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Susan Henderson started LitPark in 2006 with the goal of building a supportive community for writers. She asked monthly questions intended to bond and inspire writers with storytelling. She interviewed writers from the unknown to the debut to Neil Gaiman and Lemony Snicket. But what she didn’t realize she was doing was chronicling the ups and downs of writing and submitting her novel, THE RUBY CUP, now re-titled UP FROM THE BLUE, which will be published by Harper Collins in September 2010. Follow the peaks and valleys of that process—the writer’s block, the false hope, the face-on-the-floor depression, and the hard work of creating a novel. She hopes this is helpful, especially to those of you in the face-on-the-floor stage. You may be closer than you think!

So here is The Evolution of the Book, beginning with a post from 2006 about professional jealousy.

WE WANT A TURN

When you start out as a writer, one of the best experiences is finding a community of other writers who understand why you wake up in the middle of the night to write or why you jot down story notes on the backs of receipts. They understand why you’d write for no money and why you dream of being a bestselling author, or better yet, part of the future literary canon, even though you’ve yet to be published.

Say you form a writers’ critique group with some of these folks, and you meet weekly to exchange and discuss each others’ manuscripts. Most of these people you will hate immediately when they discuss your work or apply their red pen to passages you know are already perfect. But over the years, you will collect a core group of writer friends who understand the heart of your work, who push you to be a better writer while being careful not to overstep with their edits. You will encourage each other to send stories to magazines, and you will share the frustration of rejection letters, unsupportive family members, and successes that only seem like successes to other writers (ink on a rejection letter, agents asking for partial reads, obscure poets coming to the local bookstore).

Before you know it, ten years go by, and while most of you have a number of publication credits by now, no one from the group has made money with their writing. Five or ten more years pass, and the group has shifted some—one has hung himself in a bathroom wallpapered with rejections; another has become an editor who encourages your submissions but has yet to accept a story for publication; another has quit her job to write full-time, hoping it will lead to pay; another has self-published, and through coersion, has managed to sell 150 copies of his books to family and used-to-be friends. But the rest of you are writing and critiquing and submitting in between real, paying jobs and families who are not quite sure what to make of your all-consuming hobby.



More years pass, and the publications come more frequently. The prestige of the publications has improved as well, though you’ve still never been paid with more than contributor’s copies. Most in the group have finished a full-length manuscript, and more than half of you have agents and are somewhere in the process of submitting your manuscripts to publishing houses. And some in your group have already seen one or more of their manuscripts die in the submission process. Those remaining are focused, committed to the game, and know they won’t stop until they sell a manuscript. Though it’s been years and years, and perhaps decades and decades, of work with no payoff, you know in your gut that you and at least a quarter of the group will make it if you keep pushing.

And then, finally, a publishing contract comes through. But not for you. For one of your writer friends. There is no question but this is a good thing and that you are happy for your friend. There is also a small, unidentifiable feeling beneath that happiness but you ignore it. When several others from your group land book deals, the emotion you couldn’t place becomes easier to see and harder to ignore. It’s a complicated emotion that has something to do with the thought, Will it ever happen for me?


Are we jealous of our friends? Sometimes. But mostly not, I think. We prefer when success happens to people we like, people with talent, people who work hard, and people who continue to treat us well after they’re successful.

From a purely business perspective, our friends’ success ought to give us hope, make the road seem possible, show us a bit of the road map, let us know our workshop has merit, give us a connection to someone who can put in a good word or maybe blurb a future book. Sometimes this is inspiring and makes us push harder.

The tough thing about our friends’ success is the self-doubt. When our friends succeed and we don’t, we question whether we’ll ever make it, if we’re good enough to make it, if the manuscript we edited and edited and edited is really something small and awful. It reminds us how seldom we feel validated, and how much we’ve needed it. And sometimes, we feel despair because we are confident about our manuscript—we know it’s ready—but we also know there’s a factor besides hard work and talent (luck? timing? karma? the x-factor?) that happens to some and doesn’t happen to others.


So talk to me about being on one side or the other of professional jealousy. How did it feel when your friend got the book deal you wanted? And how did it feel to be the one who finally, after years of work, got a book deal, and no one even bought or blogged about your book. Let’s hear your stories…

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SUSAN HENDERSON is the author of UP FROM THE BLUE (HarperCollins, 2010) and founder of the blog, LitPark, a literary playground for writers.

34 responses to “We Want a Turn”

  1. Woah. As usual, you have struck some mighty powerful nerves with this piece.

    Can’t wait to see how the relationship between LitPark and TNB develops in this next evolution!!!

    (and as you well know, I have you & LitPark to blame thank for introducing me to TNB in the first place!)

  2. Susan Henderson says:

    I am so happy to take the blame for that!

