Wednesday, October 01, 2008


This week, one of my friends was having some doubts about her book, mostly based on a negative review from a test reader. She emailed, needing a pep talk. I think we succeeded on that score, but it got me thinking about unpublished writers, doubt, and self-sabotage.

It's not easy to get a novel published. First, you have to actually write the thing, which is a major undertaking in itself. Anyone who has written one or more complete novels should be very proud of himself; it isn't simple, and it represents a huge amount of time and effort--not to mention faith. Then, most writers face the hurdle of finding an agent, which is also a huge undertaking and can take years to do. Anyone who's completed a novel and been accepted by a reputable agent should celebrate that accomplishment; good, experienced agents don't accept writers whose work isn't worthy of publication. But even after you have an agent, there's still the last major pre-publication hurdle: finding a home for the book. That can also take years, especially in today's market. Plenty of now-bestselling authors struggled for many years to accomplish these things. I remember reading somewhere that on average, it can take about ten years from the first novel to publication, no matter how good the writer is to begin with. So delays and setbacks would seem to be more the norm for an unpublished writer than the exception.

There are those charmed ones whose first novel lands on the right desk at the right time and poof, they're published. I'd have loved to be one of those. But the first Brenna book isn't my first novel; it's my seventh. I started seriously working at getting published in 1997, a year after my younger daughter was born, and at that time I had already written three novels. I think I attended my first writers' conference in 1998 and started regularly submitting manuscripts that year, so that makes this year 10 since I got serious about being a career writer. I've done the work and put in the time.

Do I doubt that my current novel is worthy of publication? No. Absolutely not. The last three were also worthy of it. If they weren't, I wouldn't have an agent--especially an agent who used to be a highly-placed editor. Does that mean I have no doubts about my work at all? No. Of course I have doubts. I've been represented for five of those ten years and still have no publishing contract. Granted, it was mostly due to business decisions on the part of the potential publishers, and a few business decisions on my part as well. I was told that many publishers liked the first Oantra novel, but couldn't find a spot for it in their lists, which pretty much meant that the second and third Oantra novels were doomed as well. Instead of scrapping the second and third books, I made the decision to continue writing the trilogy even though the first one hadn't been picked up yet, instead of switching to a new premise or a new genre. I don't regret that decision; completing the series was a major accomplishment, and I'm proud of having done so. However, as a consequence, I now have a great epic fantasy trilogy, but no contract. I can't blame the publishers for making the decisions they thought best at the time, however much I might want to. I hit the high fantasy market at a time when it was at an ebb, unfortunately, and then I didn't switch niches until last year. That's really what accounts for the ten year delay. I'm disappointed in that outcome, but on the other hand, I learned a lot of craft in the ten years, which is always a good thing.

That brings us to the period from March 2006 to April 2008. In that time, I wrote the first Brenna book and also worked on the third book of the Oantra trilogy. I only turned in the final edits of the Brenna book in April of this year, so it hasn't been out in the market for all that long yet. Six months. That's not much time, in the grand scheme of publishing. But I'd be lying if I said that a small part of me isn't a little gun-shy about this process, after spending so long working on the Oantra books and not getting them published. What unpublished writer doesn't wonder whether they've got the right book out there this time, whether the publishers will like it, whether they'll care that it's written in third person and not first, whether it's different enough to stand out in an increasingly crowded market, and so on? With all those uncertainties, it would be easy to let self-doubt sabotage the whole thing. But all the books on abundance and living your dreams say that you can't allow doubt to stop you--that the thing you focus on is the thing you get more of. So I have to see this book as a tangible thing. I can't afford to doubt that it will be published, which is why I usually refer to it as a book and not a manuscript. They say the people who are published now are the ones who never gave up. I have to believe that, too. It makes sense that the surest way to fail is to stop trying and give in to doubt, which I truly believe is my worst enemy, and probably the worst enemy of many other people as well.


Adrian Swift said...

A very powerful posting, and one I can fully identify with. Your subsequent posting on Faith is a great companion piece to this one. Truly, it takes patience, and faith, to overcome doubt. But, as you say, we are also motivated by the progress we see ourselves making over time. We learn and improve constantly, because we work at it constantly.

There is also something to be said for appreciating the personal value of our writing, the notion that it is still a worthwhile endeavor even if we are never published. I think that helps, too. Of course, we want the publishing contract, and the writing career, since we have so much to say and know it is worth saying.

[glass held high]

A toast to Faith!


Best wishes for seeing your novels in print,


KHurley said...