Writing Novels No One Wants
I wrote my first novel at the age of 24. And now, at the terrifying age of 40, I have written eight complete manuscripts. The first few were practice novels, never to leave the depths of my computer, but the most recent two are pretty good, I think. Not perfect, but worthy of going out into the world. After all, that’s what I’ve wanted ever since I was a little girl: to be a published author.
Yesterday, I reached a depressing milestone with one of the manuscripts: a full year of querying and 50 agent submissions. Not 50 rejections yet, but getting close to it. (And that’s not including all the rejections I’ve gotten on other manuscripts.) This milestone, coupled with turning 40 and having a nasty cold sore, is making me feel pretty crappy.
I have an idea for a new novel, but every time I sit down to work on it, I get a knot in my stomach. Here I go again, writing another novel that no one will read. I’ve spent years of my life creating things that no one wants. It’s demoralizing. Maybe it would be better for my mental health if I found a different career.
But writing novels is all I’ve ever wanted to do. I could do something else, but my heart wouldn’t be in it. On the other hand, all this rejection is breaking my heart.
I know I shouldn’t put so much emphasis on getting published. As with anything creative, if I do it for the external validation, it’s going to end up stifling my creativity and making me miserable. I have to focus on what is in my control (having a good time writing the very best novels I can) and let go of what’s not in my control (whether or not anyone wants to publish them).
But storytelling, by its very nature, requires an audience. If I’m writing stories no one reads… I don’t want to say it feels pointless, but it is getting hard to keep going. It sometimes feels like I’m throwing all my hard work into a soulless void.
The Paradox of Writing Novels
With anything creative, there’s no guarantee of “success.” You can’t do it for external validation or with the sole purpose of getting published or famous or rich. If you’re going to embark on the years-long process of writing a novel, you have to do it because you love it. Because writing is a part of who you are and you’ll go crazy if you don’t. You have to do it for yourself.
BUT. Here’s the paradox. You’re also (I assume) writing that book with the intention of people reading it some day. And, at a certain point in the writing process, you should keep potential readers in mind to make sure you’re not boring them or confusing them. Which means you’re not just doing it for yourself.
(In fact, I just googled “writing for yourself” and found articles like “Don’t Write For Others; Write For Yourself” and “Write For Yourself Not Your Audience is Terrible Advice.” Clearly, this is a tricky topic.)
Anyway, I don’t think it’s bad to have the goal of publishing. If you write a good story, it makes sense to want to get your story into the hands of readers. You’re a storyteller. You want to tell your stories TO someone. Otherwise, why are you doing it?
So many writers only get published after years and years of trying, after hundreds and hundreds of rejections. (I’ve heard you shouldn’t give up on a manuscript until you’ve queried 100 agents, so I guess I’m only halfway there.) As I constantly tell myself, if you’re still trying, you haven’t failed.
So I have to write for myself, but also write for others. I should continue trying to get published, but also not worry about whether or not it happens. Paradoxical, no?
My husband thinks I need to let go altogether of the idea of getting traditionally published. “You need to accept the fact that you may never get published and find a way to be happy with your writing anyway.”
“I can’t accept that! It’s my dream!” I argue. “It’s the goal I’ve been striving for my whole life. I don’t want to accept that it might never happen.”
But I do understand what he’s saying.
Writing Novels Without Falling Into a Pit of Despair
I’ve been so unhappy lately at my perceived lack of success. But I’m basing my happiness on something that is largely out of my control.
Breaking into the publishing industry is really, really, really hard. And it seems to have gotten even harder since the pandemic hit. Often it’s about lucky timing: sending the right manuscript to the right agent at the right time. Although having an agent is no guarantee your book will sell to a publishing house. You have to be in it for the long-game. You have to be willing to write another book if the first one doesn’t sell. And another after that. You have to be willing to keep working for very little reward.
I know that. But it doesn’t make it any easier. Maybe my husband is right that I need to let go of the idea of being traditionally published. But I’m not sure how to do that.
