Ed. Note: In our spring/summer series – “The Tough Times, and How I Wrote Through Them” – one of this site’s regular contributors will write about a complication they’ve faced in writing and/or publishing, a complication you’re likely to experience someday, and they’ll disclose how they got past it (alcohol may be part of the answer but, no, it’s not the whole answer).
By Shannon Kirk
I’ve done trials.
I’ve argued motions in federal court before big, scary federal judges.
I’ve been threatened with physical violence by opposing litigants on more than one occasion.
I have three brothers. We’ve fought. Like cat claws and fist fights and world war wrestling. I punched my arm through a plate glass window in one such fight, and still have the scar to prove it. Growing up in rural New Hampshire, we walked through forests full of bear dens and coyotes, probably werewolves, thickets of poison sumac and poison ivy, creeks with jagged rocks, and a quarry filled with rusting cars and fences. Our cat Stanley had permanent holes in his fur, permanent porcupine needles pricking his holey nose, and a pervading stench of ode du skunk. That mangy fleabag fit right in with our pack, an evil mascot.
I thought I had “tough skin.” But that’s a lie. Turns out I’m a topless muffin, a mass of barely solid cake crumbs beneath the surface.
When faced with the sheer terror of the publishing industry.
The anxiety I feel in this warzone industry will never leave me.
Tonight, even though IT’S SATURDAY, BRAIN, YOU NEED TO STOP THIS S—T, I have checked my Gmail for the 1.90 hundred-thousand-infinity-crazy time because one of my manuscripts is on submission to prospective editors. This is a living hell. It doesn’t matter how much reason my incredibly patient and wonderful agent tries to infuse in me. I’m a basket case. If only she’d ask me to go to court and argue about someone else’s fortunes, I’d be fine.
But this is my whole soul here, for sale.
The anxiety of dealing with the publishing industry is eleventy-billion-fold to the anxiety of standing in federal court. My childhood was no training either. And I had a comparatively “different” upbringing, one that some might think would generate loads of capital letter I Issues, enough to give me the toughest of tough skin to wade through an adult’s reality. When I watch a Wes Anderson film, it always feels somewhat familiar. The strangeness can be described in hundreds of thousands of examples: My father convincing me until I was in fifth grade that he was from planet Shubondalay, and I was thus an alien offspring. The ghost my mother claimed to have seen in our house and who haunted us. We had no shower, only a claw foot tub, because, according to my parents, a shower was not “period” with our 1780 center-chimney colonial home. We didn’t have central heat on the second floor, we had a woodstove, in New Hampshire, again, the whole “period” thing. It would get so cold in my bedroom, I’d sleep under ten blankets and awake from a drowning dream only to find I really was suffocating—in wool. My parents decorated in Pilgrim-era antiques. We spent almost every weekend either picking through or selling at an antique fair or flea market. My lessons as a child were how to barter with adults. My one brother slaughtered our pet pigs, Oscar and Mayer, and we ate their bacon all winter. My father has one hand. One day he wrapped his prosthetic too tight around a Wiffle ball bat and his fake hand flew with the bat upon a forceful swing. My friend screamed and ran and never came back, crying about how my dad’s hand blew off his arm. We weren’t feral; my mother consistently made us meatloaf and homemade brownies for dinner. But we weren’t not feral.
This is just a colorful retrospective of snippets from my childhood. This is not a listing of excuses to say my childhood created capital I Issues, because it didn’t. These snippets are just what makes me, me. Fodder for stories, from which I pluck at strains of truth to expand into fiction. Yes, sure, a different household, a different upbringing, but we had and still have love. Certainly nothing so terrible as to cause me capital I Issues in adulthood. I was lucky. It was crazy, yes. But blessed.
As an adult, of course I have lower case i “issues.” If we’re all being honest here, anyone around the age of me has at least all of the following issues: a lost love; a lost chance; a terrible memory; a secret; a nugget of guilt over something specific; a lie you live with; a guilty pleasure; an irrational fear you shiver to think of because you think by thinking of it, you’ll conjure it. A death. A trigger to melancholy you can’t quite place. A chasm, a hole, in your heart, in your gut, a swirl somewhere inside that opens whenever you smell a certain smell or hear a certain sound, either of which you can never remember after it’s passed so as to avoid next time. Several failures. A dream that haunts you and always will.
Perhaps you are better at dealing with and balancing yourself over these lowercase i issues. Maybe you have uppercase I Issues and deal with those even better than I deal with my lowercase issues. I am lucky to have thus far accumulated only the lowercase. These are hard enough to grapple with, and so I respect those who’ve overcome or deal with anything uppercase.
