Sunday, August 19, 2007

Beyond Imagining

Last week, I gave a coworker a copy of Voice of Innocence (commonly known among the cognoscenti as “the Lachlan book”) to take home and read. This during a time when no agents or editors have this latest incarnation, nor do I have a list of agents and editors ready to look at it. I’ll get to that list as I go; work has been a real energy-drain of late, trying to get an encyclopedia out into production and having it take way too long. But it also dawned on me that there’s a reason for a certain inertia in the submission and resubmission and querying and requerying process. One name for it might be fatigue. Or, taken to its extreme…a kind of despair. I discovered this, interestingly enough, when the coworker wrote me a quick note after she’d sneaked a look at the first 10 pages of it (there’s a strong temptation to having a manuscript on one’s desk!). Her e-mail simply said, “WOW!” And it took me almost completely by surprise. Now, why should praise for a work that is the Book of My Heart take me by surprise? Don’t I know that story is horking good? Don’t I know that, placed up against much of what’s already on the shelves, this book would—pardon my French—kick ass? Well…no. Frankly, I don’t. Not at the level I need, or want, to have a handle on. This isn’t false modesty talking. This is the realization by a battle-scarred veteran that it’s been a long time since a story that really matters has provoked a “WOW!” out of anybody but perhaps, maybe, a minion or two. And when I got that WOW, it brought home to me all over again the value of fresh eyes. And how fresh mine aren’t. And how much that’s hurt me over the past few years. I’m not talking so much about a lack of self-esteem when it comes to writing. I’m talking about something deeper, something much more pernicious and pervasive and destructive. I’m talking about, for all intents and purposes, the loss of hope. And I didn’t realize how much I’d lost hope until Gina was jumping up and down with glee about how great this book was, and how we HAVE to get it published, and we’re GOING to get it published, and all we need is a plan.... The sad thing is, there was a time when I was right on that bandwagon with her. You know, when I was seventeen and idealistic (and twenty-four and idealistic, and thirty and idealistic), I knew I was going to make it as an author. When I married, my husband supported me in this, to the point where we darned near lost everything because we were convinced that my big break was just around the corner, so I stayed home with the kids and I wrote and I entered contests and… ….and I got broker and broker, until I finally had to go out and get a day job. That can, and does, feel like a failure to many of us. It’s not, but it does cause a little part of that big, bubbly, sparkly optimistic hope we have inside to break off and fade away. Because we’ve had to “give in” on at least one front. Then we go and join writing groups, so we’ll get “tough” and “businesslike.” And learn what “real writing” is. And we get our words chewed up and reassembled and spat back at us. A lot of that is necessary. A lot of it is good learning. But a lot of it also means that we “give in” on some additional fronts. We start learning about guidelines, and we “give in” on some of the ideas we have that “won’t sell.” We learn about the market, and about dos and don’ts of certain publishers, and we “give in” and clear our writing of some of the taboos. And each time we do these things, it breaks off additional little pieces of our original, fresh, heart-thrumming work…and more of that big, bubbly, sparkly dream we have starts to fade at the edges. Then, the miracle happens. We win a major award, as I did. And we think we’ve made it. We’re sure we’ve learned the secret handshake now. It’s going to happen. That dream is at last going to come true. We can taste it, it’s so close. We can smell the ink on the contract. And then we call an editor who supposedly has our award-winning manuscript on her desk, only to learn that she has to go track it down “at the bottom of a pile” in one of the publisher’s spare rooms. After that publisher, and that editor, specifically asked for that manuscript. At that point, not only does our big, sparkly bubble of optimism break…but we can find ourselves not knowing how to make more bubble formula so we can blow another one. Yeah, that’s how the business works. But that, my friends, is also a large section of the yellow brick road to writer despair. No, it won’t kill a career. And, no, it won’t kill a writer. Or will it? You see, I’ve been doing all the “right things” for so long now, and getting soooo close for so long now—but never really making it—that I have wondered, more than once, what the use is of continuing. Statistically, maybe I haven’t done the work necessary to “quit” by some people’s standards, and certainly even by my own former ones. And when asked if I’m going to quit writing, the answer is usually no. But when I got that reaction from my coworker, I realized to my horror that I’ve already quit something far more important… I’ve quit believing. I am to the point where I’m having trouble wrapping my brain around the idea of success as an author anymore. I honestly don’t think about writing day and night—not so much because I have no energy to do it (which is partly true), but because part of me is sick and tired of watching the words flow onto the page, getting good feedback, getting close…but never seeing the work get out there where someone else other than a handful of people is ever going to see it. I have rights back to a book that never had a chance to begin with, and I have bits and pieces of other books that have promise but have been through so many wringers themselves that they’re almost unrecognizable. In the process, I as a writer—and as a potential author—have been through my own wringer, one I have only just begun to glimpse the damage from. And it’s a sobering sight. The truth of the matter is, much as I have put on an enthusiastic “plugger” face to the world, in my heart of hearts I no longer recognize much more than the dimmest possibility that this one, beautiful, emotional, socks-knocking book of my heart will have any better of a chance than any of the bits and pieces I’m trying to cobble together. And if something that you love passionately doesn’t have a chance…what’s the hope of all the rest of it? In short, what’s the point? To entertain myself? I can think of easier ways to do that. To have a rollercoaster emotional experience? I’m a Cubs fan. ‘Nuff said. I’m not a big believer in whining as a creative endeavor. Nor, overall, do I enjoy reading other people’s whining. But I don’t believe that this realization—this sensation of “You know, I truly cannot imagine selling this wonderful book…it’s beyond my comprehension that anyone’s going to actually buy this before I die...and that's scary”—is whining. I think it’s something way bigger than that. I think it’s something more of us suffer from than any of us want to admit. And one of us is tired of putting on the happy face and pretending otherwise. What I’m going to do about this is still an open question. Because the one bright light in this tunnel is…this coworker has a contact at one of the major publishers I would just about sell my teeth to get into. So her idea is she reads this book and we mount an offensive to get it through the door, by means of the friend she’s already made at this big house. But somewhere in the pit of my stomach, this feels like the last hope this book has. And somewhere also in that same pit is an awful certainty that “that trick isn’t gonna work any better than any of the other routes I’ve already tried.” I don’t want to become the Augustinian and take on the attitude, “I never expect anything, so then I’m never disappointed.” I believe, quite frankly, that that’s self-deception. That’s saying what I’m saying above, but refusing to admit that it hurts. That's another kind of death, and I don't want to go there. I want to keep feeling. And believing. So the scary question has now become…how? Thoughts? Janny


