Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Give It Up

When is it time to give up your dreams? And what's the most unintentionally disheartening thing I've ever heard a writer say?

To answer both: a few years ago at a writing conference, a group of us met with a literary agent. After we had asked some basic questions on the book business, a woman in her early 60s (and there seemed to be quite a few older ladies at this conference) raised her hand and spoke. She was confident about getting representation, and wanted to make sure she would get the perfect agent for her book.

And so she asked, in words that have haunted me since, "When I send the agent a query letter, should I mention that in addition to my current novel, that I've got three other unpublished novels in my drawer?"

Some things are easier to give up than others

The agent looked positively horrified, like he had to tell someone their pet dog was dead. Or worse, that his boss had told him he had to represent genre fiction. "Uh, I don't think that's a good idea," the agent said. "Next question?"

I don't know what was saddest: that this woman was on her fourth unpublished novel, or her belief that having three spare books would be an asset, or that she didn't realize how pathetic it all sounded. If I was working on my fourth unpublished novel instead of just my third, I'd at least know not to make it public.

Four-Novel Lady was not the only conference attendee in this predicament. During a student reading, a woman shared with us a story that had won some sort of award, a story about a family whose name she kept calling "the Lesbos." After the reading, Lesbos tried to push through a crowd surrounding a visiting hotshot editor, but never made it. Lesbos was holding a copy of her story collection, spiral bound and presentation-ready. She was positively crestfallen.

Being that I don't want to end up like these people — who may be perfectly content folk, thrilled with the mere act of writing — I sometimes wonder if it's time to hang up my spurs, lest I become a woman in her 60s with four novels rotting in a trunk.

That such thoughts are perfectly correlated to when I receive a rejection letter, which puts me in a mood to do something I might regret, like going postal on the "New Arrivals" section at Barnes & Noble, well, that's just a coincidence.

Alright, you've got me. If you're thinking, "Hey, this whining, bitching loser probably just got another rejection letter," you are correct. You are more observant than a recent convert to a fundamentalist religion.

In a recent missive from The Land of No, an editor said that he "enjoyed this novel. I loved this part, loved that part, blah blah blah...but the plot doesn't hold together for me in the end."

That was pretty much the same problem that editors have pointed out in these rejection letters. Stupidly, I followed the advice of my agent following the first few of these letters, and didn’t start reworking the novel immediately.

After the most recent notice, I got wise and told the agent that I was going to do a rewrite. He replied to complete said rewrite with great haste, for he had almost run out of places to send it. Oops.

I wish I knew how to quit you

It is times like this that makes one question the whole damn undertaking. Sure, I have an agent, and positive rejection letters from editors, and I know that makes me lucky, and that other people would surely trade places with me and blah blah blah and I really don’t care and just be quiet and pass me the Professional Strength Liquid-Plumr.

No one can make you give it up — give up writing, that is. A baseball player knows he’s come to the end of the line when no team, be it the most hapless outfit in the majors or its single-A affiliate in Uzbekistan, will allow him on the field.

Scribbling words on a page constitutes a different matter. The beauty of it is that any fool can pick up a pen and write. You can start young, middle-aged, or old. You can write plays and short stories and novels and screenplays and poetry. Nobody can stop you, though after a few years of rejections, you start to wish somebody would.

Of course, I'm not quitting, as writing fiction is the creative outlet that animates my days. Plus, once in a great while, I actually enjoy it. (So no letters begging me not to quit, as I know most of those reading this are tempted to do).

Also, if I gave up the fiction trade, I’d have one less thing to complain about, one less reason to skew editors and agents and literary journals and other writers and especially myself. One less excuse to be a crybaby.

And I can't let that happen — after all, I don't know what else I would blog about.