Here is popular quote, attributed to Christopher Hitchens: “Everybody does have a book in them, but in most cases that's where it should stay.”
Allow me to now segue to a painful realization in my writing journey, and I’m sure some of you writers are right there with me.
I finished my book. I’ve edited, slashed, gouged, cut, and reassembled it over and over and over. I think it’s pretty good. My beta readers think it’s pretty good. I’m told my characters are likable, for the most part, and over-all they are believable as real people. Dialog has always been a strength of mine and readers tell me I nailed it in this book. I’ve been sending this manuscript to agents and…<queue the sound of crickets in an otherwise still night>.
Is it possible that my book should have remained inside me as Hitchens suggests?
No, it isn’t.
OK, so this book isn’t gaining commercial traction. That’s fine. Disappointing, but fine.
First off, just because my book isn’t taking the market by storm doesn’t mean it is a horrible book. And no, I’m in no way implying it’s the next Harry Potter, or whatever. Neither am I harvesting sour grapes against agents or publishers. I knew from the start my novel was a long-shot contender.
Until Covid made me a hostage in my own home, I habitually engaged in the professional writer’s activity of walking through local book stores and browsing what’s currently out in my genre. I’m also a keen follower of Manuscript Wish Lists. To say that my type of story is different from the bulk of what’s on the shelves or being sought after by agents would be an absurd understatement. That is simply a market reality and any writer who thinks market forces don’t drive the publishing industry is, frankly, naive.
Secondly, the book isn’t a failure by any stretch of the imagination. It has given my characters a backstory that is so vivid and well developed it took 81,000 words to tell it. My new Work In Progress (WIP) has the same set of characters in a whole new and stand-alone adventure. It picks up right where the last manuscript left off. More to the point, I am just as excited about writing it as I was about writing its predecessor. When done, it may still be among the underrepresented on the shelves, but not so drastically.
Third, that first manuscript taught me a lot about the art of writing. I discovered what works and what doesn’t in story-telling. Appreciation for and tools to achieve pacing have been gained. However cleverly I disguise an info dump, it appears obvious to me now. The incredibly difficult process of crafting a character arc without forcing that character to betray everything they are just to pull off a plot twist or growth experience has been honed.
Moreover, the above skills have seeped into my other WIPs. That’s right, Dear Reader, I have more than one project cooking on my author’s stove. Some stories are more in line with the current market trends than others, but that’s neither here nor there. Even if my manuscript would have been better off left unwritten, I have more than just that one book inside me. I have several, all competing for my attention. Some characters are darker than others. Some stories are more poignant. All that matters is that they are there, waiting to be written.
I hope this disappointing experience of mine inspires and encourages you, especially if you’ve put in the time and effort completing a manuscript and after all that work, it is DOA. It’s a crushing feeling but still, such an experience is only the end - a failure - if you let it be. Keep writing because we all know there is a crying need for good stories. If you are truly a writer, then you have more than one story inside you as well. Be the phoenix and out of the ashes of missed success for one project, let others rise to greatness.
If you have been through this, comment a line or two and let me know. Other writers would love to hear about your experiences as well.