Deb said...

I wish I knew THE ANSWER to this conundrum. Is the answer never, never, never give up? For some it might be, but I'm too old and jaded to think one answer works for everyone. Is it to set our sights smaller? No--though I do that on books that I don't think will sell in a bigger-pub market, just 'cause I CAN. Also because I've been through the heartache of having a book "out there" at a pub for a year or more, making their requested changes, then having them turn it down as though it wasn't better than 60% of what they DO buy.

We've had this conversation many times, and I still don't know the answer. You have people whose opinion you trust, who believe in your work. You have publishers who tell you if you betray what you believe, your work would have a better chance at "selling big." You know you can do this because you've done it, but it doesn't feel good to hear "no" every single time you kick one of your babies out the door.

Maybe we'll solve a couple of these problems in the next few months. We'll chip away at them, anyway.


Donna Alice said...

An interesting blog post and like Deb I don't have the answers either. I know that if you do give up then you'll never know how close you've come. Although sometimes it is hard to keep putting on a happy face and believing when you just want to run somewhere and cry. I think too, a lot of us aren't honest about our feelings of envy for the other writers who hit the big time. I want to be happy for other writers---some of them my dearest friends---but when it looks like they might succeed where I haven't I lament and wail and wonder WHY?

Hope you can keep believing long enough for your book to happen. I've been very encouraged by your blog.

Anonymous said...

I came across "My Book Deal Ruined My Life" on the New York Observer website (

There were several interesting comments posted in response to the article. One such was the below. I was wondering if you had read it and what your thoughts on it were. The thing is, when she mentions perseverance, it seems like she hasn't had to persevere nearly as long as you've been at it.

Also, I was wondering if there had been any significant developments regarding your book and the publisher you reference in your post; although, I suppose if there had been, you would have blogged about it.

CaridadPineiro says:
I have to say your examples aren't typical of my experience with the writers I know. But I can say that with every book you write and manage to sell to a publisher there is a new journey and adventure waiting for you. Is there sometimes a lack of money or publicity or recognition along that journey?

Sometimes. The key is to ask yourself why you write? What is it that motivates you to put pen to paper?

If it's just the money, you can forget about having a lasting career in publishing. It has to be about the passion for the story that you are writing and wish readers to see. Without the passion, a writing career will be shortlived.

But coupled with that passion there must be a sense of what the business demands and what you need to do to stay viable in the business and much like any other career, every year in the business should bring new insights and connections to keep your writing career going.

Finally, besides passion and professionalism, there has to be a strong will to persevere. Publishing is not for the faint of heart.

How do I know this? I published my first book in 1999 and two years later the line for which I was writing folded. It took me another 2 years to sell my next book, but after that, I've been lucky enough to continue to sell on a regular basis.

So, those are my three Ps for publishing: Passion. Professionalism. Perseverance.

Caridad Piñeiro,
SOUTH BEACH CHICAS CATCH THEIR MAN, September 2007, Downtown Press
MOON FEVER, October 2007, Pocket Books
HOLIDAY WITH A VAMPIRE, December 2007, Silhouette Nocturne
SECRET AGENT REUNION, August 2007, Silhouette Romantic Suspense