On Succumbing to Fiction’s Dirty Word

For today’s writer looking to be published, there’s one four-letter word dirtier than all the others: Self. Self-publishing is, supposedly, what happens when you’re not good enough to be picked up by an agent, like a minnow plucked from the depths of Lake Erie, and then by an editor at a mahogany desk, outfitted in tweed and airy gestures. Despite my best efforts, my writing has just landed in this heap of unpolished erotica, unsolicited poetry collections and unwanted personal histories. And I’m no longer ashamed.

My story started on the drive from Philadelphia, where I’d had an inconclusive visit to an apt neurologist, to New Jersey, where I’d be spending my spring break in place of an southern excursion with college friends. Overcome with what was still ambiguously an anxiety disorder, post-concussion syndrome or a combination, I was unable to partake in vacation festivities, let alone do my work, let alone continue writing a story that had been filling every gap of my day, let alone feel like me.

On that drive—a sequence of worry-filed questions from mom, pregnant pauses, avoiding thoughts of my future, and a tire that fell onto the highway in front of us, seemingly from the sky—my mind cleared. I could think. When I was home and by myself, I cried out of happiness. And for the next ten days I spent my waking hours writing or running, each day ending with a fight against myself to fall asleep, against the desire for it to be morning already. I finished the book or what it was back then, before an agent, before more than 30 drafts, before I could actually get my head around it. In celebration I went for a run.

In the next year I got a job at an advertising agency, moved to New York, and found an agent for the manuscript, A Blue-Hued Howl. I was filled with pride: the agency is one of the city’s most renowned, boasting a long list of bestsellers, a handful of Nobel Prize winners and one of the highest grossing series of all time. Out of joy I ran all over nighttime Manhattan, weaving through the villages—where accomplished t-shirt wearing men and women ate wagyu sirloins and didn’t ask the sommelier for prices—and dreamed of a release party, meeting big names and respectable writers, of just being able to say I ‘had a novel’. Before I was signed, he had me do a reading in the West Village, at a bar with a literary past. I’d finally felt that the manuscript had allowed the life in the back of my mind to start showing itself in dark corners, and in the blurred distance.

As with any creative partnership, there is push and there is pull. My agent not only challenged me, he forced me to challenge myself. To erase words I loved in order to write better ones. To understand what I was saying. To drive the work and not vice-versa. As I said, I went through over 30 reworks with him. Many involved me unconvinced the novel should be changed and all ended up with me unable to believe I was ever in doubt. Finally, after a year of editing, we agreed it was time to shop to editors.

Long story short, it wasn’t fit to a publisher. It was a stretch to come up with authors and titles to compare it—a hallmark of the process of selling your book. So I regrouped, and wrote another one with the mission of selling A Blue-Hued Howl as the second novel of an already established author. This time, against my better instincts, I wrote with that nebulous editor in mind, the one who’d finally hand me an over-sized check and his hand in congratulations. Long story short, my agent and I couldn’t come to terms about any of it. While he wanted to hammer it into a manuscript that would be easy to condense into an elevator speech, I (perhaps stubbornly) held onto the more surreal tone I’d come to believe was what made it original. What was left was a half-commercial, half-artful story neither of us could grasp. Soon our partnership ended.

The thrill of the dream I had once imagined years ago, before I let writing become a business venture, continued to creep back into my mind: just one stranger reading A Blue-Hued Howl. I’d forgotten that’s what fueled every letter—the communication of an idea I thought was special enough to shut myself in for hours, days, weeks at a time.

And so I’m going the only route I know will take me and make my dream a reality. And even more surprising to my 23-year-old self, I’m publishing under this pseudonym, as I prefer to leave the author as much of a mystery to readers as the content itself.

I may never share squab and a mellow merlot with Philip Roth or challenge Haruki Murakami to a half-marathon, but if I get my story into the bedside e-book reader of one college-aged writer-to-be, I’d consider myself a made man. TC mark

W. Adrian Plistienne is a writer now residing in the south. You can read his first and last novel, A Blue-Hued Howl at bluehued.com.

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