That Time I Wrote A Book And Couldn’t Get It Published (or, you’re all silently judging me right now, aren’t you?)

29 Sep

Did you know that I wrote a book? A novel, even?

Probably not. I haven’t told many people. I’m actually kind of embarrassed about it.

I wrote it back in 2008. One night, Matt and I went to see a Toronto Consort performance of medieval labyrinth music (I guess this is a thing) at Trinity St. Paul’s. It was February, or maybe March, and there was still snow on the ground. Inside the church was warm, cozy even, and the lighting and music were both conducive to drowsy daydreams. By the end of the concert I had the whole plot mapped out in my head, and spent the walk home explaining it to Matt, expanding and solidifying my ideas as I said them out loud.

It took about six months to write, and when I finished, I thought, Phew, the hard part is over.

I’d met a literary agent the year before who had read one of my short stories and liked it so much that she asked me to contact her if I ever wrote a novel. I foolishly thought I was totally set. I finished my first draft in August of 2008, and I was supposed to be going back to school that September, so I gave my little book a quick once over (too quick, I realize now) and sent her off the day before my classes started.

Of course, I ended up having a cycling accident a few days into classes, which effectively ended my educational plans for the next several months.

I decided to devote my suddenly copious amounts of spare time to getting my book published. I started contacting agents and publishers, and actually heard back from a few. A woman at a major Canadian literary agency asked me to send in the first few pages, and then wrote back and asked me to send the rest. A small publisher asked me to send the full manuscript. A few other agents asked for the first chapter, or writing samples.

In early 2009, I heard back from the small publisher. Unbelievably, they were interested in my book. I was so happy. So ecstatically, incredibly, terrified-of-the-other-shoe-dropping happy. Matt and I went out for dinner. I started telling people about my book. Matt’s parents sent him money to buy me flowers. When I met new people, I started introducing myself as a writer.

The publisher asked me to do a second, and then a third draft. They didn’t provide much direction, beyond some vague show-instead-of-tell type of instructions. I felt like I wasn’t doing a great job at editing, but figured if I just pushed through, everything would be fine.

I sent the publisher my third draft, and then in May emailed to follow up with them. They wrote back to say that they weren’t sure if they wanted to publish my book, but that they would let me know for sure in two weeks’ time. In the meantime, they said, I should continue to do rewrites and focus on showing instead of telling.

Three months later, in mid-September, the day after I returned from my honeymoon, I received the following email:

Hi Annabelle,

Sorry for the long stretch between emails. Your manuscript is being sent back to you with a bunch of edits. We can not accept it at this time but we hope that you will read over what we have done and try a new draft. I will be sending you a list of comments made by our editors and hopefully you will be able to put them to use. Thank you for your patience and hopefully we will hear from you again in the future.

The week after that, I received an email back from the original agent I’d contacted, the one who’d liked my short story so much, saying,

[This manuscript] has many of the elements needed for a successful piece of commercial fiction: an authentic-feeling setting—due here, in part, to the author’s attention to period dress and historic cooking; an intriguing premise; and a likeable heroine. However, what [this manuscript] lacks is strong, forward momentum in its narrative.  

Another rejection.

I felt like I was at a total loss. I didn’t know what to do. The hardest part was realizing that this whole thing was my own damn fault – I’d rushed to get it out before it was properly edited, because I just couldn’t be bothered to do it properly. Surely, I told myself, if it shows so much promise, if the characters are likeable and the setting feels authentic, there must be some way to fix momentum of the narrative?

Not only did I have to live with the fact that I’d sabotaged my own success, but I also had to deal with everyone that I’d told about my book. How’s the novel? they asked. When will it be published? Who’s the publisher? 

Embarrassed, I would stutter out that there was a delay, that I wouldn’t be going with the original publisher, that I was still shopping around.

Oh, they said, in a way that was totally loaded with meaning.

Even my mother, who knew the whole story, kept asking and asking about my book. Finally, I had to make her promise to never mention the damn book again until I was the one who brought it up.

It wasn’t just about the book itself; this novel was supposed to Show People. It was supposed to be a giant fuck you to all of the people who had looked down on me, or made fun of me, or just plain wouldn’t give me the time of day. I’d convinced myself that once my book was published, all of the people who didn’t invite me to their high school parties would be kicking themselves for not realizing earlier how awesome I was.

Now, it seemed I’d proven them right. I wasn’t awesome enough to come to their parties, and I definitely wasn’t awesome enough to publish a book. Double whammy!

I stopped writing after that. I felt weirdly guilty devoting my energy to new writing, when here was my poor old book, still waiting to be published. Starting something new seemed tantamount to cheating on her, even though I knew I should put her aside for a while and focus on something else.

I sent out a few more query letters, and a small publisher in Brooklyn asked me to send in my manuscript. So I sent her off again, and waited and waited and waited to hear back. I wasn’t worried, because waiting a billion years is basically standard in the publishing industry. Then, sometime last year, my book, in the same wrapping I’d sent her out in, came back to me.

They hadn’t even bothered to pick her up from the post office.

I often think of the writing process as being like pregnancy, except that you’re gestating a book instead of a baby. But what happens when you’re unable to give birth? What happens to all the time, thought and energy you’ve devoted to making your novel live? What is it that you’ve created, exactly? I mean, other than a stack of paper in a battered brown package that sits on your bookshelf and serves as a reminder of what a failure you are.

I don’t know what to do now. I’m not even sure if my book is any good. I avoid those files on my computer like the plague, and every time I accidentally catch site of one of them, I feel sad and ashamed.

I miss her, though. I think about her a lot. On good days, I tell myself that with a bit of effort, a bit of good old-fashioned elbow grease and some stick-to-itiveness on my part, I could get her out there. On bad days, seeing the name of one of my characters in a newspaper or hearing it in a movie makes me want to cry.

I’m sorry, little book. It’s my fault you’re languishing in my apartment instead of sitting pretty on a shelf at Indigo.

Starting this blog has been an attempt to get myself writing again. By and large it’s been a really positive experience. One of the things that I hated about writing my novel was that it was such a solitary activity – I sat in my dark bedroom and wrote, and the only one who ever read it was Matt. I was dying for feedback, but I felt bad about asking my friends to proofread for me. On top of that, I was terrified that they would hate it.

With blogging, on the other hand, I get instant feedback, most of it insanely great. People read what I write, and for that I’m incredibly grateful. But sometimes I wonder what I’m doing here; I wonder what good it does to write these posts.

And then I wonder if everything I do has to do something or be worth something, and then I wonder why I write at all, and then I kind of get caught up in this endless cycle of self-deprecating wondering.

I guess what I really want to say is:

I failed at something, and I’m not ashamed (much).

I wrote a novel, I poured my heart and soul into it, and it wasn’t good enough (but maybe it could be, someday).

I don’t know what to do now, but maybe someday I will figure it out (I hope).

And maybe someday my little book will find her spot on the shelf at a bookstore, or, even better, the shelf of someone I don’t even know.

Oh and by the way, in case you were wondering, this is what a manuscript looks like after it’s spent a year gathering dust in a Brooklyn post office:

18 Responses to “That Time I Wrote A Book And Couldn’t Get It Published (or, you’re all silently judging me right now, aren’t you?)”

  1. Jennie September 29, 2012 at 2:54 am #

    Dude, you WROTE A BOOK. Maybe it wasn’t a book that was ready for publication. Do you know (I’m sure you know) how very few first books ever see the light of day? You finished a book, and serious professional book people liked it enough to read it and send you honest-to-goodness criticism, and say really nice things. That’s quite impressive. Most of the time, publishing people mostly don’t say nice things to people who finish their first novel, because most people’s first novels aren’t very good at all.

    Have you ever watched student music recitals? Not, like, first-year violin “Twinkle, Twinkle” recitals but the recitals of serious music students who are still students? There are a bunch of them on YouTube. (I wind up listening to them when I go looking for performances of music that I’m learning. Sometimes I don’t listen very long.) Some are awful. Some are bad. Some are actually quite good. Most student recitals show performances that are, at best, still underdeveloped. But every now and again, you hear someone and you think “Yes. Give that one another few years and some good teaching. That one’s got The Stuff.”

    Having agents and voice interest in your work, even if they regret that a particular work isn’t ready to go into the world is an indication that they think you have The Stuff. So this poor first novel was a student-recital novel (without the YouTube videos to embarrass you down the road). It wasn’t your Carnegie Hall novel. That’s okay. Few of us make it to Carnegie Hall straight out of our first recitals. Writers—even writers who have The Stuff—need time to develop and grow, too. When you finish one recital, you go out for a drink or a sundae, take a break for a day, then pick up your instrument and get back to the scales and arpeggios. You learn a bunch of new repertoire. You practice and polish and keep learning, because that’s how you make art.

