Sunday, July 27, 2014

Why "The Gimmick" probably won't work for me

People who have followed my blog or my other adventures over the years know that one of my lifelong dreams was to write novels and have them be commercially successful.

I'd hoped to achieve that goal by using something I called the gimmick, which meant that I'd use my disability to get a novel published and help promote it.

Over the years, autism has become a hot topic in the media as anyone who is interested in it well knows.  So, why not an autistic novelist who writes novels about autistic subject matter not be something that a lot of people in the general public would lap up and take an interest in? Why can't I be on Oprah (or equivalent as I guess Oprah is doing some other gig now), sixty minutes, the today show, various NPR shows such as Fresh Air and All things Considered, and, as a result, sell novels by the truckload and then have my second (and only self-published) novel, "The Mu Rhythm Bluff" made into a major motion picture?  In my own particular case, (just talking about myself and not necessarily another aspiring autistic novelist) there are likely a variety of reasons why not, which I'll discuss in this blog post.

In previous posts, I've written about my trials and tribulations as a writer, but I'll repeat those here in case anyone hasn't read my previous posts or is interested in having their memory refreshed.

When I was about thirteen, during my last year of special ed, I decided I wanted to be a writer, particularly a novelist, though I hadn't read a great many novels at the time.  I'm not sure what made me want to be a writer or when I exactly decided it.  The following year, at age fourteen, I was finally mainstreamed in regular school.  I decided to attempt to write my first novel about two boys with mental retardation who befriend each other and overcome the stigma society had placed on them.  Writing a novel would seem something extraordinary for even a typical fourteen year old.  However, at that time, I was a fourteen year-old boy who had  had virtually no mainstream education (the exception being a regular private school I attended for half a semester before being expelled for behavioral issues, a couple of years before I permanently left special ed).  I was too handicapped and disorganized at the time to write more than about 50 single spaced pages of this novel.  My disability made it hard for me to do much of anything and I spent a lot of time twiddling (self-stimulatory behavior).  I made other attempts to write novels during a tumultuous adolescence, including "Going Through the Doors" about a neurotic teenager who attempts to solve his problems through LSD use and gets involved in Vietnam demonstrations.  "Going through the doors" is the most recent novel I've written, but more on that later.

I finally gave up on trying to write a novel as I struggled through college, though the dream never went away as I had a few ideas for stories, but my autism made it so difficult for me to do any executive planning or get tasks done.

Many years later, in my late 30s, I became friends with an individual with schizophrenia who was a prolific and gifted short story writer.  I told him I'd wanted to write a novel but couldn't do it.  He suggested I write short stories instead as they did not take as much effort or duration.  It sounded like a good idea and I ended up writing sixteen of them.  I tried to get them published without any success.  I got a few encouraging rejection slips which made me think I had some talent as a writer.  Glimmer Train stories, one of the more prestigious places you can get a story published wrote, 'quite a moving piece, enjoyed it' on the rejection slip after I submitted my story, "Mr. Twiddle" to them.

I still wanted to write a novel though and I began work on "The School of Hard Knocks", my first novel.  I took a private writing class with a teacher who I later learned was a less than ethical individual.  He told me I'd written what was the makings of a good novel and said he believed that one day it would be published.

I also met fellow participant Tamar Brott, a freelance journalist who wrote for Los Angeles Magazine and also did radio shows for NPR.  Her work had been broadcast on Studio 360 and This American Life.  I told her about the gimmick and what it meant and this intrigued her.  She thought it would be a good idea for a radio show on This American Life.  She pitched the story to the producers, including the renowned Ira Glass, who loved it.  She interviewed me and told me the show would be a done deal.  The Teacher of the Literature reading and writing course told me this would guarantee that my novel would be published.  I was already beginning to count the chickens of stardom before the eggs had been hatched.  This American Life decided not to run my show as they believed the way Tamar had written it was too negative.  I would not get to be on national radio and the gimmick would fail to come to fruition. In spite of this,  I submitted the novel to several agents.  Susan Ramer took an interest in reading the first 100 pages and then rejected it, as did nine other agents.

By this time, I'd moved on and had taken a couple of novel writing courses at UCLA extension and had some freelance editors look at the school of hard knocks.  They all agreed it needed major work and one editor even went to far to say it would be a waste of time to edit it.  Tamar was subsequently able to get our show aired on Studio 360, another NPR show that takes on topics in the arts, though they don't have as big an audience as This American Life.  This did not result in any publishers or agents approaching me and I realized it would have been a fool's errand to approach them with this particular novel as it stood.   

Though devastated, I'd learned an important lesson.  In order for the gimmick to work I needed to have the goods, i.e. a novel ready for submission for publication that would hold reader's interests.  The School of Hard Knocks had failed on this front.  This is the first reason the gimmick probably won't work for me.  Though I've evolved a bit as a writer, the writing has to be good enough to rise above the rest of the slush pile and I'm not sure I'm capable of that.  A few people though did tell me they loved "The Mu Rhythm Bluff" and I'm gratified for at least that.  

