Getting Published After Six Years Of Failure
I’ve been a failure at every job I’ve ever held.
You’re looking at someone who’s been forcibly removed from the premises as a legal assistant, flat-out fired from a children’s museum marketing department, and, once, preemptively quit a job proofing insurance documents in fear of a pink slip. Plus, I’ve been ignored-to-death by more freelance copywriting gigs than I can count.
So, when getting my book, Broken Piano for President, published started looking like a lot of legitimate work, the writing scrawled itself across failure’s wall.
Thankfully, unlike that door-to-door cell phone sales job, I didn’t simply walk away during lunch. But the novel’s path from first draft to bookstore features enough disappointment to fill a Republican primary.
People tell me many books, like Don Dellilo’s Underworld or James Joyce’s Ulysses, took about six years, too. I don’t even try to point out the glaring differences in our three situations.
2006: I work on a draft for months and join a novel writing workshop in Portland, OR. I think this young version of Broken Piano is already pretty good. However, my fellow shopmates disagree.
Not enough Orks, says the guy writing about trolls. It would be better with a tender birthing scene, suggests the lady whose book is about midwifery. Add a sassy, but vulnerable, divorcee detective, says… pretty much everyone else.
Such is life at the writing workshop.
Some advice is helpful and I now set my sights on an MFA. As many blogs and book jackets tell me, MFAs are the only way to get published unless your dad’s last name is Safran-Foer. I apply to ten schools using Broken Piano for President as my writing sample. I am promptly rejected by eight and waitlisted at Columbia College and Pittsburgh. Like most Match.com ads, these prospects seem to have lost my phone number.
2007: I still love this book and have faith in it. Next, I attend one of those writers’ conferences that seem like they should be held at an airport Sheraton. It’s at the Portland Airport Sheraton and they charge $50 a pop to sit down with literary agents. I only have enough cash to meet two. I pitch the book to one agent solo and another in a chaotic group setting.
When Moreen, the one-on-one agent, shoots me an email saying she’d love to represent me and doesn’t even need to read the whole manuscript, I — big shock — leave work early to celebrate. What a step forward, what a victory!
But it’s more like literary hay fever. It keeps me from smelling rotten eggs.
While Moreen is enthusiastic about Broken Piano for President, I discreetly ignore numerous red flags. Such as: she’s never sold a book and her resume highlights include appearing in a Beck’s beer commercial directed by Ridley Scott. Such as: her office is in a modeling agency and Moreen admits that she sometimes does weekend baby shoots to keep in good standing with the landlord. This is also discounting the fact that her first suggestion is to get an 8×10 headshot because my black glasses have a “writerly” look.
The next several months are a tilt-a-whirl of failure. Harper Collins says no, Viking calls Broken Piano for President “nauseating,” Ben Stiller’s production company claims it is too dark; Adam Sandler’s production company turns up its nose like the manuscript was made from Academy Awards or dignity.
Soon, it becomes clear Moreen and I aren’t destined for greater things. It also becomes clear she has probably missed her medication. My super-agent is eventually forced to move from her home because she never sold any books and, according to her math, it is all my fault because I didn’t say thank you enough.
2008: On my own again, I begin working harder than all of the jobs I’ve been fired from combined. I pitch the book to probably 100 more agents and indie presses. I consider getting one of those inspirational coffee mugs, because encouragement isn’t exactly falling from the skies.
A friend of a friend has a book published through Akashic Press and I beg for a contact. An editor, Aaron, is super-receptive to Broken Piano for President. He sends it around to the other editors and gets mixed feedback. Akashic passes. However, Aaron gives me a bit of advice that greatly helps tighten the book’s voice. Moral victory.
2009: Many, many more rejections follow.
Eraserhead Press has a questionnaire for people wanting to submit. I fill it out, citing my favorite writers and music and movies. I soon hear back from the publisher, Rose. I seem like the kind of person Eraserhead would like to work with based on my oddball tastes. I pitch her Broken Piano for President, but Rose, too, avoids it like eye contact in the Men’s Room. Eraserhead wants something around 100 pages from new authors. I submit a story collection, Sex Dungeon for Sale! and they release it in the Fall.
2010: Pleased with Sex Dungeon’s sales, Eraserhead asks what else I have. I again pitch Broken Piano for President and mention a couple of other projects that were brewing during the previous years of spectacular failure. They claim to like Broken Piano, but are more interested in a country music/astrophysics comedy I’ve written called Black Hole Blues.
2011: Black Hole Blues is released via Eraserhead imprint Lazy Fascist, future home of Blake Butler, Sam Pink, Scott McClanahan, and a host of other excellently eclectic authors. My editor, Cameron, says he thinks the time is finally right for Broken Piano for President.
My vision goes black. I pass out atop a thick nest of rejection slips and form letters.
2012: After six years, 25 drafts, two ulcers and approximately 300 rejections, Broken Piano for President is released. The minute I send in my final edits — over a half decade of work and failure — I run into the nursery to do a job I’m actually pretty good at: helping my screaming infant fart.
Something tells me this isn’t how Delillo finished Underworld.
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Even as I write this now I am debating whether or not to erase it all together.
When I say I’m in love with you, I mean I love the story I can tell to my next lover, about my ex-lover, about how beautiful things were, how intense, how storybook, what a couple we were, and how you gradually, inexplicably, painfully, bit by bit, disappeared.
“I used to be afraid of failing at something that really mattered to me, but now I’m more afraid of succeeding at things that don’t matter.”
I was 24 and, while not gay, ever since college I had been getting more attention from gay men than from heterosexual women.