The Loneliness of the long distance writer

The other day a young woman asked me what I did for a living.  What an interesting question.  If I had to live off the money I make from writing, I’d be living in a garden shed.  On the other hand, it is through writing that I live.  So, in a very real sense, when I answer that question by saying, “I write for a living” I am telling a far deeper truth.

Then  I asked her if she was a reader.  “Oh, yes,” she replied.

“And what sort of books do you like?”

“I love James Patterson.  His books are great.”

“Are they?” I asked.

“Just great.  So entertaining.  I don’t have to think about anything when I’m reading them.”

View from Dylan Thomas's study.  The long view.

View from Dylan Thomas's study. The long view.

Later that same day, I bumped into a woman I know while grocery shopping.  She was speaking to another woman and introduced me to her friend by saying I was a published writer.

“How wonderful,” said the friend.  “I just finished reading the most glorious book!”

Assuming it wasn’t mine, I asked which one, fearing I would once again have to feign enthusiasm for a popular thriller.  “Brooklyn, by Colm Toibin.  Not a great deal happens, and yet I was riveted.”

“I’ve read that,” said my friend.  “One of the best books I’ve read in a long time.”

Both women were now animated, hands flying, eyes bright.  “how that man gets into the head of the young woman!” “How he makes us feel everything she feels, how she makes her come alive!” “I was utterly involved in her life; felt like I was experiencing her life as an immigrant.”

These are the very women I write for.  Okay, it’s true that my books are a little different than Toibin’s, in that quite a lot generally happens, and there’s nothing wrong with folks who like thrillers (I love a good mystery myself, and am in awe of people who write them well), but My People are those readers who want to be immersed in a life not their own; people who want to be stretched, pulled out of their shells, rattled a little; people who want to empathize with a life very different, perhaps, than their own.

But how many people want to do that these days?  How many people just want to read the same thing over and over…whatever vampire/thriller/time traveler/love story happens to be popular at the moment.

For better or worse, and I like to think for better, I don’t write those kind of books.  I write books that will probably take you to a world you aren’t familiar with.  I don’t know whether the publishing business wants that anymore, regardless of quality.  Take this rejection letter concerning my recently-completed novel, set in the 7th c. (I haven’t edited the letter, except to take out the publisher’s name):

As a former archaeology minor who spent quite a bit of time studying this period in history, I couldn’t have been more thrilled to have this on submission.  I  dove right into it.  And I cannot tell you what pleasure Davis’s book has brought me–she paces her story perfectly and her research lends the story both a backbone of fact and history, and intriguing details and twists in character and plot that I found fascinating…and compelling.

And yet, for as much fun as I had with this…and for as long as I know Aisling [the main character] will stick with me…I am just not sure how to position this on the ——-  list to ensure that it finds the success and support it deserves.

And so the editor passes.  Really?  Huh.  Breaks my heart, that does, to have a fine editor pass on a book she obviously like because of ‘positioning’ (read, ‘marketing’).

Well, if you happen to be an editor who enjoyed Jim Crace’s The Gift of Stones, an editor like, oh, I don’t know, the one who took Tinkers, by Paul Harding, after so many others (20)  had refused, or who pulled Harry Potter out of the slush pile, or Jack London’s final editor (after 600 rejections)… there are any number of such stories…perhaps you’d like to give my agent a call.

In the meantime, I’m working on my next book and keeping the fires of hope alive, fed by the knowledge there are wonderful readers out there who don’t necessarily want to read the same old thing and editors who are hoping to satisfy them.

"Writer's Desk" by Joan Griswold

"Writer's Desk" by Joan Griswold


  1. lucky 8 on July 2, 2010 at 3:25 am

    Lauren, I think your description of your readership and “your people” hits the nail on the head.
    I am one of “those readers who want to be immersed in a life not their own; people who want to be stretched, pulled out of their shells, rattled a little; people who want to empathize with a life very different, perhaps, than their own.” Keep writing and keep taking us to places we’re not familar with. Editors will hopefully wake up to the fact that there are discerning readers who aren’t looking to just follow the herd.

  2. nancy rappaport on July 3, 2010 at 11:24 pm

    I think that you are right endurance and fierce belief that the story needs to be told is what will
    keep you on fire. And tenacious humor. You are a treasure.
    Hold the flame we need your candid courage. Nancy

  3. Renee Miller on July 5, 2010 at 8:57 am

    Lauren I think you’ve answered the question that has had me bashing my head against the wall for months. Why is it that I can’t seem to find the right publisher/agent? Why can’t I find any?

    I was blaming it on the whole Canadian publishing thing, but I think you’re on to something here. I love books that I can get immersed into. I enjoy having to really think and feel in order to understand the story. (that’s why I loved Radiant City) I write the same way. If I as the writer feel nothing, I don’t get very far. I think if I can’t feel anything, how will I make the reader do so?

    Of course, this isn’t what is popular although I don’t think sales reflect the true readership for these books out there. I think that if there were an equal amount of ‘thinking’ books to what I call the ‘candy’ novels (which I enjoy just as much) you’d see the popularity and sales increase. Readers can’t buy them if publishers aren’t putting them on the shelf.

    Oh wow, that was a long comment. Sorry.

    • Lauren B. Davis on July 5, 2010 at 9:12 am

      No need to apologize for the length of the comment, Renee. So many of us are in this boat right now. The only thing to do is to keep writing, keep writing, keep writing… Keep me posted!

  4. Jackie Garlick-Pynaert on July 13, 2010 at 3:52 pm

    So true. So unfortunate. So driven by market. And your comment about James Patterson is so true. I asked a girl on a plane recently why she enjoyed the Twilight series so much and she replied, “Because I don’t have to think, and I can open any page and start reading and not have to link anything together or worry that I don’t know what happened before this. It is just like bubble gum. Entertainment.” Sigh.

  5. Sherri Cadenhead on August 2, 2010 at 3:24 pm

    Lauren, your writing course in Paris not only taught me the skills of writing but changed me as a reader.
    Although I once enjoyed a Patterson or Grisham thriller, I could not read them now; just watch the movie..
    Like you said, I enjoy books that take me somewhere and teach me something. If I don’t have to think,
    my mind wanders, which defeats the purpose of reading! I cannot wait to read Aisling’s story!
    I want you to find a publisher for it! Positive energy coming your way!

    • Lauren B. Davis on August 4, 2010 at 7:29 am

      Thanks so much, Sherri! It’s wonderful to see you pop up here!

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