Query Sanity: Cultivating Good Mental Health While Seeking Literary Representation

Your phone vibrates in your pocket during a meeting at work. You’ve set the alert to the email you use exclusively for querying literary agents. Your stomach flips. How long will your co-worker blab on about co-pays and ICD10 coding? Is it the agent who reps your favorite author requesting your manuscript? You thumb away sweat from the wrinkle between your brows, trying to look engaged, but your mind is a million miles away…or about 832 miles away in my case.

 You excuse yourself and go to the one-hole staff bathroom and lock the door. Your hands shake as you take out your phone, click on your email icon and…another form rejection. No offer. No manuscript request. Just kind platitudes like “this is a subjective business” and “it’s not the right fit for my list, but keep trying other agents.”

 Your heart sinks. Another Tyson-like left hook to your ego.  Another layer added to the mountain of evidence against your conviction that you have something interesting to say.  Sound familiar? 

 I’ve spent ten years trying to break into the creative writing market—novels, screenplays, short stories, you name it. In terms of publication success, I have very little to show for a decade of grammar workbooks, online courses, and thousands of hours of writing. Rejection hurts. It feels so personal. I cry. I cuss. I complain. If my track record is any indicator, I haven’t learned much about writing. But I have learned about coping. 

 By day, I am a social worker. I have had to integrate aspects of my practice into my writing life for the survival of my dream and my sanity. I wanted to share some of these strategies, reflections, and paradigm shifts with anyone who may need them. Some of what I’m pulling from is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) but really most of what I’m sharing is just a hodgepodge of living lessons learned the hard way: failure.

 

First, I thought it apropos to address narratives in our heads as a general concept, and then try to unravel some of the specific stories that cause us stress.

 

THE NARRATIVES IN OUR MINDS, GENERAL:

 The hippocampus is a seahorse-shaped portion of our brain that is responsible for emotional memory. The stronger the emotion, the stronger the encoding within the hippocampus, which is why you can probably remember when your dad died twenty years ago, but not what you had for lunch last Tuesday. Its function is to be a catalyst for decision-making short cuts on a subconscious level. A very simplistic example: a person gets attacked by a dog, the experience is tagged with a very powerful dose of fear, and the person draws the conclusion that dogs are dangerous. I give you this brief neurobiology lesson because artistic rejection creates strong emotional memories from which we draw conclusionsWe get rejected and we tell ourselves we are failures. Or we have no talent. Or we are misunderstood. Negative narratives spring like vines from the emotion-rich soil of our hippocampus. Ironically, the distress we experience comes not from the rejection letter, but from the conclusions we draw from it. The only difference between writers who stick it out and writers who quit is what they think a rejection letter says about them. 

 A big part of CBT is poking holes in erroneous paradigms. We’ve examined what’s happening in a general sense when we experience rejection, but let’s look at some specific tales we tell ourselves and challenge them with reality. 

 

NARRATIVE: THE AGENT REJECTED ME AS A PERSON.

TRUTH: THE AGENT REJECTED THE QUERY.

 It hurts when we labor at something for years, only to have it met with indifference or hostility. Artistic rejection feels like a direct assault on our spirits, because we create from our spirits. Despite what it feels like, that agent doesn’t know you. They aren’t evaluating you as a parent, friend or person. It’s no indication of how they feel about you as a person because they don’t know you as a person.

 

NARRATIVE: THESE REJECTIONS MEAN MY BOOK ISN’T ANY GOOD.

TRUTH: MAYBE, BUT MORE LIKELY IT MEANS IT ISN’T AN EXACT FIT.

