The Victory Lap That Wasn't
Joy was coming, but I didn't know it yet.
When I got my first agent in 2014, I wrote a blog post that felt like a victory lap for all the hard work of writing and revising a literary dystopian novel. It wasn’t my first novel, or my second. I’d written and rewritten a fantasy novel throughout college that collected a lot of quarter-slip rejections in the mail; the next one was flawed too. So when my third novel went around New York and didn’t sell, even after revisions, the agent and I parted ways in 2016. The manuscript was dead, and that blog post had aged badly. I deleted it, even though a lot of people I loved had posted encouragement and good wishes. I was so mad at myself for being naïve that I couldn’t see anything else.
But that failure was actually a beginning. If I had been going to quit, this was the time. Though it made my head a miserable place to be for a few years, I also kept floundering around, applying to conferences, getting little scholarships, rewriting, leaving stories half-written, and eventually applying to an MFA program. In the program, my head and heart healed; I resurrected my second novel and rewrote it from scratch. I finished the draft in March 2020, took a breath, and began submitting it to agents.
As dark as 2020 was, a new sense of perspective shifted my ego out of the way. I believed in the story, knew why I’d made every decision in the manuscript, and could go to the mat defending them. I had written the story for reasons bigger than me. It was a letter of faith in humans, and an ode to beauty that lives in the margins, and it was also a weirdly structured novel that I knew would appear flawed to agents. I write from a conviction that a lot of my culture’s thought problems are amplified by traditional story structures, which permeate the mindset even if most people don’t read fiction. I am never going to write a three-act arcing, climaxing, chronologically linear novel, and I’m not sorry about it, even if some readers will reject that approach. At that time, however, I’d also gained a bigger community of writers during my MFA, and I knew in my heart that someone might take a chance on this novel anyway.
Someone(s) did. And as I write this, the manuscript has made it through all the hurdles, even an important timeline problem discovered late in the copyediting process, and now the galleys are in the hands of reviewers and bookstore buyers. I am working with a publishing dream team, people who are respectful and conscientious and staggeringly good at their jobs, and I want to shine the spotlight on their work as I share what I learned at each stage of The Skin and Its Girl’s journey. I have spent my career as an independent editor on the outermost arm of the publishing galaxy for 20 years, and every week I learn something new about how the industry actually works.
A lot of people would argue that publishing, as an industry, doesn’t work. The criticisms have merit. But right now, I want to talk about what’s good, because this is the story of individuals doing their best work for the right reasons. The system is a mess, above and beyond a single industry. If you make art, you have a chance to nudge readers to practice different ways of thinking and feeling and maybe lend your little push to the gargantuan force needed to make change happen… but to do that as a writer, you need the audience as much as you need a finished manuscript. I have a chance at having that audience after 25 years of writing toward a dream, thanks to a lot of help from a publishing crew that has expertise as well as access to hyper-specific and super-important information like who buys the books for this or that major bookseller or what season gives a certain novel a better chance of success.
At the risk of sounding naïve all over again, this Substack will be a positive one—but no victory lap. There is no arrival, and no winning, just the creative and practical work of writing in the world. I hope this is a reliable and helpful inspiration. It’s also meant to be responsive: if you send a question, I’ll do my best to answer or make a post about it.
Thanks for reading, and happy creating.