Am I good enough? Will I ever be? Should I quit now? What if no one ever reads my writing? What if no one ever likes it? What if no one ever likes me? What if? I suspect most writers wonder some variation of these questions at some point. I suspect many never stop wondering.
There exists a certain number of repeated themes among writers, agents, publishers, and their various fans and cheerleaders.
“Keep going, keep submitting. [Insert random famous writer’s name] was rejected [some large number between 20 and 90, generally] before being published.”
“If you aren’t finding an agent or publisher, if you get rejected ‘too much’ [some nebulous amount never quantified like the optimistic version], maybe you’re not good enough yet. Keep writing. Everyone has a ‘drawer novel or six.'”
“publishers want diverse books by diverse voices.”
“we like this, but we’re not sure how to sell it. Have you considered [making it less diverse in some way]?”
“Self publish only if you’re egotistical and want to see your name on a book because you’ll make no money and the only reader will be your mom. Besides, without a team of professionals, it will be of low-quality and destroy your chances of a real publishing deal.”
“Self publishing is the only way to really control your career and make money. Besides, [insert name of outlier success story] would have never gotten a deal if [he/she] hadn’t self published and sold [x] copies.”
“Write the book you want to read. That’s where the best ideas/writing is. You’re a reader, too.” “Don’t chase fads. Write what you’re passionate about.”
“When you’re serious about getting published, stop writing books for you and start writing books for readers. Books that sell.”
The overall message is less one of “there are multiple paths to success” and more one of “anything you do is wrong, but if you say you feel that way, you are whiny and unworthy and you just don’t understand.’ There’s also a lot of contradiction and a lot of ways to do something that will cause derision and snark to burst forth from industry insiders. There are a lot of ways to misstep and find oneself mocked, usually in a thinly veiled fashion, on the internet. There’s a certain level of snobbery that may be an artifact of New York life, of all those years getting MFAs or graduate degrees in 15th century poetry, or that same human behavior that causes formerly lower-middle class people to suddenly look down their nose at friends after a year of being married to a someone who can buy a Cadillac as a present. Once people find themselves on the good side of the door, they want to beat back those they think might steal their place, even if the notion is irrational.
Then, too, there are also a lot of well-meaning authors who offer well-meaning advice and have reached a point where they don’t fear the next people through the door, but whose careers started thirty, or even ten, years ago when they had a different set of rules and a different industry to work with. It’s not so different than the grandfatherly advice about working one’s way up at the factory into management or starting off on the sales floor at the local appliance shop and ending up retiring as the president. It’s advice that sounds so antiquated it almost drifts from lips to ears in a hazy, overly-warm Instagram filter. Toaster or Lord Kelvin, maybe. (Can we call well-meaning, but aged and useless advice Lord Kelvin? Does anyone even use that filter?)
Because the first statement has such a wide rage of numbers given — often for the same author as I’m not sure anyone looks these things up and I’m sure there’s an Abraham Lincoln quote meme to back this feeling up — and the second rarely has numbers at all, both are open to so much interpretation that those inside can be equally derisive of someone who has been rejected twenty times and quits as someone who has been rejected eighty times and keeps submitting to anyone with the word “agent” in their title even if they work for Southwest Airlines.
There’s a parallel catch here in that not all agents are equal and those who research them and their sales know this. Writers are warned off querying agents with questionable track records, Idaho addresses, poor websites, and are known scam artists. Writers are told to look for names of agents in the fronts of books they enjoy reading. Of course, some of the most venerated agencies have terrible websites, appear to be trapped in the early 1990s, or give off the impression that they will figure out email only in the afterlife. You have agents in Idaho with more publishing connections than the “agent” in his grandmother’s Queens basement. And in certain genres, you may only find four agents mentioned in a stack of fifty books.
When agents and editors say they want diverse books, diverse writers, diverse stories, many of them mean it. But agents and publishers are in the business of making money, not social justice. It’s great when the two intersect, but their primary concern is in bringing in as much money as they can. And we come to stories with our own notions, our own baggage, our own filters. Sometimes a “great story” gets that label because we relate to some part of it, and as much as we train ourselves otherwise, we often relate to things most similar to us. Things too different, too challenging, require more work. And when we look out at a world mired in outrage over tee shirts and celebrity nail polish, a world with politicians who not only look like interchangeable cardboard cutouts but have near identical nonsensical soundbytes, we worry the world isn’t ready to be challenged intellectually in droves. And droves equal money.
This may or may not explain why Hollywood has essentially given up on the concept of new ideas and instead is just recreating the 80s, why networks can announce reruns of Buffy the Vampire Slayer with fanfare and eleventy-billion Facebook likes. People still watch Buffy because it fills a void. Sam and Dean Winchester are awesome and they fight monsters every week, too, but they have a limited supporting cast, the women all end up dead, and because everyone’s so busy being stoic, super stoic, or mega-ultra stoic, the arc of character development is low and long and moves glacially. Then again, still more original than Ghostbusters reboots and The Hangover 18.
Which is where part of the feminist outrage machine comes in. Yeah, there’s a lot of really white entertainment choices. And a lot of really dude-bro masculine guys being charming assholes. There aren’t too many options in the merch department for female superheroes and it’s hard to game a girl avatar or find a person of any color other than off-white. But I find I’m less outraged than bored.
I’m over the Lara Croft knockoffs, the short shorts and high kicks without substance. I’m over whisky-soaked, pill-popping angry men being angry about things because it hurts too much and gah! feelings must be solved with ultra-violence. I’m over the endless variation of chefs and dog walkers and artisanal chocolate engineers who find bodies in their soups and poodle poop. (This might explain why so many adults are reading YA these days. Not only are the books shorter and thus easier to “check off” in the face of endless busy, but that seems to be where a lot of the diversity, experimentation, and realness ended up.)
I’m tired of reading what feels like the same book, so I’ve been hunting all over the library (a cheaper way to read half a book and decide you don’t want to finish it than buying them new). I’ve been clicking random things on Hulu from time to time. (I found IZombie fun and sufficiently different from the endless zombie apocalypse stuff.) I haven’t been to the movie theater since Nebraska. I haven’t touched a video game since I almost finished Kingdom Hearts. But what I do watch and read, I tend to do in a bubble because it’s exhausting to try to be cool and keep up with what the other kids are talking about and be outraged about the right things and know when a spoiler is no longer a spoiler (is fifteen years long enough?).
There’s too much entertainment that’s all flash and little substance, too many times I’m seeing action movie trailers and thinking it wouldn’t matter if the aliens lost, all the insurance companies would go belly-up in the face of all that city-wide destruction, that the stock market reaction to that many televised explosions would be another mass recession or worse, and that if our reaction to a few buildings destroyed or damaged was more than a decade of war, rabid patriotism followed by a rash of anger, judgment, fear, and a kind of damning conservatism based on retribution…what the hell would be our reaction to the mess at the end of the last Avengers movie? Tell me that story. Better yet, show me that story because that sounds like the kind of thing I want to watch with popcorn and that sounds like a good use of CGI.
Instead, I’m going to get offered a meet-cute romcom set in the world’s last bookshop but with spanking! and whips! because Fifty Shades made money. #lesigh
I have, however, been told that I should anxiously await Sam Hawken’s Camaro Espinoza book that’s due in December. And I’m sure there are some other things in my pile that I will enjoy.
In the meantime, I’ll be writing to entertain my desk drawer.