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Releasing My Thirsty Darling

Good news! I have accepted the death of my most cherished lifelong career dream, and that means I am ready to release my debut novel exactly the way I want to: full of blood and other juices, rich historical detail about places you've never visited in another book, a large cast of complex characters entangled in complicated relationships, historical authenticity beefed up with a healthy disregard for biased conventions, and an all-absorbing plot that moves at its most effective pace. Leirah and the Wild Man glides forth destined for a fate of cult classic, not bestseller. Let's... push... things... forward. (Shout out to nostalgic muse Mike Skinner of The Streets and his legendarily underrated Original Pirate Material.) Here she comes, my thirsty darling, like the Lady of Shalott floating off to her glorious doom after a fever-hot vision of Lancelot torched her will to stay locked up and safe in her tower. She won't live happily ever after, but she'll look flawless as she completes her mission.

John William Waterhouse

I have embarked upon the book design phase for Leirah and the Wild Man, my dark tale of twin-souled barbarian foundlings who come of age among criminals and outcasts in the 11th century between the Black Forest and the Black Sea. Like my main characters, I have run out of the time I'm willing to invest in doing things the traditional way and hoping that those with power reward me for toeing the line. I have encountered enough dead ends and deal-breakers to arrive at the certainty that I have one of life's rare big, binary choices to make between creative fulfillment and a slim-odds bid for sellout career success. I've decided which is more important to me. I've known this for a long time, but I had to go through a sad princess process of grieving for a dream I had invested a lot of emotional energy into, that I could have it all: creative freedom, a high standard of artistic vision, and commercial success at selling my work through a traditional publisher. 

A select few authors can have all of that, because their authentic creations and finest work happen to fit within the ever-narrowing limits of what traditional publishers are buying as well as what readers are buying. But I am not one of those authors. My happy place since childhood is a bunker of books the size of bricks, and right now in global supply chains there's a shortage of paper and time and f*$%s and everything else. I no longer believe that I can publish a long book traditionally without first getting a foot in the door with short, simple books that follow rigid formulas, which I am not interested in trying to write or sell. The harder I try to find ways around the slush pile or bridge the gap between what I want to publish and what publishers are buying, the more the old dream recedes. At this point, letting it go feels exhilarating because I can finally accept that there is no other choice for me to make. I have nothing to lose. I will not try to force my book to lose any more weight to fit an industry standard, nor will I keep it hidden away.

Years ago, my original dream felt within reach. The first fat, chewy novel I queried attracted the interest of a few important literary agents, one among the most powerful in the world. And all of my positive responses resulted from what all other writers I asked, and I, could agree was my worst query letter--unclear regarding plot and character, rambling about theme and goals, entirely lacking in biographical details of interest, etc. 

After a lengthy correspondence and extensive rewrite and resubmit, Super Agent decided to pass due to "not connecting with the narrative voice," and so did the rest, without giving reasons. I felt bolstered by the early and encouraging attention, though, and knew my query letter was bad, so I worked hard to improve it. Readers of both my rewritten novel manuscript and my new query letter agreed that both documents were much better than before, so I charged ahead on another round of queries. This time, I received only nibbles with zero requests for a full.

After a while, I grew confident that I could write a better novel than the one I was querying--one with a fabulous narrative voice!--at least, a novel with a more confident voice, that would make me prouder to release as a debut. My first fully completed novel is fun and juicy but also kind of silly, and I didn't want to write myself into a corner. I would release a more artful work first and keep the other book on my shelf as a dessert to offer readers of my new potential debut, which would be a more challenging and courageous adventure tale.

