This guest post is part of the Turning Points blog 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. Read on as Sarah Darer Littman reveals how she had to “turn off the noise” in order to find the way to write her next book…
Sometimes, you just have to take a few steps backwards and turn off the noise.
That’s a hard lesson to absorb when you’re an “overachiever” type personality. The kind of girl who tries to “Climb Every Mountain,” then immediately thinks about scaling the next peak before taking the time to enjoy the view.
But all the most important lessons I’ve learned in life haven’t come easily, so why should the ones in my writing life be any different?
Maybe this lesson was so hard because my first book came too easily. When, at age 38, I finally gave myself the permission to pursue writing, the passion I was discouraged from following because it wouldn’t lead to a lucrative career, I made a promise to myself that I would get a book contract for my 40th birthday present to myself. I achieved that goal two months after my birthday. Close enough. My first book, Confessions of a Closet Catholic, came out to good reviews and won the 2006 Sydney Taylor book award for Older Readers. But in the background, my marriage was falling apart, and with it, my confidence in the future—and my writing. After all, isn’t marriage supposed to be for life? And after writing a book that earned out in the first royalty period, aren’t you supposed to be able to sell your next book on proposal?
Maybe in theory, but in practice I’ve learned the hard way that your mileage may vary. And both of those lessons—about marriage and writing—came at the same time, during what I refer to as my “Second Book Blues” period.
Confessions was a middle grade, and both my then editor and agent were telling me to write more middle grade because I “didn’t have a YA voice.”
My editor wanted me to write even younger—as a nine-year-old, something that I had no interest in doing at that point. In the future, maybe. But the stories inside me at that very moment, the ones waiting to be told, had to be young adult, because of their subject matter.
My reaction to being told I can’t do something tells you exactly why I am a young adult author—because the more they told me I couldn’t write YA, the more determined I was to do it. Because I would show them, damn it! *
And thus the Dark Years commenced. I would work on an idea for three months, produce a synopsis and three sample chapters, and… “Sorry it’s not working.” Rejection. I started to wonder if my first book was a fluke. I couldn’t understand what was the matter with me, what was the matter with my writing. I was on a listserv for published YA writers, and it seemed like every week someone was getting a two-book deal based on a paragraph. It tapped into all my high school angst about being a Loser with a Capital L.
Winning the Sydney Taylor award in early January 2006 was a double-edged sword—incredibly validating because it was awarded by librarians, but terrifying at the same time because inside I felt undeserving, a fraud. Did they realize I was such a failure at producing a second book? That if VH-1 had One-Hit Wonders for authors, I’d be on that show—except I’d be a One “Not Exactly a New York Times Best Seller Kind of Hit” Wonder?
When I turned up for my first ever-writing retreat, Kindling Words, in Vermont in January 2006, I was desperate and demoralized. I was in year three of the Never Ending Divorce and it was also coming up on three years since I’d sold Confessions and without another book deal on the horizon.
I was sweating on an exercise machine at 6:30 am with Nancy Werlin and Sarah Aronson in the tiny little workout room at the Inn, whingeing about my career woes. Nancy, who is one of the smartest people I know in the writing world, said, “You’re showing your writing too early.” Sarah agreed. We got into a discussion about selling on proposal vs. writing the whole book first and it hit me that published authors don’t always have to sell on proposal. Okay we hear about all the people who get two-book deals on a paragraph, but that isn’t everyone. And maybe, just maybe, I am not that kind of author. Does that suck cash-flow wise? Yes, it does. Is it more risky? Totally, unless you have an editor that you trust and can touch base with while you’re writing. But what is more soul destroying? Trying to work against type and beating your head up against the wall, or accepting your process and working with it?
I left Kindling Words with the beginning of my new project, which became my second book, Purge. I told my agent I was going to write most of the book before I showed her any of it. I turned off the noise, all the voices that made me feel inadequate and Loser-like (things like unsubscribing to the listserv I was on for a while) and started to listen instead to the voice inside. The one that loved writing for the sake of it, not because she was worried about selling another book. The one who had stories inside that were bursting to be told, if only I would listen.
Do you want to know the biggest irony? After we sold Purge and I’d convinced myself that I was an author who had to write the whole book, my next two books were sold on proposal in a two-book deal. Go figure.
But after Want to Go Private? I needed to do the retreat and turn off the noise tactic again. For a variety of reasons, I chose to write the entire book—I’m now about to start revising my crummy first draft.
In some ways it’s nerve-wracking. But in other ways, it’s allowing me to push myself and explore.
One thing I’ve learned over the course of writing five books (and abandoning countless others) is that every book has a slightly different process. While we all want to keep moving forward, sometimes taking a few steps back helps us figure it out.
*Are you glad you aren’t my mother? Now that I’m the mom of teenagers, I start so many conversations with, “Mom, I know I was a really awful teenager but…” To my mother’s eternal credit, she has only said, “What goes around comes around” once, even though I’m sure she has wanted to waaaaaay more often!
—Sarah Darer Littman
Sarah Darer Littman’s first novel, Confessions of a Closet Catholic, won the 2006 Sydney Taylor Book Award for Older Readers. Her novel Life, After was a 2011 Sydney Taylor Honor Book. She is also the author of Purge and Want to Go Private?, which Entertainment Weekly called “scary and engrossing.”
In addition to writing for teens, Sarah is an award-winning columnist for Hearst Newspapers (CT) and CTNewsJunkie.com.
Sarah lives in Connecticut with her family. Visit her online at sarahdarerlittman.com, wanttogoprivate.com, and on Twitter as @sarahdarerlitt.
EDITED FEB. 19… GIVEAWAY WINNERS ANNOUNCED:
Thank you to everyone who entered the giveaway via the entry form—and thank you to the author for donating the prizes! I’m happy to announce the winners:
Annika won a signed copy of Confessions of a Closet Catholic!
Heather Perkinson won a signed copy of Purge!
Zara D. Garcia-Alvarez won a signed copy of Life, After!
Robin Willis won a signed copy of Want to Go Private?
And there was one winner of the grand prize of signed copies of ALL FOUR of Sarah Darer Littman’s books… and that lucky person is:
Haley won the grand prize of signed copies of all four books!
Congrats to all five of the winners! 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!)
- Courtney Summers on redefining failure (TWO giveaways open through February 10)
You can keep up with all the open giveaways on the giveaways page!
Series images by Robert Roxby.