When your dream is a burning house

Here is what happens when you write a novel, and you believe in it completely, and then it fails. Or, at least, this is what happened when it was me.

I can’t remember the first time I thought to myself that I wanted to be a published author, though it must have been around eleven or twelve years of age. I wrote my first novel — admittedly, only 50,000 words, which is short even for young adult fiction — when I was fourteen. With my mother’s help, I sent it to a few agents, and predictably received rejections back. Still, I took a delight in having achieved that much. I kept on writing, adding a second, then a third, then a fourth novel to my belt every few years. Each one was rejected by the agents and publishers I sent it to. I improved with practice, though in hindsight, not nearly as much as I should have. If I could do it all again, I’d read more about the mechanics of writing, much more. I simply did it, and just a glance at Twitter will tell you that in this hyper-competitive world where everyone wants to be published, you must professionalise your writing hobby to the most extreme length you can manage.

In early 2019, I read The Uninhabitable World by David Wallace-Wells. Each chapter of that book detailed the excruciating ways in which humanity will suffer under climate change. As despairing as it was, it inspired me too; it made me look back at much of the existing climate fiction which often only presented one way of living in the future, or pitted the haves against the have nots. A new idea bloomed, stems twining into the lattice of a story: three young people, living three very different lives, who find each other online – and eventually rescue each other from the doomed worlds that previous generations had trapped them in.

After finishing the novel ten months later in early 2020, I began to find readers for it. Most of these were friends, from my book group and elsewhere, even colleagues from work. Through Twitter I paid a freelance reader (someone who works with editors in publishing houses, though not an editor themselves) to provide critique and an assessment of commercial potential. Through Goodreads, I found a few strangers, to ensure objectivity. I paid a professional non-binary sensitivity reader too, because one of my main characters, Ry, was non-binary; I needed to be sure I hadn’t made any ignorant faux-pas, because my novel would be harshly judged by agents and editors if I did.

My own confidence in the novel was a precarious thing, and only a friend’s encouragement during the writing process had kept me going — but I was overjoyed with the end result. Prouder, and surer, than I’d ever felt before.

And when my friends, colleagues, the freelancers, and even the Goodreads strangers told me how much they’d loved the book — my hopes of being a published author went supernova.

When I wasn’t editing the book, or thinking about what I needed to do to polish it, I was daydreaming. In my mind was a house of future memories: in this room, telling my parents that an agent wanted to represent me; in the next, announcing to my friends that a publisher wanted the book; in another, putting my Nana into the dedication; and still in another, reading the first (hopefully glowing) review.

In September 2020, after the book had been through multiple redrafts and I had put in uncountable hours, I felt ready to start submitting to agents. This time, it would be different. I had been writing novels and trying to get them published for fifteen years; I had attended conferences, author events, writing courses; I had read endless books and blogs and articles; I had solicited more feedback from more readers than ever before. I had done all the right things.

When you want to publish your novel traditionally via the agent-to-publisher route, there are several possible results, from worst to best:

  1. The agent sends a rejection based on the sample you sent in, or doesn’t reply at all.
  2. The agent sends a rejection, but adds a personalised touch such as “your writing is strong, but it doesn’t fit my portfolio”.
  3. The agents sends a request for you to revise your material and re-submit to them.
  4. The agent asks for more of your manuscript.
  5. The agent asks for your full manuscript.
  6. The agent wants to represent you (and you sign with them).
  7. The agent finds a publisher (and your dream comes true).

For my last two novels, I’d received a few personalised rejections, mainly from agents I’d met at events.

For my new novel, I wanted more. I expected more. A few full manuscript requests, at least. Surely I would achieve this, based on how much my readers had told me they loved it.

I sent off my first batch of submissions, to eight agents. Afloat, aglow, with hope.

The first rejection came two days later, surprisingly quick for an agent. A typical copy/paste job (“thank you for sending us your material, but unfortunately we will pass on this occasion”). It dented me, but it was only one.

Other replies trickled in. I was a Gmail junkie, keeping my phone in sight at all times, heart leaping with every new notification.

And always the same result. No, no, no.

Hope began to shrivel. I began to smell the smoke.

