Dealing with a professional setback

by Jessie K on October 2, 2013

rurally-screwed-high-heels.jpg

The other week at my book club, we were all sitting around our host’s lovely home enjoying our drinks and cheese and discussing the month’s pick (Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan) when one of the club members asked , “So Jessie, what’s going on with your latest book?”

I could feel my face turn beet red and my initial split second impulse was to outright lie and say, “Great! It’s going  great! Really…great!”

Instead, what came out was the cold, hard truth. “Actually….it’s not….going….very…..well….Are there anymore cookies?” I could feel everyone’s eyes on me, my cue I was expected to elaborate when what I really wanted to do was slither under the chair and get fetal with the cookies.

I’ve been avoiding the question publicly for months and haven’t really said much about it beyond to a few family members and friends.

The truth is, my latest book, the one about Jake’s adventures in Afghanistan and his rescue of our wily dog Solha — the one I’ve spent a year working on off-and-on — hasn’t sold. Nor is it likely to. The manuscript has been making the rounds with publishers since June (June!) and hasn’t captured the attention of editors. It’s either been rejected by the houses or I’ve received zero response, which is almost worse, since it indicates the manuscript didn’t  make it beyond some junior editor’s slush pile.

This is agonizing to admit as it makes me confront the usual soul sucking ruminations guaranteed to kill a writer’s confidence (do I have any talent? Do I even know how to write? What is wrong with me? Are they still hiring down at Hardees?) but it’s been eating away at me for the past several months. I was almost waiting to break the news on the blog until I had something new and exciting and hopeful to replace it with, an attempt to cancel out any suggestion I might be a failure. (“So I didn’t sell my third book, BUT I was just featured on page 197 of Cat Fancy! How u like me now?”) Alas, not even Cat Fancy wants anything to do with me.

On the one hand, I fully accept and understand that rejection is part of being a writer; it’s wound into the job description (unless you’re Danielle Steel). Dealing with and moving on from failure is a component of any successful life, creative or otherwise. I’m trying to look closely and critically at what happened to evaluate my own role in my manuscript’s demise. I’ve come up with plenty of reasons, which I won’t bore you with here, but the biggest one is that I think I was writing too far outside my own milieu. By writing about a soldier’s deployment to Afghanistan — and even though that soldier is my husband — I was trying to be someone I’m not, trying too hard to place myself in a world I never actually inhabited or can intimately comprehend. The voice was second hand. Editors sensed the inauthenticity  to my tone, and passed. I’m also probably not the world’s greatest “dog writer.”

As for how to move forward, it seems to me I have 4 choices:

1) I can either rework the manuscript from top to bottom, make it more compelling, dramatic, funny, more organically me and try submitting again (even though I highly suspect a second submission will be perceived as damaged goods)

2) I can finish the damn thing (it’s almost done) and self publish it through Amazon or through the blog and probably earn $5. This is probably the most prudent option but the number one downside to rejection is that it has this way of sucking any and all motivation I had for the project. I don’t even want to look at the Solha manuscript.

3) I can stick it in a drawer somewhere (done!) and begin a brand new project I’ve been mulling for a few years that is authentically me (it’s a black comedy and involves something that happened to me when I was 17). I’ve started outlining the tale but that’s about as far as I’ve gotten.

4) I can twiddle my thumbs for five months and essentially do nothing.

Guess which option I have chosen? Yeah, I’ve basically been sitting on my thumbs since June waiting for inspiration to strike.

That’s the worst thing about setbacks — it’s left me feeling rudderless, without direction and motivation. Perhaps the pregnancy and thoughts of moving are partially to blame, but this professional blow has in a very real way set me back and I’ve been having a hard time figuring out the next move. But I’d better figure it out soon because time waits for no one…especially with a newborn in the picture.

Anyway, I tried to explain all this to my book club members — smart, polished ladies, all — and the day after the book club, I found a reprint of this letter to Agnes De Mille waiting for me outside my office door:

There is a vitality,

a life force, 

a quickening

that is translated through you into action,

and because there is only one of you in all time,

this expression is unique.

 

And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and be lost.

The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine 

how good it is

nor how valuable it is

nor how it compares with other expressions. 

 

It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly

to keep the channel open.

You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work.

You have to keep open and aware directly to the urges that motivate you.

 

Keep the channel open…

No artist is pleased…

 

There is no satisfaction whatever at anytime

There is only a queer, divine dissatisfaction

a blessed unrest that keeps us marching

and makes “us” more alive than the others.

– Martha Graham

{ 30 comments… read them below or add one }

Paula October 2, 2013 at 3:21 pm

Reply

Why not write it FIRST hand, about your life and feelings as a left behind wife during this period?

And maybe it’s too soon. I had an aunt who self published a book about her life at an advanced age. She was a young wife during the depression, and also a painter. She sent a small painting to Eleanor Roosevelt asking for advice on how to make money selling her paintings. The two of them wrote back and forth several times. Mrs. Roosevelt wrote about my aunt a few times in her “My Day” column, and asked to meet her when she made an appearance in the city near here.

