market for what I was writing -- from the creative, pleasurable part. I did separate the two, but it wasn't always easy.
The truth is, once you send off your first query letter to an agent or publisher, you'll never experience the pure joy of writing for yourself, ever again. I sometimes look back on the first novel I ever wrote. It was terrible, of course. But I didn't know that then; I wrote because I was excited to do it, it was new and wonderful and I was understanding this was what I had been missing in my life. I didn't write because someone told me to; I wrote because I wanted to -- only blue skies ahead, happiness, a feeling of belonging. I didn't know, then, the many frustrations of publishing that awaited me. And I miss that.
A 14-year-old should hang on to that for as long as she can. We all should. I worry about all those NaNoWriMo writers out there; are they really, truly, loving the writing? Are they luxuriating in it, deliciously weighing word choices, reading out loud passages that delight them? Or are they simply spilling out words like joyless automatons, publication, publication, publication the only thought in their heads?
I don't know the answer, of course. All I know is that perhaps I allowed one teenager, hopefully, to hang on to the pure joy of writing without thinking of publication.
At least, for a little while longer.