I spent the next couple of years in a blaze of intense, unrelenting research using my statewide inter-library loan system to unearth moldy old books from the basement catalogues of churches and dusty library stacks not touched within my lifetime, translation software to help me read the latest archaeological, sociological, and literary scholarly texts from various other nations, and even spending hundreds of dollars on academic texts not available to the public for free. Whenever I found an amazing fact, I tried to corroborate it with at least two independent sources before including it in my novel. I spent days reading about topics that would only appear in one or two sentences in my novel, if at all. I wanted to create a richly informed sense of setting in my head and heart and soul to train my instincts about what might lie at the intersections of possible and interesting, within the boundaries of authenticity. Much of the time, two or three or more sources disagreed about a single "fact"--sometimes in conversation with one another and sometimes without apparent awareness of conflicting opinions. In those cases, I drilled down frantically in all directions until one opinion stood out to me as most probable and I could read between lines of culture, nationality, bias, blind spot, broader historical context, and modern social influence to form my own informed but largely intuitive opinion on which professional opinions were most likely wrong and why.

I gobbled up books and took notes during my daughter's swim and karate classes, in the morning and at night, in pretty much every moment of my spare time, sometimes neglecting the rest of my life in unsustainable ways. But I managed to research and write the novel of my dreams, an ambitious work that set my mind and heart and soul on fire. When I sat down to write the narrative among the sliding piles of scrawled-upon and sticky-noted papers around me, the analytical brains that I had burned at both ends during my research hours seemed to fizzle out completely, and I felt as though an outside force possessed my hands and took over. I experienced that transcendent flow state that I had heard other (famous) authors describe in the media and at conferences, and I experienced it often and for lengthy stretches of time. I wrote things I didn't expect to see on the screen in front of me, at a feverish pace, shocking myself with the content of my writing and the force with which it poured out of me. 

And yet, not a word of it was too precious to delete. It was the whole work that was precious to me, the integrity of it, the fullness of its potential. I had no problem ripping it apart and stitching it back together differently, over and over again, tirelessly, in pursuit of excellence. Characters' names changed over and over. Their ages changed. Years and timelines changed. At the line editing stage, I removed 20,000 unnecessary words without changing the plot, in less than a week.

Still, my book was long--not as long as the favorite books of my youth, coming-of-age or multi-generational epics that I could get lost in again and again, but longish, like a middling Harry Potter volume, not even as long as many a Diana Gabaldon offering. The length of my novel was carefully intentional; I prefer a long book myself, something with weight and intertwined, twisty plot and psychologically complex character development and rich setting and pounding waves of misadventure and redemption, but I also knew that I was not Donna Tartt and could not dare to query a novel with twice the expected word count for an unknown writer's debut. So I wrote my big story and pared it down as lean and mean as I could. I was incredibly proud of the result and confident that it would speak for itself to someone out there, even though it still didn't fit through the standard entry door, clocking in over 160,000 words.

I was thrilled to see a multitude of historical literary agents claiming to want the exact kind of story I had just written, in detail! A couple of literary news writers even threw out predictions that long, dark historical thrillers would be an up-and-coming trend! (Cue hysterical laughter.)

First, I turned to my writing group of women who had met monthly for about seven years to critique and support each other's novels. Around the time I started writing Leirah and the Wild Man, we had all attended one of our annual writing conferences and come away with the idea that we should wait until we had written a whole novel draft and then share it with each other, so we didn't get stuck on reworking the same chapter or paragraph until the end of time. So all the while I worked on Leirah, I didn't share anything in the group but instead supported my team by offering critiques of their work and query letters, discussing general topics about writing, and helping to promote the finished novels of those who decided to self-publish. Meanwhile, I couldn't wait to share Leirah with them, because they had all been extremely helpful at critiquing chapters of my previous novel, breaking down all the trouble spots I couldn't quite figure out on my own, spotting typos and other errors that had hidden in my blind spots, and offering ideas that helped me get unstuck when I needed a boost.

Alas, my hyper-focus on Leirah had enabled me to ignore quite a few red flags that the group, and some of its members personally, were not holding it together. From the start, some of us had been taking rides on the struggle bus from time to time, as all humans do. But our monthly meetings had always been a healthy touchstone for all of us, and any the drama going on at the periphery somehow didn't poison our group dynamic. We were a good team of imperfect yet lovable people, rooting for each other and learning from each other and having fun along the way. I knew all along that nothing lasts forever and that our group had managed to chug along for an exceptionally long time, all things considered. But when it ended the way it ended, it still gave me whiplash.

