This week, after beginning to leverage my time by getting some easy, flexible income, I’ve been using first principles thinking is to brainstorm my way out of the type of job you would normally get with an MFA in Creative Writing (content mill monkey, sophisticated barista, basement-office adjuncter, etc).
The traditional way writers appear to begin their careers is by publishing small things in small magazines (and progressively build up from there). One of the most frustrating things about beginning your creative writing career in this way is that it takes a long time to hear back from editors (typically about 4 months).
And if you’re writing creatively, you have to write everything before an editor will consider it, which also takes a long time. This almost guarantees that you will wasting away again in old barista-ville by the time you receive your first round of rejection-template emails.
In addition, the panic of trying to get these editors to pick you invariably affects your voice. Well-meaning editors who are suffocating under a pile of average manuscripts beg people to “learn the voice” of the magazine, and to write and submit with it in mind. Without the leverage of time, money, or sleep, harried writers like me polish up their manuscripts to at least some standard of conformity, hoping to get picked.
If you are lucky enough to get picked, you get $100 and discounted contributor’s copies for your time.
Um, thanks, but no thanks.
First principles thinking in action
Here was my questioning process:
- What service does a literary magazine provide for the writer, in exchange for the rights to publish your work?
- An audience
- a medium (the physical/digital magazine itself)
- slight editorial services
- a tiny bit of money
I swept away the money (which is usually trivial), and set myself to considering the other parts, and if there’s any other way to obtain them:
- An audience – How big is this audience? The print subscription that most lit mags report is typically around 10,000, for the bigger ones (or at least the ones I pay attention to). But really, I’m only renting this audience—I get one issue and then I’m gone.
- If I build my own audience, I have the added benefit of having an audience to give more stuff to.
- If I have this audience that really likes my stuff, I can use PayPal/Amazon/whatever to cut out the middle men and sell my quality material directly to them for a lower price. This saves my audience money while not at all affecting the quality of my material.
- A medium – How important is it to be in print, in today’s reading landscape? Well, judging by how meticulously The New Yorker has lately been guarding its digital paywall, not very.
- If I use a blog as my own publishing platform, then I have my own medium, and I can publish things much faster and without bureaucratic supervision.
- Editorial services – These, I think, are over-valued. You can hire an editor at a low enough cost, or you can just edit yourself. Or, you can just collaborate with other out-of-work creative writers (there are hordes of them) to build an editorial relationship with them.
My main issue driving me to submit to magazines is that I don’t have a relationship with a community of readers, and a magazine does. And my editorial issue stems from not being in a community of writers. The problem isn’t getting my stuff to be SO GOOD that no editor can ignore it—my problem is that I need to learn how to develop a community around my writing career.
This, in effect, is why I started giving all of my leveraged hours over to figuring out how to a) blog quality content and b) distribute this content to people who might become my audience.
This is not to say that I need to master spam marketing. I’ve worked long enough on my craft to know I have something of value to give people.
I have something of value, and so now I need an audience. That is, a group of people who would benefit from the type of work I’m capable of doing.
Do you see how taking the time to deconstruct the problem has made the solution more apparent. This is a very powerful way of creating new ideas.