Today we're gonna go back in time, in order to give all you writers and wannabe-writers a taste of a very stressful period in a novelist's life: being "on submission." This is the period of time just after your agent takes your finished novel and submits it to the publishing world, and the writer has to sit back and wait. Like sending a child out into the world...and praying the little tyke doesn't get his ass kicked and come back bloodied and beaten. This is also the time during which your inner cynic becomes your worst enemy, and negativity can quickly overwhelm you. I wrote this post two days after THE PROTECTORS went on submission, and it's an example of how I was able to claw together a few tiny scraps of Zen and not be crushed by the impending threat of rejection.
February 2nd, 2013
I’ve always loved baseball.
Had an insatiable desire to play as a kid. I’d spend hours, day after summer day, searching the neighborhood for enough friends for a pick-up game. Slept with my glove under my pillow, a ball wedged in the mitt to help shape the pocket. Scavenged every spare dime, nickel, and penny, only to deposit said treasure in the eager hands of a Seven-Eleven cashier, in exchange for a pack of Topps baseball cards. Even ate the world’s absolute worst-tasting gum that came in each pack, because well, y’know…free gum.
As I got older though, opportunities to actually play the game came less frequently. Sadly, my enthusiasm for baseball did not equate to the physical gifts necessary to play it well. By the age of 12, I accepted a cruel truth: my time had passed.
Luckily, my 12-year-old self was wrong about baseball. Probably a few other things as well, like girls, the necessity of good personal hygiene, and the value of learning to dance—although I digress. Years later, I moved into a house that, coincidentally, was less than two miles from a batting cage. Going to the cage and taking out my job/personal frustrations on 85 mile-per-hour fastballs became a weekly tradition, and I rediscovered the thrill of hitting a baseball. I don’t mean just making contact and fouling it off…I’m talking about really turning on one and putting some juice into it.
One day, the husband of a good friend of mine came along to hit with me. At the time, he played in a men’s baseball league (ages 38+) and had played semi-pro ball when he was younger. This meant he possessed ability faaaaar more advanced than any meager baseball skill I brought to the table. Still, with the pitching machine throwing 90+ MPH that day (serious fastballs), I hit more than my fair share of line drives, to the point where he was moderately impressed.
“Hey, we’re gonna be short one guy next week and could use somebody,” he told me after we finished. “If you’re interested.”
Now, what he really meant by those words was something along the lines of “You don’t completely suck,” or “We’d be better off with you in right field than a scarecrow with a cap.” What I heard though, was:
“You get to play baseball.”
Not that this should come as a shock, but my rekindled love affair with the game—while thrilling—was ultimately brutal. And brief. My most common sin was the strikeout, and guys that strike out in bunches are not exactly welcomed back to the dugout with open arms. It’s not that my years of practice in the batting cage didn’t pay off: from my very first at-bat, I made contact with even the hardest fastball. The problem was—when a pitcher sees you hit the fastest thing he throws, he doesn’t just give you more chances to pummel his hard stuff. Instead, he throws what no 12-year-old ever experiences, and what no pitching machine can simulate.
The ball that looks like it’s slowly spinning right at your face, only to curl back down into the strike zone. The bat never leaves your shoulder and you stare at the umpire when he yells “STEEEEERIKE,” thinking “Holy crap, that was a strike?” Sadly, because you’re looking at the umpire, you never notice the scariest smile in all of sports: the one on the pitcher’s smug face. Because when you look like a slack-jawed yokel the first time a pitcher throws you a curve, guess what?
"Oh, you're MINE now."
You’ll never see another fastball again. Curve, curve, curve…you’re out…back to the bench, loser. Rinse and repeat.
After striking out three times in my first game, I expressed frustration to my friend’s husband. “Dammit! Man, I don’t suck this bad. I can KILL fastballs.”
He smiled like he’d heard that sentence a thousand times. “Everybody at this level can hit a fastball,” he said. “What makes you a good hitter is being able to handle the curve. Once you prove you can hit it, pitchers can’t throw you the same pitch every time—they’ll have to mix it up. Then you’ll get a juicy fastball once in a while.”
Not many juicy fastballs came my way after that. I played the rest of the year, got a few hits (off fastballs and one knuckleball that didn’t knuckle), endured a lot of strikeouts, then walked away.
Couldn’t hit the damn curve.
So, why is all this coming out years later? What makes a guy remember one of the more frustrating parts of his rapidly dwindling youth? Lemme tell ya.
Now, I’m toiling away at the second-coolest profession in the world: writing. Okay, maybe third. Astronaut and baseball player are probably tied for first. I’m perilously close to getting the novel published, to the point where I’ve conquered one of the toughest problems—I found an agent who believes in the book as much as I do, and she’s willing to put considerable time and personal expense into getting it sold to a publisher.
At the same time, I’m learning all kinds of demoralizing statistics about the publishing world. The abbreviated version is—an agent sifts through thousands of potential novels per year, so when one finally tells you “I love this and I’d like to represent it,” you feel like you’ve won the lottery—you’ve beaten huge odds stacked against you. Then you learn that big publishers get thousands of AGENTED submissions each year, and accept only a handful. These stats put a different spin on the whole “getting an agent is like winning the lottery” thing. A more accurate analogy would be: getting an agent is like winning the lottery, and your big prize is—you get a ticket to ANOTHER lottery.
Funny, right? A kick-you-in-the-balls kind of funny.
If that’s not bad enough, consider the conversation I had today with a fellow writer who, like me, is “on submission”, waiting to see how his book is received by his dream list of publishers. I brought up the lottery-to-win-another-lottery analogy (I’m really proud of that one), and he laughed. But after a strategic pause, he said:
“Y’know, it’s actually worse than that.”
“What do you mean?” I said.
“Well, winning the first lottery (finding an agent)—think about who we were competing against. Agents get manuscripts from every nutjob in the world who wants to be a writer. Guys with tinfoil hats writing conspiracy stories. Bored housewives scribbling mommy porn. Those people send in crap that can’t sustain a plot, doesn’t have structure…it’s simply that—crap. But at the submission-to-publisher level, when every novel they receive has already been judged, critiqued, and polished by an agent…” I shuddered because I knew what was coming.
“…all the manuscripts have solid plots, good characters, and make sense,” he said.
What I heard was: Everybody at this level can hit a fastball.
The difference between having potential and delivering on it is simple: are you better than the competition? Can you deliver ideas that are unique? Can you tell a story in an original way that engages and thrills? Can you do more than simply tell a story effectively? That’s the difference.
That’s hitting a curve.
The more I think about it, the more I believe. I’m not worried as much as I was before. I’m not gonna spend the next few months doubting myself or giving in to pessimism and frustration. Time to swing for the fences, baby.
I might not be able to touch the curve with a baseball bat, but I can damn well crush that f#$%r with a keyboard.