The Ink that Broke the Writer’s Hand

At this point, I think it’s easy enough to say: I’ve been out of sync for a long while. I have tried recreation, rebirth, but unlike the Phoenix, I never emerged with a wildfire, merely a sputtering spark. A thousand new moments have made a thousand new me’s in the years since I devoted myself to writing, always pushing forward, always trying.

But this, I’m sad to say, is not a story of how passion and commitment pays off. This is reality. It doesn’t end well.

I have made creation my profession and my striving goal for 11 years now – not to mention the youth I spent before that idolizing, learning, scribbling in secret, courting my passion, growing into myself as a writer. It has, as long as I have lived, been the predominant force in my life – my creative spark and one of my few focuses. Others came and went, but never this.

If any of you have followed me over the years, you likely know I’ve never found things easy in spite of always knowing my life goal.

In 2007, I first began submitting my writings to magazines. In 2009, I first started submitting to publishers. I joined ground setting online institutions like OneStopPoetry, helping build communal sites dedicated to creativity, all while going through college and churning out story after story, poem after poem, and refining novels over and over again. I opened a Patreon. I started this website. I dipped my toe freely into everything which felt a natural fit for the modern writer’s journey.

Flash forward to today: I have written 7 novels, more than 100 short stories, and literally hundreds of poems, only the smallest fraction of which line this website’s pages, and those of its predecessor.

Rejection is part of the industry. It’s an awful part, but it’s part – a trial by fire through which you are supposed to learn, and grow, and inevitably weasel your way. Except the industry isn’t actually built like that. It’s not skill that determines who gets in. It’s luck – who sees it, at the right time, in the right context, how a particular word will make a five second pitch stand out more than another, that an agent doesn’t con you or mislead you, that market saturation doesn’t render an attempt obsolete through no fault of your own.

tenor

Society doesn’t value writing any longer. They tend to look at it as something anyone can do – it’s simply a matter of how grandiose the scribbles you desire. You’re expected to work without pay, submit for “exposure,” work countless hours with no guarantee. In the end, perhaps 1 / 100,000 writers will get anywhere at all, and most of those won’t get far. The idea of the creative, struggling genius is flouted as a dream for all to aspire to, and those who fall short don’t tend to be seen as anything more than not having lived up to what was necessary. The industry shrugs and moves on – there are, after all, a million others waiting in the wings. Besides, it’s just writing, it’s not a “real” job – focus on career and do this free thing on the side, just for you, yeah?

The isolation like a tumor festers and grows.

So I wandered. In college, I turned to journalism. The pay wouldn’t be great, but there would be benefits, a certain sink or swim adaptability that would assure that life would never be dull, and a chance to work on some real important stories that could impact a community or a nation. It also helped that it could potentially get a name out there and hone skill. Many a great writer has, after all, begun their lives in the journalistic trenches. I didn’t hold myself to any one form – I threw myself in and tried to learn as much as possible.

The Great Recession hit partway through college. The industry crumbled. What emerged in the aftermath was largely a contract gig, demanding advanced knowledge in dozens of areas and skills far beyond writing. Photography, Videography, Social Media, Marketing, Coding – journalists needed to know everything, work themselves into the dust for nothing, and do so with no benefits, barely a survivable salary, and no stability at all. One day you might be employed, the next not – no warning. Contracts don’t require them. And then the self-employed taxes would come on top…

So many masks came and went. It wasn’t easy, but I made it work, barely above water, working odd jobs on the side, never making anything to save. I bounced between papers, but the job hunt was nearly continuous, and fighting for them cutthroat – switch largely to robo-generated news, fire hundreds of journalists while new ones are emerging from school, consolidate the news into a few key corporations, and what you’re left with is a lot of people vying for the same few scraps.

But that’s fine, I said. I still had good days. It gave me time to work creatively – hours and hours spent on writing endlessly, missing so much to gain nothing at all. A few magazines picked up the occasional scribble. I self-published a three book series, because publishers wouldn’t touch it. Then I was told anything else that might be published after would be tainted by that fact. I wrote under pseudonyms, and still no headway was made. Seven books, plus the trunk stories every writer has and learns from, came and went. Nothing caught a publisher’s eye.

Success, this country has made clear, is a privilege, not a right. Not everyone is destined for success, not everyone has the natural talent or luck to rise above, not everyone chooses skills the world needs or has the money to invest heavily in others – and the “spend money to make money” notion is a crock meant to make the lives of the rich easier and leave the poor broker and more indebted.

