A former student of mine from Vermont College of Fine Arts, Cori McCarthy, approached me some time ago with a question. She had just sold her first novel, a moment everyone will understand she had been anticipating, longing for, working toward for years. The sale was firm. There was, I presume, a first rush of excitement and gratitude. But then . . . not much.
So she came asking, was there something wrong with her? No, I told her. Absolutely not. And I explained. It’s the odd part of publishing, that what is supposed to be the reward of writing—finishing a draft that can be shown, finding an agent, getting an acceptance from an editor, getting a contract (it’s amazing how long it takes those contracts to come through!), getting your advance or the first half of your advance (even longer), completing revisions (perhaps many revisions), finally seeing your book in galleys, holding the finished book in your hands, getting reviews, waiting to see if there will be any awards—is drawn out over so many months, sometimes even years, that it’s hard even to find the right moment to rejoice.
I gave her two pieces of advice. One, celebrate the small moments along the way, the acceptance even though you don’t yet have the contract in hand, the contract even though the advance is nowhere on the horizon, etc. Two, go back to writing. That is the real reward, the process of writing itself. And what better reward could there be? Isn’t that what you most love to do?
Cori just came back to me and her other VCFA mentors looking for further discussion on this topic for the Through the Tollbooth blog she shares with others from VCFA. What follows are her questions and my responses:
First Cori asked, How do you feel when you’ve finished a draft? How does that compare to selling a book?
When I finish a draft, my first feeling is satisfaction, of course, but that is followed very closely by a let-down the moment I send it off looking for a home. Always. I feel finished, depleted, certain I’ll never write anything again. The longer I’ve been working on the manuscript I’m sending out, the bigger the let-down. And I’ve repeated this experience through scores of books.
It happened again in this last round—which I’ve just written about here—when I finished a verse novella but had a well-started YA novel waiting in the wings. I didn’t even have to come up with a new idea. A manuscript I was deeply committed to was waiting. But when I reopened the YA novel I felt . . . blah! It no longer looked nearly as exciting as the memory of it I’d been carrying. My energy for it seemed to have vanished.
How long does that blah last? Sometimes a few days, sometimes a few weeks, but always I find my way into the next project and then my doubts—most of them, anyway—slip away and the work is good, again. In fact, the work is all.
When I sell a book? There is no letdown then, but the splash of enthusiasm doesn’t last, either. So it’s sold. Good. Now what?
Years ago, standing in the shower one morning thinking about that blah feeling against the various successes of my first novel—starred reviews, a film option, etc.—I asked myself, “Are you one of those people who can’t enjoy success?” I decided even before I was out of the shower that the truth was less negative than that. I’m one of those people who loves to write. To love having written is a whole different thing. And that, I decided, is the best of all worlds. The successes come along, at most, a couple of times a year. Writing is something I get to sit down to do every day. So isn’t it grand that the process is more satisfying than the product?
Cori’s second questions was what kind of ways do you pause and feel accomplishment through your writing? Do you have a particular celebration and/or routine?
This question makes me realize that I’m better at giving advice than at taking it. I don’t pause to celebrate often, certainly not often enough. I do, however, pause often in the writing itself . . . tasting just the right word on my tongue, rejoicing over a scene that finally comes together, sitting down to revision, so grateful to have this good work in front of me and to know I can make it even better. And again, maybe that’s the best kind of celebration, because it’s one I get to do every day.
Some things don’t change, no matter how many times they happen, and that, I’ve decided, is good.