By Sue Burke
I first got paid to write when I was in high school as a columnist for the local newspaper. It was fun, and how many jobs are fun?
By fun I mean it was creative and difficult enough to keep me from getting bored, since you could never fully master the art of writing. It involved variety, since you couldn’t write the exact same piece again and again like making widgets in a factory. By definition, it was interesting, since the final product was supposed to be interesting and sometimes even entertaining for the reader.
I also physically enjoyed the act of writing itself, of arranging and rearranging words in search of perfection, the way some people like to play basketball or guitar.
Besides all that, writing produced a tangible product. I could point to a published article and say, “I did this.”
I spent decades working as a journalist. Someone (exactly who isn’t certain) said you have to write a million words before you get good. Well, I wrote that many – and added to those are the countless additional words that ran past me as an editor.
So for me writing should be easy. Yes … and no, not at all.
Journalism has taught me invaluable lessons: to write to length, on deadline, on almost any topic, clearly, succinctly, engagingly, with the reader in mind. In addition, it taught me to write with proper punctuation and formatting, which always endears you to editors.
But when I decided to branch out into fiction, only some of what I’d learned did me any good. Journalism had taught me to write with dispassion and leave out emotion. Wrong, wrong, wrong – for fiction.
Fiction requires emotion. That’s what readers want most of all: a story to tug at their hearts, to excite them with ideas, to fill them with anticipation. I had to learn how to do it.
So I began writing stories fully aware of how much more I had to master. You can learn from workshops, from books about writing, and from careful reading, and I did all that, but writing is a practice discipline, like playing basketball or guitar. You learn by doing. So I began writing stories, expecting success to take time.
It did. A long time. I got rejections. Lots and lots and lots of rejections. Those early stories boasted of proper punctuation and formatting, maybe even a good idea, but they lacked so much else.
A few times, magazines decided to buy my stories, then folded up shop before they could get them into print or pixels and pay me. Once, a publisher bought a novel and dropped the ball. I might sound dispassionate about these things now, but they hurt. If you were around me at the time, thank you for your sympathy. If you’re hurting about the same sort of thing now, you can cry on my shoulder. I’ll understand.
But I’ve kept going. Why? Because writing is still fun: creative, full of variety, interesting – and I have yet to fully master the art. If I won the lottery, I’d keep on writing.
It’s fun like playing basketball or guitar. Look at how many people are smiling on the court or the stage. Are you smiling when you write?
I think that’s the secret to getting published. Everyone will tell you to be persistent and work on your craft, and you do have to do that, absolutely. But volunteer for each part of the job just like you’d fight and yearn every step of the way to get to play the big game or the big gig. Love every minute of it.
If you don’t enjoy writing, you might not be doing it right – by which I mean doing it the way that will sustain you through all the trials you face. Have fun! (Readers can tell.) The rest will come.
Sue Burke is a writer and translator who has lived in Milwaukee, Austin, Madrid, and is now in Chicago. She has published short stories and articles in a variety of magazines and anthologies, and her novel Semiosis will be published by Tor in January 2018. Her translations include the novels Prodigies by Angélica Gorodischer (Small Beer Press) and The Twilight of the Normidons by Sergio Llanes (Dokusou), and stories in the anthologies Terra Nova and Castles in Spain (Sportula), and Spanish Women of Wonder (Palabaristas), along with an ongoing blog translation of the medieval Spanish novel Amadis of Gaul.
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