Fiction is scary.

I never really thought of myself a fiction writer, but I couldn’t put my finger on why. So when the class I wanted to take last winter–a journalism class–was cancelled, I decided to give fiction writing a fair shake. I enrolled in an intro to fiction class, which required me to read dozens of short stories and write two of my own.

In the course of reading short stories for the class, I discovered that I’m not a very refined or insightful fiction reader. If you’re like me, you know what I mean. In each story I read, nuanced symbols and imagery that impressed my peers eluded me. And while I liked the readings, I could tell I enjoyed fiction similarly to how I enjoy wine: A red is a red, a white is a white, and the rest is lost on me.

So it is not surprising that when it came time to write fiction of my own, I was as stuck as a Roomba under a couch. But I begged and pleaded with my brain, and it squeezed out a few scraps of creativity that I cobbled together into some maybe-ok short stories.

I should have stopped there, but I didn’t. Because I felt it important to understand the whole process of being a fiction writer, I decided to try and get one of my two precious stories published somewhere. Anywhere. How hard could it be? People can make a living writing fiction, right? What does it take to break into that world? I wanted to find out.

My professor shared a long list of literary journals that publish short stories to get me started on this venture. The steps he described for getting a story published seemed straightforward:

The process is simple to submit a story to a literary journal…choose 10 journals that appeal to you from the list I provided and submit the story to them—all 10 submissions at one time…if a story is not accepted then send it on to another group of 7 – 10 journals at a time.

Find ten journals, submit, rinse, repeat. I can do that! I set aside a week in January to give it a go.

Three weeks later, I had spent countless hours and about thirty dollars. I was out the thirty bucks because some journals work like a miserable literary lottery–you have to pay to play. And I was out the three weeks because each journal had slightly different submission requirements. Some wanted a cover letter, others wanted special formatting. All of them requested you read their journals prior to submitting, to ensure you’re sending work that’s consistent with their style. The more I read the journals I was interested in submitting to, the more I thought to myself, “Do I even like fiction?!”

Three months later, I’ve received a rejection from eight journals and I’m still waiting to hear back from five. But I’m not holding my breath. Fiction got it’s fair shake for now. Submit, rinse, don’t repeat.

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A question of categories

Here in San Francisco, if someone tells you they’re a barista, you ask at which coffee shop. There’s a big difference between Starbucks and Ritual. If someone tells you they’re a software engineer, you ask at which company. Do they support a scrappy underdog startup or have they “sold out” to a behemoth like Google? I remember hiding the fact that I worked for Facebook quite often, having met many people who assume every Facebook engineer is, somehow, eating their soul. It’s easy for us humans to assign categories and draw conclusions, whether good or bad, from these categories.

Now I’m a writer, or I claim as much when people ask me what I do for a living (let’s ignore the fact that I don’t “make a living” from writing). When I tell someone that I’m a writer, they always ask what kind of writing I do. What category do I claim? Novels? News articles? Poetry?

What sort of writer am I? It’s a question that leads to a crisis, because I don’t know the answer. So far, I’ve enjoyed writing personal essays, research papers, short stories, flash fiction, biography, news articles, and these blog posts. When it comes to what has earned me the most money, I’m a personal essay writer, but I’ve earned so little that I’m not even going to tell you a ballpark figure. If instead we consider what opportunities I’ve spent the most money pursuing, then I’m a fiction writer. (Fiction is weird, I’ll talk more about this in another post.) But money is not a huge part of the picture at this stage.

So, what sort of writer am I? One who defies categorization, much to the dismay of those who ask about my work in polite conversation. There’s a painfully predictable confused reaction I receive after telling someone that I don’t know what sort of writer I am. I’m at a loss for what to say next, they have nothing else to ask, and I soon feel like conversational Jell-O: wobbly, difficult to grasp, and strangely flavored. I eagerly allow the topic to change to the weather, or their work, or the pandemic (we will have so much less to talk about when it’s over).

