I’m hoping you can say something about this. I worked for four years on my novel, it took me two years to get an agent, we worked together for another 6 months editing it. I was so excited. That was over a year ago. My agent submitted my debut [to publishers] and nobody wanted it. She emailed me a month ago saying that she tried everything she could think of but we had to shelve it. I’m still not over it. I’m really depressed [and] feel like a failure. I’m really embarrassed too. All my friends were excited for me and I had to tell them all that nobody wanted it. I’m angry that I went through all that for nothing and ashamed that I thought I could ever get published. Thanks for reading and sorry to whine, but I feel alone in this and that I wasted so much time. I feel like a huge failure.
Dear Devastated Debut,
We in the United States have a thing about failure. We avoid discussing it at all costs. At first glance, you wouldn’t think we do. We seem like we love stories about failure. We clamor for them; we hold them close to our hearts. So many stories in the States circle around failure.
But it turns out there’s a catch. We only seek out stories of failure if they have since ended in success. If there’s no success to the failure, then we pretend the failure doesn’t exist. We don’t speak of it. It becomes taboo. And if somehow the subject sneaks in regardless, well, then we blame the person who did the failing. They didn’t try hard enough, they didn’t want it bad enough, something.
I feel this is because we’re desperate to preserve the false concept of the American Dream; that we’ll get what we desire if we just work hard enough. Anybody facing systemic oppression and/or poverty in this country knows this is bunk. And yet, given the success narratives we’re fed, our knowledge of the truth doesn’t automatically shield us from our own shame.
So let’s talk about failure. Not success-failure, but failure-failure. And to do that, I’m going to talk about myself.
If we’re looking through the eyes of publishing cred, I’m a failure-failure of the writing world.
As of this post, I’ve been actively trying to get published for 15 years. I’ve written 14 books, 5 of which I’ve pursued agent representation. Of the 5 pursued, 3 received agent representation. The first failed to publish; wrong place, wrong time, and occasional transphobia. The second failed to publish; wrong place, wrong time, and occasional transphobia. I’m currently staring down the barrel of the third; so far, wrong place, wrong time, and…you get the idea. It’s not over yet, but it’s not looking good.
I’ve had countless close calls, near misses, and outright bizarre cosmic interventions. And yet I still haven’t been able to get over that final hurdle. I’ve been stuck in a literary Groundhog Day for several years now. My archiving has slipped a little at times, but if we combined my queries for agents, publishers, short stories, contests, and everything else a writer may submit to, I’ve clocked in at least 672 rejections. (I’ve always said that when I hit 1,000, I’m throwing a party.)
My point is that I empathize where you’re coming from. A lot. And yeah, it hurts.
Do you develop a thicker skin over time? No. Not for me, anyway. The sting of rejection doesn’t ever go away. Rather, we just learn how to deal with that sting. But it’s nearly impossible to handle it when we feel nobody will talk about it.
Even in book world, we tend to only mention the success-failures of given authors. As in, an author whose household-name book was rejected time and again, but they continued with that book, and only that book, until eventually it found publication. It’s like a game of duck-duck-goose. Failure-failure-SUCCESS! This is a distortion of what rejection looks like in the publishing world.
Further, such success-failures tend to have low rejection numbers. Did you hear about the famous author whose first book was rejected by—gasp!—thirteen whole publishers before finally getting picked up? Perseverance is perseverance, but that’s not a staggering triumph. That’s half of Round 1 of your initial submission window. And when these are the only (success-)failure stories we tell in the writing world, it alters the expectations and self-worth of those trying to gain a foothold.
I don’t know the exact latest numbers, but I do know this much: A first novel failing to sell to publishers is more common than we think. And that’s because we often confuse first novel with debut. A first novel is the first novel a person has written. A debut is the first of a person’s novels to get published. Many debuts you see aren’t actually first novels. They’re second, third, fourth—and for some—seventh or more novels. All the novels before the debut one? Failures. But we wouldn’t know that from the cleverly cloaked usage of debut.
“An astonishing debut!” critics sometimes cry, as if the author popped up out of the snow with a fully formed manuscript cupped in their hands. But is a debut really that “astonishing” if it’s actually their seventh book? A wonderful book is a wonderful book, but the jargon we use to describe it can be misleading. As much as we boast about hard work in this country, we prioritize the illusion of raw talent any chance we get.
Debut vs first novel makes me think of the phone call scene from the 2021 film “Tick, Tick…Boom!”, in which playwright Jonathan Larson, after wringing himself out to create his musical, Superbia, finds out that nobody wants to produce it.
“So what am I supposed to do now?” he asks his agent.
“You start writing the next one,” she replies. “And after you finish that one, you start on the next. And on and on, and that’s what it is to be a writer, honey. You just keep throwing them against the wall and hoping against hope that eventually, something sticks.”
That scene is one of the few times I’ve ever seen artistic failure presented truthfully.