One idea is to self-publish, which is a wonderful option for some people. But I’m terrible at self-promotion, and honestly, it’s not my dream. I’ve always wanted to work with an agent and an editor. I’ve always wanted a team of people bringing my book into creation. Talk to me in another decade, though, and if I still don’t have a published novel, I may be singing a different tune.
Another idea is to adjust my metrics of success. I feel unsuccessful for a forty-year-old, and it’s affecting my confidence, my mood, and my gumption. I feel like other people are judging me: “she has a writing blog and an MFA and she hasn’t even published a single book?” But my biggest critic (probably my only real critic) is, of course, myself.
A final idea is to stop making everything about myself, ha! To that end, I’ve been doing more celebrating and boosting of other writers. Recently I made a goal to read at least one debut novel a month then leave positive reviews on goodreads, Amazon, and possibly my blog. I’ve also started boosting Twitter pitches by leaving comments — even during Twitter pitch events where I myself am not pitching. Am I hoping this writerly karma might come back to me? Sure. But it’s also making me feel better to do something for others. Wait… both of those things made me sounded slightly selfish. OK, so it’s hard not to make things about myself, but I’m trying.
I’m going to be really honest here: I’ve been struggling with a lot of feelings of shame and fear. Fear that I’m not good enough, fear that I’ve lost my creative spark. Shame because I announced to my friends and family nearly a decade ago that I was quitting my full time job to focus on writing novels and getting them published… and still I haven’t reached my goal.
But in the past decade I’ve written six novels from start to finish, and I’ve gotten a lot better at writing novels. I can choose to view this as a success. I can choose to feel proud of how hard I’ve worked to create books that, even if they’re not published (yet), are still pretty good.
I was talking to a friend about this the other day. He’s an artist, which is probably even harder on the ego than being a novelist. He reiterated that I have to do it for myself and not for external validation. Then he said, “I find I need one ego boost a year. Whether it’s a good review or getting into a show, I need a little treat that will keep me going for another year.”
I think that’s what I’m missing right now. I used to write short stories and poems, and occasionally one of them would get published in a literary magazine, which would give me the positive reinforcement I needed to keep toiling away at my novel writing. But now, as the mom of two young kids during the pandemic era, I don’t have time to write short stories. I use my free time to work on my novel, query agents, and write the occasional blog post. So I’m not getting the boosts my starved ego is craving.
I have some ideas about how to solve this, too. One is to adjust my definition of a boost. An agent request or even an agent like during a Twitter pitch event could be a boost. An email from someone who follows my blog could be a boost. Does publishing have to be the only thing that gives me confidence?
Another idea is to find a smaller project to do while I continue to work on my newest novel and query my other manuscripts. Something that takes less time and energy to complete than a novel. Something that will make me feel a sense of pride and accomplishment while I take baby steps towards my big goal. (I’m thinking about writing picture books or even starting a youtube channel!) Yes, it’s still hard to find time to do extra projects, but I can maybe ease off on my novel writing a little — it might be good to give myself a break.
As creativity guru Julia Cameron says, we must focus on the creative process, not the final product: “We inherit the obsession… that art produces finished product from our consumer-oriented society… Fixated on the need to have something to show for our labors, we often deny our curiosities.”
So, at the end of the day, I probably do need to let go of my dream of publishing. As paradoxical and impossible as it sounds, it might be the only way to keep going, the only want to crawl out of my pit of despair and enjoy writing again.
I have to find joy in the act of writing itself, no matter what happens with the final product. I used to access this joy easily, but lately it’s been harder and harder to find. (I blame turning 40. It’s the worst.)
Also, I have to find a way to let go of my shame and fear. Stop listening to my inner critic. Feel proud of myself for everything I’ve done already.
To be honest, I’m not sure how to do all of this. It’s much easier said than done. If you have any suggestions, send them my way. And if you’re feeling the same way as me right now, not matter how old you are or how many rejections you’ve received, I FEEL your pain. I hope you’re being kind to yourself. That’s something I’m working on, too.
If you’re feeling similarly, feel free to reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org.
We can commiserate together then cheer each other on!