What a title, huh?
I’m tired, you guys. The long weekend isn’t even over yet, and I’ve already crammed so much socializing, working, cycling, baking, and errand-running into the past few days that I am in that weird high-from-exhaustion stage, and when I get like that, running on fumes and dark roast coffee, I always want to write.
It makes little sense, but I’ve always been that way. The more tired, busy and frantic I am, the more I want to pick up my pen or sit down at my laptop. When I’ve got free time in spades and schedule out a nice, quiet moment to write, I end up sitting on Facebook or watching Golden Girls while playing Plants vs. Zombies. My brain is very fickle. I rebel against any attempts to make myself adult.
Last night would have been an ideal time to sit down and finish up one of the five short stories I’ve currently got half finished, or to do some last minute editing on Ka Kite. Instead, I went to a friend’s house and ate pizza (and also gouda and spinach dip) and drank blood orange wine spritzers (and also pina coladas) with two of my best girlfriends, both of whom are also writers. We got tipsy and talked shop, and between bouts of uproarious laughter, things got kind of depressing.
Though we all live in the same town, we’ve all gone in our own direction, and have approached the publishing and marketing of our books – literary fiction, urban YA fantasy, and historical fiction, respectively – in quite different ways. Between us, we’ve done the local writing group thing, the book contest thing, the writers convention thing, the find-an-agent thing, the book tour thing, the NaNoWriMo thing, the self-publishing thing, the social media thing, and all the other things in between.
What have we learned? Well, other than learning how to write a finely tuned query letter that brags without being obvious, we’ve learned one lesson: being a novelist is hard. Being a female novelist is even harder.
I have sent out hundreds (probably) of queries, and I’ve been lucky enough to get some really good feedback from a few agents (this is a rarity; most writers will tell you to consider yourself lucky to get back a response at all, much less feedback. The majority of my queries went unacknowledged). They all said something similar. “We love your story;” “This is great narrative fiction;” “I was very invested in your main character;” BUT (and this always followed whatever compliment I received), “We cannot find your niche;” “We wouldn’t know how to sell it;” “You need to narrow down your genre”.
My novel, Aroha, and its upcoming sequel, Ka Kite, are hard to market, because they don’t fall into a simple genre. There is romance, and I don’t shy away from a good sex scene, but because I also have heavy themes and a somewhat grim subject matter, it isn’t light enough to be considered romance. Because of the romantic/sexual subplot, it isn’t straight literary fiction. The narrative style doesn’t lend it to a modern day gripping fiction read that a publishing house could market as a beach-side vacation read, either. The subtle feminist slant might turn off conservative readers. The violence might be triggering. And so on and so on.
This isn’t unique to me. My friends have received similar feedback. The “niche” is so important in publishing that these days, agents actually post on Twitter to ask for such specific criteria it’s a wonder that writers even bother coming up with original material. “Looking for a YA novel set in a dystopian society but with a diverse cast of characters, all of whom have fantastical elements and a strong LGBT romantic subplot.” Like, okay, but can we come up with our own ideas?
It’s even harder for women writers. It’s not impossible, but it’s incredibly hard to publish outside the “acceptable” genres for female writers: if you’re a woman writing sci-fi or historical fic, or god forbid, a combination of the two (Diana Gabaldon doesn’t count, because she’s apparently some kind of god-like writing machine and an exception to the rule), good luck getting anyone to take you seriously. My friend mentioned the fantastic writer NK Jemisin last night and how her writing career seems to be a constant uphill battle to be recognized (as a woman and a person of color writing Fantasy, she’s had to fight constantly to be let into the club).
One of Aroha‘s first ever test-readers told me that it was good, but “the domestic violence storyline is a little heavy-handed. Maybe even it out by having the love story come into play earlier? Can you make it more of the focus?” When I said no I couldn’t, she told me good luck selling it. And the most maddening thing is that she was right.
