Here are a few things I know about writing and getting published, but only if you catch me in an optimistic mood. (Otherwise, I'll deny ever writing this). I have never felt more certain about the writing path on which I've found myself--never more certain of the steps I am taking. With some careful contemplation, chin scratching, thoughtful "hmmmm" noises, I have broken it into four main points, Writing, Rejection, Uncertainty, and Time (WRUT?)
Here's what I think I know:
That age-old pro writer advice to "keep writing" turns out to be absolutely true. I have been writing fiction since high school in the late '70s. It took me--off and on--thirty-five years to get my first story published. (Yeah, I'm a slow learner). Here's what I think: I stepped over some word or story threshold a while back, around 2003, and I said to myself, "ἐξαίφνης"--exaiphnês--"Suddenly!"--you know, like Platonists seeing the Forms after their intense fifty-year graduate studies. Okay, never mind. Let's keep moving. Somehow I just knew that I had finally written enough to feel right with what I was writing, all that writing over the years paid off, writing isn't the word-brawl it used to be, words flow more freely from my fingertips to the keyboard. Writing isn't easy--and probably won't ever be, but I don’t struggle as much with plotting, sentence structure, dialogue, words. What I write is never right the first time; it just feels closer to right than ever, and I'm a better self-editor than I've ever been. Because I write--write all the time. I completed SEABORN in January and since then, I have written three short stories, completed an 85k word YA fantasy SALTWATER WITCH (going to my agent next week). And I'm over 60k words into THE NEW SIRENS, sequel to SEABORN. NaNoWriMo, it's not just for November anymore.
Get rejected early, get rejected often. Get used to it. It sucks but it's going to happen a lot. I used to keep a folder with all my rejection letters, but gave up after I broke the 100-reject mark. It's nothing personal, and I even think it has more to do with mood and what music the editor's/agent's assistant is listening to at that moment, how high in the stack your manuscript is, how high the stack is, than anything else--especially if you feel that you're over the above writing threshold. That a writer "ought to be" published makes no difference. We all ought to be published. It just doesn't work that way.
I can't remember my first rejection letter, but I know it was a form reject, and it was in 1980. I do remember a rejection a year later from Andrew Offutt, then editing a fantasy anthology called Swords Against Darkness (Charles de Lint's first professional sale was in this anthology). Here's a scan of the letter Mr. Offutt sent me, rejecting my story (I can't remember the title), and here's one of the first posts I made on http://theophrast.us about that early rejection experience. I have great rejection letters from Jennifer Jackson, Rachel Vater, and others, real letters that gave me real hope. Rejection can be good.
Good writing is rejected every day, some small fraction of everything going through the post never makes it to its destination, butterflies are flapping their wings somewhere, causing all kinds of bad shit to happen to your manuscript, your query letter, your chapters--and agents and editors are the busiest people on the planet, and they have moods and attention spans like everyone else. They also have incredible talent for finding talent. We know this because there are successful writers out there--obviously--and some agent found them, some editor took a chance, some publishing house--big NYC firms and small presses--invested in them, wrote up contracts for those authors to sign, cut checks, spent marketing dollars on them, paid artists for cover art, paid type designers and cover designers and copy editors, blogged about the whole thing, went to cons and introduced their authors to other authors and industry insiders. We know this stuff happens. It's just difficult to know how or when it will happen. Uncertainty.
Writing, rejection and uncertainty can all be tied together and developed, handled, manipulated by you the writer to some extent. On the other hand, you can't do anything about time. Don't even attempt it. Time always has the upper hand because it's never ours, but someone else's.
I think it's the only thing you can't do anything about. Everything takes time, and in publishing, double everything. Learn patience--that's from me, the slow learner. I can't tell you how many times I've been writing a letter or about to write a letter--nice ones, mind you, fingers are on the keyboard, passion in my soul...and that's when I get something in the mail or email from the editor or agent, and in every case I've thought "whew!" I'm glad I didn't finish that email. Be lazy when it comes to following up on anything you send to an agent or editor. Wait it out and you will be rewarded.
There's my take on it. There's always another book to write. WRUT. Write on.