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

Photobucket [1]Heads 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 [2]. Robin is a multi-published author and the co-founder of a blog I’ve long admired, Shrinking Violets [3]–a site geared toward introverted writers. Her latest novel, Grave Mercy [4], 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?)

Photobucket [5]This 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 [6], Megan Crewe [7], Jennifer Neilsen [8], and Kimberly Griffiths Little [9]. 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 [2] and her blog [3], and by following her on Twitter [10] and Facebook [11]. Write on!

Photo courtesy Flickr’s Lincolnian (Brian) [12]

About Robin LaFevers [13]

Robin LaFevers [14] is the author of seventeen books for young readers, including the HIS FAIR ASSASSIN trilogy [4] about teen assassin nuns in medieval France and the upcoming COURTING DARKNESS [15]. A lifelong introvert, she currently lives on a blissfully quiet hill in Southern California.