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On Striving To Be a Published Writer

I recently attended the Writer’s League of Texas Annual Agents and Editor’s Conference in Austin, Texas for the second year. One of the conference sessions I attended was on building a social media platform- something all writers have to do and would rather not waste so much time on, especially the writers who might be technologically challenged. And one of many tips I took away from that session was to blog, blog, and blog. I intuitively knew this was important- at least important enough to buy my own URL and park some writerly stuff, which is what I’ve done here. I was hoping to kind of keep it “professional”, clean, free of opinion, writer face forward. But we were told that to drive traffic we have to keep writing, and write about things people care about. I don’t know if I have time for that, or if I have my finger on the pulse of what people care about. I enjoy cute kitten videos as much as the next person, but I’m not shameless enough to propagate futile viral material in the name of self-promotion.

I realize the impression this may leave of me. I am who I am. I don’t watch Orange is the New Black or The Bachelor. If I watch television at all it’s hand-picked documentaries and an occasional “reality” show in the vein of Anthony Bourdain or America Unearthed. I like life story, culture, travel, science, art, and *some* history. TedTalks. All day long. So the kinds of things I could blog about aren’t generally the kinds of things that relate directly to the stories I write or the kinds of readers I’d like to connect with.

But I do want to take a stab at sharing my post-conference thoughts. I was gracious enough to let it simmer for a couple weeks so I could temper the emotion with a heavy dose dash of wisdom. And now I’m ready to write. So here goes:

The publishing industry sucks. It exists to make money, and just like the recording industry, it shows signs of dying, as profit margins narrow and writers, the very backbone of the industry, are being driven to the higher royalty, self-publishing channels because of dramatically shrinking paychecks. I’m not going to speculate much on this- I have my ideas. Until something innovative changes the face of big house publishing, it’s going to continue in its slow, agonizing death. Publishing houses are selling out like Cabbage Patch dolls to offer high priced a la carte services to self-publishing authors. Yes, they will never completely go away, but publishing in paper and ink will likely exist as a mere novelty. Nevertheless, most of us writers out here are still trying to play the game, especially those of us writing things that ebook buyers don’t download (aka, literary fiction, upmarket women’s fiction, memoir, etc.). And as long as we’re still in the game, there’s some ‘rules’ and mores we have to admit.

Maybe it’s the existential crisis I was in the midst of when I attended the conference, but I did notice a growing cynicism welling up in me. Last year I was buzzing with nervous excitement about the opportunity to pitch to these New York agent types. But I also walked out of the hotel that Sunday afternoon last year with a nausea. There were so many ‘rules’ and pet peeves I heard the agents in the various panels mention that it felt overwhelming, even impossible. I knew so much about what not to do that I began to feel like just being a human being was a pet peeve I’d never be able to overcome. Of all the agents I pitched last year, all asked for submission. And I submitted to all, but one. I’ve also queried a few others the past year. All in all I shouldn’t be this down-hearted so early in the game- I’m not even coming up on the first quarter. I guess I just don’t play by rules very well. It’s in part just old fashioned rebellion, but it’s in greater part the desire for creative freedom and resistance to anything that squelches that. I AM a writer. I write well. I know how to write, at least technically. Just leave me alone and let me do it. Sure, we’re all still learning. Even successful career writers are still learning. But when you’re constantly bombarded with messages about what you’re doing wrong, and shown only a narrow path of emulated storytelling, defined as much by word count and what’s selling as the ability to write a coherent sentence, it gets discouraging. So I left this year’s conference believing I don’t even want to be a writer anymore- at least not a published writer. Because I AM a writer, it’s something I will always do. But to write for intention of getting published, I don’t know. The path seems so narrow, and heavy with obstacles, and the reward so slight in comparison to the effort. Making any kind of financial substance from writing is a rare thing.

