The Writer’s Life is Full of Second Chances (or: Abandon Despair, All Ye Who Enter Here)

PhotobucketHeads up: Today’s post is one of the most inspirational I’ve ever read here on Writer Unboxed. (Therese here, by the way.) I’m so pleased to bring you our guest blogger, author Robin LaFevers. Robin is a multi-published author and the co-founder of a blog I’ve long admired, Shrinking Violets–a site geared toward introverted writers. Her latest novel, Grave Mercy, released just this week and has been receiving raves. And though I promised myself I wouldn’t purchase any new books until I’d made a dent in my teetering to-be-read stack, I’m heading out this weekend to look for this one. I just can’t help myself. This out-of-the-box book has scored starred reviews from just about everyone–Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, Booklist and School Library Journal–and it’s a 2012 Indie Next Spring Pick. What’s it about?

Seventeen-year-old Ismae was fathered by Saint Mortain, the God of Death, and one dark and stormy night, she is brought to a mysterious convent where his many daughters are trained as assassins. When she is given an important assignment to protect the Duchess of Brittany and kill the traitor in her court, Ismae begins to learn that being a handmaiden of Death may not mean what the nuns taught her. But her burgeoning independence comes with consequences, and the fate of an entire country–and the only man she could ever love–hangs in the balance. Set in medieval France with historically accurate details, Grave Mercy is the first book in a gritty, fast-paced trilogy, and gives thrilling new meaning to the term “girl power.” –Juliet Disparte (Amazon Best Books of the Month, April 2012)

I don’t even know what to tell you about this post. It’ll knock your socks off, then wash them for you before tucking them back in the drawer of your choice. It’s that good. Now without further ado…

The Writer’s Life is Full of Second Chances
(or: Abandon Despair, All Ye Who Enter Here)

We’ve all heard it; how the biggest advances and best promotional opportunities are reserved for those splashy debut authors with their shiny new ideas and their untarnished sales records. Debut authors are a clean slate on which a publisher can project the P&Ls of their dreams.

This is especially painful if the first time you hear it is after your first—or third—book has just come out with little fan fare. It does not matter a whit that many of those splashy debuts don’t come close to earning out or breaking even; the myth persists. Honestly? It feels a lot like that old line about how men only marry virgins and never the girls they mess around with.

So what’s a multi-published, mid-list author to do? Must she kiss her dreams goodbye and live a hard-scrabble existence as the mid-list dies its slow and lingering death? (One that has been predicted for well over twenty years, I might add.)

This was even more devastating for me since I am a dyed-in-the-wool introvert. While I have spent years getting comfortable with book promotion and public speaking and networking, I will never be the kind of person who can acquire a huge following through the cult of my scintillating personality alone. It seemed as if I was destined to be a floundering mid-list author for the rest of my days, or until the numbers dwindled enough that my career flamed out altogether.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the ignominious demise of my career. It turns out that writers, like cats, have multiple lives.

My first five books were written to a perceived need. I write children’s books, and we children’s authors are supposed to be altruistic and have our young audience’s needs in mind. Or so I thought. I wrote boys’ adventure books—the kind my own sons were hungry to read. While I was lucky enough to have those books published, they were very much early novels, and I had the sales numbers to prove it.

During some particularly painful revisions, I decided I needed to reconnect with my love of writing and craft and sheer storytelling, and I started a side project. One I only worked on when my contracted writing was done. It was a bit like having an affair—an evening snuck in here and there. If I was really lucky, an entire weekend. The promise I made to myself though, was I was writing just for me. No one else was ever going to even see it, so I could write whatever I wanted.

It was my first girl book—written specifically to the tastes of my eleven-year-old self—what the world looked like, felt like, what amused me, what I obsessed over. I poured all that into this ‘just for me’ book.

(You can see where this is heading, can’t you?)

Eventually my agent demanded to see it and eventually I gave in. The book launched Stage Two of my writing career. It wasn’t a big or splashy deal, but my editor loved the book and as it moved through the publishing house, enthusiasm grew, so they put a lot of support behind it, especially considering it was a middle-grade novel, which aren’t known for splashy sales potential.