What blindsided me was that it ended up being petty jealousies and loss of trust that tore our group apart. As soon as anything positive or hopeful started happening for anyone, the backstabbing knives came out, concealed beneath public shows of support. One of our most successful members received a huge backlash of meltdowns from her alleged closest loved ones and never recovered, instead using her compounding illnesses as an excuse to no longer work toward our shared dreams or contribute to our personal friendship either. Every way I tried to help seemed to make it worse until my only option left was to give up and drift away from her and the whole writing community, which is deeply entangled with people I can no longer trust or respect.

It was a devastating loss, creatively and socially, that I experienced as grief, as if the friend I thought I knew, the dreams we had shared together, and the whole community I thought we were building together, had died in an unexpected accident. The trauma and sadness of all this loss sucked out all my joy in writing for a long while. It will never be fun for me again the way it used to be, though I am trying to seek new kinds of meaning in writing, so that I don't get dragged down into that negativity spiral for good.

Needless to say, nobody in the writing group ended up reading the completed novel that I had spent the past two years pouring myself into. One person offered to read, but only the first few chapters, because she had intelligently decided to begin a whole new career path in an important field that left her with less time to commit to creative writing.

It took me some time to grieve and to push through my new fears and anxieties, which still cause me literal headaches and stomachaches, but I did make some attempts to find different writing communities. Now I just lurk and occasionally participate in online forums, where I have learned a lot of good information and encountered some inspiring authors, but I do miss the camaraderie of an in-person group and the feeling, though perhaps delusional, that others were invested in my achievements. All of the local creative writing groups I have discovered in my area are either drop-in public sharing circles without a useful feedback structure, or they are centered around strictly formulaic genre fiction, fanfic, Christian fiction, Chicken Soup for the Soul type material, and memoir.

I do have cool, smart, interesting friends with good hearts who appreciate a finely crafted, meaty novel. They aren't novelists, and most of them don't live in my time zone these days, but what does that matter now? A book draft is a thing that can be emailed, and a beta reader does not have to be a writer, only a fiction fan, so after drying my tears and stitching up the new slashes in my heart, I reached out to my larger network of friends and acquaintances to seek beta readers who simply enjoy the genres of historical and literary fiction. Although the initial responses to my request were overwhelmingly positive and numerous, of course most of them didn't come through, because that's how amateur beta readers work! Some friends and colleagues ultimately declined to read for practical reasons--lack of time during a big career move or family event, or an honest inability to give meaningful feedback about my genre or setting. Others kindly offered to read but flaked out and never even opened the document, which smarted more than I thought it would.

Fortunately, I have a fantastic husband who turned out to be my most helpful reader of all, once I finally let him read my work for the first time, and a couple more readers came back to me with incredibly astute observations, trustworthy feedback both positive and negative, and actionable advice. They refilled my cup of gratitude to the brim and fueled me up for another round of edits. Thank you, loves! 

When I was finally ready to query Leirah... the bottom fell out of the publishing industry. 

That sweet list of agents I had curated, who wanted to see exactly the kind of thing I had written? Gone like a cloud on a windy day. Doors of query acceptance slammed shut all over the place, some accompanied by detailed mental breakdowns via Twitter. Whole agencies imploded over horrifying racism and sexism scandals. Wish lists were stripped down or eliminated. Publishing houses tightened around short and specific lists of authors and genre specifications.

But not wanting to give up on my cherished work, I knuckled down to write the Greatest Query Letter of My Life, as confirmed by the few people left to me whom I could trust in both professional opinion and motivation. I sent it out to every agent in the entire world, as far as I can tell, who sells historical fiction of the kind I had written and received

ZERO REPLIES

except for a slew of automatic form rejections that arrived too quickly for my query to have been read by a human being.

Undaunted, I took a short breather, told myself it was a blip in the industry that I simply needed to wait out, lathered, rinsed, and repeated this degrading cycle of auto-rejection.

