Special Guest Post: Sumayyah on Shifting Expectations

I know a lot of writers. This shouldn’t be too much of a surprise--writing is what I do and what better way to celebrate that than to surround myself with people like me? Most of them I know from the online writing community that many of you are familiar with--I connect with them over Twitter and through blogging, on forums and chat rooms. But a handful of them come from the creative writing classes I’ve braved at my university. They’re, by and large, short story writers who plan on getting into an MFA program at some point in the near future. And for the most part, none of them have finished a novel.

So when I tell them that I’ve finished three and am hoping to get to work on my fourth soon, I’m greeted with a little bit of awe, and a lot of skepticism. How could you have written three books? You’re only twenty-one. Are they actually good? And so on and so forth.

For a while I didn’t understand the big deal--I wanted to write a book, I wanted to finish a book and so I did. It was hard work (a sentence like I wrote a book leaves out all the blood, sweat and tears involved in the endeavor) but I did it. And I’d been trying for so long to finish a book (sophomore year of high school, when a creative writing teacher told me that I should submit to science fiction literature magazines) that when I actually did, I was ecstatic. In my mind, all you needed was a will, and you could do it.

But my classmates faced this mental hurdle that made the idea of finishing a book something that they couldn’t do for maybe another twenty or thirty years. Some of them said they’d be glad to finish one, let alone several. Most of them had no aspirations of publication outside of being published in our university literary magazine. It took a while for me to understand why this was, but one question kept coming back: how do you have the time?

And the answer to that and to my drive to finish not one, but three books, has a lot to do with my expectations and end goal.

For most of my time in high school I wrote for a website called Fictionpress (if you follow LTFW you’ll be familiar with the site). I loved it--it was a form of publication that got me an audience (however small) and taught me to grow a thick skin (trolls will do that to you). But by the time I was eighteen, I stopped. Most of the writers I’d come in with fell off (college, didn’t enjoy writing, plagiarism sapped the fun right out of the site, etc). More than that, I fell off--I didn’t have the time or energy to cater to an audience that demanded regular updates to a story that I just wasn’t feeling anymore. And it amazed me in retrospect that even being held accountable to an audience wasn’t enough to make me finish a book. It inspired several short stories, two rewrites, but no finished, novel-length projects. Even NaNoWriMo my freshman year of college didn’t motivate me to finish a book (though I pounded out a good half of what would become my first completed novel).

Pursuing publication is what made me finish a book. And then two. And now three.

Pursuing --not contemplating, but a decision that involved several continued attempts to break into the publishing industry as an author.

In other words, I shifted my expectations as a writer--I went from wanting to reach an audience through any means (Fictionpress, Fanfiction.net, and any other number of sites) to wanting to be paid for my writing. When my classmates asked me how do you have the time? I always said and continue to say: I treat it like my third job. Writing sits right up there with being a program assistant and a student. I make time for it because I have to if I want the payoff.

And making that shift in expectation is about as easy as writing a book--it’s hard. It means maintaining faith in your work, even though no one else is; it means hearing all the terrifying stories about changes in the industry and the horror stories about failure and keeping on. But it’s worth it--once you type ‘the end’ on the first book, you can do it again and again and again. And it makes everything else seem easy by comparison.

Sumayyah is an English literature student (of the medieval and early modern variety). She lives in the first and most relevant district and when she isn't studying or writing, she's attending to her cylon storm trooping duties. She also plans to one day own a hairless cat named Minion. Her writing is represented by Ammi Joan Paquette.