About Failure

I have an agent.

I am not sure I can adequately describe the feeling that comes with those four words.

A year ago, I was struggling to put together a query letter for a book that doesn’t even really exist anymore. I was agonizing over single words, and tone, and worrying that I wasn’t adequately representing what I had produced. I was, hesitantly, pulling together a list of agents to whom I could possibly send this query. I didn’t have my genre nailed, so I targeted genre-spanning agents, and came up with a grand total of 28. That seemed like both a huge number, and a depressingly tiny one: a narrow, narrow funnel to the traditional publishing world, yet an awful lot of dashed hopes.

I solicited feedback on the query letter. I got amazing assistance from the loveliest, most talented people I know. I got some comments that just plain puzzled me. I drafted, and redrafted, and learned.

I told myself I didn’t have to send it. If I couldn’t face the idea of rejection from professionals, I could bypass that step and deal with Amazon and self-marketing and trying to make myself visible to an audience beyond my friends and family and small number of Twitter followers. I could still be published.

You’ll notice what I started with there: If I couldn’t face the idea of rejection from professionals. For me, skipping the agent search wouldn’t have been because I had reservations about the traditional publishing model, or wanted the absolute control that comes with self-publishing. For me, skipping the agent search would have meant giving in to fear.

And if I ended up with 28 rejections – self-publishing would still be there, still be possible. If 28 people rejected my book, I would not have to abandon it.

So I jumped.

When I was in high school, I auditioned for a production of “Godspell.” Because I was overambitious, I chose a song that hit a sustained high A at the end. I was nervous as a cat, and as a result had possibly no stage presence whatsoever; and although I didn’t do an awful job on the song, I swooped up to the A. I spent that night lying awake in a cold sweat, replaying the audition, contemplating failure, not daring to think about the possibility of success. And when I didn’t get the part, I felt deep embarrassment that I had tried at all.

The query got me partial requests and full requests. And rejections. Some of them were lovely. People wrote personal notes. People used words like “talented.” I got more compliments from strangers who did not think they could sell my book than I usually get from people I actually know.

For about a week, I thought about quitting writing entirely. It’s easy to say, from this side of it, that I overreacted; but I wasn’t being melodramatic, or expecting people to beg me not to deprive the world of my amazing undiscovered talent. During that week, writing hurt. It was what I had always turned to when life was difficult, when I needed to process something horribly painful – and it hurt to write. I had to face the idea that the one thing I’d ever really wanted to do, the one thing I thought I might actually do well, I might not be able to do well enough.

I know, I know: well enough for who? There is only one proper answer to that question, and the fact that I became so despondent speaks, I think, to the horrifically large size of my ego. It’s easy to make fun of myself about it now. At the time…I have been through things in life that were more painful, but not many.

The request for full from this agent came while we were on vacation in Acadia. Now, Acadia is beautiful; but it was rainy, and alternated between horribly humid and dreadfully cold while we were there. We spent time in the hotel room, streaming Star Trek for Emily on the iPad connected to the hotel’s flaky wi-fi. And one evening, while I was idly scanning my email, there it was.

It wasn’t my first request for the full manuscript – the first had resulted in one of the aforementioned lovely, complimentary rejections – but this agent had been one of my early queries, one of the ones that seemed like a good fit. More than two months into my agent search, after the roller coaster of emotions I had been on, after promising myself that I would remember this was the business side of writing, and did not say anything about my character, I had hope.

To be clear, this agent rejected the book I queried as well…but she left a couple of doors open. Here’s what I learned about myself: despite my fear of failure, despite my sneaking suspicion that I am somehow a fake in a world of people doing the real thing, I will jump at an opportunity to keep writing.

I rewrote the book. The sequel became part of it (my agent’s suggestion), and now, one first draft and some revisions later, it has become its own object, independent of both of the originals. (Those of you who beta’d for me will recognize parts of it; but apart from the players and some of the setup, it’s pretty different.)

A month ago, after reading the finished first draft, she told me she wanted to sign me officially. I cried for five solid minutes. (Thank goodness for email; I could not have said a coherent word.)

As a kid, when I thought about writing a book “someday,” the process went something like this:

  1. Write book
  2. Find agent
  3. Publish book
  4. Goto 1

The reality of it all, for me at least, has been much more complicated, and is likely to get more complicated as I go. For one thing, I am still revising – quite a bit, this time with the help of my agent’s editorial feedback – and as is usual for me, it’s hard to step back and see the whole work at this point. And there’s the sequel issue, of course: I have germs of ideas, and about 4,000 sketchy words, but assuming this first book goes anywhere I would really like for there to be a second.

All of those stories I made up when I was little, all of the fragments of overwrought teenage nonsense, all of the abandoned stories and characters and bits and pieces I’ve scribbled in journals and on computers and blogs and iPads over the years – they are all in this book, and they will all be in the next one, and the one after that. Published or not, agented or not – they were all real writing, and they are all a part of me. All of those failures, private and public, have brought me here.

I have an agent. And I have so much more to do.