Recently, I’ve been pondering what to say to writers I know who are struggling to get an agent, or who have an agent but have not yet gotten that elusive book deal.
It’s especially hard to say something that’s honest and encouraging but not condescending or minimizing when talking to a writer who has already worked very hard to improve her craft and is receiving complimentary passes (and I learned from my friend and co-author Cordelia Jensen to use the word “pass” rather than the word “rejection”). By “complimentary pass,” I mean a response in which an agent or editor praises specific things about a book but then says something like, “I just didn’t love it quite enough,” or, “I just didn’t connect in the way I’d hoped.”
This kind of pass is encouraging, because a professional in the publishing field sees much to like in what you’ve written, and that could very well mean the right agent or editor match is right around the corner. And these passes are completely understandable considering how much time, energy, and passion an agent or editor needs to put into a project to see it all the way through the publication process.
But these complimentary passes can also feel extremely disempowering, especially if you receive a lot of them.
Especially, especially if you receive a lot of them on more than one book, the way I did when I was on submission with three different books between the end of 2013 and the middle of 2016.
Recently on Twitter, two fellow 2018 debut authors, Joy McCullough and K.A. Reynolds, posted threads for people hoping to be chosen for PitchWars. They shared wisdom they’ve gained from their winding paths toward getting a book deal, and I really appreciated what they both said. Here’s Joy’s thread, and here’s Kristin’s. Their comments are inspiring and positive, and they also validate the disappointment and pain that it’s impossible not to feel if you have poured sacred parts of yourself into a book and you’re not getting the outcome you’ve been hoping for.
Their Tweets encouraged me to think about what I have to add to this conversation, after my own winding path. So here are the things I want to say to any writers who are facing disappointments as they work toward the goal of getting an agent or getting a book deal, and what I would go back and say to the very demoralized early-2015 Laurie if I could.
1.) It’s important to focus on what’s in your control, BUT it’s equally important to give yourself time and space to grieve for a project you love when things aren’t going the way you’d hoped.
“Write the next book!” countless writers will tell you, and that’s smart advice, absolutely. But the fact that I pushed on and focused on a new project rather than letting myself grieve for my first book that didn’t sell made it all the more devastating for me when my second book didn’t sell either. The sadness of giving up on that second book compounded all of the buried sadness I hadn’t really let myself feel after giving up on the first book, and I felt it extra hard.
Maybe that sounds melodramatic, the idea of grieving for a book if it doesn’t sell or get an agent, but I don’t think it is, and if you’ve written a book, I’m guessing you don’t, either! Not when you think about how much work and time and sacrifice and love goes into writing and revising a book.
You can let yourself feel disappointment when a book has a close call that doesn’t work out, too, even if it still has a shot at getting picked up by an agent or publisher. People say not to get your hopes up and not to have any expectations when you are querying or on submission, but I certainly don’t know how to do that. (Let me know if you’ve figured it out.) It’s disappointing to hear that someone loved your beloved story but not quite enough, or to know an editor wanted to buy your book but it didn’t get past all the hurdles a book needs to clear before an offer comes. It just is!
It’s also incredibly important to persevere and keep writing, if you really want to be a writer, but I think you can both honor the valid disappointment and persevere.
2.) Jealousy doesn’t make you a bad person. It’s natural to feel jealous of someone who has something you want and are working hard for. But you can acknowledge the jealousy the way you’d acknowledge that it’s kind of humid out today, without letting the feeling have too much power over you. And also know that other people who have what you want might be struggling, too, in equally legitimate ways. If they did get their agent or book deal relatively quickly and painlessly, their editing process might be really difficult, or they might struggle to write their next book, or they might struggle if their book doesn’t get the reception they’d hoped for. I’ve learned that this writing journey is hard for everyone who pursues it…though full of joy, too!
3.) If you do keep working and achieve what you want, the setbacks you’ve endured along the way will give you so much gratitude and perspective. There are still difficult moments once you have sold a book (and I’m sure there will be even more difficult moments once readers are actually reading my books, which is equal parts thrilling and terrifying, and as I continue to try to sell additional books). I don’t want to sound like I magically have everything figured out, but there is never a time when I forget how hard I worked to attain this goal of publication, and how proud and grateful I am. My gratitude and awareness of what an accomplishment it was to finally sell a book help me to maintain a sense of calm and perspective throughout these sometimes overwhelming new stages.
4.) Every book you work on is an important piece of your journey. If you do have to shelve a book, that doesn’t mean the project wasn’t valuable. Each book you work on helps you to hone specific aspects of your craft and grow into the writer who will write the book that will be the one to break through. Your own vulnerability and disappointment may help you to create a character like Lauren, from my debut novel Every Shiny Thing, who is vulnerable and sad and angry in a way I am usually not, and to write something more raw and powerful than you would have thought possible. I am certain that I could not have written Lauren’s intense point of view if I hadn’t been feeling a lot of helplessness and frustration and grief myself. Or you may sell a shelved book later if the market shifts or you decide to go back and revise again, or (and shh, 2015 me would not have been ready to hear this, so this part is only for the rest of you), you may end up incorporating characters and moments and themes that you love from a shelved book into new projects you’re even more excited about, instead of revisiting the shelved books later.
5.) You are resilient and brave and have already accomplished special things. Keep finding the joy in your work. Keep leaning on and supporting your writing community. Keep reveling in the magic of creating a book that no one but you could write, that captures something true and meaningful from your unique perspective. I’m rooting for you!