Eleven years ago, I began writing a book I’d wanted to pen for decades. The premise of the book changed significantly so the one I finally wrote is less stodgy, more imaginative, and well researched. I finished it after four years, sent notice to friends and family via email, and kvelled at the sweet comments returned to me. Then I revised it again and again, trying to get closer to the heartbeat of my own story, making improvements at each iteration.
Not surprisingly, reviewers noted that the beginning was weak, slow and meandering. Over and over, I wrote the beginning – first line, first paragraph, first chapter. I swapped a chapter for another, improved an earlier version, eliminated one “first chapter” attempt, and finally settled on what seemed to be perfect.
Slogging through the traditional agent querying process, getting no-thank-you’s or no response at all tainted my belief in my book. Everything I read, even unpublished, amateur work, seemed better than mine. Doubts about my ability kept me awake more often than passages I couldn’t wait to get typed onto the computer. Maybe I couldn’t write after all. I stopped talking about it with every stranger stuck in lines behind me at the bank and grocery store, and began work on my second book. Less flag waving here, I’d learned that telling the world I was writing a book elicited questions about what section they could find it in at the bookstore. But I also kept at the first book, rewriting, evaluating, deleting, working through early morning hours to make it better.
The Amazon Breakthrough American Novel Award announced the rules for the 2012 contest. Every year, ABNA accepts up to 5000 entries and gives each an opportunity for consideration for the single grand prize: traditional publication with a renowned publisher. I took a chance, plowed through a rather user-unfriendly application process (if you can’t figure it out, maybe you shouldn’t be writing anything other than grocery lists?) and submitted my story. The month long wait for the first round of acceptances made everything I ate curdle in my stomach. OK, maybe too many milk products for me, but anxiety was a persistent calendar marker. Every day checked off was another day my gut cramped as I opened my computer to check for news.
The day ABNA published the first round, those entries that made the 1000 submissions cut, I prepped for disappointment before opening the web page. With five thousand submissions, what was the chance that mine would stand out for anything other than also-ran? Accepted entries were listed in alphabetical order by first name. And there, down the list for adult historical fiction, my name was posted. I’d made it. A miracle, beginner’s luck, true talent, I’d take any and all accolades. I held my breath for another month, expelling when my book made the quarter-finals round, one of 250 successes at that level.
That was it. Don’t bother looking up who won the Grand Prize that year expecting to see my name because it wasn’t me. It was someone whose story was better than mine.
The let down of being an also ran made it hard to answer friends who called to ask, “So how did your book do? Did you win?” Couldn’t they just look it up themselves? Of course not, so I had to tell people over and over that my book was no longer in the competition, swallowing the bile of defeat.
Bad as I felt, I didn’t rip up my book or excise it from my computer. I’d done all that dramatic hair ripping, brow beating, temper tantrum crap when I was a kid. Ten, 12, 17-years-old, I’d screamed and yelled, even cursed at the injustices of life. Well into middle age, nothing of that self-indulgent anger was left. At this point in my life, I needed to save all the dramatics for the events that really rip one to pieces: the death of a parent, the acknowledgement that the other parent has Alzheimer’s disease, the loss of job after job as the economy savaged the private schools where I’d taught art.
Here is where the true mark of delineation was drawn. I gathered the thin shreds of my two months of glory and tucked them into my journal, savoring the kind comments of my two Expert Reviewers. On my computer is a file labeled “ABNA,” and there rests the proof of my 15 minutes of fame. I stand on this wobbly also-ran fulcrum, balancing my passion to write, my longing to be published, my doggedness to take care of the things I must, and my ABNA failure. There’s no purpose to moping around in my undies, I haven’t enough disposable income to gamble it away, and I dislike alcohol too much to become a lush. Instead, I write.
I revised my book again and pulled out thousands of unnecessary words, passages, even chapters. I read the entire new version out loud, with regional accents and dramatic inflections, sometimes befuddling my husband, and groaned at sections that sounded terrible. Then I slashed them, tiny bits of virtual ink floating in the computer trash bin. I looked at that first line again and fixed it again, though maybe not for the last time. I identified the weak and slow parts of the story, making them stronger and more crucial.
I continued to work on the second and third books as well. I’m considering self-publication as my most likely avenue and hoping people will read my stories, tell their friends about them, and demand, or at least consider reading, more from me. I didn’t win the 2012 ABNA but I didn’t lose either. My writing is better, my insight more mature, and I am determined to get my books out there, one way or another. How have you turned around your disappointments?
Be well, friend.