This past October, I received some news that I was reluctant to write about here. The novel I had been working on, and believed I’d finished, was judged by my literary agent to need more work before she took the book out to market.
Why did I choose not to share this disappointment–one that was overwhelming–when I could have received support from my readers, who are remarkably loyal? Perhaps because I was embarrassed. I had told all of you that the manuscript was complete, and that I was on my way to finding a publisher.
Back in October of 2015, after two years of work and on the advice of a experienced advisor, I had pitched the first three hundred and fifty pages of the novel into the back of a drawer. And then, a full year later, there I found myself with four hundred and fifty brand-new pages in hand while my agent told me that I had failed to reach my goal.
However, though I couldn’t initially “hear” it, her evaluation was not that the novel should be abandoned–but rather that it should be revised. Significantly. I had restructured and polished till my brain ached; nevertheless, it appeared that I still had a lot of work to do. Because I trust my agent and her experience, I listened to all she had to say and agreed I would try to do the work required. This acquiescence, however, came with a steep price tag on an emotional level.
Depression saturated the following days. One that was dark and deep, though I carried on with my life anyway. But on a morning not so long afterward, while I brushed my teeth, my protagonist began to whisper in my ear. From her came a new idea. And then another. By the time five o’clock rolled around, I had a yellow pad scribbled with the forty-one revisions I intended to make. And now, some four months later, I am near to finishing those numerous and significant changes to the manuscript I had submitted to my agent back in October. Now I see that I’ve improved the novel. It turns out that she was right.
What’s the point of telling you this story of one writer’s failure and regeneration? I suppose it is to try and illustrate the idea that sometimes all of us have to start over, or revise our plans–be they large or small–in order to achieve a dream. Sometimes we have to let go of old ideas and find a new direction. In a novel, endings change, as do titles, characters, points of view and even plot-lines. What does remain constant is what you want to say–rather than how you say it.
Going back to the starting gate in order to get to the finish line can be a harsh reality that requires both perseverance and fortitude–two qualities every writer must possess in abundance. My mother, who was a poet, wore a medal around her neck–which I inherited and still wear–inscribed with the Latin phrase: “Illegitimi Non Carborundum.” This means, in rough English (if you will excuse the expletive): “Don’t Let The Bastards Grind You Down.” I reminded myself of that sentiment as I shouldered on and revised. While no specific person was “grinding me down” back in October, it did feel, at the time, as if life itself was trying to.
But now, sitting here at my computer in February, I no longer feel like that. Once again I have a firm grasp of where I am going and how to get there. And no one is getting in my way.
Of course, there are no guarantees in the publishing industry. My agent could still feel uncertain about the novel despite all the work I am doing. And even if she believes it will be the next blockbuster, publishers may not agree. The work of four years could be consigned to a banker’s box, stored away in my shed alongside years of tax returns. This is the risk I accept as one who makes her living as a writer.
Many of us go through similar experiences: a chef dumps a batch of curdled hollandaise sauce, and begins to whip up a new one; a surfer wipes out, and has to paddle in a hurry to catch the next wave; brothers and sisters, or parents and children, sit down together to work out a disagreement and strengthen their emotional bond.
The ability to listen to criticism, and to begin again, is a gift. And it can spark one of life’s most important challenges. If such should come to you–take heart. It is absolutely possible to improve on a part of your life close to your soul, be it in an intimate relationship or in the work-a-day world. Give starting over a chance, and discover the rewards you can reap.