Five years. That’s how long it took me from the start of writing this novel to getting it published. Five years of struggle and self-doubt. The worst-best best-worst years of my life.
I had never finished writing a novel prior to writing this one. I’d been writing stories since I was seven-years-old, but at some point my imagination got so big and determined that I started attempting things with a finish line too far out of reach. I would write the start of something, get frustrated, give up, start the next one, get more frustrated, give up again, get a little further again … and endless series of failures.
I was an utter failure of a writer for most of my adult life.
I have no idea how many novels I failed to write. I don’t know that I could accurately count them if I tried. There were too many over too long a period of time to offer more than the vague guess in my biography. All I know for certain is that all of them, every single one, failed. I failed to finish them. They failed to be great enough, engaging enough to earn the sweat and frustration of additional pages. They did not have the brilliance to deserve that momentum so they died, skeletons of creatures that will never live.
Eventually, one unhappy October, I sat down and started what would become The Water Sign. I’d just had one of my first real disappointments in life. Heartbreak. It was chewing me up like the starving digging into a hot meal. (That’s something else to keep in mind about writing. Its engine is comprised of the ugliest emotions: shame, hubris, self-loathing, horror, anguish, rage. I’m not sure you can be a successful novelist without suffering deeply. I try to imagine a life without it but I don’t know if words coexist in that life.)
At some point, the thing I was writing (really, the thing I had tried and failed to write twice before) started taking on a life of its own. I would get back to my apartment after working as a reporter all day and put down more words, trading nonfiction for fiction. They kept building, awful at first, mediocre after another 10 revisions, less-than-hideous after 10 more. At a certain point, they would reach the plateau of my limited ability. Worse, the endless attention and care with them produced no further pages, only a continually evolving set of about 60 or so. So I had to make a rule—once I finished a chapter I wasn’t allowed to return to it. I could read it again, if I absolutely had to, but that was it. For three years I worked like that, showing no one.
I don’t know if it’s possible to even imagine that. Imagine if someone said, “Graph your soul for three years. Show no one. It must be beautiful because they may see it some day and in seeing it, see the truest you.” Who can handle that pressure?
Eventually, I found myself writing the secret final lines of the book and shipping two drafts to Hawaii where my parents would open them in time for Christmas. That elation was short-lived. Don’t buy into anybody who tells you writing a novel is a series of highs and lows. It’s a series of lows and lowers, punctuated by the occasional week of sunshine to catch your breath. Three years after starting, I knew there was still a huge amount of work to be done. Sweeping revisions necessary, tens of thousands of words to be added and further sculpted. More intricacies to be spelled out in the plot that’s beginning to spiral out of control. Another year. Back at the screen. Sitting alone in the coffee shop, struggling, raging, growing bitter with the work, how it takes you away from everyone, how meaningless it might be anyway. Four years now, but what can you do? Throw it away? The only thing that might be worse than to keep going.
I would emerge at the end of the day a crumpled shell of myself, beat down, my brain swimming in clauses and structures too complicated to diagram any longer. It would take me an hour or more sometimes to have coherent conversation with friends again. I dove so deep into the fictional world that I had trouble living in the real one.
I went through a series of drafts. I began to struggle with serious depression. The harder I worked on it, the worse I felt about it and myself by extension. I began to dread my friends’ requests to read it, their friendly enthusiasm. Who wants to strip in front of their friends? What if they don’t like you anymore? What if they don’t think you’re beautiful? What if it sucks? What if it’s garbage? What if they don’t understand? Of course they won’t understand.
Finally year four came to an end, and I was so beaten by the manuscript, I knew I couldn’t take it through any more drafts. That’s how a novel finishes. It crushes you through all its staggering, endless work, and finally you abandon it.
Now was time to query agents and hopefully, eventually, publishers. It’s no small miracle I got an offer so early. Normally a novel has to suffer through years of countless rejection to even wind up on the bookshelf. I was hoping to have a publisher within two years if I collected enough rejections. So I grit my teeth and started the absurd, stupefying task of telling someone why they have to read your book in a paragraph or less.
I got one rejection and two non-answers before, by the grace of God, Booktrope made the fastest offer I’ve ever heard of. It was another year of editing and further disappointments to get it to the shelf, but this time I had allies. An incredible, thoughtful editor. A book manager who wanted me to succeed. A brilliant cover artist. The light at the end of the tunnel was starting to shine.
Then one miraculous day, five years after pushing the boulder up the hill, there it is on Amazon.
Now comes the new struggle. The held breath while I wait to see if the world ignores it. Even after five years of giving it everything you’ve got, it’s no guarantee. It might fail anyway. No readers, no reviews, no interest, no discussion, no excitement, no approval. You still might be an utter failure of a writer anyway.
Of course life doesn’t quit with the disappointments. More heartbreak. God, how could you how could you how could you?
So you sit down at the coffee shop. You open up Scrivener and you type The Fire Sign, then the first line. Then the next … the next … the next … You put it into the work. All the pain. You have to. Maybe it doesn’t mean anything. Maybe you aren’t beautiful after all.
But what can you do? Quit? The only thing that might be worse than to keep going.