Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor
Vision@sff.net
Holly Lisle's Vision

Whistling in the Dark

By Robert A. Sloan

©2002, Robert A. Sloan 

Perhaps first-person writing is sympathetic because it conveys respect for the reader's identity. The protagonist is not telling you who you are. The protagonist is just naked, saying, 'I am Robert A. Sloan, science fiction writer. That's not just what I do, that's who I am.'

I spend a lot of time making up affirmations, whistling in the dark. Writing isn't easy to sell. I type those affirmations out in bold print and put them up on the wall next to my computer. One by one, my wishful dreams start coming true, so I go on whistling in the dark and believing in the ones that haven't yet. They will.

I had three rough drafts of a Vision article on writing as hobby, writing as career. They stank. Extreme self-criticism comes with the territory. They're not good enough for me. They have to pass an editor before they get anywhere near Lazette Gifford. Robert A. Sloan, Editor, is a very tough guy to please.

I try to be respectful of writers. I know how closely they identify with their work, and I have a depth of respect that's almost geologic when it comes to a writer who disagrees on a point of artistic integrity. One of my best small trophies is that I have a lineup of pro quality short stories for Launchpad #1: Love and Death. I coached half of them out of new writers who are like the little three-inch sea turtles waddling down the beach they hatched on. They are beautiful. They are already sea turtles, perfect in their form. They are so energetic and they swim well as soon as they get to the water, but there are so many gulls out there waiting for them.

I will be writing first acceptance letters for some of those new writers, and that's part of why I'm doing it. Around Forward Motion, the warm, proud feeling I get from helping others isn't strange, it's called paying forward.

Here are some of the affirmations I whistle in the dark while I work full time at my writing, whether I get paid or not:

I am not unemployed, I am self-employed. 

Raven Dance, my first self-published book, has almost paid for its production. Most small businesses don't come close to breaking even in the first two fiscal quarters and top over that in the third. I buy myself something for my writing when I get my royalty checks, even if it's just a dollar pen. Paying my phone bill helps my writing too. My book wouldn't sell if I weren't online doing web work and posting on various sites. 'I'm not unemployed, I'm self employed,' whistled in the dark for two and a half years before I could go online, carried me through writing twenty or thirty novels.

I write for the people who love my writing. Anyone else can go buy a pizza.

No matter what my novels and stories mean to me, they will mean something different to my readers. I have had my first fan letter. I have had a fan letter from a man I didn't even know, and he lives in South Africa. I think of him every time I start feeling discouraged.

Coming back to the writing world from years of rough living, a lot of things that used to hurt me just don't. They're laughable. I have a pretty little rejection slip from The New Yorker pinned up next to my desk on the wall. It's an elegant thing. I didn't keep most of the other rejections, but The New Yorker's miniature form letter looks like the sort of card millionaires send to each other. Offset printed on fine expensive cream paper, it's a reminder to write mainstream short stories once in a while and collect more of those. They were so polite about it!

We regret that we are unable to use the enclosed material. Thank you for giving us the opportunity to consider it. The Editors.

No obscenity, no death threats, no violence, they actually thanked me for sending it in! Compared to the troubles I had in homeless shelters and bad neighborhoods, the New Yorker folks patted me on the back.

I think if some editor rejected a story of mine for its slant, that would just mean I was taking a shotgun approach again and hadn't really researched that market. Sometimes I get tempted to purposely gather those types of rejections by mailing review copies of my book to hate groups so they'll get banned and publicize it to the majority who think a hate group's bans mean good reading.

I succeeded. That failed.

Entrepreneurs succeed by trial and error. It's vitally important to my sanity to take real credit for my successes, but regard failed trials as just that. My new story for The New Yorker could have arrived on the desk two hours after The Editors cut the acceptance letter for the last new writer to be included in that New Writers issue. They are not judging me. They are putting together an issue that has a theme and a style and a purpose known to them, and they're picking stories out of several hundred others. They can only wash out the bottom rounds on quality. After that, it's all personal taste, luck, what they ate that morning, and most of all what will please The New Yorker's readers.

A piece of writing is a separate, finished project. I have a solid expectation that every competent piece of writing I have done will find some readers. Getting it to my readers is a quest through a maze of publishers, editors, e-publishers, and Print On Demand companies within an industry that is, by all the professional advice I've heard, worse than ever. My aim in sending out a manuscript is not to discover whether that was a good piece of writing. My aim is to get it to my readers. Either I'll get byline exposure, and earn some money immediately, or take the chance of pro money so much farther down the road that my check seems like it's coming in on the Mars run.

When I made good money doing fan art and, later on, street portraits, I sold my mistakes. I wasn't too proud to. If I did a drawing I didn't like, but someone else loved it, they had a right to their opinion. It's demoralizing for anyone doing creative work when something that isn't his best becomes irrationally popular. It's as if craft, skill, inspiration, and effort became meaningless.

Readers, editors, and publishers are going to have their own reactions to anything I create, and it will come from their lives, their hearts, and their thoughts. The story I thought was too sentimental might be the Christmas issue hit, and bought because my editor had a Christmas like that. The story I thought was silly might hit someone's funny bone, and the horror story I thought was too gritty might just suit someone who needs a glimpse of something worse than a Monday morning. I can't predict what will strike readers. Some romance readers loved Raven Dance, not for the sweeping epic revolution and scary mind control, but for the romance between my two main rebels. For those readers, SF became just the backdrop to a love story.

Raven Dance collected about twenty rejection slips, many of them from inappropriate publishers who didn't print SF. It was tied up in a bad contract for five years with an agency that didn't sell it. I had to decide the number of rejections didn't matter. Just as I learned to emotionally separate writing from revising in order to break through writer’s block, I had to separate the process of selling my writing from judging my writing.

We get more rejections than insurance salesmen.

That's the latest tune I whistle in the dark, because that's all submission and marketing is: sales work. I'd love to get a skilled agent to market my novels so that I'd have more time to write. Even my self-published books have chances at pro sales, because some publishers look at small press sales numbers. When it's cost effective, they pick up independents for contracts. This is how I got over the ego problem of self-publishing my first book. It's why I can look at my first book with pride instead of embarrassment.

I have set out to make a living by my writing. There's nothing else in this world I'd rather do. When I have about 10,000 core readers who like my work enough to come back for more, I'll make a good living by my standards. Most of all, I get the joy of writing.

My next novel is winking at me, whispering huskily, “Whenever you want me, just whistle. You know how to whistle, don't you? Just put your lips together and blow."