  3. josie says:

    I’ve been in all those positions, Susan, except the published one. Jealousy doesn’t often last too long with me. I don’t see life as competition. One only need enter a city library to realize there is room for another book or read a published work so bad you can’t finish it to know good writing isn’t all publishing is about. And mostly I think that when people I admire and respect have success it means I’m on the right track, that I’ve got good taste and no talent when I see it.

    I broke a longterm writer’s block recently. It was so bad I couldn’t even read anything. I wanted to give it up cold turkey, reading and writing that is, but my writer friends got me up and back in the saddle with encouraging words of support and empathy. We all need that kind of support sometimes.

    The blogs you share about writing ups and downs are vital for anyone in the game. Folks need to hear that it’s not magic or luck but that it’s a job with certain traits that totally suck. Thanks for sharing, S. I’ve been reading you for years and look forward to many more years to come.

  4. josie says:

    Hee hee, there’s a Freudian slip up there that has me rolling!

  5. Let this be my public vote that Josie should write a regular column here! I’d call it Freudian Slip Ups and Other Wisdom. Great to hear from you. And thank you.

  6. So glad to have LitPark and TNB in bed together, so to speak, Sue, and so excited about your forthcoming novel!

  7. I relate to all of these feelings. So well said and thoughtful. It’s always–ALWAYS–about staying focused on our own truth (always!) but sometimes the world, er, other people, their successes, projects, their successes…get so distracting! I value the honesty of posts like this. Thank you.

  8. Billy Bones says:

    Seems like self-doubt is a writer’s worst enemy, whether it comes from jealousy of not.

    I am looking forward to reading THE RUBY CUP in September.

    Best,
    BB

    • LitPark says:

      Self-doubt is the constant battle.

      • Billy Bones says:

        And then there’s that pesky obscurity issue to deal with. I think I heard somewhere that Mr. Gaiman says that obscurity is a writer’s greatest enemy. But I’m not sure if you can even rise to the level of obscure writer unless you battle self-doubt first.

        To battle then, eh? Let us raise our swords, you and I, and vanquish those two dastardly creatures.

  9. Greg Olear says:

    What I found was, the book deal, while an obvious and long-sought-after goal, was not (alas!) the be-all-end-all, but rather a door at the end of a very long hallway I’d spent the last 15 years running toward…an ornate and lovely door, for sure, but one that opened to reveal yet another long hallway.

    As for envy, the only writers to be jealous of are the 200 or so (in Evison’s estimate) who can make a decent living just writing fiction. But then, many of those 200 are of the Dan Brown variety. Is it better to be a good and respected writer and have a second job, or an insanely wealthy writer who is the laughingstock of the literary community?

    Congrats on the book, Susan. Well deserved, and you’ve done so much with your time waiting that it’s sure to be a great success.

    G

    • LitPark says:

      So true! I was just talking to someone this morning about his book, with all of its fabulous reviews and abysmal sales. And yesterday, a publicist tweeted to me about the pressure she feels from writers, editors and publishers who are always disappointed she can’t do more. What a character-building business we’re in! Glad to see you here, Greg.

  10. Hi, Susan,

    Great to see you here.

    I’m still celebrating your novel contract–quietly, as it gives me hope for myself. As you know, I’m a fellow traveler walking this long road you’ve described so well. As for Ruby Cup, I can’t wait to read all of it. Your first chapter was astonishing and stunning.

    Wonderful post as always.

    Jessica

  11. Ric Marion says:

    Out here in the wilderness, trying to use blogs and other ways to find a writer’s group – the local one is nice, but most members haven’t even begun the process yet. It is humbling to finish reading a piece and have them all go, “wow”, but isn’t particularly helpful.

    And, yes, I am jealous of other’s success, but know I’m going to make it. Just keep moving toward the future, the Holy Grail, the End.

    • LitPark says:

      Honestly, sometimes I think it’s a game of endurance. The ones who stay in the game stay because they have something to say and they have the will to get it right and find their audience. And what looks like failure and setbacks may very well turn out to be the things that put you on the path that leads to where you want to go. Not easy, though. Writers and artists are made of different stuff.

  12. I have to join the others here and say I have long been in awe of the good you have made out of LitPark – a genius idea that actually brought all sorts of people with a love for the written word together – in an even playing field. You are genuine and generous and LitPark reflects that.
    I’d have to agree with Greg when he said that the book contract was like a lovely door at the end of a very long( in my case 15 plus years before “the call”) hallway…. that in turn leads to another long, albeit slightly different hallway. I’ve found it to be so true, slightly disorienting, maddening, a bit like Alice falling down the rabbit hole, but oh so wonderful, surprising and delightful.

    • Wow, that is so nice! Thank you.

      I saw an article in Michael Cader’s Publisher’s Marketplace today that is a big wake up call to those of us who write literary fiction. I’ll paste the article here so you can check out these numbers:

      How the NBA Nominees Have Fared
      With the National Book Award winners due to be announced on Wednesday evening, we took a look at what the marketplace has had to say so far about the fiction nominees. Unfortunately, the NBA nominations themselves traditionally do not have a lot of impact on sales.