Eight books in two series followed, and while they met with a respectable amount of success, it is safe to say that the series didn’t take off quite like anyone had hoped. As is often the case, the first two books in each series have done very well, but the subsequent ones not so much. I was never going to get rich, and honestly, I’d be lucky if I managed to keep getting contracts.

But there is a freedom that comes with failure—even if it is just perceived failure. There is a sense that we can’t get any lower, so we might as well jettison everything but the most important stuff. If my writing was going to have to go back to being a hobby rather than a full-time career, I might as well work on something that totally lit every one of my own personal tilt buttons on fire.

(Now I realize that for those still hungry for their first book contract, this might not seem like a failure, but the truth is, keeping a writing career going can often be harder than getting that initial sale. I’m talking about this partly to show that there is pain at all stages of one’s writing career and to offer encouragement to others who might be struggling after their first book. This is most emphatically not a complaint; I have been incredibly lucky and I know it.)

The thing is, once we have reached a certain mastery of craft, craft is no longer the issue. In order to take our writing to the next level we must embrace our strange, unique, and often embarrassing selves and write about the things that really matter to us. We need to be willing to peel our own layers back until we reach that tender, raw, voiceless place—the place where our crunchiest stories come from. We need to get some skin in the game. It should cost us something emotionally to tell our stories. But many of us who come to writing do so because they were voiceless at some point in their lives, so doing that can be the most terrifying risk of all.

Just as we must dance as if no one is watching, we must write as if no one is reading.

Sometimes the only way we can get to a place where we can do that is when everything else we’ve tried hasn’t worked, or has worked minimally. Years of encouraging “great writing but I’m just not passionate about it” type rejection letters. Languishing in the mid-list. Or having a career tank altogether. Sometimes, when you have nothing left to lose is when you finally have the courage to stop holding back.

And so I began yet another side project. This one assembled from an idiosyncratic collection of parts that could only be found in my own mental junk drawer: assassin nuns in Medieval France. For teens, no less. How obscure and random was that? How unmarketable? Surely that was the sort of query pitch that would be mocked at writers’ conferences for years to come!

(You can see where this is going, can’t you?)

PhotobucketThis week, the third incarnation of my writing career is launching. And it is launching with much greater fanfare and more publisher support than I have ever dreamed of. (Who knew teen assassin nuns would have such universal appeal?) I have been sent on a pre-pub book tour, and a small pub tour. The book has gotten five starred reviews, was number three on the Indie Next Spring List, and is the Amazon Best Book of the Month for Teens. Even Certain Big Chain Stores have gotten behind it in a big way—in spite of less than spectacular sales of my earlier books.

But most importantly, I am not the only one this has happened to. Laini Taylor, Megan Crewe, Jennifer Neilsen, and Kimberly Griffiths Little. All of them were all mid-list, middle grade authors and all of them took some really big risks with their writing, taking it in a whole new direction.

And it worked. They all got great deals—pre-empts and auctions with lots and lots of zeroes—and a phenomenal amount of publisher support. Not because of their platform. Not because of their Twitter followers or number of Facebook friends. Not even because they were shiny new debut authors. But because they wrote a really amazing book that sprang out of their own unique, crunchy selves.

So it can happen. It can even happen to you.

Do you have a post-debut success story you’d like to share? We’d love to hear about it–whether it be your own or someone else’s.

Learn more about Robin and her latest novel, Grave Mercy, by visiting her website and her blog, and by following her on Twitter and Facebook. Write on!

Photo courtesy Flickr’s Lincolnian (Brian)


About Robin LaFevers

Robin LaFevers is the author of fourteen books for young readers, including the Theodosia and Nathaniel Fludd series. Her most recent book, GRAVE MERCY, is a young adult romance about assassin nuns in medieval France. A lifelong introvert, she currently lives on a blissfully quiet hill in Southern California.


  1. says

    “Just as we must dance as if no one is watching, we must write as if no one is reading.”

    Love this! As one of those still searching for that first contract, I am inspired. While trying to sell my work, I’ve actually already written stuff that wasn’t really for anyone else. I’ve only recently allowed a few to peek, and they seem to be connecting with the crunchiness. Who knows? Maybe I’ll run with it. The other route has led nowhere.

