You have to stick with your work till it sells. That’s my answer to the question, "How long will it take me to get published?" And it's pretty much the same whether we're talking about placing a story, landing an agent, or selling a novel.
Take a look at some data. Accomplished writer Vylar Kaftan has tracked the number of times she submitted her storiesbefore they finally were published in a pro or semi-pro market. Her max number of submissions for a single story was 19--it was finally placed with the 19th market. The thing is, as she's noted, this was a story that received 6 Nebula recommendations: "there was nothing wrong with it. It just had to find the right home. Here endeth the lesson." Another great takeaway from Vylar's post follows:
If I scan the list looking for my “best” stories, using any of several measures, I can’t see a pattern. Possible measures include: the ones I liked best, the ones readers emailed me the most about, the ones my crit groups loved, the ones editors wrote personal rejections for. I really don’t think there’s any conclusions to be drawn there except that submission history and the story’s quality are only somewhat correlated at best.
I pretty much agree. Once you've done the very best writing that you can, getting the work published is a matter of persistence, patience, and a bit of saavy about where or to whom you send your work.
Maybe you think you've done everything you can, but then you get feedback or grow as a writer, and you can take your story or novel a bit farther. (For some writer resources, check out this page.) Vylar has another great post that discusses the few reasons that she "trunks" a story as well as when she revises a story she's circulating. Here's my favorite part:
If I find myself stressing about whether my stories are good enough, and shouldn’t I revise them more so they sell, and maybe if I revise them they will sell… you know what? 100% of the time, that indicates I should be writing new stories. Because you can’t really assess whether your older work is any good unless you’re writing new stuff. You’ll be too biased and want the older stuff to work so you don’t have to write anything new. If you only have one story circulating, there’s no way you’re going to make smart decisions about what to do with it. By generating new material, you give yourself the freedom to be honest about your older work.
All of this points to what Vylar calls The Rule: "Write new stories, polish them, and then circulate them until they sell. That’s how you get stories published." Same goes, like I said, for getting longer work published. Maybe your agent manages the submissions, but you still need to keep writing new stuff to have any perspective.
A while back, a blog reader asked this question in response to a writing inspiration post:
I hear authors talk all the time about how awfull they used to be, and how they're glad that first book they wrote won't ever see the light of day, etc. But they say they thought they were hot stuff while they were writing those not so great stories . . . So, my question to you, how can you tell when you work stops being crap, and starts being more like the work you admire? When you publish a book, are you ever afraid that in a few years your writing will be so much better, and you will be embarrassed you let that earlier work into the world?
The truth is that I don't know when that frontier from embarrassing to worthy is finally crossed. Usually it happens when I'm not paying attention, when I'm just trying to get from really crappy to less crappy.
There are things about "finished" work that a writer will never be wholly satisfied with. Somebody said that you don't finish a book, you simply abandon it. And he was talking about published work!
What I do know is that there are many writers who will never find readers because they can't bear the gap that always remains between what we write and what we dream of having written. They can't stand for readers to read the work that is, so they never publish at all. But I say that is a shame.
Regarding the last question, I don't think there's anything to be embarrassed about in "young" work. Every book sets its own terms, and its success depends on how well it fulfills those terms. In general, a first novel--my own What Can't Wait included--is a bit less ambitious, trying to do something small well rather than trying to take over the world and failing. (Of course, there are exceptions, like Junot Diaz's first novel, to name just one.) I feel my second novel, The Knife and the Butterfly, attempts something larger and riskier. I stepped outside of my comfort zone with the plotting, for example, and there's something of a paranormal twist.
For me, being a writer means embracing the challenge of working with words--and pushing the envelope of what I'm able to do with each word. I know that I'll (still) write a lot of crap along the way. I don't think the crap every goes away. But most of it stays in writer's notebooks and scrivener files that the reader never sees.
This is another reason that a good editor is indispensable. He or she will usually spot any crap that tries to sneak into the final manuscript.
Q: How do you push yourself to improve as a writer? Do you have any tips for us writers who are just starting out?*
A: Read. Everything. Seriously, reading a ton of fiction is a fiction writer’s number one job, besides writing. I'm a firm believer in reading great books--how you define "great" really depends, of course--but I'm also a fan of reading not-so-great books from time to time. In fact, you can learn an amazing amount from books that are far from amazing. Anyway, you should read in three ways:
(1) just going along, sort of soaking up awesome writing even if it’s completely different from what you want to do. This is how I read Haruki Marukami’s work. I just hope something sinks in.
(2) very deliberately paying attention to a writer’s moves. I tend to struggle more with plot than character development, so I tend to obsessively chart the plot development in books that build tension and effectively weave together many threads. Then I try to see how and when I can make their moves work in my own fiction. This usually happens in revision.
(3) learning what NOT to do. When something makes you groan, pay attention. What went wrong for that writer? How would you have fixed it? Where did the problem start? Sometimes, for example, the problem with the ending of a book is somewhere in the middle.
Of course, aspiring writers need to WRITE, too, but that's obvious. Never underestimate the power of your reading to transform your writing.