or I’m Sorry but I may be Too Tired to Swim Back to the Island
(Warning: Content May Be Harmful to Unpublished Writers)*
I appreciated Elizabeth Becka’s honest post on Writers Plot last week because, for most us, there are too many reasons not to tell the truth. Most of those reasons are obvious: we don’t tell the truth because this publishing world we inhabit is a very small one, and we don’t want to say or do anything which might have a negative impact on our ability to survive as a published writer and continue to have our books published, sold and read. The agent, editor or publisher who has broken our hearts, destroyed our egos, or treated us shabbily today might bid for one of our books tomorrow, or lunch with someone bidding for our books or considering taking us on a client, or mention what a pain in the rump we are to someone we are heartily hoping will be our ticket out of the midlist slough.
So we smile and say “Thank you” even when we want to beat our heads against the table and weep or scream in frustration that we cannot create the kind of partnerships with our publishers which will help us sell books. We smile and say, “No problem” when we cannot learn our pub date so we can plan author events, or can’t learn the size of the print run, or learn that our print run is so small we’ll never do more than earn out our small advance. We murmur politely when we’re frustrated that we can’t see the cover copy or the cover design or when we can’t get a copy of the cover in a timely fashion so we can print the postcards we’ll pay for and mail or the bookmarks we’ll pay for and distribute. We nod agreeably when we’re advised to have a content-rich web site, which we must pay for. We ask for content suggestions when we’re told to create a newsletter, which means time away from our writing to write about ourselves or find other topics of interest to draw readers to our personalities as well as our writing.
We don’t tell the truth because we’ve already beaten the odds in so many ways just getting to the point where our book is in print that we know we ought to feel lucky, even when it feels to us like we’re spectacularly unlucky. We don’t tell the truth, which is that after spending a year or two writing the best book we can, we don’t make enough money from the book to live in a cardboard box.
We don’t tell the truth because we don’t want to negatively influence our readers. Many readers want to believe that we’re special, set-apart, the chosen ones, the amazing people who, through the exercise of expansive imaginations and incredible discipline, have managed to create entire worlds into which they can escape. Actually, this is true. What we don’t say is that, having done all this at great expense of emotion, intellect and time, as well as great delight, we can’t make a living. I have never yet given a talk to a school group without being asked if I am rich.
We also don’t tell the truth because we don’t want to discourage aspiring writers. We don’t want to cloud their dreams of publication, the anticipated joy of holding a printed book in their hands and the wonderful pleasure of knowing that someone has read and enjoyed the book. We have all been there at that moment and know how sublime it is. We don’t want to color their daily striving toward a great piece of fiction with all the other reality that comes with being published, so we talk about the upward trajectory of their careers as well as the unending trajectory of learning the writer’s craft. It is never mastered; it is always an exciting process of discovery. We don’t tell the truth about the pain of having a beloved series dropped when we still have an emotional and story-telling life with that character. We don’t tell the truth about how painful it is to have a agent say they’re giving up because no one is interested in the book. We don’t talk about the dark days when we wonder if we should just give up, go back to an earlier career, or simply wander out to play in traffic.
We try not to talk about the pain. The heartbreak. The stunning blows to our egos and our self-esteem. We try not to talk too much about how it feels to come back from the mailbox with the rejection letters we’re paid to have mailed to ourselves. To get the cover letters we slaved over for weeks back with “No Thanks” scribbled in pencil on the top, just above the coffee stain. We try not to talk too much about how tired our arms get when we’ve been voted off the island and insist on swimming back.
My career, if something so iffy can be called a career, has been like a rollercoaster. I spent ten years in the unpublished writer’s corner, stubbornly refusing to give up while I learned to write ever better books. When I sold my first book, it was actually my fourth. It was a three-book contract, and I had been toiling alone and unrecognized for so long that I was working on my sixth book when I signed the contract. Since then, I’ve gone through the lovely period when I thought I’d made it, when I had a book a year, and a series of contracts. I’ve had the “big” book that had foreign sales and was an audio book and a book of the month selection, that didn’t earn out and made me an untouchable in the world of New York publishing. I’ve waited three years for a publisher to bring out a series book, worrying that all my fans were dying off, only to have the book come out in hardback the week after Christmas, then been told that the sales were so bad there would be no paperback.
I’ve had an agent quit the week my book came out. I’ve had an agent I adored tell me that I needed to writer “bigger books” only to respond to my question: “Who writes a bigger book that I could use as a model?” with John Grisham and Robertson Davies. A decade later, I am still trying to triangulate a place between these two authors where I might be located. I’ve had an agent who couldn’t spell my name or the name of my character. I’ve had an agent who taught me an incredible amount about rewrite and made me a much better writer, but could never sell a book.
We try not to tell the truth about our status. Being an author without an agent or a contract is a lot like having a bad case of body odor. As soon as people get close to the truth, they move along. There’s not a lot of cache in being a failure. I’ve sold my last four books myself. One of them was nominated for an Edgar. One of them got starred PW and Booklist reviews. I like to take this as evidence that I’ve still got some talent as an author.
Recently, in the shower, I had the radical thought: Maybe I don’t have to do this anymore. Since that day, I’ve been trying to figure out what “this” is. I’m as passionate about writing today as I was when I sat down and wrote my first novel almost twenty-five years ago. I have two books coming out this year: Stalking Death, my seventh Thea Kozak mystery and The Angel of Knowlton Park, my second Joe Burgess book. I’m deeply into my third Joe Burgess police procedural, have begun the research for another compelling true crime, and have the plots for my next Thea Kozak mystery and a screenplay. I’m as passionate about story telling as I was on the day I twenty-four years ago when I opened a blank page and typed: Chapter One. Maybe more passionate.
I love talking at libraries and I love teaching writing and I love talking to aspiring writers about craft. So maybe that isn’t it, either. Maybe “this” is spending so much time worrying about whether I have a career and all the “other stuff” I try to do to build a fan base. Maybe “this” is all my anxiety about My Space and Blogging and video trailers and handouts and all the trappings of the business of writing. Maybe “this” is all the energy that goes into trying to be a bigger success (or any kind of a success) instead of recalling the times when it was just me and the blank page and the power of imagination.
So maybe “this” isn’t giving up writing. The truth is that I’m tired of feeling discouraged. I’m tired of feeling like a failure at promoting myself. I’m tired of writing really good books and getting nowhere. I’m tired of being so worried about success and promotion and where I ought to be that I lose all the joy I get from writing. So the truth is that maybe what I have to do is just go back to where I started and write, and write, and write.
*My fellow bloggers made me include this warning.
And for those of you who are always looking for an interesting story idea, here’s this week’s tip: Today via e-mail, the following spam arrived: Got unused cemetery plots you’d like to sell? Visit Graveguru.com. Just think of the possibilities.