If there’s one thing I’ve learned from life so far, it’s that everything has its place and time.
I’m pretty sure this is the first time I’ve discussed my previous publishing journey on this blog, but I’ve been pondering things and figure now’s as good as time as any to put what I learned from it out there.
Once upon a time, I was an agented writer.
Way back in 2007, two years post-college graduation, I had just finished revamping the book I was working on. It was an early incarnation of Peculiar Dark, then called Keeping Back the Dark and before that titled Sphinx Awakened (don’t ask). After collecting a fair number of rejection letters (all snail mail in those days – woah!) with Sphinx Awakened, I had overhauled it and rewritten quite a few sections. I had finally taken to the intrawebz to make sure I knew what I was doing with this whole querying process (news flash: I didn’t) and leveraged Query Shark to finally get a halfway-decent query letter.
I wasn’t quite geared up to full-scale query yet, but a friend alerted me to an agent who was setting up her own, brand-new agency and looking for my genre. For funsies, I sent a letter her way. It was read by her assistant at that time, who loved it and passed it on, and less than two months later, I got The Call.
I was BEYOND excited. I knew – I just knew – that I’d have a publishing contract within the year. I started practicing my autograph.
It never came.
I went on sub late that spring, and by the fall, I knew what neither my agent nor I wanted to say out loud.
Keeping Back the Dark wasn’t selling. And it wasn’t going to.
With 13-year-old characters but cussing and dark shit happening, it didn’t fit in either MG or YA. In my attempt to be honest about a moody, teenage protagonist, I had written a decidedly unlikeable main character. It just…wasn’t marketable. Looking back on it now, I’m not surprised it didn’t sell, but at the time, I was crushed. I let it overwhelm me. I couldn’t get anywhere on the sequel or any other project, so my writing just kind of shuddered to a stop.
Then, in December, the recession took its toll and my agent had to close down her agency.
I didn’t recover for awhile. I dabbled in other projects, but I embraced every distraction I could to avoid a blank page. I made up stories, but I left them in my head. I didn’t write. There’s no other way of putting it – I just didn’t. I felt like a failure.
Last year, I got back on track. I overhauled Dark into a book I can believe in again, and I’ve started on a brand-new project. I’m in a pretty good place now. But for awhile there, I really wasn’t. I was bitter. I was broken.
It’s only months after getting my shit together that I’m able to see what I learned from that period and how important that disappointment was for me.
- I grew as a writer. We grow creatively with every experience, and even though I wasn’t actively writing, the constant input that life itself generates still affected my output. My voice matured. I gained confidence in what I had to offer (more or less, anyway – there is still quite of a bit of neuroses in my brain). I leveled up. And then I leveled up my manuscript.
- I learned what I want in a professional relationship. If I ever sit down again and have another chance at The Call, I know what to ask this time. I know what I want from an agent, from an editor. I know what I can contribute and what I need in return. And I’m fully prepared to say no thank you if I don’t think it’s going to work for me. Just because someone is offering doesn’t mean you have to take it. I’ve learned the value in walking away.
- I’ve learned the value of both practicality and humility. Not that I’m inclined to be super-braggy, but landing an agent so quickly with a book that I realize now I hadn’t even begun to understand or attack correctly could have had a terrible effect on my ego if it had resulted in a publishing deal. I’ve seen authors who go big right out of the gate with books that really aren’t great, and you know what? I’ve subsequently watched them stagnate as writers. They don’t get better; they usually get worse. (I have a specific example of this in mind.) As for practicality, it’s awfully fun to dream big. We wouldn’t be writers if we didn’t, and sometimes those dreams come true. But what I didn’t understand in 2008 is that this is the exception, not the rule, and all the glamorous stuff of ARC giveaways and book launch parties are surrounded by months of flailing and screaming and crying and opening veins onto word processing programs and fingerpainting in the blood until it resembles your heart. I didn’t really get that then. I do now.
- I’ve discovered the value of a community. In all fairness, a lot of social media stuff wasn’t as big in 2008 as it is now, but even if it were, I was of the opinion that I didn’t really need to go out, network, commune with other writers. I didn’t share my writing with anyone but an old college friend, and anything beyond that was just whatever, man. I barely knew about the writing community out there; I certainly didn’t realize the support and affection they could generate.
And all of that rambling above is just a long-ass way of saying what I said in the beginning: Everything has its place and time. It sucks in the moment because we’re walking around in the foggy dark with a lantern that only shows us the path three feet in front of us at any given time, but when we look back, the pattern is often much clearer and less random. I’ve experienced this with my day job. I’ve definitely experience this with my love life. I’m starting to see this with my publishing journey.
That disappointment was vital. It’s laid the groundwork for my future.