I did have a ten minute one-on-one consult with a literary agent this year. My early registration came with a free consult. Last year I didn’t have the privilege, so had to work the cocktail reception, which is such a quirky and awkward thing to have to do. It felt like speed dating mixed with some sort of competitive sport, where the prize is the undivided attention of an agent who might potentially be “the one.” The agent I consulted with this year asked for submission of full MS (both of them). And I pitched two other agents during cocktail hour. One of the two also asked for submission. I should be ecstatic, right? Ugh. I just feel dread. It’s not the rejection I dread- it’s the lack of specific feedback coupled with the knowing what my “problems” are. These are problems I am not so eager to work out. I’ve attempted to read one too many shallow, unbelievable stories to feel good about stripping down my story characters to these shells of experience. Yeah, there’s my cynicism rearing its’ head again. The Alchemist? Really- that book “changed your life?”

Anyway, here are my thoughts and observations after letting some fermenting take place.

1)      Why do we have writers’ conferences where we get together and school writers on the craft? Do we do this for painters, sculptors, musicians? This is a serious question. It just seems like writing is not really respected as an art. We’re told what to write, how to tell a story, how many words to do it in, and sometimes even what voice to use. Do we tell painters what brushes to use, how many strokes, what colors, and so on? It’s so discouraging.

2)      Why is published writing the end product of many minds and opinions all having a say in the final novel? We don’t take a painting and agree to show it in gallery only after a team of art dealers, art critics, and gallery owners have their chance to alter the painting in the ways they see as necessary for maximum reception of the piece.

3)      The process of becoming a published writer favors certain socioeconomic and cultural groups. I know this because I just sent off my MS to a content editor for some work- $700 worth of work. This was $700 I didn’t have, and when considering the annual conference is a few hundred, there’s fees to enter the manuscript contest, fees for agent consults, fees for the key note speaker lunch, fees to take writing workshops and classes, fees to join the various organizations, costs of buying books (because you can’t be a good writer unless you’re reading other people’s work), costs of purchasing and hosting an internet domain, etc. it adds up to be more of a hobby than a viable career. Oh, and if you decide to just skip all that and self-publish, there’s enormous costs associated with that as well. It’s a considerable amount of money one has to put out with absolutely no immediate return and no guarantee of a return EVER. Quite simply, if you’re poor you’re not likely to ever get published because you will lack the resources to position yourself in a way that is almost necessary. Also, if you’re elderly you’re not likely to ever get published either, unless you happen to be unusually savvy. Most elderly people I know are technologically challenged, and since we are moving to an almost exclusive social media and electronic communication society, the elderly have limited means of accessing the network. This would also hold true for people unable to afford a computer and/or Internet access and people who are intentional about “living off the grid.” Nearly all agents require electronic submission these days. It’s interesting the number of elderly people I met at the conference, most writing memoirs. While many have the time and money to put into writing, they don’t have the technological skills to keep pace with the demands of the modern publishing world.

4)      If you’re African American or Mexican American and writing clearly from that point of view (whether fiction or non-fiction), you will be expected to write with a voice that promotes the stereotypes of your race. I’m obviously white, so I don’t know this first-hand. I know it because I sat through various conference sessions and this was brought out several times this year. First a successful African American woman wrote a memoir about coming from ‘the projects’ to being the CEO of her own successful company, and she shared that she was told by an agent (not one attending the conference) that her language and voice is “not black enough.” Second, it was brought to my attention that a famous published African American writer was heavily criticized and edited by a black editor in a big publishing house for the same thing- not fitting into a preconceived idea of what a black voice should sound like. So it seems to me that your race and cultural experience, if different than the mainstream white experience or stereotypes, will be additionally scrutinized and “edited” to fit the publishing industry agenda, whatever that is. While there were more African American women at the conference this year compared to last (as far as I am aware), one of my sisters in my critique group is African American and she noted that there wasn’t a strong representation of African Americans from the publishing industry in general.

5)      This critique group sister also happens to write Christian fiction. It is a niche market that is apparently so niche that the entire system is in a different vein really. I know when I was writing Christian stuff I had to go buy the Christian Writer’s Market Guide, which is distinctly different than the mainstream Writer’s Market Guide. And never the two shall meet. I haven’t seen a single literary agent in either year I’ve attended the conference that accepts submission of Christian manuscripts.