    Despair abandoned. At least for the weekend. Thanks, Robin! And best of luck with the book. It looks perfect for my nieces and I to share, so that’s three more copies sold.

  2. says

    I can’t be accused of introvertedness. I am anxious to discuss and promote, excited to be in the spot light. I blog, I tweet, I think I’m a writer. But I haven’t had the courage to submit even one query letter for one of the two novels I’ve already completed.

    The stories are not exactly personal. Only some scenes, some phrases, some feelings echo my own. But when I write from that tender, raw place I have visions of the people I know reading my work and saying, “um, hello?”

    I may still have that note-passing lesson in my head: “don’t write down anything you don’t want others to read.” GULP.

    Thank you for encouraging freedom and bravery and exposure.

    • says

      I know the feeling – and alas the only solution is to do it anyway.

      Although personally, I’m cheating a little bit: my son doesn’t like that one of the characters in my novel gets killed, so I’m writing him an extra chapter in which she fakes her own death. Shhh…

  3. Melanie says

    That’s wonderful news! Congratulations! Note to self: keep the crunch in my story.

  4. says

    What a wonderful post—especially this: “In order to take our writing to the next level we must embrace our strange, unique, and often embarrassing selves and write about the things that really matter to us. … It should cost us something emotionally to tell our stories.”

    Thank you for sharing this, Robin!

  5. says

    WOW! Congratulations on the third wave of your writing career, which looks AWESOME and BEAUTIFUL.

    I’ve been having this realization lately…I’m finishing my second tour through the Query Trenches, which means I’m facing putting another novel in the drawer. My WiP is something that will probably never sell, that I’m pretty sure publishers, and therefore agents, would have no idea what do to with. But I can’t stop writing it. The idea and world and characters won’t leave me alone.

    So, with literally nothing to lose, I might as well write it and query it, right? Like you said, “There is a sense that we can’t get any lower, so we might as well jettison everything but the most important stuff.”


  6. says

    Oh, I want to stand and clap! I think I will. What a wonderful story of trying and trying again. I admire you. Thank you for sharing this. I wish you outrageous success!

  7. Betsy Thompson says

    Thank you so much for that eloquent post. It’s been a rough week and you just made it immeasurably better. I’m wishing you monumental success with Grave Mercy. I’m going to order it immediately.

  8. says

    Thank you for this post! I’m just starting my contracted career, and it’s a scary, stressful world. It’s wonderful to hear the success stories of other writers, despite their many ups and downs. Your new book sounds fantastic, and the cover is wonderful.

    Kudos to you for following your heart and reaching deep:)

  9. says

    In order to take our writing to the next level we must embrace our strange, unique, and often embarrassing selves and write about the things that really matter to us.

    I cannot tell you how overjoyed I was to read this post. Yes, yes, yes! You got it! Everything I’ve been writing and teaching for the last eleven years: breaking out requires breaking in…into yourself.

    I hope every member of the Writer Unboxed community will read this post. (You’re an introvert? I’ll tweet for you.) This is an invaluable look down the road. When you’re desperate to be published, it’s hard to imagine the slow death of being “midlist” eight books along.

    As a literary agent with thirty-(mumble-mumble) years in the business, I’ve witnessed this anguish many times. It turns to anger at agents, publishers, the whole conspiracy of “traditional” publishing. Authors see blame everywhere except on the blank screen.

    But you…you had the courage to face yourself and stop writing what you thought you should write in order to be successful. You broke away and now you’re breaking out. I’m thrilled for you. I am buying your book today.

    Would you like a job co-teaching workshops? Oh wait…you’re going to be too busy now! Maybe you could do the WU community one big favor: tell us what, apart from following your heart and passion, has been the biggest breakthrough for you in terms of technique?

    Again, congratulations and thank you. WU community: This is a post to print out, pin up and re-read regularly. I know I will.

    • says

      Hi Don! Sorry I didn’t answer this sooner but I was out doing launch events all day yesterday and by the time I got to a computer this poor introvet’s brain was fried.

      One of the biggest influences in getting to this place has been your books! And I was lucky enough to attend one of your workshops! Truly groundbreaking stuff and Writing the Breakout Novel and Fire in Fiction are my two most dog-eared, worn out reference books. :-)

      But I also think it takes time to fully apply the principles. We think we are drilling deep, but initially it isn’t as deep as it could be. So it takes drilling down in small incremental steps that allowed me to acclimate to the sense of exposure gradually. I’ll have to think a bit about which specific techniques led to that…

      Also, Barbara Samuel’s amazing voice class really helped me get in touch with my core voice and recognize the story I simply had to tell.

      Thirdly, it was having a publisher who believed in me and my work. This new YA is with the same publisher as my other books and their support has been incredible. They were definitely willing to help me grow my career.

      • says


        Barbara Samuels? Will definetely check out her class on voice.

        I’m delighted you found a supportive publisher, too. This happens more often than authors might think. It’s true that some imprints are numbers driven. (Weak sales last time out? Sorry, but…) But there are superb, caring editors all over this industry. They get too little credit.

        It’s interesting what you say about acclimating to a sense of exposure. That’s natural enough. Actors must train for that, why not writers too? You’ve given my something to think about here: not just performing at breakout level but the fear of the high wire.

        Glad too that my workshop and books have been helpful to you. Can’t wait to get my copy of Grave Mercy and enjoy the storytelling strength you’ve clearly found.

  10. says

    I know several writers who had contracts, and published numerous novels, to be back where I am (non-published), and who are basically starting over. It is kind of scary to see, because getting a contract isn’t an immediate success of epic proportions, it’s just one of the stops along the many of writing. Your post is a good reminder to me to remain true to yourself, your writing, and keep going. Congratulations, and I love the idea of assassin nuns!

  11. says

    “Just as we must dance as if no one is watching, we must write as if no one is reading.” What a wonderful, beautiful concept. It’s certainly worthy of frequent quotation.

    Thanks for the inspiration. Best wishes for your new book!

  12. says

    Priceless advice: “Just as we must dance as if no one is watching, we must write as if no one is reading.”

    I am much more comfortable writing bizarre stuff knowing only a few people are reading my work.

  13. says

    Robin, thanks for such an inspirational post. As an introvert I can identify with your journey. It took perseverance for you to get to this point and I admire you for sticking with it and following your heart. Best of luck with your new book.

  14. says

    Hi Robin,

    Your book sounds terrific. Can’t wait to read it. Thank you so much for your post.

    “…but the truth is, keeping a writing career going can often be harder than getting that initial sale. I’m talking about this partly to show that there is pain at all stages of one’s writing career….”

    Thank you for this, especially. It salves the pain just to have someone acknowledge this. I am launching the second (or is it third?) incantation of my writing career, find the joy, finding the courage, is a daily part of the job.

  15. says

    Thank you, Robin for this inspiring reminder. I have the utmost admiration for you.

    It is hard for something who is still working to land that first contract to hear how things don’t get any easier. But what you wrote about failure and being true to yourself will be something I’ll come back to repeatedly.

    I love both Nathaniel and Theodosia, and will read Grave Mercy. In fact if you decide to write about space monkeys, I’ll write about them!

  16. says


    You’ve been a source of inspiration since I first discovered Shrinking Violets. (I miss reading you there very much, btw.) This post is like hearing from an old friend, who knows just what to say to encourage you. Thanks so much, and I can’t wait to read your newest book!

  17. says

    Nun assassins. Love it. Congrats on the great reviews!

    I was so happy to read this today, because while I’m spending time reading blogs, I’m supposed to be finishing the final edits to my second novel. Which isn’t much like my first at all. I’m afraid the dozens of readers who loved my first book will be mad at the genre jump, but I’m going with it.

  18. says

    As a writer who has received those “great writing but we’re not passionate about it” rejection letters, and is trying again, thank you for the inspiring post. It made my day!

  19. says

    This is a very inspiring story, and indeed I admire you for reinventing yourself multiple times. You also have echoed some of the sentiment of my mother regarding new authors – I’m self-publishing these days and my mom is my publicist. With about a 100 person readership for my first book “Solitude” my mom thinks it is madness to write and put two more out there. I write like I’m possessed – or insane.

    I haven’t had your courage as I haven’t even approached more than the one publisher (who turned me down because of course my books are adult horror fiction, not young adult). I have been a coward, I’m glad to hear bravery pays off – but I echo your sentiment: it is a challenge at all levels. But you’re doing well at something you love. That makes me smile.

    I am so reposting this article. :)

  20. says

    It’s very telling to me that I copied (and of course attributed it to you, Kate) your quote about digging down deep inside to get to your crunchy stories. (I keep a list of inspirational quotes for writers that I like to refer to.) Then I read all the responses where a lot of people also mentioned that quote. It is so true. Thanks very much for a great post! My mother always said, “Find the truth.” Not tell the truth, but find it. You have, obviously. Kudos!

  21. says

    This dovetails nicely with Don Maass’s Writing The Breakout Novel (which I’m reading now), but you added powerful insight: “Sometimes, when you have nothing left to lose is when you finally have the courage to stop holding back.” It’s absolutely true, at least for me. I’m a debut author, still in the final throes of revision and polishing before querying, and right now I’m at that point where I’ve understood my novel is good but not great–and I want it, *need* it, to be great. It’s too easy, as beginners in this, to buy into the belief that a novel needs to be certain things in order to shine, and we forget that it’s all about “not holding back”, about delving inside, digging deeper, letting that secret story pour out–as if “no one were reading.”

    Great, great post. Thank you!

  22. says

    Brilliant post. Thank you.
    I particularly love this:
    “It should cost us something emotionally to tell our stories.”
    I think that’s the benchmark. If it doesn’t cost you something, if you don’t absolutely have to tell this story, don’t do it.
    Find the story you really do have to tell.

  23. says

    My second chance in writing came when I began writing poetry about 5 years ago, something I never thought I would do. In addition to helping me share thoughts and feelings that I never would before, the experience has introduced me to a whole new world of people and places. In addition to writing, I also read regularly. I have begun pairing my poems with photographs that I take. I took a jazz poetry workshop that inspired a new love of that music and its performers. I also had the opportunity to lead a discussion about Ekphrastic Poetry, poetry inspired by the other arts. Becoming a poet has truly been a life-changing experience for me.

  24. says

    Oh, Robin, I’ve been a fan since meeting you as a Cherry, and the Shrinking Violets has long been a favored site. So glad that drawer-filing part of you decided to take a risk. That it’s been rewarded seems like karmic justice.

  25. says

    I really connected with your blog, Robin. I too am a multi-published, midlist author who could have gone on writing my bread-and-butter books but who decided to be bold and unconventional and write something that came from a very deep and shadowy part of me. I am so glad that your courage and commitment to your craft has paid off for you – I love the sound of your book (medieval France always does it for me!) and I look forward to reading it. I hope it does brilliantly well for you.

  26. says

    Oh, this does my heart so much good!

    So many of my clients and other writing friends have been struggling of late, shakily tiptoeing along this imagined tightrope between what was in their hearts and what they believe their agents/editors/readers want them they do. So scared of falling.

    Or flying.

    I am passing this along to every sentient creature I know. It’s beautifully expressed and exceedingly well-timed.


  27. says

    Thank you for this jolt of inspirational reality. Yes — that’s what I need to do, write so that it costs me something, dig deep into myself for the crunchy parts, and write out of them.

    I am an emerging writer and want to speak to kids like the kind of kid I was, the on-the-outside-looking-in kids. To do that I MUST get past the surface, and write from the crunchy, difficult to face parts of myself.

    I also am writing an adult novel that is a labor of love. I have no idea if anyone will read it, I just know I have to write it.

    Thank you for the freedom to do so.

  28. says

    This gives you hope that you can write for the rest of ur life and make money if you find a niche to write in and re-invent yourself. Do you find @ Rachel that as your writing changed it was because of your life or because of just your public? Becuse what I get told a lot is we don’t like what you have written. And yet I am slowly but surely gaining a following. I am branching out into other avenues to look at and I do virtual book tours which increase your traffic to your blog I believe. But for right now its only blogs and the book is ready to go but I am changing the cover. Even they say it might not sell. I am not happy bc I want to sell it to make money. And I am not expecting a lot of money but just a little. @ Rachel- which do you think is harder for the writer- to reinvent oneself or the story? I really think this article is good for us all.

  29. says

    Thank you, Robin! For a pre-published writer, this is maybe the single most encouraging blog post I’ve ever read. I find myself writing what I always “thought” I should write but have found myself stretched in a different direction lately. Wondering if that is the real road I should travel. Your story has lit a fire in me and I’m going full-speed ahead.

  30. Mary Incontro says

    Beautiful, inspiring post, Robin! I echo Donald Maass’s request: what has been your biggest breakthrough in terms of technique? Thanks!

  31. says

    Thanks for encouragement. I know I will need it as my career meanders along. I’m reminded to mine the deeps instead of giving up.

  32. says

    Great post. J K Rowling said something similar – something about being at the bottom and how freeing that was.

    Thanks for being brave and for giving me hope. Happy 3rd life!

  33. says

    Robin, for me it IS still a mastery of the craft but your point still hits home with me. Thanks so much for this insight. I also want to compliment you on your cover. AWESOME! AWESOME! AWESOME!

  34. says

    Beautiful cover and I LOVE the idea of an assasin nun. It’s pretty badass! LOL. It’s so vital that we dig deep and seize those “crazy”, creative ideas and run with them; if not to fufill a sort of longing within, then to take risks to feel alive and to see what may happen. Congrats on your release and thank you for sharing your journey with us!

  35. says

    Sometimes, when you have nothing left to lose is when you finally have the courage to stop holding back.

    Wow. Thanks for this. It’s so encouraging to hear your story.

  36. says

    A lot late to the party thanks to crazy weekend, but I just want to say two things:

    GREAT post, Robin!


    I LOVED this books and absolutely cannot wait for the rest of the series. Congratulations on the great reviews!

  37. says

    Thank you, thank you, thank you! Even though I’m not a published author yet, (well, not a published book author!), your post gives me hope!

    Thank you for your honesty and for taking the time to share with others about your trek through the writing life. Thank you.

  38. says

    I loved this post. I’m a career teacher-librarian who has always written. Maybe I’ve taken the ‘write for yourself’ thing too far… I haven’t sent enough out, despite a filing cabinet of manuscripts!

    I was especially impressed when Donald Maass chipped in because I’ve found his books inspirational too. Holly Lisle also teaches much the same message in her courses.

    Congratulations on your continued success!


  39. says

    I am so happy for you, Robin, and I love that you wrote this. I have been a big Shrinking Violets fan for a couple of years, and my students have loved your chapterbooks. I am thrilled for your newfound third career.

    You are an inspiration. You deserve all the success that Grave Mercy will bring to you!



  40. says

    Thank you so much for this post. My favorite part = “It should cost us something emotionally to tell our stories. But many of us who come to writing do so because they were voiceless at some point in their lives, so doing that can be the most terrifying risk of all.”


  41. says

    I love Robin, I love this book, and I love this post. I love it when success happens to talented, kind, and awesome people. Thanks for inspiring me to be a little crunchy, Robin.

  42. says

    Thank you so much for writing this post!!

    …and this: “But many of us who come to writing do so because they were voiceless at some point in their lives, so doing that can be the most terrifying risk of all.”

    I can’t wait to check out your book. xx

  43. Heather Tomlinson says

    Thanks for a brave and lovely post, Robin. Judging from the comments, a whole lot of us in internet-land are grateful for both your honesty and encouragement!

  44. says

    Bravo! Thank you so much for sharing your journey with us! Sometimes our thoughts are so bent on getting that first deal that we forget it doesn’t make everything better once we do get it. Writing is work no matter how far along the road we are. If we don’t love it, it can destroy us.

    I love your advice to write from the “unique, crunchy” part of ourselves. That’s where the true stories lie . . . but it’s hard to work up the courage to write from those places (I’m an introvert too). =)

    Congrats on all your books (I’ve loved every one of them and will continue to love your writing)!! And thank you again for your honesty and inspiration.