I turned thirty a couple years back. This being a milestone birthday and me not being a party person, I planned well in advance of the big day to spend it elsewhere. My husband and I live in Idaho and that’s where most of our family is, too, so New York—the place where we were married and one of our favorite cities anyway—seemed far enough. We turned the trip into a kind of mini-grand tour: Big Three-Oh in the Big Apple, then on to Boston, with a big finish in Washington D.C.
Thirty is a difficult birthday when you feel you’ve been working hard and accomplishing little, which I was—doubly good reason to shake off the hometown dust and get away from it all or whatever.
At the time, I had been writing for years and pursuing publication for years, and right before my birthday, I’d finally polished up a new manuscript that I suspected was decent. In a fit of optimism I felt bordered on delusion, I’d even sent it to my top agent pick first and she’d agree to read it—as it happens, right before we left for the Grand Birthday Tour. But when I left town, I wasn’t in a high-flying state, but actually distressed in advance over the rejection to come, which would sting extra if I allowed my hopes to rise. (I’d been down this road before and by now kept my hopes superstitiously low so as not to crash down to earth.)
So we left town trying to evade both age and career and just have a good time. New York was chaotic and dirty and fantastic, Boston rich with history (along with a BoSox-fan-packed public transit), and it was easy to forget about the pains of pursuing publication as we tore through these excellent cities. In fact, I didn’t think about my little manuscript at all until we got to Washington D.C.
In D.C., we stayed at a place called the Tabbard Inn—a weird and inviting mix of 19th century-era and beatnik-turned-hippie aesthetics that was all dark colors and iron bedsteads and narrow staircases and worn wood trimming in the cozy bar (a charming hotel, that is, if you can stomach the militantly abusive desk staff and the tragic lack of televisions). The afternoon of our arrival, we were crammed into the luggage storage area that doubled as the courtesy computer lab. We met a friendly middle-aged French couple who were likewise checking in and struck up a conversation, as strangers waiting in hotel lobbies sometimes do, and it was the usual stuff: We asked where they were from, and they asked where we were from. (When we began to explain that Idaho was out West, the man stopped us, saying, “We know Idaho—Larry Craig!” The Minneapolis-airport-restroom-“I-have-a-wide-stance” catastrophe of Idaho Senator Larry Craig had just happened, and it was apparently amusing people overseas, too.)
Then our room was ready and we left, and maybe I had one backward glance for the computer as we went. After we’d settled into our room and starting thinking about dinner, I admitted that I was itching to check my email, over the protestations of the pessimist that lives in my brain. It had been a couple of weeks since I’d checked it last and there was that courtesy computer downstairs, waiting …
We went down and found the luggage room empty, so I sat down at the computer, my better half on hand for moral support, and signed into my account. Saw that this Super Agent had written again. I opened her email expecting a rejection, if for no better reason than because it’s damned hard for a pessimist to keep the faith in such a tough industry. But once the email was open, I saw that this wasn’t a rejection, but rather an invitation to “discuss representation.”
As I read and reread the email to be sure, I gasped audibly and covered my hand with my mouth (my husband still teases me about this). The French gentleman, my new friend, happened to be in the doorway. He also heard me gasp, and when he saw my face he asked with truly solicitous concern if I’d had bad news.
But we know the news was good. Fast-forward: Super Agent and I shared a vision for the manuscript, and I was thrilled to sign with her. My husband figured that now that I’d achieved this major triumph—by all logic—my pessimism should wither away. But when my book didn’t sell in, like, the first week of subbing to publishers, he was a firsthand witness to pessimism gaining traction again.
Eventually my book did sell, and I was lucky enough to get a Super Editor working on it (and if I had to constantly remind myself that his astute edits and good catches of dumb mistakes did not mean I sucked … well, a writer’s ego—this writer’s ego, anyway—is a flimsy thing). But with a bit more sweat equity all around, the manuscript that became The Last Good Place of Lily Odilon, my debut YA novel, will be published this fall by Flux, and I couldn’t be more excited or more proud of the result.
And if you’re thinking, “boo-hoo, you’re still relatively young and your first novel is coming out this year,” just know that although this may look like the beginning of the road, it’s actually well into the middle. I have a drawer full not-quite-theres covering a pile of cringy false starts concealing a pile of plain old crap. The Last Good Place, a novel of which I’m proud, owes its creation to a lot of hard lessons born of failure.
Which is to say, just because things don’t come quickly or easily, doesn’t mean they won’t come at all. It may take awhile, and it will certainly take a lot of work. Yet after years of hard work and educating myself in both craft and industry, all that would be needed to change this story into an object lesson on failure would be for me not to have sent that query.
These days, that pessimist in my head still works overtime, whispering fears of lackluster sales, bad reviews, the sophomore slump, or just writing the right book at the wrong time. These are eventualities over which I have no control, any more than I can make an agent like my books or force an editor to publish them.
And of course I harbor a deeper anxiety that I’ll run out of ideas, or the ideas will be dumb, or I won’t be good enough to execute them even if they are good. This is the part I do control—the writing itself—and that control is exercised by constant training, practice and refinement. I keep telling myself that I should more properly want to be accomplished than successful, but work my hardest toward the former, with fingers crossed that this will influence the latter. Some days this is easier than others.
Because there are more “no”s than “yes”es in publishing, sometimes it’s hard to keep your upper lip appropriately stiff and your vision long. But hell, you don’t have to. Confidence is not nearly as important as desire. You can open every email and expect a rejection; you can bawl over your disappointments; you can always hope for yes while expecting a no. You don’t have to keep the faith, but you do have to persist—both in developing craft and pursuing publication. I’m not saying you can never doubt yourself; I’m saying that if you really want it, you have to plunge on ahead anyway.