Anyone who’s been picked last for a sports team – or fired from a job, or jilted by a lover – knows a thing or two about rejection. It sucks. But the rejection we face as writers when our queries are turned down, or when an agent dumps us, or if our books don’t sell, well… that’s a whole other level of suckage. I like to call it “deep suckage.”
For me, deep suckage arrived by email, while I was on vacation with my family in Barcelona. It was from my agent – my first one, after several years of relentless querying – who informed me that we should “part ways” because he was unable to sell my middle-grade novel. I know he tried, but this was no comfort. My dream of becoming a published author had just gone up in flames, and there was nothing I could do about it – except wallow in my misery. So I did, Elizabeth Gilbert-style, on the floor of the hotel bathroom. When I emerged two hours later, my eyes were swollen shut.
The next few days passed in a blur. I know I ate, and slept, and walked around museums. But it’s hard to enjoy a family vacation when you feel as if your insides have been ripped out. So I did what any sane person would do.
I decided to quit writing.
My first week as an ex-writer passed surprisingly fast. I enjoyed long, leisurely lunches with (non-writer) friends, worked out at the gym, and volunteered in the library at my daughter’s school. With the exception of checking my email and keeping up with social media, I didn’t touch my computer once.
The second week proved more of a challenge. Sure, my gym-toned abs were looking better than they had in years, but I began to feel guilty for not being more productive. It was also getting harder to ignore the siren song of my iMac. I’d never been away from the computer for this long in years, and my fingers were itching to pound the keys. But how could I give up now? If I were to succeed as an ex-writer, I had to take my commitment seriously. So I bought a case of Double Stuf Oreos (despite the deplorable spelling of the word “stuff”) and binge-watched Orange Is the New Black on Netflix. I found myself identifying with the inmates.
Not surprisingly, my life as an OITNB-watching ex-writer got old fast. Not only was I beginning to refer to my friends as my “bunkies,” the rock-hard abs I fought so hard to earn in Week 1 were now in need of Coolsculpting. This wasn’t good. So I did what any sane person would do.
I decided to quit not writing.
I’d like to say this decision was easy, and the following weeks were the most productive and creative of my writing life. But this is not true. Going back to the keyboard was scary, and the possibility that I’d fail again was all too real. I also didn’t have an agent, and finding a new one – especially after my novel had already been out on submission – seemed unlikely. But I believed in my book, and I hoped others would too. So I took a long, hard look at the manuscript and completely reworked it. I revamped the plot, added new characters, and changed the title. I also hired a professional editor for a full-scale manuscript evaluation. Then I started querying my new-and-improved manuscript all over again.
To my amazement, I received requests for fulls right away, and I landed an agent soon afterwards. I revised the novel again with my new agent and found a happy home for it with editor Julie Bliven at Charlesbridge Publishing.
I’ve since switched agents – I’m now repped by the lovely and talented Patricia Nelson of the Marsal Lyon Literary Agency – but I will be forever grateful that the novel I thought was dead in the water received a second chance.
But here’s the thing. This happy ending didn’t come about because I’m more talented or resilient or luckier than anyone else. I’m not. I just realized that, like Piper, and Red, and Taystee, and Crazy Eyes, I was a prisoner too. A prisoner of my fear. And that giving in to it now, after years of trying to get my novel published, would be a zillion times worse than persevering, even if it was hard. Ridiculously hard.
I still question my decision to un-quit writing, especially on days when the words don’t come and I’m faced with a blank screen. Or when the words do come but they’re woefully inadequate, or just plain bad. But then I remind myself: I can always quit.
And un-quit again.
Melissa Roske is a New York-based writer of middle-grade fiction. Her debut novel, KAT GREENE COMES CLEAN, will be published by Charlesbridge on June 13, 2017. Find her on her website, on Facebook, on Twitter, Instagram, and Goodreads.