“The act of striving is in itself the only way to keep faith with life.” -Madeleine Albright
[Warning: whiny, privileged rant ahead.]
I have so little in life to complain about. I have so much more than I need, including my health, amazing friends and family. And yet. And yet sometimes I feel worn down by the grind. We all have our own grind – it’s unavoidable. And even if your own grind feels like it pales beside those of others (looking at y’all in Kyiv, Maripol, etc.), it’s a grind, and it can’t help but make you question your commitment to some of your life choices.
I manage a farm, and it can feel like a grind dealing with the continual crisis of farmer housing and chaos of coordinating the generally-but-not-entirely-aligned hopes, dreams and actual actions of five or six young farmers, each running their own business. I run an open source code project and it can feel like a grind, trying to fix bugs, keep on the agenda and meet the needs of four or five research institutions and their overworked staff.
But at least with those projects, I can look at the real good I am making possible in the world. I see land abundant in fruit, vegetables and happy, healthy animals; I see tables at the farmers market overflowing with produce and stacked deep with locals eager to buy it. I hear of ships all over the world using this code I’ve made possible, using it to better study our fragile and rapidly-changing climate.
A lot of the time writing also feels like a grind. I write because I have to. Because there are words that need to come out, stories that want to coalesce out of the faintest wisps of morning fog, and I feel compelled to pull them down, to swirl them around a stick like cotton candy at a county fair. To look them over and hand them to passersby to enjoy.
The thing is, when you’ve done that – pulled a story out of thin air and made it lovely to yourself – it’s hard to not want to share it. To have others see it and say what a lovely thing it is, and to know that they’re not just being polite – that they really are grateful for this little bit of verbiage you’ve handed them out of the blue.
I’ll spare you the details of what longtime readers may remember: how for a while, after giving up on what felt like the scam of literary fiction journals, I started simply posting a new story to this blog almost every month. I didn’t have a farm or a software project to manage back then, and it was exhilarating to put myself out there like that.
I got a book out of those stories, little-noticed, but satisfying. And I kept writing. But slowly, it started to feel more like a grind. Pouring my heart and time – weeks of work for each – into stories that on average were seen by fewer than a couple dozen people, and actually read by less than half of them. I was never going to be Andy Weir, but that wasn’t the point. You write because you feel you have to put words down to describe what’s in your head. But at some point the joy leaks out and the little dopamine hits are no longer enough to keep you going. But still you write. You remember the satisfaction of nailing the last line and tying it all together. You look back on comments friends – and even a couple of strangers – have written to you. You do the exercises, you scribble plot lines, pages of first pages that go nowhere, a few that actually do. But increasingly you find yourself going into it with the same sense of hope and expectation that you feel when flossing your teeth. Yeah.
Almost two years ago, one of my writing exercises bloomed into a full length novel. Took about a year to ride it through the whole story arc and bring it to ground. I wrote about that. And once I’d written “The End,” I put it down and gave myself some space before I was willing to look at it again. The thing was, when I did give it a peek, I was kind of stunned – sure, there were some structural problems, and sure, it took way too long for “the action” to get started. But as far as I could tell, it was good. Solid. In my opinion, the best thing I’ve written.
I sent it to my editor, and she loved it. I made some changes, restructured things, revised, revised, revised, and finally, late last summer, I decided it was time: I was going to send it out.
Now, with a short story, once you send it out to a journal, you get the form letter that tells you to please wait 4-6 months for a reply and please don’t bother us in the meantime. Oh, there’s a good chance we won’t reply unless we’re interested, so y’all will just get to let yourself wonder (There are exceptions – blessings to Granta, McSweeney’s and Three Penny Review for reliably quick, merciful rejections).
With a book, it’s different. Gone for more than a generation are the days when you could directly approach a publisher. No, nowadays, one needs “representation” – one needs an agent. And then the agent goes around trying to sell your book to a publisher for you. In theory.
My six months poking at the world of agents has left me…disillusioned, to say the least. Partly because of the very nature of an agent transaction: the agent has no reason to care if you’ve written a brilliant book, nor an important book. They have no reason to care about you, or any individual author. An agent’s sole business motivation is to find something, anything they can pick up, turn over and sell to a publisher quickly with minimum fuss, and for the highest price. So they can move on and pick up the next thing to quickly turn over and sell.
Sorry, does that sound jaded? Cynical? It is. It’s also basic economics.
Another part of my disillusionment comes from the agent demographic. The novel focuses on a quirky mix of mostly-older characters in a fictitious tourist town in the Pacific Northwest, and my feedback on it has come from two disjoint groups: 1) people who said it was brilliant. 2) people under 60. And a careful combing of every freaking single agent I’ve been able to track down who is “accepting manuscripts” suggests that they are universally 1) under 25, and 2) somewhat but only theoretically aware that anything of importance exists west of the Hudson River.
Okay, sorry again – that’s not entirely true. But in broad strokes, I don’t think it’s an unfair impression. Their bios vaunt Manhattan internships and MFAs from 2019, and a hunger for “upmarket and book club fiction that keeps readers turning the pages.”
Even after narrowing the list of agents who are ostensibly “eager to hear from you” to those “actively seeking thoughtful and literary fiction,” my net score for any kind of response fro any agent has been…zero. Nothing. Not even a “We’ve received your submission.”
The one response I did get was from an agent to whom I was given a personal introduction and recommendation to. Three months ago she said she’d be willing to give the manuscript a look, so I sent it over and I haven’t heard from her since.
I get that it’s tough in the publishing world. People aren’t buying that many books. And that it’s tough being an agent, besieged by a wheelbarrow full of crappy manuscripts arriving daily full of poorly-written goth-Jedi fan fiction and softcore porn. And that they all need to winnow and find what people actually want to read – no, want to buy – in order to stay afloat. I get that they’re going to jettison a lot of really good stuff, because simply being “really good stuff” doesn’t mean it’s going to make Oprah. And you can’t survive on your commissions unless you sell stuff that’s going to make Oprah.
But the stakes are unpleasantly high for a novelist: a short story is relatively easy to write, launch out into the world and let go of. Okay, not “easy,” but bearable. Call it a few weeks’ work. Hit or miss, mostly miss. And each time you write, you get a little experience, a little feedback, a little dopamine when maybe someone says, “Hey, I liked that.”
A novel, though? That’s a year’s work, easily. Usually more. It’s an enormous amount of soul-searching, dredging for deep truths and painstakingly trying to connect them to the world around. Doing the plumbing and carpentry to string them together into a coherent – and interesting – narrative, and finishing it with prose that’s compelling enough to carry your readers along.
If writing a short story is like setting up camp, writing a novel is like designing and building an entire house, from the ground up. And it’s kind of hard to leave it standing empty and start building another when you realize no one wants to live there. To not even hear a “No, thank you” for your efforts.
It feels like a bit of a grind.
(Okay – end of whiny, privileged rant. Yes, I’m keeping on writing. And yes, I’m still revising the novel and will keep pushing it. And starting on the next one. I just needed a break from my usual “Hey, here’s me living a fabulous, fully-actualized life” posts. Thank you for indulging me.)
(Oh, and here’s a goat to reward you for reading all the way through.)