As writers, storytelling is our business and our art. It’s our core skill. Writing is about putting words together to create a coherent tale, taking our readers on an unexpected journey, and delivering a satisfactory conclusion at the end of that delightful ride.
You know what doesn’t cohere as cleanly? Life.
I’m not one of those writers who believes that you absolutely must struggle to be a “real” writer, but the truth is, many of us do struggle. Fiction rarely pays the bills. The real world is a world of day jobs and freelance work, deadlines and utilities, and a host of needs always tugging, tugging, tugging us in different directions. If you’re looking for an agent, it’s extremely rare to get offered representation on the very first try. If you’re self-publishing, you might put your heart and soul out there only to hear a resounding silence in return.
In that environment, it’s tempting to begin storytelling about ourselves.
How many publishers rejected the first book in the Harry Potter series? The exact number varies, depending on your corner of the internet, but that story is such a common one. Faced with rejections ourselves, we want to hear that amazing success can come following repeated rejection.
Can it? Yes. Does it? Only sometimes.
Your number of rejections doesn’t matter. Saying that your work was turned down by 100 publishers doesn’t mean it’s bad, but neither is it a mark of achievement to have racked up that many no’s. The story of your book is a unique story, so don’t expect it to fit some pre-existing narrative.
I read a piece recently about Lisa Genova’s Still Alice, which was initially self-published and then picked up by an imprint of Simon & Schuster to go on to amazing success. It’s a great story, but the article I read was written in an aggressive, anti-publishing way, and it made me think about the stories we tell ourselves and each other. The writer of the piece (not Genova, mind you; from what I could tell she was not involved in it at all) characterized agents and publishers as idiots who didn’t see the genius of Genova’s work, if they even read it. They made it into a story about how publishing is stupid and short-sighted — even though the story of Still Alice very much involves a Big Five publishing house helping to boost an author into the stratosphere.
Self-publishing is a great option for some people; traditional publishing is a great option for others; both might even be right for the same author at different points in their career. Don’t fall into storytelling about yourself and think that working outside of the establishment paints you an automatic hero; nor does it make you an automatic failure if your query gets not a single nibble. Don’t take any particular action with your work because you think it would make a great story. Do what you think is right for you because it’s right for you.
We’re not dots in some big preordained paint-by-numbers image. It can be tempting to draw lines, and to name sinners and saints, but the world of writing and publishing isn’t really populated with heroes and villains.
The real story is always more complicated.