Lindsay Ellis just posted a very good video, and I want you to go watch it, because most of what I’m going to write about is springboarding off of what she said.
For those of you who didn’t watch it, Lindsay tells the story of how she got published. Which took her, a popular YouTuber with 850k+ subs and a Hugo and Nebula nomination for her work, well over a decade. This is the state of trad publishing. This has always been the state of trad publishing, for as long as I’ve lived it. Unless you are someone lucky enough to land the tradpub lottery, you’re going to be like Lindsay was.
And like I am currently: trying to write the right book to start sending out to literary agents (if tradpub is your path).
(And yes I am aware of self-publishing. It’s not something I’ve ruled out. I need to finish a book first, then decide. The most important and cruelest mantra for the new writer: no one gives a shit about your WIP until it’s done.)
But really what I want to call out is the single most unhelpful thing I hear along this winding journey to publication-land (or not), that I’ve had lobbed at me by friends and relatives, that Family Guy made a freaking 2:30 minute joke out of, that drove me to write this whole outpouring.
And that is of course the all-too-innocent “how’s the novel going?” question.
My answer to which is: which one do you want to know about?
Because I, personally, have written four. Three never got picked up by an agent or publisher, and are currently stashed away in a “trunk” (as Lindsay put it). They’ll likely never see the light of day. The fourth is marinating, but it’s probably terrible, so we’ll drown it in a lake of Scotch and burn it with fire someday.
I’m working on a fifth. Who knows what’s going to happen to it.
Asking a writer “how’s the novel going?” is just such a tedious question when the average time to pick up and publication is ten years.
Here is a list of better questions you could ask me that don’t make me want to stab out my eyes with golden dress brooches:
- What dessert are you making for Christmas dinner? Pudding or mincemeat tarts?
- Are you ever going to git gud at Widow? (No. Never.)
- How many Pokemon have you caught this week?
- Did you ever get back into gardening?
- Have you started knitting again?
- How’s the jam-making going? (I may even give you a jar!)
I will also own that I’m a writer who hates to discuss works-in-progress unless you’re my husband, then I randomly ambush you in conversation to figure out weird ideas when you least expect it.
This comes from a place of trust. If you aren’t married to me, I probably won’t do this with you.
So Mike, you can safely ignore this article.
And yeah, there are going to be people who absolutely buck this advice and want to gush at you if you ask The Question. They exist. I haven’t met them, buuuut I’m sure they exist. Humans are weird and varied. There’s bound to be one that just thrives on this kind of torture, or at least buries the pain deep and grins through the agony, chewing their nails to the quick the whole time.
Most novel-writing can take…months. Years. It’s intimate and laden with failure. I have four books of failure at my back, nearly 450,000 words that at one point I cared deeply for. It’s part of the whole bizarre process. Your question isn’t anything I haven’t already pummeled my psyche with over and over. The odds are never in the author’s favor, as Lindsay points out, but you obviously know that you smart person, having watched the video.
Heck, I’m just happy that once a year I get to show up in an anthology about magical horses because that, my friends, is a goddamn miracle…by my book.