 The editor I worked with on my latest book gave me some great advice: a book being good is just the first prerequisite to publication. What she meant was, the book also must be timely, or topical, or hip, or timeless, or whatever the market is calling for at a particular period in time. I’m not suggesting trend-chasing—what is en vogue now could be passé next week. I’m saying the quality of the book is not the only factor in play. A well-established agent in my genre posted her statistics for the year. She received almost 25,000 queries. You know how many full manuscripts she requested? 41. You know how many new clients she signed? Five. Five. That’s 25,000 down to five. That’s 0.0002 percent. I guarantee you more than five of those books were good enough to be published in the traditional market. Let’s say only 5% were market-worthy. That’s over a thousand great books not seeing the light of day. But those books weren’t right for that agent at that specific period in time. That’s it. To be fair, your book may really be a stinker, but having a lot of rejections doesn’t necessarily mean that. 

 

 NARRATIVE: THIS OTHER CRAPPY BOOK GOT PUBLISHED AND MINE DIDN’T! THEY TOOK MY SPOT.

TRUTH: ANOTHER PERSON’S SUCCESS IS NOT YOUR FAILURE.

 Writer envy is very real. It builds up inside me, along with other negative emotions and makes me a walking, talking barrel of toxic waste. More on that later. What many unpublished authors fail to realize is that most agents don’t have hard caps on their client lists. Sure, they have some squishy approximation of what they have time for, but if they fell in love with a book they wouldn’t say “Well, I just signed somebody last month, so that’s my quota!” If an agent loves two books that agent will rep two books. So be happy for other authors. They didn’t steal your spot.

 

NARRATIVE: ALL THESE REJECTIONS MEAN I’M NEVER GOING TO MAKE IT.

TRUTH: SOME GREAT BOOKS GET REPRESENTATION ON THEIR FIRST QUERY. OTHERS ON THEIR 145TH. READERS DON’T KNOW OR CARE HOW LONG IT TOOK. 

 I’m not one to say “if we stick with it long enough we will all get published.” That’s not true. Many of us—the majority actually—will never be published in the traditional market. I can say, however, that if you quit you definitely won’t get published. There’s a false assumption by unpublished authors that a debut novel is actually an author’s first novel. That’s rarely the case. It is just their first novel to get published in the traditional market. It’s often their third, or fifth or tenth. Just because your current book doesn’t get representation doesn’t mean that your next one won’t. 

 

NARRATIVE: IT’S NOT FAIR! I’VE WORKED SO HARD! I DESERVE TO BE PUBLISHED!

TRUTH: SO HAS ALMOST EVERYONE, AND SO DOES ALMOST EVERYONE.

 This is another one that rattles around in my head almost daily. I get up at 5AM to work out and then study grammar before I get my kids up and ready for school, work nine hours at the hospital, and then write after my kids go to bed. I use part of my meager social worker salary to take classes online and to get professional editing. Purely by level of discipline, karma should reward me with a six-figure, multi-book deal from Tor, right? Sorry narcissistic self, all the other 24,995 reject-ees also bust their ass, pinch pennies and sacrifice their free time. This is what writing asks of us. And for most of us it will never “pay off” in terms of writing for a living. However, you will have excised that idea that keeps you up at night by putting it on paper. On your deathbed, you won’t be someone who could have written a book, you’ll be someone who wrote a book. There’s a big difference.

 

SO WHAT CAN BE DONE?

 

While recognizing our erroneous thinking is a good start, are there things we can do to heal our wounded souls?  Most mental health professional will tell you working out and meditating will help with most negative emotions, and they are correct. But I wanted to go into more specific recommendations tailored toward the querying writer. While there’s no magic panacea, I can share a few things that help me. 

 

Take a Break to Purge Toxicity: As the rejections mount, my frustration becomes bitterness, which transforms me into a cynical, angry person I don’t want to be. So I stop for a bit to focus on things that reduce my toxic feelings. I read books outside my genre to prevent the comparison game. I pour myself into working out, meditating, and spending time with my family. When I can read a book in my genre and enjoy it again, I know my toxicity has been purged enough to get back on the horse.

 

Find Other People to be Happy For: This one is very tough. Search the internet and find an author who has recently signed with an agent or gotten picked up by a publisher. Give them a true, heartfelt congratulations in the comments section. At first it will feel uncomfortable and disingenuous, but suspend judgment on your motivations for a minute and just do it. Then do it again for someone else. And again. You may find this helps heal some of your jealousy.

