Essays

Burned

By posted at 6:00 am on October 18, 2010 12

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I was watching Burn Notice, the USA Network show about a suddenly unemployed and unemployable spy, when I experienced a flash of insight. “Hey,” I said to my husband. “That’s what happened to me. I’ve been burned.”

I know I’m given to hyperbole. (“Gauthier demonstrates a real talent here for humorous hyperbole and episodic classroom comedy,” a reviewer at Booklist once said of me—quite a few years back, to be honest.) So maybe I’ve only been toasted. At any rate, the scent of singed flesh hovers over me, just as it does over Burn Notice’s Michael Westen.

After a ten-year career in espionage, Michael woke up in Miami to find that he had been unceremoniously let go and blacklisted by his handlers, or burned. After a twelve-year career as a children’s writer, I received my first major rejection from my long-time publisher in March, 2008, which was kind of like being let go, leading to what has felt like de facto blacklisting, or burning. My “letting go” wasn’t as dramatic as the “letting go” Michael experienced, of course. It did not, for instance, involve my waking up in a strange bed. And while Michael has often seemed mystified about what happened to him, searching to find someone who can set him straight, I’m pretty clear on what happened to me.

But the end result is the same. Michael Westen and I had work we liked, and we don’t have it anymore. We’re burned, and we’re spending a whole lot of time trying to get back into the game.

Unlike Michael, who was a model spy, I know I made some mistakes—two standouts and probably more that I either didn’t recognize at the time or have forgotten about. The big ones, though, were working without an agent and writing the wrong book.

After many years of submitting manuscripts directly to publishers and magazines and getting only two short stories and an essay published, I had the very good fortune of having a book picked out of the slush pile by an editor at G. P. Putnam’s Sons. I am living proof that that could still happen for a lone writer back in the ‘90s. (Ah, but all kinds of good things were happening for all kinds of people back in the ‘90s. And then 2008 came.) The two of us worked together on six books over the next ten years or so, and Putnam published two more of my books after my editor moved to another house.

During that time I would meet other authors who were stunned that I had managed to get published without an agent and still didn’t have representation. I’d like to say that my independence gave me a rogue status among my peers, but, really, I always got the feeling they thought I was out of my mind. Clearly they were right. I avoided seeking out an agent because it was the path of least resistance. I was getting published without one, wasn’t I? On top of that, if you’re a writer, you hear as many horror stories about agents as you do fairy tales. Even if I stumbled upon one of the fairy tale kinds of agents, I was anxious about having to deal with another person. I understood the author/editor relationship. If I had an agent, wouldn’t I be sticking someone in between my editor and myself? Wouldn’t that be weird and difficult? So I decided that I would let things go along as they were until the folks at Putnam didn’t want something I sent them. Then I would look for an agent.

Well, there’s a decision I’ll be living with for a long time.

My second major error was spending most of 2007 writing a science fiction novel with a third-person narrator. My reasoning was: 1. I wanted to do it. 2. Some on-line friends and I were always bemoaning the fact that so little science fiction was written for children. Child readers were up to their tiny armpits in fantasy and paranormal stories, but novels about aliens and space travel and other traditional science fiction elements were much less common. We were dead sure that kids were patiently waiting for someone to write them some sci fi. 3. Children’s and YA literature are overwhelmed with first-person narrators who fall into general stereotypes. You have your wiseass first-person narrators who are social outcasts, your small-town (often southern) first-person narrators who are surrounded by quirky small town characters full of knowledge about life, your teen girl first-person narrators with teen girl friends who are all into dating and shopping, and your angst-ridden teen boy first-person narrators who, if they attend a boarding school, will almost certainly know someone who is going to die, just to name a few. With first-person narrators, it’s all too easy to end up creating a kidlit character who sounds just like one of last year’s kidlit characters who sounded like a kidlit character from the season before. Hey, I was going to break free from first-person predictability.

Some people would suggest that I made a third mistake when I didn’t run my story idea past my editor contacts before I spent a year working on it and the better part of another year revising it after its first rejection. If someone had been able to convince me to save my sci fi story for another year—or decade—I would have been spared the experience of learning that some agents won’t even consider science fiction. And then there was that third-person narrator I was so excited about. I was the only one. Of the agents who did agree to take a look at my novel, more than one said he or she had trouble connecting with the main character, something that might not have happened if poor Olivia had told her story directly, in the first person.

