To the discouraged heart of the writer, regarding publication: Sometimes shit just sucks. Allow me to vent all the things your brain wants to say, but is afraid to. Then, hopefully, I’ll try to bring you back to reality without the standard self-help fluff that goes along with esteem-building blog posts, books about chicken soup, or clichéd words of encouragement from some of your writerly friends.
Okay, so you’ve spent a long time (like, a seriously long time) working out a piece that you know, in your heart of hearts, is really, really good. Sure, I’ll give you that it’s maybe not Raymond Carver or Toni Morrison, but it is good. You send it off to a magazine / contest / agent / editor, and you either never hear anything back, or you get a rejection in less than 15 minutes. Then, for a little more salt in the wound, when you read the latest offering from the publishing source in question, you know your piece is indisputably better than what was ultimately deemed as superior to yours. Your brain says:
a. The publisher/editor sucks.
b. The publishing industry as a whole sucks.
c. The entire scope of the general reading audience and public sucks.
d. You, yourself, might actually suck.
Good news and bad news, friends. The good news is, you’re absolutely right on all counts. You are an astute observer of the human condition. Congratulations. The bad news is, you and every other person on the planet suck serious ass. Really, you do. Let’s examine why.
a. The publisher/editor sucks: Because whoever it is that’s selecting material is making their pick based on a truly mind-boggling number of submissions. I worked for a couple of stints on the fiction side of a literary magazine selection committee, and I can tell you, no shit, we received over 500 submissions for each issue. Of those 500 unsolicited manuscripts, 2 were published. Let that sink in: two. As in, a one and a two. First, we had two or three weeks to weed through the “absolutely not gonna make its”, of which there were maybe 300. Meaning that our small committee read as fast as we could to meet a deadline, and made spot determinations that 60% of the submissions were either really crappy or were unsuitable material for our particular publication. Then we took the remaining 200 and whittled those down to about 30 by asking ourselves which stories we were willing to defend to the death. We were very dramatic. Then we took those last 30 stories to another, more official selection committee. Then that committee went through a long process of debate, and presented the publication head with five or so finalists. Then the head, which prior to that had very little involvement in the process, gave the final nod, with some consideration to our arguments, to those final two stories from the slush pile which actually ended up making it. So, yes, you’re right. The sheer volume of submissions to most magazines/contests/publishers/agents assures you that they are unquestionably dropping a lot of really good writing. And thus, they suck.
b. The publishing industry as a whole sucks: It’s not really a secret. And not only has it sucked historically, it seems like it’s now careening blindly towards an abyss of absolute suckitude. Any story that catches fire immediately sends publishers out in droves to find the next big thing that’s exactly like that last thing that blew up. If a story about a young girl who discovers she’s actually descended from a family of man-eating lesbian mermaids suddenly surprised everyone and hit the best-seller list, what do you think the odds are that within a year or two, there would be at least ten books about young girls who discovered they were actually descended from families of man-eating lesbian chupacabras, lizard people, aliens, or sasquatches? I’m betting the odds would be pretty high. Because not only has the publishing industry always been about making money; on top of that, modern day publishers are terrified of taking risks. The publishing landscape is changing, literally, day by day. iPad, Kindle, digital downloads – you name it, the publishers honestly have no clue as to what’s going to happen to their industry. So they’re going to play it safe, and continue to churn out sure-fire genre pieces and drug/sex/murder memoirs and rehashes from established authors to ensure a steady stream of revenue with minimal risk. And they’ll take very few, if any, chances on new authors or new ideas. Oh, and they suck.
c. The entire scope of the general reading audience and public suck: Well, I’m sure I could get myself into trouble and point out a lot of specific examples of popular books that I think prove my argument, but suffice it to say, see item B. If the public didn’t suck, then the publishing industry wouldn’t suck. The publishers are, in fact, running businesses. Thus, they cater to the demands of the consumer. And the consumer’s demanding a whole lot of suck these days. But oh ho, you snooty intellectuals – don’t think you’re not just as sucky as the supernatural young adult set. How many more historical fiction books about war-time romance do we really need? How many more heart-wrenching portrayals do we need of intolerance, famine, corporate greed, bioterrorism, global warming, or soft eyed young protagonists who search for one thing and come away learning something about themselves in the process? You name it, the book you’re reading has most likely been targeted directly at you through market research and demographic analysis, and its appearance has been nit-picked right down to the font, type size, and color of the binding on the jacket. Everybody that buys books, magazines, and journals is encouraging a sucky enterprise through predictable habits and because of it, it’s safe to say that everybody sucks.
d. You, yourself, might actually suck: Yes, it’s inevitable. You very well might suck. There’s really not a whole lot to say if this is the case. Which it probably is. You can go with the whole dogged persistence thing, and keep sending your manuscript out. After all, there is enough suck in the world that some idiot, somewhere, is going to think you’re a good writer and accept your writing for publication. Or you can go back to the drawing board and write and revise and write and revise and write and revise endlessly, the only punctuations in your sucky writing life being the three month stretches once a year where you submit something and impatiently wait to find out officially that, yes, indeed, you do suck. Or you can just give up, and fully embrace your suck. Whichever way you go, it’s best to understand that more likely than not, just like everybody else, you suck.
So, that’s it. That’s what your brain is telling you, and let’s face it – your brain is right. But don’t let it get you down. It doesn’t really matter. Look, if you’re a writer, it’s not something you can help. You write because that’s what you do. You write. You are a writer. You can’t help it. You get all giddy when you’re on to something good. Your brain starts jumping through the story, the characters, the possibilities. You read books or watch shows and you think about what the writers are doing, and what you would do differently. You admire truly great writing. You use words like muse and soul and passion and you usually don’t use them ironically. You can get lost for hours tinkering with the structure of a single sentence. You actually devote months or years to assembling a book-length manuscript. And on top of that, you do this with the full knowledge that the odds are stacked heavily against your ever getting published, let alone being a financially successful writer. But that’s it – you can’t help it. Sorry to break it to you, pal: you’re a writer.
So go ahead and throw a middle finger to the entire world. Tell them they suck. Seriously, do. They deserve it. And then, when you’re done, go back to your keyboard and write an essay about it, or an uplifting short story about a guy with a magic button that takes all the suck out of the world, or a novel about a young girl who discovers she’s descended from man-eating lesbian mermaids. It doesn’t really matter if you suck at writing or if you never ever ever get published. I know you’re not going to stop writing any more than I am. And I should know. I suck.