6)      When I lamented about my existential frustration it was suggested to me by a fellow writer that I consider writing a memoir. Believe me, I’ve thought about it many times. I think my life’s been interesting in the sense that I have overcome more than anyone should really have to, and I’m not lying in the gutter with a heroin needle hanging out of my arm. But I lack the story arc. I fear my memoir would be one giant vomit-fest with way too much trauma. A Job story indeed. But I haven’t yet gotten back the tenfold that Job saw, so I don’t think it’s a story I’m ready to tell. But I humored myself and went to a breakout sesh on writing memoir. I would have never chosen that one if it weren’t for the suggestion. Donna Johnson, author of Holy Ghost Girl was on the panel. Fascinating stuff. But it seems to me that of the two authors and two lit agents on that panel, no one could succinctly define the line between creative non-fiction, memoir, and fiction. It’s apparently VERY blurry. And it just served to confirm what I had been thinking all along- my stories are my memoir, dished out in tolerable doses and packaged in dynamic characters with amazing and transformative stories. Like all writers, I believe that every single character in my stories has an element of me, and their experiences mirror my own. So I didn’t walk away convinced that I need to rush out and write a memoir. Maybe someday for an act of offering to my children.

7)     Labels. I understand why we need them. But. Does. Every. Fucking. Thing. have to have a label? Oh, yes, I use labels too. But they become particularly painful when none of them exactly fit. Remember being in high school and it was “the jocks”, “the nerds/geeks”, “the cheerleaders”, “the punk rockers”, “the metal heads”, “the wannabes”, and everything in between? I promise you I had friends in every single one of those categories when I was in high school. Apparently in the publishing industry this is a bad thing. If you aren’t sure where you belong then you must have a weak story, a story with an identity crisis. And pitching in multiple genres- a real no-no. Only published and successfully selling writers get the privilege of crossing genres…..sometimes. This feels really alienating to me because I don’t know where I fit. I like to think it’s literary fiction. I was told not to call it that because it sets the bar too high and then lit agents will turn you down more often. I guess the assumption is I can’t be that good of a writer because I’m not published. So I was told to call my work ‘upmarket women’s fiction’. When I mentioned my uncomfortableness in segregating half the population by labeling my work as “women’s”, the response was, “Well, come on, let’s be honest, we all know men don’t read.” Ummm….yes. Men do read. I know a few men who read rather carnivorously. Whether they would read the kind of stuff I write, I don’t know. Probably not. And maybe the type of men who would are the same who would not get tripped up by knowing my stuff is labeled as “women’s.” And then I’ve been told, based on the elements of my first completed MS, that I write romance. Lol. Now I know that is a shoe that doesn’t fit. Elements of romantic love do not make for a romance novel. Neither does a single sex scene make for erotica. The second MS and any conceived futures MSs do not have any elements of romance or heterosexual love. So I definitely wouldn’t label my work as romance. And then a reader innocently asks, “Well isn’t all writing literary?” Touche!

