Frankly, I have never taken authors’ recipes for writing success seriously. “Those who don’t know, teach,” as the old saw goes. In any case, it is quite easy to make money writing. Infinitely more difficult is caring about what you write, without enduring the enervation and stupid inefficiency of the query/rejection-letter cycle.
That said, a beginning writer should realize first and foremost that anyone literate can write. Many of them (including myself) overestimate their talent. This busy swarm of deluded mediocrities is your competition.
The people transcending this swarm share a few characteristics. Their favorite medium is the book, and they read widely and voraciously; they often prefer writing to speaking; and they are, as writer Pico Iyer once said of himself, “ferociously disciplined.” This last is probably the most important. But it is also the most difficult to learn. This is why so much advice, e.g. the endless variations on the “killer query letter” theme, is so ineffectual. (Bad advice requires the most repetition.)
When I first began writing seriously for publication, I made the grave mistake of sending unsolicited and rather experimental fiction by post — from and about Thailand, no less — to American academic literary journals I didn’t respect in the first place. Eight months later I can proudly crow that all have been rejected or ignored.
Fortunately, while missives of doom were assailing my mailbox, I switched entirely to email correspondence. This retrenchment, however, carried a rider: I would not, under any circumstances, donate my work. I would write only for copies or money. This was a crucial decision, as it implied the maintenance of standards. The occasional, galvanizing rejection (the opportunity, as Saul Bellow said, to say “to hell with you”) instilled the virtuous habit of revision.
After a while, I had enough publications to put on a website. I purposefully tried to make it as “non-promotional” as possible, having realized that self-promotion often only makes one look pathetic. To this site I would refer future editors. Hereabouts I had a further revelation: most of my works had been accepted when they were sent in response to an explicit plea for manuscripts. There are editors not grousing about their swamp of submissions. Look to them first: they are looking for such as you.
Curiously enough, given my newfound appreciation of the Internet, I got my first substantial writing gig through a classified ad appearing in the Bangkok Post. I earned almost $2000 in two months for a score of articles. This breakthrough led to my being selected as a stringer for a print publication in Italy. In a few months, I had transformed myself from a fiction writer to a travel writer to a journalist. The market had spoken. Adam Smith’s invisible hand had patted me gently into the category of the well-fed hack.
Each of these opportunities was secured by my location. The importance of foreign travel, if not foreign residency, cannot be underestimated. It is a kind of effortless degree program – an accidental expertise. And it generally implies a lower cost of living. I could not have succeeded at writing in America: what little the average scribbler needs, costs far too much.
Which leads me back to my thesis, such as it is. Writing successfully is primarily a matter of obstinacy, resilience, discipline, risk – and not a little immodesty. If you tell people you want to write, and their knee-jerk derision is a deathblow and not a goad, your hide may be too thin. Fortify your hide, I say – not your query letters.
Kenneth A. Champeon, Suan Pai Lom, 220 Moo 1 Huay Kaew Road, Chiang Mai, Thailand 50300, Tel. 66 53 892 771