By way of John C. Wright‘s LJ I’ve discovered this wonderful piece by John Scalzi detailing the nearly glacial movement of fiction publishing. In it, Scalzi explains how novel writing is a rather time-consuming business. I have no qualms with that statement — I know it’s true. But he echoes certain common wisdom that pervades the industry that makes me somewhat unsettled, namely, the idea that you simply need to be older to write a novel. To say this is always the case is of course untrue — we have enough Jonathan Safran Foers and Brett Easton Ellises to demonstrate that — but as a young person, it definitely makes me feel cagier. I sure as hell am not a Foer or Ellis.
I’ve written three good-sized novels, and one shorter novel that I mentioned a few entries ago. I am 21 years old. My first novel — if you want to call it that — was about 100,000 words long, and it was a rambling, disgusting mess. Essentially everything that Scalzi says first novels are was true of this thing; it shames me to look at it, but I keep the file in my archives just so I don’t forget how far I’ve come. I wrote this novel when I was 14. My second novel, 90,000 words written at 16, was better in many respects, but still a pretty sorry thing; a good friend of mine who read it was kind enough to point out its good points, the things he enjoyed, and the things he thought didn’t make sense. There were a lot of those, and I was glad he pointed them out to me. But overall it was more directed, had a solid plot, and greater depth of character, as far as that went. (Incidentally, no one has read my first novel except me, and I plan to keep it that way.)
My third novel, Brutal, is 88,000 words long. I began writing it when I was 19, a few weeks before my twentieth birthday, finished my first draft in the dorms that fall, and have gone over it a few times since then. I hope it doesn’t sound too presumptious for me to say that I think Brutal is a pretty good story. I tell you this after admitting that the previous two books I wrote were utter crap — I say that comparatively this book is haute arte. On its own I think it’s pretty fun; a handful of people have read Brutal and the response has been positive, something that definitely would not have happened for my prior two exercises. The book has been rejected once, of course, but only (I think) because I simply sent it to the only slushpile house I could find — I don’t want to try for an agent until I have a few short pieces published — and the house didn’t really specialize in horror.
But there’s also another possibility: that I’m simply not old enough to have written a competent novel. Scalzi’s ruminations touch on this; the novel, according to Ian Watt, is vested almost entirely in the importance of individual experience. Can I write well about individual experience when my own is so limited compared to these people who are writing with 30 and 40 and 50 years of life behind them? This is definitely an anxiety of mine. Am I simply too juvenile, at the moment, to be a writer? The fact that I’ve written three novels (or at least one novel and two things that look uncomfortably like novels) in the past seven years only intensifies my self-doubt. To have written so much while so young may be the mark of a productive but sloppy author, a lifestyle that turns up a few glittering jewels in what is otherwise a sea of crap.
But there’s another issue here: Brutal is a novel about high school. In some ways it’s a novel about leaving high school behind and finding yourself in a much larger world. I felt I had to write it last summer because my experience of leaving high school was growing ever more distant, more blunted; I needed to commit those emotions to the page before I lost them entirely. This could go two ways: I could have ended up with something startlingly genuine or something embarrassingly incoherent. Salinger proved that you don’t have to write just after leaving high school to nail the teenage mindset, but I am not Salinger. The people who have read Brutal have not raised issues with my portrayal of the Teen Experience, so I it is possible I lucked out in that department.
But the people who have read my novel are not publishers.
I know that since I’ve written one thing I’m fairly pleased with, nothing else will necessarily follow suit. The short novel I wrote earlier this month was not something I hated entirely, but it still didn’t sit right with me. I allowed a friend to read it, and he agreed: it was terrible. Terrible, but perhaps salvageable. All of the issues I suspected the manuscript had were indeed issues; having the second opinion was handy for focusing what kind of changes need to be made.
While on the subject, Scalzi also links to this fascinating article about working on a slushpile. The idea of a website where writers post their rejection letters and rage about them perplexes me somewhat. I mean, in one sense that’s what I’m doing here on this blog, except I’m not really raging, just keeping a running count. I also don’t post copies of the letter and make petty swipes at the readers or editors — to do so seems, well, childish. I don’t think I’ve ever been truly shattered over a rejection letter; I’ve mentioned one that really confused me, since it seemed like the reader was being unwarrantedly snide, but I didn’t bother pursuing the matter, I simply found another market. I’ve had two letters that contained something like actual criticism, and while criticism is never easy to swallow, I felt like they were the most helpful. The majority of my rejections fall in the category Teresa Hayden calls “Appropriate Disinterest” — “Thanks, but no thanks.” As I’ve pointed out, I’m not sure what this says about me or my writing. Am I submitting to the wrong publications, or what? Hayden offers a handful of possibilities:
7. Author can write passable paragraphs, and has a sufficiently functional plot that readers would notice if you shuffled the chapters into a different order. However, the story and the manner of its telling are alike hackneyed, dull, and pointless.
8. It’s nice that the author is working on his/her problems, but the process would be better served by seeing a shrink than by writing novels.
9. Nobody but the author is ever going to care about this dull, flaccid, underperforming book.
10. The book has an engaging plot. Trouble is, it’s not the author’s, and everybody’s already seen that movie/read that book/collected that comic.
11. Someone could publish this book, but we don’t see why it should be us.
12. Author is talented, but has written the wrong book.
But I think most of these things might be pointed out in a rejection letter? Except of course for the one about visiting a shrink. You don’t want the crazies to come after you. The only thing that will give me answers to these questions is, I imagine, time. More submissions, more rejections, more writing.
EDIT: Going back and reading my previous entry wherein I discuss rejections in-depth, I must say here that I am probably luckier than most. As I admit there, many rejections I receive encourage me to submit again — assuming that’s not some commonly accepted form rejection. My previous rant on this phenomenon mostly had to do with how absolutely goddamn bewildering it is to be told “thanks, no thanks, BUT PLEASE TRY AGAIN.” I’m all for perserverance, but when you get rejected without any real criticism and an invitation to have a second round it’s kind of alarming.