Dante’s Inferno begins with the narrator lost in the middle of a dark wood. I’m right there with him. The manuscript for my historical novel has been on submission to agents for six months (or a year and a half, depending on how you’re counting) and the rejections are trickling in. Each time I get one, I tell myself, “Okay, not my agent. Next!” But really, I’m stabbed through the heart. The blood trickles for a few hours, staining everything I touch—my editing work, my phone calls, my time with my kids—and by nightfall, I’m a small animal keening and whimpering in my den. Keening and surrounded by mounds of chocolate, cheese and crackers, and sometimes a glass of wine to replenish the blood supply.
Why am I taking this so hard? It’s just a matter of fit. You wouldn’t buy a pair of shoes that pinched. You wouldn’t buy a dress that didn’t flatter you (even after you lost that pound or five you’ve been meaning to shed). You wouldn’t buy furniture that you couldn’t get into your house. And you wouldn’t pursue a mate who made it clear they just weren’t that into you. (And if you did—as some of us have—you know it ends badly.) You want the agent who loves your book, is crazy about your concept, and gets giddy at the thought of the readers you can transport together. So why do I have to pull a knife out of my chest every time an agent says “I’m not the one for you?”
Same reason I’ve ever pursued anything that clearly wasn’t for me. I really want this.
I’ve wanted to publish a novel since I wrote my first one at 16. That’s—ahem—going on 25 years ago now. I’ve been playing the “I will have a book by X” game for a decade. I thought I would publish the novel I wrote at 30 (and that it would be a bestseller, too, when that thing probably should never have seen the light of day). Book by 35? Yes! My dissertation won a prize and saw its way into print. Book by 40? Bingo! My book of short stories won a prize and came out last year from a brilliant small press. This year, a book of medieval essays I co-edited was published by a top-notch medieval publisher. Several short stories and a creative nonfiction essay came out this year, and a sonnet I wrote won a prize. I have more publications than I can remember to add to the CV. I am extraordinarily, absurdly, disgustingly charmed and lucky.
And yet. I lose sleep at night fearing I will die before I publish a novel, before I will achieve that One Dream I’ve wanted more than anything—more than I want to climb the pyramids at Giza, more than I want social justice, more than I want to cure climate change. (Well, okay, I want all of those things and to publish a novel.) Of course, once I have published a novel, I want to publish more of them. Strings of novels. Schools of novels. But this one hurdle, this one desire—the Debut—I keep throwing myself at it, and I keep crashing down, just like ninth-grade track practice.
Misty, I hear you saying. Seriously. If it means that much to you, self-publish. The publishing scene has changed since you got your MFA. Self-published books can be good now. If you’ve done the work and you think the book is in good enough shape to send out to an agent, then consider whether it’s good enough to self-publish.
I have. And I haven’t crossed self-publishing off the list of options. It’s there, down the road, one of a handful of possible destinations for this novel. But I wanted to try the traditional route first, and not just because of the MFA, not just because I was trained as a literary writer (it’s not a literary novel, after all), and not just because there is still more industry cred if someone else besides you puts out your book.
I want someone else to tell me I’m good enough. Someone whose opinion results in my getting a book deal.
I also, let’s face it, want a team. I want to do just the writing part and have someone else pass me a cover design to vet and a marketing plan to follow and a contract to read and sign. Though I understand the realities of marketing in the world today, I long for the fantasy of that traditional arrangement where I just hand over the manuscripts and my agent sends me the edits, then the galleys, and then the checks. When you self-publish, you have to hustle. You have to be an authorpreneur. You have to have a brand and a following and a presence and a professional-looking website and my throat is closing up at the very thought of all that it takes to be a successful indie author.
But most of all, when I pull the knife out of the heart and examine it, I recognize the magical thinking: if the book is good, then I am good. Readers, yes, I hope that at the end of all this, lots and lots of readers will love the book as much as I do. That’s everyone’s hope, in some version. But the agent and publisher rejection strikes me right at the heart of that unloveable, not-good-enough, will-never-be-good-enough wound that I’ve carried around for as long as I can remember. Every time an agent says “thanks, but not for me,” they’re whispering, “it’s not really good.” “Liked it, didn’t love it” means “you don’t really have what it takes.” “Didn’t connect with the concept/characters” translates to “honestly, I can’t see anything here, and why did you waste your time on this, again?” And the dead, static-filled silence of no response at allmeans: you’re simply not good enough.
And may never be. Until I get The Call. Until I get the gatekeeper’s go-ahead, the professional’s confirmation that yes, this is a book I can fall in love with, this is a project I can get behind, this book belongs on the shelves and in readers’ hands and their suitcases and their mom’s hands and their lover’s nightstand after they’re done. I crave that validation.
I may not ever get it. And I have to learn how to deal with that. Because honestly, I need the sleep.
I’ve put this book through ten drafts, several editors, two agent workshops, a novel seminar, and a paid evaluation by a bestselling author. Right now, it’s as good as I know how to make it. I could revise it yet again, turn it into another book entirely, but I really don’t want to. As I read back through the manuscript before sending out those first chapters yet again, I find myself caught up and going far beyond the first fifty pages. I want to plunge through the whole book, take that journey with my characters all over again, laughing and crying and cheering them on. I’m more in love with this novel than ever. I adore my bookish, eccentric, stubborn heroine and the way she is passionate about insoluble math problems. I feel even more strongly, in the face of all this rejection, that we need more stories about brave girls in history who went against the accepted thinking of their time.
I love this book. I believe in it. So that is why I’m compiling yet another hit list and agents and publishers, and finally joining QueryTracker—acknowledgement that I’m in this for the long haul, and it may be very, very long. But I also need something to keep me going along the way—the words that I can carry with me on this soul-searching, deeply testing journey. Not Dante’s “Abandon all hope,” thanks, but something that will help me keep faith as I toil through the Slough of Despond and the Pits of Despair.
Dear reader, tell me what advice you have. Give me that small, unquenchable talisman to light up the darkness. Send me the magic feather that will carry me through. I’m developing my own thoughts about how to surrender this process—the subject of future post, perhaps—but right now, I want to hear yours.