Saturday, April 12, 2008

A Good Job (if you can get it)

Being a writer is impossibly difficult. The only way to publish a novel is to hire an agent. Agents get a hundred queries a week (mine does). He might ask ten of those letter writers to send opening chapters. From those, he might ask for one complete manuscript. Last year he took on one new fiction writer. Sheesh.

So, let's say this lucky hired soul actually gets his book on an editor's desk (thanks to a great effort by the agent--all those lunches and phone calls paid off). This editor might read five or six manuscripts a week--not in the office, mind you, but on the train home, at night before bed, on weekends. He might get offer a contract on a book every few months.

This is withering news. More people win the lottery than receive publishing contracts.

Of all the people writing novels, maybe half of one percent might get them published. Of those, maybe a half percent might make enough money to quit their day job, and of those, maybe a half percent might go on to make writing novels a career. No matter your literary taste, you have to tip your hat to the Nora Roberts' and John Grisham's of the world.

Why so hard? Failure lies around every corner. We'll always be rejected more than we're accepted. Even at acceptance (contract signing time!), the real problems begin--fights over format, jacket covers, publicity budget, pub dates, titles, etc. Then your book appears on book shelves, and now it must sell--empty book signings, bad reviews, missing copies, no reviews all the recurring nightmare of the published author. For a look at the carnage, check out the remainder discount racks at the bookstore. No one is immune, not even Dan Brown.

So, you still want to do it? Yep. Despite all that? Yep. Fitzgerald's books were all out of print, and he died with no money. It took seventy-five years for anyone to realize Moby Dick was a genius novel (just don't ask any high-schoolers for their opinion). Were it not for Alice Walker's tireless stumping in the 70s, no one would know who Zora Neale Hurston is.

Truth is, the written word can make a difference. A career of pushing words around on the page is a job to die for. If it were easy, we'd all be doing it (then again, according to my agent, we all ARE doing it).

If you learn to treasure the process and remain committed to the act, you can succeed. Attach too much self-worth to the results? Forget it. The real reward is finding the zone, that quiet time where your brain takes you deep into the nether regions of consciousness where you spin out your stories, and you swear for a time that the magic is indeed magic. Yep, that's the why.

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