My publishing career officially began in July 2006, when my agent accepted a two-book contract offer from Bantam on my behalf. My writing career, however, started eight years before that, with my throwing a tree-killer of a romance against the far wall while experiencing the grand epiphany of “I could write better than this piece of crap.”
I did. Everything I wrote—okay, almost everything—was better than that piece of crap. Yet while I crafted one unique, complex, beautiful story after another—bear with me for a sec—that went unloved and undesired by the publishing industry, the author who was single-handedly responsible for the destruction of the Amazon rainforest and all native habitats south of the equator went on appearing on the NYT charts on a semi-annual basis.
I’m not talking about professional jealousy here. That’s a whole different Pandora’s Box. What I often went through during my pre-published years was not so much envy as bafflement and incomprehension. Why was my story rejected for being “slight” when another book published by that house was clearly 40% filler and fluff? Why do debut books that make me yawn or roll my eyes get put on the shelves while mine, my own, my precious darling languished in slush piles all over the 212? Getting published required talent (check), hard work (check), and luck. Where the hell was my luck?
Looking back, all my questions remind me of the Poisoned Arrow Parable. Shortly after the Buddha attained enlightenment, a seeker came to him and asked what we today would call the “Big Questions.” How did the Universe come into being? Does it have a beginning and an end? What happens when we die? So on and so forth.
The Buddha’s answer was—and I love this phrase—thunderous silence. After a while, he spoke of a man who’d been shot by a poisoned arrow. Rather than letting his servants pull out the arrow, the man insisted on first knowing who shot the arrow, who made the arrow, and the provenance of the poison on the arrowhead. In the meanwhile, he died.
I’m sure you see the analogy here. The time I spent pondering the questions that had no answers was time I didn’t spend obsessing over my story, my characters, my techniques. Time I didn’t use to study better writers. In the grander scheme of things, it was time I didn’t spend being happy.
After a while, I stopped comparing my work to the stuff out there that I really didn’t care for. What’s the point of wondering how those books got published? A book got published because somebody somewhere thought money could be made publishing it. And those books, for whatever reasons, passed the test.
Instead, I changed track and began comparing my work to books I loved, books that made me glad that I’m alive, books that renewed my faith in humanity (yeah, the best romances accomplish all that and more). This has its own risks, the chief among which is that at times I don’t know why I still bother to write, when I could never write as well or as beautifully. But then it becomes exactly the challenge, to write that well, to write that beautifully, to craft a story that steal the breath and break—then heal—the heart.
At the moment I’m in equilibrium. But that’s only because I’m so inundated with work I can’t see beyond the next homework, next test, and the next 4000 words I have to finish in the next week. When my publishing career goes into one of those ineluctable lulls or even setbacks, I’m sure the Big Questions will raise their soft, insidious voices and once again demand why I’m not successful as I should be when it’s obvious to even a room full of illiterates that I’m so much better than What’s-Her-Name.
Ah, the crappy nature of life. Even when you have learned your lesson, you must re-learn it again and again. I hope when the time comes, one of you will reach through the screen, grab me by the lapel, and tell me to shut up and write. Write. Write something so freaking marvelous that trees all over the world would lay down their lives for the immortality of my words upon their cellulose fibers. And screw everything else.
Next Tuesday, you’ll just have to see. I’m so tired I’d kick Brad Pitt out of my bed if he wouldn’t leave me alone. There has to got be some higher purpose for me to have sold just as I returned to school fulltime, but so far all I can think is that God loves the sound of me whimpering.