Turning Whine Into Gold
We have just experienced the longest night of the year, when keeping hope alive is a real challenge for those with seasonal affective disorder, those grieving losses, or those writers experiencing the Long Night of the Pre-Published Soul. It is hard to want something for so many years, so intensely, while working toward a distant goal. The yearning can become downright painful.
Others are getting published, we notice. Our Facebook feed is full of them. At first we cheer heartily from the sidelines—it bodes well for us that people are still getting offers of representation and book deals and prizes!—but after a few years, we can’t help but wonder when our turn will come.
If only the road to publication had belt rankings.
Watching my son rise through the rankings toward his black belt in Tae Kwon Do over the course of many years, I admired the clarity of the system. You knew exactly what to do to get to the next level. When you have completed the requisite tasks, a testing day is assigned when you get to prove your worth. If you pass, your mentor bows in respect and bestows the earned belt—and once you earn it, the belt is not taken away.
Wouldn’t it be nice if our journey as writers could have such well-defined tests and rewards on the way to the black belt of book publication, so we knew how we were doing?
I base the following on quotes obtained at the American Taewondo Association website. I love the descriptions here—as well as the following admonishment:
It is worth noting that achieving a belt isn't just a matter of "spending enough time" in a previous belt. In order to achieve their next rank, a student must demonstrate their proficiency in their current belt's techniques.
Hmm… Let’s see what the rankings can offer us.
“Pure and without knowledge... As with the Pine Tree, the seed must now be planted and nourished to develop strong roots.”
We bring so much to the beginning of our writing journeys: a great story idea, life experience, college degrees, and perhaps even a career in journalism or another type of writing. Yet our slate is often emptier than we realize. We must humble ourselves for the journey.
“The sun is beginning to rise. As with the morning's dawn, only the beauty of the sunrise is seen rather than the immense power.”
Ah, that first intoxicating day we sat down to write. Look at all those black marks on the page, where previously there were none! Creating a character can be as exhilarating as giving birth; putting her in trouble breaks our hearts. And that turn of phrase! We are ablaze with the emotional intensity of creative writing.
“The seed is beginning to see the sunlight.”
We start grasping the basics of the craft and its challenges. We want all the light we can get, and leave our lonely writing cave for workshops, conferences, and any other education we can gobble up.
Camouflage (Camo) Belt
“The sapling is hidden amongst the taller pines and must now fight its way upward.”
We look around and realize that everyone and her brother are writing novels, and seek to find our true place in what we now realize is a huge industry we must learn about. We seek our strengths so we can capitalize upon them; to define the type of story we are drawn to write; to develop our unique voice. We realize we will have to compete to earn our spot.
“The pine tree is beginning to develop and grow in strength.”
Our writing is developing power. The components of storytelling are beginning to work in unison. We see our shortcomings and seek the additional resources needed to rectify them. Dipping a toe into the competitive waters, we enter a few contests.
“Coming to the mountain. The tree is in the mid-growth and now the path becomes steep.”
Through critique partners, short story submissions, early agent queries, and other means, we discover that telling a great story and marketing it effectively requires a much steeper learning curve than we had ever imagined. We enter a forest thick with rejection, but if we can just push through, we’ll find we are high enough up the mountain to look back and see how far we’ve come.
“The tree reaches for the sky toward new heights.”
The air thins; many of our friends desert us by heading back down the mountain or self-publishing prematurely. Early supporters question our sanity. Keeping our sights on the summit will take inner resolve and discipline.
“The tree is firmly rooted in the earth.”
Now grounded in self-confidence born of craft and self-awareness, we can better withstand the storms of criticism. Knowing we will not backslide, our education will be greatly supplemented by reaching back and mentoring others through their early climb.
“The sun is setting. The first phase of growth has been accomplished.”
Our craft is firm but inflexible; we need to apply it over and over to gain the resiliency required of a working author by testing it on new stories. We must keep in mind that if we reach the summit the first question will be, “So what else are you working on?”
“The dawn of a new day. The sun breaks through the darkness.”
It is time to put our writing to the real test. Those of us already submitting are starting to get positive feedback from in-person pitches and requests for pages from emailed queries. We have the skills we need; now it’s a matter of aligning with just the right advocate.
“The tree has reached maturity and has overcome the darkness... it must now plant seeds for the future.”
Black results when all the colors of the light spectrum are absorbed into an object. We have taken control of the colors and retained them, and our agent and an acquiring editor will testify to our preparedness and mastery. We have reached the summit—of this mountain. You know the mountaineering continues, right? This is only a first-degree black belt. There’s a second, and third, and…
If you are still within the longest night of the pre-published soul, give yourself a belt to honor the path already traveled. What color is it? What do you need to work on to earn the next belt?
Her work as a developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com, specializing in storytelling structure and writing craft, follows a nineteen-year career as a dance critic. Long a leader in the southeastern Pennsylvania writing scene, she now serves as book club liaison for the Women’s Fiction Writers Association. She hosts lakeside writing retreats for women in northern New York State, leads workshops, and speaks often about writing.
Kathryn lives with her husband in Bucks County, PA.
Photo credit by Lorena G at Dribble.