The Writer's Guide to Agony and Defeat
Writing a book is a lot like childbirth: no one ever tells you exactly how painful the process is going to be, and when you are in the middle of hurting you wonder if you are, perhaps, the only person in the history of the world who has ever felt exactly this awful. I’ve been a writer for 25 years, and a writing instructor and private book coach for seven, and I have either witnessed or experienced every possible kind of writerly pain. The possibilities for agony and defeat are everywhere — at the start of the process when a book idea is forming in your mind and doubt is pounding on the door; in the middle of the process when you begin to show your words to the world and fear gnaws at you like a disease; and at the end of the process when you hope your work will find an adoring audience and must come face to face with how much greed and envy have taken up residence in your heart. It can be a brutal business — but like childbirth, the deep satisfactions on the “pro” side tend to outweigh the long list of “cons,” and so we forge ahead, writing our stories and often suffering our heartache.
I recently endured a seventh-month wait for my seventh book to find a publishing home. Every day my novel failed to sell, I imagined that my writing career — this thing I had nurtured since fourth grade and that I thought had grown unshakably strong — was coming to a quiet, bitter, wretched end. I’d had a good run, but it was over. I thought I might never get to write again. When friends would ask how things were going, I would shake my head and say, “Not well.” But people don’t empathize with a writer’s private agonies — it’s not like it’s cancer or global financial meltdown — and they would quickly move on to talk about the latest Bourne movie or the beautiful heirloom tomatoes they got at the farmers’ market. This made me even sadder, because now instead of just feeling like a tortured artist, I felt tortured and ridiculous. I had, after all, chosen to be a writer.
The enlightenment gurus say that you should “feel what you feel” so I began to wallow even deeper into my misery. I began to catalog the specific agonies of the writing life. I came up with 43. I figured I could turn my pain into something useful for my fellow writers who might feel less bleak about writing when they recognize their own particular moment of wretchedness set down on the page. I thought we could all feel a little less alone.
My story did not have a happy ending. My seventh book did not sell. I have published six books with major New York houses but book number seven turned out not to be so lucky. The irony is that it is far and away the best book I have written. The first six books helped me get to the place where I could write a much better book, but their less-than-blockbuster track record hamstrung me. I’m a midlist writer with modest sales numbers, and so now I am a writer with a book that has no home. Yes, of course, I have choices about how to proceed — self publishing, e-book publishing — and those things are happening. It’s a good time to be a writer because there are so many more opportunities available to us than there were in the days of the Algonquin Roundtable. But opportunity is not what this story is about. This is a story of pain — of the precise kind of pain writers are heir to.
#25. YOU ARE REJECTED AS HARD AS A LOVESICK TEENAGER HOPING FOR A DATE TO THE DANCE.
The rejections pour in like a torrential flood, and they are curt and rude and mean, and it seems as if no one even read a page of the story that you ripped right out of your heart. You want to get on a plane and go to New York and march up to every one of the agent and pump your first and say, “What do you know, you worthless punk?” But you don’t, because you know what they do to people like that – which is throw restraining orders at them. So you delete all the rejections, and you delete the manuscript, and when anyone asks you how your book is going, you shrug and say, “I’m going to run a marathon, instead.” You have a good laugh with the person, until they say, “What about self publishing? My cousin’s friend made a mint with her paranormal romance historical fiction series.” Now you never want to see this person again. Because what they don’t understand is that you just endured flat-out cold rejection, and that there is the teeny tiniest possibility that all those agents were right and that your book sucks, and the last thing you want is to put it into the marketplace and have a bunch of clueless readers who are clamoring for historical paranormal romances decide that your book is worthless. So you walk away and you go on a run. And when your running pals praise your stride, you beam. See, fuckers, you think, I’m all over this.
THE WAY FORWARD:
Look up on the Internet all the awesome stories about great books that got rejected hundreds of times and then keep sending out your manuscript. Send it out 50 times, 100 times. If you still have nothing but 100 rejections, put it away for six months, and then sit down and look hard at what you have written. Do you still love it? Do you still think it’s commercial viable. If so, consider whether there is anything you can change about your query, your opening chapters, your middle or your end to make it stronger, and if there is, change it. Then submit again. If the answer is no — you don’t love it, you don’t think it’s commercially viable, then count up the hours you worked on that book, and consider them bankable hours towards the 10,000 you need to master your craft. Then start a new book.
“Rejection leads to a swiftly-experienced version of the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. It’s key to get to that last step as quickly as you can reckon. I actually have two additional steps in my personal process: “liquor” and “ice cream.” Your mileage may vary.” ― Chuck Wendig
"I'm laughing so hard right now. I just glanced down the table of contents of Jennie Nash's new book, "The Writer's Guide to Agony and Defeat" and of the 43 agonies she lists, I'm currently (I mean right this second) experiencing 19 of them. Guess what I'll be buying and reading this lunchtime?" -- Lisa Manterfield
"I gobbled up Writer's Guide! I relate to every single fear at each stage, and just seeing them staring back at me on the page in your e-book makes me feel not only less alone, but also more confident that I, too, could forge ahead. Thank you for that, Jennie!" -- Sarahlyn Bruck
READ THE WHOLE BOOK ONE ENTRY AT A TIME
All 43 entries are posted on Medium.com.
SAMPLE ENTRIES FROM THE WRITER'S GUIDE TO AGONY AND DEFEAT
#1. YOU DEEM YOURSELF UNWORTHY.
You have a burning desire to write a book – an idea that haunts you like a ghost in the attic — but you don’t think you have the talent or the skill or the expertise to write it. “Who am I to write a book?” you ask. “I’m just a butcher, a baker, a candlestick maker.” You cast around for someone to give you permission to write — a teacher, a friend who writes, a famous writer you met that one time at a signing, your mom — but no one ever gives you permission, because it’s not their job. It’s your job and you’re not doing it. Your thoughts of unworthiness grow even deeper and stronger, until you believe it with your whole heart: you are not someone who can write a book. What were you even thinking? You take up tennis, knitting, become a voracious reader of other people’s books — but the burning desire to write doesn’t go away. It smolders there, often for a lifetime, turning into a jagged, hard-edged regret. “I always wanted to write a book,” you say, and people smile their close-lipped smiles and quickly look away.
THE WAY FORWARD:
Stop looking outside for answers. Give yourself permission to create. You’re the only one who can grant it, and the only one who can take it away.
If there are certain aspects about writing that you need to learn — certain skills you need to develop, certain elements you need to master — start practicing. They say it takes 10,000 hours to gain mastery in any given area, and they’re not just talking about speaking French or performing brain surgery. They’re talking about writing something strangers will want to read. You may have mastered some of these skills over the years through your day job, or by journaling, or by writing on the sly. For everything else, the clock starts now.
“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” -- Maya Angelou