WHAT THE HELL

Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like

End notes …

Where the long road has led me (metaphorically, that is)

I might very well be finished writing novels.

That’s not an easy thing for me to write. It’s like saying my heart has stopped beating or I don’t like music anymore. I’ve been writing novels since I was in my mid-twenties. Forty years. I’ve managed to coax seven of them into published existence.

But my experience over the last decade has driven home in a big way that writing novels, at least the kind I like to write, has been relegated to the category of hobbyism. I swore a long time ago that I’d have to quit if my writing ever took on the tinge of a hobby. A hobby is something like making decorative birdhouses in your basement. Stenciling celebrity portraits on Ikea dinner plates. Knitting humorous cummerbunds (that one’s from George Carlin). I can’t allow myself to think of my books as anything like that.

And that puts me in a tough spot, because the main thing I’ve learned since 2013, when I self-published my second novel, Yesterday Road, is that selling literary fiction is next to impossible, and attracting agent interest in my new work is definitely impossible. Those were the two avenues I saw as potential ways to get my stuff out, and now I know they’re both obstructed with large, undeniable signage: ROAD CLOSED.

There’s nowhere to turn. And, not to gripe any more than usual, but my last few books have garnered fewer and fewer sales and reviews, to the point where I know all the participants by their first names.

The Prospect, my latest, sits on Amazon with seven reviews after almost three months of availability. Some people who promised reviews never delivered. That’s life. Self-publishing is like direct mail: You put out a lot of invitations in the hopes that maybe 2% of them yield something.

Eternity Began Tomorrow has eight reviews. Fascination, 10.

In contrast, Yesterday Road attracted 42. Wow, those were the days.

You can imagine that a guy’s motivation takes a hit with data like this staring him in the face. That’s why I’m plum out of ideas for new books. I got nothin’. Nowadays I keep anticipating the inevitable failure. I know the outcome ahead of the game. The months of composition and revising will be like spinning my wheels in sand dunes, and I’ll get a big case of heartache at the end of the day. And a lot of sand in my underpants.

I’m just telling you how I feel about all of this, at this stage of the game. There’s nothing that can be done about it. I’ve driven the clown car about as far as it can reasonably be expected to go, a lot of it on fumes.

But this isn’t to say I’m done publishing. I have two more books I want to get out in the indie market, both already written, revised, and polished. I’ve been holding onto them, dreaming of an agent’s enthusiasm. No such luck. Now I’m officially out of projects for queries, so it’s time to get going on those two.

One, set in the summer of 1973, is called Three For a Girl, and I’ll publish it first, next spring, in honor of the 50th anniversary of the Senate Watergate Hearings, which figure in the story. I’ve already designed the cover and can’t wait to show it to you.

The other, which will be my last, is The Autumn of Certainty, and it’s a big novel about baseball and the death penalty, set during the Depression. It’ll be a good one to go out on.

Of course, all of this might prove to be baloney if an idea strikes me that I can’t help but pursue. It’s just that, as of right now, from where I sit, my imagination can’t quite see that happening.

As the great Japanese novelist, Yukio Mishima, said, just before committing seppuku: “I don’t think they even heard me.”

Photo by Daniel Newman on Unsplash.

38 comments on “End notes …

  1. kingmidget
    July 18, 2022

    As you know, I share many of your frustrations. One of the many reasons for the writer’s block that descended on my life for years was the question of “why am I doing this if I can’t find any readers?” I’m trying to set aside that issue and just publish what I finish. And while the “new story” idea machine has mostly dried up, I still have at last half a dozen partially complete novels/novellas that I’d like to see through to the end. So, that’s what I’m doing now … working through those ideas one at a time. If and when I finally get through all of them, we’ll see what I feel like doing next.

    Your last two books sound incredible.

    • Kevin Brennan
      July 18, 2022

      Thanks, Mark. I’ve always hoped an agent would pick up another project and then represent these last two.

      I think the main thing for me right now is fatigue. I have a bunch of partials I could work on too, but I don’t think my brain could do them justice at this point.

      Not that it’s impossible things could change. Like Lori says, Never say never.

