The Ugly Side of Being a Fiction Writer (My Guidelines for Aspiring Fiction Writers)

Recently it's come to my attention through some spirited exchanges on Literary Rejections on Display, as it does at least 100 times every year, how ugly it can get trying to make it as a novelist. Now, I don't claim to have all the answers. If anything, I probably have too many questions. And though I've made some definite progress in my writing career (for which I'm always grateful for), for the most part, to quote Chris Parris-Lamb, the best part of my writing career is definitely ahead of me. All of this makes me want to lay out my own guidelines as an emerging fiction writer. These won't be your guidelines + they won't be your mother's either, unless she writes literary fiction like a motherfucker, but they are my guidelines + they help me remember what's really important in this industry. Maybe, just maybe, they'll help someone out there:

1. Don't hate on other writers. You have every right to crit the shit out of their technique or dislike their novel, or disagree with the premise of one of their short stories or remain emotionally unaffected by the characterization of their last book--published or not--but don't hate on the author. You don't fucking know the author at all, so stop pretending you do. You have no idea how much time she spends working on her writing, how much time he spends editing + revising + changing + pruning + re-revising + editing + revising his shit all over again, how dedicated she is trying to publish her novel + make her career into something besides a delusion of grandeur. For some reason, writers, especially fiction writers can be the most judgmental motherfuckers in the whole world. Put that shit in your novel + spare other writers your own couch psychoanalysis because I promise you, you're wrong 99% of the time when you think you know the author. Also, if you think an aspiring writer is whiny, try submitting 300 manuscripts in three years + then tell me how you're feeling about the industry. The vast majority of the time, writers judge other writers really harshly who are working just as hard as they are + often, even harder, to get to where they are. But all of our hard work is invisible until we get something published, sad as that is.

2. Hate the industry, not the people working in it: While I've never met an editor I didn't totally respect/admire, I've read a lot of industry stories that make me shit on myself. It's time to take a reality pill: The industry, despite itself, publishes fantastic writing (e.g. Jeffrey Eugenides, Jennifer Egan, Don Delillo, Junot Diaz, Haruki Murakami, Susan Choi, Aimee Bender, TC Boyle, Joan Didion, Chuck Palahniuk, Susan Steinberg, Carole Maso, Lydia Davis, Michael Chabon, Phillip Roth, Salman Rushdie, Percival Everrett, Jhumpa Lahiri, Ha Jin, Susan Choi, Julie Ostuka, Nami Mun, to name just a few). But it also publishes a lot of absolute crap: Celebrity memoirs, talented movie stars that publish shitty short story collection just because they're famous (James Franco, I'm talking to you, punk), reality TV stars like Kim Kardashian, Snookie, Amanda Knox. True, commercial shit pays for literary fiction, that's the rub. But it's precisely because publishing houses publish so much crap that literary fiction has no chance of succeeding, making it a self-fulfilling prophecy. It's about accessibility: People can only buy what you put out there + if you don't put enough quality literary fiction, people don't buy it + then then the genre stagnates, slowly dying, continuing the cycle.

And while the above authors don't write workshoppy fiction, a lot of MFA grads who do get contracts do, publishing stories that agents have told me are totally derivative + safe + uninspiring + extremely polished bullshit that no one cares about. If they're lucky, they're one + out. But people need fiction that really matters. The above parenthetical writers do that, but how many other fiction writers never get through to us? Why was Confederation of Dunces not published until after John Kennedy Toole committed suicide? Why is it that we can read Jack London's Martin Eden + it still rings true about the insane cliff of rejection we face that arbitrarily changes even when our writing doesn't? I think about a story Aimee (Bender) told me once how once she had an agent, journals that had rejected her short stories suddenly started accepting the exact same stories, which really pissed her off in the beginning . . . who in his right mind would try + defend that? The system is fucked, but the people working in it are the true champions of the industry. Contradiction? Yup.

3. Don't listen to anyone who says you should fuck all the rules of follow all of them. Personally, I follow 97% of the industry rules, choosing to selectively fight my own battles the other 3% of the time. But some people treat the publishing industry as if it's some sacred child prophet--don't. It's not. It can be improved. It deserves to be critiqued. There are plenty of flaws in the system. But there are also plenty of things that are right about it too, like the authors mentioned above, like publishing houses taking a risk + publishing great art, something that's smart + challenging + richly creative like Infinite Jest + Underworld + Gravity's Rainbow + Ulysses + Hardboiled Wonderland + The End of the World + Ava + A Night at the Movies + Patchwork Girl + so many other great works of art out there, there are plenty of things working in publishing right now, like underpaid, literature-loving editors who are working nights + weekends because they love fiction more than their spouses. In fact, don't listen to anyone else's rules on writing fiction or submitting or craft maxims or writer ego or writer humility, not even mine. Write your own fucking rules + figure out which ones work for you.

4. Don't apologize about your self-confidence. To be honest, you'll fucking need it to make it in this industry. Otherwise, you'll eventually give up after you realize that some authors are publishing stories that are as good, if not worse, than your own stories, which will (should) piss you off. Mary Yukari Waters once told me that your confidence should be quiet confidence. She's probably right. Either way, you'll be criticized for believing in your own ability, you'll be criticized for believing in your own art, for believing that with enough hard work, time + serendipity, you can be the next Hemingway or Salinger or Junot Diaz or Jennifer Egan, for believing that your shit is actually comparable to other authors who've already made it to The Show. But listen, don't pay attention to the haters or the critics. Art isn't modest, it doesn't ask for permission + frankly, often it's not even welcome in the gallery. You just write your ass off + try to meet the right people who love your art + even better, happen to be powerful in the industry too.

Here's the other crazy thing: When you start working with well-known novelists, they'll be the first ones to tell you you've got the right stuff, don't give up, you've got it, keep pushing it, keep writing, you're really talented, you're gonna make it someday if you don't give up, you're already a novelist. They'll actually affirm what you tell yourself on the rough days (which can be every day). And all the things your haters + critics told you you aren't + shouldn't be, all the things they criticize about you, your mentors will, in their own way, affirm that you are + you should be, as long as you have discipline, talent + dedication, as long as you never give up + fight for your outrageous dream. Of course, your critics will tell you you're arrogant + ungrateful, but your mentors, your inner self, the budding artist within, all of them will know that you're not arrogant (that implies you think you're better than other people, a thought you've never had), you're just confident in your own ability, + also hard-working + insatiable + ambitious + creative enough to never be complacent with what you've got, never settling for what the industry gives you, but always creating new momentum for yourself in each possible lifetime. That's how you slowly make your own career, by never settling + always thanking those who have helped you--two things I've always done my entire writing career, two things I'll never stop doing.

Either way, you have to believe in your art, otherwise you'll get your heart broken + you'll give up or you'll burn up with envy + despair, + then a 1,000 other aspiring fiction writers will rush to fill your empty space you worked so hard to carve out for yourself. The truth is, people will always call you arrogant as long as you think your writing deserves to be read, but as long as you're still writing + publishing, who fucking cares what they think about you? Really, the critics/haters are making you strong for the next phase of your career, so you should thank them.