Hearty Heroines and Contrarian Queens
My name is Fallen—think Allen with an ‘F’ in front, not the past participle of fall—Matthews and I’ve been a writer for years. Which is kind of how I stumbled onto this literary insight amongst other interesting (inspirational) outlets on writing. While I’ve written into a variety of genres, my main focuses are romance and erotica. Suffice to say, when something like Fifty Shades hit and was lauded as being revolutionary eroticism or literary genius, I wasn’t exactly thrilled; especially since every query I’ve sent traditional publishers has been rejected. I’ve won literary contests, received generally positive feedback from readers and authors alike, in addition to securing an endorsement. Yet my work is ultimately passed up while society reveres stuff like Fifty Shades.
People who’ve read my blog or online rants probably know I can be quite the Negative Nancy or Debbie Downer—and right now, I could just as easily get down. Most people wake up to check into social media, email contacts, tune into weather reports, and updates connected to their favourite pastimes. You must know that authors wake up to do all of that and brave the business. It starts in advance—way in advance—where they coast that ocean of opportunity. They’re kind of like captains. They man their own ships, anchor their ambitions, and fish through their franchise. Hopefully, they snag some sales. But, every author knows it’s far from smooth sailing. In fact, some might fancy themselves as more Ahab than the likes of Jack Sparrow or Captain Crane.
For me, social anxiety and spurring standards takes the wind out of my sails. If it came down to it, I’d rather be a mermaid than a captain. Maybe writing erotica steers me to find Prince Eric than search for success. You could also say I’ve got many Ariels in my stories: independent women who are strong but sentimental, defined by will and sense of wonder. But, industry standards don’t want Ariel. Or at least, they don’t want too much Ariel. My stories revolve around strong female protagonists. Recently, I’ve written a series of narratives—from men. Men who muse upon the women in their lives. Women who are leading ladies in more ways than one. It’s not exactly mainstream, but I wouldn’t call it radical.
So, when I resolved to at least pursue the mainstream perspective, I figured I did fairly well. I had a strong but stakingly sentimental female lead. And, she had a handsome man whose hookups humbled her hangups. It read like a romance. Or, so I thought. So did a handful of beta readers, my editor, and a former English professor.
Too bad that those thoughts doesn’t count. My manuscript could get a million thumbs up, but publication boils down to…well, the publishers. And sales. All the positive feedback in the world doesn’t guarantee a sale. Likes and reviews also don’t equate to sales. Ariel didn’t get where she did climbing the backs of others. She wasn’t exactly encouraged either. Sure, she had her sidekicks and love was on her side; but ultimately, she speared her success. It came down to her. She was her own means to her end. And, we both know she had quite a happy ending.
Ariel might be a legendary princess and the picture of perseverance, but would she fare well as a writer? For all that industrious insight and her former fins, could she tread the tides and tear onto the bestsellers lists? Ariel made her mark through a movie. To date, the classic fairy tale isn’t something that comes to mind as it’s been notoriously reworked to better market and captivate critics. The original Ariel sacrificed and agonized more than her contemporary counterpart—and she didn’t end up with Prince Eric. In fact, he ended up marrying another princess and left Ariel to find her own, ascendant happy ending.
So, does that make Disney’s Ariel any less awesome? Not really. Both heroines are independent idealists with hearts of gold. Disney’s Ariel is just more known, more marketable. But as a movie, not a book. As much as we like to think anything or anyone can make it if they’re well-written or try hard enough, that’s not how the world turns. Success might be subjective, but sales aren’t. Neither is approval.
Which is why I can understand why publishers or agents wouldn’t be inclined to take chances or stray from standards. Their priority is profit. The sociologist in me could easily argue they also invest to ensure the status quo, but that’s another rant for another time. Right now, I’m focused on my current mainstream manuscript: the Ariel I anticipated would be accepted by a traditional publisher.
As in: I woke up today, stepped to stern, and steered sea bound—only to find a rejection letter sharking to the surface. And it definitely was a shark. Cannonballs, leaks, even termites: those are things I can come back from. Obvious problems that have clear albeit serious solutions. Every seaboard wartime drama saw the villains raise white flags. Michael Bolton and The Lonely Island spoke to the glory of pirates plundering for booty against the odds. And well, I actually don’t have anything for termites but I’d likely make a trip to the ‘ye olde exterminator.’
Not exactly the case for Jaws. Or Deep Blue Sea. Or Shark Attack. Or Great White. Even Shark Tale’s sharks were mobsters. So, sharks: not exactly a solvable scenario.
That’s the thing about rejection letters. Most of them are automated. Besides a line for your name and submission title, it reads as something coldly contrived. As an author or committed captain, it also reads as insultingly impersonal. Even though it’s unrealistic to expect personalized feedback since publishers have to go through tons of submissions, it still stings. It doesn’t just put a hole in your sails. It takes a chunk out of your boat. But considering how confident I was—all the positive feedback I’d received, the extensive edits, and just bucking against the ache of my anxiety—and how something like Fifty Shades was making literary waves, it wasn’t just a chunk out of my boat. It was more like I’d delved through my demons and waded ashore with new forces. So, it wasn’t just a boat. It was more like an annihilated vessel.
Imagine if Jack Sparrow scoured the seas only to find himself barred from the Black Pearl. Then, imagine if he’d braved Blackbeard’s treasure hunt only to discover no treasure lay where X marked the spot. Now, imagine if he’d been drowned by Davy Jones.
You must see how that is quite literally the creative process: writing, drafting, editing, rounding up your crew for feedback, and arbored ambitions keeping you afloat. Only to drown. You don’t get shipwrecked. Forces haven’t flung you overboard. You don’t wake up, awash on stranger tides. Your ship has sunk—and so have you. And you can’t bargain with Ursula for another shot. For me, my Ariel wasn’t a fish out of water just because she didn’t make the cut. The lack of direction or meaningful feedback is what sealed her to the sea. When you get an automated rejection, they’re generic. They’re tailored to say one thing, a formal “No.” There aren’t any explanations or suggestions as to how to improve, or just why the publishers aren’t meant for your manuscript. So, Ariel doesn’t get to scrape her way to the surface and fight for her fairy tale. She doesn’t get anything. Well, she kind of does: she gets expunged by the elements.
If I had a time machine, I’d tell the old me to flush every spare penny into a piggy bank so I could have a nugget to invest in a prime publicist. Then, I’d have a viral campaign. My Ariel would break onto some bestsellers lists since she resonates with readers. She wouldn’t have to be submitted because she’d have already [significantly] sold. Traditional publishers would be keen to liken her to their label. Instead of soldiering a ship, I’d smoothly sail into the sunset on a cruise.
But, I don’t have a time machine. At this point, I don’t even have a paddle. What I do have is my mind. I mean, I’m fairly sure I haven’t lost it.
Not yet anyway.
Ariel might be sanctioned to the sea, but my mind is set on the stars.