I don't know a lot of writers, though I've met several through social media and one or two in person. Writing for me is always easy, but editing, then putting my work out for the public to read is hard. It takes courage I don't always have. Well, let's be honest - courage I don't have.
The Promise of Snow was the first story I put on my website that no editor had looked at, hadn't won a contest and wasn't published anywhere but here. A handful of people who are friends either in person or on social media were kind enough to read it. I got no feedback at all but from one person, and that was less about the story and more about she didn't feel she could recommend it to anyone because it was created from a television commercial by Hobby Lobby and she didn't like their politics. Fair enough. I don't either. But I still liked their idea. One thing that reader gave me was her honest opinion, and I respect her tremendously for that. She did exactly what I asked her to do. I do not resent her critique nor are my feelings crushed by her criticism. I still like her and we're still friends and I hope we always will be.
I don't expect everyone to like what I write. It don't write horror, suspense, mysteries, spy stories or things about zombies and flying dragons, or full-scale epics about a constant battle for a mythical throne. I'm not into he/she who kills the most people before the end of the novel wins. It's just not my thing. Romance and uplifting stories about family, friendship and love sell big, but only on the Hallmark Channel and to those who read beach romances. People seem to want BIG drama. That has to be true, or shows on television like "Love After Lockup," "Marriage Boot Camp Celebrity Breakups," or "Mama June From Not to Hot" wouldn't draw in millions of viewers. And I get it - sort of. Trainwrecks can be fun, right? Watching someone else's misery (real or scripted) makes us feel better about our own lives when we're miserable. After all, at least our lives aren't that bad. That's why those programs sell - and of course, they're incredibly cheap to produce compared to the revenue they bring in.
My unedited manuscript and the first I want to publish, "Love Letters From Appalachia" is a love story, but it is not a typical romance novel. It does have a happy ending, which seems to be out of favor with a lot of readers these days. I've had several people read either all of it (one brave soul to whom I am eternally grateful) or the first three chapters (three brave souls). The men who read it told me that one character out of the three main ones in the manuscript, a drunken, obsessed lawyer, should off himself in the end or do something hideously malevolent or unforgiveable and die an ignominious death because he is so...well, pathetic. I never gave doing to that to him a thought. My unpublished manuscript is not just about a romance between two couples who lived 100 years apart and whose lives almost parallel each other, but about forgiveness and the consequences that flow from harboring resentment over a lifetime. I don't want to kill some character off or make his spiral into alcoholism something from which he can never recover. That wasn't ever my intention before the pandemic, much less after it occurred.
2020 has been a miserable year for most of us, some of us more than others. The courage I can't seem to find most of the time when it comes to putting my work out for public view isn't the only courage I lack. I also lack the courage to fail at anything. Not that I haven't. But the lessons I learned from failure didn't make me want to try again, but to put whatever it was away and never look at it or think of it again. There is some comfort in the downy softness of delusion that draws you into its cloud-white siren call and lets you forget that people don't like your politics, your writing, your profession, or you. It's a luxurious trap of self-indulgence. Once you enter its soft satin folds, it is almost impossible to leave. But sometimes choices are limited. Today, for the first time in over 30 years, mine are down to one or two.
A serious family financial setback was one of the casualties of 2020 for me. I had planned and paid for a writing course this spring that was going to put Love Letters From Appalachia into the actual world of print, either on paper, digitally, or both. The manuscript is too long, too detailed and needs to be reworked. I've known that for some time, but needed a place to go with talented editors and instructors to help me do that and in November, I was accepted into a program that takes only 12 writers. Classes begin in February. I was delighted to be chosen. It may not be possible now. I still don't know if it will be. I may have to put it off a year or give up taking it altogether. Writing is a full-time occupation if you want to do it well. It cannot be an avocation while working a day job at the same time. You'll never do both well if you're truly committed to your craft, and writing is usually the first thing that suffers when you attempt to do it in your spare time. Also, I'm not 35 years old with decades in front of me to make my dream happen. I've waited a long time - maybe even too long. That looms before me as well.
Yes, there are people do it and some are remarkably successful. Today, publishing a work comes down to three things in my opinion:
(1) Luck (think 50 Shades of Gray because sex always sells and that book and its sequels sold millions of copies after the first one was picked up by a relatively small indie publisher),
(2) What editors or acquisition agents from traditional publishing houses think they can sell because that's not only how they get their reputations, it's largely how they get paid, and,
(3) Paying people who are "published" experts to teach you the finer points of an MBA in marketing a novel for $449 (or if you sign up within the next 12 hours, you can get it for the bargain price of $29 along with a guarantee you'll get your work published on Amazon, that literally has over two million books in "print" many of which are really awful and never sell more than ten copies).
