Appreciations, part 2 of 3: Teachers Who Are Also Writers
In addition to being given absolute permission to follow that star, a budding writer needs support that maybe their parents, if they're not writers themselves, can't give: concrete knowledge about the path leading to that star. Also knowledge about avoiding things unhelpful to the journey. Knowledge that enables, and knowledge that inoculates.
These days, though I've never submitted a book for publication but once (unsuccessfully) nor attempted to attract the interest of an agent, I feel fairly confident I can avoid the scammy pitfalls that many writers fall prey to when they first begin seeking publication. And if you get me on my soapbox I can talk about the hallmarks of publishing scams and bad agents until the cows have not only come home but have also been tucked into bed. I devoutly hope some of my soapbox time has helped prevent a friend from falling into the 7-year clutches of Publish America or the black hole that is the Barbara Bauer Literary Agency.
I learned a lot of what I know in that regard from the good writers and editors in the AbsoluteWrite.com Forum community. That's where I heard "Yog's Law: Money flows toward the writer," i.e. don't pay to be published; the proper relationship of writer to publisher is as a vendor, not as a customer. That's where I learned that reputable publishers consider readers their customers, that reputable agents only get paid when you do, that fee-bearing contests are generally less useful than the for-free, year-round "contest" you enter every time you submit a story to a paying market, that an advance against royalties is the publisher's estimate of how much your book will sell. That a reputable publisher or agent generally doesn't surf the internet in search of more manuscripts, since they get plenty mailed to them without asking. That if a publisher or agent tells you they'll give you "the chance you deserve," that their competition is "afraid of them" because they're going to single-handedly "revolutionize the industry," you should turn your back and run--not walk--as far away from them as quickly as you can.
The more a writer knows about how the industry works, the better choices they can make and the less likely they are to be wooed by incompetents and frauds. But that knowledge needs a home prepared for it in the writer's mind.
For that, I have a couple more teachers to thank.
I continued on at Metairie Park Country Day (with the exception of 5th grade, about which long story), and eventually I got to my sophomore year in high school. That year I had the opportunity to give up a free period (free periods! oooh!) and instead take a one-on-one writing elective in the brand-spanking-new computer lab.
(This is also when I started using WordPerfect 5.1. The computer lab was full of Macs, and my parents had a PC running Windows 3.1. MS Works was no more compatible with, well, anything then than it is now. My brother's after-school tutor lent me the 5.25" floppies to illicitly install WP51, and the rest is history.)
Our English department boasted not one but two published authors: Betsy Petersen and Chet Day. Under them (making it more of a two-to-one class than a one-on-one), I had a designated daily class period in which nothing was expected of me but the sound of typing. If I finished a piece, I could of course turn the draft in for them to read and comment on.
What a boon that was for a young writer! I believe I've gushed about this before: Designated writing time doesn't only give a writer time to ply her craft; it also gives her explicit permission to take time to write. You see the difference? That elective didn't just say, "It's important enough to spend an hour every day doing it." It said, "You are allowed to consider writing this important." This is exceedingly vital permission to give a beginning writer. Oftentimes we don't get it at all. It's much more the case that we hear, "Are you busy? Oh, just writing, huh? In that case, you can spare some time to watch my kids/chop some vegetables/run an errand for me..."
But I got told, "Writing is important. If you want to make it your life, then give it space in your life every day." And having learned that, I've strived to surrounded myself with people who respect that. It's a good thing.
So that was awesome. Then, in senior year, we did it again, but this time with a fellow classmate. (Hi, Chip!). Throughout the year the two of us read each other's work and critiqued it under Mr. Day's and Ms. Petersen's guidance. And that was even more awesome.
And at some point during that year (or the sophomore one, I'm not sure), I asked our teachers, "So... how does one go about getting a story published?"
I remember Mr. Day's answer like it was this morning. "Well, first, do you think you're ready for your story to get rejected?"
"If I'm not," said I, "I had better be."
And so I learned about preparing a manuscript for professional submission, about researching a market's content and guidelines, about form rejections and personal rejections. I learned how to navigate the library's copy of The Writer's Market. But, more importantly, I learned how to think about rejection letters. I learned that submitting a manuscript may feel like baring your soul to an uncaring world which will spit in your face, but that in reality it's just attempting to sell a product. And I made my very first professional submission and I got my very first rejection letter. (About this, more later.)
I'm not going to claim that I magically bypassed that whole "taking it personally" thing that we writers do when we get rejected. I'm still there. No matter how much I go, "Ah, another rejection letter. Time to submit elsewhere!" I've still got that voice in my head going "But... but... but don't they love me?" Like acrophobia while rock climbing, I doubt that voice will ever go away.
But I learned from the beginning that I would feel that way, and that the goal was to keep submitting anyway. And to be a professional about it. And also to not make a jackass of myself by letting that awful rejected feeling dictate how I react.
Instinctual fear of heights? Climb anyway; you're safe. Instinctual fear of rejection? Keep writing and keep submitting. The fear never gets smaller. But the task of moving forward despite the fear gets easier, and that makes the fear seem smaller.
Another thing I learned: Reasonable expectations. A rejection letter means either the story hasn't found the right editor or the story simply isn't ready. It doesn't mean the publishing industry is broken or unprepared for the shining spectacle of my golden words. Knowing that is key to being a professional, to improving the writer's craft, to avoiding the scammers who prey on rejection disillusionment, and to allowing an editor to help improve the story even more after your story gets... *gulp* ...accepted.
This is getting long, and the punchline I'm trying to get to is still a ways off. So here's one of those "To be continued" endings Mrs. Waters would remember from way back when, and we'll finish up tomorrow.