No One to Blame But Myself… and Maybe Franz Kafka

A few years ago, after I started penning chapters for the story that became Kinned to the Sea, a critique partner gave me some advice at a meeting. As I do with all of my feedback, I wrote down the words, and I quote my writing partner now —

“You just don’t know how to write fantasy, Melissa. Why don’t you write something you actually know about? Like your own life. Why don’t you write about that?”

Whenever anyone suggests I write memoir, I always respond the same way: by stating that I have never felt compelled to write memoir. The thought of writing memoir feels like hydrochloric acid being poured on my brain. It’s highly unpleasant, to say the least. I’d honestly rather think about sawing off both my legs with a rusty bucksaw than contemplate penning an entire book based on my life.

I believe I inflict more than enough of my life on my blog followers. These random posts ought to qualify as “writing memoir,” as far as I am concerned.

Though I should also state that, for the most part, my writing partners and beta-readers do not subscribe to my blog. My critique partners are largely spared my personal drivel by avoiding these posts as well as my books. A few of them are gluttons for punishment, and might be reading this post, but that’s a very small few.

Then I have another tiny group of people who keep reading my books, and caring about my work, no matter what weird thing I write next. These fans have a lot of faith in my career — and they keep rooting for me to get a literary agent one day, so I can have some kind of financial success to show for all of this work.

I appreciate that faith readers have in me. I appreciate it a LOT.

As my longtime blog followers know, since 2012, the house my mother lives in has been facing foreclosure, saddled with an equity mortgage (a reverse-mortgage-type loan originally taken out in 2000) that no one in my family can afford to repay. We’ve been scraping by, but just barely.

By the summer of 2017, this scary financial situation turned grim. I borrowed $5,000.00 from my husband, to pay the mortgage on that house for five months, and I also used all the money I’d saved up to make my last two novels available as print books — that savings gave me an extra month’s mortgage payment. One of my brothers also sent me a check for $1,000.00 last fall, and that gave me a month’s mortgage payment as well.

During those seven months, I wrote a Young Adult/YA contemporary novel titled Ninja in a Cornfield. I wrote the book with the direct hope of being able to query the manuscript in order to gain the representation of a literary agent. (Since novelists cannot traditionally publish their work without first having an agent.)

Here is an example of what many literary agents say they are looking to represent right now — this is a paragraph taken from one literary agent’s online bio page (the agent’s name is Jennifer Kim) —

“In contemporary YA, Jennifer is looking for unique, uncommon teen stories with an authentic voice. She enjoys stories that tackle themes of being an outsider, displacement, race, sexuality, and self-discovery, and is particularly drawn to bicultural characters and stories centered around subcultures, countercultures, and found families.”

Here is how another agent (Caitlin McDonald) lets anyone seeking representation know what she is looking for —

“– Diversity of all kinds, including (but not limited to) race, gender, sexuality, and ability, in both characters and worldbuilding”

My sixth manuscript, Ninja in a Cornfield, features many of these specific diversity traits. I honestly thought I had written something that not only worked as a great story, but gave literary agents exactly what they said they were looking for.

In November 2017, I queried 109 literary agents. It took a full two weeks of working 10-hour days (14 days total) to query that many agents. I made sure to finish by November 30, which is when National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) ends. A lot of NaNoWriMo participants start querying agents starting on December 1, and due to the glut of emails this creates, many literary agencies now close to submissions for the month of December.

I followed all of the rules of the business. I had a great query letter, had a story agents said that they wanted, and had a great first ten pages to paste in an email beneath my query letter.

Then came my moment of truth.

The agents couldn’t reject my book fast enough.

The great majority of my rejections arrived within one or two days after sending my query letter — sometimes within just a few hours. Literary agents who stated they were “eagerly seeking diversity” turned down Ninja in a Cornfield faster than I can spit out an f-bomb.

On December 6, 2017, after receiving more than 70 rejection emails in a few weeks, I went for a walk through Target. I had my niece and nephew with me, and I was pushing them both in a shopping cart. We were just out for a stroll to look at Christmas decorations and toys. I happened to walk down the book aisle.

I looked at the book covers.

I paused. I looked again.

And I finally realized what was actually selling. I finally apprehended and accepted what kinds of stories were being picked up and purchased. And I knew why. I knew why because I had read almost all of the books on the shelf. I knew exactly what was printed inside of those pages.

And I realized why all of those rejection emails had hit my inbox so fast.

Within hours of that trip to Target, I started to outline a new book, and the next day, I started to write the first pages. I now have about a third of this novel finished. It’s my seventh manuscript, and it’s a Young Adult/YA fantasy — which is the genre with the strongest sales overall (in the current publishing marketplace), which means it is the genre I have the best chance of being able to sell.

So let me return to where I began this post — with the advice a critique partner gave me a few years ago —

“You just don’t know how to write fantasy, Melissa. Why don’t you write something you actually know about? Like your own life. Why don’t you write about that?”

I don’t think my problem is that I don’t know how to write fantasy. Regarding sentences and scenes, I know “how” to write. I think my problem is what I choose to write about. In my five self-published books, and in the sixth novel I finished last year, all of the stories focus on subjects that are anathema to the marketplace. In book-marketing terms, I am writing abominations. And I don’t just mean because I write about mermaids and vampires. Though that certainly hasn’t helped.

In 2017, I didn’t mess around with toxic story elements. No mermaids, no vampires, and no word counts that went over the publishing limit.

This time, I wrote exactly what the literary agents all said they wanted. And I still ended up with a trainwreck.

So I think I’ve finally come to the real root of my problem, as to why I continually fail to attract a literary agent.

Kinned to the Sea is my examination of real-life child soldiers and human-caused climate change.

Both topics are strongly avoided in the YA fantasy market. Which is to say, both topics are not what the great majority of YA book customers want to read about. Real life, to put it mildly, is pretty goddamn grim. YA stories typically re-frame the darkness of real life into far more palatable terms. Sometimes these stories ignore reality altogether, but they most often just favor the stylized creation of hero’s journeys, savior tales, the triumph of justice, redemption, and happy endings. They soften real life with moral rewards for the heroes and “just deserts” for the villains — which is a far different experience from watching the nightly news.

That is just the beginning, however, of what separates bestselling YA from a tale of real life. And as far as my work is concerned, my stories don’t fit. Especially not Kinned to the Sea.

Books are one of the hardest things to sell to begin with, and literary agents can only keep their jobs if they pay close attention to what people want.

And by “people” I mean bookstore shoppers. Folks who choose to spend money on brand new books.

Of all the things a majority of these book-buying readers want most from a book, I will share a brief list.

In order of importance, here is what I believe *most* YA book customers want:

  1. To see themselves in the story (in as many of the characters as possible).
  2. Escapism. (readers crave “feelings and fun”)
  3. Confirmation bias. (**and herein lies my biggest problem**)

As I have been talking about my growing awareness of the book market with friends, I’ve found that defining the term “confirmation bias” is often useful.

Here is the definition from Wikipedia:

Confirmation bias, also called confirmatory bias or myside bias, is the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms one’s preexisting beliefs or hypotheses. It is a type of cognitive bias and a systematic error of inductive reasoning. People display this bias when they gather or remember information selectively, or when they interpret it in a biased way. The effect is stronger for emotionally charged issues and for deeply entrenched beliefs.”

Confirmation bias is one of the biggest parts of identity and behavior. A reader’s confirmation bias has a direct impact on how they see themselves as well as the world around them, and this worldview then shapes what they consider escapism, or “feelings and fun.”

Years ago, somewhere around June 20, 2009, author Pamela Painter gave me some important writing advice. I’m unsure if this was an original quote, or if she was citing the work of another instructor, but I wrote it down and have always remembered it, to the point that I quote it a lot —

“You must give the reader to the reader.”

The “you” is the writer, of course. The writer’s job is to “give the reader to the reader.”

And “the reader,” in this case, is not “an every-man” or “an average Joe.” The folks who purchase brand new novels are a small, rather homogeneous slice of the U.S. population. And they want what they want.

