As everyone has been saying this month, there are lots of opportunities in your life to start over, whether you want to or not.
One time that stands out to me, looking back at my career as a writer, came in the mid-2000’s and I want to share it because it’s the kind of experience I think many of us have but no one really likes to talk about.
At the very end of the 1990s, I finished my second novel, a YA fantasy, and was ready to send it out to publishers. You see, boys and girls, this was a more innocent time when the common advice was that it made more sense to approach publishers directly and not waste energy trying to find an agent. In the world before “Harry Potter” and “Twilight” hit big – in the world before children’s books became a publishing juggernaut – this advice was sound. The market was only just beginning to shift, and even the Big Five had not yet shut their doors to unsolicited submissions.
And thus, I found myself pulled out of the “slush pile” at HarperCollins by a very junior editor looking to build her list.
We worked together for years – literally years – to improve my work. I have every letter she sent me, because of course this was a time before emails, and every thick, printed draft we mailed back and forth with edits. In the end, having been promoted several times in the interim, my editor presented my novel to the Acquisitions Committee.
And, in the end, they passed.
It’s hard to describe the mixture of devastation and heartbreak that followed the phone call from Robin, my editor, in which she imparted that news. She was pretty upset too, considering how many years of work she had put into that novel, and how much belief she had in the quality of my work.
Confident that I should keep looking for another publisher, she offered me the name of a friend of hers who had recently left a publishing house to become an agent.
And so, it began.
The creeping doubt. The fear. The sense that I had had my chance and blown it, and nothing would ever happen for me again.
As more rejections piled up, these feelings intensified. Maybe Robin and I had suffered a massive, years-long delusion. Maybe the book was terrible.
At some point, I decided that it wasn’t the story but the writing. I tinkered. I moved scenes, cut them, redid them. I changed the main character's name. I rewrote the beginning again and again. Knowing I have a very different style when writing first person versus third person – follow my logic here – I rewrote the entire book from first to third. I know. Who does that? (Confession: I kinda like it better!)
I continued to send it out. I started other projects. I started writing the sequel, an act of faith and also of superstition (if I wrote Book 2, surely Book 1 would get published). I wrote bits and pieces of other books in the series, which spans a thousand years in my fictional kingdom’s history. After all, don’t publishers love YA series? I sank my teeth into a Shakespeare adaptation which… turned out not to be a waste of time, ultimately.
But for more than five years, I was adrift.
I had no idea what to do, what to think, which way to go.
I think one of the biggest risks of the publishing business is this kind of limbo, this sense that the rejection of one project is a rejection of us and all that we are and all that we do, that a failure to reach one goal is the inevitable end of all possible paths to that goal, and that we are never, no matter how hard we try, going to be enough.
It’s ridiculous to give others that kind of power, but creative people are sensitive souls. We tell ourselves we won’t let it be this way, that we know a rejection isn’t personal, but the big ones sure feel that way.
I’m sorry to say that it was not an act of will on my part but a flash of inspiration that got me back on track creatively. My new start came from attending a Shakespeare play, and the realization within a few days that this was the project that I needed to be working on.
Let’s save the starting over stories of FINDING KATE for another time, okay?