In essence: not everyone is destined to be happy. You practice, you persist, and you age, watching others live and grow and enjoy such happy lives – and you fade away, realizing you have nothing for all your trouble.

Factor in depression, lack of means, and an unregulated society gone suddenly to a nationalist-authoritarian sort of feudalist nightmare – and you’re taking day after day of brutal beatings and getting absolutely nothing in return. “But the joy of indulging your passion,” some will say. “It’s just for you!” It’s not like that with any other career. Art is art. It’s a beautiful, passionate thing, but it’s still hard, grueling labor. You do it because you love to do it, sure, but you also do it because you want it to be seen. You want to grow, you want to be successful, and you want to be told your work is worth something. When it’s not, you adapt, you grow, you build on it. But after enough time, if trying again and again ever yields the same result, it breaks first your heart, and then it breaks your spirit.

For me, the last straw came earlier this year.

To preface: after a decade, for the first time last year I found an agent willing to touch my work. His name was Mark Gottlieb, of Trident Media Group. He’s a big name: a previous top Literary Agent on Publishers Marketplace in overall deals and other categories, lots of positive interviews, works with F/SF. He read one of the novels I submitted, professed his love for it, and offered to represent me. We had a rapid, furious back and forth by phone and e-mail.

Gott1

I was over the moon. Finally, I thought, I had broken in. This was my chance. I had done my research, and I was all for it. At his request, I attached a pen name to the work and got it ready to go. Oddly, he didn’t have any recommendations on changes, but I figured that would perhaps be more of a concern when publishers got their teeth into it.

Then the nightmare began. Months passed with no word. I attributed my antsiness to first time jitters. I had sent out a couple e-mails in the interim to address a few details on the book, but never got a response. After two months, I called, got no answer, then e-mailed to see where things stood, where the book had been submitted, etc. In reply, I got a single line response:

Gott2

Strange stuff, but alright, I assumed, perhaps he was just busy. Another 3 months passed. New Years came and went. I sent over another e-mail wishing holiday cheers and asking some questions about where we stood and industry developments I had heard about.

Again, that same reply: “No takers as of yet but hang in there.

Word for word, and nothing but.

Winter turned to spring, spring turned to summer. More than a year had gone by: no calls, no e-mail updates unprompted by me. Nothing but those nine little blue words. I wrote a last letter at this point, referencing Mark’s previous words and demanding to know what was going on. At which point, he broke the news that no editors had come forward, and that was that.

Gott3

By that point I had figured as much, of course, but that I had been strung along for so long…and then I saw what was being posted about him on QueryTracker. Certainly, he has a sterling reputation if you go to Google. But former clients and aspiring writers? They don’t seem as forgiving.

Gott4

Gott5

Gott6

Notice any similarities to my case?

That was the ink that broke the writer’s hand. Coupled with the closure of a paper I worked for as well, and the subsequent decline in paid work…my faith has never been lower in this industry, and in writing in general. Thousands of dollars spent on college, for nothing. Countless hours wasted – a life, in many regards. Yet for me personally, it means so many other things, and admitting it all is a failure that weights me down lower than any concrete shoes.

Life is supposed to be messy, but it’s supposed to have a goal for which to aim. In 11 years, I’ve never gotten an inch closer to that goal, only seen it slip further and further away. I feel those that say to stick it out are much the same people who in middle school, and high school, and college, and thereafter, told folks time and again: “Oh it’ll only get better!” only to inevitably do a 180 and add, “Those were the best days of your life. Never forget them!” without a shred of irony.

Detractors say it all comes down to willpower and how badly one wants to achieve. A lot of people – even otherwise well-meaning friends and family – meet such situations with a lack of empathy and understanding. They neglect that we live, assuredly for the worse, in the midst of capitalism, and it is made quite clear to us that nothing we do has value unless it earns – and further, surviving is quite impossible if it doesn’t. Those born with means can stick with art through wind and rain, and weather all opposition. The poor do not have that option.

It’s like with travel: we all want to do it, and there are plenty of people who will tell you that you can’t afford not to, but when it all comes down to it, the majority of us have so small a disposable income that we cannot afford to put things on hold long enough to play around with our fantasies – and it only gets worse, year after year, as the nation sinks further into debt and student loans, eliminates benefits and savings programs, and saddles families with an increasing need to work with and support one another just to survive. We barely have time to be individuals anymore, let alone engage our passions.

