Writing, and writing something that you actually want someone else to read really involves playing two games. The first is when you actually do the writing, sitting down, concentrating to the exclusion of almost everything else, shutting the world out and putting everything you have into it, then going back again and again and again trying to make it better, almost like trying to beat your previous high score. The second game is when you want to get others to read what you’ve written, by attracting the interest of an agent or a publisher and releasing your story out into the wilds.
Self-publishing is something I might come back to another time. Here I’m just looking at playing the game that attracts the interest of a traditional agent or publisher.
Again, like the first game, you can treat this like a video game. Now I’m not talking about the modern, immersive worlds of games like Worlds of Warcraft, or the Grand Theft Auto versions, I’m talking about the old-school arcade games, or the type of game I would have played as a young lad on my ZX Spectrum. The sort of game where you battle through increasingly tougher levels to advance, and where you die regularly and have to go right back to the start. As I continue to try to get published this world seems more and more like the world of the arcade games I thought I’d long grown out of.
Like the arcade games you start off not knowing too much, a basic idea of the controls, what buttons you press for what, that sort of thing. You plough along blindly and then, over time, you start to think you’re getting the hang of it. You feel your submission chapters are as tight as they can be while giving a good flavour of the story as a whole. You think your synopsis is as good as those infuriating bastards can be, again you hope that whoever reads it will get what you’re trying to do and hopefully it will click with them. So you battle through the level of the game, killing the bad guys along the way, shooting the aliens or kicking the snot out of the monsters, whatever. So you send off your submission to an agent or a publisher, or even when you enter a competition, and you wait. This part is largely out of your hands but is the part where your submission meets the end-of-level boss. In all of these games each level was completed when you defeated and end-of-level boss, normally a bigger and badder version of whatever you’ve been battling before.
Invariably you’re defeated by this end-of-level boss and you die. So you’re sent back to the start, you insert another coin, and you start again.
And that’s what it’s like.
No matter how much you try to ignore your submissions once they’re out there, in the back of your head is that little voice whispering maybe, maybe this is the one that will work, like in a game you hope this particular frantic set of button-pushes will be enough to defeat the end-of-level boss. For the sake of your own mental well-being you try to ignore this particular voice, it always helps if it can be shouted down by the other voices in your head and thankfully as a writer they’re normally not in short supply.
But it’s when that rejection email arrives, or a long enough period of time has passed when you realise no response is forthcoming and your submission isn’t worth the cost of an email (now there’s a subject for another post), you get that little computerised death scene, the words GAME OVER appear in front of you and the screen goes dark, only to be replaced by the INSERT COIN message and you try again.
That’s kind of what it’s like, every rejection is like a little death, and not the good little death (check your French people!), where effectively you’re sent right back to the beginning and have to start again.
And it really is a colossal, dispiriting, pain in the arse when that happens, you realise all the work you’ve put in to get that far has been wasted, that you’re no further along than you were when you started and that nothing you’ve done will, in any way, help you when you try again because you have to start right back at the beginning like everyone else just starting out.
Maybe you think you’ve figured out where you went wrong when fighting the end-of-level boss, maybe someone gives you some tips (No, you aim for the third head from the left and press UP, UP, LEFT, LEFT, RIGHT) and you go back into the game feeling more confident? Maybe the more you play the better you get? Or maybe you get sick to death of it and go and play another game instead, that sit-on-your-arse-and-watch-nothing-but-reality-TV-for-the-rest-of-your-days game does look enticing at times like this.
But if you’re a sick, deluded fool like me you take your stack of coins, line them up and prepare to insert them into the slot again and again until you’ve beaten that end-of-level boss, or you eventually run out of coins, who knows?
Now one of the many lessons I’ve learned from friends of mine who have signed with agents and/or been published is that like all of these arcade games once you beat the end-of-level boss you haven’t won the game, you just move up to the next level. If you win the get-an-agent level you just go on to the get-published level and after that you have the promote-book level and of course the get-second-book-published level and so on and so on. And you’re never really sure if you can ever win the game, or if the levels keep recycling themselves over and over again and you just hope you can make it onto the high score screen.
Who the fuck knows?
Incidentally I’ve called this particular post Colour Clash as a reminder of the days playing games on my trusty old ZX Spectrum where, due to what was probably a design flaw, each square of eight by eight pixels on the screen could only contain two colours and when a third colour entered the eight by eight square, for example your character walks across the screen in front of some background scenery, you got a horrible blocky mess that could make it impossible to see what was going on. To stretch the analogy of this post to almost breaking point I could always claim that what I’ve been encountering with my submissions has been the equivalent of colour clash, that the material is perfectly good, but it just doesn’t mesh with the people I’ve submitted it to, that all I’ve been doing is running into colour clash and eventually I’ll hit the right person and it’ll all be grand.
. . . Well that’s what I try to tell myself anyway. . .
Here’s a selection of GAME OVER scenes, now just imagine them in email form