Regardless of lowercase or uppercase issue/Issue status, we all have issues or Issues or issues and an Issue. We thus all have something to write about. Yet none of these issues/Issues warrant invasive and uninvited psycho-probing by a publishing industry stranger.
When you’re new to the publishing industry, pretty much anyone with an actual paid role in it is a frightening and intimidating being. I haven’t done the actual math on this, but my guesstimate is that 99.5% of everyone I’ve encountered in publishing is an angel. I’ve met incredibly supportive writers, famous ones too who not only talk to you, but give you their invaluable time, editors with heart, agents with great advice, the whole gamut.
When I was starting out trying to get an agent, I used to go to conferences. I did that speed-dating thing where you sit with different agents and editors, each of whom have had an opportunity to read a sample of your writing. Having just this last weekend been on the other end of one of these events (prospective writers met with me in ten-minute allotments), I can say, at least from my perspective and from talking with my fellow greeters, we really did want to encourage people while being honest, and not cruel. I wanted to lift up the writers I met with, and I can only hope I did, because I will never forget how terrifying the whole experience was for me on the other end.
In the past, despite my terror, I had obtained useful constructive advice and encouragement when I went to these ten to twenty-minute speed-dating critiques (and thankfully so, since you usually pay for each round). Agents who helped hone my pitch letters, editors who said what they liked and didn’t like about my writing samples. All of these critique sessions I used as part of my self-designed, personal writing school. So I kept going to them until the day I finally landed an agent. Three years of these conferences and critiques. And I encourage new writers to do the same, with the caveats and advice I have to follow here in this article.
There was one pebble in all these various, otherwise wonderful and smooth, critiques. I’m not going to give a name to this pebble person. I won’t even give a gender. No age. No background. No specific identifying information. This is not about gossip. I just want to highlight a trap I walked into, part of which I created myself. My hope is that other new writers can avoid my mistakes.
I was new to the whole speed-dating critique thing, so I sent in twenty pages from the middle of the novel I’d drafted. The sample was thus wholly out of context and in the middle of an action sequence involving a character who’d already been introduced many chapters before. As soon as I sat down with the pebble person in our twenty-minute speed-dating session, the person no-blink stared at me and said, “So you have personal Issues you’re trying to work out in your writing.”
“What?” No hello?
“Clearly you’re trying to work out Issues. And this section is out of context. It’s totally not working. You can’t start a novel like this. Tell me about your Issues.”
“Um…” My throat burning, my face the core of the sun. I felt as if all the eyes of all the agents, editors, and writers at other tiny tables in the freezing hotel conference room were on me.
The pebble person leaned over our table and into my face. “So,” this stranger whispered, “what are your Issues?”
We had known each other a grand total of 8 seconds at this point.
At first I was startled into a blinding confusion. I didn’t understand why a stranger would start a conversion so abruptly and invasively, and, further, substantively, the stranger’s comments made no sense. If he/she derived I had “Issues” from the sample I’d sent in, I didn’t get it. The sample involved a 60-year-old man burning his wife’s blue slippers in the fireplace because he hated the sound of the plastic soles thwacking and echoing around their cavernous, childless mansion. I can assure that this scene has nothing to do with any of my lowercase issues. Certainly other things I’ve written, even a whole entire published novel, are much more autobiographical on a medley of my issues. But not the slipper burning scene.
Then I started to doubt myself. Were my own emotions too naked in my writing, to a point where I didn’t see I’d exposed myself? Would I never cut it as a relatable, believable writer? My heart became displaced, beating faster than my breath, a disconnected entity fighting to flee my body. I tried to grip the table to stare the stranger back down, but failed. I said nothing. Next, he/she commented that the entire piece was “definitely not working,” and having said it twice, he/she really wanted to drive that point home with a head shake of no, no, no as well.
We knew each other all of fifteen seconds at this point.
I fought a definite urge to throw up. I’ve had tough review sessions at work. I’ve had constructive criticism galore. I’ve had clients, partners, judges yell at me. This was none of that. This was something intentional and biting.
And so, I let all of this bubble and boil over, and with the stranger’s face in my face, I allowed my emotions to control me. Tears drizzled out of my betraying eyes, even though I was screaming at my brain to pull it together. But the more I screamed internally, the more I lost the battle. The tears kept coming. What a horror. How embarrassing.
In front of this publishing stranger, in the middle of a room of agents and editors and other writers, my eyes dripped and dripped. It was mortifying. I hid my face. I tried to explain how the piece was just from the middle of the novel, tried to explain the backstory that comes before and how maybe that would give it the context he/she said I didn’t have.
