Broken Fantasy

I wrote my first book when I was 28. Finishing up grad school, trying to figure out, at a late age, what I should do with my life. Not my first attempt at writing an entire novel, but my first success.

Success? Hahaha, no, it was crap. Just a total piece of garbage.

But it was an amazing feeling, just to write those last words. To think to myself, holy shit Kevin you just wrote an actual, real novel. All the way through from beginning to end. Even if it does suck.

Last Thursday night, I finished my seventh novel. I’d say the feeling that night was more relief than elation, given that I struggled through this one, but that’s not right. I mostly felt… nothing.

***

My job’s been especially stressful lately, though in truth, my job is especially stressful all the time. It’s just the nature of my career. Two and a half years ago, the day of the company holiday party, I had the worst day of this ridiculous job. I woke up, saw I was losing many millions of dollars, and immediately reached for a beer and my book, the one I was writing at the time. It was my fifth book. The alcohol comforted my a little, but writing for hours comforted me a lot.

Back then, I was able to use writing as an escape from my failures, in my job and in my life. I could fantasize about becoming a great writer. Not strictly about becoming famous or rich by writing – that’s reserved for a handful of people per generation. Just about creating something wonderful that a bunch of other people would like and recognize as something great. Flawed, sure. Not for everyone. But beautiful. Amazing in some way.

But as my career continues to go to hell (I’ll figure it out, somehow, I think, maybe), I haven’t been able to escape into that writer fantasy. It hurts, because I don’t know where else to turn – I mean, alcohol obviously, but I think that may be less healthy.

***

Seven books. The first two were total crap. I was just starting out, messing around, hadn’t learned much about writing. The third, The Book of Terrors, I genuinely liked. The first book I queried agents on, even though I had no idea what I was doing in that regard. No requests. Eventually I realized it just wasn’t good enough. Not big five material.

My fourth book was meant to be a practice book, a shitty attempt at writing YA. I’m not sure if I learned much from it, but hey, it was a thing. If nothing else, a chance to practice sentence-level writing.

Book five, Blood Price (not a vampire novel), I queried on with… zero requests. Again, after getting some distance, I realized it wasn’t great material, didn’t stand out the way I wanted. Sure, another practice book.

Then came Daughters of Darkness, which I’ve blogged about here before. I still believe in this book, in the characters, in the world. Twenty-four queries so far and… zero requests.

***

During the query process for Daughters of Darkness, I realized I’ve made a big mistake throughout my writing non-career. I haven’t solicited enough feedback. I’ve had a few critiques, but mostly partial or informal. One of those partial critiques was from a freelance editor for DoD, and a couple comments she gave me were very useful, but rather embarrassing for me. Pretty fundamental shit that I should’ve understood/learned years ago. Sophomore year kinda stuff (In my defense, I was an engineering major, I only took one semester of writing in college, come on).

But even with my mistakes, I believe I’ve progressed as a writer over the years. Not as much as I could have, if I’d done all the right things. Still, it seems like real progress. But I don’t see it in the results. The proof, as they (old people?) say, is in the pudding. And there’s been no pudding for Kevin.

I’m not done trying to find an agent for Daughters of Darkness, and I haven’t even begun to query on book seven (no title yet), which will be months from now, after much revision. But…

It gets harder to keep going. To believe. To keep the dream, the fantasy, alive.

Yes, yes, I’ve heard it a million fucking times, every writer experiences rejection. NEVER GIVE UP. But…

If you let the rational mind leak in for just a moment, it’ll tell you that the probability of landing a legit agent is low. Very fucking low. (Self-publishing is a thing, it works for some people, but I know myself well enough to know it isn’t for me)

My rational mind thinks about selection bias (or survivorship bias, if you prefer), and all those stories about writers getting rejected so many times and then breaking through. The thing is, these are the success stories. For every one of those, there must be hundreds, maybe thousands of writers who kept getting rejected, kept trying, and… kept getting rejected. Without success. Just because most/all successful writers experienced a lot of rejection, that doesn’t mean that most writers who experience rejection and keep going will be successful. Sorry, that’s not how it works.

***

As writers, we’re not supposed to think about giving up. That’s the only way you fail, guys!

But I don’t agree with this sentiment. Most of us have “regular” jobs. In better days, mine used to pay me pretty well. At some point, I may have to accept that it might be better for me to give up the dream of becoming a bestselling author. Doesn’t mean I can’t still write for fun, right?

Over the last couple years, as I’ve tried to work toward doing all the “professional” things that published authors need to do, I’ve found so much to not like about “writing.” I don’t mean the actual writing of a book, or even the editing. I mean things like learning about the business, writing/revising/perfecting the query submission. Figuring out which agents are good fits for me, which agents rep my stuff but are, um, let’s just say, not what I consider quality agent material.

What if, just what if, giving up on the dream of getting a book contract, saying fuck it and just writing for the fun of it, even if no one will ever read it… what if that’s honestly the best thing for me? Does that make me weak, a quitter, a failure? Or pragmatic?

Letting go of the dream… forever… sounds painful. But it could be freeing, as well. Hell, I wouldn’t have to go through the terrible, no good, very bad feelings I get every time I send out a round of queries and get nothing but rejections. When I write just for myself and no one else reads it, I can be proud of my story, of my characters. I can pretend that it’s super fucking great!

But when I continue to query and revise, query, fail, learn and start over, query again and get nothing but a cold shoulder, there’s a voice in my head that I have a hard time ignoring. It doesn’t just say I’m not good enough. It says I’m downright terrible. No, far, far worse than that. The absolute, unfathomable, serious fucking worst ever. So bad I shouldn’t tell anyone I’ve failed this much just to save myself the embarrassment.

***

Seven books. Not a single request. I still believe I can get better, that I can break through. I don’t want to give up the dream yet, whether the rational part of me says I should or not. I’m looking back at the mistakes I’ve made, working out in my head how I can learn from them. I wouldn’t be the first author to query on several books and fail before making it. But…

It’s hard to keep believing. And then I see things like:

schwab_being_sexist

Because apparently, it’s so fucking easy for every white male in the publishing industry. You don’t have to be good, if you’re a white male, scratch some drunken shit on a napkin and BOOM – big five contract. If only everyone else had the crazy advantages I have! I shouldn’t be able to fail even if I try!

Yet after ten years, after seven books, this white male still can’t get a single request from an agent.

And that voice? The one that says I’m so bad, so over-the-top embarrassing level incompetent that how is this even possible? It gets louder every day. Even the beer and whiskey don’t seem to quiet it.

But I’m not giving up. Not yet.

Not ever? I don’t know.