I am not an unpublished writer, but my non-blog work is not published often. And I am okay with that at the moment. I am seeing improvement in my writing and an increase in confidence in myself as a self-confessed writer. Given that I took a decades-long break from writing fiction, I did not expect to start back up again and be able to make a living writing. I do, hope, eventually to sell my novel and to have more short stories published, but I am not tracking my development as a writer based on the amount of my work that other people have paid me to publish. Not yet.
But, I am watching my development. Not too closely, because I find that stifling.
For the past three years, I have been tracking my progress in relation to what I learn at the Ontario Writers Conference. Conferences that mix panels on the craft and business of writing with networking time and readings allow me to gauge where I am on the continuum from novice writer to award-winning novelist or fan favourite. I believe that the messages that stick with me after an event like that reveal more about me and my stage in the process than they do about the individual speakers. I hear the messages that I am ready for and the rest washes over me.
I first attended the Ontario Writers Conference in 2010. That year, Robert J. Sawyer gave the keynote speech, a lecture based on Robert A. Heinlein’s Rules for Writers, a lecture very close in content to an article you can find on his website. I had just started editing my first NaNoWriMo story and was feeling very discouraged, but I was committed to continuing to write fiction. Although three of Heinlein’s rules have to do with selling one’s work, I could only hear the first two: you must write and finish what you start. The main thought I left with that day was “Keep writing. Make time to write and don’t give up.”
The next year, I was still struggling with revisions of the same novel. I had been studying the art of plotting and had learned many things, but they weren’t showing up in my work. I heard Wayson Choi speak about writing the story that we have to tell, our story, the one that comes out of our pain, and I realized that my novel wasn’t working because I wasn’t allowing myself to write deeply enough into the pain of my own that had driven me to write the story. The work I did the following year was heavily driven by my desire to start writing from a deeper place, to write fearward and bleed onto the page more. And the work got better.
Last year, the talk the message that stuck with me the most was the need to submit my work to the marketplace, to start accumulating rejection letters. I no longer remember which speaker it was who reminded us of the image from On Writing of Stephen King with a nail on which he put reject letter after rejection letter, replacing it with a spike when the nail could no longer hold all the rejections. And so, inspired by that reminder, I have submitted my work more this year than in any other year. It has been tough leaving the current novel, which still contains elements of that first NaNoWriMo piece, for periods to write shorter pieces, but I felt the need to start getting some of my fiction out in the world. And I am starting to collect rejections. But, I am also starting to understand why I am collecting rejections, which means that my understanding of craft has deepened.
Next year, I don’t think I will be going to the Ontario Writers Conference. I went to the World Fantasy Convention for the first time this year, and I found the conversations about what writers are doing or trying to do in the specific genre that I am writing in speak to me more personally than the more generally directed discussions at the Ontario Writers Conference. This understanding tells me that my development is continuing. Getting to World Fantasy Convention is much harder logistically and financially than getting to the Ontario Writers Conference. I really want to go, but I can’t justify it if I don’t keep getting better. So, I have told myself I can’t even think about going to London for the 2013 convention if I don’t have my novel out with beta readers. I’m not sure I’ll manage it for this year, but the thought of celebrating with a trip to a convention is inspiring.
Each conference or convention I go to, I come away with the next step of my development laid out for me. I have heard the teaching that I am ready to learn. And by tracking the lessons, I can see how much deeper I am into the craft of writing fiction.
Do you have a way to measure your progress toward your intangible goals? Please share in the comments. I really would love to know.