Avoiding the writer’s classic holiday blues, or, what to say when Aunt Myrna exclaims, “What? You’re still working on that book? I thought you’d have it published by now!”November 28th, 2013
My apologies for the long, long posting hiatus, my friends. I’ve been on crutches since July 4, and it turns out that, contrary to what Tiny Tim may have led even the best of us to expect, hobbling is not necessarily conducive to comedy writing. At least not to the type of bright, witty banter about deadly serious topics we like to cultivate here at Author! Author! Yet another major holiday is upon us, however, so it’s time to dust off the keyboard and get cracking again.
Why so surprised? You didn’t think I was going to send you into Thanksgiving dinner without a few words of encouragement, did you?
Already, the eyebrows of those new to treading the path literary shoot skyward. “But Anne,” bright-eyed neophytes everywhere murmur, and who could blame you? “What makes you think that writers, of all people, would need to gird their loins prior to venturing into the no doubt warm and accepting bosoms of their respective families and/or dining rooms of their invariably supportive friends?”
Experience, mostly. In descending order of probability, a fellow writer, a writing blogger, and an editor provide the three most likely shoulders aspiring writers will dampen with their frustrated tears immediately after the festivities cease. Heck, established authors often beard the heavens with their bootless cries this time of year.
Why, those new to the game ask breathlessly? Because, let’s face it, most non-writers harbor completely unrealistic notions about how and why good books get published.
Don’t believe me? Okay, what do make of it when Aunt Myrna plucks your sleeve and asks tenderly, “Honey, why isn’t your novel out yet? I keep telling my friends that you write.”
Or when Uncle Clark chortles, “Memoir? What on earth do you have to write memoirs about?”
Or, heaven help us, when Cousin Ritchie wheels out his annual passive-aggressive attempt at encouragement: “Still no agent, eh? I had really thought that a book as good as yours would get snapped up right away. Have you thought at all about self-publishing?”
A sane, confident, unusually secure writer might well answer: “Why, yes, Ritchie, I have. As I had last year and the year before, when you had previously proffered this self-evident suggestion. Now shut up and pass the darned yams.”
Or pipe merrily, “Well, as the agents like to say, Uncle Clark, it all depends on the writing. So unless you’d like me to embark upon a fifty-two minute explanation of the intrinsic differences between the Ulysses S. Grant-style national-scale autobiography that you probably have in mind and a personal memoir about the adolescence in which you played a minor but disagreeable role, could I interest you in a third helping of these delightful vermouth-doused string beans?”
Or, while Aunt Myrna’s mouth is full of pie, observing suavely, “I so appreciate your drumming up future readers for my novel; I’m sure that will come in very handy down the road. But no, ‘trying just a little harder this year’ won’t necessarily make the difference between hitting the bestseller lists and obscurity. You might want to try telling your friends that even if I landed an agent for my novel within the next few days — even less likely at this time of year than others, by the way, as the publishing world slows to a crawl between Thanksgiving and the end of the year — it could easily be a year or two before you can urge them to buy my novel.”
But most of us aren’t up to that level of even-tempered and informative riposte, are we? And for good reason, too: in the moment, even the best-intentioned of those questions can sound very much like an insidious echo of that self-doubting hobgoblin living in the back of the creative mind.
“If you were truly talented,” that little beastie loves to murmur in moments when we’re already feeling discouraged, “an admiring public would already be enjoying your work in droves. And in paperback. Now stop thinking about your book and go score more leftover pie and some coffee; tormenting you is thirsty work.”
Come on, admit it — you’re on a first-name basis with that goblin. It’s been whispering in your ear ever since you began to query. Or submit. Or perhaps even as soon as you started to write.
Even so, you’re entitled to be a little startled when Bernie with the pitchfork suddenly begins speaking out of the mouth of that otherwise perfectly nice person your brother brought along to dinner because she’s new in town and has nowhere else to go on Thanksgiving. Try to be charitable: your brother’s friend may actually be doing you a favor by verbalizing your lingering doubts, you know.
How? Well, it’s a heck of a lot easier to argue with a living, breathing person than someone whose base camp is located inside your head. Astonishingly often, an artless question like “Oh, you write? Would I have read any of your work?” from the ignoramus across the table will give voice to a niggling doubt that’s been eating at a good writer for years.
Or so I surmise, from how writers tend to complain about such questions. “How insensitive can they be?” writers inevitably wail in the wake of holiday gatherings, and who could blame them? “I swear that I heard, ‘So when is your book coming out?’ twice as often as ‘Pass the gravy, please.’ Why is it that my kith/kin/the kith and kin of some acquaintance kind enough to feed me don’t seem to have the faintest idea of what it means to be a working writer, as opposed to the fantasy kind that writes a book one minute, is instantly and spontaneously solicited by an agent the next, and is chatting on a couch with a late-night TV host the next? Why is publication — and wildly successful publication at that — so frequently held as the only measure of writing talent?”
