What I love about the game UNO is just when you think you’ve lost, the momentum changes and things start to look up. The same could be said of the writing life. Just when you’re about to give up, you can’t because you never know what’s about to happen.
Take my summer. It was a weird one. After spending the spring querying and entering contests and submitting to publications, I had meager results. I had a few manuscript requests from agents, but ultimately, no takers. It was disappointing. Heartbreaking really. To be so close and yet so far from not even publication but just recognition. Most agents didn’t read all the way through to the end of the book. I think at most one read 40 pages. Not bad but not enough to win her over.
I’ve seen my name in print several times so I shouldn’t have felt down but confidence is like a balloon that deflates fast. Rejection kicked at my soul. During the first half of 2016, I had worked so hard. I edited. I submitted. I revised. I wrote more short pieces. But the recognition I craved didn’t come. No “yes” from an agent, no, “yes” from a journal. The world was silent or, in most cases, politely saying “No, thank you.” The hardest days were when I’d receive a few rejections on the same day. Two queries and one journal. Or a contest rejection and then silence on a Twitter pitch forum. Together these messages told me, “You’re not winning here. You’re losing. You’re actually a loser. You’ll never shine at writing.”
Playing the Game
One night this past summer, my husband and I took the kids to our friends’ house. We all played UNO. Our friend, I’ll call him Sam, won twice in a row. This upset my youngest daughter. She cried and complained through tears. “I never win,” she said. It took many back rubs and much encouragement to console her. But because she’s a child, she was convinced she’d never be a winner. Ever, ever, ever. It would always be Sam, or her brother, or her sister (God forbid) who would win. She was convinced she would never shine at UNO.
But in UNO, there’s that moment when the cards can go your way. The pile has a Red 5 on top and luckily you have a Red card. Then the color changes to Green and you have a Green card. You might have a Draw 2 to use on a fellow player. A nicely timed Skip or Reverse. Those are the tiny moments of satisfaction in the game. And then, when you get down to three cards, your throat tightens with excitement. You’re almost there. You keep the cards in your lap to discreetly hide the fact that you only have a couple left. But suddenly, the color changes, and oh, well, you just got a Draw Four from the person next to you. When someone changes the color to Blue, the one color you don’t have, you feel aching disappointment in your stomach.
By July of this year, I was holding those cards. I’d been so close to getting an agent or a new publication, but I hadn’t. I felt adrift. What to do now? Revise the book again? (I did.) Read more writing craft books and apply those strategies to my novel? (I did). Query more? (I did.) Write short pieces? (I did.) I dusted off a short story I’d never sent out and submitted it to a few journals. I wrote a piece and submitted it to an anthology about trees, which was right up my alley. I kept on playing the writing game.
Just When You Think You’ve Lost…
During the previous spring, I had submitted my novel to a contest and two nonfiction narratives to journals. Then I drifted away from the writing life and got involved with the kids, gardening jobs, and other non-writing activities. One day in July, an email popped in my inbox. “Your novel has been selected as a semi-finalist.…” What? I read and re-read the email. I was shocked. Being a semi-finalist meant an established author had read my entire novel and actually thought it good enough to be one of only ten semi-finalists. I walked around in awe that day.
This little “win” gave me a huge boost of confidence. And validation for all of those solitary hours, agonizing revisions, and constant wondering about whether my editing choices were the right ones. I went back to searching for agents and publication opportunities. Then one August morning, I received another email. “Karen, I’d be honored to include this rich and beautiful essay in…” What?! My nonfiction piece was to be included in that tree anthology. I was stunned. Not only was it to be included, but the editor praised the piece. This guy thought I had talent too!
During UNO, there’s always that stage when you finally rid yourself of the extra cards and you sit with one card, watching your fellow players take their turns, hoping the color changes to the card or number you have. Be Green, be Green, be Green, or 4, 4 would be good, you think. Sometimes you draw the coveted Wild card. Perfect. On the next go around, you unload that Green 4 and after everyone groans at you declaring, “UNO,” you wait for your turn once again. Now you’re jazzed because of that Wild card, a card you didn’t expect to get, but one you were about to, if you could just hold on, keep playing the game and wait patiently to receive what you needed from the universe.
Where are you in the UNO game of writing? With a hand full of cards and no “wins” or have you recently laid down a Wild and won?
Tracy Chevalier has published a book about apple trees and I’m jealous. I saw it a few weeks ago in my local, independent bookstore, Third Place Books. (I know I’m a bit late in noticing.) Multiple copies were nested in a large endcap display, sporting images of red apples, in all of its bulky, cardboard glory. The title is At the Edge of the Orchard. Wow, I thought. This is about a man growing apple trees. My book is about a man growing apple trees. Oh my God, Tracy Chevalier has thought up my idea. She’s written my story. Tracy Chevalier has written and published a book about apple trees before I have. And she’s published it because, unlike me, she has an awesome contract, several published books, and a glowing reputation! Ack, I’ll never have a chance to share my story!
Then I came back down to Earth.
I am not Tracy Chevalier. She is not I. I do admire her though. Her use of language constantly blows my mind. It’s insightful, economical. Her plots are thoughtful. Her knowledge of history, immense. And how she has used these tools again and again to create unique books that only she can write impresses me.
A Different Perspective
After my feet were firmly planted back on the bookstore carpet, I thought, Well, that’s a positive. Anyone bringing the natural world to the reading masses is good. Anyone sharing a passion for apple trees is doing us plant nerds a favor. I don’t have a shot in heck of landing Tracy Chevalier’s agent, but I left the bookstore, knowing that agents I do pitch will be more familiar with stories about trees. It legitimized what I think and do.
Now, as I read At the Edge of the Orchard, I smile. Her book is historical fiction for one, set in the 1800s and deftly done, while mine takes place in contemporary Paris and launches from a speculative question. Her story is about family, the frontier, America, the hardship of survival. Mine, to some degree, is also about family but my protagonist dominates the story. Her characters are survivors of early America, mine are multicultural, urban professionals. What we do share is the language of apple trees and reality of growing them. We share the idea of plant exploration, seed collection, the business of propagation. But ultimately, these are only pieces we share, not entire stories.
So, after a blip of jealousy, I feel excited. If and when Harvesting the Sky is published, I’ll share another, more important piece with Chevalier, that of the published realm. What a thrill it would be.