Zen and the Art of Rejection

Zen and the Art of Rejection

Well, it rained a bit this afternoon, the air grew thicker by the second, the complexity of contemporary existence pushed me into the dark midnight of the soul, so, what the hell? 

I did it again. 

Never one to learn from yesterday’s brutal assessment of my value as a human, I submitted a revision of my college guide to a publisher and 30 pages of my most recent novel to an agent. Over the years the methods by which writers present their work has changed, but like death and taxes, the outcome arrives with grim certainty:

“Thank you for sending your submission our way, but we have to pass on your project / it’s not the right fit for us / we’re not right for your work / we cannot use it at this time / this is but one reader’s opinion, but this submission doesn’t work for me” and so on.

At least the responses come quickly; many agents and publishers now maintain a site on which a decision is entered within a few days of a submission or query sent by email. I’m registered as a supplicant and invited to check the site to see how intrigued the editor/agent is by my work. 

Spoiler alert: Persistently not intrigued at all.

In earlier years the process was considerably more complicated and expensive. I typed (badly) several hundred pages, some number of which were then jammed in a package with a self-addressed, stamped envelope so that the unwanted submission could be returned to me. I rarely had a copy as typing with carbon paper was a tricky business. One of my plays, A Night of Terror, laughingly presented as a musical, now exists only as mimeographed copies of the script given to actors when the play was performed. Messy and almost illegible. I did not keep score in those days, but my guess is that the average time between submission and the return of my unread manuscript was about eight weeks.

Now I and millions of others can zip an entire manuscript to the ends of the earth and can expect a response of some sort within a week or two. I’m not waxing hyperbolic in suggesting that millions of unpublished authors are out there hoping to find a place on America’s bookshelves. Before the artist’s retreat known as the pandemic arrived, more than a million projects were handled each year by the self-publishing juggernaut at Amazon. Who knows how many lightly edited great works could be rushed to my home with a single keystroke. Formerly known as Create Space and now as Kindle Direct Publishing, Amazon’s software has made self publishing child’s play, easy and inexpensive. 

There is some comfort in knowing that as my books are published on demand, which is to say when I or any of the other four readers buy my book, only a single copy is printed. I won’t find discounted copies of my books in a cardboard bin in the grocery store; no dusty copies languish on remainder tables.

So, I’ve got that going for me.

I’m rarely stumped in pursuing instant research on any subject, but estimating the number of magazines and websites offering advice to aspiring writers is problematic. I tried every search I could imagine and was presented with more than seven billion references to particular magazines and information hubs, none offering any guess at how many rabbit holes writers can access in print or online. 

I’ve been knocking on publishing doors for years but still look for help in placing at least one of my babies up for adoption somewhere. Letters seeking representation by an agent are known as queries, and one could hop among innumerable articles offering advice on how to craft a query. I looked at a few, again before contacting yet another agent identified as one accepting clients. Great advice to be had, but, Nah, I stuck to my jocular conversational gambit and let the chips fall where they may. Self deprecation is my stock in trade; why not approach an agent in the same key?

Here’s the “pitch”:

The odds of this book reaching any reader, any eyes but my own are stunningly low. My earlier confection, Afterwards, has yet to sell a copy. That’s not entirely true; I placed a copy on the local authors’ shelf in our independent bookstore and bought it some weeks later, expecting the few bucks owed us local authors when one of our books rockets off the shelf. I’m still waiting for the check.  It’s been two years. My expectation is that this volume will join the others in languid security floating in the nether world of publication on demand.

Why you might ask, if in some moment of addled confusion you picked up this book thinking it a prescient piece of social criticism, why do I write if not to be read?

Thanks for asking. Fair question. The easy answer is that I wake in the morning with ideas I want to write about. Even if no one reads a word. A more reflective answer is that it fills each day with purpose, exercises my mind, and generally amuses me.

 I also sing in the car with no expectation of being heard,  pretend I hear the roar of the crowd as I loft a jump shot at the netless hoop in the park’s playground,  talk to my dogs with a French accent, and offer jokes to my children with the presumption that the response will be muted. I enjoy writing almost as much as I enjoy the French accent with the dogs.

Even as I write this piece, I discover that some goblin has been trotting through the pages I just sent to the agent, moving sections of sentences willy nilly. That’s what we professional writers call a death wish. 

Yikes and Ah Well and time to check the rejection machine once again.

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