Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Ten Pints of Blood

I was driving along in Idaho the other day, heading home, when my phone did the Darth Vader breath, which lets me know that I have a new e-mail. I very stupidly and illegally looked at it, and saw that the return e-mail address was that of the agent to whom I sent the [non-]horror novel back in April. My heart sank. I knew instantly that it was a rejection, since she would have called me if she wanted to take me on. When I read the e-mail (illegally and dangerously!), she said that the idea was extremely awesome but the execution made her doubt that she could sell it, and also noted that she'd attached her intern's comments and critique.

I shit you not, this song was shuffled to the top by my iPod mere moments after I'd read this e-mail:

I sat in despondency for a little while, and then rallied. My idea was good. There would be revisions suggested in the attachment, and if I made them well enough, maybe she'd want the book after all. If not, hey. This is not the last book I'll ever write. Yes, I thought it was as good as it could be, but it wasn't, and I have more to do. Okay. I can live with this.

Of course I waited until I had pulled over for lunch before I read the attachment. I don't actually have a death wish. When I opened up the doc on my phone, I was in the parking lot of a semi-kitschy diner just inside the north end of the Targhee National Forest.

Oh. Oh, God. Oh, fuck.

The text I sent to Matt: "Just read the critique. I am the worst writer who ever lived. The book is unfixable. I want to crawl in a hole and die."

There were a few brief good bullet points, and then there were extensive, sub-sub-sub-bulleted, exceptionally-frustrated-in-tone bad bullet points. These were not suggestions for minor revisions. This did not entail a few problems or a problem that ran shallow throughout a few issues or some chapters that needed remodeling or moving. This was an agent's intern (with whom, the agent helpfully told me, she agreed 100%) telling me that virtually everything about the way I'd written the book was unacceptable.

In the valley of tears, indeed.

After eating my BLT so dejectedly that I felt sure the staff was ready to take me to the nearest funeral home to make the mourners feel better that at least they weren't me, I got back in the car and wended on south. And I thought. I thought about Sugar saying that "you are a writer because you write". I thought about how I've shaped my life in the last year so that I could aim toward being a novelist. I thought about all the rejections I've had before, how meaningless they've all been compared to this one, like blood draws next to a jugular gouge. Or like head pats next to the longest, strongest embrace you've ever known.

Because, as Matt sagely pointed out, this intern wouldn't have written 2,500 words of critique about this book unless there was something there. She wouldn't have sounded so frustrated if something about the book hadn't crawled under her skin. There were things she wrote that were so hard to read I sincerely hope she's wrong - that my characterization wasn't enough and that there was too much going on - and there were things she wrote that struck a chord of deep-down knowledge - that I'd neglected motivation and that, in essence, I wasn't gutsy enough to order my characters into battle the way I should have.

I thought about reading on a blog years ago that by the time you're finished with your book, really finished and headed for publication, you are going to be so absolutely sick at the sight of it that you will hardly care once you see it on a Barnes & Noble shelf. I thought I was sick enough of the [non-]horror novel, but a creeping question got louder as I drove: is it possible that there are new and vaulted levels of sick-of-it that I haven't even approached? Can I be sicker by orders of magnitude of this book?

I called Matt when I could speak again (and was out of Targhee and poor signals), and he said yes, I probably could. He reminded me that this was part of the process of creating things, doing it over and over, bombing out the building and laying it down again brick by brick. One thing he said has reverberated: "You might have to rewrite your entire book."

I whined that I'd already written it. That it was hard. But a little voice whispered that it wasn't hard enough. I hadn't struggled and suffered over this book. It had been difficult, like a day of manual labor, but it hadn't been hard as fuck, like a 10-year sentence on a chain gang. Perhaps it was supposed to be harder than this. Perhaps I was supposed to be nauseated at the very thought of going back to revise the chapter another time, so tired of my characters that I wanted to murder and maim them. Maybe that's what writing a book is about.

Not that I think it has to be hard for the sake of it, that I have to be able to tell a birth story about it that will astonish a crowd. But - I've found - very little in life that's worth accomplishing is accomplished without those moments where you wish you'd never been born so you didn't have to do this.

On that drive, I thought seriously about giving up writing. I knew I'd still blog - maybe back at my anonymous site - and that every now and then I'd write a short story, and try to sell my essays. But maybe I don't have what it takes to make a living from being a writer. Despite reading everything I could get my hands on as a child; despite writing my first "novel" at the age of eight; despite being sure when I'm writing that it's the thing I'm supposed to be doing; despite all that, maybe I just do not have the chops to do this thing.

Panic ensued. What the fuck am I going to do instead? There's nothing else I want to do with my life that's remotely realistic. If this isn't realistic, how am I going to fix the problem of not having the ability to be a novelist and nevertheless insisting that's my career path?

And that same conclusion dropped on my head again: This thing is hard, stupid. This thing is hard. Even if you got tangled up and smashed your face on the concrete, you have to stand on your feet and pick it up and try it again. And again. And again. Maybe bleeding, maybe apt to tangle up and fall over again. So saith Jimmy Dugan: It's supposed to be hard. If it wasn't hard, everyone would do it. The hard is what makes it great.

One last thing about all this. The night before I started driving, before I got this e-mail and learned that my 90,000 words of [non-]horror were so much kindling, I was Skyping with Matt and asked him if I'd gotten any mail. One of the envelopes he held up was from a market to which I sent the robot story.
Thank you for submitting...but I'm going to pass on it. This story couldn't hold my interest, I'm afraid. Good luck to you with this one, and thanks again for sending it our way. 
This is a kindly worded rejection, actually dictated and signed with a blue pen and about halfway between a form letter (what I usually get) and a personal note. The last sentence indicates to me that the editor might have thought there was something there and his rejection was subjective ("with this one", and not just generic "good luck to you"). But still. The story not holding his interest is a pretty bad sign, and the two blows on top of each other were not helpful.

But, bleeding, I'm picking it up and trying it again. There are more markets out there. There are many more words with which to build my house. I wouldn't think much of myself if I could be beaten so easily, and I've got about 10 more pints to lose before I lie down for good.


Anonymous said...

"Because, as Matt sagely pointed out, this intern wouldn't have written 2,500 words of critique about this book unless there was something there. She wouldn't have sounded so frustrated if something about the book hadn't crawled under her skin."

What he said. Still, it sucks. One hearty refrain of "Tubthumping" for you.

Katharine Coldiron said...

Thanks muchly. It does suck.

(Too bad Chumbawamba is a gang of lunatics. That song still hasn't gotten old for me.)

Denise said...

So sorry...that sounds awful! I hope you won't give up, but I know it would be really hard for me-one reason why I don't do it right now. <3

Katharine Coldiron said...

Thanks for the commiseration. :)

Anonymous said...

Actually, being an intern for a while, you are forced to read so many bad novels, short stories, etc. that often you will take the time out to write that 2500 word summary to a writer as a sort of payback. I once felt it was necessary because I was forced to read their piece of shit AND provide coverage on it, well sometimes you want to give back. There are other cases too where the read was so incredibly terrible that I felt it necessary to let the writer know that wiring wasn't their calling. I'm sure that isnt the case with you, considering the quality of your blog, but it does happen. Quite often, sadly.

Katharine Coldiron said...