There are plenty in the life of a wannabe novelist. (For now, I call myself a writer. One day, I’ll be calling myself a novelist, but I insist on at least seeing my very own ARC, and possibly waiting until I see my name on a bookshelf in Borders, before I use that one. Using that word before I get there just seems like tempting fate to pull my little floor mat out from under me, y’know?)
Anyway, I digress. I think that phrase should be tattooed on my forehead.
I was talking about milestones, particularly milestones for (wannabe) novelists. Here are a few.
1.) You have your first book-length idea, or at least the ambition to try and write something of that length. I got there in 2003, when an idea I’d had for – oh, about 4 years – finally started to have a coherent beginning, slightly-less-vague middle, and (what would eventually become a standard for me, though I didn’t know it) angsty, slightly purple, emotional ending. Instead of watching reruns of Buffy with my husband – a passtime not to be sneezed at, as Joss Whedon is a god – I said, with a small amount of bewilderment, “Actually, I think I want to write for a little bit.” And now we have Sword, on submission to publishers. [brief pause for happy dance]
2.) You finish your first novel. You are brilliant. You are invincible. You have created a masterpiece the like of which the world has never seen, and never will again. You might need some sleep and perspective, but you don’t know this, because you are blinded by the light of your own brilliance. Lovely feeling. Put on a parachute now, before you get any farther.
3.) You get your first real feedback – and by this I mean someone who won’t necessarily have to live with you after being honest with you. Or someone who will but doesn’t care. You are crushed and indignant, or bewildered (you will spend plenty of time in this state, so learn to enjoy it) and worried, and you begin to realize what the people around you knew all along: you aren’t actually brilliant. Talented, yes. Persistent, damn straight. Potentially brilliant, well – maybe. You also begin to realize there may be more work in your future before you become a national best seller. You read good books on writing and revising, like Self Editing for the Fiction Writer, On Writing, and The Complete Home Bartender’s Guide.
4.) You finish your 2nd (or 3rd or 4th or 5th) draft. You realize this part is actually harder than writing the novel was. You realize said novel is now a hell of a lot better than it was, and this fills you with both pride and a species of resigned hope that will serve you well when you get to the next step.
5.) You receive your first rejection from an agent. Circle back to crushed, indignant, bewildered, and possibly elated for a little while. If you are lucky and smart, a visit to AW was in there somewhere between steps 4 and 5, and you’ll eventually settle on that resigned hope from the previous step: this part may be even harder than revisions. And longer. And may involve a synopsis, that most dreadful and cruel instrument of writerly torture. Certainly it will involve several lessons in patience and the value of self distraction. You start your second novel purely as a means to fill the time between clicking the refresh button on your email inbox, and realize you’ve gotten better at writing. You drink some wine and think, cautiously, about trying an outline this time.
6.) You get your first full request. Elation. Terror. Desperate, 3 a.m. rewrites to ensure blinding perfection. Arguments with your printer and then with the counter person at the post office. Shipment Tracking. And the waiting, the endless waiting, somewhere in the middle of which you do what everyone has warned you not to, and re-read your novel, which is now trash, and full of humiliating typos. Despair. Agony. An agent gets back to you requesting rewrites, one or ten full requests later, and you’re back in Revisionland, but with a map this time, and a new appreciation for good, thoughtful betas. Reread all above-mentioned books, and learn how to make a chocolate martini.
7.) You get an offer from an agent. Maybe more than one offer, forcing you to choose between the Gray Goose and the Bushmills, the creme brulee and the tiramisu. I’m not going to bother to describe more than that, as it involves undignified dancing, whooping and possibly heavy drinking, but it is a damned good milestone to be at.
8.) You revise yet again, but with the knowledge that this time is for keeps. Terror times ten. Refer back to The Complete Home Bartender’s Guide and don’t even think of trying to quit smoking this month: you’ll go insane.
9.) You wait. You write your second novel and start thinking seriously about your third. You think hard about outlines, start a blog, join Facebook, and try not to believe every editor in the world is going to laugh at you.
10.) You get your first decline from a publisher, and it comes with feedback. You’ve had enough rejections by now to take that on the chin, but the feedback part is terrifying, because it means someone up there thought your novel was worth the time to comment on, and to decline regretfully. For the first time you realize this might actually happen one day, and that thought is enough to send you back to The Complete Home Bartender’s Guide.
There’s more, and oh, I hope to hit step 15 or 20 or whatever it is… but I’m stopping here, because this is as far as I’ve gotten. Excuse me while I go flip through the rum section.