confessions / freakouts / memories / novels / other writers / rejection / writing

The Race No One’s Running

I used to be in a race. With every writer I knew. With writers who had no idea who I even was. With you. With myself.

I thought I was running toward something and that I had to get there, or else. And I thought how long it took actually determined my worth as a writer.

I used to tell myself that if I didn’t “make it” by such-and-such age, then that would mean I’d failed. That age came and went without a published book from me. So I upped the age. Then that age came and went. I upped the age again and told myself all I needed to not be a failure was to have an agent by a particular age. Just an agent. Just the one thing. Guess what? The day I turned thirty was the day I didn’t make it.

I spent a lot of time comparing myself—unfavorably—to other writers I knew. Many people I knew from the graduate-school workshops I took part in during my early twenties had already published their short-story collections and their novels—quite a few of which I remembered critiquing in class. I was happy for them, I was. But I was very disappointed for myself. I thought I’d never reach the place they did. I thought it was over for me, all because I’d crossed over that arbitrary line in the sand.

I cringed when other authors called out their young ages in their bios, like it made them more worthy because it took them less time to publish. Like they were bragging. Like how long it took them meant anything at all in comparison to how long it was taking me.

And, yes, a lot of this comes from jealousy. It’s hard not to compare yourself to other writers, isn’t it? It’s hard, when you’re treading water and whispering in your own ear that you’re such a failure, to innocently walk into a bookstore and see all your former classmates’ books on display. That sounds childish. But, yes, it’s hard.

I once got what I thought was The Phone Call, while I was at one of my day jobs, from an agent who had been considering my full manuscript submission. This was the second novel I wrote since graduate school; I’d already given up on the first one.

When I got this phone call, my heart was in my throat. I thought, THIS IS IT! I thought it was “happening.” A dump truck of fantasies poured itself out onto me as I closed the door to my office and took the phone call.

But, really, the phone call was only to tell me that my novel (one I have since trashed) had potential and could use some revision and she’d take a look again if I did so.

Then this agent asked me how old I was. I told her. “You’re young still,” she told me. “You have time.”

Time? I thought. How much time? I felt like a ticking clock. I felt like I’d expire soon and never get this shot again. I felt like I could have said the wrong number and she would have replied, “Oh, well, you tried. Too bad you didn’t query me a few years ago.”

This agent—generous enough with her own time over the years to read that manuscript and give feedback not once, not twice, but three times—did not turn out to be my agent. That manuscript did not turn into a book I got published. I stopped revising it. I stopped considering myself “young.”

I also stopped writing my own novels.

And querying agents.

And trying to publish a novel at all.

Yet the clock kept ticking. And so I thought I had to keep running.

The race I was running all alone took me through a detour I didn’t expect, where I did a whole lot of work-for-hire writing under pseudonyms, and where I lost the will and energy to keep trying at my own books, and then the race swept me on another detour, where I got the chance to write Dani Noir, a book I never expected to write, and what a wonderful detour that was, and then suddenly when I thought I’d never get the chance again I was leaping hurdles with the pages of Imaginary Girls and getting the perfect agent and getting the book deal I dreamed of and then I looked around and realized NO ONE WAS TIMING ME.

There is no stopwatch.

There isn’t even any finish line.

Guess what? This wasn’t ever a race.

It didn’t matter how long it took. And want to know how long, if you’re curious?

  • First-ever agent query, for a now-deceased novel 4/16/02
  • “The” phone call mentioned above 10/30/03
  • First agent offer, for Imaginary Girls 4/29/09

It’s taken me many years to learn that life lesson, the one about how we all have our own timetable; we live life at our own pace. The one where it doesn’t matter what other people do or how fast they do it.

So I’ve stopped running the race-that-isn’t-a-race. Dani Noir came out, and I got the agent I always wanted, and Imaginary Girls will be out in about six months or so. Maybe it’ll be successful—I sure hope people like it—but I’m not going to hold it up to other books and compare my experience to anyone else’s.

It took me as long as it took me.

