I received an email from Maria’s Bookshop today, the local bookstore in Durango where my two novels have — up until this weekend — been offered for sale.
The email was to inform me that my books have been pulled from the Local Authors Shelf, and the store needed to know whether I wanted to pick up the unsold books from the front desk, pay to have them shipped to me, or have them donated to an unspecified location here in town.
Of the original merchandise I delivered for sale, Maria’s has one remaining copy of The Etiquette of Wolves, and two remaining copies of Love and Student Loans and Other Big Problems. Which means I have three books to pick up.
This was not an easy email to read. It was the standard form letter Maria’s sends to all authors in my situation, the authors who don’t sell enough work for their books to keep taking up space in the shop. I read the email as such, and I knew not to take that email personally.
Within minutes, the logical, businesslike reason that serves me so well, so often —
Well, it pretty much crumbled and tore away like paper in the sea. I lowered my head, and I stared at the wood grain of my tabletop a long while.
Because the sense of absolute failure just built and built like a storm all around me, like I’d accidentally stumbled into a hurricane that was once known as my work space, but was now the sight of Typhoon Heartbreak, also known as Guess What, You Fail.
I admit that I am at my most fragile as a writer when I am querying literary agents. Which I’m doing right now. And this Saturday, I was able to receive feedback on just how poorly-worded my current query letter is. If you are interested in seeing my abysmal query, and the constructive criticism I received to improve it, you can read that here.
I’m tremendously grateful to author Mindy McGinnis for her thoughtful feedback, delivered free of charge, for the sole purpose of simply helping a stranger attract the interest of a literary agent. Mindy’s blog is a labor of love, a light in the darkness, and I’m definitely putting her advice to work in drafting a new letter.
That still doesn’t mean realizing how flawed my letter is becomes any easier to hear. I thought that was my best letter yet. Turns out, I’m still no better at querying than I’ve ever been, maybe even worse, which explains the rejections and silence from lit agents concerning my newest novel.
The manuscript is still under revision, as the entire book has only been read by two people — my alpha-reader, April, and my #1 beta-reader, Adriana. As a writer, I’ve learned you have to choose people who have a huge amount of forgiveness for being forced to read severely flawed drafts. April and Adriana forgive me a LOT.
Adriana finished reading my newest novel about ten days ago, sent me all her feedback comments, and I spent all of last week writing nonstop, trying to fix the entire book. While I didn’t need to scrap the entire manuscript, the way I did with the first draft of my mer novel, this book was still so deeply amiss from what I’d intended to write, that I felt massive embarrassment. The kind of shame that makes it really hard to forgive myself, how I’d failed so hard at something I put so much time into, that I would need approximately 98 hours of writing time to fix it. (No exaggeration on the number — if anything, I rounded down.)
This past Saturday, I completed my edits, then sent the book to my second whole-book beta-reader, Jen. And when she’s finished reading, I’ll have her feedback, and a new editing process will begin.
So here I am, with a flawed manuscript, a horribly flawed query letter, and a critique partner who sat me down over the weekend to tell me the following —
“Look, Melissa. I hate to have to tell you this. I don’t want to tell you this. But you need to know. Your writing just isn’t good enough to sell. Your stories are boring. You’re just not good enough to make it. Why don’t you do something you can actually be good at? Like copyedit? You’d make a good copyeditor. Why not do that? Because I just… well, I’m sorry. I know you think you can make this work. But the truth is, it’s just not going to happen for you.”
Which felt a LOT like being Elle Woods in this scene from the fabulous movie, Legally Blonde — the scene in which Elle realizes the love of her life, the smug and supposedly good-looking Warner, still views her as someone who isn’t good enough to date him. (You can watch that scene here — and sorry I couldn’t embed the video in my post — that capability was disabled for this particular clip.)
The truth hits Elle hard, as she faces what she hadn’t wanted to face when Warner originally dumped her. After a moment of stunned silence, she says, “I’m never gonna be good enough for you, am I?”
The audience knows Warner isn’t good enough for Elle, not the other way around. But from Warner’s point of view, he thinks he’s being kind to Elle. “You’re not smart enough, sweetie,” he says. You’re never going to make it. Give up now, baby. “You can do something more valuable with your time,” he insists.
Anyone who’s seen the movie knows this is the moment when Elle really grows, as a young woman, as a human being, as someone with a higher purpose in life than pursuing a love life. The moment when Elle stops wanting Warner, and starts to want something bigger and better — it’s the moment in the film when Elle makes a new dream.
And it’s a pretty badass part of the movie —
People love this moment in the film, for good reason. Because the movie cannot end with a victorious Elle if she had taken Warner’s advice and done “something more valuable with her time” than go to law school.
The email I received from Maria’s Bookshop today hit me at a time when I felt very much like everything I’ve done so far as an author has added up to a whole lot of nothing. Like Elle, who’s gotten into law school, only to find that Warner STILL has no interest in her — that was me with my books at Maria’s. “Nope, people still don’t want these books, come pick them up or we’ll drop them off at the thrift store.”
Do I let Warner tell me I’m never gonna be good enough, or do I say, “I’ll show you how valuable Elle Woods can be!”
We all face these moments. Elle loses only when she gives up. Failure doesn’t make her a failure. The choice to give up or not was the only moment that mattered. The big happy ending is cake. Watching her sweat and struggle is what makes the whole movie so great.
Typhoon Heartbreak sucks. I came so close to crying today. And I hate — HATE — crying over my author failures.
But a louder voice in my head than “Guess What, You Fail” said, “Pull your sh*t together right now. This isn’t the end of the road. This isn’t the end of anything. Dream bigger. Dream better. That door is closed now. Leave it closed. Find the window.”
“And keep dreaming.”
So that’s what I did.