Sometimes It’s Hard

This weekend I finished a read through of my viking novel and got it back to my agent. For those of you wondering about the submission and getting sold process, for me it’s gone like this, after the get-an-agent-interested-in-my-writing part of the process:

1. She reads it. Her assistants read it. They all create 4-page single spaced notes on what works and what doesn’t. We brainstorm ideas together. Certain plot things need big overhauls.

2. I come up with potential fixes for the big plot things in an outline form. We have several back-and-forths about those. The changes are approved.

3. Major rewrite. Cut 70,000 words, write 60,000 new ones. Resubmit.

4. She reads it. Her assistants read it. More plot notes, these ones more minor, but still not small.  It takes 3 meetings to get through all of them, but they’re more granular now.

5. Make plot changes. Cut 175,000 words down to 140,000 words. Re-read again for typos and whether these plot changes make sense. Tear hair out. Realize that this is probably the 20th time I’ve read this novel, and that is a lot, and as much as I love these characters and this story, I am tired of them right now.

6. Send it back to my agent.

Those 6 steps have taken 20 months, because the manuscript of an unknown writer is not the highest priority for an agent. This is all before even trying to sell it. My impression is that these days editors want a novel that is as close to perfect as possible when it comes across their desks. Agents do a lot of editing. There may be another round.

People ask me “when is your novel coming out?” The answer is: not for a long time, and maybe never. No one wants to hear that and I don’t want to say it, but there’s a reason why people say “writing is hard”. And it’s not just because making something up from nothing is hard, and all the research is hard, and just typing those first 180,000 words took a long time. Not just because I can’t count the number of dinners and social events and other things I’ve turned down so I can get some writing time in after work.

It’s because I’ve done all that, off and on for 10 years, more on than off for the past 5, and this book may not get published, at least not on the mainstream market. The next book may not get published. Even if they do, the monetary rewards are often tiny. The extrinsic rewards for writing don’t balance the sacrifices. The intrinsic rewards have to.

Even if this book doesn’t sell, and I have to make the tough choice of keeping it on the shelf, seeing if I can sell the next book I write, and making a market for this one, or going the self-publishing route, even if the book after that doesn’t sell, I know I’m going to keep writing. I know because I’ve tried not to, and it doesn’t work. Oh, sure, I can go a month or two or three where all I write is blog posts and grocery lists and emails, but then I will need to start writing stories again. It always sounded like bullshit to me when people said that, and for years I tried to get my creative fulfillment in other places: work, knitting, cooking. But I always came back.

Now it’s a little comforting. No matter what happens, no matter if no one ever wants to read what I write, I’m going to keep doing it. What that means is that the time I’ve taken hasn’t been wasted. Whatever extrinsic rewards do or do not come, it’s what I’m going to do. (Right now I’m trying to go the traditional publishing route, because that’s what I want, but I am lucky to live in a time when there are many different ways to get readers.) This not a resolution, this is not me buckling down or finding motivation, it is just knowing myself: this is what I do. It is what I have always done, and what I will continue to do. I can protest and make it harder for myself, or I can accept that.

The rewards or lack thereof don’t actually matter in the day-to-day of my life. Of course they would be nice. They would be wonderful.  I could stop answering the “when is your book coming out?” question in a way that makes people uncomfortable. But in terms of making decisions about how to spend my time, whether to “waste” it writing things, that decision has already been made.

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  1. :You set forth all the stumbling blocks and sheer work involved in getting a book ready for print. There are many who will find this hard to believe. Best of all, you stated your desire and need t o keep writing. I’m cheering you all the way .

    1. People I’ve talked to do find this hard to believe, or think that I’m doing something wrong because it’s so much work. But it really does take this much attention to improve a book.

      Thank you!

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