      • kingmidget
        July 18, 2022

        I totally get it. The second of the two books you described, in particular, just seems like the kind of book … just really intriguing.

      • kingmidget
        July 18, 2022

        One more thing I meant to comment on … lack of reviews. One of the worst things Amazon has done is allow a rating that doesn’t include a review. Just a complete mystery at this point what raters are thinking. And even with that, trying to get ratings and reviews is virtually impossible. I see it across the board with most indie books I read.

      • Kevin Brennan
        July 18, 2022

        I don’t mind reviewless ratings, since they’re counted, and that number is what people look at. Sometimes people don’t have time to write out a coherent review, but they’re happy to plop four or five stars on it. The evil ones are the one-star ratings with no review. A special place in hell …

  2. Audrey Driscoll
    July 18, 2022

    Readers don’t write reviews as readily as they used to. Not sure why, but I bet distraction and attention span has something to do with it.

    • Kevin Brennan
      July 18, 2022

      I’m sure you’re right, Audrey. Ten years ago there were fewer distractions than today, as strange as that sounds. On the other hand, it’s easy to give a star rating without a review, and people don’t even bother with that!

      • Audrey Driscoll
        July 18, 2022

        Yeah, but you have to click over to Amazon and make a decision. A whole minute lost there. And the ‘Zon even sends emails prompting purchasers to rate or review!

      • Kevin Brennan
        July 18, 2022

        Exquisite sarcasm. 😉

  3. loristory
    July 18, 2022

    I feel your pain, but never say never. Oops, I just said it. Well, don’t often say never. And I agree with kingmidget, those last two books sound great. I like how you combine popular pastimes with heavy topics.

  4. pinklightsabre
    July 18, 2022

    Regardless Kevin, you’ve done it. And to some extent TBD, you’ll keep doing it. No small feat, no “hobby,” true passion and commitment through all the painstaking valleys and dark forests. I hope there’s satisfaction in that, though I can’t altogether relate because for me, I am in the realm of hobby. In fact I remember a time a German boy from my mom’s village asked me about my writing in his good English, and said “I suppose everyone needs a hobby.” And that was like a sock in the gut but it was true! Hasn’t been as hobby for you. Sorry you feel this way now but hopefully you’ll pass into another phase with it, and no one (not even you) will be able to take it out of you.

    • Kevin Brennan
      July 18, 2022

      Thanks for the vote of confidence, Bill. Helps. I’m sure you know the feeling of doubting that you have the mojo to get back up on that horse. It’s part and parcel of the writing thing. I remember a similar moment, a lot of years ago now, when I got some bad writing news and just had to go and climb a mountain in Point Reyes, and when I came back down I felt a lot less mad about it all and kept going.

      They key to that story though is “a lot of years ago now.”

      • pinklightsabre
        July 19, 2022

        You’re welcome, thanks for being real about things (and thanks for a lot more than that). I actually rode a horse for the first time yesterday (a mule to be exact) and we could have fun with the analogy about what it does to your rump and how you have to build up callouses and then yes, to your point, having the mojo to get back on. You’ve got it, the mojo. Be well old buddy.

      • Kevin Brennan
        July 19, 2022

        🙏

  5. Pamela Beckford
    July 18, 2022

    I apologize – I pretty much quit writing reviews of all the books I read and just give them star ratings. But I probably should rethink that policy for the indie writers. I just put one up on Goodreads and Amazon for you.

    • Kevin Brennan
      July 18, 2022

      Hey, thanks Pamela! And for what it’s worth, I owe a few people reviews that I haven’t gotten around to yet. We’re all pulled in a thousand different directions.

  6. Audrey Kalman
    July 18, 2022

    I’m a few hundred miles behind you, enthusiastically querying agents for my latest. I’ve been down the agent query road before, so I have no illusions about the challenges. And I’ve seen the changes in publishing from the inside out. It certainly is a different game than it was when I worked for a major publisher in the 1980s.

