Publishing Journey, Writing

My publishing journey: Breaking through writer’s block

Or, how I started writing and publishing short stories.

I’m always a little puzzled to know how to answer when people ask me how I got into writing, because there are a few different answers.

1) I started when I was 6 years old, with a 101 Dalmatians-style story featuring a plucky little girl rescuing rabbits kidnapped for their fur.

2) I started when I was 16, writing fanfic and posting chapters on a Yahoo Group.

3) I started when I was 25, writing short stories and selling them to SFF zines.

But before I was 25 I did not write consistently. I never knew when or if inspiration would strike, and I could never really trust myself to finish a story. I worried about this less as an 8-year-old writing Enid Blyton pastiches; I worried about it more as a teenager promising fanfic to my friends. Because of course I wanted to be published, and I didn’t see how that would happen if I didn’t know how to write regularly.

The main thing that kept me from writing was that I was worried it wouldn’t be good enough. If I started writing and it didn’t feel right, I pretty much gave up right away. I was terrified of failure and that prevented me from doing the work, because if you don’t do something, you can’t be bad at it.

When I was 25 I’d been in something of a fallow period for a few years. I’d stopped writing with any regularity during university and law school, and I wanted to start again, maybe do something different this time, but I wasn’t entirely sure what. Much as I loved and still love fanfic, I’d had in my mind the shape of the something else I wanted to be doing since I was a teenager, but I wasn’t sure how to get there.

Until one day. I’d joined the workforce earlier in the year and had settled into my job, and it sort of came to me that I was a grown-up. I’d been waiting for the time when I would figure out how to write the stories I wanted to write, but there was no more time for waiting: the Time was Now.

I’d had a short story idea in mind for a while, so one weekend I sat down and wrote it in one sitting. It was just short of 4,000 words and became the first story I sold, The Guest.

I was astonished by The Guest: I hadn’t finished a short story in a while, and I hadn’t written an original story (as opposed to fanfic) in a very long time. After all that agony, all it had taken was sitting down and facing that blank page and putting some words on it, and — miracle! — the right words had come out.

Finishing The Guest gave me such a boost that I resolved I wouldn’t stop. So I started writing nearly every day — just a little bit, maybe only a sentence some days, but I did it six days a week and got into a routine. In 2010 I wrote half of the stories that ended up in Spirits Abroad (The House of Aunts, Prudence and the Dragon, 起狮,行礼 / Rising Lion–The Lion Bows, The Four Generations of Chang E and The Fish Bowl), as well as Monkey King, Faerie Queen and The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo.

This post has mostly been about the internal side of writing, but on the publishing side: Monkey King, Faerie Queen was only published five years later. I wrote Prudence and the Dragon for a semi-pro/token rate anthology that rejected it, and then I sold the story to Crossed Genres for $10. It was later reprinted on World SF Blog for no pay, but it’s apparently the post with the most hits on the blog, and to this day people tell me it’s one of their favourite of my stories. Conversely, I didn’t get paid when The Four Generations of Chang E was first published on Mascara Literary Review, but as of this year it’ll have been reprinted 4 times. I couldn’t get anyone to take Jade Yeo, but I self-published it and it’s made back the cost of its cover and then some, so I have no complaints.

You might ask why I didn’t sell these stories to pro-rate markets (read this post if you’re not sure what “pro”, “semi-pro” etc. mean). It’s what people recommend, and so do I. The answer is that the pro markets I submitted to didn’t want them. But I also often gave up on pro markets maybe a little earlier than I needed to, and sent my stories to smaller markets that looked interesting, or which had published stories I liked. Because my main priority was continuing to write — not getting disheartened and falling prey to the Block again. I could take a certain amount of rejection — every writer must learn to — but what I realised from writing The Guest was that I needed boosts to keep me going, like the occasional acceptance. And keeping going was my #1 priority, then as now, because the writing is the most important thing.

Perhaps I lost out on prestige and visibility by making these decisions, but I’m happy with where my career has got to. Even if the stories weren’t good enough for pro markets, they are out there and they’ve found their readers. And they were good enough for the Crawford Award!

But returning to the Block: what changed? I don’t really know. When I started writing these stories in 2010 it did feel like these were the stories I was meant to be writing. Maybe I did need that time — maybe all along, when I was feeling rubbish about not writing, my brain was bubbling away working through what needed to be worked through.

So I don’t have any solutions, but I wanted to talk about being blocked and figuring out how to write regularly, because I don’t often see people talking about it. You see writers saying, “Write every day! You’re not a writer unless you write!” but you don’t see them explaining how they do it. And I very rarely heard of anyone going from being a “dilettante” — what that sort of tough-love-advice-giving writer considers someone who writes only occasionally — to writing regularly.

There are two things I recall that helped me when I was struggling with this.

1) Reading the Patrick O’Brian biography by Nikolai Tolstoy and seeing a diary entry by the young O’Brian about feeling wretched about the days he wasted in not doing anything in particular — most of all, not writing. I recognised the misery and self-reproach in it, and it was hugely encouraging because of course O’Brian went on to be tremendously productive and wrote tons of books. So at some point he had made the leap.

2) Jane Carnall telling me, with the wisdom of experience, “You are a writer. It will come back.”

So that’s what I’d say to people who are having a difficult time with this. Go easy on yourself. Lower the stakes: it doesn’t mean you’re a Terrible Writer if something you write is not up to your standards; it means you’ve done some of the work you need to do in order to get better. Be willing to fail. It will come back.

I realise I haven’t really talked about publishing in this post! But you can check out my quick and dirty guide to selling SFF short stories if that’s what you need.

I’ll talk a bit more about why I started with short fiction and how it helped my writing career in future posts. In the meantime, don’t forget to sign up for my giveaway for a chance to win an advance copy of SORCERER TO THE CROWN before it closes on Sunday!


Previous Publishing Journey posts

Mission statement: Ten things I believe about writing


6 thoughts on “My publishing journey: Breaking through writer’s block

  1. Pingback: My publishing journey: How I published a short story collection | Zen Cho

  2. Pingback: My publishing journey: How I wrote three novels and binned two of them | Zen Cho

  3. Pingback: My publishing journey: Writing with a day job, part 1 — why I don’t write full-time | Zen Cho

  4. Thank you for this post, Zen. For the longest time, I was blocked. I’d only write, usually articles or copywriting projects, when I know I’ll be paid for. I have half-written short stories lying in some folder somewhere, and a few chapters for a novel that I never got around to finishing. I was afraid of putting myself out there and getting rejected for it. I struggled every day to write regularly (whether blog posts or passion projects) and preferred procrastination to writing. My need to get everything perfect stopped me from doing the work.

    But recently, I’ve started again. I challenge myself daily to stare at the blank page and to put words on them. And now that I’ve just read your blog post, it has given me all the boost I needed to get back to work.

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