Confession time: I’m one of those writers who sees an article title like “My Ups and Downs of Writing” or “My Long, Long, Loooooooooong Road to Publishing” and clicks through eagerly.
For a while, I highly suspected myself of schadenfreude. I worried that my evil bone (the patella in my right knee, in case you were wondering) drew me to consume the tear-stained blogs of struggling writers while cackling in glee at their demise.
But that’s not true. Not really.
I do, however, think I’m drawn to the cracks in a seemingly perfect person’s life. I’m eager to chisel away at the armor of perfection. When we believe that perfection is attainable, or even worse—that it’s the only path to success—we immediately look at our own imperfect pasts and think “ah, not for me, then.”
The cracks in the armor, however, tell a different story. The cracks suggest that one’s journey can be imperfect, or even an arduous struggle… and can still ultimately result in brilliantly shining success. The cracks say we can get published after age 40. That we might find representation with the 14th book we write. That we can eventually make the bestseller lists even with a history of rejection and pain.
It’s not easy for those writers to share stories about their own hardships. I like to think it’s an act of paying forward. I imagine that those writers also flock to similar stories, hoping that at some point all the stories of struggle out there can band together and stomp over the romanticism of the overnight success, or the brilliant writer who never revises, and other nonsense like that. This kind of nonsense is constantly shouted about over social media. Writers often feel the pressure to pretend we came into the game galloping away on our horses, hanging on while others got bucked off.
But the truth is, most writers who experience any form of success have been bucked off the horse a million times. They’ve just gotten back up at the exact moment they needed to.
I’ve moved from cracks to horses, I realize, but I’m talking the same game. If you have completely broken armor, you don’t see cracks, you’re holding shards. A crack means the armor’s gone in to battle and made it on the other side. Getting back on the horse means you’ve been bucked off, but you’re still trying. It’s a symbol of both struggling and rallying in the same moment.
In the interest of sharing my own cracks and crashes, and in zero interest of preserving my ego, I’d like to list out some of my “all time misses,” the greatest collection of my fails that have helped make me the writer I am today. Getting published doesn’t mean I never tripped in the race. If this list can help another writer drum up the courage to carry on despite their own setbacks, that’s brilliant. If it gives someone a laugh about my blunders, well, that’s good too. Here goes.
Kit’s Greatest Misses
· Evil Squirrels: In an undergrad creative writing class I stubbornly spent the whole semester working on a story about a man who’s instructed by an evil squirrel to bang a crystal ashtray into his wife’s head. Months into the course, the professor had students write a one-page description of the protagonist’s bedroom. Upon reading my description, the professor sighed with relief and said “Oh, so you can write. It’s just a terrible story.” That one hurt.
· Last Place: In graduate school, I was getting my master’s degree in critical children’s literature, but had secretly wanted to dabble in the MFA side of things. I submitted a creative story to the yearly summer conference. I also happened to be the head of the judging committee, which meant I tallied votes. Out of around forty stories submitted, mine came in dead last. My journal entry that evening was a dramatic farewell to my career as a writer.
· Revise & Worsen: In the same MA/MFA program, I later managed to win a writing contest which resulted in a full manuscript read-through and feedback from a major publisher. I received an R&R (revise and resubmit), which my program director said was unheard of, and I needed to jump on the opportunity. I toiled for a year on that revision and sent it in, imagining all my dreams were about to come true. Later I heard back from the publisher that my revision had taken the manuscript in a different direction, and they would be politely stepping aside. I needed a long break from writing after that.
· Pity Party: In 2015 I had just finished the umpteenth draft of my first book, and learned about a contest called Pitch Wars. Perfect! I thought. It seemed like an easy* stepping stone between where my manuscript was and where I wanted it to be before querying agents. I talked about Pitch Wars to others like I had already been accepted. I later found out I was not accepted, and then posted a short story on my old blog called “The Pity Party.” Oh, how I cringe.
o (*such lies. Pitch Wars is anything but easy, but that’s another blog post…)
· Time Out: The next year I was incredibly fortunate to be accepted in Pitch Wars, and then to later get multiple offers of representation after the agent round. The agent who initially offered was the agent of my dreams. But I said no to her and ultimately went with a bigger name because my ego was out of control. A few months later I parted ways with the first agent and got told off by her friend, another big name in the agenting biz, who said my inability to commit meant I needed to wait at least two years before I queried again, no matter how good my writing was. There was not enough ice cream in the world after that email.
o (A happy ending though: I did not wait two years, and my dream agent who initially offered is my agent now.)
· Muddled Stew: THE DERBY DAREDEVILS is not the manuscript I snagged my current agent with. That manuscript, the same high bidder in Pitch Wars, was a project that seemed to get worse and worse with revisions. By the time my agent and I agreed to set it aside, the draft had become a stew with too many clashing ideas, and was something neither of us connected with. I wondered if my destiny as a writer was to age poorly with time.
· This Ain’t It: When the DAREDEVILS did go on submission, we were fortunate to receive several R&Rs. While these R&Rs ultimately led to the book’s auction and publication, I managed to mess up the first one royally. I was asked to reimagine a significant component of the series and send in a new proposal of all five books. Once I sent in the new proposal, I was kindly informed I had changed the wrong component, and could I please try again? Doh!
o (Luckily, the publisher liked the second proposal.)
· Square One: Any traditionally published writer could probably chime in with this one, but since getting my book deal, I’ve been steeped in edits upon edits upon edits. Because DAREDEVILS is a series, I’m constantly sending in new synopses, proposals, and sample chapters. After getting the stamp of approval on the synopsis for one book in the series, I sent in a full draft and realized I had deviated a million ways from the agreed-upon synopsis. I had to roll up my sleeves and start writing it all over again.
But the point, dear reader, is that I did start over.
I gave up the stupid squirrel story. I brushed off the conference submission that earned me last place. I let go of my first book that wasn’t working. I applied to Pitch Wars again. I parted ways from an agent that wasn’t right for me and fought for one who was. I turned to projects that brought me joy. I tried again when I got things wrong. And that’s why I have the incredible honor of being able to tell you about my debut coming out next spring.
It’s not an easy thing to fall and get back up again. A lot of writers may not want to talk about times they’ve messed up or gotten things wrong, and they don’t have to! That’s what I’m here for. I’ve been forged in failure. I love sharing these stories because they help me remember what I’ve been through and what I’m capable of when times get rough.
I say, don’t hide your dusty pants or your cracked shield. Wear it with pride. Perfection can certainly be alluring, but remember: a knight in shining armor is a knight who’s never had their mettle tested.