Sunday, March 5, 2017

What are you willing to give up?

I’ve been asking myself that question a lot lately as it pertains to my writing. I sit in a place where I have years invested in a novel, the first of a series and a good draft of the second book. But my agent has had ‘the talk’ with me. The market, as it stands, isn’t ripe for my book or for me, as a debut author. My genre, urban fantasy, is ‘mature’ and, apparently, the big houses aren’t really interested in investing in new talent. They’d rather bet on the sure thing, the established author with eight books out in a series that’s doing well. That’s solid business advice. I’m a business person, and I’d take that bet over a start up any day of the week.

But I’ve invested, too. Invested years in this book. Not just writing and revising, but investing myself in the idea of being a ‘published author by a major house’. Coming from a girl with no contacts and a barely-there manuscript in 2011 to gigantic leaps in the direction of publication. Landed a great agent. Made revision upon revision, some for the agent, some for editors. Had promising emails from editors at the major houses indicating they’re taking the book to their team. Only to be shot down time after time. Except this time, the shot appears to be fatal. It’s done. The only chance is a hail-Mary resurrection when (if?) the market turns more in my favor. That could take years more.

The fatal shot rang out in late January. It echoed through my universe and it burned, stung and nearly bled me dry of words. I didn’t want to write. It was the last thing I wanted to do. And that hurt. Writing is a solace to me. It’s one thing that gives me more joy, causes my soul to stir in ways nearly nothing else does. So not only had I lost the investment of the idea of a traditional publishing career, I’d lost the joy of writing.

Talk about your gut-wrenching one-two punches.

Some time has passed and now I find myself thinking a whole lot about what it really is I want from this writing gig. This foray into traditional publishing peaked open a door, and I saw what lays behind it. Most newly minted writers believe the other side of that door holds rainbows, unicorns and the proverbial keys to kingdom. But read enough stories of traditionally published authors and you will see that is in no way, shape, form, color, context or any other variable even remotely accurate. The truth is, writing is hard. It is always hard. The challenges just flex and contort with each new project. Got a publishing deal? Fantastic! Your sales weren’t great? Oh, well, try and get another contract…ever. Did great on that first novel? Awesome. Now you get to write the dreaded ‘second book’. Gee, hope that one does well, too. Or, well, you’re out on your butt. Your books did pretty ok? Well, time to pitch the next idea. Your editor doesn’t like it. Come up with a different one. Nah, not that one either.

And on. And on.

Don’t get me wrong. I 100% get it. As I said, I’m a business person. I built a pretty successful dog training business from me and a truck to a seven-figure operation. I didn’t do that by making unsound business decisions. So I do. I get it. First and foremost, publishing is a business.

So I’ve been wondering…Is traditional publishing worth the sacrifice? Because, let’s face it, it’s not all rainbows and unicorns on the other side of that door…there is something profound I’m giving up by trying to please the big publishing house gods.

What could I possibly be giving up, by pursuing the dream, you ask?

Well, right now, it feels a lot like I’m giving up my love of writing.

Until the call came in—the one where my book was pronounced dead on the table—I had a pretty good momentum going. I was excited and I was writing, had just finished up my Nano project, completing a draft of the second book, something I’d struggled with for three years (because I was focused on editing, revising, and editing and revising the first book, trying to get it big-house approved.) But after that call, it was amazing how my desire to do something I loved virtually evaporated.

You see, in my mind, writing and publishing became two halves of a whole. The joy of crafting a story became intrinsically linked to specific people telling me that story was a good one. No… a good enough one. Good enough to pass through that very fickle door.

You could argue ‘that’s my problem’, not being able to separate one from the other, writing and publishing, and you’d be right. But in my mind, writing and publishing were two sides of a coin. It had always been my goal to be a traditionally published author. Hadn’t it?


Hadn’t it?

The thing is, it wasn’t.

When I was first overcome with the idea and the characters, I wasn’t thinking about publishing deals. When I feverish with plot twists, when I was making myself chuckle at a witty one-liner, or when I typed ‘the end’ and felt overcome with accomplishment, I wasn’t thinking about who was going to make an offer on my book.

And that’s when it hits me: I didn’t write to get published. Not at first. I wrote because I loved it. Felt driven to do it. And somewhere that got perverted into something else.

In fact, in the beginning, I had assumed I would self-publish. I’d read enough to know traditional publishing was a long shot. Tons of talent, few spaces available. But I was encouraged and pushed by a few key individuals who were in the business and thought my stuff was good enough to make it. Encouragement like that is heady stuff. And I thought, you know what? I’m going to try this thing. And then I did. And then I went to conferences, learned more. And then I got an agent. (Hey, you know what? This might actually happen.) Then we edited. (Hey, this book is better with her ideas.) Then we submitted. (Oh my God, editors are liking this! Sending it to the team!)

It seemed like it would happen for a while there. It really did. And somewhere in there I lost my compass, set to true north, the joy of writing a compelling story.

What was the goal? It was never money. I mean, read anything out there, and you’ll know a six-figure advance for a debut genre author who isn’t a celebrity is a like a winning lotto ticket. That rare. Hell, the odds may be better for Powerball, I don’t know.

When pursuing traditional publication, the goal for me, and many aspiring authors out there, is validation. It may not be unicorns and rainbows on the other side of that door, but it’s something just as magical. You are good. You really can write. It’s not just your sister and her friends who were riveted by your book. Real people were! People who matter! Editors, agents, book people!

It’s hard to underestimate the power of that validation.

I’d gotten a taste of it several times, probably like tasting heroine, instantly addictive. When my agent loved my book. When three different major house editors loved it. When an intern compared my book to a best-selling favorite author of mine. Ohhh…the smell and texture and taste of that… it’s intoxicating.

Intoxicating, yes. Root word: Toxic.

Like heroine.

I’m not saying traditionally publishing is toxic. I’m saying the pursuit of it, to the exclusion of everything else was. For me.

Here’s the kicker: the high isn’t even real.

Through all of this, here is what I’ve learned: validation from the outside for your work is a lost cause.

Why? Because someone is going to hate your book. And if all that matters is that validation, you’re ultimately screwed.

There’s a reason why they tell published authors not to look at their reviews.

I mean, these are people who made it past the unicorn-gated doorway, their book is OUT IN THE 
WORLD. They have been paid money. And still…some weirdo is going to post a one star review and murder their book baby. Stab it repeatedly, blood and carnage dripping off every page. Probably more than once.

That can’t be healthy.

If you’re focused on the validation of other people, even really highly educated ones, like agents and editors and MFAs, you’re going to crash at some point. It’s just physics. They can’t hold you up if you aren’t willing to lift yourself of your own power.

These are things I’m exploring right now.

Is continuing to pursue traditional publishing worth the risk of losing my love of the craft?

Would I be happy to share my stories only with loved ones and friends?

Would being an indie author, taking on the job of cover art and copy editing, and all that, but deciding what and when I publish be a better option?

What’s more important to me? A publishing career or a hobby that brings me joy?

And hey, along the way things will change. They will ebb and flow. The tide will come in and it will slip away again.

I’ve found my answer.

It took a while to get there. But I found it.

And it didn’t come from outside of me.