The First One

There comes a time when you have to face facts. When you have to accept the reality that what you intend isn’t what’s going to happen, so that you can decide what to do next and move on. I may have reached that point. Perhaps it’s time for me to just put my book up on Amazon and move on to something else.

I say that like it’s a bad thing. For an old guy like me, it sort of is. I grew up in a time when traditional publishing was the only way to go. Self-publishing was for people who couldn’t write. Numerous “vanity presses” existed who would bind your book and charge you a large amount of money to do so. But that was for losers.

Changes in media have modified that somewhat, although not as much as the champions of the self-publishing revolution would have you think. Despite appearances, e-books only make up a tiny fraction of readership, and, while print-on-demand services make it possible for people to hold a paper copy of your book, as most still prefer, there’s no substitute for brick-and-mortar bookstores. There’s still an inestimable degree of validation that comes from walking down the aisle and seeing your book next to one by a famous, long-established author. It means you’ve arrived, that’s you’re good enough. Being picked up by a mainstream publisher says, “This is a real book,” the way self-publishing never can, and likely never will.

Given that I have gotten zero response in two months of querying, I have to look at the causes. That means starting at the beginning. Literally. My query is good, I’m told. So it must be something else. What do agents make their decisions on? They must gauge your writing ability. They usually want a sample. And, unfortunately for me, that sample is always the first ten pages, or the first chapter, or whatever. My first chapter is lousy. It always has been and it still is. I recently took the ten-millionth stab at it, trying to address the flaws that have been previously brought to my attention. I took it to my writers group. The ones who are familiar with this chapter, having seen it dozens of times before, all said largely the same thing: “I can see you’ve really worked on this, but…” Yes, but. “But…all the problems we mentioned before are still there.” The most common complaint: my emotionally reserved main character doesn’t show enough emotion. Uh… yeah. That’s his character. As he says to his soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend, “What do you want me to do, jump up and down freaking out like the people on daytime talk shows?” Everyone liked that line, but apparently, yes, that’s what they want him to do.

They also wanted me to lose another character entirely because, “She doesn’t add anything to the scene.” Maybe not… except laying the groundwork for things that will be very important later. I always thought that was the foundation of good storytelling, but I guess it doesn’t work that way anymore, especially not in the teen books I’ve read, where if something doesn’t make perfect sense instantly, the reader gets all confused and bored Today’s reader/viewer would never have survived the old Mission:Impossible TV series, where they put something in the gas tank in the middle of act one so the car will run out of gas at the end of act four. Today it would be, “What’s he doing with the gas tank?” “I’m not sure. Screw it, I’m changing the channel.”

I really want to give readers more credit for patience and intelligence than that, and, based on my students, I’m right to do so, as many of them don’t much care for how simplistic and unsubtle teen fiction has become. Unfortunately, the potential readers don’t call the shots, the agents and publishers do. And if they don’t “get it” instantly, then it’s a fail. The people in my writers’ group understand this, which is why I don’t blame them for the reactions they give. They all universally said something else as well: “This is really a shame, because once the book gets going it’s awesome.” But I can’t say that to an agent, so my readers are trying to help me get published by showing me why the agents are rejecting me.

The sad reality is that you have to grab the agent by the throat with the first sentence or they will stop. They have too many other submissions to go through to “hang in there,” even to the second paragraph. Unfortunately, they have an infinitely higher standard than readers, who are much more inclined to stay with a book a bit, especially if others have recommended it. Not agents. And they stack the deck by requiring that your writing sample be the opening chapter. Any writer will tell you that the first chapter is the hardest. Most writers spend more time working on the opening than the entire rest of the book, because they know how important it is. But if agents want to see how well you write, why they hell aren’t you allowed to showcase your best work? That’s what artists get to do when they submit a portfolio. I have breathtakingly good material, but I’m not allowed to show them that. They only want to see the part of the book that is guaranteed to be the roughest, the most in need of more work. In other words, they don’t want to see how good I am, but rather how bad.

This is further proof that agents lie when they say they want to work with and nurture authors. If it were true, they’d look past the misery of the opening in order to find out if there’s something worth nurturing. But they don’t. They look at the first sentence of the first paragraph of the first page of the first chapter, and if it’s not already perfect, they pass. They don’t want to put in any effort; they want you to send them a manuscript all ready to be shopped around to the film studios. The end.

The fact is, after two years of trying, I’m running out of ideas. When people tell me, “I would have stopped reading by the third paragraph,” I want to shout at them, “Okay, how would you start it? What would be a good first sentence? What would you put in the first paragraph?” They tell me what isn’t working, but seem no more capable than I am of figuring out what would. At this point I’m annoyed enough that I have written an entirely new first chapter that emphasizes the one character they liked, even though doing so wrecks the fact that she’s supposed to be mysterious. It’s like telling J.R.R. Tolkein, “Downplay that lame-ass Frodo and focus on Gollum in the first chapter; he’s really funny.” I’ll now need to redo the entire rest of part one of the novel to accommodate this change.

So I’ll make one last attempt, even though it may mean a substantial rewrite. And if that still doesn’t work, then it will be time to stop polishing the turd and focus my efforts on something else, something I can publish. I have written other things, a couple of short stories, the openings of another couple of novels. Universally praised. I’m commended for the quality of my writing, and told how great these books sound.

Okay, I should take encouragement from that, right? Solace at least. I guess. But my heart’s not in it. It’s a truism among writers that, “You never sell your first novel.” It’s the one where you learn to write. That is perhaps the greatest tragedy of the writing process. You see, your first novel is special. It’s closer to your heart than anything else you will ever write. It’s the story and the characters who inspired you to want to be a writer in the first place. It haunts your dreams. Everything you write after that may be more competent, but that’s because you are less emotionally invested. By then, writing has just become something you do. But the magic is gone, along with some of the passion.

I am not exaggerating when I compare it to first love. We all remember our first requited crush, the first time a person we had feelings for returned them. It’s like catching lightning. The first holding hands, the first kiss, the first… well, I’ll let you take that however far you want. The point is, you will never forget any of those “firsts.” And, ironically you probably wish you could. There was fumbling and awkwardness and embarrassment and pain. You wish you could go back and get a do-over, because it’s astonishing how many amazing ways you probably screwed things up.

But, even if you could go back, you wouldn’t. Because those memories, pain and all, are too precious to tamper with. You’ve had other relationships since, and may well be with someone now with whom you couldn’t imagine not spending the rest of your life. But that first one… There will never be another like that.

We invest so much into that first book. It’s a cruel irony to know that it will never be what you wanted it to be. How sad that that painful learning curve was expended on the most cherished story you have. Too bad you couldn’t somehow compel yourself to waste effort on something not worthy of going anywhere. If only writers could begin writing with a lousy book.

Perhaps they do. Perhaps many successful writers look back and say, “Thank God that piece of crap never saw the light of day.” Perhaps that’s the case with my book. Maybe I’m fooling myself. Maybe I shouldn’t even try to self-publish it and risk tarnishing a reputation I haven’t even started building again. Maybe this book never should see the light of day. I don’t know. I know only how I feel about it, and what everyone else says: “I would have stopped reading.” Point taken. Time to move on, to write something else. Something good enough to publish.

Unfortunately, at my advanced age, I may not survive this journey again. That’s why I put so much into this book, because it may well have been my only shot. I’ll go ahead and self-publish, even though I have no marketing skill. Nothing to lose. But self-publishing isn’t the same, not for me. It means I’ve given up, admitted that I’m not good enough for real publication, that I’m not as good as the writers of crappy, overwrought dystopian violence-fests. Just stick the knife in my heart and be done with it.

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