In the current issue of Poets and Writers. Michael Bourne offers an inventory of his own writing effort and its incumbent frustrations. In “Why We Write: Failure is an Option,” he asks a question I’ve long sought to answer: why do writers write when it can be such unsatisfying work? His answer: “I keep writing fiction because it isn’t easy, because it is the only discipline I care about that I will never truly master, no matter how long I work at it.”
Bourne speaks to the “good enough” novels — those good enough to publish, but which lack a clear commercial potential. Bourne writes, “Which books…get published has as much to do with luck, timing, and the individual editor’s taste as it does with literary merit.” Basically, for most novel writers, the effort to be published is a crap shoot.
I finished my novel last month, after finishing it a year earlier and then revising it substantially. I’m satisfied that I wrote a readable book in roughly three years. I know a bit more about novel writing, but I’m not sure I’m a novelist. It’s lonely work. At the end of the whole project, I know, as Bourne suggests, that the odds of being published are slim.
I’m now sending it to agents. My queries will be scanned in 5 seconds, and if I pass that test, the 5-page sample will be scanned in another 15 seconds. That’s where the hook is set or not. Pitches and queries belong to the realm of hope, a cousin to the purchase of lottery tickets. The odds against winning are great, but you won’t win if you don’t try.
Maybe I’m engaged by Bourne’s cold realism. In 2012 he offered an inside perspective on the challenges facing agents. “A Right Fit”: Navigating the World of Literary Agents. Maybe the question we should be answering isn’t why do we write, but why are we so insistent on being read?