By Tony Palumbi
I don’t think I’ve made too many mistakes in publishing, but that’s mostly for lack of chances. I’m pretty new to the industry, with two titles to my name, so thus far I’ve had my hand held pretty tight. By the time I get to the point of actually drafting and assembling chapters, everything’s defined clearly enough to prevent errors from being costly in terms of time. That’s really the most important currency in this business, I’ve decided: time.
Everything takes time, even the things that don’t seem like they should, and as an author I try to take this into account with my every choice. If I pursue a project and it ultimately leads nowhere, the cost is in time rather than capital. If I please my agent, my editor, my publisher, the time will be well spent regardless of what does or doesn’t get published. Something happening quicker doesn’t make it better or more desirable, though doing something better will occasionally help it happen quicker. If an idea isn’t ready yet, I’ve got time to fix it. If a passage doesn’t quite work, I’ve got time to fix it.
Appreciating this can also help avoid writer’s block. The block is ultimately just a kind of fear–my fear that whatever I’m writing is bad, or not good enough. Seeing all the work on a continuum of labor and revision and time spent keeps my little mistakes in perspective. It makes my commitments feel concrete, since I’m not just saying “okay I’ll do this” but rather committing months if not years of my career. If something isn’t worth that price, it’s not worth doing. The long view keeps me–I like to think–from writing stupid and intemperate things.
Immediacy is impossible; intimacy should be the writer’s goal. It’s in the desperation to be intimate too immediately that we make sloppy mistakes and embarrass ourselves. I always try to write imagining someone reading my work ten years from now, divorced from all the context and topicality and pop culture bullshit we take for granted in our lives. If what I’m saying wouldn’t land for them, I’m doing something wrong.
My only real enduring errors are emotional. I can let myself get wrapped up in the day’s events or how I’m feeling right then or whether I recently received a rejection notice. I don’t handle rejection well. I’m not sure anyone does. Everything a writer does is personal, so rejection feels just as personal even when it shouldn’t. It took a long time and a great many rejection letters before anything I did found a foothold, and the rejection never stops just because you’ve had success. It feels personal, but what I eventually learned is that it’s personal on the other side too. Someone who doesn’t like your stuff (or who maybe likes your stuff but feels it’s not the right project at the right moment) is just that: one person who didn’t like it. Only one person. Maybe the next person will think it’s great! If you trust in yourself and your ability, it’ll happen eventually.
The question I can’t answer is where to place that trust. Like any branch of the entertainment industry, writing is a prestige profession. It’s a tournament system that by design winnows down large populations to a few striving elite, and more than anything else that system responds to talent. It’s not enough to want this, or to work your ass off in the pursuit. The world is full of people who want what you want just as badly as you do and they’re willing to work just as hard.
Either you’ve got the right mix of talent and opportunity–neither evenly distributed, neither properly earned–or you don’t. I always felt I did, even from a very young age, and perhaps that was stupid or arrogant. Perhaps it still is. This is a brutal industry and nobody should waste their time and energy making a go at it, but it’s so tantalizing that many of us just can’t help ourselves. We try to enjoy it while it’s there, while the readers will still have us.