I gave up on my first book.
And not like I gave up for a few minutes or for a couple days. Not like when a Twitter friend gets a book deal and you despair and hustle through a Whole Foods Chocolove after which you wipe away the smeary corners of your mouth and say: it’s OK, my time will come.
It was not like that.
It was like this: I wrote a book about twin sisters who take separate paths in dealing with their parents’ lies about their sexual identities. It took me about a year to get a first draft, another three years to revise it, and another year to have beta and teen readers give me feedback. Four years after I finished a full first draft of a complete YA manuscript, I queried the book. Querying, even dedicating myself to it and using QueryTracker, took me a year and three months. After querying, I received four agent offers on the book, which only took ten days from my first offer to my acceptance of one. I revised the book with my agent, Rena Rossner, which took about two months. Then, my first book went out on submission to editors.
This took a very long time.
Interest came then waned. My agent shared all the passes. There were mostly very positive passes with editors excited for my next book. Many said: “the writing is beautiful; it’s just not right for this house.” But after a year, I stopped thinking about being “on sub” and just focused on writing a new book. Being on sub is like Ava Jae tells us. But when a year and a half went by, I gave up hope that the book would be published.
And I didn’t just give up hope inside myself, in my heart of hearts. I gave up in actuality.
I had a conversation with my agent where we decided that it was time to shelve my first book and to stop pursuing editors. The book had been rejected by at least twenty editors, and although a few still had the book and had yet to read, I had a full draft of a new book, a fancy high-concept book, and it was SHINY and SPARKLY and it would DEFINITELY SELL IMMEDIATELY. Or something like that. So even though the new sparkly book was in revisions (and that first book took me five years to perfect), we gave up on my first book. It barely even hurt, really.
Just a pinprick. Once in awhile, a tiny stab just behind my heart. I felt it when I’d think of my characters and wish for them to be known by someone other than me. I’d think of the scene I wrote that one agent called “the most perfect kiss scene” she’d ever read, and it would pinch that I would never get swoony over that moment with a reader. I tried to be practical, and think of how that scene could be incorporated into another book. But that kiss, like all of our kisses, was just for these two characters, and it could never be anyone else’s kiss.
I sat with the giving up for about four months. Meanwhile I kept my focus on revisions of my new book, my full-time professorial job, my two young daughters, and the occasional life-threateningly painful jog. Until—one day in therapy, kinda out of nowhere, I said: I don’t want to give up on my first book. And my therapist said: then don’t. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, but I knew there was one person I could talk to about my book-feels: my agent, Rena.
So, torn with indecision about my previous decisions, I wrote an e-mail to her. It was very “hey, having second thoughts here and maybe we could still try to sell my first book? IDK, can we discuss?” She is an all-in kind-of agent, and she could likely feel my moment of courage, and went into action. She poked the editors who had shown interested in the book, and sent me a comprehensive list of all of the passes we’d had, and ideas about potential editors we might consider.
I just said: thank you. And then probably dropped someone off at daycare.
Then I got an e-mail. (Spoiler Alert: it was not THE e-mail). Rena said she had “interesting” news. We spoke, and she told me that an offer was to be coming in from a very small press. A good press, but small for a debut. She explained that small presses are amazing, and this one was fantastic, but it might limit my options in the future—and the money of course, was small. There was some silence and she said we’d have to wait a bit to get the offer, so we had time to consider. I was tentatively excited, but I could tell she wasn’t sure it was the best move for my career, even though we both loved the press.
Life happened for a few weeks, then Rena texted that we needed to talk. I expected our call to be about the small press offer, but it wasn’t—it was a call because an editor at a very amazing house had shown significant interest and my agent and this editor were meeting at the Bologna Book Fair. Rena promised to let the editor know an offer was coming in on the book, in hopes that the editor might read more quickly. It was very publishing-esque. One offer might spark another? These are the crystals that hang from writer’s dream windows. And the meeting happened…and I heard nothing. For another few weeks.
Yes…weeks. Waiting and publishing are almost the same thing. But I suppose we might never actually write anything is we weren’t always trying to distract ourselves from the waiting. In reality, writing is: waiting, writing, waiting, writing, waiting, writing, DEADLINE!