Some years later, I wrote "The Mu Rhythm Bluff" my second novel.  Hopefully I'd learned some lessons about writing since "The School of Hard Knocks"  I submitted it to nine agents and was rejected.  Only one or two even bothered to answer me, unlike several years previously when I briefly shopped the school of hard knocks around and every action wrote me back saying they were stepping aside.  I'd learned that because of the internet and digital publishing there had been great changes in the industry.  As difficult as it had always been for a new writer to break in, it was now all but impossible.  The only upside was that with the advent of Amazon's create space and kindle direct publishing plantforms, self-publishing a novel and selling it had become a much more viable option.  I decided to go with this one.

I wrote to reviewers, studio 360 whose show I'd been on before, Oliver Sacks and some others and they all rebuffed me or did not answer me.  There, were of course, others in the autism field who might have been able to help me out, but I didn't care for Temple Grandin, Simon Baron-Cohen, the people who believe that vaccines cause autism and least of all for the collective membership of the neurodiversity movement.

Another individual I'd met from the autism world who'd  taken an interest in me was Steve Edelson who had taken over running the Autism Research Institute.  I disagreed with him on many points, but still maintained a friendly relationship with him. 

Though many studies had refuted secretin as an effective autism treatment, Edelson still pushed this (not to mention many other questionable autism treatments) as a legitimate treatment.  I wrote some unfavorable blog posts about secretin and Edelson's positions on it.  I emailed him telling him about this and he was rather appaled and that ended our friendship.  He's not someone who I really could ask to help me publicize my work.

I contacted autism speaks by email and told them about it and never heard back from them.  I've been a harsh critic of autism speaks in the past so that may have had something to do with it.

I tried to contact the autism society in Maryland but just got an answer machine and apparently getting a human to return your call from them is difficult.  I'd been very critical of them in the past though for having endorsed Ari Ne'eman's appointment to the NCD as well as having Alex Plank as their keynote speaker at one of their conferences one year and maybe that had something to do with it.

I did contact the L.A. chapter and they featured me in a newsletter in the beginning of July and I sold 6 books since July 1 probably because of that article, so it probably helped me somewhat.

So, in sum, I either have had poor relations or made outright enemies with the group that has the most potential to help me publicize my novels.  This and the fact I may be incapable of writing a publishable novel are two of the main reasons why the gimmick probably won't work for me.

Another reason is that if they wanted to use someone in a gimmick, they might want someone younger and sexier than myself.  Now that I'm nearly fifty-nine years old, I really don't fit that bill.

I've now written "Going Through the Doors", one of the novels I'd attempted to write in the 1970's during my adolescence.  Though I'd failed to be able to write it at the time it would have been contemporary fiction, I'm sort of glad I wrote it later in my life.  It seems far more interesting to have written it as a historical novel as a man in my late fifties than it would have been to have written it as a present day novel in my teens.  At this point in time, I'm submitting GTtD to the internet writer's workshop where some beta readers are pointing out ways I can edit it and improve it so that it is either ready for submission or self publication.  I'm still not sure what I'm going to do with it.  I'm not sure if there is any point in submitting it to a publisher, agent or self publishing it on amazon's KDP and create space platforms.  One of the reasons why using the gimmick for this probably wouldn't work is because it has no relevance to autism and for a novel by an autistic novelist to get attention it would probably have to have an autism-related theme the way "The School of Hard Knocks" and "The Mu Rhythm Bluff" did, aside from the fact I've managed to piss off the majority of the autism community, my novels may not be good or publishable and I'm an unsexy 58-year-old.

I'm currently working no a novel length version of my short story, "Dog Bites Man" but this has the same problem as "Going Through the Doors" in not being autism related.

Other options I have that I haven't explored yet are to have business cards made up of "The mu Rhythm Bluff" and maybe going to some autism conferences and handing them out.  I'm not sure when I'll do this though, as I still have problems with organization and executive function in spite of the fact I was finally able to write a few novels well into middle age.  

I have no regrets though.  As superficial a person as I am, I'm not going to be an obsequious yes man just to get some books published and/or sold.

Hopefully I'll be able to continue writing for the remaining years I have left on this planet.  I'll still write for the joy of writing, but it does not look like the gimmick will work for me. 

1 comment:

Joe said...

Hey there Jonathan,
Though we see a lot of things differently, I see parallels in your and my situations. I am am basically enthralled by analog electronics, but only things that attract my fancy. i just can't apply myself to things important to the world, so I nevertheless work on my own projects which I think often show some nifty tricks that I happen to get lucky and think of. I am too unreliable in productivity to make a living at anything, however.

So, keep writing if that attracts your fancy, and do like me if you have to and spend the rest of your time trying to figure out how to survive on poverty income. I don't see any other way for us.