This is a continuation of the post On the Cusp of a Shot at a Dream—but how bad do I want it? by an anonymous self-published author.
I used to be worried I would never land an agent. Without an agent, I was an unpublished “nobody” among nobodies hoping to be somebody, but knowing that without an agent, the chances were slim. I thought, “If I just get an agent, all of my troubles will be over!” We would talk on the phone and meet up for spiked coffees. We would discuss my literary prowess and the agent’s brilliance. All would be right with my writing world, and I would produce and produce and my books would stack sideways beside those other authors who had been there for years, living the life I wanted.
And then I got an agent, and nothing of the sort happened. We live miles and miles from one another, and I don’t even like spiked coffee.
Worst of all, having an agent even managed, for a time, to squash whatever literary “prowess” I thought I had.
I am an incredibly self-conscious person. I question the way I dress, the way I talk, and when other people are in the room, the way I sit or stand. I don’t like speaking in public or being the center of attention. When writing, though, I was in my zone. That was MY place. I knew what I was doing. I played with sentences and words, knew how to write a killer scene, and felt skilled and practiced enough to offer straightforward and valuable critiques.
When I wrote, it was a discipline, a study, a challenge, an art. The wordplay and character illustrations would keep me blissfully occupied for hours. I wanted to tell a story, and I wanted to tell it my way. And I knew I could. I did. I wrote many things, many things, and they were bought and read by people. It was good. But I wanted an agent, because I knew an agent could get those things read by even more people.
An agent I contacted finally expressed interest and asked for a full manuscript, which I sent. The agent liked it and signed me, and then told me after some time that publishers weren’t biting. What publishers weren’t biting on was something I believed was the best thing I’d ever written. Because they weren’t biting, though, I decided to start something else.
The first page of the new project went pretty well. And then the next twenty followed along easily enough. (Relatively speaking.) But something happened the further I got into the story: I had no fucking idea what I was doing. After finishing a page in a scene, I would wonder, “Would a publisher like this?” As a character changed and grew, I would ask myself, “But would Twilight readers enjoy this?” Through the doubts, I kept writing (I’ve never been a quitter), but the questions wouldn’t go away. One day, when I couldn’t have thought of a forward-moving passage if I’d been handed an idea, I was sure I was in the middle of a crisis. I did not know how to write, anymore. I’d lost my voice. My style. My “way.” Instead of writing like me, I would find myself asking, “How would a bestselling author write this scene? How would they work the dialogue?”
For as long as I can remember, writing has been a part of me. And I’d lost it, somewhere.
I figured out where: THE TRADITIONAL PUBLISHING INDUSTRY. Sales.
My focus had shifted from the art and the love of writing to the following:
A. Wondering if the agent would like it.
B. Wondering if publishers would want it.
C. Wondering if I was willing to put in the time, the heart, and the work only to be told through rejections that I had wasted my time, that no matter how good it was, it just wouldn’t sell, sorry.
Rather than immersing myself in the joyous puzzle of words and images and confidently spreading them over the page, I’d been plopping down lines and punctuation in a sloppy scattering and questioning, questioning, questioning all of it. My sense of self suffered, my general confidence suffered, but worst of all, the writing suffered.
I shared this with a writer friend who told me the experience wasn’t unique, that that was why they preferred self-publishing. As a self-published author, myself, I have nothing against self-publishing, but I do long to be published traditionally. My writer friend understood this and told me what I had to do: go back to writing for the love of it, and submit what I have. If they take it, they take it. If they don’t, I’ll have – at least – written something I’m proud of.
Because I still have the agent and do want to hear the manuscript has been well-received, the temptation to write for the agent, or for a publisher – rather than for the joy and the love and the personal challenge – persists in mild form when I sit down to open the file. I’ve learned, though, that as much as I’d love to get a “we love it!” from a traditional publisher, catering to them isn’t worth sacrificing the one true thing I have. If they can’t sell it, they can’t sell it. There are worse things.