According to the file properties, I started writing this in January of 2009 and made my last revisions before the summer. This is probably the third full manuscript I wrote that didn't sell, but of the three, it's the one I loved the most. Sometimes I think it is the best thing I have ever written/will ever write, and when I'm in a funk, I reread pieces of it to remind myself of why I do what I do, and that it is possible to forget the world and the sales and the comp titles and just write.
This story does not even really have a title, because my agent and I could never agree on one. And in 2009 when I finished it, I wasn’t exactly picky about this sort of thing anyway. My agent began submitting it across the board, and I kept my crappy day job, trying not to think too much of it. This was the third manuscript that I had written and considering the previous two hadn’t sold, my hopes weren’t especially high.
And then one afternoon in March, the phone rang. It was my agent. A couple of editors wanted to speak to me re: this story. I was up on the ceiling about it. This was a new stage for me. Up until that point, the rejections were all flat and immovable. Nobody in any publishing house had ever wanted to speak to me before.
If I’m remembering correctly, I spoke with three editors. One was enthusiastic. Another wanted an overhaul and suggested turning it into a ghost story. But another—it was as though all the stars and planets aligned and everything in the universe made sense. We were absolutely on the same page about everything. This editor did warn me, though, that theirs was a small trade publication and that we’d be talking a modest advance and a strictly paperback publication.
This editor may have expected this to disappoint me, but in truth it’s what I wanted and expected. This was a quiet story, and I had a quiet voice, and I did not have extraordinary dreams. All I wanted was to see it on a shelf. I didn’t even mind keeping my crappy job.
But, as these things often do, the pieces collapsed into an inglorious heap.
I was gutted. It wasn’t so much the rejection that stung. It was that this had been my greatest effort. One paragraph in particular took me about two days to perfect. And if this couldn’t get published, well—I could do no better. I had maxed out my abilities. How would I ever write something that would top it?
I like to think I’m made of tough stuff, but that night I went to bed and did all the crying I ever intended to do in this game. The next day I put it behind me. The next thing I wrote was WITHER. Despite several ups and downs and leaps and failures in my career, I have not found a single thing worth crying about.
A lot of people would think that the disappointments stop upon publication. I did. But the truth is that whether you are trying to get published, or have been a New York Times bestseller a couple of times, the disappointments will come in equal quantity. I still have days where I think I can never do better than what I’ve already struggled to finish. I still have days where I wonder if this story will be the last. In fact, maybe there are more worries now than before I got into this game, because now more of the world is watching. Now publishers pay actual money for my work and there is more at stake. There are days when I feel deeper down in the hole than I ever did before I was published. And there are many more people I may let down.
Failure is not even a reflection on the work itself. When we were on submission, some editors didn’t like the writing itself. Some offered no comment. But a majority told us they just didn’t think it would sell. That’s actually how I wound up with my agent: she didn’t think my first story (two stories before this one) would sell, but there was apparently something about my writing that she liked, because she asked to see what I churned out next. And she’s still my agent today. A failure to get published does not necessarily mean the failed story wasn’t worth writing.
Some writers will nail it on the first time. I had to get it wrong a great many times. I don’t regret a thing. The world will never see this story, but I am the same writer now that I was when I wrote this. I have not changed, and that means something to me.
Every now and again I bring this story up in casual conversation. People ask me to self-publish it, or to send them a copy. I can’t say for certain what I’ll do in the future, but for now I’ll keep it to myself, safe from the world. I’ll share bits and pieces, and I always edit out the names of the characters, selfishly hoarding them because they are a piece of me that the world has not had a chance to form an opinion about. I have so many words out there that are published for the world to love and hate, but this is still mine. And when I need to remember why I love what I do, I pull up this word doc and I scroll through the pages, and I remember how much I love words. I may spend the rest of my natural life trying to write the story that tops this one.
Here is what I have learned in the time between the time I wrote this story and now: Whether you are brand new, or you have several publications under your belt, the new word doc is blank every time. You have to start over with nothing every time. There will be no promise of success, every time. You may only speak one language; you may only know the same words you’ve known your entire life. But there are infinite combinations for those words. There are infinite stories to tell.