There’s this one scene in The Matrix that gives me goosebumps every time. It isn’t Neo learning Kung Fu from a compact flash chip. It isn’t the woman in the red dress or the rooftop chase. It’s not even the spectacular lobby scene, which has probably killed countless home theater speaker cones. No, it’s the very short scene where Switch (the woman in white) is about to be unplugged. Once she realizes this, the surety and the finality of it, she shakes her head and mutters: “Not like this. Not like this.”
I get weepy every time I see that scene. It’s not that she’s afraid to die, it’s that she doesn’t want it to be in some chickenshit at-a-distance manner. She wants to go out fighting. She wants to see Fate take her. She wants to be present for her death, not logged in to some lie.
But that’s not what this blog post is about. I want talk about my second-favorite scene in The Matrix (and I knew you’d want to know what my first one was, so I went ahead and answered). Again, it’s not any of the aforementioned ones; it’s the scene where Agent Smith tells Morpheus that humans are a virus, a cancer. It’s when he wipes Morpheus’s sweaty head and complains of the stench of our race. That scene makes me angry. It twists my emotions up. It’s the scene that later allows the climax of the film to satisfyingly unknot those emotions. When Smith is blown to bits by Neo at the end, I pump my fists and yell because of what Smith said to Morpheus.
^^ **Retro-Active Spoiler Alert!** ^^
Why do I bring this up? Well, I read a blog post a while back from a writer named Paul. Paul — like Agent Smith — had found himself in the company of something vile (me and others like me). He was disgusted by our stench. Paul is a writer, you see (and judging by his blog post, a rather decent one). Paul self-published, and he hates himself for it. He regrets it. So he took his book down in order to submit it to agents (he also took his blog down, which is a shame). Here’s an excerpt of that blog post:
I know how much crap is out there. There’s more crap out there in the self-pub world than there is in the bookstores (I know, having worked in one), somewhere on the order of ten thousand to one. And the gap is growing. Do you want to know what I hate most about having self-published? It’s this: I have to stand next to them. Shoulder to shoulder. And now their stink is on me.
Paul’s post got me thinking about a solution. Because, you see, there really is a problem here. There are authors out there who need validation. There are authors want to know if they have what it takes, if they are wasting their time, if they need to put more work in, and they want to hear this from professionals. These writers are willing to give up control of their work in order to have themselves measured. They are willing to limit their print book to a 3-6 month window of availability on dwindling store shelves for a thumbs up or a thumbs down. They are willing to accept 12.5% royalties instead of 70%, all for the pleasure of hearing that they are good enough.
In many ways, traditional publishing has become the new vanity press. Authors used to spend a lot of money for the ego boost of being an “author” and holding their “book.” Now they simply give up a lot of money in order to think of themselves as “real authors” who can hold their “real book.” It’s still ego and money lost. But I understand the urge. I get it. I can empathize with the need to feel good enough (even though I think we’re on the verge of indie being hip in literature the way it is in other arts).
So how can writers like Paul know if they have the right stuff? It’s a serious question. I remember when I wrote my first rough draft; I was dying to know if it was good enough to be put out there. I sent the manuscript to family and friends. I begged people to read it. I would have paid a lot of money to have some expert read it and give me their opinion. And I didn’t have a lot of money, but I remember thinking that I would gladly hand that first manuscript of mine to an agent, along with a $100 bill, and beg them to just give me their opinion.
I hear from readers all the time who are going through this. Readers just like Paul. I get drafts sent to me by aspiring writers. These writers want me to read their work, just a paragraph or a page, and let them know if they have what it takes (like I know). But I’m not a pro. I’m just a guy. But I do have a solution, a pretty ingenious one. You probably think it has to do with sending me $100 bills — and I like where your head’s at — but don’t jump ahead. First, let’s hear more from Paul, so we can really understand this writer’s needs:
Here’s the thing: I can be told I’m not doing the hard work because it’s true. Self-publishing my novel allowed me to bypass the route of my fathers. I’m ashamed for having done it. But because of my shame, the other day I started submitting my manuscript to agents. I will, as I did up till about a year ago, reap the benefits of the winnowing process that traditional publishing affords the fledgling writer. If and when my work gets rejected, I owe it to Ray Bradbury, Theodore Sturgeon, and the rest of my heroes to realize that the reason why it was rejected is because it was not good enough to publish. Sure it was someone’s opinion, but it was an informed opinion. You go look at twenty thousand manuscripts and tell me you can’t tell a good one from a bad one when you’re through. I owe it to every one of my literary fathers to give the rejected piece a second look. I owe it to John W. Campbell for chrissake.
It seems Paul and I share some of the same heroes. I like Paul’s gumption. He goes on to say:
Listen. There’s nothing that scares me more than the notion that someday I may realize that I indeed don’t have what it takes to be a real writer. It’s a fear that all but the most self-deluded of us have. But the damage is surely done when we shut ourselves off and look away from the gauge. Then there’s no hope at all.
