A few months into querying BEYOND THE CALL OF BEAUTY — my beautician-turned-sleuth mystery MS — I could tell it wasn’t going to work out. I didn’t fully believe or accept it at the time, but deep-down I knew that I wouldn’t win over a literary agent with it, I wouldn’t tempt a publishing house, and I wouldn’t achieve what I’d been dreaming about my whole life. And it was heartbreaking.
Nothing in particular happened to make me lose faith in my book. I didn’t read it one day and think, ‘Gosh, this is terribly written, isn’t it?’ or ‘Wow, look at all those adverbs.’ In fact, aside from one rejection which I’m fairly sure was a form one, my writing ability itself was never called into question. But the buzz words kept stacking up: ‘hard to sell‘, ‘unmarketable‘, ‘coudn’t place it on my list‘, ‘I don’t know any editors to send it to‘, ‘if you have any women’s fiction, I’d love to read that‘.
Unless you get a very specific comment from a rejecting agent about your book, it’s almost impossible to tell a form rejection from a “personalised” one, so for a long time I simply bounced these words off my armour and kept marching. So what if it wasn’t right for that agent? It’ll be right for someone else. It has to be. There must be someone out there who’ll like it. Right? Right?
Well, sort of.
In 60+ queries, I found three agents who liked my book. Loved it, maybe. They said they devoured it, laughed at it, thoroughly enjoyed it — but would never in a gazillion years be able to sell it.
Cue tears, wailing, and more empty chocolate wrappers than I should probably admit to.
After months and months of querying, it finally hit home that there was nothing wrong with my manuscript — it just wasn’t “right” for the current market, and never would be. And as devastating as that is to accept, there’s no point fighting it.
I shelved my novel in November, right after Pitch Wars 2015 — which, in hindsight, was not a good time to do it. As I was mourning the death of my beloved book, my fellow mentees in the Facebook group were bouncing around, screaming their lungs out about full requests and offers and their bright, bright futures with their new agents. It felt like a kick in the teeth every time, a reminder that I had failed — that my book wasn’t wanted.
And that consumed me.
A few months before PW, I’d turned my disappointment about BEAUTY’s rejections into motivation for my work-in-progress: THE ONE YOU LEFT BEHIND, a psychological thriller. While I wrote my first novel for myself and thought about audience later, I decided to be a sell-out for my WIP, a suck-up. The voice would be overwhelming. The first page an unrelenting hook. The chapters impossible-to-put-down cliffhangers. I’d end the key query/competition extract lengths on stunning, dramatic moments. I’d write, from the very beginning, with agents and publishers and readers in mind.
I write incredibly messy first drafts, but in my own rough way I managed to capture a lot of what I was trying to achieve. I got the draft done before PW and, once I’d decided to shelve BEAUTY, I was ready to crack on with it again and make it brilliant — especially in light of so many voicey, first-person narratives getting attention in the contest. I was excited. Ambitious. Hopeful.
But it was a struggle. It still is.
I love my new book and I have a lot of good feelings about it, but I’m so behind. My PW buddies are having success now; they’ve already done all the hard work on their books, and they’re harvesting that as I write. But not me. I’m in the limbo between first and second draft, where the finish line looks impossibly far away, and it feels like I’ll never catch up.
And what’s more, it feels like I’m letting the side down. Every time Brenda Drake, our great leader, posts a ‘## Pitch Wars successes so far! You guys are killing it!’ tweet, I’m painfully aware that I’ll always be on the wrong side of that number — a constant -1 in the list of agented mentees. An interloper in a room of success stories.
I’m a Slytherin, so I have a streak of arrogance that assures me I will get there eventually. Whether it’s through self-pubbing or indie publishing or, if I’m lucky enough, traditional publication, I’ll get there. One day THE ONE YOU LEFT BEHIND will be finished and sparkling and hopefully catching the eye of agents and editors and beyond — but that day is not today. Today is dark and blank and scary. Today comes with the weight of all the tomorrows that will be spent slaving over this story, this idea, until it becomes that brilliant book.
The issue isn’t that I don’t think I can do it, or that I don’t want to. It’s that I’ve already done this once before — and it’s painful to see all that hard work festering on my hard drive, abandoned after so many years of attention. And while I don’t want to give in to jealousy and bitterness, seeing the success of my friends and acquaintances feels like stumbling into a ‘Bring Your Dog to Work Day!’ the morning after having a faithful furry companion put to sleep.
Being back at square one means I have the chance to right my wrongs, to learn from my mistakes — to have another roll of the dice and maybe get a lucky outcome. But it’s also a constant reminder of how far I’ve fallen. I did the work, the same as everyone else — and I’ve got nothing to show for it.
But this isn’t a pity post.
While I do mourn BEAUTY, I know this isn’t the end for Ella Lane, the crime-solving makeup artist with a sweet tooth. And I don’t begrudge my writing buddies or fellow PW mentees their own success. I applaud you all and I can’t wait to see where your careers take you. You deserve it!
No, this post is about accountability. I have to get over this, move on, start achieving things again. I will not mope. I will not feel too scared or overwhelmed or intimidated by the task ahead to try. And I will not give up.
So I may be back at square one, but I know where those snakes are hiding. I know where the ladders and the shortcuts are. And after years of writing and researching and querying and making connections, maybe I’m playing with loaded dice. Maybe the rolls will go in my favour this time.
It won’t be easy — it never is — but I’ll make it to the top of the board someday.
Just watch me.