I remember some years ago, sitting in a Las Vegas writing critique group, how we would be visited by non-member “guests” who would usually breeze in, demand to read their project to the group for feedback, and after hijacking the session, disappear forever. Anyhow, this fella came in one evening while we were going over the minutes of our last meeting and impatiently demanded we get going on critiquing rather than going over club business. He told everyone, in his strong Brooklyn-style accent, that he had this “great” novel he was working on that was certainly going to be one of the most profound literary works ever conceived. It certainly would change our lives that very night once we read it.
Well the club president was a liberal administrator, so she diplomatically took the course in placating this bellowing buffoon, I suppose to get through his work and get rid of him altogether. So we allowed him to read this great novel’s chapter to us for critique – and you know he wasn’t looking for a critique, he just wanted to show off how wonderful he was – holding in our chagrin. The story, if I recall, was a typical macho revenge fantasy played out in the trite theme of Viet Nam veterans taking back the city from lowlife street thugs. We’ve seen the countless movies. The plot, contrived, the writing, exceptionally poor, but this guff was certain it was the greatest thing put to paper. When it came my turn to give the “awe” I held for this guy’s work, I asked him simply, “What made you decide to write a novel?” His response was quick: “Well, I’m sick of working 12-14 hour days as a construction worker and want to make some easy money.” Writing was obviously the sport of freeloaders, according to him.
The other day, before posting this, some wannabe writer came reflected that he was getting out of the construction career he was in, write a novel, and post it to Amazon/Kindle. Time to make easy money. When the first guy had mentioned his motivation, we all guffawed, knowing how hard it was to conceive, write, gain representation, and sell the novel. It takes years to hone the craft. Now, I wonder if this somewhat illiterate buffoon I met the other day is actually able to fulfill this wish. Mass publication to the masses seems to work. Why hone the work? Why grow a soul?
When I came to considering writing the third novel during my apprenticeship in the Art of Literature, I was once again redefining my genre and scope. I was 17 and on the road away from parental authority after having “ran away” to Phoenix, Arizona for the hot, blistering summer of ’83. I lived in a one-bedroom roach motel room off Cave Creek Road with a roommate who paid the lion’s share of the weekly rent while I coveted the lumpy, smelly, beat-up couch out front. That couch, as bad as it was, seemed to attract many young girls, by-the-way, to share some interesting and perilous “oh-God-I-Hope-I-Don’t-Get-Her-Pregnant” nights. I was usually up at 4am every weekday morning, hitchhiking 25 miles to work as a plant-waterer at a nursery. I was burned crisp as the dark leather of most Arizonians’ saddlebags. Apart from my nuclear-blue eyes (the same eyes I bestow upon Michael Roadrunner, the young rock star character in my Frost on the Desert series), no one could tell I was, in fact, a white kid.
I was laboring on a new novel, you see, despite the harrowing and somewhat perilous dayjob so far away from my family. It was a Tolkien-inspired work concerning a magic ring, a dark lord, and a wise elderly wizard … umm … I don’t claim to have been utterly original in some of my earlier pieces. *cough* I came to pencil that work in college-ruled notebooks because, in 1983, there were few computers and far less word processing programs to go around. After pulling up stakes and heading out for home, I achieved about 200 pages in it (maybe some 50,000 words or so) and though unfinished, submitted the proposal to Ballantine Books. The standard form rejection came, of course, but with the hastily-typed note: “You have a good style and are definitely a cut above most over-the-transom proposals we receive, but the Tolkien Estate would have a conniption about all your borrowed names from the Middle Earth books. Good luck, and submit something more original – with your own names – to us.”
I read between the lines, rather than be disappointed with the overall rejection. They liked my style? They liked my style! However, the novel languished and my professional writing ambition stalled, to be replaced by hours and hours of Dungeons & Dragons. I was a Dungeonmaster, you know. I found a fantasy outlet to create worlds and stories and had a group of devoted players – followers – who were enthralled with my creation. Instead of writing a fantasy novel at the time to augment my AD&D years, I decided to create a world-building history along the lines of JRR Tolkien’s The Silmarillion. To this day I wish I still owned it; even though unoriginal in names and places and plots (all Tolkien to a great degree), it was an epic work.
So, yeah, an outlet writing was. An escape. The practical side to me fought hard to find a career, and writing was still not a part of it. I dropped out of high school, only to go back and get my GED. I hated (and still do) the generalized, one-size fits all curriculum that public education dishes out. It didn’t help I was in the heart of the conservative Bible Belt and the “Honey, that’s just the way God wants it” cop out the teachers gave me when my questions became too challenging for them to answer. I got the GED. I went to school and joined the US Navy.
Still, the apprenticeship lingered, and all of this – all this backstory – was just to illustrate how the artists, whether musician, writer, painter, what-have-you takes the knocks of life, regardless of talent or promise. The true artist must GROW a soul. The main ideal in facing traditional publishing was that it was and IS so hard to achieve success with, and perhaps a folly in itself, the pursuit forces the writer to hone their craft. The goal of getting a self-absorbed and overworked literary agent and/or editor to find that wonderful feeling about one’s novel becomes, in its way, Frodo’s quest to Mount Doom. When it becomes easy for anyone to string a few words together, the soul never is achieved. Technology cuts away the trial and the searching, and makes it all hackneyed. Anyone with the lottery dice roll can now be an “author.”