The Ditch on Either Side
I am currently getting feedback from beta readers concerning my latest book. It’s going well but it is wrought with risk. Let me tell you about the journey I have been on since I began writing.
I remember the first good book I wrote. I asked three people I trusted to read it and get back with me on their thoughts. I recall that they, to the person, thought I did well. They liked the book. I was very happy. I remember one even saying it was as colorful to them as a major author that I will not mention for humility’s sake. So I was puffed up, full of happy, and ready to query. This was 2001-2002 and, at that time, querying required envelopes and postage and headaches and rejection letters you could hold in your hand. And I shopped around, found about ten total agents to query, and did so.
And it flopped. It failed.
Next book, same process. Third book, I didn’t let anyone really read it, and didn’t query it either. Fourth book, new readers, new query process, but same result.
And then I stopped. I stopped because it was hard. Life sort of happened for about two years. Maybe a little bit longer. I didn’t write any books in that time and tried to give up so many things, writing included, because of how difficult it was. But everybody who read my stuff? They all loved it. They loved the creativity of my worlds, the complexity of my characters, etc, etc, etc. So I could ride on those lovely, fluffy, warm winds of adoration because nobody was disagreeing.
This was a silly, worthless thing to do.
When I jumped back into writing, I finished an old book I had begun years before. I made something nice out of it. Maybe not amazing, but nice. And I began thinking of querying again. I sent out about four or five half-hearted digital queries and received nothing.
Then I wrote a powerful, difficult book. I wrote a book that moved me and, I’m told, others. And I felt a sense of responsibility for that work. I felt a sense of needing to actually do more than write books a few people liked and hope for someone to discover me. And since then I have written four others and realized that my path through writing has thus far been akin to a drunk man trying to mount a horse on a narrow road. I climb out of one ditch, up one side of the horse, and then fall down the other side into the ditch over there. I turn, repeat this folly, and wonder why my head hurts.
So living on the sweet praise of my friends and family has been one ditch, on one side, but what lies on the other? It’s the despondency that comes from real criticism. It’s partly what inspires you to walk away from writing for two years. It’s also, somewhat, the reason I didn’t pursue difficult, honest feedback. Because I didn’t want to hear it. I liked the ditch where I’m unpublished and lazily wrote whatever suited my fancy in whatever way I found most convenient. Because the ditch on the other side hurt. It hurts when someone says, “I didn’t get it.” It hurts when someone reads your work and it doesn’t connect with them. It hurts when someone says that maybe you aren’t ready to be published yet.
So instead of going from elation for the praise of those who know and love me to the dark night of the soul caused by those who simply don’t have a feeling for me one way or another, I have been trying to learn how to ride.
And that’s where I am, currently.
I am trying to learn how to ride this horse. And so far it’s learning how to look at my own work as an agent or an editor might. It looks like spending the time to research and learn about agents in my genre who would be best suited to represent the work. It means getting beta reads from people who will be brutally honest with me. It means humbling myself as much as is humanly possible to learn from every critic, every view, and not responding in anger or in rejection simply because it hurts. It looks like failing, yes, but I am making the smallest of strides towards something real here.
Before 2015, I had never had an agent request materials on any of my work. None. Not a single one. And in 2015, out of approximately forty agents I queried, I got two requests. That is progress. It’s slow. It hurts. It strips me of hope when I zoom in on every form rejection. But it also gives me hope when I zoom out to the whole process. I managed to sit in the saddle ten seconds this time. Maybe soon I’ll feel the wind on my face.