The Big What If?

It’s important to not ever forget how hard this writing-and-publishing thing is.

My struggles right now on this cool December morning may feel frustrating: I’m writing the big climactic sequence in Act III of my novel and it’s dark in here and I can’t see my own hand before my face and sometimes I feel like I don’t know what I’m doing, and sometimes I feel like I won’t make it, and sometimes I question everything, but I’ll figure it out, I’ll write my way through it, I will.

Fact is: No matter how hard I may think this is when I’m deep in it, it was far harder before—when I didn’t have the permission, and the opportunity, to write this novel. Nothing was harder than that.

I think of the other writer friends I know. I have writer friends out on submission with agents. I have writer friends out on submission with editors. I have writer friends on endless submission with editors. Writer friends starting over. Writer friends paused and not sure if they should start over.

Here’s a beautiful post from a writer friend of mine, Jade Park, about rejection. I agree with her when she says:

[R]ejection is like heartbreak. There is only so much you can do, like running and commiserating with friends, to stave off the devastation of heartbreak…but in the end, you have to let the devastation wash over you and run its course. The more in love you were, the greater the heartbreak. The more hope you had in a writing opportunity, the greater the impact of rejection.

But I also have faith in her perseverance and her talent, and I know she’ll make it through.

This weekend another writer friend told me her theory that you should try for things for one year—if you’ve actively tried for one year and haven’t gotten any closer, then it means you should stop. She said it far more eloquently than I did, so please accept my paraphrasing.

I think she was reaching the end of a year of trying for something and was thinking it would soon be time to stop. So I said if I’d followed that theory I would have stopped writing years ago. I wouldn’t have had my first book published or gotten the chance to write this new one.

But then when I admitted I’d gone through years of rejections when I was trying to write for adults… and it was only after I reinvented myself and started writing for young adults that things started happening, she said that didn’t exactly disprove her theory. Because, true, once I started anew, it didn’t take a year.

So maybe it is a matter of reinventing yourself. Or trying—but with something new. A new story? A new manuscript? A new outlook on life? I don’t know. I do know that I don’t think the person who wrote this post in the summer of 2007, less than a year before her first book deal, and less than two years away from her agent and her second book deal, would have heard a word I said. I needed to let the rejection run its course. Maybe I needed to get my heart broken to gain the strength to start over. Maybe it couldn’t have happened any other way.

No one can tell you to keep trying. But I think the main reason I didn’t stop was because I kept asking myself… What if?

How can you ever know the answer to that question unless you try?

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18 responses to “The Big What If?”

  1. My husband was recently quoting Malcolm Gladwell to me (Oh-so-romantic, I know) and his theory that to master anything takes 10,000 hours of practice. You can’t do that in a year. Probably not even 2 or 3 (I haven’t done the math).

    I agree wholeheartedly with you, you keep going until it’s just not feasible anymore. Persistence and practice are so critical in this industry.

    Thanks for this great post!


  2. “What if?” is my favourite question. I think it’s the favourite question of most writers. The burning desire to fill in the blanks is what drives most of us to write.

    And quit after only a year? Feh! I agree with everyone else – you keep going until you just can’t keep going anymore. Maybe for some that’s only a year, but I’m pretty sure you can’t answer “what if?” in only a year. I think it takes much longer than that.


  3. A lovely post, thank you.
    Actually, I kind of like the one year thing, but maybe I’m reading it differently than I should. I didn’t take it as permission to give up after a year, but rather if after a year the one thing you’re working on isn’t working, you need to shift gear. ie, if the novel isn’t selling, write a new one, take a class, start an MA (that’s what I did! =) ).


  4. great post, Nova! I toy occasionally with the possibility of quitting writing if only because I feel like a fool sometimes for continuing to do it when not much comes of it, but I also know that it is in me, a part of me, and I would be much, much more of a wreck without it than I am with it!


  5. Hell I couldn’t quit writing. I don’t think it would be physically possible. I COULD quit trying to chase it as a career. I could hide in my cold garret (“an attic, usually a small, wretched one” HA! I love I was checking the spelling. Because, otherwise, I’d be hiding in a cold Garrett, and that is kind of creepy. And awesome, actually.) and just write for myself. And the cockroaches and beetles. I could read to them.


      • Looks just like me! Once we find a location for the Great Exodus, we’ll have fireside readings with hot cocoa. And bourbon. My throat gets all rough from doing character voices.


        • You will have to coach me on how to like bourbon. Seriously, tried it for the first time last month and YOW is that stuff strong!

          Can’t wait to hear your fireside readings. Hey, will you do my character voices too? Would loooove to hear you do a 16-year-old Chloe (the character I’m writing now) or, possibly even better, a 13-year-old snarky Dani!


  6. Few writers have succeeded without persistence. The more persistent you are, the better your chances. Of course, writing something as long as a novel takes time so while you’re persisting you’ve got to find some other way of paying the bills and everyone has their own breaking point. Robert Louis Stevenson wrote “Human nature has certain rights; instinct — the instinct of self-preservation — forbids that any man (cheered and supported by the consciousness of no previous victory) should endure the miseries of unsuccessful literary toil beyond a period to be measured in weeks.” Yet he managed to persist through 12 abandoned novels before he found his form with Treasure Island.


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