Erotica Readers & Writers Association Blog

Friday, May 18, 2012

All About Pleasure: The Ultimate Writer’s Romance


by Donna George Storey

I started writing fiction in the spring of 1997, which makes this more or less my fifteenth anniversary of dealing with the writer’s life (see Kristina Wright’s spot-on post from last month, “What It Means to Be a Full-Time Writer” for what I used to believe sixteen years ago).  It might sound like a decent chunk of time to have experienced the perils and triumphs of academic, literary and erotica publishing, and I do know a little more than when I started, but the realities of the literary marketplace continue to surprise and mystify me.

Recently a good friend has started seeking representation for her YA historical novel.  Many people, especially those who want to write but haven't, are ready to smirk at the pathos of a first-time novelist taking on New York.  In this case, however, I'm excited for her, because I’ve read a draft and absolutely loved it.  My friend lived in the country where the novel is set, is fluent in the language, and has done significant scholarly research on the time period.  More than this, she’s managed to weave her deep knowledge into a suspenseful story that gives the reader an honest look at this culture through the eyes of a believable, sympathetic young female protagonist.  I’d be proud to have written this book.  Need any writer say more?

My friend has also done her homework on the the process of selling her novel.  She’s read how-to books, checked appropriate agent blogs and polished her cover letter and synopsis to a shine.  Apparently now agents don’t only require that your current project be as timelessly classic as The Great Gatsby while having the appeal to reach an audience at least twice that of the Harry Potter series, you have to have an impressive set of saleable future projects ready to push out the door in a year or two.  Since self-publishing is threatening to make the job of literary agent obsolete, I have to admire their balls in being so extravagantly choosy.  Or perhaps they figure only a blockbuster author will be willing to pay the 15% to handle all the sub rights’ negotiations?

Even with an excellent manuscript, my friend’s search may not be easy.  If the agents deign to reply at all, some will tell her one or more of the following: that the book has no payoff; that it’s too fast-paced; that it’s too slow; that it’s too obvious; that it’s too subtle; that it was well written, but they didn’t fall in love with the characters; that the characters were likeable, but the writing too esoteric; that they could only commit to a series; that she should change the love interest or have the father marry a different character or have the protagonist be prettier; that there is too much cultural explanation; that there is too little cultural explanation. 

It sounds like I’m joking.  I’m not.

Yet I realize, too, that beneath a very thick layer of cynicism, I still actually believe in the grand romance of publishing.  Let me roughly outline the basic tenant of this sweet illusion.

The ultimate writer’s romance is the beautifully uplifting belief in a kind of literary justice.  That is, if the publishing industry accepts and publishes your book, it is “good” and if they reject it, it sucks, or is at least not good enough.  What is published by New York is the cream of the writing that is out there, because agents are selecting the most worthy work submitted to them.  Beyond that is the most important criterion by which to judge a book—the number of sales.  The same logic applies.  The more popular a book is, the “better” it is.  Although I will agree higher sales are better for the publisher, agent and, to a lesser degree, the author, what I’m speaking of is the popular assumption of quality, as in this book is worthy of the precious moments of your life you will spend in reading it.  Therefore—and I probably shouldn’t mention this book because I haven’t read it, but that deficiency is irrelevant for my present argument—Fifty Shades of Grey is the “best” and most important erotica book ever written because of its phenomenal sales figures.

If you’re tempted to point out my confusion between the popularity of a book and its admittedly subjective “quality,” I believe that is exactly what happens on an emotional level for many readers and critics, including myself.  And the reason I’ll admit this is because of my hopes for my friend’s novel.

Talk about a fantasy.  In my fevered mind, the first round of agents she’s approached will all immediately reply asking for the full manuscript with the following confession. 

Dear Ms. A,

I can’t tell you have thrilled and relieved I am to have the chance to read an intelligent page-turner.  To be honest, these vampire-sorcerer-shapeshifter-dream-catcher spin-off’s are starting to eat my brain.  It’s okay with me that this is a stand-alone novel, because most of the world’s memorable literature has not been written as a seven-part series (I mean really, who’s read all of Remembrance of Things Past?).  It gives me great pleasure to serve humanity’s higher need for an excellent story that will encourage its readers to engage in deeper thought about actual historical events and what we can learn from them, rather than worry only about making tons of sales with any old crap that can be described with the hot-button tags of the moment.  Thank you for allowing me to be genuinely proud of what I do.

I’m setting up the auction for your book now.

Best regards,

Hot-Shot New York Agent

Because my friend’s novel is one of the best things I’ve read in a long time, and that includes an embarrassing number of disappointing but very popular Oprah Magazine recommendations, I expect that the publishing industry will see the value of her work, too, and realize how far they’ve gotten off track since the days of Maxwell Perkins.  Go ahead and laugh at my naivete, I deserve the ridicule.  However, many readers out there, who confidently insist that advertising doesn’t affect them in the least and that they watch Keeping Up With the Kardashians with ironic distance, also fall prey to this appealing delusion.  And many publishing professionals will swear that their experience and instincts maximize the success of the projects they choose to champion, while they, too, are constantly taken by surprise by what actually performs well. 

Few of us would admit that we still believe the free market naturally brings us what is good and right, although in darker moments we might agree it gives us what we deserve.  But then why do we (okay, I'm sort of using the royal "we")  get so angry when what we are presented with yet another disappointing mega-seller?  Maybe because deep down writers are romantics who still hope that our innate talent will be seen by the right billionaire publisher who will then elevate us to the level of the truly beloved Voice of the Culture?  Or at least that a quality book will be treated with respect and presented to an audience of readers who will feel their lives are better for having read it?

Call me a foolish romantic, but a little illusion always helps us on our writing journey.  I still have my fingers crossed for a HEA ending for my friend and her book--and wish the same for all writers who have the courage to write what they truly love. 

Donna George Storey is the author of the erotic novel, Amorous Woman.  Her short stories have recently appeared in Best Women's Erotica 2012, Best Erotic Romance, and The Best of Best Mammoth Erotica.  Learn more  at http://www.facebook.com/DGSauthor.

8 comments:

  1. Donna, thank you for this! What is the world, without hope? We have to believe and yet, it's a brutal world out there. I love your honest, humorous, and hopeful essay on this issue.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I've occasionally danced with looking for agent representation. I never get past a couple of form rejections then blame my weak, weak query letter for not representing my work well enough.

    My father managed to get a big time agent, but did not navigate the process of revising his manuscript as the agent advised. But the process was a different one four decades ago.

    In the end, I start and stop into the agent exercise, probably because I don't want to kill the dream that sometime I will have that book that makes it to the agent's desk, and from there to auction.

    Successes do happen, and I truly hope that your friend's story has an authorial HEA.

    I loved and related to this post. Thanks for sharing it!

    ReplyDelete
  3. Ah, Donna,

    I certainly wish the best for your friend, because there's nothing as satisfying as seeing quality rewarded. Occasionally that even happens. The odds, however, are heavily stacked against her.

    Does that mean she shouldn't try? Of course not. I admire her energy and courage, not to mention her faith in herself. However, I'm unfortunately convinced that the characteristics we associate with exceptional writing - an original premise, a gripping story, unique and complicated characters, graceful and distinctive style - become less and less relevant to publishing success all the time.

    Normally I'm an optimist. However, when it comes to the grand authorial romance, I'm afraid I've turned into a weary cynic.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Thank you, Gina Marie! I'm definitely a battle-scarred cynic, but I found it interesting that I was able to suspend those doubts when it's someone else's work. Then I decided, why let them defeat me before I start? Hope definitely helps the journey, but maybe I need to refine a personal idea of what constitutes a happy ending for a writer and a reader. Maybe in a future column?

    Craig, your experience is familiar to me as well. I've never gone all the way with an agent search, perhaps to preserve the dream that with the "right" project, I'll be able to fit my size 9 foot in the dainty glass slipper. But try to temper the urge to blame your "weakness"--that is exactly how they keep us docile. You know, if our work isn't "good enough" for their nod, we should go study up on 50 Shades. Which of course, became a hit without an agent, lol.

    Lisabet, I totally agree with everything you said! Leaving aside my views as a writer, as a reader I'm really disappointed in particular by the "quality" of literary fiction which often lacks all the qualities you describe that are supposed to define it. However, I'm hoping that by identifying the romance more clearly for myself, it will help the next time I'm cornered at a party by an innocent with stars in his eyes :-). And help me transcend it hopefully.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Can I please have a similarly worded letter for my first novel which I have started sending out to agents. I have faith!

    ReplyDelete
  6. I had an agent, a decade ago. I had the same romantic dream at the time and, thanks to an award, sold my book very quickly (relatively speaking) and was offered representation by three agents. At the time, I thought I knew how lucky I was, but it's only in retrospect that I realize that I didn't make the most of that lucky streak. Now I think I just wasn't ready for that door to be opened to me. But I'm ready now. I swear I am.

    Thanks for this, Donna. And for the shout-out for my piece. We can be starry eyed cynics together. :-)

    ReplyDelete
  7. I have my fingers and toes crossed for your writer friend.

    And failing that, I'd like to read it anyway.

    And that's the thing... Now, I CAN read it anyway, even though it isn't flavour of the week or a hot button subject. Even though it isn't something 5 megapublishers believe are going to make them millions. I CAN read it, because failing all else, she can self publish. And if you tell me it's that good...I will gladly buy it.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Thanks, Kristina. I also agree that this romance of publishing leaves out the writer's readiness. For one possible example, say you get that break-through, it's great, but then you are pressured by your agent/editor/publisher to keep churning things out that aren't your best. Such a writer might feel cheated by the dream as well. Still, I think I can only keep going by switching back and forth between faith and scarred wisdom :-).

    Hey, RG, she did get a few requests for the first 50 pages already, but we all know that's just the first step. Thank you for the reminder that we do have so many more options than just Big New York Publishers and the dusty drawer or "vanity" press. It does make a difference to the writing process as well to have that power!

    ReplyDelete

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.