I turned 31 this year. Given a family history of heart disease, as well as a recent hospitalization in January, my life expectancy is probably less than 78.8 years, which is the most recent estimate for American adults. That gives me 47 more years, at most. Not quite middle age, but well past 1/3.
I’ve been writing “seriously,” by which I mean writing for market, since 2006. That’s 10 years. In that time, I’ve written and submitted 12 short works (short stories, novelettes, etc.) and 5 novels. It doesn’t sound like a lot, but I also wrote half as many unfinished shorts and just as many unfinished novels.
For every work I’ve submitted anywhere since c. 2006 that I have records of, including publishers, agents, and short story markets, I’ve received (170 agents + 26 publishers + 82 markets =) 278 rejections. That’s not including the stuff I wrote in high school and college, since that doesn’t really count. That’s an average of 2-3 rejections a month. But that’s never how it happens: rejections come in packs, sometimes many at once when you’re querying agents. (I’ve sometimes queried 10 a day, which is the max I can do while researching represented works, manuscript wishlists, etc., and tailoring each submission to match.) Waking up one morning to a dozen rejections in your inbox is disheartening.
The business of writing is managed rejection. Agencies and markets demand attention to the smallest details in their submission guidelines (which I follow fastidiously), but the odds are so low that quantity almost matters more than quality. I may spend an hour wrangling my sample chapters into whatever format an agent prefers, then grooming my query letter so it fits the agent’s expectations. But the odds are near certain that it’ll be rejected, and most likely form-rejected.
I think the myth of the sterling novel, pulled from the mountain of slush submissions at some publisher to transcend to blockbuster status, needs to die. It’s as obsolete as the journalist, cigarette dangling from their mouth, hammering at a typewriter to meet deadline. Books are sold through networking nowadays, not slush.
Is there another industry that’s this hard to break into? Filmmaking, perhaps. If I were selling cars instead of books and short stories, I’d be an awful car salesperson. If I were a realtor, I may not be the worst, but I wouldn’t get any clients.
Writing a novel (including conception, composition, soliciting critique, revision, etc.) is one job, and selling a novel (querying, querying, querying) is totally different. But the latter begins to shape the former, and you begin writing high-concept, three-act books that are little different than blockbuster films.
Aren’t novels supposed to be novel?
Once, a well-respected author critiqued a short story of mine. “It’s like a French film,” he said, because “nothing happens.” I took it hard, and appreciated the time he spent breaking down the story’s flaws. It should be more like The Avengers, he suggested, with a strong story structure (not because it needed superheroes). He had a point: the story didn’t sell as it was. But it was my story, dammit, and I didn’t want it strung out like a tent across two act breaks. Another writer suggested I lay the story on top of a romance plot, but after reshaping the story to fit it no longer felt like mine.
Well, I wrote stories with three-act structures, and strong hooks, and high-concept themes, and they didn’t sell, either. I rewrote a novel to better conform to story beats, and it hasn’t sold anywhere.
At some point, writing fiction on spec felt like a job. I felt like I was behind on every publishing trend, on the things you’re not supposed to do in a query, on whatever convention I couldn’t attend because I switched jobs and needed to save money. That hanging out with friends one night instead of polishing that chapter was setting me back, that now I’d never get published because I wasn’t 100% committed.
Selling your writing is a job that doesn’t pay. And I already have a 9-5 job. It’s sucked the joy out of writing: I dread pushing myself through a chapter, knowing I’ll have to revise the shitty writing later, knowing I’m a bit closer to the avalanche of form rejections when I attempt to find a home for it. I can’t do NaNoWriMo like I used to, because I know the filler words I’m writing to make quota will just be deleted a month later, and I’ll be left with an emaciated skeleton of a story. It hurts.
Writing wasn’t supposed to hurt.
I hate this industry: so many of us want to be published authors, but there are so few markets to go around. (Yet there are plenty of scams!) I’m sick of how self-flagellating we are, how “writing is hard!” is our mantra, how “You Should Be Writing” is on every meme like propaganda posters from 1984. The Calvinist work ethic has stained our creative impulse. For those on the midlist, sure, writing is a job. However, for those of us who haven’t even signed our first contract, it’s an unpaid internship.
So I have 47 years left. I don’t want to spend them waiting for the next form rejection, writing the next YA sure-to-be-a-hit that won’t ever see the light of day. I want writing to be enjoyable again. If not fun, then satisfying, like a run through a park. Not like a death march.