I think every long adventure reaches these directionless, in-between times when things are happening but nothing makes sense. I can’t draw any conclusions about how things are going, whether good or bad, so I guess I’ll keep exploring. But for now, you can call me a flashy bio-essay short story blogger journalist. And when I turn into conversational Jell-O, just ask me to tell you a story.

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My first failed pitch

Any writer who takes themselves seriously is working on a book, or that’s how it seems. And what’s worse, many writers want you to know they’re working on a book. This makes sense from a marketing perspective, I suppose, but after poring over many author profiles and personal essays and running a back-of-the-envelope cost/benefit analysis, I can’t imagine ever being bold enough to declare to the masses that I’m writing a book. Even if I were to have the endurance to finish such a project (which seems unlikely at best), my research indicates that even the best of books can go unread for a very, very long time. Or forever. And those few successful books that make an author rich and famous often get published due to some random coincidence, like the author running into a publisher at a coffee shop, or through a friend of a friend’s cousin, or whatever.

Writing a book is a big gamble. So even though I do happen to be writing a book, I prefer you keep that between you and me. And there’s definitely no need for you to anticipate me completing the book, or the book being any good if I do.

Tons of books fail, tons of essays and articles fail, and writing in general necessitates a thick skin (and a good therapist, many say). It’s even possible to fail before doing any serious writing, by pitching an idea for a story or article to an editor and that idea getting rejected right out of the gate. This is the type of failure I dapple in most right now, because it’s what we software engineers call “failing fast.” I need to have a lot of these quick, little failures under my belt if I’m ever to take the ultimate leap of faith and commit to finishing what could be a failure of a book.

On that note, I’m proud to announce my first failed pitch!

The call for pitches was one I found from a health magazine, seeking writing on a certain topic. I, having quite the experience with unhealthiness, figured I could easily make a break with a well-worded pitch that combined the desired topic with my chronic illness experience. I sent my idea off to the editor straightaway.

The editor got back to me the same afternoon. It is rare, in my experience, for an editor to be so responsive, so I had not a small amount of anticipation when I clicked on the email.

He was very polite and informed me that the theme I followed closely for my pitch, “Promising Young Woman,” is not a generic topic meant to encourage creativity, but a movie title. He was asking for someone to pitch a review of the movie, not a slice of slightly inspiring, mostly comical, doubtlessly interesting personal anecdotes about migraines.

The editor managed to point out my mistake without calling attention to the fact that I live under a rock, which I much appreciated.

I’m so glad to claim this as my first of many failures.

Also, why are health magazines publishing movie reviews? Seems counterproductive to me.

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I’m becoming a writer?

This all began because life gave me lemons–a fact I am quick to recall when I’m overwhelmed and I want to scrap my new career path and start again. But it’s not fair for me to complain, to blame my life on the lemons. Everyone gets lemons from time to time, and besides, writing is something I’ve always wanted to try–dreamed of trying–way deep down. Writing is also something many people have told me I’m good at. Was it all flattery? That’s what I thought for a long time, and this belief was one of my many excuses for not trying this earlier. But you can only claim your friends are flattering you for so long before wondering if they’re either all in cahoots, or if they’re all earnest.

I began becoming a writer by taking some classes and, well, writing some stuff. But I told basically no one, not for a long time. It’s unlike my blogger self to withhold such an important event, and it led many people to wonder if I had quit my job last year to do…nothing. But as most anyone who gets migraines can tell you, it’s hard to do nothing for very long. It takes discipline. So I certainly wasn’t doing nothing, but I was afraid to admit that I had, in fact, not a clue what I was supposed to be doing.

Time has passed, and I still have only a foggy idea of what it means to “become a writer.” I have just a few classes under my belt, and my only work experience is in software, which is, perhaps, writing’s antithesis. But I’m going to keep at it. I’ll sink in this huge pile of lemons otherwise.

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