On the industry of writing

As I query my latest novel and outline the next I think of one of the best bands I saw as a kid: Grand Tour. Man, they were tight. Covers, some originals I think. I thought they were the equal of anything on the radio.

Never heard of them? I’m not surprised. Because they never * made * it. Which is a tragedy, because so many shit acts do—and that can mean popular rotation in radio as it was in the days of Grand Tour or now where it’s soundcloud, or any number of streaming services (I use deezer), or YouTube or having your own satellite radio station / branded bars / merch, or however you define success.

But bands like Grand Tour don’t get a sniff. I think they were in the running for a spicy mustard commercial jingle. I remember lyrics, “first it’s hot, then it’s not. Whatchu got, you got cooool hot.”

Dig it, right?

So what do they, or Mink, or Catfish, or Fleming and John, or Stephen’s Law, or Darwin’s Waiting Room, or Black Market Hero, or Mother Love Bone, or the many other shoulda-been-mores I have loved have to do with the writing industry? Because I read stories, and the stories of people who get their stories published. Some of them have incredible out of the box success, like it came to me in a dream, and it was the first thing I really wrote, and I got 15 whole rejections before I had an agent and a contract and multiple best-sellers that turn into a movie series. Or I wrote fanfic of the same story and changed the names and got multiple best-sellers that turn into a movie series.

But a lot of us don’t. Ever read American War? I read it last year and adored it. Sweeping, well-structured with fully formed and sympathetic characters, and a brilliant allegory playing underneath. I don’t know how many copies sold. It got some great praise from literary circles which maybe translates into enough sales to support a career or at least a follow-up but I doubt Omar is pulling down streaming series money yet. Almost certainly not theme park-level bank.

Meanwhile, self-indulgent overly long unrealistic waste of my time characters I only hoped would all die painful deaths including the narrator, who was so excessively unreliable I said at every paragraph “yeah whatever” become cult hits and movies. But fair play to you, Bret, because either you were in the right place at the right time or you figured out something about the industry that I haven’t yet. Either way I say,

if I were writing historical fiction, anyway

if I were writing historical fiction, anyway

It is at this point that some self-published writer is reading this and puffing up, ready to strike like a Crossfitter or Herbalife pusher. I know, I’ve seen you on the twitter and message boards. Because yes, it does suck to spend time querying that you could be spending writing, and yes, having absolute creative control to write a 150,000 word middle grade gothic horror tome sounds freeing, and toiling for years without landing a deal, facing rejection upon rejection before putting your most precious work through major surgery or killing your darling in the drawer is an unfortunate struggle for many of us agent-seekers. But while I see some making a mint by being down with the KDP, I see many more e-published folk who are great writers make literally dozens of dollars a year doing it. Or they’re on Wattpad, valuing communities and eyeballs and hoping it’ll lead to dollars like the dot-com bubble. I’ve seen others sacrifice their pride hustling to fill their email marketing list at conferences, or bombing my inbox and timeline the moment I refollow them on twitter.

Life is trade-offs. Or, as my ex-wife used to say, “life is choices, Cupcake.” Maybe she still does.

I have mad respect for the self-publishers though. Cover design, marketing, sales, PR they’re responsible for it all. They live and die by amazon ranking, amazon pricing, and please god don’t let amazon change their policies or algorithms yet again. Don’t underestimate their dedication and hustle—and certainly don’t doubt their writing skills.

Going the agent/trad 5 route is painful. It’s a tough place to go against the grain. You may have an amazing book, but if it’s in an unpopular category, or it’s vampires and vampires are out of style now, or your protagonist is too stock, or too strange, or too anything or not enough something then you’re going to face rejections in the dozens or hundreds depending on how tenacious/lucky you are. And yes that sucks sucks sucks but I don’t blame agents. Just like writers, they love books and amazing storylines and brilliant writing for writing’s sake, because if they didn’t they wouldn’t have read three grade levels ahead in elementary through high school and majored in comparative literature at 7 Sisters and chosen to work in publishing (probably not the most thankful of industries). But they’re also on straight commission. And when they have a stack of stories in the slush that are equally well written and structured as yours plus hit the age group or target market segment or trend of the moment? That’s a simple business decision. New York apartments aren’t cheap.

So what to do? The only consistent advice I’ve gotten, from twitter to rejection letters to those professionals who have kindly given of their time and insight, is that this business is subjective. And if you want to succeed, you’ve got to work at it for years, and keep trying. And the acceptances I have received confirm that the time and effort invested is worth it. Maybe not on an hourly wage basis yet, but…

Every moment should be enjoyed. Each new milestone comes with new pleasures, but you lose other pleasures forever, pleasures that came when life was simpler or merely different. Jimmy Buffett was seven years and seven albums in before he became an overnight success with Margaritaville. His life dramatically changed, and in ways I’m sure he’d say were great, but there must be things he misses about the old life in old Palm Beach.**

And it helps to remember why I’m doing this in the first place: love of telling stories. And hope that my words can impact, or entertain, or matter to someone. To contribute my verse.

So enjoy the ride. I’ve read that being on sub is more frustrating than querying.

**According to Ryan White’s very good Jimmy Buffett: A Good Life All the Way