    So here’s my advice to you: you’ve had a student recital. It was a pretty good student recital, and your performance showed great promise. But you’re not quite ready for that Carnegie Hall audition yet. This is okay. Put aside that repertoire. You may come back to it someday, or you may discover that it’s not quite the novel you wanted to write in the first place, and write an entirely different one. Write the Next Story, whatever that is, taking what you learned from the first novel and applying it in the edits of the Next Story. Keep doing those scales. Keep polishing your technique. You have The Stuff. Even if the next step isn’t Carnegie Hall, you will continue to find your audience.

    Trust me. I’m an editor. :-P.

    • bellejarblog October 1, 2012 at 2:45 am #

      This is the best comment. Just the best. It made me so happy that I needed to wait a while before I replied to it because I was afraid I would screw up the reply. That’s how great it is.

      I was going to write something super thoughtful and insightful back to you, but fuck it: I’m going to just straight up say THANK YOU and leave it at that. THANK YOU A LOT. THANK YOU FOR SAYING I HAVE THE STUFF.

      And thanks for making my day 🙂

    • bellejarblog October 1, 2012 at 2:48 am #

      Also: now I can’t stop watching videos on youtube of student music recitals.

  2. playfulmeanderings September 29, 2012 at 5:03 am #

    First, so happy that you are blogging — that you have been burning up the letters on the keyboard making music out here for us to dance to. Your book in some form, the theme, a character, a strand, will be resurrected again.

    • bellejarblog September 30, 2012 at 4:37 pm #

      Thank you! I have definitely been burning up the keyboard (hah).

      I really hope so – I loved this little book, even though she wasn’t perfect.

  3. Eagle-Eyed Editor September 29, 2012 at 7:01 am #

    I’m impressed. You wrote a book and finished it. That’s more than others would do. 🙂

    • bellejarblog September 30, 2012 at 4:39 pm #

      Thank you. I do believe, though, that anyone could write a book if they just gave themselves the time to do it. It’s not really talent; it’s just sitting down and forcing yourself to type.

      • playfulmeanderings September 30, 2012 at 6:41 pm #

        Uh-uh. Nope. Not anyone can do it. Unfortunately, this is what artists do to their talent. They denigrate it by saying that anyone can do it. Can anyone build a bridge? No. Can anyone produce a tomato? No. Can anyone paint a picture? No. We’re just not all endowed equally. And by the same turn, not all people can write. YOU can do it. And you will!

  4. feministifythis September 29, 2012 at 10:05 am #

    Amazing post, I love your way of telling stories.

    I’m terrified about the whole publishing thing. I love writing and have a lot of stories in my head that I would like to put in print. But when I write, I put my god-damn soul into it, so I’m really scared of rejections. I would take it personally. I even deliberately chose another module than “Creative Writing” just because I’m scared of putting my darlings out there, and people would think they are crap. I wish I were brave like you and tried.

    I also have another problem. I need other people to proofread it, I can’t do it myself. English is not my native language and I make mistakes. Not huge mistakes, but mistakes I’m not able to see. I mess up grammar. The way I structure a sentence is something clearly not in the way an English person would put it. And I feel like no one would bother editing my writings, as there must be so many errors.

    But tank you for sharing this, it made me think a lot.

  5. ryanfhughes September 29, 2012 at 3:53 pm #

    What Jennie said. Particularly with regards to your Stuff-Having.

    • shannon September 29, 2012 at 7:01 pm #

      What Ryan said in regards to what Jennie said. You are a force. Your writing is a force. You’re gonna kick this world’s ass. I love what you have to say and how you say it. I would read anything you wrote. Anything. This is a powerful story and I feel inspired to keep writing myself. I’ve become one of your biggest fans, my friend. xo

      • bellejarblog October 3, 2012 at 1:37 am #

        Thank you. Same to you! We can kick the world’s ass together!

    • bellejarblog September 30, 2012 at 4:38 pm #

      Thanks, friend 🙂

  6. Leigh October 1, 2012 at 6:38 pm #

    You are brave.

  7. Vanessa October 13, 2012 at 4:27 am #

    Your book sounds really interesting!! I do hope you are able to get it reworked for the publishers!! I love reading books that can take you away someplace, and really make you feel you are there with the details!

  8. Lysa March 23, 2013 at 3:36 am #

    Hey! That really sucks. I think you should keep writing. I read a lot, like crazy a lot. 4 novels a week. I read anything and everything. I have zero patience for unauthentic…and you are authentic. So that is great. I would read your novel. Hope it gets published!


  1. On Writing Fiction | The Belle Jar - March 23, 2013

    […] I took her advice, and I went home, and I wrote. I wrote like a motherfucker (digression: how does a motherfucker write?) and ended up producing a folder full of short stories and a novel. […]

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