Kentucky, Caves, and Kevin Smith: How I Completely Lost my Way as a Writer Until I Went Underground and a Fat Man Saved Me with Some Really Good Advice
I’ve been in a rut. Something on the scale of half a year. Maybe ten months. I can’t quite pinpoint the exact moment when it happened, but like continental drift, one day you look around and realize that the world has shifted beneath your feet. I can definitely identify a few key moments when it happened, but even at that, it was something of a shock to realize just what had happened, and how.
Before I even launched this site back in 2008, most of my friends and family knew I was a writer, and that someday I planned to do “something” with that. What most people didn’t know, because I didn’t tell them, was that I specifically wanted to be a novelist. I kept this information to myself, mostly because of shyness, but also because in part because of fear of failure. It’s a daunting process, writing a novel, and so it was a great thrill a little over a year ago when I finished revisions on my first novel, a young adult (YA) thriller.
I think that was when things started to go wrong.
Like almost every aspiring author, after the manuscript was complete I had hopped on what many call the query-go-round, and, after many, many trips around that sucker, I had gotten nowhere. I had amassed an impressive amount of rejection letters, with a few tantalizing bites sprinkled throughout, but the thing about carousels is, you tend to finish exactly where you started, and I was no different. I was never so naive as to think that my writing was somehow above the blood sacrifice demanded by the publishing industry, but I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t expected a little more interest than what I was getting.
After all, I had done every right, at least as far as every guide and book I could get my hands on had told me: I had done my homework, found agents with strong interests in my genre and studied their client lists extensively before compiling my initial list of agents to query. Like so many other hopefuls, I agonized over the query letter, that initial seduction that in so many ways requires more craftsmanship and effort than a novel. I queried a few agents at a time, always cognizant of what appeared to be working (or not), then agonizing over revisions and edits to my query before sending it back out into the world again, only to come back 99% of the time with little or nothing to show.
I turned to friends, other writers, who offered words of encouragement, telling me to hang in there, and to not let the constant stream of rejection tear me down. And for the most part, I thought that was exactly what I was doing, but I was wrong. I had begun attending workshops, thinking this might lead to something, some grand querying realization perhaps, or a juicy lead, and one workshop in particular did. I met the head of large, well-known agency (who shall remain unidentified), and it was, to sound a little cornball, love at first pitch. This agent absolutely loved my hook and requested pages immediately. I was over the moon, and I was thrilled to send her my partial, which was polished to a spit shine. Her response was immediate, and warm, and told me to expect a follow-up from her agency with 10-20 days.
I heard nothing for 10 weeks.
It was agony. When I finally did hear back, it was to reassure me they were still interested and were reviewing by partial again, and this time I really would hear back within 10-20 days.
You can probably guess where this is going.
Flash forward another 10 weeks, and I sent what they call in query-land a “nudge” which is the writing equivalent of begging for sex. The response was immediate: “Not interested.” As frustrating and heartbreaking as this was, my months of reading on the subject had conditioned me to accept that this was my fault. I had bugged her! I had committed some taboo, crossed some invisible line, and I was now further doomed to obscurity by one of the gatekeepers for my transgression. However, rejection is a part of the game, so carry-on, keep your head up, take it in stride, etc etc. This would have been the end of it, but like any good story, there was a twist waiting on the next page.
I received another email from this agent, and the tone was a complete reversal from her earlier, blunt response. Her swift reply had been a knee-jerk response, she explained, and after having a moment to drink her coffee she had remembered my manuscript, meeting me, everything, and what followed was a very apologetic email for leaving me in limbo for 20 weeks. It stung slightly when she said that she had “just forgot” about me, but I pushed that aside and focused on the key thing: she was still interested. There was a catch, though. She did not represent YA herself, and so the next step would be to email the YA agent in her agency, with special keywords in the subject line that would flag my email, bypassing the slush pile and sending me “pre-approved” to the top of her YA agent’s priority list. I followed these instructions to the letter, hands shaking, and once again over the moon.