 

Find a Confidant: I’m a bit wary of writer’s groups as they can be hotbeds for comparison/competition. Also they can lead to some counterproductive advice if everyone in the group is unpublished. However, if you can find one or two other people in a similar boat who understand what you are going through it can be helpful to vent together, and (hopefully) celebrate together. But it needs to be someone you really trust that you can genuinely support and be supported by.  

 

Put Yourself in the Agent’s Shoes: For most of us, being a traditionally published writer is our dream. Dreams are important. But at the end of the day, if my dream never comes true, I’ll still be a kick-ass social worker with dental insurance and a 403B. In terms of selling books, an agent has much more on the line than you or I do. If they don’t rep books they can sell, they don’t pay their bills. Books may be our dream, but it’s their livelihood.

 

FINAL REFLECTIONS

 

There are no Time Limits: If you get traditionally published at 21 or 71 it doesn’t matter. You did it. You broke through the two-foot thick bulletproof glass wall that most of us just smash our faces against for a lifetime.  There is no rush. There is no quantitative measure of when you should “expect” to break through. Just keep putting your chisel to the wall and hammer away. 

 

Do you Have the Strength of Character to Soldier on? As much as we all want to reach the inner sanctum of traditional Big 5 publication, it’s not worth becoming a person we do not wish to be. If continuing to seek representation is going to kill your relationships, compromise your ethics, or take your self-respect, it’s not worth it.  

 

Do you Have the Strength of Character to Walk Away? Can you keep an empathetic heart and positive worldview if you walk away? Can you make peace with it? If you are anything like me, this isn’t the only book rattling around in your brain. Can you move on and be happy?

 

Traditional Publication Will Not Make You Happy: This is a fact. Sure, you’ll get the rush of excitement when you sign on the dotted line. You’ll get butterflies in your stomach when you see your work on bookstore shelves. But if you talk to anyone traditionally published, they are no more or less happy than any of the rest of us. The rush fades when you don’t make any money past your advance. The butterflies curl up and die when you get savaged by bloggers. The highs and lows don’t go away when you are a published author, if anything they get more pronounced because the stakes are higher. Seek happiness in yourself, your loved ones, and your spiritual or humanist pursuits now, as an unpublished writer, and later, when you have a bestseller. Let your writing be an expression of your creativity, not a litmus test on your happiness.

Posted on March 12, 2019 .

My Favorite Love Story: Leaving Las Vegas

This was originally posted at www.smilepolitely.com  a culture blog based in my hometown.  It's been a year, so I feel justified in posting it to my site. 

Love stories aren't my area of expertise.  I write about gods, demons, and fascist governments.  Nicholas Sparks, I ain't.  However, even surly speculative fiction writers can be touched by a well-written, thoughtful examination of human connectedness.  That's why Leaving Las Vegas is my favorite love story.  I am referring to John O'Brien's novel, however, the film adaptation from 1995 is a pitch-perfect retelling, and has great merit in its own right.  

    Within a few pages of Leaving Las Vegas I was transported to the seedy underbelly of Vegas.  It was 2am and I was standing on the strip, watching the flashing lights reflected in puddles of beer and the glazed eyes of junkies.  Like the city itself, the book is loud, abrasive, shameless and ultimately heart-breaking.  But unlike the city, Leaving Las Vegas cuts through the neon and soiled bedsheets and asks "now what?"

    The book examines two self-destructive lost souls: Ben, a successful-guy-turned-drunk in the final stages of alcoholism, and Sera, a weary prostitute on the downside of her prime.   They arrive in the city at different times, with different agendas, but a chance encounter brings them together.  

    Leaving Las Vegas is the most moving, powerful love story I have ever read for a few reasons.  For one, there isn't a shred of falseness, cliche, or candy-coating in the book.  They are two people who have destroyed their lives beyond repair, that briefly find existential meaning in a relationship with each other.  It doesn't fix them.  It doesn't make them industrious, tax-paying citizens.  They share a period of peace and togetherness in their otherwise lonely, rudderless lives.

