Liars Club

What Do I Wish I’d Known…or You’re Kidding, Right?

by Gregory Frost on April 30, 2010

in Advice for Writers,The Writing Life

“What did you wish you knew before publishing your first book or story.”

Well, I was going to say, I wish I’d known how long it would take to sell my first work of fiction. But then I thought about that and realized, no, if I’d known how long, I might have quit before I ever started.

Shadowbridge

Some years back I was teaching a workshop at a conference where Justin Cronin was the guest speaker. Cronin, like me, was a U of Iowa grad, and he talked about how, at the end of his graduate studies, with an MFA now all but secured, he had a moment of abject terror as he realized he was suddenly going to be cast out of academia. No more workshop, no more writing classes. That part of the story always reminds me of Bill Murray and Dan Ackroyd in Ghostbusters where Ackroyd explains to Murray that, really, he doesn’t want to be kicked out of academia and into the real world because out there in the real world they expect results.

In a panic, Justin Cronin said that he ran to his advisor who was also the head of the workshop. I think at that time it would have been Pat Conroy. And he explained his situation, his terror, and asked, “What should I do?”

Conroy replied, “Write for ten years.”

Cronin said it was the best advice anyone ever gave him. He left Iowa and then labored away as much as he could out there in the real world, always writing, always thinking about writing–about his story, its shape, its characters, its impact. And almost ten years later exactly, he sold his first novel.

I teach writing classes–everyone from high school students up through retirees. And nobody I tell that story to likes to hear it. The high school kids want it right now. And guess what, so do the fifty-year-olds. They want to be published today. This minute. This is understandable. But it’s not reality. Not remotely.

Lord TophetSure, there’s always going to be somebody who is the overnight success, and people will always point to her and say, “See? It could happen!” True. It could. But for every one of those, there are five gazillion people working away, thinking about writing, about their stories, their characters.

So, in a sense, I kind of wish someone had said to me what Conroy said to Cronin. Because what that really says is, “Embrace the process. Love the writing itself for itself. If you publish it, well that’s good, too. But don’t make that your goal. Make telling the best story in the world your goal–the best you know how to write. And from that learn how to write the next one better. And so on, until you write something so good you can’t believe it.” Maybe your first story will be golden. Maybe not. Don’t worry about that so much that you forget this is a craft to which you’re choosing to apprentice yourself, because you love it. It’s easy to forget that while you’re chasing the big dollar sign. Now and then, remember to remind yourself why you write.

Your answer should be, because you have to.

Frost portraitGregory Frost is the bestselling author of Shadowbridge, Lord Tophet, Fitcher’s Brides, and the short story collection Attack of the Jazz Giants & Other Stories. His latest short fiction can be found in the anthologies Full Moon City, The Beastly Bride, and Cthulhu Reigns. He’ll be reading one of those stories on Tuesday, May 4th at the SoHo Gallery for Digital Art, 138 Sullivan Street, in New York City at around 7:30. Drop by if you’re in the neighborhood. His web site is www.gregoryfrost.com
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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Jon Gibbs May 1, 2010 at 6:00 am

Great post, Greg.

Patience is a hard lesson to learn. Thanks for sharing :)

Ashley K. May 1, 2010 at 2:28 pm

I come here from Twitterland. Great post! Everyone needs to learn to have patience and if you are a writer, don’t you want to write for the rest of your life? I know I do. Ten years doesn’t seem so bad to me.

Jessie Mac June 25, 2010 at 6:40 am

Thanks for the post, Gregory. I’m just starting out and still in the process of writing my first novel. Recently I’ve been getting my head around the writer’s platform and what it involves. When you’re trying to build platform, you have your business head on and sometimes the real reason why you’re writing in the first place.

Lauren June 28, 2010 at 6:07 pm

Wow. By the sound of it, it reminds me of what an upcoming actor would have to do while waiting for a big break – take a normal job and moonlight as a thespian. Any suggestions of what a person could do in the writing world as a main job while waiting for their own “big break”?

frost June 30, 2010 at 3:31 pm

From my own experience…take a job that pays well, rather than thinking you can get by on some low-paying part-time jobs to “fill in.” With the latter you actually end up burning up more time and for much less money. If you’re going to have a job, have a real one. Second, don’t take a job in a bookstore, as you will find yourself stocking books by a lot of writers who can’t write for toffee and you will just get depressed that you’re trapped here in this bookstore while they are in print. Third, if possible make it a job that doesn’t involve writing, so that the writing part of your brain is still fresh (Of course, you should be writing before you go to work, but that isn’t always realistic). Some writers have described having a job that allowed them to run pretty much on auto pilot so that they were working out things in their fiction a lot of the time. Lighthouse keeper would be good…

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