Friday, September 18, 2009

Getting up After Falling Down. It's an Inexact Science.

Many people have asked about my next novel, and I finally—FINALLY—have a new idea I’m excited about. I pursued a few bad ideas down the wrong rabbit holes this summer, when I had time to focus on fiction, but now that I’m back at work, Great New Idea is pulsing at my temples. Demanding my full attention when it’s been diverted to tasks that result in an actual paycheck (minus standard deductions).

Murphy’s Law. It’s applied to me since birth.

Now, lest you think I’m a lazy novelist, let me clear a few things up. I have been hemming and hawing about addressing this, because people love to back a winning horse and you’re supposed to give the illusion of SuccessSuccessSuccess! when you put yourself out there, I guess. But screw it.

Last summer as I was wrapping up promotion for Driving Sideways, I did finish a second novel. Quieter, darker, more character-driven...but still snarky. After some final polishing on this end, my agent pitched it to my editor last fall.

Remember what else happened last fall? Yeah! The economy took a giant dirt nap! And then publishing imploded for awhile. My book, featuring characters that became very real and dear to me and a storyline that I ached over, was ultimately rejected. Hammer? Meet heart.

Let me set the scene for you:

It’s mid-October. I am in Madison with author friends, attending the Wisconsin Book Festival. I’d heard through the grapevine that my editor was “loving the book so far,” hoping to “make it hers very soon.” Me? Relieved! Still, I am a bundle of nerves, because did I mention the economy taking a digger and clawing at its neck in the universal sign of “I’m dyin’ ovah heah!”? Anything could happen.

I am out to lunch with my author pal Danielle Younge-Ullman and her dad, expecting The Call. Just as we sit down to our sandwiches, my cell phone rings. My heart leaps into my throat and sticks there. Danielle locks eyes with me, excited. “Is this it?”

I nod and leave the restaurant to take the call on the street. My legs are rubbery. I answer. I listen.

And my little world collapses into a gray, mucky puddle. People are still going about their lives all around me, driving their kids to soccer games or plugging parking meters, and I have to remind myself to keep it together. I don’t want to be the crazy woman openly weeping on the street that they tell their friends about later. I return to the table bereft. I feel like someone’s stolen my dog. Dani (always the sweetheart) optimistically asks, “So what did they offer?!”

There was crying, weepy rehashing and speculating, and an empty, forlorn little cloud that seemed to follow me around wherever I went. I put my writing ambitions on ice for a good, long time.

In other words, I took it way too personally.

My husband, who is such a large-hearted, wonderful cheerleader, says my sophomore novel was simply a casualty of the shitty economy and the fact that I don’t have a long publishing history (sales record, really) to keep me in the pipeline in the face of tightening budgets. Bad timing all around. But maybe the book was just a stinker. Or maybe it was a little of both.

So, you can write a book. You can be amazed that anyone wants to publish it. You can collapse in fits of joy when you learn it’s gone into four printings, with over 80% of all copies in print sold—to actual readers, who sometimes even email you to tell you how much they liked your story! (I still can’t believe that part. I have to stop myself from asking, almost every time, “Who, me? Are you sure?”) And still, there is no guarantee that your second book will be picked up and you will ever be able to pay the bills from your writing alone.

I have since learned that this happens to writers more often than you think, and the M.O. is basically shut up, suck it up, and keep writing your ass off. Except I had no stomach for writing in the months after that experience. It was even difficult for me to read novels for a long time, so I’ve been reading way more Michael Pollan and Dr. Christiane Northrup than any human being should have to ingest. And I've been canning my ass off. (Procrastination as therapy?)

I still have days when the keyboard and blank page make me break into a cold sweat.

I’m lucky, and I am grateful. I got to ride the publishing pony once in my life. Will it happen again? I don’t know. Maybe. I’ve got that beautiful new bouncing baby idea, after all. We’ll see what it grows into.

I guess I'll wrap this up with two totally unrelated links I can’t help but share. (Of course the "drinking rodents" are from a bar in Wisconsin.) I’ll see you next week.


  1. Hey hang in there. You still have a mass of fans just waiting for another book who will go out and purchase whatever it is! We will wait. Even my husband read Driving Sideways and loved it and he never reads my books!

    As in most things in our lives timing is everything...eventually the timing will be right.

  2. So sorry you're struggling with getting this noticed. I personally hate rejection and often resort to the not-so-effective... "well, you're stupid" response when someone criticizes something I've written. It doesn't help, but it sure feels good! ;-)

  3. OK. So. I am totally on the timing train with this one, because that book is amazing. It WILL be published. Maybe you'll publish it after this next one, maybe after the one after that, but you will. It is such an original story with such great characters, and I still think about it all the time. And I want to walk into a bookstore someday and buy five of it for my friends. OK?

  4. Jess,

    I became a fan and internet friend after Driving Sideways, which I really loved. I hope you do publish another book, because I think you are a very funny and true author. Don't give up. You have lots of folks out here rooting for you.

  5. You guys are too kind...thank you for the support!

  6. Looking forward to another one, whenever it comes about. And the snark is much appreciated!

    Also must thank you for uncovering my husbands true whereabouts on those ice fishing weekends. Telling him about Driving Sideways and all of the familiar landmarks he said "oh Beansnappers, that's on the way to Shawno." Very interesting info! :)

  7. I say self-publish and make yourself rich! Ha, ha! No matter when your next one comes out, I look forward to reading it.

  8. Anonymous9:04 PM

    Ah, your angst gives me SO much perspective, Jess. Thank you for that. And know there is a book club in Appleton, Wisconsin VERY excited to read the one you just finished.

  9. Does self-publishing hurt chances of getting 'published'?
    It just seems a shame to have to silence your voice to err on the side of 'maybe' getting picked up. Does that make sense? I guess my point is that it is obvious people want to read what you write...

    As usual, your words have many correlations to my story/life... Thanks for this.