In an effort to pass the time during these pandemic months, I’ve been binge watching many shows, including of course several Netflix series but also some old favorites such as Seinfeld and the Simpsons. Recently, I watched an episode of the Simpsons (S30/E5) entitled: Baby You Can’t Drive My Car. In this episode, a self-driving car company relocates to Springfield with the promise of bringing high tech jobs. Homer applies for a position, and as part of the interview process, he gets into one of these cars. After asking repeatedly regarding the whereabouts of the steering wheel, the supervisor replies, “Just tell it where to go. Sit back and relax! The car does the driving!”
Homer asks, excitedly, “Does this mean I can text while driving?”
The supervisor responds, “You could write an entire novel while driving.”
Homer: “Whoa, whoa, whoa. Not in today’s publishing market!”
I laughed out loud, heartily, at that one. I could definitely relate to both sets of comments: those coming from the supervisor and Homer as the potential employee.
I’ve written two novels, memoirs if you will, and given the fact that I still had my day job as a physician, the writing did occur largely “on the fly”. I wrote major sections of my books on my iPad while on airplanes, in hotels during downtime at conferences, even while sitting in the Orthodontist’s office waiting for my son. On a family road trip to the Black Hills of South Dakota, I spent hours on Google Docs on my phone attempting to merge the two books into one at the suggestion of a local publisher. Luckily, it was Paul who was in the driver’s seat at the time, not me. So having technology to assist my writing was truly a godsend, similar to Homer’s self driving car.
On the other hand, the “publishing market” comment resonated with me even more. It is truly cutthroat, making someone on Shark Tank look like Mother Teresa. While trying to find a traditional publisher, I learned many companies won’t even consider a first time author without an agent. I heard a resounding “no” in less than a week from three publishing houses–“there are too many cancer memoirs.” At which point I thought, but wait, my book is about much more than cancer!! Did anyone even read the manuscript? I began to appreciate how difficult it would be to break into the publishing world.
And that local publisher I mentioned who suggested I merge the two books into one? Initially, they showed strong interest, meeting with me in person, saying “this is exactly the type of book we want to publish,” even going so far as to send edits for the prologue and first three chapters. Afterwards, I was ghosted completely. They would not respond to my phone calls or emails; even showing up at their book signings got me nowhere. In the end, I wasted many months on the notion that they were actually going to publish my book. I learned the hard way: never assume anything without a book contract.
And publishing a memoir instead of, say, science fiction brings about its own set of issues. A memoir is so intensely personal, when I received a rejection letter, it felt as though it was me being rejected, not the book. The emotional roller coaster is not for the faint of heart. And it goes on, the ups and downs, even long after you find a publisher. Because once the book is out there, then it’s difficult not to go on Amazon every few days and view sales reports and rankings and read customer reviews and compare to the numerous others in the same genre.
All of this could get very discouraging, to say the least. Still, my desire is to have the opposite effect–to encourage other writers to keep at it. Of course, one must develop a thick skin, and not take anything too personally. I also needed to trust that there was a bigger purpose and plan behind my writing. Whether it’s bringing a message of hope to a patient with cancer, or describing a new approach that physicians might adopt in their practice, or sharing patient stories and teaching scenarios that inspire those in academic medicine—these are the big picture goals that I try to keep in mind. It shifts the focus away from the book itself to the potential it has to touch many lives.
I once read a book on book marketing called, “Book Marketing is Dead.” (Multiple ironies, here.) It contained very valuable information and practical tools and tips; I highly recommend it. My publisher also reminds me, it’s a marathon, not a sprint. It takes time, effort, and energy to reach target audiences; articles, interviews, and speaking engagements do help. To build and grow that audience, websites, blogs, social media, podcasts and other avenues abound. Perseverance is key, such as following up diligently on emails or other connections that get the book in front of those who would benefit most. And that saying, “keep the faith” is very applicable here. My writing contains a strong faith element, but presented with a light touch; the goal being people from different faith backgrounds (or none at all) could still relate. As such, I view the book as what one might call salt and light. Perhaps reading about how a physician, a scientist of the human body, can still rely on faith in God to navigate a health crisis—that might also inspire others to think more deeply about their faith and their own personal beliefs.
With all this in mind, I encourage others to keep writing, in whatever way shape or form works for you—pen and paper, a journal, google docs, blogging, you name it. And if it is therapeutic, and beneficial, and recharges your batteries, then it is worth finding the time to do it, no matter what the outcome. Perhaps someday, we will have the ability to write while in a self driving car, or other new technology to facilitate productivity. In the meantime, keep reminding yourself that with patience, perseverance, faith, and a focus on the greater good and the bigger purpose, your writing will find a place to land, maybe even as a published author.
After all, Homer wrote the Iliad and the Odyssey, right?