This post is part of the Turning Points series here on distraction no. 99—in which I asked authors the question: What was your turning point as a writer? I’m honored and excited to host their stories.
If you’ve read this week’s posts, you’ve seen how a certain book—Cracked Up to Be by Courtney Summers—served as the turning point for two separate writers: Daisy Whitney and Brandy Colbert. Now we get to hear from that influential book’s author, Courtney Summers, on her own turning point as a writer…
I have one very vivid memory of the time I was trying to get published and it’s this: I am sitting in a car, in the passenger’s side, and I’m trying not to cry. Sufjan Stevens’s “The Mistress Witch from McClure” is playing and all I can think is, this is not going to happen for me. This is never, ever going to happen for me. My dream is bigger than my reality. I will never be published and I am a total failure. Whenever I hear that song, I think about that moment. At the time, I felt this complete and utter helplessness in knowing that just because I worked really hard and wanted something really badly didn’t mean I should have it. This is a lesson people learn a lot in their lives, but I think the first time you realize it is something else, especially if there are a lot of emotional stakes involved. Because then you have to decide what you’re going to do with that information. Are you going to let it defeat you or are you going to move forward in the face of it?
I’d been playing the optimist from book to book, thinking each one would be The One. I’d just shelved my third, a high-concept YA novel that brought me the closest I’d ever gotten; an agent talked revisions with me, said she’d send the paperwork along to make representation official, and then dropped off the face of the earth only to reappear to tell me she was leaving for another part of the business. I think close calls can be the hardest. When it doesn’t happen but it almost does, you feel like you’re farther back from where you started. That’s certainly how it felt to me and I didn’t know if I could continue this journey because my time was running out…
[cue dramatic music]
To understand what I mean by that, I have to tell you this: I dropped out of high school when I was fourteen because I hated it (let us pause and contemplate the fact I now write about people in high school). My family wholeheartedly supported that decision, but there were some vocal naysayers who insisted I was screwing up my life and making things harder for myself and because of that, I would never achieve what I set out to achieve. I was told that to drop out is to set yourself up for a life of mediocrity. So what I did was I promised myself the year I would’ve spent in high school, had I not dropped out, would be devoted to figuring out what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. Tall order for a fourteen-year-old, but get this, it actually happened—I realized I wanted to be a writer. That was my graduation, in a way.
And now it was time for the next phase. College. Except I wasn’t going there either, so I decided I had to be a published author by the time all of my friends graduated college or leaving school was for nothing and I’d be a failure. Wait. I need to emphasize that better. I’d be a FAILURE.
It was a very inflexible goal. It wasn’t I have to be a published author by the time my friends graduate college, if not, I’ll keep trucking it had to be BY THEN or I failed at life. And that’s ridiculous, but I was so worried about having something to show for a decision as dramatic as leaving high school, that was how I viewed it. And the pressure I put on myself was intense. I worked and worked and worked against my own self-imposed timeline, learning about the industry, writing novels and short stories, submitting novels and short stories, shelving them and starting new ones—I never took a break. I know there are A LOT of people out there who put more time in and get loads more rejections than I have, but when I reached the point where my third book had to be shelved, my “time” was, like I said, running out and I didn’t know what I was going to do. It felt like my journey had to stop there because I hadn’t achieved what I’d set out to do. I’d FAILED! I really felt like this lack of being where I wanted to be at that particular point in my life was unforgivable on my part. And that made me very sad.
I usually don’t tell people this part of my road to publication! But eventually, my sadness got so great, a member of my family suggested I stop for a while. Stop the whole thing. It was a fair suggestion. Nothing about what I was doing was making me happy. And yet while all this was happening, I should tell you I somehow managed to find the time to be annoyed about the rejections of my third book. Most readers found the protagonist really unlikeable and I liked her and—whether or not this was ultimately true—I decided they didn’t like her because she was an unlikeable GIRL and girls are always expected to be nice. In the back of my head, an idea about a girl nobody liked was brewing, but I was scared to start it because what was the point when the whole process made me feel this bad? But the idea was an insistent thing, it kept poking at my brain until finally, I thought, okay, one more book and then I’ll stop for a while.
But there was no way I could start my new book without taking a good, hard look at my ideas of success and failure and redefining them. My love for this idea (and indignation about girls not being allowed to be unlikeable!) was so loud I had to make a choice. I still wanted to be published, more than anything I’d ever wanted in my life. What happened here, my turning point, was I decided to define my success in terms of TRYING and accepting I had no control of the outcome. (And then I proceeded to write about a girl who was obsessed with perfection and outcomes.) As soon as I did this, the joy came back into my life. I got lost in this mean girl’s story and I looked forward to working on it and I loved working on it. I loved writing. It was what I was meant to do, and I was pretty sure I’d always do it regardless of whether or not I saw myself traditionally published.
I’d truly forgotten.
So that was a nice, eye-opening moment. It was a bit scary too—but it was a relief.
The book I wrote did end up being published. Cracked Up to Be. Everyone who writes and tries to get published knows how hard it is, how high the highs are and how low the lows. It would be very disingenuous to say letting go of the idea of being published helped me TO get published. I don’t believe that’s what happened. Really it was work and luck and timing. I was fortunate enough to get the manuscript into the hands of people who liked the story as much as I did. But letting go of my arbitrary self-imposed deadline to be published and letting go of the belief that being published determined my success or failure as a person reminded me why I tried for it in the first place: I love to write.
And on the harder days in this business, I miggght put on that Sufjan song to remind myself that all of my stories start and end with that.
Courtney Summers lives and writes in Canada. She is the author of Cracked Up to Be, Some Girls Are, Fall for Anything, and This is Not a Test (June 2012).
Visit Courtney at courtneysummers.ca.
Follow @courtney_s on Twitter.
EDITED FEB. 11: THE GRAND-PRIZE WINNER OF THREE (3!) OF COURTNEY SUMMERS’S BOOKS, PLUS THE WINNER OF TWO AUDIO EDITIONS ANNOUNCED…!
Thank you to everyone who entered the two giveaways via the entry forms—and thank you to the author for donating the prizes—and to Damon for donating the audio editions as an extra added surprise! I’m happy to announce the winners:
Andrea Benvenuto won the grand prize of three of Courtney Summers’s books: a signed copy of Some Girls Are, a signed copy of Fall for Anything, and a pre-order of This Is Not a Test. And melannie lara luna won two audio editions of Courtney Summer’s books: Cracked Up to Be and Some Girls Are (both donated by Damon Ford). Congrats! I’ll email the winners for their mailing addresses. Thank you again to everyone who entered!
Want more in this blog series?
The Turning Points series will continue with new guest posts three times a week. Subscribe to distraction no. 99 to keep up with the series, or read all the posts with this tag.
Here are the posts in the series so far:
- Intro to the Turning Points blog series
- Gayle Forman: on overcoming bitterness
- Sean Ferrell: on the Writer who never arrives
- Eileen Cook: on a “nasty” book and a teacher’s advice that inspired her
- Christopher Barzak: on how short stories changed his vision for his novel
- Saundra Mitchell: on deciding to quit and walk away
- Eric Luper: on not writing for trends
- Gretchen McNeil: on how “everything happens for a reason”
- Julia DeVillers on the fan letter she wrote when she was ten years old that changed her writing career years later
- Daisy Whitney on the book that opened her eyes to writing YA (giveaway open through February 6!)
- Brandy Colbert on the book that inspired her to find her voice (giveaway open through February 8!)
You can keep up with all the open giveaways on the giveaways page!
Series images by Robert Roxby.