      In both total sales to date as well as sales since the nominations were announced, Colum McCann’s LET THE GREAT WORLD SPIN is the clear stand-out. With just under 2,400 copies sold in the last three full weeks as recorded by Nielsen BookScan, he has outsold the rest of the field combined (the other four titles have comprised under 1,900 copies in sales in all.) Running a distance second is the little-known AMERICAN SALVAGE by Bonnie Jo Campbell, published by Wayne State University Press, with a little over 600 copies sold over the past three weeks. (For comparison’s sake, bear in mind that Peter Mathiessen’s Shadow Country, last year’s fiction winner, had sold approximately 6,000 copies in hardcover prior to winning the award.)

      Here are the approximate sales to date of the five nominees via outlets tracked by Nielsen BookScan:

      LET THE GREAT WORLD SPIN, by Colum McCann 17,200 copies
      LARK AND TERMITE, by Jayne Anne Phillips 15,250 copies
      IN OTHER ROOMS, OTHER WONDERS, by Daniyal Mueenuddin 8,750 copies
      FAR NORTH, by Marcel Theroux 1,275 copies
      AMERICAN SALVAGE, by Bonnie Jo Campbell 1,100 copies

  13. First, welcome. You had me at Gaiman.

    I’m the writer still working toward the publishing contract while watching other people get theirs, but I think it works way beyond the writer circle now that the Internet exists. I’ll admit some disgruntled bitterness the past few days while being inundated with media snippets of Sarah Palin on her book tour, interviewing with Oprah and Barbara Walters; how does this woman have a book out? Same with Tila Tequila.

    But then I think that the Internet-beyond-the-writer’s-group is also what saves me from that bitterness, too. Because this is how I met guys like Greg and Jonathan, and Richard and Brad, and how can one begrudge writers who deserve it and put in the work? Living breathing examples that it’s tough but not impossible, and Palin and Tequila aren’t the only ones who can do it.

    It’s generally more difficult to find success through talent rather than celebrity, but that success is probably more fulfilling.

  14. Hi Will, and thanks!

    I agree about the friends – there’s something about creative, strong-willed people who have been humbled and humbled and humbled again that appeal to me so much. Here’s to your publishing contract!

  15. jonathan evison says:

    . . . how true all of this rings to me . . . i logged over 500 rejections, physically buried four novels, and dug a lot of ditches before i broke through . . .and i’d do it all over again, even if i knew there was no contract at the other end, because writing novels IS living for me . . . i would’ve destroyed myself one way or another long ago if hadn’t been for writing . . .and while i’m crossing my fingers that my good fortune continues in the marketplace (because the truth is, this novelist put ALL of his eggs in one basket and has few marketable job skills), it is without a doubt a subordinate concern to doing the work itself. . .that’s the real reward . . . if i don’t write for three days, i’m impossible to live with . . .

    • Tony DuShane says:

      on those rejections, how often did you get feedback?

      it turned out a good chunk of my rejections gave me detailed feedback as to the whys before soft skull finally picked it up….but i did rewrites, some based on the feedback of rejection letters.

      the consensus of three rejections were to lose the first 60 pages…which were very funny, felt like cutting off a limb, but they were absolutely right. those pages weren’t pushing the story forward and gave too much back story on a secondary character.

      stuff i can reuse, but damn, every time i look at the final work, it wasn’t ready when i was submitting elsewhere.

      and the big houses had a hard time figuring out the marketing aspect of a book about a jehovah’s witness kid…..no bookscan numbers to give them confidence.

      btw, great piece susan.

  16. Me, too, about being impossible to live with if I don’t write. I tried to quit the habit a few times based on logical thinking (well, this isn’t making any money, this is too hard, etc) and that other force, whatever it is that isn’t logical, always brought me back.

  17. Lori Oliva says:

    Thanks Susan, for addressing this topic. It’s one that usually stays buried in my subconscious, until I have one of those days where I can’t write, and I can’t read…then the self-doubt comes in, followed by the demons that are just waiting to raise their ugly heads, to tell me how much time and energy I’ve wasted to share my singular perspective with the world. Then, I hit my Twitter page and read the latest from a writer whose style I really don’t understand or prefer announcing his latest achievement in 140 characters ALL CAPPED. It’s disheartening, but it’s a flaw I’m really working on to overcome. I know it will happen, and it’s not the waiting that’s so bad. It’s the time when I’m unproductive that seems to feed the despair.

    • LitPark says:

      Lori, I find that, too. When I’m actually doing the work–plotting the book, walking in the character’s shoes, playing with a line until it has just the right rhythm, I’m doing okay. When I start to measure myself against the success of others or spend too much time thinking about what I don’t have but desperately want, I’m a mess. So today, I’m writing…

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