Norwescon 2024 – Day 2

Due to no fault of the convention itself, I’m struggling to find panels I want to attend.

I’ve been doing this a long time. I’ve attended, taken notes, practiced, and verified the wisdom dispensed at these panels for about a decade and a half. I’ve written dozens of short stories, 3 novels, and participated in assorted contests. Many of these panels are targeted at people with less experience than me.

I attended a panel this morning which was advertised for all writers, wherever they are in their career. A two hour panel, in which you write down questions, post them to the wall in the back of the room, and the two career professionals read the questions and provide answers.

They were good answers, but they weren’t necessarily complete. For example, the first thing they tackled was, “How do I get an agent?” It’s a great question, and while I do not yet have an agent myself, I’ve looked into the matter. It’s hard.

One of the answers given was along the lines of, “You don’t want to pair up with an agent that is too strict on the rules.” That’s an interesting answer, but there is an implication that needed to be addressed, so I raised my hand and asked if I could offer some numbers and context to help. They gave me the go-ahead, so I said:

“In 2017, a mid-level agent posted her numbers to Twitter. In one month, she received around 30,000 submissions. She was able to accept 6. Agents are looking for ways to screen and get the numbers down, so if you are not adhering to the submission guidelines, you’re going to be automatically cut.”

They nodded and acknowledged that everything I said was true, but then softened it a little. In my opinion, blunting the reality is not particularly helpful to new writers.

Tell people that it’s difficult, because it is. Tell them to follow the rules, because if they don’t, they’re not going to make it very far. Miracles occur, it’s true. It’s possible to get picked up off the slush pile. It’s possible to sidle up to an agent at the bar, at a convention, and have a great conversation that launches your career. That’s what happened to Jim Butcher. It could happen to you! But if you really want to increase your odds, keep writing, keep submitting, and follow the submission guidelines.

Also, if you’re still with me on the agent thing, it’s better to have no agent at all than to be burdened with a bad agent.

There were some other questions answered, and I listened, and it was fine. My question was:

“You’ve made it! You got your book published, after years of perseverance and hard work! How do you deal with the disillusionment that follows, that no one talks about?”

They acknowledged it as a good question and said, “Talk about the disillusionment.”

So here we are. At the risk of sounding ungrateful for my successes, let me tell you about the disillusionment.

Water Dragon is great, and none of these feelings are a reflection of them. This has nothing to do with the publisher. It’s about reaching that mythical state of being published and finding an audience.

Why do we write stories? Why do we write anything? We want our messages, our stories, our thoughts and our feelings to be read. How does it feel to send a text message to someone that never acknowledges it? How does it feel to put a comment in code when the next programmer just ignores it and does the wrong thing? How does it feel to send someone a letter, but for whatever reason, it never reaches them? How does it feel to go unread?

Most of my stories are unpublished. I know where they are, and I know why no one’s reading them. They’re either not ready or not right. It’s fine.

Some people have read The Repossessed Ghost, and a few people have read One for the Road, but it’s mostly people that have known me for a long time. My readers are people that are rooting for me. It’s all the people I can reach.

I shouldn’t say this, but I get it if not very many people are into The Repossessed Ghost. If you are a fan of The Dresden Files, you’ll love my Mel Walker stories. I wrote them with you in mind. Otherwise, it might be a challenging read. It’s good, but not my best work. It’s better than a lot of books out there in the same genre, but that’s still kind of a niche thing. So, I get it.

One for the Road, though, is sweet. It’s short, cheap, cozy, clever, and fun. And I don’t know how to get it in front of people.

You can’t give stories away. Seriously. Reading a story involves a small investment of work and time on the part of the reader, so thrusting a book into their hands — uninvited — is a kind of assault. Even the most voracious reader devalues a free book. A reader will always reach for the book they purchased over the strange book that fell into their lap.

This is where the disillusionment comes in. You put your head down and write the best thing you can write. You work up the courage to submit it. You face rejection after rejection, but you persevere because the advice you’ve been given is that if you just write the best story you can, it will be enough. Once it’s published, you can move on to the next, building on each success… and people will read your stories.

It’s not entirely true, though. You can self-publish, or you can publish with a small, independent publisher, or you can get an agent and publish with the Big Four (or Five), and the answer is the same: publishing is not enough to find an audience.

That’s the illusion. Once you’re published, you see through it.

How do you find an audience?

I started to say “no one knows” but that’s not entirely true. I do have an audience. Melissa reads all of my stuff. My critique group looks forward to my stories. A handful of people really care and support me and genuinely seem to like my writing. There are a few people that have bought my book at conventions.

The hope is that word of mouth will spread, and people will read my stories that have never met me. That’s the point where the story can take on a life of its own, I think.

Okay. That’s enough of that. I feel like I’m whining when I’ve already been extremely fortunate.

I’m writing this from a table, not far from the heart of the convention. People are walking by me constantly. Some of them are writers that are still trying to get their first success. I wish I could give them what I know, not to discourage them, but to prepare them for what comes next.

I’m disillusioned, but I’m not deterred.

I’m not sure there are any other panels I want to attend today, so when I hit “publish” on this post, I’m going to open up one of my projects and see if I can make some progress. Maybe I can get The Psychic on the Jury in a better state. Maybe I’ll submit to Water Dragon sooner than later.