I nearly wept when I read this. I feel this every morning when I wake up. I feel it every night as I lay in bed and worry that I can’t do this, that I’m no good at it. These doubts consume me. What does Paul suggest?
But let’s just imagine for a moment that there is such a thing as a test one can take to assess actual writing talent, and I take that test, and my results reveal that I don’t have what it takes. Would you want my work out there knowing I failed such a test? Be honest.
God, yes, Paul, tell me more. Where do I take this test?
Well there is such a test. Unfortunately it’s not something one can take in one afternoon. It’s the traditional publishing route.
Hmm. Go on…
Because what it all comes down to is this, that when it comes to aesthetics, whose opinion shall I trust? Some anonymous reviewer on Amazon? When I need the right gauge do I look to hurlygurl544, or the agent that took on Dan Simmons or Neil Gaiman as a client? Which one do you think, based on probability alone and nothing else, has a better idea of what good writing is?
Uh, the reader! Right? I mean, the editor is just guessing about what the reader will like. They don’t know. If they did, they would’ve been snapping up BDSM fan fiction years ago. They would’ve been clamoring for teen vampire novels before the ink was dry on Anne Rice’s Interview with a Vampire. Sasquatch sex! Agents know these things, is that what you’re saying? What readers want? Better than the readers themselves? Then why do agents and publishers get it wrong more often than they get it right? Why do a handful of blockbusters pay for all the other books that fail (with none of us able to predict which will be which)? And why is practically every great book rejected a dozen times before it’s eventually accepted somewhere (if indeed ever)? How did a Pulitzer Prize winner fail to get published in dozens of attempts? If the test works, why did John Kennedy Toole and many others like him fail?
When I submit to a publisher/agent/editor, I am in league with Simmons and Gaiman and every one of my heroes. They all went through it.
Oh. I understand. I feel this same compulsion, believe me. As much as I want readers to love my works, I also feel this urge to prove myself, to be recognized by the arbiters of taste. I admit it. But choosing a path isn’t going to affect your work (I’ve blogged about this before). Submitting a manuscript doesn’t put you in league with Simmons and Gaiman (If only it were that simple!). And self-publishing doesn’t rub the stench of my shitty writing onto you. Your work is great or not-great no matter what you do with it.
But I have good news. Your blog post has pointed me toward a solution. An ingenious solution. You want to know if your work is good enough, right? You want that feedback from agents, editors, and publishers rather than readers? Here’s the good news for you and every other aspiring writer reading this: That feedback is free. It doesn’t require sending me $100 bills at all (dammit).
Submit your manuscript to the traditional engine, Paul. Learn from those rejection letters. Hone your craft and edit your work until it shines. And when it finally passes muster, when agents begin clamoring for it, take a deep breath. You’ve done it. You’ve won the adulation from those heroes that you’ve craved these many years. Pop the champagne. And now take that book and self-publish the motherfucker.
If the accepting agent will come along, bring them with you. Ask them to shop it overseas, which is difficult to do on your own. Ask them to take it to Hollywood, which is a dark forest best not penetrated without a guide. Ask them to get a deal that retains your rights—a contract that treats you like a human being. If they balk, walk away. You got what you came for. Or go find another agent who shares your vision. But whatever you do, Paul, don’t sign a contract that will take your work from you indefinitely, one that gives your book a mere 3-6 month window spine-out on a bookstore shelf, one that pays you one fifth of what you can make on your own for each sale, one that doesn’t allow you to discount your works or give them away for free.
Submit. Win that acceptance you crave. And then self-publish. You got what you came for. The arbiter of good taste and high art told you it was good enough. Publish your work and include in the product description a copy of their golden ticket: their email accepting you into their hallowed halls. Just don’t get all giddy and sign the oppressive boilerplate that your heroes never had the courage nor power nor technology to stand up to and change. Instead, help make that change a reality.
Join the Bella Andres and Liliana Harts and JA Konraths and Barry Eislers and Brenna Aubreys. Join the Terry Goodkinds, the Lawrence Blocks, the Jim Carreys, the Macklemore and Ryans, the Louis C.K.s, and the Brandon Saundersons. Join the many who are staying indie despite lucrative offers. Or at least, if you do go upwind where our stench is weakest, pay attention to the changes that are coming. When you see contracts that begin to pay a decent royalty, when you see non-complete clauses go away, when you see indefinite terms become defined ones, at least have the dignity to thank us.
Because we are just as scared as any other writer that our work isn’t good enough. I promise you that. But we do know our art deserves better than what they’re offering. And that’s what self-publishing is all about. It’s not going it alone because we’ve been turned back at any gates. It’s about banding together and laying siege to an old order that needs to update their crumbling castles. We’ve been so busy trying to cross their moats that we’ve failed to realize how much better it is out here on the rolling hills and under the open skies where all the readers are. If you truly need an invite before you feel comfortable setting up your own stall, by all means, seek it out! Their input is free. The rejections are free. Their acceptance won’t cost you a thing.
Unless you take them up on it, of course.