    The love between Ben and Sera takes root in the most toxic soil.  Two broken people with nothing to offer momentarily grasp something pure and divine. Their love is a flower growing in the trash of a Las Vegas gutter.  Its beautiful because it wasn't potted or cared for.  It flowered in spite of the poison all around it.  

    If you read the book, be prepared to be offended, disgusted, and depressed.  But also be prepared to be moved by the most unlikely of characters and knocked flat by the transcendence of love.  

Confession Corner: Damn That Bieber!

At first I thought it was a passing aberration. What Do You Mean? would come on the radio and I would begrudgingly notice the little pan flute part was catchy as hell. I would find myself whistling the tune at work, and freeze—terrified someone would recognize the song and all my credibility as a music connoisseur would be destroyed. 

Then Sorry hit the airwaves and I knew there was something seriously wrong with me. It wasn't just one little part, it was the whole damn song! I was panicked. I listen to Minor Threat. I listen to The Doors. I don't listen to Justin Bieber. 

The clincher was when Love Yourself started its rounds. I would catch myself singing—lets be real, belting—"My mama don't like you, and she likes everyone one" in the shower. That was when I realized it. I'd gone native with the 12 year old girls. There was no coming back from this. I liked Justin Bieber, God help me. 

I am considering starting a support group for grown-ass-men-who-usually-have-good-taste-in-music-but-accidentally-started-liking-Justin-Bieber and our families. I think I'll call it GAMWUHGTIMBASLJB - ANON. The only way we can heal is if we come out of the shadows. 

Being Crappy: My Experience as a Writer Lacking Brains, Talent and Formal Writing Education

 

f there is one thing I've learned from writing fiction for ten years it's that I'm a crappy writer.  I use infinite-verb pharses.  My diction swings from colloquial to formal in nonsensical patterns.  My narrative distance is schizophrenic; in someone's head one minute, a million miles above them the next.  My grammar stinks.  My syntax is worse.  

 

In all of my failures in the literary field I have learned that my ideas are hackneyed, underdeveloped cliches and my writing is stilted, clunky garbage.  As I analyze the reasons for my continual artistic face-plants, I have come to the conclusion that every successful writer has at least one of these three things: Superior intellect, prodigous talent, or a formal education in writing.  

 

I certainly don't have superior intellect.  My ideas would be dismissed as infantile and absurd in the hallowed halls of academia.  I can't even understand some of my intellectual friends' facebook posts, much less the philosophy, economics, or physicsthat they study.  

 

I also lack prodigous talent.  Some people integrate all the mind-numbing rules of what makes good writing into their collective literary voice as if it is the most natural thing in the world.  And for those with prodiguous talent, it is the most natural thing in the world.  For me, it is a constant battle between flat, boring prose and stilted, flowery abstractions.  Somewhere, between those two things is good writing.  Or so I hear.  

 

Some writers can attain proficency via formal education.  While I do have a Master's Degree, it is in a completely unrelated field.  Sorry to say, there is not a lot of synergy between Social Work and Creative Writing.  

 

So what make me think I have anything to say? Why do I have a right to self-publish my innane drivel and take up space on the internet with my dopey blog?  The answer, it turns out, came from my son.  

 

My wife handed me a blue piece of paper when I got home from work one day.  On it was a lopsided circle.  In the circle were two asymmetrical dots and a squiggly line underneath.  There were two parallel lines sticking out of the bottom of the lumpy circle.  After a moment I saw what it was; a person.  It was my three-year-old's first concrete concept, rendered in way that you could discern what it was.  It moved me so deeply, I started crying.  I could see the labor and passion he had put into it.  I could see his creative spirit channelled into a tangible work.  It was art.  Beautiful, touching, powerful art.  

 

I had an epiphany when I saw his drawing.  It didn't matter that it wasn't revolutionary avant-garde Cubism that was going to define American art for generations.  It spoke to me more than any other piece of visual art ever had.  It was a genuine expression of all the physical, psychological and spiritual things that make him who he is, filtered through his fingers.  

