A Heart-to-Heart About Publishing, Query Letters, and PTSD

Hello, readers mine. This is the latest in my long series of attempts to parse the messy road that brought me to the present. This time it’s imported from Twitter.

Some of this will be old hat for many of you. For some, it may be all new. Either way, I wanted to post my latest feelings on it here as well. This comes with the proviso that I do not see anything discussed below as contradicting or excusing any thing that I wrote in Making Points, Mental Health, and the Necromancer’s Vengeance Series (northbornsword.blog). It is part of the full context underlying that post, however, and I don’t want to go so far out of my way in assuming personal responsibility that I absolve the systems which have failed me. After all, they’re still failing others with needs even greater than mine.

***

Alright, uh… I’m going to do a thread about my year-long attempts and failures to find a literary agent from 2018-2019, and how the narrative around submissions led an already-hurting person to hit her lowest point. I know I’m not the only one, so it’s worth talking about.

TW: suicide mentions, PTSD. Possible ableism/ableist undertones, though no evidence and I don’t want to throw that accusation around lightly. If you’re not up to this with a pandemic and the U.S. government being even more awful than normal, I get ya. Click away.

First, context. When I started sending out query letters in January 2018 for the first completed manuscript of The Necromancer and the Revenant, I still identified as male. I was open about being on the autism spectrum. I had (well, have) my Bachelor’s in Creative Writing.

I need to digress briefly to talk about what autism means to me. With decades of practice and learning, I can be neurotypical passing. I usually don’t care to because–shocker for the neurotypicals in the room, all-caps warning–the obvious tics ARE NOT THE DOWNSIDE TO AUTISM.

Monologuing, weird fidgeting, odd mannerisms–plenty of neurotypical people engage in these and get by just fine. But these obvious signs are what neurotypical people notice, and thus are the only thing neurotypical people seek to account for.

For me, the disorder has many expressions, but the two pertinent ones for this thread are hyper-fixation, that is, obsession with my passions to the point of shutting out the world, and poor social graces. That’s it. That’s all we need to worry about. Simple, right?

Were it only so. I was raised an Air Force brat as well as Lutheran. For one reason or another, the programs I was placed in to address my autism all revolved around teaching me to seek validation for my actions from neurotypical authority figures.

My parents, rather than working through their own insecurities in order to counterbalance these influences, found the conditioning useful. To them, “mental health” was whatever I was when I wasn’t acting out. Needless to say, they missed EVERY chance to course-correct.

Pile on a lack of lasting friendships due to constantly moving to my mother’s next duty-posting until she left the Air Force as a full-bird Colonel, and I had no time to build or experience a non-toxic relationship. I was 16. The developmental damage was well and truly done.

I do not tell you this to make you feel sorry for me, or to pressure you to act as my therapist. I’m recovering, though slowly. I tell you all this so you’ll understand the causes for my crushing social anxiety and suicidal tendencies.

TW: death mention (sorry, missed these at the start) At 6 or 7, I fell into the family pool and nearly drowned. (I was very slow learning to swim.) At 10, I ruptured my spleen and would’ve bled out internally save for a late-night ER trip.

It at no point occurred to my parents that it might not be normal for ANY child to shrug off these incidents as easily as I did. Of course it was easy. When I nearly died, people suddenly cared. I was nurtured and pampered. You know… treated like a normal kid.

Might as well fast-forward to the tail end of college. No need for details, we’d just keep repeating the same patterns: hope, failure, abandonment, trauma I dealt with alone and in doubt, guilted by my parents if I voiced the pain I felt–how dare I put that on them?

When I was accepted anywhere, I stuck around as long as I could stand, even if the acceptance was by toxic, manipulative people (it often was). Naturally, they taught me toxic behaviors it took years to unlearn. These experiences are not uncommon for autism-spectrum people.

Thank you for your patience. Now we’ve arrived. You understand the factors that created the North of January 2018. Somehow, despite everything, I was still alive. And I’d finished a novel! A good novel, I thought, if imperfect. It was time for query letters.

I said at the start I’d be careful about this accusation, but here’s the problem: Traditional publishing, and I include literary agents because for this thread’s purposes there is no distinction, is ruthlessly, remorselessly ableist against autism-spectrum people.

If you work in TradPub and you’re about to open your mouth, stop. You don’t get a voice here. It’s not for you to tell the people you’ve traumatized why we’ve got it wrong or it’s not as bad as we think, so shut the fuck up and listen.

I saw three common criteria for writers and their manuscripts to find success:
1. The raw quality of the piece (ha, right)
2. The marketability of the piece
3. The author’s preexisting renown/platform size

Option 1 is a fucking lie. I learned that first hand.

Before we get to that, let’s consider how Options 2 and 3 directly shut out neurodivergent authors. Sticking with autism spectrum writers because that’s the experience I can speak to: Response to #2: Different psychology means writing is inherently different. Less relatable?

#2 cont: whether it really is or not, it will be PERCEIVED that way. Less relatable = less marketable. Whoop, what a shame for the poor aspies! Nothing personal, kiddo, your dunce-hat writing just isn’t good enough for real people.

Response to #3: Ah, yes! Renown and platform, those things entirely dependent on word of mouth and social skills! Let me just mystically overcome the very fucking nature of my disorder to have a chance!

Not surprisingly, in an industry that is entirely dependent on networking and submissions, I now have full-blown PTSD associated with those very things. The very IDEA of submissions can trigger me. How do I know? Recently, it did.

A few weeks ago I was having a very animated discussion with a close friend about my long-term plans for the series and how I want to bring off the finale. She loved it and said “This story deserves to reach more people”. Then she asked if I’d considered submitting to agencies.

I snapped, volleying out a single sliver from this long, agonized thread and finishing, “FORM REJECTION, FORM REJECTION, FORM REJECTION!” It wasn’t until then that I understood how deeply I’d been scarred by all this.

I’m sure I’ll discuss this other times in the future, but that’s the core of it. I, as an autism spectrum writer with just the sort of unique voice and perspective literary agents always claim they’re seeking, was frozen out by the industry without even being told why.

That damage, done at one of the most vulnerable times in my life because I’d already been conditioned to believe I don’t deserve rest or a chance to heal, may very well be permanent. So I guess all that’s left to say is, to my fellow writers–

Publishing is an insular, horseshit club of people who will double your trauma by the very dodges they use to avoid admitting that they caused you any, then refuse ever to see what they’ve done to you. So know that it’s not you who should be ashamed of the rejections. It’s them.

Writers, ironically, do not control the writing industry. It’s a bunch of power games where the only merit is the ability to convince others how much merit you have. Maybe there are good people buried in the morass. But if so? Not our responsibility to excuse them.

I can feel someone gearing up to say, “well, it’s unfortunate this happened to you, but coincidences–” Stop right there. I’ve seen plenty of other horror stories. I’m not alone in this. Even a lot of the SUCCESS stories are horrifying, underneath.

Emotional, vibrant writers ground down by one rejection after another, left with wounds even after they get their breaks. Yeah, Tolkien survived the Battle of the Somme, that doesn’t mean the rest of us should have to, for fuck’s sake!

I cannot overstate that TradPub is a constructed, highly-coordinated system. So even if something does happen as a coincidence, the fact that the system allows it to happen coincidentally STILL REFLECTS ON THE SYSTEM.

Other writers: use TradPub’s resources if you want them and you can get them. Do it without shame, this craft’s too often thankless and painful already. But if they do to you what they did to me, remember it reflects on them, not you.

Take care of yourselves, everyone.

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