Dear Writer: You’re Not Special

You know the stories, you hear them all the time: That award-winning author over there — she has three shelved manuscripts; and that novel everyone’s talking about was rejected dozens of times. It takes years and it takes failure — you’ve heard this, you know this. But you also know you’re going to be the exception. You’re fresh out of college and you’ve declared yourself a Writer, and you think you’re special.

A year later and your novel’s ready — finally. You learn how to write a query letter and send thirteen (personalized, of course). You send them in white 9x12 envelopes and include an SASE in each because this is so long ago most literary agents don’t yet accept email queries. On one of these SASEs, you mistakenly attach your hometown zip code to your Queens address, and an early reply is routed to your childhood home. It’s a mountain town of 1,000 people; the postmaster sees your name and hands the letter to your father. One of your first rejections is read to you over the phone.

Actual rejection letter received by the author.

Later, there is a close call, which you misinterpret as a sure thing because you’re that naïve. Searing disappointment leads you to realize you’re not quite as special as you thought. You think: This is hard, but I can do it. Time passes; you’re revising and cutting and making the book better, and still the rejections come. There are the effective rejections too, the ones that against all reason feel the most personal: silence. Dear Writer: You’re not even good enough for my assistant to send you a form letter. Dear Writer: I’m throwing away your stamp. You’re too embarrassed to keep track of numbers. Your family learns not to ask you about your writing more than once every few months, and when they do it’s in a tone of, “Is it okay to talk about this?”

You don’t know what to do. You see two options: Self-publish or apply to creative writing programs. You decide that if so many people are saying no there must be a reason, and you want to know what that reason is. Plus, self-publishing isn’t respected yet, and you retain just enough of a belief in your specialness that you want respect. You apply to three local MFA programs and are accepted to one.

You walk into your first workshop not knowing what the word “meta” means. You don’t understand the appeal of a two-page sentence about returning to the womb.

You’ve never read Proust, or Pynchon, or even Hemingway. You listen to a faculty member say that a novel needs good writing or a strong story, not both, and you don’t understand why people are writing this down. Is that your mistake? Are you trying to achieve the impossible? Whatever you’re doing, you’re certainly doing it wrong — you’re all but laughed out of your first workshop because (it seems to you) your story includes swords and some characters say “aye” instead of “yes.” On one of your submissions, someone writes only, “I don’t read genre, I can’t help you.”

It’s a rough year.

But.

But it’s a big program and you find a handful of writers, fellow students, who don’t laugh, who see more than your mistakes. Who see potential and look for intent. Who try to help you reach it. And you see sparks in their writing too.

You also stumble into an experimental literature class. You read Solaris and think, This is genre, why isn’t everyone laughing at this? Though of course the answer’s obvious. For this same class, you have to write a short piece each week imitating the assigned reading. Letting loose with Beckett you can’t believe how much fun you’re having. It occurs to you that maybe not everything you write has to be in a past-tense close third.

Over the summer, you have an idea for a new novel. A better novel. You’ve spent four years on the other and it’s not working and you’re ready for something new. It’s so exciting to be working on something new. The second year of your MFA goes better than the first. You graduate. You continue exchanging work with the handful of writers who didn’t laugh. Your new novel is coming along so well; this is the one. The first was practice — you didn’t know it at the time, but it’s so obvious now. You finish. Your last line is killer. A few more months of revisions, then you send your first query on your birthday because you promised yourself you would. Just one, but it’s to a dream. In your letter you say how much you love a certain author, how a certain novel is a rare and exquisite example of genre and literary elements blending together in an exciting way — and oh please, won’t you take a look at my manuscript?

Five days later you receive an email via the agent’s assistant saying, yes, she’d love to take a look. You laugh-cry, jump up and down. It’s happening, it’s finally happening! But the email also asks for a full synopsis of the novel, which you don’t have. How is a synopsis different from the summary you included in your query? The book you’ve been reading on how to find a literary agent doesn’t have the answer. Luckily, it’s Friday. You find a website and by Monday have a synopsis that strictly follows that website’s guideline: one page per chapter.

Your novel is over 130,000 words long. It’s a massive synopsis, but you don’t know any better and the Internet said. You send it along with your first 50 pages, as requested. When this “no” comes, it’s the most devastating yet. You’re broken. You mend. You tighten your synopsis, tweak your opening pages, and query more agents.

This time around you keep track of responses on a spreadsheet. You get more positive replies: some requests for partials, even a few fulls. Hope is not lost. Hope is kind of everywhere, for a while. Then more and more of your color-coded spreadsheet text fades to gray. You choose an especially sad shade for “no response — effective no.” You have your moments of despair, of course you do, but with every no — effective or actual — you find a way to make the book better. You do this because you’re a Writer and you believe in this book and, besides, you have no other skills — what else can you do but stay this course which is maybe the wrong course but you chose it and where is the line between persistence and stupidity? You think about quitting, or maybe just scaling back. Everyone says, Don’t quit your day job — maybe you should get another day job? You left your waitressing gig because it felt like a black hole, and now you’re tutoring part-time and you write the occasional freelance press release, but that’s pennies compared to your husband’s income (you got married during grad school — congrats) and there are days you feel like a leech, even if he doesn’t resent it, even if he believes in you.

You think about giving up, but you don’t. You don’t know if this is because you’re tenacious or because you’re trapped. The latter is feeling more and more true. When people ask what you do, you still answer “I’m a writer,” but now you’re saying it like “I’m sorry.”

For all your doubt and fear, you don’t what else to do — writing is what makes you you. So you make the book better and you try again.

And again.

And again.

In the end, it’s your third novel that gets you an agent. It’s your third novel that sells. It’s your third novel that will be your first novel. Between the day you declare yourself a Writer and the day you sign your first book deal, almost ten years pass: a third of your life spent in failure.

It’s worth it, though. What follows that signature, that sale, is a stress-soaked but amazing experience: a whirlwind riding a rollercoaster stacked atop some other cliché and peppered with gut-punches. But it’s all worth it: every rejection, all the tears and despair and frustration, even the gray hairs — totally worth it. You wouldn’t change a thing. Even so, you can’t help but wonder: If you’d known it would be this hard, if you’d known it would take this long, if you’d known the second novel would also be practice… Would you have done it? You fear the answer’s no.

The thing is, though, you did know. Not the details, maybe, but the gist. Because that award-winning author over there — she has three shelved manuscripts; and that novel everyone’s talking about was rejected dozens of times. It takes years and it takes failure. You knew all this when you started. What you didn’t know — what you had to learn — is that you’re not special.


Alexandra Oliva’s debut novel, The Last One, is out now from Ballantine.

Available everywhere, including: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and IndieBound.