Unpublished: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love A Bomb

UNPUBLISHED

On a very special Agents of GUARD . . .

In April of 2012, the second novel I’d ever written became my first published book. It was the greatest moment of my life. Less than a year later, in March of 2013, the publisher went out of business. Just like that, my first and only novel was unpublished.

“The loneliest moment in someone’s life is when they are watching their whole world fall apart, and all they can do is stare blankly.” Fitzgerald said that, in Gatsby.

I’ve been an aspiring writer my entire life, ever since my first story won an award at the tender age of 7. It probably shouldn’t have won anything: it was mostly just the plot of “Fern Gully” but with penguins as the protagonists (for some reason). But I remember the feeling of making things up and seeing them transform into words that morphed into other people’s thoughts. It was prestidigitation of the best kind, and I was in love.

I fiddled with writing after that, throughout elementary, junior high, and high school, intoxicated with what I considered my own incredible talent. My first drafts were perfect, my prose made violin concertos sound like pots and pans falling down stairs: I was the finest writer in the world. I was a kid, and I didn’t know any better. I wrote monster stories and fantasy stories, fan-fiction and online roleplaying, and I reveled in every second of it. My teachers told me how magnificent I was, a prodigy, and I believed it because  . . . fucking why not? I absolutely knew I’d make a million dollars before I turned 19, and I’d have my own private island by the time I was an old man of 23. Perhaps at 30 I’d punch God in the mouth or something, I’d to play it by ear.

“Uh oh.”

 

I penned my first novel from ages 19 to 21, and it was an overlong mess of cliche dog shit. If you think I’m being too mean to myself, consider this: the story, a high-fantasy, involved a naive farmboy (!) getting swept up into a war cause by a greedy Empire (!!), and discovering along the way that he had magic powers (!!!) and was pretty damn skilled with his father’s sword (!!!!!!!!). In my defense, the characters were fantastic. If that helps. Anyway, the book proved to be a college education – you never learn more about how to construct a novel then from writing a really terrible one and trying to fix it. I spent almost a year rewriting and reframing and spackling that book – I’ve read it so many times it’s etched into the back of my fucking eyelids.

I hurled that book at agents and editors for a good solid year, and they defended themselves with hundreds of rejection letters. I eventually declared the book on “permanent hiatus,” which is writer-speak for “locked in my desk drawer until I can find an Abyssal portal to drop it into.” It wasn’t easy, but not only did that book teach me how to write books, but it taught me how to handle rejection. There were weeks where I would open my mailbox every day to find five fresh letters from New York City nestled there. I’d take them out and turn them over in my hand, feeling eels slither around inside my guts. Every letter was a possibility, every letter lifted me into the land of “What If,” and every letter smacked me back down into the land of “What Ain’t.” I learned, with more force than it should have taken, that I wasn’t a magically gifted ultra-prodigy decanted straight from Stephen King’s teat. I was, in fact, just a pretty good writer who, maybe, might work his way up to pretty great if he put his back into it.

So, I tried to write another book. It wasn’t going anywhere, so I dropped it a quarter of the way in, because I’d learned that sometimes it was better to let the lion’s tail go then to get bitten in the skull out of stubbornness. Somewhere in the middle of some more cognitive reframing, I decided that maybe I wasn’t ready for fantasy writing just yet. World-building is no joke, and having to layer in the politics and physics and backstory of an entire universe alongside a half-decent story might have been a bridge too far for an untested amateur scribe.

So I remembered something else I loved besides swords-and-sorcery: Buffy the Vampire Slayer. And World of Darkness. And Blade. Stories set in contemporary times (so you don’t have to explain what a car or a hotdog is every twelve seconds), but with badass fantasy elements and wonderfully drawn characters. “I can do that,” I said, with the beautiful arrogance of naivete. “Let’s do that!”

This lead to my second book, DEADGIRL, a story of a normal girl tossed into the machine of the afterlife and left to fend for her stubborn self. The experience of writing it couldn’t have been more different from my first novel. My first novel felt like bolting together a full-size aircraft carrier all by myself in a dark room. Writing DEADGIRL felt like slow dancing with a beautiful woman who was way into me. It just happened, and the story worked, even in the first draft. Now, it needed a lot of editing, because all first drafts are terrible, but it didn’t require the epic rehaul that had nearly broken my back during my first book.

Sidenote: If a writer ever tells you his first drafts are great, none of his drafts are great.

Anyway, all the subsequent drafts of DEADGIRL were finished in a matter of months, and I was giddy to get that bad boy on the market. I got only a few dozen rejection letters from agents before I started to get real, actual bites, and I mean bites, plural – multiple agents were asking for more chapters, sometimes even for the whole manuscript! I’d never felt teeth once during the entire run of my first book!

A pair of wondrous creatures at the Belcastro Literary Agency picked up my book first, and my then-fiance (now wife) and I celebrated with enough cheese and wine to choke a small French hamlet. I’d signed with an honest-to-God literary agent! I’d signed things! About writing! Fuck me sideways, the world is new again. From there, they found editors willing to take bites, editors at places like Harper-Collins and Penguin. You’ve never seen a giddier idiot than I. I could deflect bullets with my chest, I could lift the Earth with one arm and bellow laughter like Reorx, the dwarven god of Krynn.

The book found a home at a small indie publisher that shall remain nameless. This didn’t surprise me – it was my first novel, and the publishing industry is harder to get into now than it ever has been in the past, especially with the big boys. But I didn’t care! I’d developed enough perspective to know that a writing career isn’t a lottery ticket. You start at the bottom, and you work. You work your whole life. I was just happy to finally get a Chuck Taylor All-Star in the door. The publisher had a promising model, a great contract, and what looked like a future.