    All that said, I started writing long before I had an audience and I will probably continue long after. I suppose one could define what I do as a “hobby,” to me it feels as vital as breathing. Although I do understand the overwhelm, exhaustion, and apparent futility of shouting into the void…

    (P.S. Guilty as charged. I confess to being one of those who promised a review and didn’t deliver. There’s really no excuse–except distraction and being consumed by my own work–especially from a fellow author.)

    • Kevin Brennan
      July 18, 2022

      I’ve been really open-minded about agents, usually not giving up until I hit a hundred or so rejections/no responses. It’s hard to look at the spreadsheets! On the other hand, I’ve had five agents in my career, but none since 2008. Something definitely changed in there somewhere.

      We all do this for our own reasons, and God knows my reasons change all the time. I’m glad you’re so solid about it.

      As for the review, ego te absolvo. 😉 You weren’t the only one by a long shot. And by the way, I always say when I ask openly for reviews that they don’t have to be elaborate. Readers appreciate succinct comments that encapsulate why the book worked (or didn’t) for the reviewer.

  7. Gary Trujillo
    July 18, 2022

    If you are an unknown novelist these days your best bet is if someone famous wants to turn the book into a movie. Or win the lottery. The lottery probably has better odds.

    • Kevin Brennan
      July 18, 2022

      Every now and then you hear of an indie novel that got made into a movie. Astronomical odds. And usually it’s after the indie book got picked up by a trad. publisher first. I’d rather not waste my precious supply of unreasonable hopes.

  8. Berthold Gambrel
    July 18, 2022

    First of all, those two upcoming books sound great. I’m looking forward to them already!

    Second, if it’s any kind of consolation… I believe that all those hours spent editing, revising etc. aren’t wasted, even if you only get a few readers. I really enjoyed “The Prospect”, and I know others did, too. I wish you had many more readers, of course, but you should know that your existing readers appreciate all the work you put in.

    I guess what I’m driving at is, I don’t think you should view it as failure. “Fascination” may only have 10 reviews on Amazon, but it’s still a really great book, and just the fact you wrote is something to be proud of.

    I know, I know… you can’t make a living off good vibes and the satisfaction of a job well done. That’s true enough. But great work is still great, even if only a handful of people are discovering it.

    P.S. Wow, I did not know those were Mishima’s last words. I’ve only read one book by him, (“Sun and Steel”) but it really stuck with me.

    • Kevin Brennan
      July 19, 2022

      I guess I have an expectations gap I can’t seem to overcome. I had a novel published by HarperCollins. I was on a panel of Emerging Voices at the BEA convention one year. I did radio interviews and readings, saw my book reviewed in the San Francisco Chronicle and the Denver Post among others. It’s been hard not to have all of that in the back of my mind as still achievable. But the business has evolved since then and not in a good way for writers like me.

      • Berthold Gambrel
        July 19, 2022

        Maybe the business has DEvolved… And yes, I can see how that would be very frustrating. :/

  9. Luanne
    July 18, 2022

    Ugh, what a quote. And look how he underestimated his sway and his appeal. So just keep on keeping on is my advice.

  10. Cinthia
    July 19, 2022

    I just wrote a long and encouraging response but it never posted, sigh, sigh. I’ll try again later (I have Long Covid and my mind is still a bit blurry, so maybe I accidentally deleted it??).

    • Kevin Brennan
      July 19, 2022

      It’s so weird this time around, Cin. Sometimes it takes days for a review to appear, and sometimes it never shows up. I think the algorithm detects a connection between writer and reviewer and omits it! Thanks for trying tho!

  11. denizb33
    July 20, 2022

    I hear you on the difficulties of the process. I just received a royalty statement for the one book that I have that’s traditionally published, and it was a big fat zero. Yikes!
    The only thing I can’t seem to do is to stop writing, which is a lovely feeling on its own. So I’ll just keep writing as long as I have ideas and put everything else aside for now, especially agent hunting!

    • Kevin Brennan
      July 20, 2022

      Anyone who has ideas to be explored should keep writing. We’re all on a different journey, so what’s good for me won’t fit someone else. Good luck with the agent search!

  12. cinthiaritchie
    July 20, 2022

    Why can’t I post on this site? This is like the third time I’ve tried to post this.