“Why would you do that? Why would you send in the middle? That makes no sense. It’s still not working. This would never work,” this person said. He/She then went on to inventory all the famous authors he/she had worked with, intimating I didn’t come even close to their work, and that I never would. My heart fled, completing my own body’s betrayal of me. Stop your blubbering! Pull yourself together! You’ve faced worse! I reminded my internal self. But nothing worked.
I got up, wiped my eyes, quietly excused myself, and thanked the person for his/her time. I went to the lobby, called my cousin, and sobbed about how I was never going to get published and that my dreams were dead. This publishing pebble person destroyed me, I thought. But the reality is, in hindsight, this person didn’t destroy me. I let that person destroy me at a vulnerable time, and I made several practical missteps that can be avoided. If I could do it all over, I would tell myself the following:
- Never engage in these one-on-one speed dating writing critiques by sending in an excerpt out of context. Always send in a polished beginning of whatever you’re seeking feedback on.
- Know going in that statistically speaking, 99.5% of all persons in publishing are wonderful beings and only want to help you, guide you, give you support, and provide constructive and practical feedback so you can grow. They never seek to hurt you.
- Know going in that statistically speaking, .05% of persons in publishing have an agenda, whether it’s personal or monetary, and they basically have no bedside skills. This applies to publishing and really, any industry. It’s the reality of living on a planet of humans.
- Do your homework. When signing up for these one-on-one’s, be informed about the background of the person you’re signing up with. Agent? Editor from a publishing house? Publicist? Writer? Or paid-for-editor? There are huge differences of what you should expect from each of these categories.
And so, on this fourth point, allow me to expand. Most writers paying to have 10-20-minute one-on-one’s are trying to get an agent or publisher. As such, if you’re paying, your better money is choosing time with an agent or publishing house editor. You might want to throw in a fellow writer or publicist or paid-for-editor for variety of feedback but, as you would in any industry, ask yourself: What is my counterpart’s agenda and how do I view this person’s comments about my writing in the prism of his/her agenda? Is his/her agenda biased toward getting business?
On the evening following my disastrous encounter with the publishing pebble person, I got an unsolicited email from him/her offering me his/her editing services, for a price. This stranger didn’t mention anything in the email about the blubbering mess I’d been in earlier that day in his/her presence. I never responded to the solicitation. I realized at that point, in the evening long after feeling like a total loser all day, that while he/she might have been substantively correct in that my sample was not working and needed vast improvements, perhaps his/her agenda had fed into his/her delivery and intrusive questions about my psychological makeup. Did he/she wish to deconstruct me, so as to have the opportunity to build me back up? I don’t know. I didn’t realize this person was an editor-for-hire when I signed up to meet with him/her, for I was new to the whole industry, and hadn’t yet understood the differences. I hadn’t done my homework.
Do not misunderstand my comments here. I am very PRO in favor of editors-for-hire. I’ve hired freelance writers and editors to help with certain manuscripts along the way. They can not only provide valuable suggestive fixes to a work in progress, but also a writing education outside of a degreed program. So nothing in this article should dissuade anyone from seeking paid help, if you’re able to afford such luxury and if that works for you. What I am suggesting is, heed point #4 above when paying for time in one-on-one critiques. Be an informed buyer. As you would with the characters you write, understand motivations. Many paid-for-editors are honest about the business they take on; they’re part of the 99.5%.
At the end of the day, I’ve grown a tougher hide in dealing with the publishing industry, but still, nothing in my childhood training of romping through prickly bushes and past bear dens prepared me for how personal and deeply frightening rejection and criticism and unbearable waiting feels when talking about your own writing. Nothing prepared me for any of this. Not any of the sibling fistfights. Not any of my time in court. Nothing.
This is rough stuff. But fortunately, there’s 99.5% of publishing that gets it and wants to make the progress and growth easier for all involved.
Much love and good luck. Be mindful of the .05%.
Shannon Kirk is the award-winning author of the debut psychological thriller, METHOD 15/33 (THE METHOD in UK, NZ, and OZ), which has garnered three starred reviews, won the National Indie Excellence Award for best suspense, was selected by the School Library Journal as one of the best 17 adult fiction books for teens, and was the Gold winner of the Benjamin Franklin IBPA award. METHOD 15/33 has been optioned for a major motion film and has sold into sixteen foreign territories. Ms. Kirk’s second novel (not a thriller), THE EXTRAORDINARY JOURNEY OF VIVIENNE MARSHALL, was published in September 2016. Read more about Shannon Kirk, her books, and short stories at www.shannonkirkbooks.com and www.thegoatmancometh.com.
To learn more about THE EXTRAORDINARY JOURNEY OF VIVIENNE MARSHALL, click on the cover below:
Previously in The Tough Times (And How I Wrote Through Them)
Shutting Down Places Like Eliot Ness, by J.J. Hensley
On Time Management, by Mark Pryor