Which is exactly where I find myself now. To those that can still write, still create, still travel – whatever their passion may be – I applaud them. I am envious.

Yet every soul has a breaking point, and I have long since met mine. After more than a decade of work with nothing to show for it, I have gotten out of writing, and I am in the process of reformulating my life to find some new course that will keep me breathing.

This website will live out the year before it reverts to its WordPress origins. If anything else fills its pages, it will likely be little things, creative whimsies. No more updates or announcements or essays will come to pass, no more novel ideas down the pipeline.

It doesn’t mean I don’t love to write. It breaks me into a million pieces to turn my back on the only thing I have ever felt like I belonged to – but feeling like I belonged is much different from actually belonging there. I am just a number, at a time when we need voices to speak out against tyranny, to stand apart, to rally people to something more. I tried to give voice to the loss and pain. I tried to tell the stories to keep the dream alive. I tried to make escapism that would set us free from it all as well, however temporary.

I have nothing left to give, yet I must keep on, and I cannot let the machine consume me in the process. There are still people I owe that much. But where that leaves me…I just don’t know.

 

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23 thoughts on “The Ink that Broke the Writer’s Hand

  1. S. Cala

    Stop blaming others. If you failed its because the market of ideas found you wanting. Couldnt make it as a writer OR a reporter? Guess what thats not an industry problem thats a you problem. What do you want a participation trophy?

  2. CardinalSin

    “I tried to give voice to the loss and pain. I tried to tell the stories to keep the dream alive. I tried to make escapism that would set us free from it all as well, however temporary.”

    Jesus talk about full of yourself. You wrote fiction. Other people do it better. Accept it and move on. Or don’t. The world isn’t lessened by one less whiner poorly adapted to the modern age in it.

  3. Sam Har

    OK lets try this: in all that time whathave you written you’re most proud of?
    cause glancing at your public stuff it all looks like anyone could have wrote it.

    1. Ignoring the derogatory tone inherent in this, fine, I will play ball.
      1. Let me say: I hate that phrase, “anyone could have written it.” There’s a distinct thing people seem to ignore when they say that. “anyone could have,” but most did not.
      2. There is a difference between the materials I wrote and published in the early days of my decade-long literary career and what I have since come to write. If it’s my books you’re referring to, they are fantasy works that had been in my head since high school, worked painstakingly on throughout college, and I will not be made to regret them. They were exactly what I had to say at that time, spoke to what inspired me then, spoke to coming of age, isolation, war and border of revolution and renaissance — it was escapist fantasy, and it was what I wanted to write. My short stories would give you a more diverse idea of the things I have written and wanted to write in the days since, though most of these remain unpublished.
      3. To circle around to your main point, I can say I am most proud of the novel Mr. Gottlieb so misled me on. It was called SCARS OF DEMOCRACY and it was apparently prophetic in some ways to the system we have since come to find ourselves in — it circled around interment camps. Go figure. It speaks to the times in which we live, and might yet live, and it speaks to the darkest and brightest elements of our human hearts. Here was the blurb for it:
      “SCARS OF DEMOCRACY is a completed 71,500-word novel set in a North America of the near future. Civil war and environmental disaster have torn apart modern boundaries, leaving the remnants of government to cling desperately to any shred of normalcy. That normalcy, unfortunately, comes to the detriment of those like young Rubie—an orphaned child coming of age in an internment camp.

      Surrounded by what society has come to label as undesirables, Rubie lives a semi-nomadic lifestyle, shuffled about the Midwest. There, life has fallen more or less into a sense of normality—so long as they read what they are told to read, listen to what they are taught, and most importantly, cause no trouble. Yet when war comes to their doorstep, a bungled last minute purge leaves Rubie separated from the only family they have left and forced into the arms of rebels that could be friends—or enemies in different masks. Time and the hope of saving those they hold dear could either make them into a child soldier, or another victim of the dream of civilization.”

  4. Ugly comments on a courageous post. What is it about a confession of creative despair that drags the haters out of the woodwork? Just one reason why so many authors can never tell the truth about their writing lives.

