Apologies for an entire week of groveling, begging, bitching, kvetching, whining and cats. So let's wind the week down by offering a little perspective.
It's been a rough one. For the last two years, there was the consoling thought that this could be the day I'd get the call. My long-sought-after, elusive book deal. And it was not without merit. I could paste some of the e-mails forwarded by Michele, my agent, by the editors and publishers who read Junkie Love, and when you saw them, you'd be left scratching your head, asking what could've possibly gone wrong. These weren't lukewarm responses; these were over-the-top ecstatic, read it in one sitting, where have you been all my life responses. I actually used one of these letters for the first post on this blog, but since only two people were reading it back then, you probably didn't see it. It was from a publisher, who shall remain nameless, and my comments were not very nice, and it was pointed out to me that if I ever wanted to do anything in the publishing industry I'd be smart to delete that post. And they were right. It was unprofessional of me, and stupid, and counterproductive. But I was frustrated, and my reaction, I think, was a natural one. After all the praise several acquisition editors had heaped upon my memoir, I had no choice but to wonder what the fuck went wrong. And the answer to that question is simple. The sales team didn't think they could sell it.
It's one of the more frustrating aspects of being a writer, this never-ending hall of hurdles. The first, of course, is writing the damn book. If you are not a writer that might not seem like such a daunting task. After all, a writer writes, right? Sort of. I mean, the fun part of writing is before writing is a job. Like back when I was 16 and writing shitty poetry culled from an assortment of Pink Floyd songs. Mostly these were very long poems with titles like The Die is Cast or Mistress of Wyoming, even though I don't know what outcome could've possibly been determined by age 16, and I couldn't point to Wyoming on a map if it was on a test (it never was). If you think there is an undercurrent of bitching and whinging now, Jesus, you should've read that shit.
Though these early efforts weren't entirely without merit. Already there was an understanding of how sounds and musicality work in language, if obscured by clouds of pretension and outright thievery. Problem was, I had nothing concrete to write about. You have to write what you know, and what did I know at 16? Hadn't left my hometown, a hometown, by the way, that was so lily-white and sheltered that I cried the first time I saw a black man. I was 8. I hadn't fallen in love and had my heart broken, had my dreams stomped upon, or been tested for chlamydia.
I understood this lack of experience, and in place of writing about something, I wrote about nothing. I made vague references to pain and darkness and eternal soundless voids in nuclear win'ers (that's the same as "winter," but without the "t." 'Cause it's classier. Like all British and shit), the same crap most deeply affected 16-year-old boys heavily into Rod McKuen write about (that isn't mine. I once read that describing the Neal Peart's lyrics. It's fucking true. That guy might be, in addition to severely overplaying the drums, rock's most cringe-worthy lyricist. Next to Eddie Vedder, of course).
(Hi, I'm Rod McKuen. I have a throaty voice, and like six thousand poems about sunsets. Would you like me to read you some in my boogie van? It has a fondu maker and shag carpeting...)
Let's skip ahead to the part where you leave your hometown, learn that the word "just" is seldom needed, you stop dangling your participles (at least in public), and suffer through enough writing workshops that your thin skin gets a little scarred over and you accept that you are not the second coming of James Joyce (whose work you could never get through anyway), and you take a plot class and stop writing 80 pages of pithy, clever, multi-layered one liners in diners where nothing ever happens, and you actually start--and finish--a book that doesn't totally suck. It's not impossible. It happens. Knew a guy who did it once. But no one is going to read this book and have their socks knocked off. You think they will, that you will hand it over, and they will be dazzled. Only two people will respond that way, your mother, and your girlfriend. There will always be ways to make it better, and this is a long, long, long process. 99% of good writing is rewriting, and everyone is a critic, and you need lots of critics and cooks in the kitchen, while never surrendering so much control that your voice and vision are lost; it is a delicate process. And it's maddening.
In the workshops he teaches, my writer friend David Corbett talks about the two stages of writing: the "I'm a genius" stage, and the "I'm an idiot" one. During that first part, you trust your gut, believe in your brilliance, and you ride your unparalleled awesomeness to the end. But then you have to sharpen an uber-critical eye, be merciless in your self-judgement; you have to be your own worse critic, because if you are not, trust me, someone else will be, and you don't want that someone to be an agent or anyone else up the food chain, because you aren't going to get many cracks at this. When you are ready to start querying agents, you need to have your piece polished, precise, and as perfect at you can get it.
And that's what I meant earlier, about the frustration, because this is not a quick turn. There's the story about how Kerouac wrote On the Road in a few weeks, and then there's that guy who wrote Bridges of Madison County, but the "spontaneous" prose of Kerouac is an overblown, exaggerated, revisionist myth--the guy edited and reworked his books, extensively, like all great writers--and the other book is Bridges of Madison County.
You are going to spend years--not weeks, not months, years--writing your book, and rewriting, and revising, and sharingeditingcryingandrewritingsomemore, and then you send it agents, who pass it down to their underling helpers, the same grad student dillweeds you spent the last three years debating the verisimilitude (or lack thereof) of Derrida, and you never hear back, or maybe you do and it's a polite "go fuck yourself, you talentless shit" (it might not actually say that, but believe me, that's what you'll read), but if you keep at it, keep hammering away, don't take no for an answer, and if you are any good, you'll find an agent who'll take your book. Which counts for a whole bunch of...not very much. Like I wrote the other day, that only gets you invited to the party. And it's a big party, with lots of floors, and stairs that are guarded by large, spiteful people in jumpsuits, but if you make it to the next level and get past the acquisition editor, which isn't easy to do, you still have the sales team with which to contend, with their peanuts and numbers and beans to crunch. It's like playing the Legend of Fucking Zelda. Soon as you think you've saved the princess, you've find another big, ugly dragon to slay, stronger than the last one.
Let's face it, books don't make money. Harry Potter. Twilight. James Patterson. These make money. Nick Sparks makes money. Stephen King makes money. You don't. The staggering vast majority of books don't make jackshit. Not for the author. Not for the publisher. Not for the agent. There's some money being passed around, otherwise people wouldn't be doing it, but it ain't much. Most books, like most men, lead lives of quiet desperation, only die unnoticed and broken in oblivion.