But it wasn’t over yet — maybe I simply needed to improve my first three chapters (the usual sample requested by agents), and/or cover letter, and/or synopsis. I found a few more strangers on the internet to provide feedback, and I radically revised the first chapters, letter and synopsis, as well as making further edits to the rest of the novel.

I submitted to more agents. Still believing there was a chance, though the heady days of absolute faith had faded into the distance.

The result was the same. Not a single personalised word from those agents who even sent a rejection back (many don’t, simply stating on their website that you should accept they’re not interested if you hear nothing after three months; they get so many submissions from so many desperate people).

The house of future memories began to burn.

Every successful author has dealt with rejection. Don’t bother thinking of JK Rowling — I know you are — because she only received about 10 rejections. Most authors these days count their rejections in the hundreds (I’ve seen a few on Twitter proclaim they received over 1,000 before they got an agent).

I have received 35 rejections now for my book. Much advice online will tell you to try about 30-50 agents; many writers will send the same book to upward of 100 agents. But the crucial nuance is that those authors who keep submitting to new agents have been buoyed along the way by titbits of encouragement; partial requests from agents who apologetically rejected them afterwards, or personalised rejections telling them they had promise, or that the agent loved the story but didn’t think they could find a publisher for it.  

I have only silence to show for my writing.

It’s deafening. It’s rendering.

And I hate myself.

I hate myself for not being good enough for my own dream. For wasting so much time. I enjoyed writing the first draft, but when you’re determined to produce something publishable, you have to put in the hard work of editing. I did it because I wanted as many people as possible to read what I’d written. I’ve always loved the thrill of it. Despite the pandemic, with my move to Canada crushed and tossed into the waste basket with everyone else’s original life plans, the encouragement of friends who’d read the book helped to keep me afloat. Gave me a taste of what it must be like to be a published author, with avid fans telling you how much they adored the story and the characters, what happens next, will there be a sequel?

The odds of being published are, according to the top result on Google, 1–2%. I know it was always a long shot. But I was stupidly arrogant, stupidly hopeful, and the fall was all the harder for it. I allowed the vision of my characters coming to life in print to grow as vibrant as the characters themselves felt to me.

Self-publishing is not an option. It’s like school-leavers; you only ever hear about the success stories. Self-publishing, for probably 99% of writers, is simply an inefficient method of wasting time and money.

It’s hard not to see parallels with the other things in my life that I have failed at. I am still unhappily single; even the dating apps are bruising when the men I send likes to never like me back. I still haven’t found my career calling (who knows if my second Masters will fix that). The only two things I am truly proud of are the thesis from my first Masters, and swimming a relay of the Channel; and they’re not much, in the grand scheme of things. I don’t think I want a child, and my body seems determined to ensure I never do even if I change my mind (arthritis, polycystic ovarian syndrome, vaginismus — I’ve never, ever managed to have non-agonisingly painful sex, something women need to be allowed to talk about more).

A published novel would have been my way of leaving a trace in the world.

I know I have time to write more novels. But I’ve been trying for fifteen years, and I still have nothing to show for it. Not a glimmer of a sign from a single agent that I have any promise, in terms of writing a publishable novel.

I will never stop being grateful to all the friends who believed in me, and who gave their time to read my book. I just wish I had something different to say, than this.

2 thoughts on “When your dream is a burning house

  1. Hi Chantal, I discovered you on the well done list of the CBC twitter feed. Congrats on the mention.
    Having read your piece above, I identify with much you have written regarding writing and being published. Not sure how much comfort that brings but writing can be a lonely existence and I have enjoyed connecting with fellow writers and their ups and downs.
    Taking early retirement I too have finished, polished, drafted, had beta readers, professional editors and still waiting for that glimmer of light.
    It is dis heartening, I draw strength from the fact I have finished it. Ok maybe this one isn’t the one for the publisher. Yet, I am rallying my little grey cells to continue and persevere.
    I write a couple of blogs and find those helpful. As for leaving a mark? You have left one already,.
    Stay strong and safe and keep dreaming. Without dreams much of the world around us would not be.
    Thank you for sharing your thoughts and honest insight.
    Bissiebee

    Like

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