Hello, lovely people.
It’s been a while since I’ve posted here about my personal writing journey, and it’s not because I haven’t had anything to say. In fact, I had a post all written up and ready to go, but then the saga took a completely different direction–and then, when that was resolved, there was yet another plot twist! I figured I’d wait to see where it all led me before I presented you with my conclusions.
So if you’ve been following this blog for the past year or so, you know that I’d dipped my toes into the agent search again. Well, as you probably guessed from this post, I came to the conclusion several months ago that I had devoted all the time and energy to it that I was willing to, and that I was ready to sign a contract with the small press I know and love, Kasva Press.
The universe had other plans.
Just when I had started discussing things more seriously with my editor at Kasva, out of nowhere, I got a “like” on a Twitter pitch from six months earlier (!) during a Twitter pitch contest. It turned out to be a reader for a Very Fancy Agency. I followed up, and got a full manuscript request.
My friends, this was the tenth time in my life that an agent has requested to read a full manuscript of mine, but it was definitely the first time that my first reaction was exasperation.
I didn’t want to deal with this crap anymore. What’s more, though this is a Very Fancy Agency, it’s also one that dealt with a scandal with one of their agents in the past year–and I did not like how the agency handled it. I knew that in the extremely unlikely event that I got an offer from this agency, I would need to bring this up, because I’m not willing to sign with an agent who I don’t find trustworthy or honest.
Wouldn’t it be deliciously ironic, I thought, if the author of the Rejection Survival Guide finally got not only an offer of representation, but from one of the top literary agencies in the English-language publishing world–and she ended up rejecting them?
Well, fortunately, I already had an offer on the table, which meant the reader had an incentive to read the manuscript quickly. She did, and within ten days I got back the usual: “While there is much to admire in your manuscript, I didn’t connect enough overall…”
Not good enough.
Not good enough.
Not good enough.
So, partly disappointed but mostly relieved, I set up a meeting with my publishers and they prepared two contracts for us to sign (one for Letters to Josep, my first, self-published book, which they are publishing in April, and one for this manuscript, Disengagement).
Then, the morning of the meeting, I woke up to discover some very last-minute feedback in my inbox that sent me into a bit of a tailspin.
This feedback was from a friend whose opinion on my writing I take very seriously for a variety of reasons. She basically said that the manuscript had a lot of potential, but that it had a long way to go before it could “truly engage the reader.” In the correspondence that followed, she also said that she felt that for a project like this to work, the writing has to be superb–and that my writing isn’t there yet.
Not good enough.
Not good enough.
Not good enough.
So there I was, several hours later, at a café with my editors, pen in hand–and I had to decide whether to go ahead with my plans to publish with them, or to pursue my friend’s advice and possibly give this manuscript another shot with literary agents.
The easiest thing would have been to shrug off her opinion. After all, it’s one opinion–and much as I respect it, she knows a lot less than I do about the publishing industry and the vagaries of the agent world. Secondly, it didn’t fit exactly into my criteria for useful criticism: aside from the few pages she’d had time to comment on specifically, it wasn’t quite specific enough. She said the voices of my characters weren’t always consistent, but couldn’t point out the inconsistencies she saw, because she couldn’t remember them. And obviously, the comment that was bothering me most was that my writing wasn’t good enough for what this book deserved, and that’s not specific at all.
But here’s the thing: I knew she was right, at least in part.
Maybe not about the agents, but about my writing.
I know I always have room to improve, and I’d been feeling really stuck for a while, both with this manuscript and with my writing in general. She told me that she knows I tend to write off courses and books on craft, but that she thinks I’m making a mistake, and that my writing would benefit from those things. While I didn’t know whether she was right about that, I did know that I hadn’t given much of a chance to trying new, active ways to improve my writing–and maybe that was less about knowing what works for me, and more about pride.
I discussed the matter with my publishers and we agreed that the best course of action would be to give it some more time–that is, to hold off on signing the contract, but to act as though we had signed in terms of getting started on my revisions. “That manuscript is due in April,” said my editor, “so get revising!”
Over the course of my life as a writer, I have had many “writing crises” like these, where the ground seems to be swept from under my feet and I don’t know which way is up anymore, and the chorus of not good enough gets really, really loud. It can be very tempting to walk away, or to hunker down and wait until the screeching of the self-doubt demons subsides. But I’ve learned that when you keep your ears and eyes open and just listen–listen to what’s happening, listen to your own responses, and give yourself the freedom to explore them from a place of curiosity and not from fear–these moments can be powerful catalysts for growth.
