Every now and then, we can expect well intended advice from family members to bring us down rather than lift us up. From strangers, I'd like to think I can tune out the unhelpful pearls of wisdom.
Easy for him/her to say. He/She doesn't even know me.
So when I checked out Stephen King's On Writing (Scribner, 2000) from the library after an acquaintance recommended it, I looked forward to gaining perspective, even inspiration from a successful writer. Any little boost helps. Sadly, Stevie's treatise proved to be a downer.
I have no doubt Stephen King set out to motivate struggling writers, giving us fuel to continue on a lonely path where we often flagellate ourselves with self-doubt. And, yes, I found affirmation in some of what he related. Nothing new, but it felt good to know some of my writing practice resembled that of a ridonculously successful author, one of the few who is a household name. I too set first drafts aside to let them breathe on their own for a period of time before tackling the first round of revisions. As well, I can vouch for the value of keeping a sustained focus on writing, going at it at least six days a week.
I received some friendly reminders. For instance, I need to read more. (Doesn't every writer say this? Where's the "READ MORE" bumper sticker?) Sometimes I have to hear something 1,417 times before it sinks in. I've formally scheduled book reading into my daily routine. (I read plenty, but it's mainly magazines, newspapers and online articles. If I'm writing fiction, I should be reading fiction.) I also gained a new visualization for the writing process: the first draft is pounded out with the door closed (getting my thoughts down), the revisions with the door open (focused on the would-be reader).
But then came the crushing facts, read with astonishment, envy and complete despair. While money does not drive the desire to write, I do dream of being able to earn a living from it. When Stephen King mentioned that his first big publishing contract included a $400,000 advance—in the 1970s!—I had to put the book aside and go for a walk. Sure, he had a stack of rejection letters hanging on a nail by his desk, but he went from being broke to winning the lottery. My advance for my book, published in 2008, was well under 1% of Stevie's payday.
A day later, I opened the book again. I reminded myself I was looking for writing inspiration and financial information was irrelevant. (Not sure why it's even in the book. I get how it came at an opportune time in Mr. King's life, but I don't see how it assists in sharing the lessons he's learned about his craft.) Toward the end of the book, he included a section that led to more despair…and aggravation. He created "Frank", a composite of three writers he knows who haven't hit the big time yet, but are well on their way. Ah, yes. I started to get excited. This will show Stevie's understanding of those of us with Google-free or Google-lite names.
Frank begins to build a track writer as a published writer in small, prestigious journals. But there are bumps and setbacks as well. A sample query letter from Frank is included. Stevie makes clear that Frank has no connections in publishing. He's just another Joe Schmo, like you and me. Frank sent a dozen letters to agents and received expressions of further interest from all but one (who wasn't taking new clients).
I put the book aside and went for another walk. The fact that Frank is an agent magnet is about as relatable as Mr. King's cash advance. According to Stephen King, "if your work is salable, you will have only a moderate amount of trouble finding [an agent]. You'll probably be able to find one even if your work isn't salable, as long as it shows promise."
UGH! Reading about Frank makes it tempting to put my Netbook on Craig's List. I repeatedly told myself that King's perspective, in addition to being unrepresentative of most struggling writers, is dated. The publishing industry has changed drastically in the past decade. Advances are smaller and agents and editors have been pared down. Professional courtesy has been compromised as agents and editors have busier workloads. Most don't even want an SASE. They only reply if there's a shred of interest.
But trying to put King's words into context doesn't erase what I've read. (Isn't it the same when we try to dismiss Aunt Bertha's comment that a new shirt makes us look "chunky"?) Am I delusional? What business do I have even reading a book about writing, much less thinking I can be the next Frank on my way to being the next Stephen?
For me at least, Stephen King's On Writing instills more fear in me than Carrie, Christine and Cujo combined. I'm returning it to the library today. I think it's time to reread Oh, the Places You'll Go! by Dr. Seuss. Maybe in a few days I'll be ready to submit a few more agent queries.