Since numbers one and two are not going to happen (I've never been lucky and love stories don't sell unless they're the short, sexless serial variety) and even if price were no object, no one is going to teach me in five hours or less something most people learn at the graduate level in over a year and for a lot more money, so three is probably out too. I've taken the "free" one-hour seminars and they all tell me the same thing: you need a website (got it), an email list of people who read books in your genre (I have no idea where to get that and they won't tell you without taking their bargain priced courses), and you need to push your book on social media every single minute of every single day which costs money if you don't have a huge following (50 people on Facebook isn't going to do that for me). The secret is to purchase the course they're selling which will give you a few hints on where to find email lists so you can bother people with your novels and short stories twice or more daily, and send regular upbeat emails about your next short story or novel that will probably end up in their spam folders, which is where most of those I get end up. So, what to do next?
Back to courage. Wow. Where do I find it now?
I don't have courageous and outrageous feminist poetry to sell you, rants about the damage organized religion does to women and children, or political commentary from the left that will bless me with 50,000 plus followers like others some of you know have. I don't want to be one of 50 billion recipe bloggers beholden to advertisers selling their products on my blog. I have friends who are doing this and making a six-figure income, but they have skills I do not. My photography skills are extremely limited, and most of the recipes that are in my family cookbooks are just a few Google clicks away - in other words, I don't have anything special there either. I read more blogs in a day than most people do in a month. I know what sells. But I can't bring myself to write something because I can, then subtly foist off my real dream on my followers, many of whom will buy anything I sell because they love the blog posts I write in order to make a living. That's no criticism of those who do. I realize everyone has to eat and if you don't want advertisers selling their products on your blog, it's the only way you can do that. It works very well for a lot of them and success is what each of us defines it to be.
I'm just not sure any of those methods will work for me. I don't have a stellar resume with a sexy professional background. I'm not a former military intelligence officer, a former politician, famous or related to someone who is, and I didn't make it big doing anything interesting. I didn't grow up in a church that sold me out which has piqued my righteous anger the world must absolutely know about through my brilliant prose, I didn't have parents who abused me which required me to overcome my terrible childhood, nor have I had an epic battle with drug addiction or alcohol. I'm just an ordinary nobody. I am not special. I'm more talented than some, much less than others. I can look in the mirror and recognize that. In twenty years or so when I'm gone, my headstone at the Valleytown Cemetery just outside Andrews, North Carolina, is where my earthly remains will turn to dust and my children will never visit because it's far too much trouble. They'll have lives to get on with, and that's as it should be. There will be no annual Facebook tributes complete with old photographs from them on my birthday because most boys don't do that kind of thing (I love the ones who do though). I'll be pictures in a cell phone or in a box somewhere they might look at when they're old and nostalgic for days they really don't remember well. Or not. I have no legacy to leave behind.
So, here I am. At a difficult crossroad. Necessity may be the mother of invention, but poverty is the mother of innovation or perhaps a more appropriate word is desperation. Maybe that is what I have been lacking and through no fault of my own, it is going to invite itself into my life and goad me to find my own way through the morass of publishing a book. Perhaps it will be one different than the one I have envisioned for 30 years because what sells is what puts food on the table. Right now, the soft cotton clouds of delusion are calling me like the smell of fresh washed linen on a summer day. And calling. The sirens had nothing on Odysseus. Trust me. It would be so easy to shelve this thing, take down my website and chalk writing up to a dream that was never going to become a reality. I hope I won't go down that road either by choice or be forced to by circumstances. Life has a way of pulling the rug out from underneath you when you tell it you have plans or dreams, then laughing at you when you falter. Getting up takes courage. I hope the Wizard of Oz was right - that the Cowardly Lion didn't really lack courage; he was merely a victim of unorganized thinking.
I remind myself I'm not the only writer who has been here, nor will I be the last. I know the stories most writers do - Zane Grey famously received some 270-plus rejections before he sold his first novel. J. K. Rowling struggled for years before Harry Potter became a household name along with hers. Margaret Atwood almost quit writing until she finally wrote the Handmaid's Tale, which is creeping out millions of television viewers today. Some writers are in their 80's before they publish a successful book. Those stories are all out there. They're real. I read articles about them all the time. However, believing that will happen to me is different. I'll get back to you about what I eventually choose to do. For today, I am grateful for friends who simply take the time to listen.
Courage doesn't always roar. Sometimes courage is the quiet voice at the end of the day saying, "I will try again tomorrow.” ~ Mary Anne Radmacher