Ask someone for their stereotypical image of a writer and you may get the picture of the haunted miserablist starving somewhere in a garret. Any of us who attempt writing have that part of ourselves and generally agree that we can have a less than positive outlook on life, Lord knows that more than includes me. But I wonder if sometimes we don’t acknowledge just how positive about things part of us really are.
After all, we keep working, we keep trying, we keep putting a huge chunk of our lives into something and can all acknowledge that there may never be a positive outcome to it. Maybe it’s not positivity, in fact; maybe it’s just that old definition of insanity, doing the same thing over and over again expecting a different result. In a lot of ways it reminds me of the arcade games I, and probably many of you, would have played as a kid. For those not old enough to remember I’m not talking about the modern immersive online words of the Fantasy Role-Playing games or the Grand Theft Auto series, or similar, no, I’m talking about the old cabinets that stood side by side whistling and beeping to us, enticing us, and our money, in.
These were the games we’d play with our diminishing pockets of change. Insert a coin; try as hard as we could to advance up the levels, each one tougher than the last, until that eventual defeat and the dreaded GAME OVER screen. Many would have thought, fair enough, I’ve given it a go, had a little entertainment for my money now I’ll move on or go home. But some of us were the ones who stayed, who inserted another coin and started all over again, hoping this time we’d get that little bit further into the game.
We play the same game now. If you write for the pure pleasure of putting words on a page then this will be meaningless to you. If, however, you put your words on a page and then try to convince someone else not only to read them but to put them up online or publish them in a book, then you’re playing the game.
In the same way we all start off on the first level, trying to get someone else to like our work. As with the first level of many games you will get plenty of tips and hints, usually from the equivalent of another spotty-faced youngster peeking over your shoulder. Some of the tips may be worthwhile or some of them may be rubbish, offered by someone who’s no further along the game than you are. If you’re very skilful and very lucky you hammer those buttons and slam that joystick around in just the right combinations to get to the end of the level. Here you meet the traditional End-of-Level Boss, like when your manuscript lands on the desk of an agent or publisher. You might have special tricks and weapons to get by the Boss (a winning presentation, a finely-crafted synopsis) and you may or may not get through. If you do get through you’re on to the next level, if not you get the dreaded GAME OVER screen and you’re sent back to start all over again.
The submissions process, like competitions, is like the levels of an arcade game. You progress along, you may get shortlisted, you may get asked for a complete manuscript, you may get a chance to sit down and pitch directly to an agent or publisher, but, at the end of the day if they say no you get the dreaded screen and you go back to the start. Now it’s not a complete loss, after all, you now have a better idea of this level of the game, when you insert your coin and start again you’ll know some of the tricks, you’ll know to shoot left here, to jump right there, you may find an easier path to the big boss at the end of the level. And you get to do battle all over again.
Of course, having spoken to friends of mine who have advanced through various further levels of this game, each level has its own problems, its own pitfalls, and of course its own End-of-Level Boss, whether its editors, publishers, reviewers, the reading public or any number of obstacles. And of course even if you are successful at these levels you still end up with your GAME OVER screen where you have to insert your coin and start again with another book.
And yet we keep going, we keep trying. Every time I’ve submitted to an agent or publisher or I’ve entered a competition I’ve been playing the game. So far, while I’ve had a limited amount of success I still haven’t managed to beat my own End-of-Level Boss, but I keep going back, hoping that everything I’ve learned so far will help and I’ll be able to move on to the next level where I’ll have to start fighting all over again.
I’ve been lucky enough to be selected for the Date With An Agent organised as part of the Dublin Writers Festival where I, and the other successful applicants, will get a chance to pitch our work to an agent and advance in this crazy mad world in which we’ve chosen to spend our time.
Now let’s see if I can remember the combination this time
. . . .at least I think that’s it . . . .
(c) Colm O’Shea
Colm O’Shea is originally from Leixlip, County Kildare, and currently lives in Dublin city where he works as a Civil Engineer. He has previously been published in the Bohemyth online journal (http://thebohemyth.com/). In 2012 he was one of the inaugural winners of the Irish Writers’ Centre Novel Fair Competition. He has also been shortlisted for the Hennessy Literary Award in 2014 for New Irish Writing in the category of First Fiction. His work will also appear in the next edition of gorse (http://gorse.ie/)