A different secret entirely

I was writing in my favorite French bakery on Friday — is there anything better than drinking good coffee while the smells of baking bread and pastry swirl around your laptop? — when I bumped into a delightful writer I met at last year’s PNWA conference. (Here’s how good her pitch was: out of the hundreds I heard last July at the Pitch Practicing Palace, I still remember hers. In detail.) She’s had submission success — hooray! — and we spent a few minutes chatting.

Like so many working writers, we both spoke humorously about our respective disappointments since we’d seen each other last, and it struck me: amongst our ilk, well-justified complaint has become something of an art form. To be capable of expressing one’s continual astonishment at how hard it has become for good writing to find home at either an agency or a publishing house in a beautiful but not bitter manner is, in fact, regarded as a mark of professionalism.

I have mixed feelings about this, to tell you the truth: yes, it’s great that amongst writers, it’s considered completely acceptable, and even normal, to bemoan one’s experiences, as long as one does it in an entertaining manner. In fact, getting together to vent is a time-honored tradition in our inherently isolating profession. I meet regularly with other writers, not to exchange material (I have another group for that), but to compare notes on our respective progress. Which means, a good 90% of the time, collective kvetching.

That crash you just heard was all of the devotees of THE SECRET fainting.

They — like the New Agers before them, Norman Cousins (laughter is the best medicine) in the 1970s, Dr. Coué (every day, in every way, I am getting better and better), in the early part of the last century, and Mary Baker Eddy (Christian Science) in the century before that; how a philosophy so well-advertised and commercially promulgated for so long can be called a secret is beyond me — will tell you that collectively dwelling on our setbacks will only lead to more setbacks. We should think only of our future success, in order to attract it.

For writers, I do think there are benefits to this kind of chin-up-little-soldier optimism. Because the path to publication is such a hard road — and no, Virginia, I don’t believe that acknowledging that fact makes it more so; quite the opposite, in fact — it is very, very easy to talk oneself out of walking it at all. So looking on the bright side can be very helpful, to keep oneself out of the doldrums.

I must say, though, that I have yet to find any adherent of this particular stripe of the law of universal attraction who has been explain to me why, if taken to its logical conclusions, it does not lead to blaming the victim. Did everyone living in a war zone think the wrong thoughts before the bombs started falling, for instance? Will any sociologist who studies sexual assault inevitably be raped — or, for that matter, anyone who follows sports become an athlete? When I ask these questions, I am invariably advised to stop following the news — it will only cause me, I am told, to dwell on negativity.

I think that venting amongst writers serves many valid functions, prominent among which is staving off depression. Without mutual honesty about our respective progress toward publication, it’s too easy for any of us to start to think that we’re the only ones to whom setbacks are happening — and if we are the only ones having a hard time, mustn’t that mean that our work, and not the state of the industry, must be at fault?

Just don’t go there. It’s a depressing spiral, and it won’t help you get your work out the door.

So I’m all for writers sharing their woes. Surely, if anyone is going to understand the angst of waiting to hear back from an agent, or the adrenaline-pumping joyous panic of receiving a request for an entire manuscript, or the nail-gnawing agony of knowing that three editors at major houses have told your agent, “Well, I haven’t had time to read it yet, but let me know the second somebody else has made an offer,” another writer will.

It’s the being entertaining part that’s difficult, of course. It’s hard enough to go through the agent-seeking and book-circulation processes without having to turn each twist and turn of the slog into a piquant anecdote. All that work, and we have to be urbane, too?

Actually, if you’re going to hang out with working writers, you do — and here’s why: even very successful writers have problems, and unless the Archangel Gabriel descends from heaven with Dante on his right side and Jane Austen on his left to smite the publishing industry until it treats us better, less successful writers will have problems, too. It’s one of the things that brings us together as a community, the need to air our moans.

But if we didn’t manage to share the details as entertaining little stories, we would all depress one another into a stupor.

As I left the café, warmed by a pleasant contact with a talented writer who genuinely does deserve to succeed (and I am sending positive energies to that outcome like crazy, Dr. Coué), I found myself thinking about Norbert, my faux pas examplar from a couple of days ago, the one who alienated agency screeners by using his queries to vent about the unpleasant necessity of using valuable writing time to find an agent. And about Olive, who tainted her pitch appointment by using it to complain about how hard she had been trying to land an agent, and with what little success. In both of these cases, dwelling conversationally upon their woes certainly did lead to rejection.

However, I would argue that both Norbert and Olive might have avoided this unpleasant fate by complaining MORE — just in a different forum. Had they found each other at a conference, for instance, and spent an hour or two commiserating, perhaps that venting opportunity would have relieved the pent-up pressure enough to enable them each to interact with agents WITHOUT venting.

And that, my friends, would be complaint time well spent.

There’s one more reason, I think, that we writers tend to talk about our setbacks, rather than our victories, when we get together, and not just because those of us with agents and publishing contracts don’t want to sound like swell-headed jerks. It’s a reason that explains why the farther along the path to publication we are, the MORE likely our anecdotes are to linger on our problems. (Explain THAT one, Norman Cousins!) Because it’s a reason that is tied closely to the actual secret of any writer’s publication success.

Come close, and I’ll whisper it to you: the only way to attain success as a writer is to keep trying. And trying, and trying, and trying.

So by sharing our querying setbacks, we tell one another: I am serious enough about my work to keep on querying, even though it is a very unpleasant process.

By sharing submission snafus, we tell one another: I am putting my ego on the line, because I believe in my work.

By sharing agent traumas, editor horror stories, book sales woes, writer’s block, and the million other setbacks those lucky enough to have their work picked up routinely experience — and believe me, there are just as many problems associated with getting subsequent books published as with a first; they’re just different problems — we tell one another: the system may be frustrating, but I keep expressing myself. Because I’m a writer, like you, and that’s what we do.

The custom of talking about our problems getting published, I think, is our far-flung tribe’s way of telling one another that we’re still treading the path side by side. Call it a secret handshake.

But, as the examples of Norbert and Olive have shown, best reserve that secret handshake for those in the club. Resist the temptation to expose it to the scrutiny of agents and editors; they won’t understand its true value.

Let’s reserve it for amongst ourselves, shall we? Keep up the good work, everybody.

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