In the weeks that followed, I called in the troops: the central figures in my “core fan club” and my critique partner/writer friends. “What does it mean to be good enough?” I asked one of them. “Can you be good enough and accept where you are while still striving to improve?”
“No, you are never,” she responded. “You should love yourself endlessly and congratulate yourself on moments of purity, and never think you’re enough of anything!”
Never think you’re enough of anything? That didn’t sound right. I’m a strong believer in letting go of perfectionism and embracing good-enoughism–and that topic deserves a post of its own. But this exchange made me realize that I’d been asking the wrong question. The question wasn’t, “Am I (or my manuscript) good enough?” but rather “Good enough for what?“
Or, more specifically, for whom?
Clearly, the manuscript was good enough for Kasva. And clearly, it was not good enough for some of the agents who read it. It had the potential to be good enough for this friend who had given me this critique.
But this is all entirely subjective. Nobody here is “right.”
So whose opinion matters most?
Creative Resilience Manifesto item #3: The only opinion that really matters is my own.
Was this manuscript good enough for me?
There. I’d found the million-dollar question.
Was publishing with Kasva Press good enough for me? Was continuing without an agent good enough for me?
Sometimes, finding the right question is more important than finding the right answer.
Over the next few weeks, I hit the books: I reread Strunk & White’s Elements of Style (every writer should), and went on to Stephen King’s On Writing and Christopher T. Leland’s Art of Compelling Fiction. I also committed to reading more regularly, and tore through several novels in between the books on craft. I also took the remaining free Coursera course from Wesleyan University that I had missed before, on the craft of style.
Then, I returned to my manuscript, and was able to see some things I hadn’t seen before. Still, the changes I was making were not really substantial; not enough of a reason for an agent to turn it down, at any rate. When I showed my polished work to some friends who had read the previous draft, they both said they couldn’t tell what I had changed.
So then, the question of whether I should just sign with Kasva or try submitting to more agents rose back to the surface.
I knew I wanted to just sign with Kasva and get it over with. But when I talked to people about this, I heard myself saying “Probably I’ll sign with Kasva” “Most likely, I’ll sign with Kasva”… and I wasn’t quite ready to let go of that qualifier. I understood that I still wasn’t sure. There was a part of me that wanted to know whether I’d really exhausted the agent route.
So I decided to give it one last shot: to query two agents with fast turnaround times. Just to settle those lingering doubts.
Within two weeks I had my two form rejections. So I wrote to my publishers: “Let’s do this.” I felt confident and sure.
I wish I could tell you that that feeling of confidence persisted. But it never works that way. The self-doubt demons always have something to say. I’ve learned that it’s normal to suffer another wave of doubt and fear after signing a contract and making it “final”. There is no happy ending to a writer’s journey; there are happy milestones, and we need to try to reap as much joy from them as we can. But pure, unadulterated joy can only be experienced in moments, and I’ve found that they don’t tend to be the ones we expect. They tend to be the little moments: hugging a good friend, stopping to listen to birdsong, examining an exquisite wildflower, taking a sip of a perfect soup.
It’s been less than a week since I signed that contract, and within that time frame, not one, but two of my “query buddies” found agents. I am absolutely thrilled for both of them, and you know I wouldn’t just say that, ’cause I keep it way real over here 😉 And yet…
If I let myself follow the path of self-pity, I’m find myself asking why, why am I the one who gets left behind, why have I failed after 17 years, 7 novel manuscripts, and so many accomplishments to find an agent? It’s hard, you guys. It really is.
But when I back out a little bit and look at the big picture, I see that I am still incredibly privileged. My debut novel was the first fiction release of Kasva Press, and my relationship with them is excellent. It’s a tiny press that only puts out a handful of titles per year, and the only reason it’s so “easy” for me to publish with them again is that I already have that relationship with them; they don’t take unsolicited submissions. They’re working with a publicist now, and she has helped them achieve some success with recent titles, to a point where Don told me he might even be able to offer me an advance on my next manuscript. (“Now that’s just crazy talk,” I said. Have I mentioned that it’s been a year and a half since Candles was published and I have still not seen a single penny from it?)
I know that having an agent has its risks. I know that if I had received an offer, there would likely have been a lot of frustration ahead of me, and that the outcome might not necessarily have been better.
And I also know that it’s still a dream I’ll never quite let go of. And it’s going to sting, every time, when I see that someone else has accomplished what I have failed to.
But my biggest consolation?
A new little Word doc on my computer that contains 7,000 words… and counting.