Oddly enough, Michael Westen is a first-person narrator, giving viewers spy info in voiceovers. Michael has no trouble connecting with people, by the way.

We may differ on how to tell a story, but Michael and I are similar in that we both have a history. We have experience in our field. I, for instance, have had those eight books published with a major publisher. My agent quest cover letter described my ALA Notable Book, my titles published in Germany, France, Italy, and Japan, my three books that had gone into paperback editions, my sales of paperback book club rights, and my two Junior Library Guild Selections. What it didn’t describe were bestsellers or even big sellers. I am what is known as a mid-list writer, which means that my books sell modestly over a number of years rather than racking up the big numbers during their initial publishing seasons. Therefore, though I have a publishing history, it isn’t what you’d call a big draw. The mid-list, where I was quite comfortable, by the way, is not a particularly popular place under the best of economic times. It’s looking a little seedier than usual right now when there’s not a lot of money to spread around among all the books being published each year, forget about the books from a few years back.

So there I was, a mid-list author approaching agents with a novel, the genre of which wasn’t eagerly embraced, written in the third-person when first-person was all the rage. If this were an episode of Burn Notice, Michael would use a first-person voiceover to say, “Good writers/spies negotiate when they’re in a position of power, when they have something so desirable to sell that they can, in fact, sell it themselves. They do not wait until they have a manuscript/intel that few people want.” Then he would go on to explain how to use guile to deal with this awkward situation. But it’s not an episode of Burn Notice. Besides, I am short on guile. I am not good with guile at all. So I continue to smolder.

Three of my books went out of print this past year, which isn’t the end of the world. I know because I’ve had books go out of print before. It is the fate of all books, particularly now when schools and libraries, the traditional market for hardcover children’s books, are struggling financially. But the loss of those titles raised a few more blisters than usual this time, coming so close together and so soon after my failure to find my book a home or even a champion. A speaking engagement and book signing at a library for this fall fell through because the only book I have left now is for a younger audience than my contact was working with. School and library visits, the time-honored method of marketing and generating extra income for children’s writers, have been drying up these past few years, anyway, to the point where I think it’s safe to say I rarely make them. On top of everything else, traffic at my blog is way down, and my small following of commenters has up and disappeared.

I smell smoke.

I like to think that I’m holding up after my burning better than Michael Westen is after his. I’m not running around with guns and explosives, at least. I know that I’m not the only writer suffering. It’s not so much that misery loves company as that I can’t come up with a reason to expect my situation to be better than that of all the other writers (many with agents) who are also having trouble selling their next books. Nor can I come up with a reason to expect my situation to be better than that of all the other people in all walks of life who are struggling in this post-2008 world. And, like Michael, I still have a few contacts from my old work life—a couple of friendly editors and an agent who said she would look at another submission. I have some places I can take the book I’m working on now, the one that is most definitely not science fiction and uses a first-person narrator. I am not without resources.

I didn’t have any resources years ago when I was, as we say these days, a pre-published writer. As a child, I lumped becoming a writer in with…becoming a spy. Or a cowgirl, a private detective, or an astronaut. They were fantasy jobs. The odds of any one particular person being able to get a G. P. Putnam’s Sons to publish her books…or to get a government agency to employ him as a spy…were laughably small. One of my family members has indicated that my oppressive optimism is my very worst flaw, but, nonetheless, I can’t help but believe that the odds against making a writing comeback won’t be anywhere near as bad as they were against entering the field in the first place.

Obviously, Michael Westen feels the same way about spying or he’d have no show. The two of us continue our struggles, episode after episode and submission after submission, believing that some day we’ll be back where we used to be. No further ahead, perhaps, but at least working.

(Image: flame, from calliope’s photostream)

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12 Responses to “Burned”

  1. Harry Connolly
    at 10:21 am on October 18, 2010

    Gail, thanks for sharing your story. It’s a hard one but it seems you’re holding tough. At least you can continue to make your own work, unlike poor Michael Weston, who can do private PI or con man work but can’t land a freelance spying job.

    You may find yourself ready to restart your career under a pen name. Robin Hobb is a bestseller who struggled at first under her given name. Maybe you can do something similar.

    But unless things have changed radically since I cancelled my cable, Michael Weston’s voice overs are in second person: “You don’t want to make things too easy for your mark; he’ll value what he takes from you more if you make him earn it.”