My friends and I have joked that we have enough immensely talented female writers in our inner circle, amazing writers who have amassed an incredible body of work spanning multiple genres, that we could start our own southern feminist publishing company and not stop putting out work for a couple of years. And you know, it’s tempting. Sure, I like Girl on the Train style thrillers and romance (especially the new breed of feminist romance) as much as the next person, but what about the books that don’t fit in a niche? What about the books that push the envelope, that make you feel both good and bad, that straddle the fence between history and science or romance and grief, or politics and fantasy? I want to read those books.
Writing is hard, y’all. We’ve all seen the endlessly pinned memes about the process of writing, the ins and outs of jumbling words together to make a short story or a book. But what isn’t talked about as often is how hard it is to get your work out there once it’s finished. It is damn hard.
A few truths nobody but a struggling writer will tell you:
–Don’t expect writer friends who have had success to help you. It’s an understood but rarely talked about truth that writers have to make it on their own. Knowing someone successful might get your foot in the door, if you’re lucky, but most writers aren’t going to stick their neck out to help someone else get ahead.
–Once your work is out there, don’t be surprised if some of your friends and family don’t read it. We all have our cheerleaders, bless them, the loved ones that believe in us and promote us and sing for us every step of the way, but you’ll be lucky to have one or two of those people. And often those people are going to be fellow writers or artists who understand what it’s like. Don’t lose heart if you put your work out there, and nobody seems to notice. It will happen, and it will hurt. But most of the time it’s not about you.
–Querying really sucks. You will spend countless hours drafting the perfect query letter, you will send off manuscripts and excerpts and chapters (each agent and publishing company naturally has a different set of criteria) until your fingers bleed, and you’ll be lucky to receive back a reply for one out of every ten queries you send. Probably more like twenty. Many of them will be rude. It will be clear that several did not even read your letter or your excerpt. But every so often, a rare gem will come and an agent will give you feedback. Treasure it, take it to heart. Use it. And if they ask for more? Go treat yourself to a coffee or a piece of cake, because girl, you’ve done the almost-impossible.
–People are snobs about self publishing. And small publishing houses. And NaNoWriMo. And writing contests. And pretty much anything that isn’t a six figure deal from a major company. Who cares. What are they doing that’s so great? Try not to let it bother you. You wrote a novel, and it’s in print. Fuck the haters.
–People will want your books for free. They will ask you to give them free copies. Just like with any artist, people think your time is less valuable than theirs and that what you create is to be given freely. There will be people in your life who aren’t willing to pay for your efforts and want it for free. If you like them and you don’t mind, do it. If it pisses you off, don’t feel obligated.
–Promoting yourself sucks. It just does. Anyone who says they love spending hours on social media talking themselves up and running giveaways and creating banners is either lying or they’ve turned into a robot. It isn’t that much fun. But it is necessary. And you’ll have to keep working at it if you want to sell your work.
The truth is, writing is the easy part. Whoever said that writing is just sitting down and opening a vein is right. You just bleed all over the page in a way you hope is artful. It’s what comes after that that is the trial, that tests your fortitude and cements (or crumbles) your dreams. Trying to get your work out there is soul-crushing stuff. The answer to the question lies in how you handle it: is writing what you do, or who you are?
It’s such a friggin’ cliche, but it’s so, so true. Real writers write for themselves. Because the struggle is real. Someone who is just in the business to sell books and make money, or who want notoriety and fame, just don’t last in the business long (unless they just luck out and catch lightning in a bottle on a good day) because they all get worn down in the end. All the great writers who struggled and somehow managed to climb their way upwards to success have all said some variation of the same thing: you just have to keep your head down and keep writing, writing, writing what YOU want to write and how YOU feel like writing, and everything else can go hang.
And, if you’re lucky, you have a few writer friends to drink wine and eat pizza with, who understand how much being a writer can suck, how lonely it is, and how sometimes you’d rather go sit in an imaginary world with your characters than deal with the shitty outside world. This is why you hear about writers amassing entire bodies of amazing work that they never tried to publish, only being found out after they died and left thirteen hundred spiral bound notebooks in a locked closet at their beach house or whatever. I can understand it, I’m telling you.
But I’ll keep on trucking. Because I’ve still got things to say. 🙂
P.S. So do my friends. If you’d like to follow their two very well-written and engaging blogs, here they are: