History Repeats, Again!

History Repeats, Again!
History Repeats, Again!

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Writer's (Heroic) Journey

The flash and crush of inspiration hits you and you hit back. You try to ignore the gnawing sense that you’ve got a unique idea, something brilliant churning inside you.  You find no lack of reasons to discourage yourself, most of them rational. For once, that negative voice inside your head is making good sense.

But the inspiration is larger than life, certainly larger than yours. When you have something this good, aren’t you obliged to share it?

The protagonist takes on a life of her own. She’s Pauline Personne, a detail-obsessed physicist who uses the smoke from her filterless Gaulois cigarettes to test for leaks along the 17 miles of Large Hadron Collider tunnels under Geneva.

Your novel, "French Stickler," will be the heroic tale of Pauline’s battles against sexism, bureaucracy, and Europe’s shifting attitudes towards smoking. With such a great title, the first chapter almost writes itself. Like any other baby, this one should take about nine months to pop out, right?

Good thing you’re recently single. A relationship would be a major distraction right now.  

You slog forward. You slog backwards. You start smoking Gaulois like Pauline.

You confide in your favorite Barista. Turns out, she's writing a novel, too. The Barista becomes your muse. You order increasingly complex coffee drinks so you can spend more time with her.

It’s a good thing you didn’t mention this to anyone because 100 pages into this nightmare, you realize that you have no roadmap, no story, and no life. Perhaps a brief hiatus for, say, the rest of your life, will provide some much-needed perspective.

You rediscover network television and find it good.  

Sleep becomes impossible. Even the latest issue of “Writer’s Digest” can’t cure your insomnia.

Confirming that you are utterly alone in the universe, your muse/Barista quits to "spend more time on her novel." The café manager mentions that a lot of cash went missing right before she disappeared.

You write with newfound fury.  The novel is nowhere near complete but you spend big bucks to attend a Writer's Conference where you pitch to a pale, tattooed, black-clad literary agent with movie industry connections. She’s willing to look at the first fifty pages, but only if you change your protagonist into a vampire.

Everyone at the conference agrees that vampires are hot and will be for the next few years. Vampire Lit isn’t a fad, it’s a new genre.

It could work. Your heroic scientist could also be a vampire. On the other hand, it’s more likely that the jet-lagged literary agent who puts the Goth in Gotham is the real vampire.

You take a vow to be true to thine own self. This is your book, your story, and there are no damned vampires except for all the real ones who are so thirsty to drain your creative juices.

With days to spare before the postal rates change, you power through the first draft and send inquiries to every agency in Manhattan. Within a week, half of your 1000 personalized query letters to literary agents are returned with “No Address Found.”   The other half come back with “Insufficient Postage.”

The new Barista, also working on a novel, tells you that the book industry is in turmoil. Agents are waiting to see how e-Books and unemployment benefits play out. Publishers are only interested in vertically integrated properties with movie tie-ins, video game hooks, and action figure potential.  

Determined to weather the storm and hone your craft, you join a critique group and grind to a halt. At a rate of one chapter every two weeks, it will take two years for them to critique your book. At a rate of five hurtful critiques per hour, it will take you 30 minutes before you kill these know-it-alls.

While the group rips apart “French Stickler,” you envision your second novel. It's about an aspiring writer who murders his critique group and bakes their loose chapters and minced body parts into biscotti for book store cafés.

In a quest for authentic dialogue, you start actually listening to your critique group. Maybe they're right about your bad punctuation, point of view shifts, and long-winded tangents. Perhaps that long, dreamy sequence about a subatomic particle racing around the Hadron Collider really doesn't move the story forward. After months of neglect, you return to “French Stickler” with fresh perspective and fewer comma splices.

In a manic push, you complete the second draft. Bills pile up. The phone company disconnects the land-line you forgot you owned. The Starbucks manager threatens to charge you for bandwidth and table time.

Rather than waste another 1000 stamps, you decide to self-publish “French Stickler” as an e-Book.   It turns out to be so simple anyone can do it, and they do. But your story will stand out. Yours is different. Yours is the product of the pain and inspiration that comes from years spent alone at  Starbucks.

There’s just one minor issue: Your literary bits can’t light up a million Kindles until Amazon removes the incorrect “Adult Content” label.

You send emails. You make phone calls. You argue with Amazon’s offshore service rep that “French Stickler” isn’t porn. It’s about a frumpy physicist who saves the world with a lit cigarette. It’s about idealism versus incompetence, individuals versus institutions, man against the machine. But Amazon turns out to be a giant computer program that doesn’t understand the subtext of your story or the irony in your title.

So “French Stickler” becomes “The Woman who Saved the World” and the long march is over. You’re in print, sort of. You feel like you've just given birth to an elephant after a 4-year gestation. Finally, you can collect royalties and return to the real world.

But the e-Book doesn’t sell itself. It’s currently ranked dead last in the Kindle store. Your earnings summary shows “one sold, two returned” so now you owe Amazon money.

Your new Barista says you need a marketing strategy. He says you need a “platform.” You need a website, a blog, a fan page that feeds your tweets. He says you should start a YouTube channel on your Facebook page.

He also tells you that the only people buying Kindles are the legions of soon-to-be-unemployed Manhattan literary agents with long commutes from New Jersey. They think the Kindle will be bigger than vampires.  


  1. Ok Ok that's a damn good 1st post... Funny, well written, proper punctuation and all... but lets see your 2cd ;)

  2. Congrats on your blog! Good post -- enjoyable and funny, but oh so true.

  3. How much coffee do you swill each day? And how many blogs do you get to the gallon?

  4. I think the baristas are vampires. Very nice first blog.

  5. Welcome to the blogging world. An entertaining and ironically insightful first post.

  6. I'm a believer. Leaving now to buy cigs and a collider.

  7. Cool. Looking forward to following your blog and tweets. :)

  8. Ronnie, as a fellow writer, I felt your shpilkis throughout this entire piece. Thanks for the tickles too!

  9. If literary prowess were white powder, your first post would be up Lindsay Lohan's nose.

    Unlike my steak, this will not be rubbed with garlic, and it IS well done!