Even with the blessing of the agency president, it took the YA agent 8 weeks to respond (ugh), but she was interested in reading the story, so I sent it along per her (very exacting) guidelines. At this point I was used to them taking forever, so I steeled myself for another long wait. Turns out, though, the YA agent only needed a week. This was the fast-track! I can remember the moment very clearly as I read her response. I’m going to paste it here:
That was all I got. Now, I know full well that agents are a very busy lot, so I can somewhat understand the brevity. All the same though, that response crushed me. I had been querying for over a year at this point, always careful to approach agents who were open to simultaneous submissions, and always with an ear to the ground to see what others were saying had worked for them. Out of the dozens of carefully researched agencies, and the dozens of queries, reworked and reworked until I could recite them in my sleep, this had been the one agency to show this level of interest and enthusiasm. For it all to end so abruptly was one thing, but to end so ignominiously, that was in a lot of ways the final straw. I didn’t realize it right away, but something in me had broken.
I had never quit writing during the entire querying process, which was an important part to keeping me sane. I worked on other projects, letting my focus move around so I wouldn’t go nuts, returning every week to my query to engage another round of post mortem analysis. After all, I had to be doing something wrong, right? Obviously I would never expect an agent to provide and in-depth analysis about their decision, but after the 20th bland, vague rejection, I was desperate to figure out the pattern. I’m a writer after all, right? I should be able to spot where the words stop working.
This is the point where it’s probably easiest to point the finger at myself and declare any number of things: that I gave up on querying too soon, or I couldn’t see the forest for the trees, my book sucks and that’s why it keeps getting rejected, etc. I’m more than aware of that, but one thing was completely clear to me: something wasn’t working. The number one response I’ve gotten back from agents has been, “I just don’t want to try to sell this.” All I can really say to that is, “Fair enough.” But that doesn’t mean I don’t want to try to sell this. In fact, it’s become clearer to me that, if I ever want to get my novel out there for sale, there’s really only one option if the houses and/or agencies don’t want me.
I’m going to have to do it myself.
This has not been an easy decision for me. I went through a (fantastic) writing program in the pre-Kindle days, back when self-publishing was synonymous with vanity publishing. Self-publishing? Why, you must suck! It’s been hard for me to overcome the inertia of that belief, but I feel I’ve finally reached that point. Electronic self-publishing wasn’t even a thing until just a few years ago, and despite all the warnings that self-publishing will kill your chances of ever being a “legitimate writer” the writing is on the wall: people are self publishing, and some are finding success. The success part is great and all, but again, I’m not so naive as to think it’s as simple as uploading a file to Amazon and waiting for the money people to come and give me a couple big cartoonish bags with dollar signs painted on the side. Success is fickle, and that is doubly true with the independent route. But, here’s the thing: while it’s true that I may not find success, there is something I want more than success, and it’s something that’s virtually guaranteed with the independent channel. What is it?
ENTER KEVIN SMITH
Like i said 1400 words ago, I’d been in a rut after that ignominious rejection. I’m not proud of this, but I didn’t take it super well. I crawled into myself and refused to come out for long stretches at a time, indulging my childish and petty side and I slipped into depression, because of course I suffer from it periodically. It was part defense mechanism, part righteous indignation, and after a while, completely unhealthy for my psyche. The road back took a few long months, and it started in the most unexpected way.
Yes, that Kevin Smith. The Clerks guy.
It was a little earlier in the year, this one evening when my wife and I went out to eat, and as we were leaving we decided to hit up the Barnes and Noble. We’re both big bookworms so there was little debate over it, and we were content to wander the aisles, waiting to see what might jump out at us. I broke away from my wife at one point, she moving into the Science Fiction and Fantasy section, and in between the YA section and the coffee shop I found a random copy of Tough Sh*t: Life Advice from a Fat, Lazy Slob Who Did Good. Admittedly, I had little immediate interest in the book, but here’s the funny thing. This copy was completely out of place, off by itself, like someone had picked it up, shown some interest, then changed their mind and dropped it. In my own weird little way, that made me feel a goofy little connection to the book. I thumbed through it, just long enough to decide to buy it, and before I went to bed that night I decided to check out the first chapter or so.
I read the whole thing that night in one sitting.