    1. Trolls, like sharks, come when they smell blood in the water. I’m used to them from the journalistic side of life, I confess, but on these matters…such attacks have been much harder to bear. I’ve never had an overabundance of faith in my literary talents, and a lifetime of depression hasn’t helped matters much. But seeing the word get out there about Gottlieb, and the tireless work you put into helping the literary community? I consider that a win, and a bright spot in a dark time.

      Thank you for all you’ve done, Ms. Strauss, and for your kindness besides.

  5. What is wrong with you people? His former agent made a game out of his clients’ lives and passions. This post did not come off as written by someone who’s full of themselves, and if that’s how you interpreted it, it says a lot about your hidden resentments that have nothing to do with Chris.

    Chris, don’t listen to them. All I can really offer in regards to this post is that it isn’t your fault. As long as you were willing to put in the hours, which it’s apparent you have, and you embraced a growth mindset and were committed to always trying to improve when things didn’t go your way, then that’s all you could’ve done. Those who love to write will always outnumber the number of slots for success.

    1. I don’t know what to say. That you would speak up for a stranger warms my heart in a way it hasn’t felt in some time.

      It’s one thing to deal with the doubts in my own head, the darkness and uncertainty that’s always there. But to seemingly come so close after so many years, only to be duped on the work I was most proud of, that I thought might be capable of doing some genuine good…and then to have hate and vitriol heaped on top of that was just heart-wrenching.

      I know there isn’t enough space for us all. But I hope others can at least learn from my mistakes and my misfortune.

    1. But all of you here today show there is still good in the world as well. I wish I could say I knew what lies ahead — I don’t. I’m rather lost at the moment, and still befuddled over all of this, and I don’t feel courageous in the slightest. I just hope people keep signal boosting about people like this, and make sure others can’t be hurt further.

  6. Pingback: Success Soup – PepperWords

    1. “He was (is) in a enviable, powerful position and he treats manuscripts that folks have slaved over, for years, as if they were darts being thrown at a dart board.”

      Read your story too, James. Definitely peels at those scars. I’ve always thought myself wise to scams, always did my research beforehand, always checked, but Gottlieb somehow slipped through the cracks, and I was infuriated all the more when I realize how many others have been wrecked by his shoddy work.

      I wish I could be hopeful this will be his end, but there’s always more of his ilk, even if he falls. Anyone living in the U.S. has seen their fair share of that, and knows those with the power oft escape justice. I doubt we’ll ever even realize how many potential careers, and how many passions beyond that, have had the final nails put in their coffins by such contemptible users of others. I’ve always said the industry needs to change in a lot of ways, but folks like this — they go so far beyond even that darkness.

      I suppose the most ironic thing I find in all this is that I got mislead and taken advantage of on a book that was talking about what might happen if the worst of U.S. impulses were left to run amok. Guess we know where he falls on that spectrum.

      Solidarity, friend. I am sorry that you, too, fell to him.

  7. TB

    Chris, I am so sorry about your experience and that people are crawling out of the woodwork to be terrible. You are not alone. I have three good friends who were also repped by Mark and are facing the reality of his asshattery too. Please don’t let this be the thing that stops you. He’s an asshole, and honestly, a blight to the entire industry, but I hope that you can move past this. If this post is any indication of your talent, then I think you can definitely recover. I wish you the best and I’ll be looking for whatever you write next.

    1. Three!? Ugh. Pervasive fellow, I’ll give him that.

      You honor me with such praise — but I don’t know where I’ll land, currently. I’m eating a lot of thoughts these days, and locked in a rather deep internal struggle, as much economic related as being on the losing side of my own brain. I’m very, very tired of the same old, same old, and the constant struggle without reward in life.

      Your friends are lucky to have you, though. I hope you lend them that strength and positivity as often as your own self-care allows.

  8. Trolls will be trolls… I feel for you, Chris. I wrote for years and years with the usual lack of success and no agent would touch anything I wrote with a barge pole. I had a series I was very proud of half-finished and was on the point of trunking the whole thing since I wasn’t even getting rejections on the first volume, just silence. Then I got an agent, a good one, and I hope things will change. Don’t give up. You’re right about all the pitfalls and all the junk that gets picked up in preference to good writing for all sort of ridiculous fashion-based reasons. Keep writing, and I hope that one day you’ll try again with a manuscript you are really proud of and that you’ll find the agent who sees its value.

  9. danielshumphreys

    I have been in your shoes, and all I can say is: don’t give up. If writing is that much a piece of your soul, it’s not just something you can put away, nor should you want to.

