And so art meets the real world.
Agents are not to blame for Alice’s failure. They are in a business. Publishers are in a business. They need to make money, and the enormous amount of time and money that would be lost reading through the entirety of every submission that finds its way into their email inbox would make the entire business collapse.
Publishers rely on agents to give them only what will make money, so they’re not mired down in the discovery process. Agents, on the other hand, need to have some confidence that the works they take on will sell and allow them to make a living.
Alice doesn’t matter much.
So let’s make another adjustment and make Alice human.
She’s discouraged by rejection, of course. But she has any number of wonderful short stories that she can submit. But to whom? Literary magazines, of course.
But even then, the odds are against Alice. Literary magazines publish only a few of mountains of submissions. They generally pay in copies, not cash. They take months and months to respond to submissions, or don’t respond at all.
Alice waits. And waits. Finally, a literary magazine accepts one of her stories. She gets five copies in payment. The circulation of the literary magazine is 250 people. Still, Alice is grinning like Harvey. Her words will be read!
But Alice isn’t making a living writing. Food and shelter being the necessities that they are, Alice works full-time and has limited time to write and try to sell her stories.
Essentially, Alice is a hobbyist engaged in a hobby that has thousands upon thousands of other hobbyist, all vying for agents and publication in the same places. They are the competition. Some will get lucky and write a salable query letter. Most won’t even get close.
Let’s delve a bit deeper into the curse. Let’s say Alice isn’t that talented. How is she to know it? If Alice the gifted writer meets the same level of rejection as Alice the not so gifted writer gets, what is the difference?
She will still be left with a compulsion to write, will love what she writes, but will be ignorant as to whether she has the talent she thinks she has (more on this in the next post). She might just be another chimp without a hope in hell of typing out “Hey, Jude.”
Or, worse – and here’s the kicker. Alice might be every bit as good as she thinks. Her novels might be remarkable. And she might just get lucky and pound out a query letter that gets an agent interested enough to ask for the whole manuscript. And the agent might read the manuscript and recognize that it is amazing, yet unlikely to find a large enough audience to make money. Too highbrow, maybe, or outside the narrow bandwidth of current literary consumption. So Alice is still rejected, but with a nicer note.
I’ve been published. I’ve made a living as a writer, so I’ve crossed those hurdles and have some confidence I can write well enough to be, at the very least, readable. But I’ve written three novels. Two of them took me years to finish. I think they’re pretty good. But they haven’t been published, which is to say, for all the work I put into them, I have not made a single cent for writing them.
The third novel, discounting the two years that I left the first and part of a second chapter lying unfinished, took me five months to write. That one will be published in July of 2021. But I’m almost 59, a lot of years beyond the typing Mikie who so impressed his mother by typing his name. I’ve written far more than has been published. I have piles of short stories I’ve written, some of which have lain unseen for so long that that their pages have yellowed and smell bad. Most have been submitted and rejected. Some got handwritten notes of encouragement: “Hey, this is good, but not for our audience.”
So don’t call me Ishmael. Call me Alice. Writing is a hobby.
Yet it is a terrible hobby because you can’t show it off. You can’t have company over and say, “Oh, by the way, while you’re here, would you like to read this 100,000 word novel I’ve written? I’ll put on a pot of coffee. Dude, you’re going to love it.”
Looking back, I wish I would have had more balsa wood. With practice starting at such an early age, I might have become a decent furniture maker. Instead of obsessing over punctuation, I could have spent my energies sanding and varnishing. Instead of working through plot and character development, I could have come up with original bookshelf designs. And I could have dazzled my friends with my latest coffee table or rocking chair, easily seen and admired.
Or maybe I could have built a house.
I might even have sold some of the furniture I made because potential buyers would see the whole damned thing before deciding whether they wanted it in their living room or not.
So it’s a curse, writing is. Like the next bet being that sure thing, I’m convinced the very next thing I write will finally sell and make just enough money so I can do what I love full-time: write. Oh, how I love to write, and it is a curse.
Ask my wife, who’s frowning at me right now because I’m sitting at the keyboard on a Sunday afternoon. She’ll frown harder when I ask her to proofread this for me.