2017 has started out with a bang for me. Last week, Shimmer (one of my absolute favourite zines), bought one of my stories (*toots own horn loudly*). And if that wasn’t enough for confetti and fireworks: the same day, Flash Fiction Online bought another one of my stories. (Can you say, “best day ever”? I did. Repeatedly.) It’s the second story I’ve sold to FFO, and I could not be happier: it’s an awesome feeling when your story finds a good home!
Happiness and contentment are fleeting emotions when you’re a writer (don’t I know it!), but these recent developments have made me reflect on how I first started out as a writer, and where I’ve ended up. And yes, that means that you’re in for a flashback from the way-back machine, because let me tell you, kids: I’m old.
Several eons ago, in an era we can call “the 1980s”, I debuted as a writer in Sweden. It went something like this:
When I was 19 years old I submitted my first finished collection of poetry to Norstedts, Sweden’s second biggest publishing house. When I was 20, the collection was accepted and published, receiving decent reviews in several national newspapers. Looking back on it now when I am a lot older and somewhat wiser, and certainly more knowledgeable about the world of publishing and writing, this seems 100% laughable and absurd. (Maybe the most laughable thing about it, really, is that I felt confident enough to send those poems to a publisher.)
After that debut, I wrote two more collections of poetry, a novel, and a collection of short stories for the same Swedish publisher. Then, several things happened all at once. My editor retired, and shortly after that, my publisher rejected two things I’d written: a novel and a collection of poetry. They’d never rejected anything I’d written before. They’d asked for rewrites, yes, but never outright said no to anything.
Confession: I was not prepared for rejection. I had no callouses, no hard shell. I was soft and squishy, and I was crushed.
Around the same time, life also happened. It had been happening for a while, but now the happening intensified. Having kids (thank the heavens for them, by the way) turned out to take up a whole lot of time, and I went from pretty much writing whenever I felt like it, to not having time to write, and then not being able to write even if I had the time.
I still wrote. I took courses in technical writing. I blogged about travel and music. But fiction, somehow, seemed impossible to create. It’s hard for me to articulate why, but writer’s block or writing-phobia might cover it. To make things more complicated, I was also trying to make up my mind about what language to write in. Everything I’d written until then – fiction, poetry, the lot – was written in Swedish. Should I start writing in English? It seemed like a no-brainer: I speak English fluently. I translate between Swedish and English. I’ve lived in Canada for a very long time.
But writing fiction and poetry in English? That was something else entirely. I wasn’t sure whether I would (or even could) have the kind of fine-tuned touch and ear for words and idioms and the rhythm of language that I felt I had in Swedish. As writers we often talk about “voice”, and “finding our voice”. That’s essentially what I was worried about: what would my “voice” sound like if I switched to writing in English? Maybe everything I wrote in English would come across as ridiculous and mediocre.
When I finally made a firm resolution to get back to fiction writing a few years ago, I was excited, but also completely and utterly terrified: terrified of rejection, terrified of not being good enough, terrified of writing in English. Self-publishing turned out to be a way to get around some of those internal obstacles. I self-published my science fiction short story collection ‘Odin’s Eye’ and the feedback was good enough that I figured I wasn’t a total joke. Then, I met fellow author Maria Savva online, and she roped me into writing for the anthology ‘People Are Strange’. This was huge for me: I liked her writing, and when she asked me to contribute, it boosted my confidence. (Like Sylvia Plath once said: “The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt”. She knew of what she spoke.)
Since then, I’ve been doing my best and trying my hardest to just jump in there, to “go for it”, to do the things I’m scared of, to put one foot in front of the other every day: reading more new fiction, reading new writers, reading zines and books and anthologies, especially new fantasy, horror, and science fiction.
In the beginning, I set word-count goals for myself (for the first time in my life). A minimum of 500 words a day at first, then 1000 words a day. Even if I wrote crap, I tried to stick to it in order to break out of my “oh no, I can’t write” habit. (I don’t stick to the word count goal as strictly today, but I really needed that as a guide and whip in the beginning.) I read Stephen King’s ‘On Writing’ and finally got it through my thick skull that rejection is a fundamental part of life as a writer: it’s not the end of the road, it’s what paves the road.
And I started writing stories again. Thanks to Maria Savva, I wrote two stories for ‘People Are Strange’ and I liked what I’d written. I started feeling as though I was finding my “English voice” as a writer, and it was both similar and different than it had been in Swedish. I also started getting all sorts of story ideas. They were crowding in and I couldn’t write fast enough to get them all out. I met a great crowd of writers online, and realized that I’d never really had a circle of writing friends before. (Pre-internet, which is when I started out, networking and finding other writers to socialize with wasn’t always easy, especially if you lived far away from where things were “happening”.)
Life-hack: writer friends are a good thing to have when you’re a writer. I mean, friends are always a great thing, but it is nice to find people you can share tips and experiences with (or hey, even collaborate with!).
In 2016, things began happening for real. My alternate history short story ‘Tunguska, 1987’ was accepted by Inklings Press and published in Tales From Alternate Earths. The story, and the anthology, received some great reviews. I participated in R.B. Wood’s Word Count Podcast on a regular basis, writing flash fiction for the first time in my life, and realizing I loved it. (I found the podcast through Eden Baylee, another writer friend.) The podcast also became a sort of regular writing exercise for me, and a way to pick myself up when I was feeling low: when I felt down and stuck, it made me feel better if I hammered out a flash piece for the podcast.
In the fall of 2016, Flash Fiction Online made my year when they accepted my story ‘Scent’. Around the same time, Gamut bought my story ‘Metal, Sex, Monsters’ (it will see the light of day later this year). Since then, I’ve sold a few more stories, and some days, I almost feel like I’m a real writer. I am doing it! I am writing again! This stuff is so easy, amirite?
Except it isn’t exactly easy, of course. Beneath those islands of accepted and published stories, there is a vast and deep ocean of rejections.
I had so many story rejections in 2016 that I’m not even going to bother counting them. I wrote a ton of stories, and I was rejected a ridiculous number of times, but I kept going. Rejection letters no longer crush me as they once might have when I was young and soft. I have a list and a spreadsheet! I know where I can send stories off to next.
Valuable lessons learned: I’ve learned to take a licking and keep on ticking. I’ve also learned to finish stories: to stick with the stories that are hard work, because doing so usually teaches me something new and valuable: Why did a story not work? Why was it hard to finish? What was missing?
What’s the moral of this tale? I don’t know. That I am older, but wiser, and better at what I do? I am definitely tougher and more resilient.
Do I mourn the years I wasted in the pit of writer’s block? Not really. I’ve come to the conclusion that maybe I needed those years in the pit in order to come out as a better writer. Sometimes, things just take time.
To sum up:
- Young me: I can’t submit work because omg what if it’s rejected and I die and no one ever reads me and then I am a huge fraud?
- Old me: Do it anyway.