I’ve been writing professionally for about 17 years.
I’ve got boxes and boxes of clips and a whole wall of awards. I’ve written a book that was published by a top publisher and got great reviews and won a couple of awards. Yet I’m getting paid less now for articles than I did when I first started out.
For this 10-post series I’m writing for Hearne I’m receiving $500. And I had to fight to get that much.
I’m also working on a story for the Lawrence Journal-World about the Kansas Book Festival for which I’ll earn $50.
In the late 90s, when I was a largely inexperienced hack, I got paid $100 for the same kind of article.
By contrast, I sold my book for $150,000.
I thought I had arrived. I believed I would spend the rest of my career writing for glossy magazines and selling a book for six figures every couple of years and I would never have to write for local newspapers again.
It’s been seven years since that glorious call from my agent, and I’ve only written for one national glossy – a story about Jada Pinkett Smith’s heavy metal band for Vibe. And I still don’t have another book.
It’s not for lack of trying. I’ve written eight book proposals since 2004, none of which have sold.
The lesson I’ve learned from these failures is valuable.
The first idea I had for a second book was a family memoir, which is full of tension and conflicts about fundamentalist Christianity. I became interested in it after the 2004 presidential election and the support George Bush received from born again Christians.
I wrote a proposal that is painful to read today because it’s so hyped-up. My family’s story, which is the part that really appealed to me as a writer, atrophied under the weight of my attempt to make the story national and immediate.
My agent read it and said it wasn’t the right time in my career for that book.
By that point, I’d amassed a lot of research about American fundamentalism, Pentecostalism in particular, and I’d grown fascinated with the racism that runs through its history. I got an idea for a year-in-the-life book about a black church and a white church in an integrated suburban community.
But that was too much, trying to be in two churches at the same time, so I found a mixed-race, inner-city Pentacostal megachurch where I could explore the same theme.
I spent an entire year there. I worked with my agent on a proposal. She kept asking me to be able to distill my idea into one sentence that explained why the book would be important to a national audience.
I was never quite able to do this. We submitted anyway and got a pass. The editor couldn’t see how the story backed up the point I was making.
I didn’t want to do it, because my heart wasn’t in it. Hype up this story and make an example.
I could’ve pulled it off, I think: I discovered some new things about some of the people I’d been following around all year. But I instead volunteered to help a man become mayor of Kansas City. I worked for a while in the Mayor’s Office. Everything went wrong and my mayor’s foibles wound up on the front page of the NYT and Wall Street Journal.
I thought for sure I had a book. The story had gone national, and I had a backstage pass.
The first proposal I wrote was about corruption. The agent said no, the corruption of a politician is not a surprise and it doesn’t merit a book. Also, she told me that the only books New York publishers wanted at that time (during the early stages of the recession) were Big Books—comprehensive, confrontational, startling.
So I reworked that story to make it about the American city and how its downfall could bring down the whole nation. She read the proposal and said it was “all over the place.”
I rewrote it to make it about race relations in big cities. That proposal was even messier.
I got a new agent. She suggested I make the story about the death of the American newspaper. “Everybody’s talking about that around here,” she said, meaning in New York.
That tack almost worked.
The only obstacle I couldn’t clear was the question of what the newspaper industry would look like two or three years down the line, when my book would come out and would have to fit in with whatever conversations they’d be having in New York.
If I’m tackling a puzzle like that, I’ve gotten far away from where I need to be as a writer, which is working on a book that I would like to read, regardless of how it plays in New York.
So I dropped everything and went on tour with The Dead.
While traveling from concert to concert I got to thinking about all the crazy times I had in high school, partying.
Initially, I thought of writing an advice book about how to succeed in life even if you’re a high school burnout, which is a really stupid idea.
But then I looked on my new agent’s website and saw that she was wanted young adult books. I immediately thought of my junior year when I helped my best friend, a stoner and major acid head, get elected as student body president.
I thought, Wow. It’d be a blast to write about that.
So that’s what I’ve been doing for the last year and a half.
Meantime, my earlier nonfiction projects are starting to come back to life—the family memoir in particular. But this time around I’m not thinking at all about how these stories will play in New York. I’m thinking about how to put them together into a book I would like to read.
Which is exactly what I did with my first book, which actually became a book.