Jerusha Cowless, agony aunt: "It isn't faith in my writing that I've lost. But it's getting ever harder to believe that I'll get a second book published."
Dear Jerusha: I'm at the getting-one-book-published-was-a-fluke-and-it'll-never-happen-again stage. Sometimes I can cope with it; sometimes I feel lousy and can't bear anyone to mention books, writing, publishers, agents or anything remotely writing-related. I have to keep telling myself it's not disease, death, war, torture, bereavement etc. and to keep things in perspective. Not helped this week by a genuinely kind antipodean relative texting to ask "When's the book coming out". It isn't faith in my writing that I've lost. I really don't know how I'd cope with that. But the longer the time goes on the harder it is to believe that anything will come of it. Still, whinging won't help and there are plenty of stories among my friends of long waits eventually rewarded. So all I can do is keep writing and try not to hope too hard so that I can deal better with the disappointments. I know there are lots of other writers ho have gone through the same or are going through it now. How can I cope?
Darling boy, it's awful when circumstances shake your faith in... I was going to say, "in your writing", but it isn't that really, is it: it's more your faith that people who have wanted your writing, will going on wanting it. I know from elsewhere in your letter, as my fellow agony aunts say, that your first novel was published by a major publisher, it was a finalist in various prizes for children's books, and sold in the US as well as here: so your faith in your writing is justified. But it's hard to keep that faith when the current one isn't getting anywhere, and every way you turn the gloom mongers are predicting the end of literacy as we know it.
I think the "Has it already been as good as it's ever going to get?" thing is so hard to deal with. Few aspiring writers will believe that it's worse than the rejections they're getting, and maybe it isn't. But it does have its own, particular pain. The inescapable fact is that the majority of second deals are less generous than first deals. That's not an insult, it's because agents are good at their jobs and publishers are gamblers - incurably optimistic - and so you will usually get more more for a first contract than its sales turn out to justify. But a second deal will be based on actual sales of that first deal, and so it's more realistic, you could say. Or you could say it's a nasty shock, but either way it can mean that your second deal seems likely to be a no-deal. (The WAAYB Guide to Getting Published has a very rare and very clear explanation of this brute fact of the industry.) And the worst moments (to date) that Emma's had in her writing life were when she knew she was writing really well and so did various people in the trade, but still the would-be debut novel wasn't being taken on. What if the thing you're doing really well - that isn't that extraordinary or peculiar, but is undeniably from the centre of your writing self - is just something that no one wants?
But the fact that they have wanted your writing is the thing to hang on to. They have, and that's the best possible indicator that they will again - as the aspiring writers say to each other, it only takes one. All agents know - all creative writing teachers know - that the chief marker of who will get somewhere is intelligent persistence. That applies before that first contract, but also afterwards. Even very established writers, if you look, are always changing direction a bit, trimming the ship though not turning round, not writing cynically for the market but writing for readers, which means changing as your readers do.
I also know from elsewhere in your letter that after that first book you embarked on an MA in Creative Writing, and I think that's a shrewd move. It's not that it's a guarantee that the next novel will be published. But it is a classic form for intelligent persistence to take: it will send you in directions and set you challenges that you wouldn't have encountered on your own; it's support for your writing from people who are knowledgeable but are thinking more widely than "can I sell this"; it's handy if you think that helping other aspiring writers would be one way for you to earn money; and if you're that kind of writer it's just genuinely a joy to spend time thinking properly and hard about something so central to your being as writing.
Of course, persisting might, in the end, be mad. The risk is that you always feel you're in life's waiting room, and never smell the this morning's coffee. What would you do if you threw in the towel and did something else? Or self-published? But that won't give you what I suspect you want and I know your writing deserves: proper editorial support, a wide public, expert marketing and publicity, all in return for a modest income.Which would you regret more on your deathbed - giving up writing, or not having done all the things you gave up in order to write?
So, darling boy, I can't tell you it'll all be fine - or all be disaster. Fundamentally, if you want to go on getting published you have to go on writing what you write, while trying to be intelligent about anything you can do to tilt what you're writing towards being more saleable. There's nothing else you can do, really. I'm pretty sure you'd still rather do that than jack it in and stop writing novels. So, how to re-find your persistence? If you're someone who's motivated by feeling that you're doing the right thing towards desirable outcomes, consider the undeniable truth that the chief marker of who will make it as a writer is perseverance ... and persevere intelligently. If you're someone who's motivated by feeling that letting go of outcomes and following your instincts will lead to the right outcome, then staying close, if not blinkeredly, to your writing self is more likely to work ... then let go of the outcome of getting-this-published, and write.
Either way, it's uncannily true that it's always darkest before dawn. I don't think that's just mysticism, I think it's actually the nature of the beast. As Jonah Lehrer says in his entirely fascinating book Imagine: How Creativity Works, it's actually a necessary condition of creativity to be stuck: to persisted intelligently until you've reached the limits of where your normal mental processes can take you. (It's not unrelated to my last post, about having to jump into the water before you're really writing). I don't think that's just the case at the micro level of trying to find the next twist of plot: your writing/craft/imagination in general provenly good and saleable, so I'd suggest it's that the specific idea for a new novel which will work - the thing which will make the most of your talent - is eluding you. If you're persisting intelligently then you feel stuck when you've recognised that trying to make an outcome from intelligence happen hasn't worked. And if you're busy letting go of the outcome then you feel stuck because you don't know how to think/dream/draw next. Maybe it's time to let go even more - to gather up your faith that you will get there, and - paradoxically - stop trying to get yourself there. That is - I promise - when the spark jumps the gap.