  2. Steve Sullivan
    at 10:47 am on October 18, 2010

    I sympathize with your plight. The trouble with following your own muse is that sometimes you end up far from the usual crowd, and thus become “unmarketable.” And right now, in tough times, marketable is what it’s all about. If you’re lucky, you’re merely “ahead of the curve,” and maybe the rest will catch up. A set of books I wrote 10+ years ago, and couldn’t sell, suddenly seem perfect for the new Kindle market. Perhaps your book will be that way. Or perhaps you just followed a dead end. It happens.

    I’m not really sure an agent could help you at this point, though a _good_ one could. Those are few and far between and hard to find. I know about 2 people who really like their agents. The rest of us aren’t “marketable” enough, and our agents are still waiting for us to write stuff with “blockbuster potential.”

    At this point, you might consider publishing yourself (or finding a micro-publisher), especially since you have novels that have reverted to you. Because the e-reader market for kids isn’t large, this might not be an easy path, either, but POD can at least keep your books in print, and potentially available for libraries.

    As a start, you might look at Joe Konrath’s blog. He has some interesting points about e-publishing, rights reversion, etc. I don’t know that you (or I) will be able to replicate his success, but at least he’s talking about at different way to do business. And in this current market (which started well before (2008, BTW), thinking differently may lead to an actual way out.

    http://jakonrath.blogspot.com/

    Good luck!

  3. Sarah Lamstein
    at 1:23 pm on October 18, 2010

    I identify, Gail. And I like your attitude – keep on keeping on. If writing is what we do, then writing is what we do. We’ll keep trying – trying to make the very best work we can and trying to get it out there. Here’s to you!

  4. Carol Gordon Ekster
    at 5:07 pm on October 18, 2010

    Gail, you’re ahead of so many other writers. You’ve achieved success in the field and must hang in there. I’d bet your perseverance helped you get published in the first place. Continue on! And thanks for sharing to help the rest of us who persevere and have many rejection slips to prove it. Good luck to you, Gail.

  5. Lee Goldberg
    at 9:15 pm on October 18, 2010

    Yeah, you made some big errors. I don’t even want to think about all the money and rights you left on the table negotiating your contracts without an agent. But hey, that’s the past. The good news is, the world has changed dramatically since 2008. Those out-of-print books aren’t done earning money for you. Get your reversion of rights letters and put them up on the Kindle. And while you are at it, put up your SF novel, too. It’s free…and whatever you make is found money. There’s no downside.

    Lee

  6. NYPinTA
    at 9:28 pm on October 18, 2010

    I want to read the sci fi book.

  7. Linda Gauthier
    at 6:35 am on October 19, 2010

    I have always said that you are a writer of books that everyone likes to read. And yes, the people I have talked to who eventually made the purchases loved your books.
    What is it that you have always said to me? “…Don’t look back…..move forward…don’t make the same mistakes twice…it may not be exactly what you want to do but it’s good for now…”
    So like Mr Weston, take your good advice and spin it to fit your needs.
    You are not burned to a crisp. You are just simply a bit uncomfortably hot.
    No matter how you work it, you will be writing. And doing what you want and love to do, even if the manner of doing it is not exactly your style, is more than half the battle.

  8. Randomness for 10/19 « Twenty Palaces
    at 2:14 pm on October 19, 2010

    […] 2) Author tries to run her career without an agent and loses her career. […]

  9. NelC
    at 3:18 pm on October 19, 2010

    Yes, put the unpublished book online, as either freeware or donationware. If it’s any good (and it seems to me your errors are business errors — errors in being a writer rather than errors in writing) then you might build a market for your writing that an agent might be able to parley into more money on a contract.

  10. Steve Burks
    at 10:40 am on October 22, 2010

    “Burn Notice” kicks TAIL! (I do masterclasses on Missing the Point if anyone’s interested.)

  11. Kim
    at 7:49 pm on October 22, 2010

    Ahh . . ,. Don’t give up., I’m also a writer and I know it’s pretty rough waters out there. Hang in there!!!

  12. A Writer's Love » Why you need an agent.
    at 7:59 pm on October 22, 2010

    […] I found this link on another site regarding one writer’s tragedy when she refused to use an agent and do as she pleased: Burned […]

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