    I signed with what I thought was a reputable agent, only to find she was a scam artist who at one point faked her own death. (Google Melanie Mills, you can’t make this stuff up.) Sometimes I wish that the resources writers had today were available 15-16 years ago, because I basically quit writing for a decade until I decided to give indie a shot. Even then, when I’d “quit” I’d jot down ideas for plot lines and even chapters here and there before getting discouraged.

  10. Chuck Farley

    I’m also a victim of the Robert Durst of the literary world. My story echos yours, and I admire your bravery. Have been struggling with the idea of coming forward about it. I was fortunate to find another agent who believes in me, and is thoroughly abreast of (and disgusted by) my former “reps” malfeasance. But quitting is something I’ve had to face, and still consider, after this. I can only say that a little love from the universe will heal you to some degree. Here is some from me. You are clearly a talented and imaginative dude. More will come. But take your time. Heal in your own way. and do all you can to hinder this bad actors reputation. Much love

    Chuck Farley

    1. May we all find the love of which you speak, and come to peace with the healing we need. Nothing can make up for the hurt such moments and such people bring to others, but I am so gladdened to hear that another agent has taken you on, has taken your story to heart, and is working with you to move past that hurt and into a new chapter of your life. It pains me more than I can say to know how many people have been subjected to this very thing, no matter how wary. If you ever need to talk about it, if you ever want to discuss coming out about such things, feel free to contact me. I know it’s not easy, and in as small an industry as this is, it can feel like potentially burning other bridges — but people need to know. I would also recommend talking with Victoria Strauss, of Writer Beware. She can talk better than most on the realities of things, and sort out where your abuser falls.

      Thank you for reaching out, Chuck. The love is most welcome. ❤

  11. Elizabeth H.

    What a compelling cri de couer. Thank you for sharing this.

    I feel for you. I’ve been writing since I could string together words on a page, took part in a creative writing program in college, got a Master’s in publishing, and thought I would work for a publisher. I wanted to write AND to work with books. What actually happened? I tried for a year to get a job in NYC and got literally no response to my applications. I finally got a good job in Washington DC (closer to family and a city I like more anyway), and that worked out well. It was stable and paid pretty well, and I got good benefits. I was able to save a bit and travel some–so I was content. But after 6 years, I knew that there was nowhere to go within the company and that all my education and experience weren’t worth anything at all on the job market. I was 30 and back to square one. So I started over, focusing on what would give me a path to things I wanted (a home of my own instead of a shared apartment, more financial wiggle-room, an actual *career*). I’m now a paralegal, and it was a positive move. What did the publishing industry have to offer me?

    Meanwhile, I continued to write. I wrote and rewrote and queried. I’m purely a novelist, so unlike you I had no short stories or poetry to get my name out there. I was swindled not once but twice as a young person (not for huge amounts of money, but for enough). But I wised up and started querying legit agents. I got some bites over the years, then, at last, got a real offer. I was over the moon (like you were). I got some weird vibes from the beginning but ignored that. I did some revisions,then was assured vaguely that the manuscript was on submission, and then waited. I pressed for information and eventually got just enough vague info to make me *not* pull the plug. Then the agent told me we should “stick a pin” in ms 1, and so I sent ms 2. Same deal: waiting, with vague assurances and vague information. Sound familiar? In any case, I eventually brought the thing to the crisis point: I asked the agent to provide specific information about the submission process. She couldn’t do that, so I told her I wouldn’t need her services anymore. It took me two years and two mss to get to that point. Now, I know the things that are being said about your agent, and I don’t think it was the same situation as with my agent, to be clear. I don’t honestly know why my situation ended the way it did, but it *did* end that way.

    Which left me again with the question: What did the publishing industry have to offer me? This whole debacle was another push towards changing careers.

    I am not, however, giving up writing. Not by any means. Since parting with my agents, I’ve rewritten or edited three of my five novels. I’m getting additional beta-reading and hope to jump back into the query trenches soon. Yes, publishing has burned me–badly. I no longer have any expectations, though I’m much better prepared to spot the pitfalls. If I ever want to share my work with the world, I have to keep trying. Although I have only come across bad agents (this is my own experiences and those of other writers I know) I assume there are decent agents out there. The publishing business is toxic for writers right now, but, as they say in Hamilton, I will hold my nose and close my eyes because I still (still) want my work to be seen.

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