I'VE ALWAYS WANTED to be a writer, but I never really thought I'd succeed. Children always have grandiose plans to become astronauts and Major League pitchers and movie stars. But somehow in real life that translates into accountants and stay-at-home moms and sales reps. Still, in the mid-1980s, I struck off for a creative writing program at Princeton University, certain I was going to set the literary world on its ear.
My professor was Mary Morris, an astoundingly fine writer herself. The day my first story was being workshopped, she made me sit on the floor with a glue stick, scissors and construction paper. As the class ripped my masterpiece to shreds, I was to cut and paste together their suggestions. I left the class that day in tears and edited my piece over and over until Mary finally told me to send it to Seventeen magazine. Three months later, an editor left a message on my dorm-room answering machine. They wanted to publish the story. And did I have any more?
Because there were so few undergraduate creative writing programs back then, literary agents targeted those of us who wrote a creative thesis. Certain that this was my big break, I sent off my manuscript to one very powerful New York City agent who promptly rejected me. It was the first of hundreds of rejections I'd receive in the next two years from potential agents, while I bounced from Wall Street financial analyst to textbook editor to copywriter to eighth-grade English teacher—a multitude of careers nothing like the one I have now.
In fact, the only reason I turned to writing again was because I was a miserable failure at my other jobs: I couldn't balance a checkbook, much less survive on Wall Street. I fell asleep every time I tried to edit economics texts. I loved teaching but was pink-slipped the third day of classes because of lack of funding. On the other hand, I couldn't not write.
For some reason, reporters often call me an overnight success. But if that's true, it's been a 15-year-long night. My career, like those of most writers, has been one of slow, incremental growth, a mixture of both successes and failures. And here's the thing that's really remarkable: The failures you face as a writer are more important, because they're what make you work harder, do better and build up the rhinoceros-hide-thick skin you need to survive in the publishing world.
I can't recall when, exactly, I threw out the folder of rejections from literary agents, but it was long after I'd signed with mine—a woman who was just starting her own business and liked my writing. At that point, I would've allowed Bozo the Clown to represent me, but luckily I didn't have to resort to that, and my agent and I have happily worked together for 15 years. She signed me on the strength of my first book—the novel that was my creative thesis at Princeton University—and it never sold.
When at first you don't succeed, you have two options: slink back into ignominy or come at it again with a vengeance. The last time my work hadn't been up to snuff, in that college writing workshop, I'd roared back with a new, improved version of my story and kept doing it until my professor agreed that it was, finally, perfect. Likewise, when my first novel didn't sell, I simply started writing another one.
My agent sold it in three months to a small press.
I was convinced that I'd crossed the finish line. After all, if your goal is to be a published writer, the contract represents that final flag, does it not? This, I was sure, was the beginning of a long and prosperous career. I took my $3,500 advance and bought a piano for my husband's birthday. I collected the reviews of my novel and organized them in a photo album. And on the strength of those reviews, I sold my second novel to a big, well-known publishing house. Meanwhile, I wrote a third and gave it to this publishing house, which had the right of first refusal.
The publishing house exercised the right of first refusal, putting me back to square one.
I found a home at another New York City publisher that offered me a two-book deal. Not only did this seem to mean that they liked me enough to keep me around, but it was job security for another year. But then my editor quit in the middle of a political battle with the head of the company, and I became a casualty-of-war. I watched my book sales shrink, and then dwindle to nearly nothing.
Here's what I remember about that time of my life: wondering where I was going to get enough money to pay the mortgage. Thinking that I'd been delusional if I believed I could make a living as a writer. Picking up a job application at a nearby Home Depot.
One of the saddest truths in publishing is that good books aren't always the ones that sell. You can do everything right and still not get a contract. More often, the writers who succeed are the ones who refuse to buckle under the failures that are heaped upon them; who reject the notion that they aren't as mediocre as industry professionals say they are. The entire world doesn't have to like your manuscript, but one person must fall in love with it. That might be an agent; it might be an editor—ideally, it's someone who will fight tirelessly on your behalf through the publishing world maze.
I was completely gun-shy when my fifth book was being pitched, but I took my agent's advice and hired an outside publicist to help promote my book. It cost as much as a small car, but it was the best decision I'd ever made. At the same time, I was placed with an editor who was exactly what I needed: talented in her field and aware that I'd been badly burned. I spent two heavenly years working with her and then the company was gobbled up by a bigger publisher. This time, I got out before the going got tough and moved to the publishing house I've been with for the past eight years.
They say that failure builds character. Well, it also hurts like hell. Writers are, by definition, riddled with self-doubt; running into brick walls every time your career seems to be on the upswing is enough to give anyone pause. Even at this point of my career, I'm well aware that an author is only as good as her last book—that at any moment, I might find myself flirting with failure again. I only hope that I've still got enough fight in me to rally toward success.
The first time one of my books cracked the The New York Times bestseller list, my publicist got a call from a very influential agent in New York City. The woman wanted to fly me to New York for lunch and talk to me about representation. Well, sure, I'd thought at the time. Who doesn't want to back the winning horse? I declined politely, explaining that I was very happy with my longtime agent and had no plans to switch.
I'm quite sure that this New York City bigwig doesn't remember that she was the very first agent to reject me, but I never forgot.
And that, ultimately, is the loveliest thing about failure: Without it, you'd never know how delicious success tastes.