I’m relatively certain that the question-asking gravy-eschewers who drove these writers to distraction (and, quite possibly, drove them home afterward) did not intend to be cruel. However, the short answer to that well-justified wail is an unfortunately cruel one: because that’s how society at large judges writing.
I know, I know: I don’t like it, either, but it’s pervasive. Not only does popular misconception holed that the only good book a published book — a proposition that would make anyone who actually handles manuscripts for a living positively choke with mirth — but also that if a writer were really talented, publication would be both swift and inevitable. Commercial success arrives invariably for great books, too, because unless the author happens to be a celebrity in another field, the only possible difference between a book that lands the author on the bestseller lists and one that languishes unpurchased is the quality of the writing, right?
Are you laughing yet? More importantly, is Bernie the Hobgoblin? Trust me, anyone who works with manuscripts for a living would be.
Yet I sense that you’re not laughing. Okay, let’s tease this logic out a little. If all of those suppositions are true, there are only two possible reasons that a manuscript could possibly not already be published: it’s not yet completed (in which case the writer is lazy, right?) or it simply isn’t any good (and thus does not deserve to be published). Accordingly, the only kind response to a writer who has been at it a while, yet does not have a book out, must be to avert one’s eyes and make vaguely encouraging noises.
Or to change the subject altogether. Because, honestly, it isn’t your sister’s coworker’s fault that your mother told him to sit next to the writer in the family. Why, the coworker thinks, rub salt in the wound of someone who clearly has no talent for writing?
Chuckling yet? You should be. While it is of course conceivable that any of the reasons above could be stifling the publication chances of any particular manuscript to which a hopeful writer might refer after a relative she sees only once a year claps her heartily on the back and bellows, “How’s the writing coming, Gladys?” again, the very notion that writing success should be measured — or even could be measured — solely by whether the mythical Publication Fairy has yet whacked it with her Bind-It-Now wand would cause the pros to choke with mirth.
So would the length of that last sentence, come to think of it. Ol’ Henry James must surely be beaming down at me from the literary heavens over that one.
Yet I sense that some of you are not in fact choking with mirth. “But Anne,” frustrated writers point out, “although naturally, I know from reading this blog (particularly the informative posts under the HOW THE PUBLISHING INDUSTRY WORKS — AND DOESN’T category on the archive list at right), listening carefully to what agents say they want, and observation of the career trajectories of both my writer friends and established authors alike that many an excellent manuscript languishes for years without being picked up, part of me wants to believe that’s not really the case. Or at least that it will not be the case in my case.”
See what I mean about the holiday table’s capacity for causing those internalized pernicious assumptions to leap out of the mind and demand to be fed? Let’s listen for a bit longer; perhaps we can learn something.
“If the literary universe is fair,” writers and their pet hobgoblins typically reason, “a good manuscript should always find a home, right? And if that’s true, perhaps my kith and kin are right that if I were really talented, the only thing I would ever have to say at the Thanksgiving table is that my book is already out and where I would like them to buy it.”
“Wait just a book-signing minute!” another group of not-yet-completely-frustrated writers roar. “What do you mean, many an excellent manuscript languishes for years without being picked up? How is that possible? Isn’t it the publishing industry’s job — and its sole job — to identify and promote writing talent? And doesn’t that mean that any truly talented writer will be so identified and promoted, if only he is brave enough to send out his work persistently, until he find the right agent for it?”
“Whoa!” still a third sector shouts. “Send out work persistently? I thought that if a writer was genuinely gifted, any good agent would snatch up her manuscript. So why would any talented writer need to query more than one or two times?”
Do you hear yourselves, people? You’re invoking the Publishing Fairy. Are you certain you want to do that?
It’s a dangerous practice for a writer, you know. The Publication Fairy’s long, long shadow can render seeing one’s own publication chances rather difficult. Following her specter can lead a writer to believe, for instance, that the goal of querying is to land just any agent, for instance, rather than one who already has the connections to sell the book. Or that it would be a dandy idea to sending out a barrage of queries to the fifty agents a search engine spit out, or even every agent in the country, without checking to see if any of them represent a particular kind of book. Or — you might want to put down your fork, the better to digest this one, my dear — give up after just a few queries or submissions.
Because if that writer were actually talented, how he went about approaching agents wouldn’t matter, right? The Publishing Fairy would see to it that nothing but the writing quality would count — and thus it follows like drowsiness after consuming vast quantities of turkey that if that writer gets rejected, ever, the manuscript must not be well-written.
Heck, by this logic, it’s hardly necessary for the writer to make any effort at all, beyond writing a first draft of the book, is it? Those whom the Publishing Fairy bops in the noggin need merely toss off a first draft — because the honestly gifted writer never needs to revise anything, right? — then wait patiently until an agent is magically wafted to her doorstep. (Possibly accompanied by Mary Poppins, if the wind is right.)
Ah, it’s a pretty fantasy, isn’t it? The agent reads the entire book at a sitting — or, better still, extrapolates the entire book from a swift glance at a query — and shouts in ecstasy, “This is the book for which I have been waiting for my entire career!” A book contract follows instantly, promising publication with in a few weeks. By the end of a couple of months at the very latest, the really talented writer will be happily ensconced on a well-lit couch in a television studio, chatting with a talk show host about her book.
“It has been a life-changing struggle, Oprah,” the writer says brightly, courageously restraining tears, “but I felt I had to write this book. As Maya Angelou says, ‘there is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.’”
You would be astonished at how pervasive this narrative of authorial success actually is amongst aspiring writers. They may not all believe it intellectually — they may have come to understand, for example, that since no agent in the world represents every conceivable type of book, it’s a waste of time to query an agent who does not habitually represent books in one’s chosen book category — but at a gut level, every rejection feels like just more evidence of being ignored by the Publication Fairy.
Which must mean that your manuscript isn’t nearly as good as you thought, right? Why else would an agent — any agent — who has not seen so much as a word of it not respond to a query? The Publication Fairy must have tipped her off that something wasn’t quite as it should be. So Aunt Myrna may have a point.
Come on, admit it — you’ve thought this at least once, haven’t you? Practically every aspiring writer who did not have the foresight to be a celebrity (who enjoy a completely different path to publication) before attempting to get published entertains such doubts in the dead of night. If the road to publication is hard, long, and winding, it must mean something, mustn’t it?
Why, yes: it could mean that the book category in which one happens to be writing is not selling very well right now, for one thing. Good agents are frequently reluctant to pick up even superlative manuscripts they don’t believe they could sell. It could also mean that the agents one has been approaching do not have a solid track record of selling similar books, or that one has assigned one’s book to an inappropriate category.
Either can often result in knee-jerk rejection. Or, even if the manuscript is a perfect fit and everyone at the agency adores the writing, the literary marketplace has contracted to such an extent that the agent cannot afford to take on as many talented new clients as she would like.
But those are not the justifications that pacify Bernie the Hobgoblin in the dead of night, are they? Nor are they likely to convince Uncle Clark, or to awe Cousin Ritchie into the supportive acceptance you would prefer he evince. Which is interesting, as offhand, I can think of approximately no well-established authors for whom the Publishing Fairy fantasy we’ve been discussing represents an actual career trajectory.
If you have fallen prey to these feelings, especially after having spent even a few minutes having to defend one’s writing habit to non-writers with whom one is sharing a gravy boat for the evening, try not to be too hard on yourself. The popular conception of how publishing works is, not to put too fine a point on it, composed largely of magical thinking.
There’s a reason for that, I suspect: all of us would like to believe that if a manuscript is a masterpiece, there’s no chance that it would go unpublished. We cling to the comforting concept that ultimately, the generous literary gods will reach down to nudge brilliant writing from the slush pile to the top of the acceptance heap.
We believe, in short, in the Publication Fairy. That’s understandable in a writer: those of us in cahoots with the Muses would prefer not to think that they were in the habit of tricking us. An intriguing belief, given that even a passing acquaintance with literary history would lead one to suspect that they do occasionally get a kick out of snatching recognition from someone they have blessed with talent. (Edgar Allan Poe didn’t exactly die a happy man, people.)
In non-writers, though, this attitude can seem a bit less reasonably derived. What, after all, does an otherwise upstanding citizen whose idea of Hell consists of a demon’s forcing him into an uncomfortable desk chair in front of a seriously outdated computer and howling, “You must write a book!” possibly gain by believing that, unlike in literally every other human endeavor, excellence in writing is invariably rewarded?
Yet even those who strenuously avoid bookstores often seem to cling to the myth of the Publication Fairy. If you doubt that, try talking about your writing over a holiday dinner to a group of non-writers.
“So when is your book coming out?” that-cousin-whose-relationship-to-you-has-never-been-clear will ask. “And would you mind passing the gravy?”
“What do you mean, you haven’t finished writing that book yet?” Great-Aunt Mavis chimes in, helping herself to sweet potatoes. “You’ve been working on it for years.”
“Are you still doing that?” Grandpa demands incredulously. “I thought you’d given up when you couldn’t sell your first book.
Your cousin’s wife might try to be a bit more tactful. “Oh, querying sounds just awful. Have you considered self-publishing?”