I don’t want to coat you in writerly platitudes, my friend. No “It only takes one!” or “Don’t give up!” or “It’ll happen one day!” At least for me, nothing stings more than statements such as these, especially when you’re already in the throes of failure shame. Because in the end, none of us has any idea if it’ll actually work out or not.
But here’s the good bits. What I say now isn’t intended to be in a Glinda the Good Witch voice, but rather that grizzled old man at the back of the bar:
Failure begets successes that otherwise never would’ve happened.
For our buddy Jonathan Larson? If Superbia hadn’t failed, he never would’ve written Rent, which not only became one of the most popular Broadway musicals of all time, but in the mid-90s thrust into the spotlight such important taboo topics as poverty, LGBTQ+ people, and HIV/AIDS. (Superbia hasn’t received a full production to this day.)
Or how about the Beatles? John, Paul, George, and Ringo, right? Only before Ringo, there was Pete Best. It was these four that landed the Beatles’ first record contract in 1962. But just three days before recording was scheduled to begin, the other Beatles bopped Pete off the team without any explanation, bringing in Ringo as their new drummer. Pete was, shall we say, quite depressed about this, especially when Beatlemania skyrocketed. But in a 1994 interview, Pete said, “I’m happier than I would have been with the Beatles.” Turns out if he hadn’t been kicked out of the group, he never would’ve met his wife or had his children. He also went on to start the Pete Best Band in 1988 and, now at the age of 81, is still performing worldwide.
And as for me? I wouldn’t be writing to you right now.
That sounded more dramatic than I intended. But if I hadn’t failed—and failed so many times—then it wouldn’t have ignited the stubborn, spiteful part of me that concluded, “Well fine! If I can’t get through, then I’ll help vault as many other queer writers over the wall as I can!”
I wouldn’t have ended up creating such things as a newsletter, an advice column, a 9-month novel workshop program, and a 3-day literary weekend, all for LGBTQ+ writers. I wouldn’t have gained the obscenely large literary community I now have. I wouldn’t have studied craft nearly as intently. I wouldn’t have submitted to or received accolades from such places as Lambda Literary, Tin House, Monson Arts, or Pitch Wars. I wouldn’t have eventually become the managing editor of fiction for an award-winning LGBTQ+ literary journal. I wouldn’t have become a creative writing instructor, constantly drowning in unpublished queer fiction; the best problem in the world. I wouldn’t have done a lot of things. If I’d breezed right through to publication, I just wouldn’t have tried this hard. Because I wouldn’t have been pushed to do so.
Am I making a living off all this work? Pfft…no. But I’m ridiculously fulfilled in a way that I wouldn’t have been from publishing alone. It’s one of those things I didn’t realize until I looked back over my shoulder. And despite the unhappiness a lack of publication still brings me, I question if immediate publication would’ve made me as happy as I am now.
Failure provides wisdom you otherwise wouldn’t get. Humans learn through failure. We try harder because of failure. And while I don’t want to romanticize pain or struggle, there truly is benefit to be had. It just may not be where you think it is.
I encourage you to become comfortable with being a failure. That’s the true ticket here. I waited so long to do the above things because I was ashamed and embarrassed and felt that, as a failure-failure, I had nothing to offer others. Who was I, thinking I had anything of value to contribute? Who takes advice from a failure? But through my growing writer network, I realized I’d gained significant insight through my failure. Over time, folks with sometimes multiple publications under their belts started coming to me for writing advice. They wanted to bounce ideas off me, to have me read their manuscripts, to suggest to them how to make things better. They offered to pay me, to give me gifts, to swap reads. They treated me like an equal.
These folks helped me realize that what I’d learned through my struggles carried value. It encouraged me to finally move forward with such projects as manuscript consultations, creative writing instruction, a newsletter, and now, an advice column. And I very nearly added a subtitle to the column. Queeries: Advice from a Failure. Because I realized that, when I’m struggling, I don’t want advice from someone who hasn’t been there. I want advice from someone who has.
Also, my friend, your novel isn’t dead. It’s just taking the scenic route. You may be shelving it for now, but that’s just for now. There’s indeed the chance you’ll get it published in the future once you already have a foothold. Having a backlog of books also ups your chances for a multi-book deal. You know those folks who seem to burst out with their debut and then have a new book coming out, like, every 6 months for a few years? Book backlog.
So with all that said, I suggest that you start on a new project. It sounds exhausting, I know, and you’re welcome to take a break from everything for a short while. But I also want you to eventually get back into it. Find your excitement again. Get excited about your next thing. And if that one doesn’t work out, get excited about the next one. And the one after that.
And when you’re not excited about your own project, get excited about somebody else’s. Celebrate them, elevate them, cheer them on. Commiserate if they’re alongside you, pull them up if they’re behind, or applaud them if they’re ahead. Because aside from that just being good for our mental health, the sense of shame from failure-failure comes from our being silent about it. So let’s be proud of the fact that we tried, we failed, and yet we are, in fact, still here.