“Everyone has a dream, what’s your dream?”
… Or The Best Laid Plans
One of the best things I’ve done on my journey to sell my YA novel is connect with other writers. Through FaceBook groups, through Twitter, through co-founding a writer’s collective in my small town, through reaching out aggressively to friends, acquaintances and people I knew more than twenty years ago (thank you to all of you!): I’ve done what I can to learn from others and share what I’ve learned. But there’s one thing that no one can help me with, and right now it’s the thing I’m struggling with the most.
Inevitably, when talking to more experienced writers (writers who have been focused on publishing longer than I have or who have made it further on their publishing journey) I ask the same question:
How long do you give it before you move on?
Specifically, how long do you shop your first novel in the “traditional” way before you move on? (And how do you measure “how long?” Months? Years? Queries? Contests?)
And, following that, if I am going to “move on,” what exactly does “moving on” mean?
Specifically, if I don’t find a traditional publisher for my first novel, do I self-publish a print-on-demand book? An Ebook? Do I turn to wattpad or blog it chapter-by-chapter on my own site? Or do I put it in the bottom drawer/circular file/bonfire out back?
Unlike most things in publishing (a subjective field to say the least!) there seems to be a good deal of consensus on this issue. Almost everyone I’ve spoken to has responded with the same answer, though it’s not an entirely a helpful one.
They all ask: What’s your goal?
Do you want to make money? To be famous? Is it more important to just get your story out there or do you want to quit your day job?
For the past five months, I’ve been struggling to find an answer. Here’s a bit of what that struggle has looked like:
If I’m honest with myself, I can acknowledge my desire is to:
— have J.K. Rowling-like success,
— have a movie made out of my book/books,
— quit my day-job,
— provide for my family on a grand scale,
— give away gobs of money to causes in which I believe, and
— have more time to write in a cabin on a river.
But if I’m really honest with myself, I realize these are pipe-dreams. That’s not self-deprecation, that’s just an honest realization that the fame and fortune I dreamed of as a teenager (who was feverishly writing short stories in math class) is not really likely to happen given that I’m over 40 and don’t have any substantial publishing credits to my name (though, if you believe internet memes, that does happen!). Also, in talking to published writers, I now realize that success in this field looks very different than what I thought it would look like when I was a kid.
Ok, so then what?
And that’s where I’ve been stuck for the past several months. Certainly without a goal in mind, it’s hard to make any progress.
When I started querying I reached out to a friend of my husband’s for advice. He had recently published his first novel after a highly publicized auction that resulted in a more than substantial payout. I told him I wasn’t sure I was up for querying and I was considering self-publishing. “But you’re not going to do that, right?” he said, in a tone that suggested I was considering sacrificing my own cat (or perhaps just my dignity, hard to say) in the pursuit of success. I mumbled something in response and put the idea of self-publishing out of my mind.
And then I queried for five months. And I thought about self-publishing more and more. I had written several Twitter pitches. I had written a Log Line. I had come up with comp titles. It felt like I was doing a lot of work to convince an agent to take me on as a client to help me find a publisher to help me sell my book… It seemed like it might be more effective to put my energy into selling my book to actual readers.
But there was another conversation with an old friend that had been haunting me. She is an editor who has worked at “the big 5” and she has been very generous with her time and advice. She once told me that many of the very big-name authors she has worked with have a first novel in a desk drawer and they’re thrilled it’s not out there in the world. Would it have ruined their career? Not likely. But would it be embarrassing to them now? Probably.
And then there’s the conversation I had when I was 16. In 1992 I met a nun while I was serving meals in a church in Rochester, NY. We worked side by side for a couple days and it came up that we both wrote and that my career goal was to be a novelist. “Women write,” she said. “Men publish.” I wasn’t really aware of feminism at that time, certainly not in the way that I am now, but those four words, they really put a point on it: writing and publishing are two very different things.
So this is where I’ve been hovering: Part of me wants to strike out on my own to publish myself (to cut out the middle “man” so to speak) and part of me worries that that would be a very bad idea.
And it is in this space that I think I’ve come to understand my goal.
My goal, like probably every other artist at some point in his or her career (and certainly every stand-up comedian I know!) is for someone to love me, or, more specifically, love my work. I’ve (mostly) let go of the idea of quitting my day job. I’ve (mostly) let go of the idea of making millions of dollars. But I’ve also let go of the idea of self-publishing (at least for now). Not because I have anything against self-publishing or writers who do it – in fact, I’m in awe of them – but because what an agent or publisher offers to me is some level of quality control and validation that I am desperately seeking.
I know I’m a writer. I know I’m a writer because I like to write more than I like to do most things. I know I’m a writer because sometimes I sneak into the basement with my laptop when no one is looking just so I can write for twenty minutes. I know I’m a writer because one winter I drove four hours to my mother’s empty apartment (she’s a snowbird) so that I could write a scene I couldn’t write anywhere else. The heat was turned down really low, the cable was off and the fridge was empty, and I couldn’t think of anywhere else I wanted to be. But knowing I’m a writer and publishing are two different things – and right now I think I’d like a little help with the latter. An agent or publisher is not the only way I’ll consider myself a success, but it’s the way I’m hoping for right now.
So for now, I’ve made up my mind: I know my goal and I know my timeline. I will spend 2016 looking for an agent or a small press for Novel Number One and writing Draft One of Novel Number Two. If it doesn’t happen this year, I will (figuratively) put Novel Number One in the bottom drawer and refocus on Novel Number Two. After months of not knowing what I wanted or what would come next, it feels really good to have a plan.
Stop the (virtual) presses!
I just got an email from a publisher. It was a pass but with real, helpful, actionable notes!
2016 might just be another re-write year for Novel Number One and that’s ok.
Isn’t this journey fantastic?!
Jamie Beth Cohen hails from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and currently lives on the line between suburban and rural Lancaster County, PA. She is currently trying to find an agent for her debut novel in which sixteen-year-old Alice Burton is caught between enjoying her burgeoning sexuality and underestimating its considerable power. She is occasionally on Twitter @Jamie_Beth_S and you can read more about Jamie, and see videos of her recent story slam performances, at www.JamieBethCohen.com.