Mrs. Roosevelt encouraged my aunt to write a book about her life. She tried, but it was too soon. She put the letters and book drafts away for thirty years, then wrote a delightful book–including the correspondence with ER–and sold the copies when I was a young girl. Everyone who read it loved it, most read it several times.

The point is that maybe it is too soon to tell this particular story. Maybe those memories need to age a while.

gypsypf October 2, 2013 at 4:13 pm

Reply

Have you ever considered selling the Solha story as a patriotic, illustrated children’s book? Might challenge your writing skills by channeling the story idea into a different demographic.

Brad K. October 3, 2013 at 12:49 pm

Reply

Good idea. I am sure that other families deal with understanding life for their uniformed hero, “over there”. Maybe especially the children, and even those not so young.

And other families, too, have to deal with coming home, as well.

Blessed be.

Sarina October 2, 2013 at 4:20 pm

Reply

I would lean towards self publishing and then move on to your next project. That way you don’t have it dangling in the back of your mind and who knows it might strike a chord in readers and you might make more than you think!

Molly O October 2, 2013 at 4:41 pm

Reply

As an eighth-year PhD student whose dissertation research did not turn out to change the world, I hear ya.

Jessie K October 3, 2013 at 10:06 am

Reply

I take solace knowing I’m in good company.

Lindsay October 2, 2013 at 6:31 pm

Reply

I agree with gypsypf and Sarina. Solha’s story would make a wonderful children’s book. There’s millions of military kids out there (mine included) that would probably love to hear something positive from the war that has taken so many parents away for so long. As a military spouse I would like to hear your side of the story too. Self publishing would share the story you’ve already written and let you move on to your next project.

maria October 2, 2013 at 7:26 pm

Reply

Jessie….you need a mocktail. It will work out as it should..step away from it all and don’t rush…you’ll figure it out. Don’t be down on yourself–I mean there are millions of writers that never ever get a single thing published–you got your first book published in a flash!!!!
I’d love to read a book about the secret lives of small town folk…ooooh think of the possibilities :)

Jessie K October 3, 2013 at 10:05 am

Reply

I do need a mocktail. And the secret lives of small town folk sounds positively riveting. I shall call it Maria.

Jen d October 2, 2013 at 8:59 pm

Reply

I agree with Maria, does everything have to be solved now? Maybe do a combo of all the suggestions. Write a children’s book about bringing Solha home. Shove the other book in a drawer and maybe take a crack at it a year down the road. If you complete it and self publish it, will you just end up resenting the book?
I do not write books, but create large, sometimes very boring, presentations on a regular basis for work ( I was not comparing your book to a large boring presentation..stick with me here). The hardest part is not in the delivery of the finished product, but having it sent to my boss to be reviewed, critiqued, picked over and sometimes rejected. Usually by the time we get to that stage I am sick of looking at it and cannot stand the thought of whatever the topic was that time around. BUT…. Having it picked over and rejected is like someone analyzing one of my children. So I hear ya’ on the love hate relationship. You don’t want to look at it, but damn it someone should.
Sounds to me like you have a plan in place for your next book. Not to mention the whole miracle of life thing you have going on right now.
Bottom line, no shame in slacking off every now and then as long as a. You know you are doing it and b. it eventually comes to an end. I am just a little puzzled how you can run a farm, be a mom of an active child, raise chickens, create life, find a new house, maintain a blog and still be ‘slacking off’.
It is ok to be bummed out but don’t forget to celebrate the successes. Glass half full version is you recorded an event in time that is important to your family. June and baby insert name here will have this fantastic history to pass along that may have become lost over the years or memories muddied over time. And that is irreplaceable and worth the journey.
It sucks, but does not define you.

Sarah October 2, 2013 at 9:02 pm

Reply

I thought the same thing as the others when I was reading your post…it would make a great children’s story. Whatever you do, good luck! And you are a good writer, or you wouldn’t have so many blog readers. :)

Susan October 2, 2013 at 9:10 pm

Reply

I think a children’s book is a great idea. It wouldn’t even have to be like a really little kids book but something maybe preteen. I have a 10 year old that is an avid reader and would probably love a story about your husband’s experiences especially the Sohla part. Well written, nonfiction for kids especially about Iraq or Afghanistan are not that easy to come by.

Jessie K October 3, 2013 at 10:03 am

Reply

Love that idea! I’m going to run it by my agent. Thank you!