I won’t linger on this point, but I will say this: Kevin Smith knows what he’s talking about when it comes to being creative and determined, and a lot of what he put in this book helped put me back in the right headspace again. His words helped save me, and more importantly, they planted a seed in my head. Clerks, after all, was an independent production, and it has been, by all measures, a success. More importantly, it was obvious that Smith had found a deep level of satisfaction in the production of Clerks, and that was something nobody would ever be able to take from him. Success, it seemed, had just been icing on the cake, because dammit, he was doing what he loved, and that’s what you really need to focus on doing!
The seed was planted that night, and while it helped pull me back from my self-destructive abyss, it wouldn’t fully sprout until just a few weeks ago. My wife and I were in Kentucky for a wedding, and we found ourselves with a day to go sightseeing. We ended up at Mammoth Cave, the largest cave system in the world, spanning an estimated 800 miles of cave within a 49 square mile radius, with less than half of it mapped out and explored. It’s BIG. My wife (in what can only be described as an excellent executive decision) surprised me with tickets for something called the “Star Chamber Tour”, a near 3-hour tour of the caves by lantern light.
Now, to say this was one of the coolest things we’ve ever done is an understatement, and while I could no doubt bore you with every minute detail of the tour, there is only one real part I want to focus on: the Star Chamber itself. The ceiling of the chamber is covered in gypsum and candle soot, and when viewed by lantern light, it creates the illusion of a clear night sky. By itself, perhaps not earth shattering, but our ranger tour guide told us one interesting tidbit: the cave had once been visited by none other than Ralph Waldo Emerson, the 19th century Transcendental writer.
I should point out at this time that I have a plaque on my wall with an Emerson quote on it:
“Do not go where the path may lead; go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.”
As one of my really good friends might say, “Boom.”
Again, as cornball as it sounds, I felt a very timeless connection to Emerson. It felt almost like a communion, and in that moment it left an indelible mark on me. I was standing where one of the greats once stood. It was a special, private moment for me, and this was the moment in which the seed finally sprouted. Go where there is no path and leave a trail. I felt creatively recharged, and more importantly, I felt limitless. The boundaries I had been putting on myself were dispelled, and all the anger, all the frustration and unhappiness and feelings of stagnation–they fell off, and I left them down there in the Star Chamber to get lost. When I reemerged, Smith’s mantra of “Why Not?” echoed loudly in my head, and, bolstered by my communion with Emerson I felt something I hadn’t felt in a long, long time: renewal.
My goals have been wrong. I have wasted too much time on trying to court an agent, and it has only been sapping my creativity and stealing my focus. No more. It is time to return to what is truly important to me: creating. I’ve already started several new writing projects (enough to keep me busy for a long time!), and I’ve even realized another dream of mine and launched a podcast with a good buddy of mine, and as far as my YA novel goes, allow me to introduce you to…
AMERICAN MAGIC – THE BOOK OF LIGHT
As of today, I am publicly announcing my first young adult novel to the world, entitled AMERICAN MAGIC: THE BOOK OF LIGHT. Details on the book can be found here. More importantly, I am announcing that AMERICAN MAGIC will be my first independent release, available exclusively as an eBook via the Kindle Marketplace. Now, it is important to me that AMERICAN MAGIC enter the world with the same level of polish and quality that you would expect from any major publishing outfit, and as such I have launched a Kickstarter campaign in order to raise the necessary funds for a proper, professional-quality release.
This novel is very dear to me, and I want to release only the best for my readers. I hope you check out my Kickstarter campaign and choose to either help support the project or tell your friends. I don’t expect everyone to empty their pockets to help me, but I would appreciate it if you could spread awareness of the campaign via Twitter/Facebook/Email, or even just dropping me a line of encouragement while I thumb my nose at the establishment. I love you all.
ROADS? WHERE WE’RE GOING WE DON’T NEED ROADS
I’ve taken enough of your time today, and I thank you for sticking it out with me this far while I promptly spilled my guts all over the floor. Let me close on one last announcement: starting next week, I will be blogging regularly, both to talk about AMERICAN MAGIC, as well as a whole wide spectrum of new features. I’ll be announcing the full schedule later this week, so be sure to check back regularly to see what else is coming.