I’m not really a part of that market. While I *am* a reader, and I *do* buy brand new books, I am actually part of a tiny, tiny sliver in this piece of the book-buying pie. When I spend money on new books, I am much more likely to purchase literary fiction and nonfiction. I consume YA fiction only when the titles are popular and generate large amounts of buzz.

Except for 2017. In 2017, I devoured book after book of YA fiction. Both fantasy and contemporary YA. I read YA and I read YA and I read YA some more.

That was how I ended up taking that stroll through the Target in December, and being confronted with truth.

Truth is hard. It’s uncomfortable. This particular truth is also quite ugly.

Literary agents don’t really want what they say that they want. And when they do find a “diverse book” that is acceptable for representation, what they really want is a diversity story that upholds all of the reader’s confirmation bias.

My stories have — so far — failed to do that.

Because the reader’s confirmation bias is fundamentally different from mine. I cannot give the reader to the reader if I’m really writing for me. Which is what I have done all along.

But now that I see the problem for what it is, I believe I have found a solution. And I wanted to share the bare bones of what I’ve learned in the past two months in this blog post, so all of my followers would know that Ninja in a Cornfield — unfortunately — has died. The writer-lingo term for a dropped project is “a trunked manuscript.” Author Colum McCann calls these books “dead babies.”

This one is only dead for now, though — not forever. I’m going to rewrite Ninja in a Cornfield. But I have to rewrite the book with all of this confirmation bias in mind, and by the time I lengthen it to make it what I want, it will be too long for a query letter.

But that’s okay. I like self-publishing my work, and I hold everything I write to the same high standards, including this new story I’ve begun. Confirmation bias be damned.

Personally, I have always turned to books for the same reason Franz Kafka needed certain kinds of words —

“I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound or stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow to the head, what are we reading for? We need books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. That is my belief.”

I read those words, and they resonate all through my body. Kafka’s truth brings tears to my eyes, makes my heart pound with joy, makes me hold up my fists in the air and shout, “Yes!! Yes!! Yes!!”

I want the axe in my books, and I want to be broken open. I want grief and disaster. I want an author who knows I exist, an author who will kill me and resurrect me in order to teach me something new.

But a blow to the head is the opposite of confirmation bias. What drove Kafka to read, and what drives the bulk of the book-buying market to read, are two very different things.

As a writer, I have written six novels that have gone nowhere. First, I tried and failed, five times over, and then I tried better and failed better with my sixth book. My failures have grown into a spectacular pile of abysmal worthlessness in the face of the market.

I have no more mortgage money left to keep my mother’s house out of foreclosure. But I paid the January 1st bill with my last savings. And my seventh manuscript is outlined and streamlined, with more than a hundred pages complete.

I have always written with urgency. Now, more than ever.

I would have had to give up this year, if I hadn’t finally figured out why everything I write is always so wrong.

Maybe I should have given up. Maybe I will always be wrong. I keep going further and further into debt for a career that is taking me nowhere. This path I am on is profoundly unwise and ridiculous. I feel like an utter fool.

But hope springs eternal, even when all I do is just fail.

This is probably all Franz Kafka’s fault. Of course. I blame him.

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4 Responses to No One to Blame But Myself… and Maybe Franz Kafka

  1. Leslie says:

    Never give up! And though I know how important it is to make money to pay the bills, please keep yourself in your writing! I am reading Every Day right now (movie based on it coming out soon) and I keep thinking “Oh, this makes me want to read Ninja in a Cornfield again!” One day the world will see what ana amazing writer you are—and they won’t be able to get enough of you! I pray that day comes soon. xoxo

    Like

  2. Adriana says:

    You give up–I come hunt you down, bungee cord you to your chair and tape your hands to your keyboard. There you will remain until you produce. It will not be a pleasant scene. I will not enjoy doing it. So, you best just keep plugging away, my friend!

    Like

  3. Pam says:

    Thinking

    Like

  4. wayne says:

    Do NOT give up! I loved Mark of the Pteren so much. I should be down there in March w Gage he needs to see and talk w you. Hes going through a lot of issues w drugs and homeschooling now.

    Like

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