DEADGIRL did decent business for an indie novel with a marketing team made up of yours truly and no one else. Four of our very own Agents of GUARD even helped put together a book trailer for the novel: Agent Patrick on set, Agent Nate producing, Agent Earl as the main villain, and Agent Justin at the helm. And, behold my incredible wonder and endless gratitude, the book had great reviews! 60 or so ratings on Goodreads, almost 30 on Amazon, and both holding firm at a four-star rating.

So, imagine my surprise when I got this letter on a lazy Sunday in March of 2013. I was sitting on the couch at my parents house, enjoying a horror movie and a cold Corona, when my laptop delivered this news like a messenger from Verona. This is the letter, word-for-word, with publisher redacted:

Reference is made to the agreements between you and [the publisher] regarding your story Dead Girl. As of March 18, [the publisher] is closing and liquidating its business due to the economy and lackluster sales. As the book Dead Girl is being taken off the market, we hereby confirm that all rights previously granted to us now revert back to you. The book will be pulled from all sales sources.

They weren’t informing me that the book was going off the market: it had already been done. I jumped over to Amazon, then Barnes and Noble, then Google Books. Look at that. I’d gotten 11 months of the only thing I’d ever wanted in the world, and then the shop was closed. “Hope you enjoyed the ride, Bobby. Please exit your life goal on the left, and remember not to leave your wallet or keys on the ride.”

There is something worse than not reaching your goal. Because, you see, not reaching a goal means it is still in front of you. You can see it on your path, however hazy. There’s a feeling in your heart, building, for that place. For that dream. You know it will feel like Christmas wrapped in a pancake; it will feel like coming home. I spent 11 months in that place. I’d been dreaming of it since I was seven years old.

There is something worse than not reaching your goal, and that is reaching it, living inside of it, and then have it torn out of your hands. The goal is not in front of you, now, it’s behind you. It’s something you did “for awhile.” Telling my friends and family that I’d finally been published had been the proudest moment of my life, and after that letter the memory turned to battery acid on my tongue. I’d have to tell everyone I knew that I’d failed. For the six months or so it took to run into every member of my family and all my friends, I kept having this conversation, over and over and over again.

“How’s the book going?!”

“Oh. I, um. Well. It’s actually not, really, published. Anymore.”

Cue looks of pity/disappointment. Then, look forward to having this conversation about four hundred more times as you admit to everyone in your life that you’re a complete fraud.

I finally understand.

 

Was it my fault the publisher collapsed? I knew in my head that it wasn’t. We’re in the middle of a global depression, and the publishing business is taking it on the chin just like everyone else. An indie publisher is not solid rock, I knew that. DEADGIRL could have sales through the roof and it still couldn’t float an entire publishing company. I knew that, too. My wife told me that I wasn’t “unpublished.” When she reads this article, she’ll probably whack me with my gargoyle paperweight just for using the term. “Bobby, you’re still a published author,” she told me. “No one can take that away from you.” My brother told me much the same thing.

“Go buy a copy of my book then,” I said, because I’m a sarcastic dick. “Any copy, of my one book. I’ll wait.”

Combine this with a pretty bad day job situation, and you had a delicious recipe for crippling depression. To say it has been the most difficult period of my entire life would not be an overstatement. I questioned my entire existence, my purpose, my faith. I’d known what I wanted to do for a living my entire life. Now . . . what? Good luck, failed author from a defunct publisher.

Now, I’m not telling this story for a “woe is me” pity party. I’m telling this story because I wanted to share a story about a creator. We talk about creators a lot on Agents of GUARD, and I thought I’d share something with our audience from that perspective instead of my usual “man, jokes about cock sure are hilarious” oeuvre. But, more importantly, I wanted to tell you this: Everything sucks, until it doesn’t.

It’s not Oscar Wilde, I’ll admit, but it’s true, and it bears repeating.

Everything sucks, until it doesn’t. Eventually, I got so tired and sick of feeling like shit, of having no energy, of feeling like the entire world was leaning on my shoulders pushing me into the dirt. I wasn’t just tired of being listless and depressed, I was angry. I finally stood up and flipped off the sky and said, “I will not be defined by circumstances outside of my control. I wrote a good book, dammit. I didn’t run a publisher into the ground, I didn’t make the economy shitty. I wrote a good book. And it’s time to move on.”

I stopped worrying about getting a new contract, I stopped worrying about “the business,” and I stopped stressing about the future. I went to my wife and said, “That’s it. I don’t care if I ever get published again. I’m going to write good stories. I’m going to work and I’m going to live and I’m going to stop fucking mourning.”

Basically.

 

One week later my agents told me they’d found a publisher for DEADGIRL. A great publisher. After almost a year of living in the wreckage of my dream, the moment I’d finally let it all go was the moment the universe delivered. I don’t know if it was God or karma or just some really badass literary agents (thanks Sharon and Ella!) but I know that I wasn’t ready for everything to work out until I removed my sense of self-worth from the uncontrollable tides of a business that was out of my hands.

Everything sucks, until it doesn’t. You don’t have to hurt yourself, you don’t have to become a goddam ghost in your own body, and you don’t have to fix things you didn’t break.

Be amazing. Then, when it all goes to shit, keep being amazing. The world will catch on.

Anyway, DEADGIRL is coming this Fall with Curiosity Quills Press. New cover, a sequel in the works, the whole deal. Plug plug plug.

About Bobby Johnson

Part-time swashbuckler and professional writer, Agent Bobby lives in Southern California and goes by the names "B.C. Johnson," "Banjo Bob," and "The Amazing Spider-Man." His "Deadgirl" book series (think Buffy meets Stephen King) is available for Kindle, Nook, and even old dusty paperback and can be found at bc-johnson.com. When he's not writing or playing video games, he can be found writing about playing video games and occasionally sleeping.