 

That's when I realized that, no matter how crappy my writing is, it still has the ability to speak to someone.  There is no person who has the exact same make-up of life experience, principles, faults, emotions, knowledge, or even gaps in knowledge that I have.  There is no human like me, or you, or the kid next door. Therefore the art that we create is a unique confluence of innumerable factors, brought together in a synethesis that is unlike what anyone else has created, ever.  

 

Even if you write the most cliche vampire romance novel, nearly indesernible from the thousands, maybe millions of novels just like it, there is something unique about it because of its creator's subjective interaction with the world.  There is also someone out there who is bound to me moved, touched, entertained, or amused by it.  

 

Art is a subjective experience.  Try as we might to apply concrete principles and therefore create "objective" criticism, it is an act of futility.  What one person finds boring, mindless, inscrutable, shallow, arbitrary, or self-important, another person is going to be riveted by.  Or it will make them laugh until they pee their pants at the library.  Or it will remind them of their first love and mystify them with nostalgia.  Just as the elements that make up the artist are a unique sequence of traits, so too are those that make-up the reader.  The themes of any one piece are bound to communicate themselves effectively to someone out there who has the necessary make-up to be touched by just such a piece.

 

So that is why I keep writing my crappy stories, and why I encourage other crappy writers to keep writing their crappy stories.  Because they are purely our own, imperfect as the persons who created them, mined from a psyche made of endless possibilities.  And the outcome of this expedition-of-the-imagination is bound to speak to someone, infinite-verb phrases and all.  

Posted on October 19, 2015 .

The 5 Douche-iest Instruments in the World

It never fails.  You are driving through campus on move-in weekend and you see a  douche-bag in a horizontally-striped tank top outside his frat strumming one for a circle of sorority girls.  Or you are working on your novel in a coffee shop and a white-guy-with-dreds douche is pounding one and reading free verse poetry.  They are the dreaded douche-y instruments.  Try as you might, you can't escape douche bags, nor can you escape the fact that they all play one of these five instruments, and invariably always have it with them, ready to be played.  I want to talk about the 5 Douche-iest instruments in the world.  

Let me give you a disclaimer:  Not all of these instruments are inherently douche-y.  Many of them (except for 1 notable exception) can be used to make wonderful music, that is not in the least bit douche-y.  However, for whatever reason, these instruments draw a disproportionate amount of douche-bags who are eager to impress woman or generally appear cool.  Thus, they are the 5 douche-iest instruments of all time.  

  #5 The Mandolin

The mandolin's douche-yness is a relatively new development.  For many decades it was simply a cute little twanger used along side slide guitars, and stand-up basses.  It was like a less-redneck banjo.  But with folk and blue grass music's meteoric rise in popularity over the last 10 years, the collateral damage is that mandolins have fallen into the hands of douche bags.  The type of douche most likely to play a mandolin is an urban hipster who has romanticized rural-southern culture and has purposely and self-consciously dressed himself in the signature style of blue grass musicians.  This is not to be confused with the non-douchey southern guy who just genuinely likes folk music.  They both have beards and wear flannel shirts, but you can tell the difference when the douche bag says "Merle who...?" when asked about Merle Haggard.  

#4 Moog/Synthesizer/Keyboards

I am pointing the finger directly at myself on this one.  This instrument can add a unique variety of sounds to any song.  Unfortunately, untalented douches like myself will sometimes join bands under the guise of being the "keyboard player" when in truth they are the unskilled-but-well-liked friend to the band.  The real band members will tolerate the keyboard player because he is nice, or is a pretty face or has engaging stage presence.  While there are many talented piano players that play the keyboard/synthesizers in rock bands, there are many more people like me who just pretended to play an instrument to trick people into thinking they are musicians.  