    I’m wondering if we’re all looking at writing in the wrong way. Like, maybe it’s not about the sales or the money, maybe it’s about reaching out and touching people’s lives and changing, if only for a moment or two, their perspectives. I know that sounds corny, but that’s why I became a writer. And then I unfortunately became caught up in the sales and is this book successful and how many reviews or likes does it have, blah, blah, blah. And I stopped writing.
    But listen: Today I received an email from a woman who 10 years ago read a poem I’d published in a very small literary magazine. She was 15 at the time and going through a hard spot in her life, and that poem was her lifeline. She thanked me and told me that she’s a writer today because of my influence.
    All of this from one poem, a poem that certainly wasn’t my best.
    So we don’t know where our writing will take us, who will read it, what it will mean to them or their lives. I’ve found some of my most beloved books in the oddest places, almost as if they were waiting for me to find them.
    And Kevin, remember how we met? I’d read one of your books, I think it was “Our Children are Not Our Children” and I reached out to you and we connected? And then I read the rest of your books, and living out West, scenes from “Town Father” flit through my mind often. Does that mean you’re successful? Is it better to deeply touch another person’s life or sell a bunch of books that people will read and promptly forget?
    I don’t know about you but I’d rather touch that one person. I’d rather have that type of success. (Though of course, the big aim would be to sell a lot of books that also deeply touch others, lol).
    Take care and keep writing, Kev.

    • Kevin Brennan
      July 20, 2022

      I know exactly what you mean, and I’ve had lots of one-on-one experiences with readers that have really touched me. I also have a lot of material already out there ready to be seen by touchable readers. I guess my problem right now is coming up with new stuff I feel completely invested in so that it’s up to my own standards. As things have been going, I haven’t been able to do it lately. Which is OK with me now. I have poetry and flash fiction to occupy me, and songwriting, and walking on trails, and making friends with neighborhood horses. It’s all good.

      We do go quite a ways back, don’t we? I think we’ve seen it all together these last 9.5 years.

      Thanks for the pep talk. 🤗

  13. Pingback: L’excuse de Berthold Gambrel

  14. chucklitka
    July 22, 2022

    I think the lack of reviews can be simply explained by the fact that ebook reading, and self-publishing are no longer new. I have a couple of books from the first years of the comic “Gasoline Alley” — when cars were so new that there was a comic strip about car owners and car owners getting together to mess with them. The same is true when computers were new. My dad was a member of a Commodore 64 club back in the day. When the Kindle came out and people started reading and writing for the Kindle, it was new and exciting. Writing your very own book reviews was part of the newness. It ain’t new anymore. It is just part of the landscape, and well, ebook readers are now a very focused readership. If you are not writing for them, you’re not going to find many free-range readers these days.
    Maybe I’m lucky in that I’m quite content to be an amateur writer who writes for the love of it. I sell my books for free, because why not? “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing badly,” or at least for free. Hope you can find the worth of writing again soon. And let me add that at 72, ideas come very slowly to me as well — every book has the potential to be my last… even if I don’t die. We’ll just have to see, won’t we?

    • Kevin Brennan
      July 22, 2022

      You might be right about adaptation to the tech. Good analogy with Gasoline Alley! The Catch-22 is that promotional sites use number of reviews as a way of screening the books they accept, so you’re kind of screwed at the outset if you don’t have some minimum number.

      I’m 65, so not too far back in your wake, and I’ve been at this a long long time. Part of my situation right now is simple exhaustion. Which, who knows, could pass after a little R&R.

      Thanks for commenting!

  15. lydiaschoch
    July 23, 2022

    I found this post through a link on Berthold Gambrel’s blog.

    Yeah, I hear you. It’s deeply disheartening to work so hard on a book only to get a handful of reviews for it.

    I’m sorry the world is like this. 😦

    • Kevin Brennan
      July 23, 2022

      “Disheartening” is just the right word. I think writers have to invest a lot of heart to bring a book to fruition, and that’s not easy when you’re disheartened.

      C’est la vie, I guess …

  16. Pingback: End notes … – Nelsapy

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