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Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Envying the Ghosts of Oakwood Cemetery

Every night, I walk through the Oakwood Cemetery in Falls Church on my way to the Metrorail station.

I finished a novel last summer and it is now winter and I am having trouble selling it.

It is frequently pitch black as I walk through the cemetery. Many of the dead were buried over two hundred years ago. I talk to the ghosts. I envy them. They don't face false expectations of a "great" novel that is going nowhere. They haven't created children, brilliant, kind, loving children characters who will never live in readers' minds.

Koheleth says that those who have never been born are the luckiest. That should have been me. The pain of having written a novel, no longer touching my characters and watching them change, making them grow, is too intense.

The cemetery is peaceful. Those under the ground don't feel such pain. Can I kill myself and join them? No. I have obligations to my son, my wife, and my religion. It would be unfair to them. But why can't I have a quick heart attack? Then my wife and son would get my insurance, and face no stigma. There must be people in this cemetery who died that way. Why can't I? And soon?

Thirty-four years ago, finishing the novella that I sold fairly quickly after completing it put me into the worst depression of my life, until my mother's death. My creative writing professor, my college's writer-in-residence, said that post-novel-depression is very common and very painful. He was right. That depression lasted for about four months.

This time around, with a much bigger novel that I put twelve years of my life into, it is much worse. It has been more than half a year since I finished it, and I am just as depressed as ever. This might be even worse than losing my mother.

So, my poor ghosts, you have more life in you than my characters do. At least I can read your names on your grave stones. You have less pain than I have. So, maybe I will join you soon. I hope so.



I no longer work near Oakwood Cemetery. My attitude is now much improved, but post-novel-depression is every bit as hard as I describe it here.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Depressing Trends

I sold a novella thirty-seven years ago. I hope to sell a novel this year.
The large gap in my views of the fiction marketing industry has given me a
perspective into publishing trends that is worth sharing.

In the mid-seventies, genre fiction was looked at with disdain. Before
Quentin Tarantino, "pulp fiction" refered to the poorest and worst of
literature: dime novels. Romance, science fiction, and mystery all was
considered pulp. As such, agents and publishers preferred not to touch genre
fiction. It did not pay well; it was hard to sell.

At that time, literary fiction and commercial fiction was in demand. In
terms of word count, "the longer the better" was the advice to young
writers.

Another major change since then concerns publishers, agents, and query
letters. An unpublished writer was encouraged to submit a novel (or "three
chapters and an outline") to a publishing company, not to an agent. The
submission was accompanied by a cover letter. For fiction, a query letter
without at least three chapters was unheard of. The publisher would employ
"slush-pile" readers to pore through the unsolicited manuscripts. Agents
were for second novels, or for first novels a publisher wished to acquire.

Then, the big hurdle for a beginning writer of fiction was to get a
publisher interested. Today the big hurdle is acquiring an agent.
Agents now serve as slush-pile readers and initial editors.
To me, this is a very negative trend, and it has hurt the
quality of American literature. The initial reader, when I was young, was a
publisher's paid employee who was looking for good fiction. Today, the
initial reader is an agent who is trying to make a profit as quickly as
possible.

A novel that takes time to develop character, plot, and thought-provoking
thematic ideas takes more effort and time to sell on an agent's part than
short genre fiction that has an already determined market. Combined
with generations of readers raised watching TV serial dramas
that have very little theme and plots resolved in less than an hour, this has
resulted in the decay of quality literature. Thirty-four years ago there
were far more novels with characters and plots people will remember for the
rest of their lives and far fewer romances, police procedurals, and vampire
novels that are forgotten days after they are read.

I know of at least two novelists who started their careers writing formula
genre novels and are now writing larger quality literature. That seems like
the way to do it, because today it is far easier to sell a first novel that
is short and fits into a popular genre than it is to sell something truly
memorable. I find this rather sad.