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  • J.D. Mitchell

Three Years a Writer

Updated: Feb 1

Ah, the pandemic. Funny how an entire year can slip away in this uncertain time, like an untethered ship on an ebbing tide that's sucked into the kraken's maw, chewed up and spit out to—what year is it again? Let's hope 2022 brings renewal and the world getting past two years of lockdown and social upheaval.


Nah, I can't even write that with a straight face. Let's just take it day by day. Back to the introspective...

A toddler in jeans in a striped shirt walk up a dusty road in the summer time.
Baby Steps to 2023. God, even writing it fills me with dread.

Springtide Harvest. The Novel. The Project people are surely sick of hearing about. I submitted the first draft on May 9, 2019. It was a brave first attempt but in no way publishable, and sent under the most ridiculous of cover letters that I cringe to recall it. After much learning and gnashing of teeth, by February 2021, I was girding my loins for another major rewrite. It took three months.


I adjusted the tone and focus and generally honed the plot and pacing to a razor's edge. It went from 70,000 words to 90,000: the golden length for speculative fiction, and the one agents seek like panhandlers at a mountain stream. That's no joke. Watch those debut novel lengths, people.


Finished yet again, I proceeded to query the shit out of the book, earning rejection after rejection. That's the writer's life, baby. A cruelly instructive mistress, if you'll forgive the gendered language. It's been a long and costly endeavour. I haven't just been writing a novel but teaching myself how to write. It was at that point I sought professional help. No, not that kind of help, though we're all going to need it before our world finishes bludgeoning itself into some semblance of order: the editorial kind.


It's said that to become published, a writer needs talent, money or time: choose two. So I decided to throw a bit of cash at the problem. Not much—certainly not the thousands some editors would have me spend—just enough to get the opinion of an established writer with a best seller under their belt. It was exactly what I needed.


I've come a long way hacking away at writing with the support of other writers and beta readers, but the editor's feedback was instructive in an entirely different way. It helped me identify the things that were missing, and why certain scenes sprang from the page while others, while good, were missing a certain vivacity.

One might say they were missing a certain, special, something.

The answer was voice and poetry. Buried in characters and plotlines, structure and grammar, I was leaving too much off the page. Sure, I knew what the characters were thinking and what they wanted, I had to in order to capture how they were behaving, but the reader didn't know beyond interpreting (or misinterpreting) their actions. Turns out readers aren't mind-readers. Who knew? It was such a simple thing that I felt stupid for having it pointed out to me. Of course the reader needs to know what the characters are thinking and feeling; not just through tone and action, but to literally read their thoughts on the page. Like I had done here and there already. Duh.


That's the value of a good editor. When you're in the weeds, wrestling with jungles of kelp and angry, writhing eels, the simplest things are sometimes the hardest to see. So, I fixed everything, did another round of querying and found an agent!


Hah, no such luck, though if you felt a pang of disappointment at that: thank you, and also, I'm sorry. No, I didn't just significantly improve my manuscript (again), I was able to bring together all the lessons I had learned and just write with thoughtless effectiveness. Job done, I hired an agent to edit my query materials (which are now pretty great, if I do say so myself), and submitted to fourteen more agents. As of a few days ago, the last of them rejected the story.


A harsh and cruel mistress.

This is NOT what I found when Googling photos about harsh mistresses. 😶

I'm not taking it personally, though. Agents only take on clients whose novels they think they can sell to big publishers. They have plenty to choose from with so many of us writing, and as an old white guy writing old white guy fiction (at least on the surface), I get why they've been taking a pass. It also helps, in a sick way, to know that most agents don't read sample pages. It's not that they don't like it, it's that they aren't even reading beyond the pitch. Good thing I'm a bloody-minded fool.


Honestly, it's liberating having that knowledge. It means I've done pretty much all I can in my bid for traditional publication, at least with the Big Four publishers. It signals, at long last, that it's time to hunt for some small publishers. Failing that? The grim spectre of self-publication looms. THAT is a road to which I'm not looking forward, but if I must, I must.


The rejections also meant that I could take a bit of a break and turn my attention to other things. So I wrote another book; and a couple new short stories. More on that later.


Until then, Keep the Faith, brothers and sisters, and, at the rate I blog, see you in 2023.


J.D. Mitchell

Ottawa, Ontario

January 3, 2022


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