Writing: The different stepping stones for a writer

Based on the past days and weeks I decided to write a short blog post on my idea of the different stepping stones in the life of a writer.

This is based on my experiences (and findings) as an SF writer, but I think it applies to a broader field.

The slaughter

I will add graphs of the slaughter later. In brief: around 90% to 95% of all aspiring writers get stuck at fan-publication-level. Either by (lack of) ambition, their (lack of) will or (lack of) sense of reality. (That is fine. The “American dream” and “OK is not good enough” as a criteria for everything and everyone is a lot of harmful bullshit anyway.)

From the fan-publications it is a steady decline. Maybe 1 out of 1.000 or 10.000 writers will make it to the professional publisher with some chances of publication.

With the gap, that decline is not so steady. It is a sudden drop into the gap. Many, who might be able in another process, do not make the jump over the gap. Probably the ones that do make it, are the roughly the same amount as in the situation without the gap. And maybe less. For sure without the gap, more will make it to the end. But that is speculation.

The ideal situation

The different stepping stones in the career of a writer

In the most ideal situation, you have several stepping stones, from Fan-publishers to semi-professionals to the professional publishers.

Start easy, get published

You start with fan-fiction and being published in fan-magazines and when you and your ambitions grow, you grow from semi-pro to pro.

Cranking up the notch

The higher you get, the less easy it becomes to get your work published. Semi-pro’s will refuse stories you already thought were good enough for publications. Stories you felt happy about. Sometimes they will tell you why. Other times they will not.

Increasing stakes

The main reason is a change in interest. Pro- and semi-pro publishers have higher production cost, higher stakes, need to reach a wider audience, can not settle with “OK”. They have commercial targets to reach at least break even to cover for the investments. Their audience expect a quality level at least equal to comparable publications. Even if these publications are in different genres.

Is each page you write worth 1000 euro?

So: you need to be good. You story needs to be good enough to convince other people to pay money for it, to risk their business on. Thousands of euro’s per page in some cases (cost of staff, production, distribution, your  story instead of sellable advertisement space). So: “is each page your write worth 1000 euro?” (Situations and cost/revenue per page differ per medium and publisher, but it gives a general impression.)

Stepping stones and growth

All these stepping stones help you, as a writer, to develop yourself. First in short stories. Later in longer and even novel-sized (60.000 words and more) tales. For each phase in your development there is a publisher and a medium to expose yourself in: to be exposed in.

The gap

The gap

Things change dramatically when there is a gap.

Why fan-publications will always be there

In most cases — in your market — you will find one or more fan magazines and fan publishers. Hell! You can start one yourself. Simpy launch a website, start collecting stories, promote yourself and produce ebooks. BLAM! the Fan-publisher is born.

Semi-pro’s

Semi-pro magazines might/probably exist in this landscape as well. Semi-pro magazines are in some (if not most) cases: “fan-publishers plus”. Nobody on the staff gets paid. The writers and illustrators might get paid.  The revenues (if there) are enough to cover cost of production. What changes is the selection process. Where fan-publishers publish anything that resembles a readable story, semi-pro’s are thinking of bigger things. They want quality. They want to offer this bridge between fan-publishers and the professionals. They — in most cases — understand the role and importance of people who take things a level higher while still providing openings for stories and writers who are not there yet.

Why are semi-pro not pro?

The main differences between a semi-pro and a pro are two:

  1. Stakes and the business model — A pro HAS to pay all bills from sales of the works they publish. The semi-pro does so partially, but has other sources of income as a fallback. Money is important, but publishing more.
  2. Employees — Where a semi-pro can get away with volunteers, the pro cannot.

You might expect the selection process and quality of publications, but that is really not the differentiator here.  There is a full possibility (not a default) that semi-pro’s can publish equal and even better work than the pro’s.

The gap

What is this gap? This gap is primarily the (missing) opportunity for a writer to grow as a professional, to produce as a professional, to be rewarded, to be read by professionals and to be discovered by the professional publisher.

The professional publisher

The professional publisher has several ways to discover you.

  1. Via an agent — (Common in England and the US) The agent does all the pre-selection. Goes through the slush-pile (the manuscripts sent by all kinds of writers). The agent looks at commercial value and your chances to be published and sold and make money. 
  2. Via your work and presence — This is more common in the Netherlands (I think). You have shown you can do it in the past by writing and publishing novels. By showing increase in quality and a stable production. When they invest in you, you are already matured in some senses.
  3. Via reference — This is kind of the “agent” thing. In some cases, you and your work are there, of sufficient quality, but invisible due to a lack in several factors (see the illustration on “the gap”). In short: you are recommended to a publisher by someone that publisher has trust in.

The importance of short stories

Short stories are essential for writers to develop themselves. And “short” is anything from 1.000 to 10.000 words. Here is my best take on the “why”:

  1. Complexity/simplicity/time — Long stories 5.000 and up are usually more complex and require a lot of work. Shorter stories are simpler (not easier!) and usually can be “perfected” in shorter time.
  2. Freedom/experimentation — Short stories allow you to experiment. You can try new styles. You can experiment with view points. You can test ideas. You can drop it easier when it does not work out. Where a long (5.000 or 10.000 words and more) can easily take weeks and months to produce, short (less than 5.000 or 10.000) can be done in two or three weekends.
  3. Time/production — The longer a story takes, the less you have time to try other things.
  4. Publication/visibility — Write a short story. Edit, improve, rewrite, edit and send it. Get published. Write more. If you are steady you can produce around 5 to 10 stories per year. If you do your work right, 70% to 90% of those stories will be published. When you are published, you become visible.
  5. Contests/visibility — Publishers/agents love contests. Mainly because someone else does a lot of selection-work for them. And whatever is the top-5 usually is the best that has been submitted. When — additionally — you show you are a steady writer, your chances increase to be published.