I’m standing still now and just enjoying the moment. I worked really hard and I wrote a book and, soon (SOON, as in next month when ARCs are ready), people will get to read it. That’s where I am. That’s today. “Be Here Now,” my sister and my mom both always say.

I am.


Right now.

And I don’t care anymore how long it took me.

14 thoughts on “The Race No One’s Running

  1. Gosh. Talk about timing. I just recently had to tell myself to slow down, to forget about my own timelines. Because soon… it will be a year since my last book went out on submission. And what will people – editors – think if it took me A WHOLE YEAR to write something new? And then, and then… what about if they don’t like it?! SO OBVIOUSLY I NEED TO FINISH THIS BOOK BY JANUARY 1st.

    The book is done. But it needs a few weeks to sit alone, and then I have to do a pretty good revision on the first 1/3.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is thanks, because this one resonated with me.

  2. Wow, I really needed to read this today too. I was feeling this way for a career and blogging. Like I had this pre-destined path for a career and I had to do *this* and
    *that* to be a “good” or “top” blogger. I’ll say it again, I love your blog because you’re so honest and always have something to say. And it’s always a good something!

  3. Thank you for the insightful, inspiring, and well-written post. I may just have to read it again before I race home to the computer.

  4. What a LOVELY post!!!! There is pressure to hurry up and get a MS written, queried, etc, but rushing turns out to be very counterproductive.

    Thank you so much for sharing your story! Bravo!!

  5. As a “slow” writer I have days when I’m sure my inability to finalize a poem in 24 hours or less is a sign that I should just throw in the towel; that only the most prosaic writers deserve to keep writing.

    But then one of those poems that took me three months to write will get published in a literary magazine and I’ll remember that my process isn’t better or worse than any other writer’s. I like to take my time, and that’s okay because in the end I still manage to reach my goal.

  6. What an awesome post! It’s funny that most authors/striving authors, have had those same feelings. My journey has been very similar. I finally landed my second agent in 2007, and still haven’t sold my book yet. But, I’ve seen my agent surround himself with some amazing authors🙂 and I feel fortunate to be among those he believes in, even if I haven’t caught that break yet. Thanks for sharing.

  7. Thank you for this thoughtful post, Nova. I’m glad that Sara Zarr RT’ed you so that I found you.

    I know this “behind” feeling so well. And it’s a little depressing to hear that you felt it at 30 (although I get that), because I didn’t get the courage to enter my MFA program until I was 40. (Do not compare! I know! It’s critical for my mental health, but I forget easily.) By that time, I’d been a professional writer for 20-some years. (Non-fiction for adults instead of fiction for teens, which was my dream.)

    When I graduated in 2006, I thought I’d have a YA novel ready for querying, but I didn’t. And I’ve written two more since then. I’m just about ready to finish another major revision of this novel (I think it’s the 5th time through), and I truly hope that I feel the book is ready to query for by then. (Yes, I know sometimes people never send their work out, and I don’t want to be that person, but I also don’t want to send too early!)

    I feel down sometimes about where I am in this race with myself, and wish I’d started pursuing my dream when I was in my 20s, but, the truth is, I cannot reverse time. I am who I am (and there are BIG benefits to getting older. I wouldn’t want to be any other age than I am). And I’m going for my dream, and having a blast, and there’s not much better than that.

    I’m glad to hear about your new book and to be introduced to your blog!

  8. You hit the nail on the head, Nova – I’ve grappled with this issue ever since I started writing my novel. How long will it take me? Can’t I do this faster? Shouldn’t I have started earlier? I SQUANDERED SO MUCH TIME… But that’s an unuseful line of thought, because as you say, it’ll take as long as it takes, and it’ll happen when it happens.

  9. Thank you so much for this. I often beat up on myself for “taking too long” with my WIP — I’d wanted to be querying by the end of the year, and that didn’t happen. But that was a totally arbitrary goal; I’m actually just taking the time I really need. *g*

  10. This is such a wonderful post, one to bookmark. Thank you for writing it, it was actually just what I needed to read in this moment.

    I’m looking forward to reading your book.

    Happy Holidays

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