8)      I was asked by the lit agent I consulted with what I read. Ruh roh. Why couldn’t she have just asked me what the source of inspiration was for my stories, or something far more interesting? See, I have this new theory, based on all the mediocre fiction I’ve attempted to read, that what sells books are the compelling life stories of writers themselves. That’s what brings in invitations for interviews and speaking engagements. But maybe I just need to believe this because I scored a ’70/100′ on my MS contest entry and ummm…I don’t read fiction. I always cringe when I am asked this question. I feel a mixture of rebellious teenage pride and freshman shame when I have to explain that I have a personal library of probably over 300 books but 99.9% of them are non-fiction. I don’t read fiction. I just don’t. I never have. Oh, I try. I’ve gotten hold of numerous books over the past few years, and made a legitimate attempt to read them. But I’ve rarely gotten past the first chapter. They bore me. Either the language is so ridiculous I’m turned off, or the storyline doesn’t keep my interest long enough, or the characters are flat, or they’re talking at me in this weird way that I just don’t like. I hate fiction. Actually, truth be told, the only fiction books I’ve ever finished (except for the ones I was forced to read in school) were the Lord of the Rings trilogy and The Alchemist. That was a short and easy read. But I did have to force myself to finish it. I don’t get it when people say it “changed their life.” Sorry. I’m trying to get through Veronika Decides to Die, but I’ve been on it a year already, and it’s a really basic read. I should have had it knocked out in a few days if I was truly passionate about reading fiction. It’s not that it’s a bad story. I almost feel guilty about it. I just can’t seem to find the motivation to finish it. So yes, theoretically this puts me at a huge disadvantage. I guess when you read a lot you sort of learn by osmosis what good storytelling looks like. But is that the ONLY way to be a good writer? I know that’s the implication. Or else they wouldn’t ask, and wouldn’t look so disappointed in me when I admit that I don’t read fiction. This must be a classic problem, because in the movie Authors Anonymous the writer in the group who gets published first in the one who doesn’t read fiction. She’s sort of the joke of the group. (By the way, although the movie got bad ratings, if you’re a writer and haven’t seen it, I highly recommend you take a writing break to revel in the humor). Anyway, when the lit agent asked what I am reading now, I was caught off guard. I stumbled my way through. How unfortunate. I actually have about 20 books I’ve read the past year- all non-fiction. Right now my ‘thing’ is anything pertaining to Carl Jung and shamanism. If I had a minute to really think about it I might have had a more intelligent response instead of the mumbling that came out of my mouth. I’ve read some really good ones lately. Next on my list is Leaning Into Love by Elaine Mansfield, and Letters to a Young Poet by the infamous Rainer Maria Rilke. I still have an Eckhart Tolle and a Sandra Ingerman on my shelf that I need to read. And I’m eager to devour Pluto by Jeff Green (a timeless classic), and several more in this genre. I have a lot of interests, and I think reading non-fiction lends to more dynamic characters in my fiction stories. But I can’t convince anyone in the industry that this is the case. So, is this true that to be a good writer you have to read a lot of fiction? Or is it a bias?

So yes, I feel discouraged. I feel sort of out of place too, even amongst writers. I am a deep, complex person with many archetypal constellations, and I like to explore and reflect this in my stories. I get the sense the industry isn’t wanting this, or doesn’t find value in it because it isn’t the type of stuff that sells. Write about sexual deviance, or about vampires, or angels, or kids with magical powers and you’re golden. Well, maybe that’s not entirely true. These agents are often saying they want something fresh. One encouraging thing I heard this year as well as last was, “If your writing is good your story will find it’s way to the light.” I’d like to hope on that. But then the question really is, is my writing good enough to attract a fan in the industry, willing to go to bat for me?

So after thinking about all these things, coming home absolutely discouraged and almost certain I don’t have what it takes to be a published writer, I’m left trying to talk myself out of quitting and wondering why we don’t question all these things? So many books I’ve read (i.e. Wired for Story, etc.) and classes/workshops I’ve taken have all laid out the structure of story in such a precise way. Is this really the only way? It’s not that my stories fall outside this age-old structure. I just wonder why we keep repeating the same things over and over and rarely go out on a limb to try something new. Wouldn’t it be fun if we tried something like the painters do and pass around a story for collective writing? That would be so much more creative and interesting than the collective of the publishing industry editing process. I don’t know. I just feel really squeezed, and the demands of the industry feel stifling and tireless. You can give your MS to 100 different people and get 100 different opinions, and many of them contradictory. So you can’t ever achieve a “perfect” novel. You really have to have the stars line up with the right people at the right time reading your stuff and thinking it’s awesome. It’s an awful lot of work and hope to put into a crap shoot. And then there’s the financial issue. I’m in a situation, and I don’t have access to an abundance of money to use outside of my basic needs. Many writers have other careers, day jobs. They write at night, on the weekends. And even after they get published they have to keep their careers because publication rarely equals instant financial success. It takes a lot to be able to quit your job and depend exclusively on royalties. And I don’t have an income. So this adds to my disappointment and frustration.

I obviously haven’t decided I’m giving up just yet. I borrowed money to send my first MS out for content editing and will work through the fourth edit before I send it out to the agents who requested. I’ll also query a few just for good measure. But if I don’t get any positive response, I really am going to have to consider if I want to invest any more of my valuable time, energy, and money into playing the game. I may not have what it takes. I sort of feel like the honeymoon is over and I’m going through that phase in the marriage when the mask is off and the real deal is standing naked in front of me. Now I have all the information I need to truly make the commitment, or not. It’s really going to depend. Two things I am certain of: I AM a writer and I AM so much more than that too. So we’ll see……

signed author

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