Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Why I Write These Days

In November, my literary agent and I parted company. She was the second agent I've worked with since 2009. Two of my novels have gone out on submission and neither of them managed to find a home. Granted, it's a tough market for literary fiction and God only knows what editors are buying these days. But I now find myself without an agent and without a book on submission. I have a new manuscript for a philosophical detective story that I'm querying with agents, but I query in a pokey, half-interested sort of way. I wrote that book mostly to amuse Mighty Reader and a few close friends. I think it's a good book, but I'm not really a mystery writer so I'm hesitant to really push forward in an attempt to get it published. What if a publisher wants more detective novels from me? I'm not writing detective novels now, and I didn't write detective novels before that one.

It used to be that I'd read publishing industry blogs voraciously. Every Monday I'd check Publishers Weekly to see who had a shiny new book deal. I could celebrate friends or people I vaguely know via the interweb, or also roll around in bitter troughs of envy if it was that sort of day. The last time I looked at Publishers Weekly I had the feeling that I was peeking into a madhouse, that the frenzy and stress of the industry was totally unnecessary and not something I want in my life, at least right now. "What the fuck?" is actually what I said.

My first real novel, which was the second novel I ever wrote, the novel that got me interest from the first agent, ended up being rewritten about ten times, once completely from scratch, in order to fit into that first agent's idea of a salable manuscript. I think the final version of the book is pretty good, but I spent years on revisions that had, in the end, not much to do with my original conception of the book. When I told that agent about my plans for my next novel, his opinion was that it wasn't marketable at all and I should only write it if I had to get it out of my system; I shouldn't count on anyone buying it. I wrote it anyway. It's a good book, a beautiful book, a great tragic story but possibly too dark for the current marketplace because my second agent couldn't find a home for it. I'm submitting it on my own now to a couple of very small publishers, just to see what will happen, but I really have little hope of it colliding with an editor who will fall in love with it enough to convince her boss to publish it. And I've got the philosophical detective story as well, but I don't quite know what to do with that.

But the thing is, I realize as I start making plans for a wider range of increasingly strange future projects, I am no longer writing with any eye to what might be publishable. I'm back to the mindset I had when I was writing the first draft of my first real novel. I'm in no hurry and for the first time I find myself working on more than one project at a time. I've got the novel I'm writing now (Go Home, Miss America), I'm planning the next novel (Nowhere But North), I'm working on a story for the "Variations on a Theme" anthology (and oh, what larks it's being and it's nothing like anything I've written before), and yesterday I started what might be a novella-length piece based roughly on Moby-Dick. So I'm having a lot of fun writing, and I no longer think about agents or publishing, and I think I'm doing the best work I've ever done. I think I'm writing more bravely than ever. Here, for example, is the opening paragraph of the Moby-Dick piece I might write:

Damn the whale, the whale, the devil white whale. Whale hail hale hole whole hell. Damn him and his accursed jaws, his hated maw, his despised gullet down which he swallowed mine leg and me, your humble servant, very near after. Damn him, damn him to hell, consign him to the deeps never to sound nor surface nor swim nor blow again. Nothing lives in the whale, nay, nothing at all. He is a bleached sack of emptiness, a pale pit of despair, a white wurm in the surf devouring all that is good in thine holy eyes, lord. Make me thine instrument and I shall sink him forever, keeping neither bone nor flesh nor baleen nor oil nor ambergris for mine own profit, the beast's death to thine glory only, oh lord. Make me thine instrument of divine retribution, a cleansing hand, a burning brand, a scourge, a fire, a plague upon the pharoah of the fishes, I shall lead thy people unto the promised land, oh lord. Make me thine holy instrument. Damn the whale.

That's fun stuff. And that's really the point now. I know a lot of you are writing books and you're keeping in mind all the things you read on agent blogs, and all the things you've read in Donald Maass's books, and all the things you hear at conferences and conventions. That's all fine, and good luck. But I realize that three years ago I figured that because I can write pretty well, it was inevitable that I'd be published if an agent got my books in front of editors. Now I've had two books in front of editors and I don't have a book deal, and while I must admit that it was devastating for a while and I was miserable when my last agent took me off her client list, I also have to say that the idea that now I'm just writing to write, for the discovery of finding the piece out, for the joy of language, for the amusement of Mighty Reader and me and for no other reason, I feel a freedom I haven't felt in years. I feel very hopeful about the whole thing now, with faith that I'll really do some interesting things with my fiction. I have no idea if this feeling will go away when I finish the new novel and start querying agents who rep literary fiction. I am hoping that my lack of awe for the publishing industry will be a permanent thing. We'll see.


  1. Congratulations, Scott! I believe in what you are doing. I will be more than happy to read you! I like THAT kind of writing. I am sick of writers worrying about the market, really. I love literary fiction to be honest and I am convinced that there must be an audience out there for it. We need to find it. The problem is that most people who are interested in literary fiction don't blog. At least, this is what I learned from my online writing group. As Steve jobs and Albert Einstein said " follow your heart and your intuition". "You can only connect the dots when you look backward, not forward".

  2. Julia, thanks! Certainly the living writers I read don't blog. But there are a lot of smart, perceptive readers of literary fiction who are blogging, and I've been very happy lurking on those blogs.

    I don't have a problem with people writing to the market if they want to. I just realized lately that I've been uncomfortable and unhappy in my own writing because I was asking myself "will this sell? will my agent like it?" and those questions don't lead to art.

  3. Scott, why not self-publish? It's a remarkably freeing experience, and you can put your work directly in front of your readers without going through agents.

