Essays

The One Line That’s Missing From All the Writing Advice

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I started writing as an adult in 2009. I’d scribbled many poems and “novels” as a child and teen, but I had a West Wing-based epiphany in my early 30s (it’s a long story) and started writing seriously then.

Alongside the joy of getting to know my characters and daydreaming a plot into existence, I also read a lot of books on the craft of writing. Studying, I could do. I know school isn’t for everyone, and that I benefit from a lot of white and neurotypical privilege, but I loved school. Looking back now, I think part of what I loved about it was the (mostly) reliable nature of it. I grew up in Belgium in the 1980s, and there was a lot of listening to teachers, making notes neatly in my exercise books, learning things by heart for tests and reciting them at the chalkboard. I was good at following rules, and I liked the fact that a certain kind of input meant a certain kind of mostly predictable output.

I knew, of course, that art is less predictable than that. It was also apparent early on as I started writing that I thought outside the box of what fiction, at least British and American fiction, requires to be considered publishable. But still, if pressed, I would have said that learning my craft and persevering would eventually result in publication. I knew that it might be a long road (five years, maybe!), but if I learned about how to submit to agents, I would eventually find my place in the publishing world.

When I first started, I concentrated on my craft. I didn’t read anything about publication itself. It was easier then — without the noise of Twitter to distract me, I could just choose not to Google. My early days of writing, inspired and bright-eyed, were very exciting, fun, and full of hope. I wish I could recapture them.

But when it was time to submit to agents, I read voraciously around that, too. I read about how to write a query letter, how to write a synopsis, how to find agents who are right for you. I studied up. Just like back at school, I think there was an expectation in the back of my mind that if I did the right things, I’d get the result I wanted — which, in my case, was a book deal from the one of the big publishing houses.

But here’s what none of the writing magazines or the books about the publishing industry or the blog posts I read told me:

Sometimes you can do all the right things, and it still might not happen for you.

My first book was decent, but a bit of a mess in some ways, and although I got good feedback from industry insiders, I could and still can see why it wasn’t getting traction.

But it also gave me an idea for another book — the book that became the thesis for my MFA. (I told you I liked school.) And that one was good. I poured my heart and myself and what I’d learned about my craft into it. I worked on it for years, editing and rewriting. I started the round of query letters, following all the advice about how to format them, and all the instructions on the websites.

Eventually, six years after I first started writing, I got an agent. I celebrated so hard. I thought I was home and dry. I had concentrated so much on this next step that it had never occurred to me that success might not be around the corner. My agent was so excited about my book. She had just sold a buzzy book for a considerable advance and was convinced my novel was the next big success for her. I knew it might be a wait. Even after the first round of queries which resulted in lots of praise from editors for my writing and regret that they couldn’t publish me for various arbitrary reasons, I still believed her. Eventually, we scheduled a call with a wonderful editor; she was going to make me an offer. Then her boss overruled her, the call never happened, and I think that’s when I realised it wasn’t going to happen for me.

And actually, after hanging around in writers’ forums for as long as I have, I know now that it’s really common for an agent not to sell a book. (It happened to me again with a different agent and a different book, too.) But I don’t remember this warning in any of the things I’d read about getting an agent. Maybe it’s just that they wanted to be encouraging and upbeat, or maybe it’s partly a reflection of the American dream and the British belief in meritocracy: that if you just work hard enough, of course you’ll get there.

Eventually, I did sort of get there. A small publisher with no budget for marketing took on my novel, Unscripted. Another round of edits followed, and then I threw myself into marketing.

Again, there were rules to follow: if you just do this, and that, and the other, results will follow. I honestly don’t know what else I could have done. I threw everything I had at marketing my book. Whatever you’re thinking of right now, I tried. The books and blog posts about marketing a title are so positive. They make you feel like it’s within reach to get success for your book. And for many people, it seems like it is.

My book sank without trace.

Occasionally, I try to revive it — I’m in the middle of one of those phases right now — but it doesn’t seem to matter how much readers love it (and by and large, they do), it doesn’t gain traction.

One piece of advice the book world gives you is to be a good literary citizen. To go to events, to praise other authors’ books publicly. I have been doing that for a decade, pouring money and energy into supporting writers I love, buying hardbacks at author talks, writing for Book Riot, hosting a book podcast, even working in a bookshop where I love to recommend my favourites. But when it came time for my own book, I can count on one hand the number of authors who supported me in some way. I hadn’t done any of what I’d done because I expected a reward — it was all genuine — but it still really hurts.

And I think it would have hurt less — all of it would — if in at least some of the articles and books I’d read, that line had appeared:

Sometimes you can do everything right, and it still might not happen for you.

Would I still have started down this path in 2009? Maybe. No matter how many disappointments I have, I can’t seem to stop thinking of myself as a writer. But it would have helped me hold the dream lighter. It would have helped me buffer my heart against the onslaught of disappointment to come. It might have changed some big life decisions I made.

The writing life is a roller coaster, but it’s also full of joy. If this is a path you want to go down, then by all means, embrace it. But my advice would be to ask yourself how you’ll feel if you never get the kind of success you’re aiming for — whatever that looks like for you. And then hold your dreams lightly.

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