But then I got another text and another call. This was still not THE call. It was a: “good news…you’re going to acquisitions!” call. This was very good news. But it was still a MAYBE. My agent’s own first two novels had both been to acquisitions—and neither made it through. She was careful in her excitement, and I tried to be too. It was a very hand-chewing sort of good news. And almost as stressful, the publishing house gave me homework.
The acquisitions crew wanted…A SYNOPSIS. And BLURBS. And I had a week to procure these strange and terrifying items. The future of my entire publishing career hinged on me crafting and soliciting said items successfully. I felt panic—but also something else.
I felt hopeful again. I didn’t know that my book would make it through, but still, when I asked, the children’s book writing community showed up for me. A few texts and conversations and three amazing authors and a bookstore owner read my book with an insanely tight turnaround and wrote wonderful blurbs. My critique partners and my agent helped me turn an awful synopsis into something readable. I sent it all out.
And then there was more waiting. This time, it hurt a little more with each minute that passed. The hope that had come back was chewing on the edges of my heart. It said things like: this could really happen. This is what you’ve been working so hard for. You could be the one this time. It could be your face in that Publisher’s Weekly Rights Report e-mail. I tried to tell the hope to shut-up, but my fear fed it, and made the hope more aggressive.
It said: I really think this is the one. I have a good feeling about this. Go ahead; go ahead and hope. Really.
I wanted to trust it, but I was terrified. Because, on the other side of hope is fear. And as I waited through those long-hours, I realized it was the fear that told me to shelve the book in the first place. It was the fear of perpetual, never-ending rejection that shoved my first book away. The fear let me be OK with my first book becoming the splattery first pancake in my writing career. And my logical mind told me that in writing, there’s no lack of chances to publish. The only thing that can stop you from publishing is giving up completely—and I wasn’t doing that. I knew that even if my first book didn’t make it—and many first books don’t—I had two other books I was working on, and they might. So I let go of my first book, and the fear went with it.
But when I decided to believe in my first book again, I picked up that hope/fear. And even though I didn’t realize it at the time, I pulled that hope and that fear into my hands and I held it. And my agent took it into her hands and she threw it around the editing community, splattering anyone who cared to look. But it paid off. My willingness to sit with the fear paid off.
Because then there was a call. And this time, it was THE call.
I was in the Whole Foods parking lot preparing to buy the store out of Chocolove bars just in case. But then my agent called, laughing with happiness, and I didn’t need to. Because that book I decided to believe in again had sold to Soho Teen.
I sat in the car in the Whole Foods parking lot crying and wrote my therapist a text. I told her thank you for reminding me of my center. And I meant: thank you for reminding me that my center is writing, which means my center is being vulnerable in a way that will never be cured—not by a book deal or by a three-starred review. It means that my center is hope but right beside it is fear. Like a yin-yang of feathers and bones, my writing heart will always be raw, open, vulnerable, and afraid.
But without it, I wouldn’t be sharing my young adult novel: HOPE AND OTHER FEATHERED THINGS with the world in early 2020.
So: despite the fear, don’t give up. Don’t give up because it’s taking a long time to get published. Don’t give up because you have a shiny new idea that will definitely sell of course it-will-because-it-has-to-OH-MY-GOD-IT-HAS-TO. And make sure you have an agent who is willing, like mine was and is, to not give up on your work until there are literally no more options. And if you have to give up, because you've exhausted all the options, read What Happens When it IS You by Natalie Whipple and know that you're not alone.
By the time my first book will be in print, it will have taken me ten years to publish a single book. Yeah, you read that right. Ten years. But with a little luck and a lot of hard work on revisions, my next few books will take much less time because I have an amazing agent, and now, I can’t believe I get to say this: I have an amazing editor.
To publish, we writers need to work hard through disappointment and to take feedback and to address it thoughtfully. We need critique groups. We need Query Tracker accounts. But more than all of that, we need to accept the hope/fear that will always be there in our hearts, making our hands shake as we write, but making sure that we show up to do it.