  4. Sandra, I have no urge at all to self publish. I'm not entirely sure why that is, but I just know I'm not going to do it. At least not with my novels. I have the urge every now and then to do a collection of short stories, but because Amazon is the devil, I'd have to go through Lightning Source and they're a bit of expense and hassle. So my motivation is pretty low.

  5. I think you're in a good place right now, Scott, for what it's worth. I think I do m best writing when I don't care if anyone else will read it or like it.

  6. Davin, I feel like I'm in a good place. About a year ago you told me that you didn't care if anyone published your stories; you were having fun and the work interested you and you were relaxed and doing good work. That's what I want from writing. Yes, I'd still like to be published, but I don't currently have that sad desperation that tortured me the last three years or so.

  7. It makes me sad to think about how difficult it is nowadays to get literary fiction published. I don't write it so it doesn't concern me in that way but I love much of it and it's just too awful to think about.

    I think the publishing world is an unholy mess and not for me. A year ago I never thought I would ever say that but that's how I feel after a year of solid research. I'm no longer querying or obsessing or irritating my boyfriend with constant talk of publishing. I just don't care anymore. Boy, does it feel good to say that!

    It sounds as if you personally are in a wonderful place, a place where your best work will happen soon. Now you can really start to enjoy yourself!

  8. Hi Scott-that is a great attitude to have..Often, I don't like the way I write when I know people are going to be reading it- It is incredibly freeing to not have to think about the readers/publishers/editors and agents. I think I find the act of writing more exciting than the act of selling a book..You seem to be at a very exciting place- writing-wise. I'm hoping to have more time to write in the New Year.


  9. Scott-

    Your Moby-Dick piece has that beautiful, rolling, rambling, ranting voice I love to read and write.

    Just so you know.


  10. Well, Mr. Bailey, it sounds as if you have found your bliss. Now run with it.

  11. Cynthia: I'm really happy with the writing these days, that's certain. I think what I'd like to find, if possible, is a small indie press like Rhemalda, who publish Michelle's books, but who specializes in literary fiction. That would be very cool. I'm looking. But not very diligently.

    Lavanya: Whenever I think about readers when I'm writing, it puts my creativity in a vice. So enough of that!

    Mr Nagel: Thanks! I'm working with poetic ideas of meter and rhythm and overlapping thoughts coming in short segments. And stuff. Also, I hope you do send in something for Variations. I know you're working on something (yes, you've said so on your blog!), so send send send it our way!

    Chuck: I am just limping for now. Some day I'll walk, and then I'll see about running!

  12. This post makes me happy and sad at the same time. I just want to see you in print, and that's selfish of me. Although I'm privileged to get to read your work even if it's not on shelves yet. So I'm not too sad, but still. I think you would do really well with a small press, and I think if you stick at it long enough, you'll find a right fit. I adore the excitement and happiness I see in this post, which is all coming from your writing. I love the excerpt you put up, as well. I'm starting my Variations story, but I'm not sure where it's going yet. It's interesting, that's for sure. I think I'm reaching a point lately that has come to grips with where I'm at in publishing, what I expect in realistic terms, and what truly keeps me writing and makes me happy. It's been quite a roller coaster this past year, and I know it has been for you, too.

  13. I have never seriously pursued an agent or a book deal. There are numerous reasons for this—and a few excuses—but now I find myself quietly self-publishing and being read and, it would appear, even appreciated by a few people whose appreciation I value. I am fairly content. I write what interests me—which I’ve always done—and I never have to worry about appealing to some demographic. There are so many people out there with opinions about the right way to do things and it’s burdensome—at least it is for me—reading all that stuff. I have just excused myself from three Facebook groups and changed my homepage back to Google. I don’t make resolutions but next year I am going to cut back on much of the social side of life on the Internet. The ratio of effort to reward is way off. I’ve bought myself a Xoom—to use as an e-book reader because the Kindle does such a crap job with PDFs—and I’ve found that it has some unexpected benefits: I’ve started screening my stuff on it in the morning after breakfast, running down the news feeds to see which ones I might want to read properly and possibly comment on; these links I e-mail to myself—which I did with yours earlier—and then all I have is a to-do list of e-mails when I move over to the laptop. And when they’re done I’m free to work on whatever project I’m busy with. Much better. And I’ve also started hacking away at the number of blogs I’m trying to follow. It’s sitting at about 250 at the moment and, again, I have to wonder what I’m getting from them. I watched a comedian on TV a couple of days ago and after he was done—he was one of those quick fire comics: bam! bam! bam! – and he was quite enjoyable, especially after he got into his stride, but five minutes after the gig was over I couldn't have repeated a single joke. And that is how I feel about the Internet these days—it’s an onslaught and, apart from filling/wasting time, what lasting good does it do? I seem to have wandered a bit off-topic here but what I’m really saying is that it is easy—far too easy—to lose track of what it means—what it should mean—to be a writer. I’m not suggesting that you should necessarily go down the self-publishing route (although that may be where you end up going if the news we hear of the current state of the publishing industry is to be believed) but the great thing about novels—the really great novels—is that they don’t go off and if you don’t end up seeing them in print for another ten years then so what? My first two novels sat in the proverbial drawer for fifteen years before I finally published them and the one I’m just publishing I wrote six years ago. You’d never know I didn’t write it last week. Oh, wait a sec, I have remembered one of that guy’s jokes: “My dog has no dictionary. How does he spell ‘terrible’?” Have a nice Xmas and no doubt we’ll see each other in the new year if I don’t cull your feed by accident.


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