Marvel of the Modern World

Not really all that long ago I went to my first ever – well, OK, 12 years ago – writers conference. I had my doubts about it — it was to be my first real foray into the world after my first hip surgery in 2007. I was apprehensive (which I’ve learned is normal after a joint replacement). I might not have gone, but I felt the need to challenge myself, the conference was in town (San Diego) and I had paid. A couple of my male friends were there — both aspiring writers, both talented.

Ahead of the conference, I had done everything I was supposed to. I had a flyer about my book (Martin of Gfenn). I’d set up three interviews with agents. I’d found a couple of sessions I thought I might learn from.

The first was packed, and I had to stand outside the open door while an agent — one of those I was scheduled to talk to later — complained about the sheer number of manuscripts that were sent to her. “You don’t know what that’s like,” she whined.

I was a writing teacher. I knew EXACTLY what that was like and I had a vision of this person lying in bed sipping gin and eating bon-bone and opening manuscripts and tossing the ones that didn’t “grab” her in the first sentence. I hated her. I didn’t have that luxury (or the gin and bon-bons) of tossing those essays that didn’t “grab” me in the first sentence. I had to read every damned thing all the way through and then GRADE them and face the possibility of being yelled at by the kid who got a (god forbid) B!!!

I walked away, grateful I hadn’t been able to get into the room. But, I’d also signed up to have lunch at this woman’s table. When that moment arrived I sat with 9 other aspiring (and, in a couple of cases, groveling) writers and I saw that the gin was possible, the bon-bons unlikely and that she was a woman in her fifties in the early stages of burnout. Everyone burns out, I believe. When I met her in the interview, my assessment proved correct. She talked to me about the challenges of raising a teenage son alone. We didn’t talk about my book at all.

Another session that I attended that day was a woman speaking about “self-publishing.” Publishing books online was in its early infancy then. Putting a book together and publishing it was an expensive and challenging process. This woman had not gone the route of “vanity publishing,” which is where you pay someone thousands of bucks to publish your book so it looks like a “real” book. She’d done the work herself. This woman had written a couple of kids books and they were bound like theses or dissertations. Her big thrill was that they were BOTH in her local library. She was a retired school teacher and it had been her life dream just to write a book and have it in a library.

I felt a strange sense of superiority that day when I drove home. I can’t explain WHY. Of course then I thought, “Well my book is so good SOMEONE is going to publish it and I will become famous and NOT have to self-publish it and beg for it to be put in a local library.”

The next several years were — wow, a huge challenge. Sometime during the struggle of regaining my financial footing after ejecting the Evil X and battling the Great Recession, I discovered LULU and its self-publishing platform. I don’t think Amazon had built its platform completely at that point, anyway, when I tried it, it was cumbersome compared to LULU’s. I thought, “What if?” and I built my first book. It was fun. That book is/was Free Magic Show and it’s just a collection of stories and thoughts. It was a marvel to me that I could do that.

Meanwhile, somewhere in there, I realized, thanks to the tutelage of Truman Capote, Martin of Gfenn was an over-written, repetitive mess. That’s when my life as a “real” writer began. I understood that I owed my effort to my work. I still studied HOW to reach an agent, but the advice I found seemed random and impossible. Every agent wanted a different thing, partly because the whole process of submitting a manuscript was changing. It took a while for online submissions to become “thing,” and submitting a manuscript required a lot of paper and postage. I have saved one of those manila envelopes with the pricey stamps. It’s been very interesting living and working in this moment of time — crossing the bridge between the “old” days of paper manuscripts and the “new” days of electronic submission.

Now, I think, it’s really up to an author what they want from the experience of writing a book. For me, the biggest part is love. I have pretty much abandoned the process of soliciting agents. I know it’s not going to happen, and I no longer regard it as failure on my part — though I did. There’s a certain freedom in “failure,” and that is no external entities (readers, agents, publishers) have any expectations of me. There’s no, “Hey we need another of those dog books,” for example or, “You write science fiction. What’s with this leper? You’re going to lose your audience,” or “We need seven chapters by October 1.”

This entire argosy has taught me that — for me — the reward of writing a book comes from writing it. Designing the book at the end of the process is the cherry on the sundae. Twelve years ago at that writers conference, I could not have imagined being here now.

6 thoughts on “Marvel of the Modern World

  1. I love this, Martha. I may not be the best writer in the world, but I do LOVE writing and I enjoy the process of seeing words on the page, the humour, the fictitious situation I’ve created and the challenge of making it seem real.

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