In the days when many professions were controlled by guilds, your masterpiece was not your best or most celebrated work. It was your first halfway decent work – the piece you presented to the guild judges to show you deserved to be named a master of your craft. I’ve been thinking about this practice as I’ve watched clients go through the long, often disheartening, battle to get published. I so often want to remind them – your first published work is going to be your weakest. It is, after all, the first piece that shows you can write well enough to survive in the marketplace. It’s your masterpiece.
It’s easy to forget that the early work of every writer, no matter how gifted, is usually mediocre at best. Some years ago, I read a very early novel by a writer I admire a great deal – Rex Stout, the creator of Nero Wolfe. The novel I found was written almost a century ago, more than a decade before the first Wolfe novel. It was unreadable – so wordy, stilted, and melodramatic that I couldn’t finish it. So when clients tell me that reading some brilliant writer has left them feeling intimidated, I usually tell them to find an early work by the same writer. It almost always cheers them up.
Of course, today Stout’s earliest novels would probably never have sold. Back then, the publishing industry was a lot more receptive to writers who hadn’t yet mastered their craft. Radio was years away, and television decades, so books formed a large part of an evening’s entertainment, creating a voracious market. Writers tended to stick with a single publisher as well, so an editor like Max Perkins could nurse budding authors like Hemingway and Fitzgerald through their early, less masterful works, knowing they would stick with Scribners once they hit their stride. Today even the most promising authors are competing against a huge and diverse entertainment industry, and acquisitions editors expect big success with every book they buy. It’s a tough market, and you need a much higher level of mastery in order to break into it.
So if what you thought was your masterpiece has collected 137 polite rejections, don’t be discouraged. It may simply mean you still have a ways to go before you’ve mastered your craft. According to Malcolm Gladwell, you become expert at something by doing it for 10,000 hours. You can write quite a few novels – or rewrite one novel quite a few times — in 10,000 hours. As I once heard it put, you can learn to write well by writing badly for ten years.
There are shortcuts available. [Read more…]