At the start of a new year, we’re all thinking about what we accomplished in 2011 and dreaming about progress in 2012. For some of us, we’re still in that stage of improving our craft. We may feel a little stagnant because, although we know we’ve improved our writing and have learned a lot, we don’t have much to show for it in terms of publication or increased audience. Sometimes it can be hard to feel like we’re progressing. And with the way other artists are increasingly promoting themselves, progression in writing can become even more confusing.
Social media has changed the way new artists get discovered in other arenas. Musicians create MySpace pages to promote their music. Actors and screenwriters start independent web series on YouTube in hopes of going viral. Aspiring journalists/film critics/etc start their own blogs to gain readership and credibility. But what about creative writers? What about someone who wants to publish a novel? There have been some successful self-publishers, but there’s a hesitation to go that route. To some people, it means the work wasn’t ‘good enough’. There’s a certain level of confidence that comes with getting through the months/years/decades of rejections to finally have someone say that, yes, what you’ve created is worth investing in. Writing a novel and then posting it on Amazon, no matter how good it is, may leave some people feeling like they haven’t paid their dues.
Outside of personal opinions about whether self-publishing is less ‘legit’ than the traditional route, one of the big worries about trying to build an independent following as a writer is ‘shooting yourself in the foot.’ What if the prose isn’t yet good enough to build a brand off of? Is it a mistake to forego the grueling process of editing for publication, the polish that a lot (but not all) of professionally published books have? Sure, actors and screenwriters don’t start off their video shorts with Oscar-caliber offerings and can still find success, but there is a greater allowance for flaws, I think, when it comes to such forms of entertainment. Have you ever spent hours browsing YouTube? Most of the submissions are amateur. While some are quite good, others can be just as bad, but it doesn’t matter much because watching a video is a passive form of entertainment. It doesn’t take much of your energy or your time. So, even if you see a new talent who could use more polish, you might stick with them and become fans as they find themselves, because it really isn’t taking much from your life. On the other hand, reading requires a commitment from the reader, and the average person is less likely to sludge through amateur writings. Because reading is so time-intensive, the ‘free’ aspect of independent work loses its appeal. By prematurely posting my stories online, one could be ruining something that could have otherwise been great with more editing and thought before exposure. Where is the line drawn?
Then there are examples of writers who have found ways around this, like Scott Sigler. Author of the best-selling Infected, he gained popularity before he was published by posting free podcasts culminating to an audiobook of one of his novels. He took the work out of the reading, and people were probably more likely to give this unknown author a chance because of it. Also, he was able to make-up for any shortfalls in his writing (not saying he had any, but if he did…) by augmenting the experience with an entertaining performance. It really is a good way to promote yourself, when you think of it.
So, this brings me back to the question: what is progress? While people in other creative fields might be considered slackers/not keeping up with the rest if they aren’t exploring new social media avenues to expose themselves and their art, what’s to say of the novelist focusing on perfecting his or her novel? Should he, as well, be preoccupied with getting up a blog, holding readings, posting pieces of writing online, etc, etc, to gain a following? We have all heard that the best way to improve is to read and write, read and write . . . but as we’re doing so, are we falling behind because we’re not taking the time to independently share our talents with the world?
Even outside of social media: what about getting short stories published? If you are an aspiring novelist and you only focus on your novel, you may not see a payoff for years, and even then it’s not guaranteed. By writing short stories and getting them published, at least we can have something concrete to show our progress. The writing has reached a level professionals would actually want to buy. Still, how’s that novel coming along?
Some of these may seem like random thoughts, but it all boils down to: what is progress for an aspiring writer? Does the best way to gain a career in creative writing still rest in the hands of literary agents, editors, and professional publications, or should we be building our own audience? Is it progress to spend two years perfecting a novel, even if during those two years you don’t have anything else to show for it? What does ‘approaching success’ mean in this day and age? It’s certainly changed for other mediums, but what about creative writing?
In part, the correct answer is: as long as you enjoy writing and continue to do it, nothing else matters. But for those of us who want to make a career of this, like any career, we want–no, we need–to see progress. First, though, we have to define it.