Writers talk a lot about how rejection messes with your mind. Wanna know something weird? Success can also screw with you mentally. Sometimes success goes to people’s heads, making them obnoxious, entitled caricatures of themselves. Paradoxically, it can overwhelm a person with self-doubt or even shame. Other times, there’s just a strange disconnect between the success we fantasized and the reality of it.
Early in my marriage, J and I talked about how we’d celebrate when I sold my first book. There’s a tower hotel in downtown Atlanta with a revolving restaurant at the top. We were going to eat there, order massive amounts of champagne, then stay in one of the suites. (I now know that such an extravagant night would have cost the entire advance check I received for my first book.) I did not envision getting The Call two weeks after an emergency C-section. I’d had a particularly rough night with the baby, hadn’t slept in thirty hours and when the editor began speaking into the answering machine, I legit thought it was a sleep-deprived hallucination.
Needless to say, we did not go out for a fancy dinner. Still, I’D SOLD A BOOK. The joy of that is mine to keep forever. I had arrived!
Once I’d caught up on sleep and done revisions—which is a whole different blog post—I pitched my editor a second book. She apologetically turned it down. I pitched her a third idea, which she thought showed promise, so I wrote a proposal…that she turned down. Thank God she loved my proposal for the fourth idea! But her boss turned it down. By the time I sold another book I was pregnant again. (Okay, I had my kids really close together. But still.) My arrival into the publishing world was less a definitive YOU HAVE ARRIVED and more like the scene at the end of the classic farce “Airplane” when the out-of-control plane hits the ground and airport speakers are announcing “Now arriving at gate 1…no, 2…3, 4? …35, 36, 37…”
After a book comes out, authors are paid royalties a few times a year—IF the author has sold enough copies. The walk to the mailbox is like Budgeting Roulette—will I get fifty bucks or five hundred? I wish I had a picture of the royalty check I once got for, no joke, sixty-one cents.
A few years ago, I wrote a women’s fiction novel that I think nineteen people read here in the U.S. My editor told me the book was also being published in Germany, so I hoped to double the number to thirty-eight. Picture a spring day: Tanya steps outside in mismatched clothes she threw on to avoid encountering neighbors in her writing PJs, she pulls an envelope from Penguin Random House out of the mailbox and, with typical impatience, tears it open before she ever reaches the house.
It had been a tough year, and I was desperately praying for a check that was at least a few hundred dollars to help with medical expenses. The check inside was well over ten-thousand dollars. Apparently, Germany LOVED my tearjerker novel about two sisters. My extremely professional reaction was to sit in the driveway and cry. (Afterward, we went to Disney World.)
Alas, my bestsellerdom did not blossom into fame and fortune in the States…or even in Germany, once my next novel was published there after an unfortunate delay of several years. One day I’m dazed in the driveway wondering if we’re going to be rich; the next September, I find myself looting the kids’ State Quarter Collection to provide them lunch money.
Of course, there are other ways to measure success than financial gain. For romance writers, there’s a prestigious award called the RITA. In March of 2004, while I was simultaneously trying to get my baby daughter to stop crying AND cleaning up dog vomit, I got a call telling me I was a finalist in the Best First Book category. Me, a RITA finalist? Holy crap. I was ecstatic to the point of giddiness for about ten minutes. Then, because I am a writer and therefore of questionable mental health, I plummeted into despair-filled certainty that it was a fluke. Probably a mathematical error on someone’s part.
Honestly, I don’t think that self-doubt started to fade until a year later, when I got a RITA call letting me know I’d finaled in another category. As of this spring, I’m a six-time finalist. I no longer think it’s a fluke. On the other hand, because I am fortunate enough to have a track record in this area, I feel palpable expectation from my editors, as if the years when I’m not a finalist are a disappointment to them. (I realize this neurosis is completely self-absorbed and makes me sound like “Oh, poor me, someone nominated me for an award, my life is so tough!” Shut up, Tanya.)
But as you can see, a writing career is fraught with psychological highs and lows. I cope with the lows by leaning on amazing friends and my supportive husband. To cope with success, I advise the following:
1. Don’t buy into the hype that you are suddenly better than anyone else. If you’re blessed enough to have a moment of fame, enjoy it but know that it may never happen again (especially if you alienate readers, fellow writers, bloggers and booksellers with diva behavior.)
2. Any time you have a victory in the crazy business of publishing, celebrate the hell out of it, just in case it doesn’t happen again.
3. Don’t tell yourself—or let anyone else tell you—that you don’t deserve what you’ve achieved. Guilt can strike when you land your dream agent the same week that your very talented friend gets rejected by an agent. I’m not saying you can’t be sensitive to your friend, but don’t let any negative emotion cheat you out of savoring what you’ve accomplished.
4. Prepare for the pressure of duplicating your success, and surround yourself with people who can keep you from panicking. Whether it’s “Yay, I sold my first book…will I ever sell a second?” or “Hallelujah, I hit the NYT list…oh, God, what if I never do it again?” success can create expectations. Remember that you got where you are with talent and perseverance, and they will continue to serve you well as you journey forward. One step at a time.
5. Recognize the less obvious successes. A rejection letter may not seem like a success. But learn to value rejection letters with comments like “your story was wonderful, but too similar to one we just bought” or “this wasn’t right for us as is, but if you’re willing to make some changes…”
Hitting any kind of bestseller list is a public standard of “success.” Because my publisher once packaged a story of mine in a collection along with a story by a Major Author, I got to see my name on the New York Times list. (I didn’t even know until a friend emailed to congratulate me.) I’m thrilled that thousands of people read that book, but I’m not sure I consider it my biggest success. In contrast, back in 2005, I wrote a foodie rom-com for a Harlequin line that was cancelled just as the book was being released. Very few stores even bothered to shelve it. Spicing it Up was a first-person book different than anything else I’d written. I’d worked hard on it, and I was devastated that it was impossible to find. Still, there must have been a few copies out in the wild because I later heard from a reader who’d lost her home in Hurricane Katrina. A copy of Spicing It Up was in a bag of donations she received, and she said reading it was the first time she remembered laughing out loud since the hurricane. If I made her laugh, I succeeded, even if she’d been the only person in the world to ever read that book.
Whether you’re a writer or you’re pursuing other dreams and goals, I wish you success. The bad news is, it rarely arrives when you hope. The good news is, it can often be weirder and more wonderful than you ever imagined.