Because, of course, that would never have occurred to you. You’ve never encountered a dark midnight in which you dreamt of thumbing your nose at traditional publishing — at least long enough to bypass the querying and submission processes, rush the first draft of your Great American Novel onto bookshelves, and then sit back, waiting for the royalties to roll in, the reviewers to rave, and publishers the world over to materialize on your doorstep, begging to publish your next book.
Never mind that the average self-published book sells fewer than five hundred copies — yes, still — or that most publications that still review books employ policies forbidding the review of self-published books. Over half of the books released every year in North America are not self-published, after all. Ignore the fact that all of the effort of promoting such a book falls on the author. And don’t even give a passing thought to the reality that in order for a self-published book to impress the traditional publishing world even vaguely, it typically needs to sell at least 10,000 copies.
The Publishing Fairy can merely wave her wand and change all of that, right?
Contrary to what some intrepid readers might be beginning to suspect, I’m not bringing all of this up in order to depress everyone into a stupor about just how difficult it is for a first-time author to bring a book to publication, or even as a precursor to breaking the sad, sad news that a good 80% of the fine folks who don’t now get that agents don’t magically appear on good authors’ doorsteps within thirty seconds of the words The End being typed also won’t understand when you land an agent, you will not automatically be handed a publication contract by some beneficent deity.
Yes, really. If every agented writer had a nickel for each time some well-meaning soul said, “Oh, you have an agent? When’s your book coming out?” we could construct our own publishing house. We could stack up the first million or so nickels for girders.
No, I’m raising these unpleasant realities to provide a bit of ego salve for the many, many aspiring writers whose otherwise charming Thanksgiving table partners might not have been as supportive of their writing aspirations as they might have liked. Try not to hold it against your father-in-law: chances are, he just doesn’t have any idea how publishing actually works.
But you do. Don’t let anybody, not even the insidious hobgoblins of midnight reflection, tell you that the reason you don’t already have a book out is — and must necessarily be — that you just aren’t talented enough. That’s magical thinking, and you’re too smart to buy into it.
I’m not suggesting, of course, that those of you who have yet to dine today deliberately pick a fight with your third cousin twice removed or any other delightful soul considerate enough to inquire about your writing. In fact, I’ve been deliberately delaying my own foray into the kitchen in order to help you avoid that particular argument — or, more likely because writers tend to be awfully nice people, avoid the hurt feelings that those unwilling to fight often find hard to swallow.
How might one side-step that especially indigestible discussion? Had you thought about abruptly asking how everyone at the table feels about the recent government shutdown? Or universal healthcare?
You see the point, don’t you? Just as it’s risky to assume that everyone gathered around even the most Norman Rockwell-pleasing holiday table shares identical political beliefs, it is always dangerous to presume that everyone at an agency or publishing house will share the worldview or life experiences of the submitter. Or that everyone around the holiday table will be concealing under that sweater-clad chest a heart open to the realities of publishing as it actually happens.
So how might a writer besieged by the Publication Fairy’s adherents do to protect his digestion? How about limiting to the discussion to, “The writing’s going very well. How’s your handball game these days, Ambrose?”
Seem evasive? Well, it is. But would you rather allow the discourse to proceed to the point that you might have to say to a relative that has just referred to your writing as Allison’s time-gobbling little hobby, “Good one, brother. Seriously, though, I don’t want to bore you with an explanation of how books actually get published.”
If pressed, you could always add, “I’d love to continue this fascinating exchange, Hermione, but would you mind if I grabbed my notebook first? Everyone here is aware that anything you say can and will be used against you in a manuscript, right?”
If you do feel compelled to try to nudge your loved ones toward a more supportive attitude while they are gnawing upon drumsticks, dinner might be an excellent time to disabuse them of the also quite ubiquitous notion that author’s kith and kin routinely receive free copies of books. Yes, publishers do generally provide their authors an extremely limited stock of their books, but it’s with the expectation those will be used for promotion, not to grace one’s mother’s bookshelves, if you catch my drift.
That means, in practice, that if you recklessly promise free copies, you will almost certainly be buying them yourself. And to answer your mother’s next question: yes, Mom, authors do often receive a discount upon their own books, but the books the author buys do not count toward sales totals.
Translation: the best thing Aunt Myrna could do to support your writing career would be to commit to buying your book(s) herself. Promise to sign it for her when she does. If you’re feeling adventurous, extend that promise to visiting her in order to inscribe copies for all of the friends she can cajole, blandish, and/or guilt into purchasing.
Or just bookmark this page and forward the link to your kith and kin a few months before your first book comes out. I don’t mind playing the heavy here. I’ve spent a lifetime explaining to everyone’s relatives that since the Publication Fairy so often falls down on the job, it’s up to the rest of us to support the writers in our lives. I see no reason to stop now.
Your writing deserves that support, doesn’t it? Happy digestion to all, and to all a good night. And, as always, keep up the good work!