Now, I don't want to give up too soon, but I also don't want to be foolish. I asked myself, what is the least lazy or self-defeating next step? I don't want an excuse to complain about how the world has failed me. I want to finish what I started and give my novel its best chance for entering the hearts of any readers in the world who will enjoy it, no matter what is going on outside of my control in the industry.

There is much to be said for persistence in writing and the arts in general, but true persistence, as I understand it, doesn't mean continuing to beat your head against the same wall that consistently gets harder, thicker, and higher the more you crack at it. To me, that seems more like a commitment to failure and a reliable narrative of personal victimhood. Yuck. What I want more than my novel's material success is the certainty within myself that I did everything I could do to give it the best chance of reaching readers who want it. That is the true core of my desire. Sure, I would like money and recognition. But if I have to choose between a cultural contribution that makes me proud and material rewards, I strongly prefer the former. 

Do I have to make that binary choice? I don't know. Maybe. I've followed the journeys of many authors, both locally and virtually, over the years, authors who lived interesting lives and then started writing novels, some authors who have committed many years to the academic track, and nobody's career trajectory is making my mouth water. Some of them are fine, and some of them are happy with theirs. But I don't know anyone who has earned material success (defined as a profit that at least paid them reasonably for their time) with a bold and soulful work of ambitious depth and complexity. I have seen compromises go both ways and authors feel all sorts of ways about it. But nobody has it all, nobody I know anyway.

So I have decided to claim the satisfaction of at least doing it my way and learning how to self-publish, letting go of any expectation that it will earn me a living. Truly, it feels good to free myself of unreasonable expectations that will nearly guarantee future disappointments and frustrations over what can be a rewarding artistic expression, whether or not it "succeeds" by an economic metric.

Like stone cold genius Kurt Vonnegut famously said--and yes, he was successful, but he knew he'd won the literary lottery, because most stone cold geniuses get nowhere in this business, not during their lifetimes if ever--

...go into the arts. I’m not kidding. The arts are not a way to make a living. They are a very human way of making life more bearable. Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possibly can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something.

So I have given myself permission to release my thirsty darling into the world, as beautiful and ill-equipped for long-term survival as the Lady of Shalott. If it rots on a virtual shelf forever like a maiden wasting her youth in a tower, I'll never forgive myself. I have decided that I can't live with the choice to give up on my work or hoard it inside of a dream that has hardened into a tragic delusion, but I will be able to get over the loss of letting it go and watching it fail. At least it will be done and over, and I will enjoy the possibility that it isn't entirely my fault that no one read it. And truly, if one single person reads it and it changes their life for the better, I will treasure that victory in my heart until my dying breath.

It won't have been a waste of my time to write and publish this book, in any case. My desire to write this novel came upon me with the same kind of force as my desire to have a child. No matter how senseless or irrational a desire it might have been, it would have haunted me to the end of my days if I had not gone through with it. And like having a child, there is never any economic result guaranteed from the venture. The outcome is wildly unpredictable, not only financially but in every single way. Both my child and my novel came from me and through me, and they are intrinsically linked to me, but they are not me and not even mine. Yes, the copyright on the book is mine, legally, literally, but the life of the book in the hands, hearts, imaginations, analyses, and conversations of readers is not mine to control. Like a parent, I can only nurture and support it and do all I can to maximize its chances for a positive relationship to the wider world without stifling its spirit and then hope for the best and accept whatever happens.

The Lady of Shalott's mythic freedom was brief. She did not dress for success. Her skirts were as thirsty as Ophelia's. But what a ride!

All that said, I have acquired ISBN numbers for both a print and ebook version of Leirah, and I am designing the pages now, decorating the little craft that will carry its message blindly through unfamiliar towns.

The web was woven curiously,
The charm is broken utterly,
Draw near and fear not,—this is I...

 

Jean Michelle Miernik is the author of Leirah and the Wild Man: A Tale of Obsession and Survival at the Edges of the Byzantine World.

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