Molly O October 3, 2013 at 2:14 pm

Reply

I would have loved a book like that when I was 8 or 10. What kid doesn’t love a book about an animal with a happy ending?

patricia December 11, 2013 at 8:31 am

Reply

I agree with Molly! The thing is, you can only write from what you see, what is in your heart, how things impact you; the raw stuff of your own existence. I read your book and it was your honest recording of your raw reactions and the fact that you didn’t seem to edit them for consumption but just told it like it was, that made it so readable and relatable. That’s your gift, dear sister. Hope you publish some excerpts on your blog when you get going :)

Eliza October 2, 2013 at 9:15 pm

Reply

I have been reading your blog since I read your column in Newsweek. Many times I thought to leave a comment but never did. Until now. Perhaps your book is not terribly interesting as you have submitted it. Nothing more, nothing less. No analyzing or searching, searching for answers, questioning others. Perhaps it is a story that was never meant to be in book form but rather your experiences and your memories. I thought some of your best blogging was the year you and June were alone; the focus was not on Jake or the dog. Please let the searching for answers go. Something tells me you are searching in the wrong direction. But what do I know, I’m no writer…just a reader. Best to you.

Kat October 2, 2013 at 9:28 pm

Reply

Decide to let it go. Decide that rejection doesn’t define who you are. Decide to do something and then go do it. Full force. Know that you’ll never feel satisfied with your final drafts – that’s how you know you’re good at it. There’s a saying we use all the time in the theatre, “Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.” – Samuel Beckett. Once we accept that failure is simply part of life, we aren’t afraid of it. Then we go on to do great things.

Jessie K October 3, 2013 at 10:02 am

Reply

What a great quote. Thanks, Kat!

Janelle October 2, 2013 at 10:21 pm

Reply

We love you anyway!!!

Jessie K October 3, 2013 at 10:02 am

Reply

Awww (sniff, sniff), thanks! I love you too!

Karen October 2, 2013 at 11:40 pm

Reply

Love, love, love the idea of pre-teen nonfiction as a possible avenue for these stories–my 8-year old (a pretty advanced reader for his age) is obsessed with true stories, and there is rather little that is well-done for this age group (approximately 6th-7th grade reading level).

Stockyard Queen October 3, 2013 at 7:27 am

Reply

Paula makes a very good point about it possibly being too soon for you, but there’s another possibility to consider–it may just be too soon for the public to be ready to take on such a story.

One of the few novels about a writer that I like is by Howard Spring; it’s titled These Lovers Fled Away. There’s a lot of silliness and sentiment in it, but the protagonist’s experiences as a writer ring true to me.

At a critical point, the protagonist comes home from World War I and writes a play about his experiences at the front. He shows it to a friend who produces plays, and the friend advises him that he’ll put it onstage in five years. The producer states that people are too close to the experience of the war to be willing to think about it right then. This happens in a novel, but the point applies to both life and work–timing is everything.

Of course I have no knowledge of the content of your book, but given your experience in trying to publish it now, I’d advise you to just set it aside and come back to it if, and when, you feel compelled to reexamine it. If it never calls you back, that’s fine too.

Jessie K October 3, 2013 at 10:01 am

Reply

That is kind of the way I feel about it: It is what it is, there is no sense bashing my head against the wall over it…even though I’m inclined to do that from time to time. I like the idea of recasting it as a children’s book, as some commenters suggested. I’m going to run that by my agent…see what she thinks. THanks for your thoughts.

Donna October 3, 2013 at 12:26 pm

Reply

I’ve seen many blockbuster movies and read many best selling books which were rejected numerous times by numerous entities. You are in good company. From the moment you mentioned your book I have looked forward to reading it, all of it. Do a children’s book but for those of us (or perhaps it is a party of one) who wants the whole story have mercy and make it available in whatever form…e-mail, e-book, whatever! :)

Brad K. October 3, 2013 at 1:02 pm

Reply

Another option is to release the book as a ebook. http://www.epubbud.com offers one channel to get your ebook out there. Google offers one free tool, Sigil, to make an epub format book that many e-readers can display. Other sites are sales-only, maybe with free samples to let potential readers get a taste of the book before buying.

I doubt that all print publishers are averse to printing a book with reasonable online exposure.

Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble also offer electronic distribution channels, with varying costs, sales support, etc.

Choose wisely!

Patty October 3, 2013 at 5:54 pm

Reply

Short and sweet…I don’t care if the book is self-published, a children’s book or a coloring book!

I’ll read it cause I love your writing.

Keep at it. You’ll figure it out.

Cindy October 9, 2013 at 6:06 pm

Reply

One of the most humiliating days of my life was the one when my literary agent announced she no longer wanted to represent me I was horrified
I got a new agent,but there was no joy. Only two of five of my novels were published. Oddly enough, I jump-shifted careers and am now a professional artist. Life makes some weird turns.

Jessie K October 10, 2013 at 9:19 am

Reply

Still, two published novels is quite an accomplishment. And I’m sure you’ve considered that maybe your agent just wasn’t any good.

Danielle December 27, 2013 at 11:43 pm

Reply

I just finished Rurally Screwed & I loved it. Your voice was so clear & real, I felt like you were one of my girlfriends! I was excited to find your blog today. I would love to read a sequel…what happened in that year that Jake was gone? How did you grow & change & did everything fall back into their same places when he came home? I honestly would rather read from your perspective…I love your quirky & real voice. Don’t get down!! It will all work out.

Jessie K December 30, 2013 at 9:09 pm

Reply

Thanks for the vote of confidence, Danielle. Working on it!

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: