Becoming a Roses-Smeller


Genetically, I am not a stop and smell the roses kind of gal. I wish I were. I have tried to be. But genes are a weird and powerful thing, and my DNA says I’m more of a “sprint past those roses and think, ‘gosh, I bet those would have smelled nice'” kind of person.

I envy the roses-smellers of the world. Those who don’t worry so much about where, precisely, they are going, how long it will take to get there, the distance between semi-clean restrooms. I envy those who don’t worry about packing sufficient, fiber-filled snacks for the road. About packing mittens and sunscreen and Chap Stick and breath mints, just in case. I envy travelers who believe that the real joy in any journey lies in getting lost. I don’t care for getting lost. I’m just someone who appreciates knowing where she is at all times.

So it’s interesting to me that I am a writer. Because (and you may have already noticed this) for most of us, the road to publication is long, meandering and surprisingly indirect. Restrooms on this journey are sporadic. Cell coverage is spotty. Perhaps for lunch, the only thing for miles is a dicey-looking gas station manned by a hungry-looking fellow named Russ who sells me a bag of Funyuns for a buck nineteen.

The funny thing? I knew it would be tough to get published. As a no-name without fancy connections or credentials, I was aware the odds were small and low. I knew this.

But I was someone who Accomplished Goals. I was a High Achiever, a Hard Worker. When I got my first agent four years ago, I really and truly believed my hard work and goal-accomplishing would result in a book deal. Most likely a huge book deal that would allow me and my husband to travel in South America for a year or two. A book deal that would allow me to get an unlimited data plan for my phone and a new laptop that wasn’t missing the F12 key. I had done my 10,000 hours of practice, and while getting a novel published was hard, I figured it was hard for those who hadn’t worked their tails off.

Yes, you know where this is going.

Here’s the weird thing: while there has been no book deal, there has been so much more than a book deal. While I find myself on a journey I didn’t intend or initially want, I am overwhelmed by the number of roses I have encountered along the way. And oftentimes the scent, when I pause and notice, smells even better than book deals, new laptops or South American sabbaticals.

Some days, of course, the journey totally stinks. It stinks so bad that I truly wish I had never allowed myself the opportunity to get the writing bug. I wish I had never told anyone I was working on a novel.

But on a lot of other days, the journey is joy-filled and thrilling. Instead of that book deal, I have had an unexpected (and necessary) four years of practicing my craft. Four years of learning how the publishing industry works. Four years of studying constructive rejections, trying to see how I can improve my work.

Four years of waiting has allowed time for skin-thickening treatments and frequent gut checks. Four years of receiving encouraging “keep writing, and please let me see your next book” rejections from dozens and dozens of editors. Four years of figuring out why I write. Four years of reminding myself why I write. And re-reminding. And re-reminding some more. Four years of accepting this truth: I can write a book that agents and editors love, and it still might not sell.

Four years of exercising my Hope muscles. My Trust muscles. Four years of getting humbled and persevering and learning. Four years of learning to balance hope and realism. Four years of feeling grateful to those who still ask, “Hey, what’s going on with the writing?”

Four years of learning that the real miracle of writing a book is just that: writing a book. A complete book. The miracle is not getting published so quickly. I see that now.

So what’s next? My agent is pitching my second book. I am working on my third and trying to catch whiffs of whatever rosey foliage grows under dreary December-in-Seattle skies. Meanwhile, my craft keeps improving, I have time to pay writerly kindness forward and backward, and my Hope and Trust muscles are so massive I might get drafted by the Seahawks.

As for my hungry-looking friend, Russ? Sometimes I actually let myself get a little lost on this windy road to publication, just so I have an excuse to pull into the service station, fill up my tank, and share a bag of Funyuns and some drip coffee with Russ. Coffee and Funyuns? The smell’s even sweeter than roses.

Your turn. What have YOU learned or experienced as a result of not-so-immediate gratification? What have been some silver linings on your road to publication? Please share, dear friends and readers, so we know we’re not alone on this journey.


Photo courtesy of Flickr’s Michael W. May.


About Sarah Callender

Sarah Callender lives in Seattle with her husband, son and daughter and is currently working on a novel titled BETWEEN THE SUN AND THE ORANGES. Sarah is a terrible house-cleaner, a lover of chocolate and hats, and a self-professed cheapskate who has no trouble spending money on good chocolate and hats.


  1. Jeanne Kisacky says

    Thank you for a beautifully balanced view of the life of an unpublished writer–the joys and the terrors.
    It was just yesterday that I was telling a friend that the act of writing is a relatively calm and invigorating endeavor, but that seeking publication is a crazy rollercoaster of terror that may or may not make it back to the start. I think this writerunboxed community is the best way to develop those Hope and Trust muscles that keep us on the rollercoaster rather than flying off into the nether depths. Thanks for being my ‘personal trainer’ today!

    • says

      So true, Jeanne! The act of writing and the business of being a writer really couldn’t be more different. And I LOVE the idea that strong muscles keep us on that roller coaster. Seems to me that we all need strong abs for this gig.

      I love riding this roller coaster with you! And you’ll have to excuse me if I puke here and there. Just a little. I’ll turn my head. :)

  2. says

    Beautiful post! Through writing, I’ve learned patience (not my forte as a litigator), self-forgiveness, and like you, Hope. I’ve also made new friends and have a wonderful, talented writer’s critique group. So there’s that.

    • says

      Yes, Mary, there’s “that.” And “that” is priceless.

      I love the idea of self-forgiveness too. Thank you for sharing . . . and I bet the gratitude you feel for your writing friends is mutual.

      Thanks so much for taking the time to share. Happy Hoping!

    • says

      I KNOW, Carmel! ;)

      It’s almost as if editors are business people! Business people who crunch numbers and decide yay or nay based on projected sales! Sigh. And yet, the journey really is lovely. Most days.

      I so appreciate your comments. You are a great cheerleader. Happy writing to you, dear WU’er.

  3. says

    Bless you for sharing your realizations. Your hope and trust in the process of writing with patience and persistence is a quality that resides in each of us, though we often forget.

    The length of my own journey is providing me with the opportunity to let go of end gaining and hang out in the midst of whatever chaos is on the page. Embracing the chaos is teaching me to get out of my own way. If I savor the discomfort long enough, the calm always rises.

    • says

      Yes, and isn’t it interesting how we are wired NOT to savor discomfort? I get that. I really do.

      But when we are able to rest in the discomfort, we really do build up our various muscles. Thanks for pointing that out . . . I’ll think of you today, as you and I strive to savor the discomfort.

  4. Denise Willson says

    You are singing my tune, Sarah.

    I’ve come full circle. I started (seriously) writing over five years ago. The endeavor was personal, at a time in my life when the escape was needed. Writing was for ME. My first novel got tons of attention and even a publishing contract, and I was elated. Then things fell apart, crushing me like a bug. And when I decided not to sign, and instead move on to the next project, everyone was baffled.
    I needed to get back to why I was writing in the first place: for ME. Sure, it would be cool to get a big deal and have millions share my stories. But I’ve come to learn that if it never happens, I’ve earned something just as valuable: writing makes ME happy. Period.

    Chin up, Sarah, and reach for those sunkissed roses.

    Denise Willson
    Author of A Keeper’s Truth

    • says

      This is so inspiring, Denise! Thank you for sharing some of your bumps . . . it’s so comforting to know that I’m not the only bumpy-roaded traveler.

      Big hugs to you! And good for you for rebounding from the disappointment. What great Hope!

  5. says

    I love reading every word you write, Sarah. Especially love the insight about how it was hard only for people who don’t work hard to get published, not the goal setters and accomplishers. It humbles us all, this process.


    • says

      So true, Barbara, about the humbling that happens on this journey. I think it’s great when a much-published author like you comments on the bumps and the need for humility. Thank you for sharing, and thanks for your very kind words.

  6. says

    Thank you so much for your very personal post. I got into this writing gig in 2009 and never dreamed it would be so difficult to get published. I learned how to write during this time, however, and am still learning. For me, the “trying to find an agent” road is much much harder than the writing itself. But I’ve learned how very determined I am. It sort of came as a surprise to me. I will not give up. Along the way I’m loving the writing and some day it will happen.

    • says

      Good for you, Patricia. I, too, have been surprised to learn that tenacity and determination are, in many ways, far more important than natural talent.

      Good for you! Keep going!

  7. says

    I’m a guy who loves maps. I like studying maps of cities before my first visit. So I’m with you, disconcerted by feeling lost. But I have to remind myself that what I love about maps is imagining being in the places I see represented on them. And studying one route on the map is sure to lead to wondering about the surrounding terrain and alternate routes and destinations. It’s inspiring to look at the bigger picture, to trace the broader connections.

    When planning a route, the most direct is not always the one with the most to see and explore. And the most memorable experiences on any trip are often the ones we never expected.

    So if I’ve been myopic about my writing journey, having fixed my attention on a single route, only to find there are detours and unexpected closed roads, or that Russ may have given me bad directions (in spite of the excellent selection of snack goods), I suppose it’s on me for losing my patience and sense of curiosity when I feel lost. Wherever my detours land me, I need to remember to look around for the silver lining—to delight in the unexpected. I need to remember to find the wonder in seeing the bigger picture and the broader connections.

    Certainly my original highlighted route did not include passing through WU Land, or meeting any of its wonderful inhabitants and fellow refugees and sojourners. What could better than finding friends along the way? I am truly blessed to have stumbled upon this route.

    It’s such a delight stumbling upon this beautiful essay by my friend this morning. Thanks for the reminders, Sarah!

    • says

      Such wise words, dear Vaughn. Thank you for sharing and for offering your empathy.

      And you’re absolutely right about WU not being on my initial itinerary. How could I not have known how much I would need this community?

      Big hugs to you. Let’s share a bag of Funyuns some day. They kind of burn my tongue, but that’s OK. All part of the journey!

  8. says

    You so eloquently have said what I have been thinking and learning the last six months. Especially the part about those expectations for people who work their tales off. :) I guess maybe we all like to think it’ll be different for us. But, like you, I’m learning to keep focused on the here and now of the writing journey and developing those skills that make me a better writer and a better human being. It’s always good for me to remember there is more to writing than publication, and it’s there for me to enjoy if I just stop a while and do so. Thanks for another wonderfully relatable post. :)

    • says

      Yes, Lara . . . is that just human nature? That I think that things will be different for me? That maybe *I* will win the lottery. That maybe *I* will get on American Idol. That maybe marriage will be easy for *me.*

      I guess it’s not a terrible thing as it shows our immense hope. It’s just humbling. And being humbled’s never a bad thing either.

      Thanks for your comment!

  9. says

    Your story is very encouraging, and I relate to it in many ways. Delayed gratification makes the victory sweeter, that I have definitely learned. Learning self-discipline and honing my craft and gaining life experiences make writing better and all go toward creating that silver lining. No book published yet. Two written & in editing phase. But the journey is proving to be crucial in making me into the writer I was meant to be.

    • says

      Good for you, Kari! Two books is HUGE. Take a few minutes each day to think about the hugeness and the accomplishment of the fact that you have written two books!

      Thanks so much for sharing . . . happy writing!

  10. says

    Wonderful post. Understated and honest. I’d expect nothing less from a Seattle girl.

    I break for roses, and have been known to get off into the weeds. Too much focus on the endgame stresses me out, which pinches off my creative flow. I am happiest in my world of writing, where I am in control.

    Ina Zajac

    • says

      Three cheers for Seattle! I hope you are enjoying the warmish weather . . . though I am still using my cats as lap heaters.

      Thanks also for your comments. Yes, it’s so hard when our stories are at the mercy of others. Feels so good when we just having to worry about being at the mercy of our plot and our characters.

      Happy day to you, Ina!

  11. says

    A passage in the bible says “Be still and know that I am God.” I think our Creator had writers in mind when He said that. I first got the bug sometime around 1997. I tried. Failed. Gave up. Rinse. Repeat. Book #4 is on the way to the agent I’ve been stalking for a few years. She’s sweet. She’s only called the police once. But I’m with you. Somewhere along the line I figured out that writing is the reward. Because it sure as hell can’t be the money. Even if you do get published. I tried to quiet (really quit I mean, and I meant it) a couple years ago. My wife couldn’t stand me hanging around and looking all un-writerly, so she made me get back to work. At least it keeps me out of her way and, when I retire, out of the malls (turning into a mallwalker is my greatest fear). Hang in there. Chin up and all that. We suffer together, Funyuns and all. Besides, what exactly do you do with an F12 key?

    • says

      That, Ron, is one of my favorite bits of scripture. Right up there with “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything . . . ” :)

      Thanks for sharing these details of your journey, too.

      As for the F12 key, you are absolutely right. I vacuumed it right off my computer about three years ago, and I haven’t once thought, “Argh! If only I had my F12 key!”

      Happy advent.

  12. says

    That was such a nice essay. So many of us can relate to that long, winding road to publication, and some time ago I did make myself stop and appreciate the lessons learned along the way. Sometimes a rejection made me look again at a short story and realize it was not the best it could be. Other times a note from a reader made me smile and gave me a boost to keep on writing.

    • says

      Yes, and you raise a great point, Maryann . . . the feedback of others can be such a gift!

      So glad you’re on this journey and taking time to put your nose in some roses.

  13. says

    The Journey is a beautiful thing sometimes. I don’t know if I can point to one specific revelation, because the work and the learning is ongoing. For the most part its an enjoyable process and the biggest lesson for me is to just keep at it. I can handle the rejections and the delays, but if I stop the forward motion, if I stop wriiting, stop submitting, stop the journey then that’s when I feel like a failure.

    • says

      Such a great point, Andrea! The momentum is so key for me. I also like remembering that no publisher, editor, reviewer, relative can make me feel like a bad writer. (Though some times that’s so hard to remember!). And when we keep writing, in spite of tough feedback, that’s such a victory.

      Happy writing and persevering to you!

  14. says

    Sarah, good stuff, thorny revelations or not. The vaunted path to publication has more detours, trenches, minefields, and clusterfugs than a map can display. At least for most of us sweatily scribbling scriveners. In so many ways, the writing IS its own reward (he says, massaging his crabbed heart).

    Keep hoping, keep trusting, and keep knocking back the joe with Russ. Your writing has a lot of soul, heart and wisdom. And it’s damn funny too. That bookish bouquet of roses will surely grace rooms soon.

    • says

      Clusterfug. Now THAT is a word I can use around my kids. And if I use it to talk about maps and travel, it almost becomes a social studies lesson. Thank you, Sensei.

      Thanks also for your comment. While I’ve never met you, I feel like I might enjoy a chuckle with you. And maybe a few teary moments. Followed by more chuckles.

      Rock on, mister.

  15. says

    A lovely post, Sarah. I’m thankful for the journey first and foremost, for the time to learn and grow as a writer. I know this is something I will be doing until the day I die. I’ve learned patience. There’s nothing like voluntarily relinquishing control to the Almighty. So I show up to do the work and leave the rest to Him.

    • says

      Fabulous! And isn’t there such freedom in that?

      I recently made a list of “people who’s opinion I care about.”

      On it? God, husband, writing partners, BFF.

      Nowhere was “editor” or “person I’ve never met before who writes nasty comment on my blog.”

      Happy writing to you!

  16. says

    Hi Sarah, I only found you yesterday and absolutely love your essays/posts. I’ve only been writing seriously for 6 months and have chosen the ebook route to Russ and other pit stops :). I have a series of very short stories published and some poetry, but having said that, the journey is no easier than traditional publishing. I must do my own promotion etc, and since I no longer work, it presents challenges, more than I expected before I started! The writing is the easy part! However, I am learning so much, and for that I am very grateful. That is never lost. The more we all learn and experience about our craft, the better we become. For now, words like yours help to encourage and support me, just what I need. Thank you very much.

  17. says

    What does the F12 key do? I’m sincere. I actually don’t know.

    I attended a writing conference about four years ago, and still remember a comment made by one agent about her star author. I’m paraphrasing, but she said something to the effect of, “I’ve known Author G for many years. She was the same person before she sold as when she hit the NYT list. I can pretty much guarantee she’ll be the same person when her career hits a snag.”

    I think that might be a huge benefit of the slow-gratification path. You come at it from a deeper, more grounded place, and you don’t become insufferable or take it for granted.

  18. says

    Oh, how I LOVE this! I think we always crave stability . . . maybe we’re more in control of our “constancy” than we believe. Thank you for that reminder.

    The F12 key was sucked into my vacuum three years ago. I don’t know what it does, but it’s absence makes my computer look a bit beleaguered. And I kinda like that.


  19. says

    Beautiful post, Sarah. I love your wise perspective–one that can only arise from taking that long and winding journey with all the potholes and semi-clean restrooms. If you’d pulled off at the first Holiday Inn and hibernated there, your “travelogue” would read much differently.
    Thank you for keeping’ on. We adore you!

    PS. According to my husband, the F12 key is a function key that can be assigned to do certain things, depending on the type of keyboard you have. Eject, for instance. ;)

  20. says

    Wonderfully written and very inspiring post. The journey is hard, but the growth is in the journey, not the achieving. And, honestly, I think writing is a continual journey, with no destination. There will always be another book, another style or voice to conquer.

  21. says

    Love, love, love this, Sarah!

    What have I learned on my journey of not-so-immediate gratification? That despite the set-backs and having to grow a thicker skin, I have learned that I love writing way too much to ever give it up. And too much to let it be only about what others — agents, publishers and trends — say it should be.

    I write what I want to write. I write for me!

  22. says

    I too have written a book and have edited and edited it ad infinitum. I am shy and not a salesperson so perhaps my romance novel will never get past my computer, but there is such a sense of satisfaction having accomplished it. We all walk a road toward the end of our lives, but it is good to focus during that walk on the things of beauty/joy/fulfillment as well as lessons learned by our stumbles along the way. I LOVE my experience writing my romance novel about twins separated at birth because I am a twin and although she is gone many, many years, sooooo many wonderful things bubbled up in my soul as I wrote. I discovered I too write for me….sorrows somehow get healed and “skinned knees” recover as joys are multiplied. Was this what I was born for? I have no idea, but the experience has filled my spiritual coffers even if my pockets remain barren.

  23. says

    I’ve developed a thicker skin too. It’s hard when you see rejection letter after rejection letter on things you’ve put your heart, soul, and time into… but that’s just the way it is. It pushes me forward and makes me realize I can do better. I will do better.

  24. says

    Sarah – in your own words “My agent is pitching my second book.”

    1) You have an agent! A very small percentage of aspiring writers can say that. You’ve made it past the first, very tough hurdle! Your writing is good enough to find an agent.

    2) You’ve written a second book! Through all the ups and downs of wondering whether your first book would find a publisher, you still managed to write another book! You have tenacity and discipline. Publishing is a business and books are the product. You know how to get a product out the door.

    Not if, but when. You’ll get published. Then you can enjoy a whole other set of ups and downs! :-)