Thursday, July 8, 2010

The writing life

An old refrain among newspaper reporters is that everyone has a story. It means a gas station attendant could have a tale in his life that's every bit as fascinating as the life of a U.S. senator. It's just a matter of reporting and finding the details - both big and small - that make a great story. This isn't always necessarily true. Giggling 13-year-old gymnasts who serve as ventriloquist dummies for hyperactive stage moms do not always have a good story. But most people do.

In the past few months, I've also learned that everyone has a novel. And there's a decent chance it's a novel about a vampire or a werewolf or life in Regency England or a demon that emerged from the sun's rays. It very well might be about a cop - probably divorced, likely an alcoholic, certainly grizzled. It could be about a cop who's a vampire. Or a cop who's a vampire in Regency England.

Everyone has a novel, and I've learned this because Louise is a literary agent. She focuses on romance, young adult, middle grade, pop culture, and steampunk. But she's always on the lookout for anything good, regardless of genre.

The agency she works at - like all agencies - receives a constant barrage of submissions, from published authors to those who only have a dream and a keyboard. The agents wade through the unsolicited emails, which usually include the synopsis and a few chapters. Manuscripts come from all over, from all walks of life. They arrive from penthouses and prisons. They arrive from 20-year-old boys and 70-year-old women, all of them just hoping for that one break that leads to a contract and a cover. Agents spend a lot of time fulfilling dreams, but they spend just as much time breaking hearts.

If the agents like something, they ask for the full manuscript. That's with fiction. Nonfiction, I think, is a little easier, at least from the writer's perspective. There, like I did with my book, you need the idea and perhaps a few sample chapters, not the whole book. On the other hand, it could be tougher for an agent to sell just an idea to a big publishing house. How do they know a writer can pull off what they propose? With fiction, an agent can send an editor a knockout book - about a vampire, or a menacing cop, or a grizzled werewolf - and the publisher knows what they're getting, they know right away if it's something they want, if the author can deliver.

Two things strike me when reading some of the submissions: the sheer number of them, and the incredibly diverse backgrounds of the writers. Retired doctors ask if they can send in a 99,000-word pirate adventure story they've been working on for years. Yeah, yeah, they've saved lives, but what they've wanted to do for 30 years is write.

Housewives send in their 110,000-word science fiction epic, a novel they wrote while raising five kids and one husband. They have ambition, certainly - the dream of being published is a powerful one and partly explains why I wanted to be a newspaper writer from about the time I was 11 years old. But most of the people have to understand the odds are against them ever seeing their work in the local bookstore, no matter how many times you read something and think, I could do that.

So the avalanche of submissions isn't simply about the dream of being published. They write their romance novels or middle grade fiction because they have a story to tell and they want to write it. They want to create new worlds and characters, they want to dive deep into their own imagination and discover what emerges. Everyone has a story. And everyone seemingly has a story to tell.

Is telling stories a human instinct? Long before there were books, people told stories out loud, passing them down from generation to generation, tales that imparted life lessons but also ones that entertained. I don't know how many of the people find time in their incredibly busy lives to carve out these stories, many of which are outstanding and simply need someone in the business to push it to a publisher. In their pitches, you can sense how much they care about the work, how they've slaved over creating fictional they sent on amazing adventures. When reading an especially good line or paragraph, you can envision them at their kitchen table, late at night, after a long day of work at the office, long after the kids have been put to the bed, writing the sentence and thinking to themselves: That's a good line. And you see them hoping that someone else will read it and think the same thing.

Not that all the pitches or manuscripts are good. Many are bad. Some are inexplicable - I have nothing against midgets, sex, angels or midgets who died while having sex and became angels, but I don't know if I, or anyone else, would want to read an entire book focused on that storyline. Sometimes it seems the people with the worst chance of being published have the most confidence, bordering on arrogance. I'm envious of that self-belief. The self-confidence of the delusional is often a powerful thing.

But even with the people whose pitches to an agency or publisher probably never have a chance, I still admire the courage it takes to send your work out to strangers, to professionals who will judge it. I know the nerves that can hit with every query and every published article. I know what it's like to wait for reviews. But I don't know the satisfaction that comes from working on novel for five years and hearing, "We want it." And I don't know the crushing disappointment that comes from working on a novel for five years and hearing, "Thanks, but no thanks."

The people who pitch agents believe in their heroines and their villains. They believe in their complicated plots and simple sentences. And I do admire all of them.

People say the book industry is in trouble. Many believe books are doomed for extinction, perhaps around the same time the last newspaper rolls off the printing press, only to be discarded by a bored 22-year-old. Yet nearly every time I'm in a bookstore, it's crowded. I'm now convinced that all of those people crowding the aisles have a file on their computers back home, an unfinished romance or the first of a proposed eight-part science fiction series. They love writing, and love reading. Maybe the statements in that sentence will be enough to save the industry.

No matter what the future holds, people will still want to tell their stories, whatever the format. Writers of all ages and abilities work hard and they dream big. They think their books are outstanding, and some of them are even right.

They all have a story, all right. And it's 90,000 words long.

1 comment:

Kwana said...

Wonderful post. You are such a talented writer and yes, Louise is lucky as are her clients (yay) to have you over her shoulder.