The importance of (semi) pro magazines

Magazines in 2012 are more than just the paper ones. They are anything resembling the formula of a magazine. They can be in HTML format (website) or PDF or eBook format. Here is why I think (semi) pro magazines are crucial (and why I published a semi-pro myself, over 20 years ago)

  1. Pruning/selection/effort — Magazines select. They need good material in this issue to sell the next issue. You have to do some effort.
  2. Shorts/send your best experiments — They love short stories (if they publish them), so you can send them
  3. Mirror/reality check — They offer you a mirror. Think you are good enough? Think your story fits their style? Think you nailed it? A rejection says you are not. A acceptation says you do.
  4. Feedback/training — Usually, (semi) pro magazines have an editor that will look at your story and tell you where it needs improvement. This feedback will train you to look with different and more “extended” eyes to your own work. Sure you thought you had it there, but X, Y or Z was still missing.
  5. Quality standard/goal/purpose — Magazines (can) give you a quality-standard to work towards to. They can give you a goal/purpose to really make that effort to up the notch a bit (or a lot).
  6. Visibility/range/audience — Even if you are just one of many, you become visible. You are given the opportunity to reach an audience. And people who care will read you. And if your story speaks to them, they will remember you.
  7. Fellow writers/part of the group — You will start finding fellow writers on same and similar levels as you. Who will recognize you as such as well as you “passed the test” of becoming published on/in a certain platform/magazine. You become part of the group. This opens up a lot more opportunities for cooperations and new people to get feedback from than when you are not.

Goals as a writer

Let’s talk goals here. Goals differ per writer. And they are only “wrong” when they start hurting. I was listing some possible  goals, but stopped.

You: the writer write. Maybe 1 story per year. Maybe 10 per month. You write long stories, maybe even novels. Your goals might be to get published by a professional publisher or not. Maybe you decided for self-publishing. Maybe you write to show you can. Vanity. Maybe you set yourself high standards. Maybe not.

Maybe you are not at all interested in publishing a novel at all, but you do like the short stories and you really kick ass in that and even make part of your living out of that.

Maybe none of the above.

The path towards a professional publisher is not mandatory. It is just a path. Each stop on that path has its own elements of awesomeness and while some want to go all the way, others do not want to at all.

In the end, the graph just shows levels of difficulty. From “easy” to “very hard”.

The gap, the writer and the publisher

When there is a gap in this trajectory (and you/the writer do/does want to get published by a professional publisher) several things can happen.

  1. Writers get stuck in the first stage — They continue to write, but do not really develop by lack of stimulans and feedback. (Apart from lack of will and ambition.)
  2. Obscurity — Writers continue to write, but have no way to expose themselves. Because there is no real platform to show your better work on. At least: in your own country or region. And how do you get discovered when you are invisible?
  3. Elsewhere — Writers aim at platforms elsewhere. Abroad. In other regions. This involves extra barriers of which language is the most important.

Money / a living

Can you make a living from writing?

Some can. By writing day to day, by writing and selling articles to magazines. By journalism. The book deals themselves usually hardly cut it and — unless you live in an area with a lot of people talking that same language as you do — will hardly pay for three months of dedicated work.

You need to be really good and really smart at what you do to get past the welfare levels of income. To get past that stage where each month without a check or payment is one of gut-wrenching despair.

Why that gap is important

The gap makes it harder. Authors who could break through, have to leap a much greater distance. There is no gradual grow-path. No “jump to the next level”.

From easy as is you suddenly are thrown in a pit where your work becomes work. Where someone says “no”. “Not good enough”. “We see no future in you”. Where you have to show something on levels of working you are not trained in yet. Like running 3 kilometers without proper preparation or training and standing halfway puking because your body says “fuck you” to you.

The gap is the part where you — the author — can get trained (by others, via their feedback and support) in a gradual and step by step process to become that professional and run those 3 kilometers and cross the finish line smiling and ready for 3 kilometers more because you are just getting warmed up.

Some end notes

With Amazon and comparable platforms the game has changed somewhat.

There are authors who move to self-publishing and some who do that well (or become an unexpected success). The “doing it well” is writing, selling your work and get hundreds of responses within Amazon with 4 stars and more:

  1. Because it is professionally done — Well edited. No fluff. No obnoxious errors. Proper promotion and promotional texts. Well taken care of. Proper title page.  Good to read.
  2. It is well written — Engaging, fun, exiting, smart, sexy, bold.

While the game changes, the mechanics do not. Stepping stones are essential. They help. They support. They make it easier. They make you feel less alone in that process of growth.

You do not sell because your story is there. You sell because people pick you up, have some expectations of what is to come and are matched and even best and awed by your work. To get there as an author takes a lot of dedication to the work.

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