You’ll Need to Get Tough Because the Journey Can Be Downright Rocky
I want to be a writer. It’s the fulfillment of a lifelong dream, and I refuse to let it go.
Yet at this point in my career, my manuscript was rejected by 185 agents, so I’m not off to a good start.
So, I started blogging again, mostly so I could share my pain with the rest of humanity.
I ran the idea by a friend, another writer, to see what she thought. She said it was a good idea. She thought it’d be good for other writers to learn about my struggles. It helps writers to know we’re not alone with our pain. It also helps for potential readers of my book to understand who I am and why I write what I write. Dark psychological literary novels.
I listened politely, although I’m not sure I was prepared to reveal so much about myself. It is a brave thing to do, to open yourself up to strangers. It’s braver than I think I am, but she was right, of course.
She also told me to talk about my successes as a self-published author. Other Indies should know what inspired me and what drove me to finish and publish my debut novel, especially after I received so many rejections?
Tell them how you kept going, she said.
Tell them why you wouldn’t quit your dream.
So, what people really want to know is why I ignored the gatekeepers and the naysayers, right?
Okay, then let’s start at the beginning.
The idea for Sweet Baby Mine first took shape over twenty years ago. It was 1998 when I put the first words to paper. My husband and I stayed at a bed-and-breakfast in Paris, it was our second honeymoon, sort of, and I scribbled out the first page on some paper I’d found in the room. I was inspired by the City of Light, and I had to capture it. I toyed with a story about a lovely French couple having brunch at a sidewalk café. While they ate, the wife read aloud from a letter they’d received from their estranged daughter. I hadn’t thought through the plot much more than that.
Now, if you’ve read SBM, you know somewhere along the way things went horribly awry. Instead of being a story about a nice, older couple sharing their espressos and croissants, in the decade it took me to write it, it would morph into a plot about a middle-aged pair on the brink, doing their best to negotiate the self-inflicted war zone that had become their marriage. Top it off with a healthy dose of mental illness, same amout of feminism, and a little something about generational trauma and, voilà, there you go. SBM.
It would be twelve more years before I self-published it since life happens, and you can’t stop it. I had a doctoral degree to complete, and when my father had a major stroke in 2014, I made it my business to manage his medical issues until 2019, when he passed. It would also take quite a few developmental edits before my novel was anywhere near good enough for publication, especially since my education was in psychology and not creative writing. I had some catching up to do, and I knew it.
Not only that, I spent five of these years querying literary agents, for which I received those 185 rejections for my efforts, steering me farther and farther away from my original goal: traditional publication. Although the Indie route was not part of my original plan, I got the message.
Don’t get me wrong, they weren’t all bad. While it’s true most came in the form of a non-response, a decent number were form letters (which I count as a win since someone had to take the time to copy, paste, and hit reply), a bunch appeared as polite refusals (a definite score since they said something a wee bit personal about my baby), and a fraction of them reached me as lovely apologies explaining why they couldn’t take on my project (a big score for writing specifically about my manuscript). A few of them had even requested pages (then refused), and one very nice woman wrote how she, “can’t wait to see who gets this,” all the while making it crystal clear it wouldn’t be her.
It was at that point I stopped and asked myself, what am I doing wrong? Most of these agents acknowledged how the manuscript was well written, the premise was good, and the plot seemed intriguing. One even explained how manuscripts like mine were the hardest to reject.
What the heck was I missing?
Photo by Anastasia Tooming from Pexels
Something about my story was turning agents off, and I had no clue what it was. That’s when I decided to schedule a “chat” with an agent, under the pretense I wanted to talk about my first 5 pages. Sneaky, right? But I didn’t know where to turn. I was out of ideas. So, we chatted, and it was eye opening.
Our talk lasted only ten minutes, but this was all I needed. The agent told it to me straight.
My protagonist was unconventional. She was unlikable, too unlikeable. She did drugs, she was angry, and she didn’t act like anybody’s idea of a good girl. She didn’t act like the publishing industry’s idea of a good girl. This agent was clear: she’d never be able to sell it to an editor.
She suggested I change some of the scenes, like the ones where Ana smokes a joint. “Have her smoke a cigarette instead,” she said, then immediately reversed herself. “Leave it in.” What I should do, she told me, was find the right agent (like an agent who wears a leather jacket, perhaps?) I could tell she was frustrated, and angry, and she wanted to stand with me in solidarity. She was less than pleased with the way the publishing industry decided what constituted correctness in female characters.
Although, it was evident, once again, she would not be going the distance with me. That’s when I knew I’d be self-publishing it.
After twelve years of blood and sweat and ripping my guts out to get this story on paper, I damn well wasn’t about to stuff it away in a drawer, or on a shelf, or in the back of my closet. Maybe it’s the anger in me (I am a pretty angry gal), but I wanted to shout at the industry (I hold no animosity toward the agents), at the Big Five, who are you to tell me I can’t write this? Who are you to decide whether or not I write about unlikable or unconventional women?
Honestly, has the publishing world not noticed how women everywhere are tired of being forced into a box about what we’re supposed to do and how we’re supposed to act?
Just look around.
Women in the States are registering to vote in record numbers because they’re pissed off that the U.S. Supreme Court thinks it can tell them what to do with their bodies; women in Afghanistan continue to challenge the Taliban and fight for their freedom-for everything from education, to employment, to health care; and women in Iran are burning their hijabs with both men and women around the globe supporting them.
Idk, maybe it’s me, but I gotta think it’s the Big Five that are missing the boat…
Which is the reason I refused to abandon my manuscript.
Which is why you should never abandon yours, no matter what it’s about or where you are in the process.
Just how do you hold on to your dream of becoming a published writer?
You believe in yourself, and you don’t let anyone take it away from you.