In the fall of 2016 I wrote a (long) blog post titled “Publish and Perish Anyway.” Despite my intention to write, first, a love letter to my nearly lifelong desire to be a writer, and then second, a critique of what publishing didn’t mean to me, parts of it came across as a little whiny and defensive. I didn’t feel whiny and defensive when I wrote it, but it had a little of that vibe nevertheless.
Fundamentally, I still feel and think today the way I felt and thought fourteen months ago. I love to write. I love to have people read what I wrote. But I lack what I deem to be the specific ambition required to publish. I’m not a lazy person. I enjoy hard work. But when I imagine the outcome of being published, I struggle to find within that outcome the motivation for seeking publication … for all the reasons I wrote about.
But there is an aspect of seeking publication that I had not considered and, indeed, I don’t think I could have considered, at least not emotionally, had I not decided to set aside publishing as a goal. The seeds of my new found willingness … even eagerness, to seek publication were planted as I made my book available to more and more people to read and so received more and more feedback. No matter how many people read it. No matter how many times I read it. There were still mistakes.
So I had my first sort of “duh” moment. Almost a dozen people proof read my book and yet there were still mistakes. I just found another one the other day. I realized there is no substitute for professional proofreading, somebody whose job is to proofread and who does it every day. That “duh” moment led to the second. A few of my very early readers had provided some feedback on story, structure, character, but beyond that, readers just gave me general feedback. Again, no substitute for a professional whose job it is to read and evaluate story ever single day. This led me, somewhat reluctantly, to begin looking closely at what literary agents actually do. The more research I did, the more I came to understand that I didn’t understand. To a much greater extent than 20 years ago when I last considered them seriously, agents collaborate with writers. Anyone who has done any work in publishing will read this and wonder what is wrong with me that I didn’t truly absorb this idea until now. But I didn’t, and the thing of it is, collaboration is something that does motivate me.
Sure, finding an agent is a step on the road to potentially being published, but before it is anything it is a chance to collaborate with someone whose job, every day, is to understand story and help writers.
I decided to treat it like a consulting project for a client. Everything went up on the wall as I deconstructed the work into tasks. Turns out, I enjoy the work. The chances of finding an agent, let alone getting published and making even a little bit of money, are still slim. But like the actor said when he came back to the set after sulking in his trailer, “I found my motivation.”
Something I did not address in either post about publishing is fear of rejection. I didn’t mention it because it didn’t come to mind. By no stretch of the imagination am I immune to fear of rejection (just like I am apparently not immune to using cliches), but it is not a significant issue for me in this context. I count among both my strengths and my weaknesses my empathy. If you have ever been in a position to hire someone and received over 100 resumes, you can empathize with literary agents too … except, imagine you were receiving 50-100 resumes every day, all the time. Out of pure necessity, as a survival or coping mechanism, you would use any reason to set a resume on the NO pile. If you’re receiving 50 resumes a day, one of them must fire on all cylinders (see there, no fear of cliches) just to make it to the MAYBE pile. As the NO pile gets higher and higher, the odds that there are people in that pile that would have impressed you in an interview and been great employees increase. If thinking about this does not cause you to experience empathy for literary agents, it should, at a minimum, make it easier not to take a form letter rejection personally. I guess I should add that if you are taking every rejection personally for more than a few moments, that state of mind is likely reflected in other aspects of your approach to the whole process of publishing and you’re inserting rejection into your queries somehow. Just my opinion.
Fear of rejection is not, to my mind, the same as discouragement. For me, discouragement doesn’t come from rejections piling up, it comes from the lack of any forward movement. My solution for this is to always be writing something else so I’m experiencing of progress and accomplishment over here while rejection are coming in over there.