#3 Steel drums

Perhaps the most regrettably douche-y instrument on the list.  Some great bands have used steel drums periodically.  Bob Marley.  The Clash.  The Police.  Unfortunately the steel drum has been hijacked by douche-nozzles ranging back to OAR in the early part of the centry to Magic! and their particularly douche-influenced song "Rude".  This would be an example of bad bands trying to appear relevant by appropriating a psuedo-obscure instrument for their own pop music ends.

#2 Acoustic Guitar

The level of douche-yness increases significantly with this entry.  Some of the greatest signer song writers have twisted our hearts in knots with nothing but an acoustic guitar.  And some of the biggest douche bags in the universe have tried to imitate them in cringeworthy performances around a fire.  Or on a beach.  Or while sitting on the hood of their car.  Or at the farmer's market.  Or...

#1 Bongos...dreaded bongos.  

Simply the douche-iest thing on the planet.  Unlike the other instruments on this list which have redeeming usages throughout the history of music, bongo drums have exclusively been used by douche bags 'round the world for millions of years.  I am sure the earliest cave-douches spiked up their hair with wooly mammoth fat, popped the collar on their animal pelt shirt and started playing bongos to impress the woman he planned on hitting over the head with a club later.  As college campus's seem to be hot beds for douche activities, bongos can be found everywhere...on the quad, on the porch of the frat house, or just outside the Sculpture and Painting building.  It takes no talent.  It makes a bland sound.  It looks good paired with a soul patch...It is the DOUCHIEST INSTRUMENT IN THE WORLD!!!

 

Posted on August 26, 2014 .

Whimsy throughout the Galaxy

If Star Wars wasn't busy taking itself so seriously, it would be Guardians of the Galaxy.  This is not to say that Galaxy is a better movie, but simply to say the playful tone is refreshing.  

The sci-fi landscape is littered with ultra-bleak movies and books (mine included, which, by the way, is called The Charlatans and you can buy it for the low low price of 2.99 on amazon.  I'm not above shameless self promotion) or space operas rife with "serious" love stories that come across pretty clunky.  Guardians on the other hand, revels in its whimsical story-telling, quotable one-liners and 70s pop soundtrack.  

The basic premise is nothing special.  Peter Quill is abducted by alien space pirates in 1988 on the night his mother dies of cancer.  Yondu, the lead pirate becomes a tenuous father figure to the young man.  

The film's charm shows through when we meet Quill 28 years later on Morag, where the childish-but-lovable thief has been sent to steal a mysterious orb.  Chris Pratt is perfectly cast as the charismatic dope who is trying to find notoriety throughout the galaxy by calling himself "Starlord".  When the orb turns out to be more than it appears, Quill has fame thrust upon him in a way he hadn't bargained for.  

Quill inadvertently draws together a band of hilarious oddballs and misfits, as well as drawing the ire of several evil-but-oh-so-cool villains.  

The movie works well because it blends elements of space opera (unique alien races, vivid landscapes, politics and subterfuge) with elements of farce (humor, self-awareness, snappy dialogue) in a seamless, even tone.  It's exciting, funny, visually stunning and, while no one is going to get it confused with a nuanced character study, the heroes have a little depth to them.  

Additionally, the heroes have great chemistry, and quirks that make for fun, memorable scenes. Bradley Cooper's genetically-altered raccoon is a constant stream of sarcasm, while Dave Bautista's Drax character can only understand things in literal terms, which makes for some of the funnier parts of the movie.  While there a bit too many baddies in the movie, they are stylish and scary, as good space opera villains should be.  

The film does fall flat a bit in places.  The scene with Quill's mother dying is quite cheesy, and there are a few parts where it is trying too hard to be funny and it just doesn't work.  These flaws are minor and easy to overlook in light of all the things there are to like about the movie.  

Overall, Guardians of the Galaxy is a highly entertaining, easy-to-digest piece of summer fare I would encourage anyone to go see.  Along with Edge of Tomorrow it gets my "Summer Movie of the Year" award (Honorable mention to X-Men: Days of Future Past).    Final Grade:  B+  

Posted on August 9, 2014 .