Over the last few months, no less than five writers have said the same thing to me: Tara–you’re my worst nightmare.
And, no, they aren’t talking about my fabulous personality. Or my face (at least I hope not) They’re talking about my writing career. If we’re talking in person, they usually look at me with pity, as if I am going to break any second. It’s the same look I’ve gotten at signings from fellow authors when I sat there staring into space while every author around me had a line.
Rest assured. I’m not going to break. If traditional publishing not ‘wanting me anymore’ or being ‘picked last at a signing’ was the worst thing that happened to me in my life, I’d consider myself a lucky person.
Not much in my life has come easy. I’m quite used to fighting for everything I want…and usually not getting it. And I don’t mean that in a ‘pity me, cry me a river’ way (I’m getting rather tired of people pitying me, actually) In fact, this is why I don’t talk about how I grew up much. I used to talk about it when I was younger, but then I realized people either a. Got extremely uncomfortable/didn’t want to hear it b. Threw me a pity party or c. Used it against me
I also realized that dredging up my past again and again wasn’t helping me. It was holding me back. I need to live in the here and now. That’s not to say I never bring up my past or I shouldn’t bring up my past. It’s what made me into a writer, actually. I’m not shy about saying I was bullied…because I was. But I’ve also never shared how far it went in public. I don’t know if I ever will. I will say I have a character who goes through similar things in an upcoming book. But this book has taken me years to get right….it’s highly personal. Maybe too personal….because I keep playing it safe. Not going there. I really don’t like writing about myself.
Which is why writing this post makes me a bit…squirmy. I feel a little like I’m telling the world I’ve failed as a writer. Even though I HAVEN’T. Let me emphasize that. HAVE NOT.
Since people keep asking when my next book is coming out….here’s where I’m at: Traditional publishers like my writing (or maybe they’re being nice—ha), but they don’t like my numbers. That has made it very difficult for me to sell another book….at least the kind of books I write. I’m being told I need to do something different. And—hey-I’m not afraid of different. It just has to be the right KIND of different. I can only write what calls to me…I can’t force anything. Okay, maybe I can. I just don’t WANT to.
Look, my ‘frowny-face’ numbers are no secret. I’ve brought this up before. My books frequently end up on “under-appreciated/under-valued/little-known” lists. Which I really appreciate by the way! And despite a few haters wanting to me to think otherwise, I know I didn’t end up here because I’m a bad writer or because I’ve ‘failed’.
How do I know that? Well, I still get letters from kids who devoured my books. They tell me things like—a lot of books don’t speak to them, but mine did. Or they are thanking me for writing a character who is just like them or going through what they’re going through. When Amplified received the Honor Award at the Oregon Council of Teachers of English, the organizer said—teens who don’t read like this book. That’s a comment I hear a lot—my books appeal to non-readers, artists, etc.
So how did I end up here? Well…there are probably a billion reasons, most of them out of my control. My stories don’t have mass appeal—I know that. Honestly I wouldn’t know mass appeal if it kicked me in the butt and if I ever do write something that has it…well, it will be an accident. That I can promise I think I also just had bad luck, bad timing, etc. Writing a good book, even an incredible book, will not automatically score you a successful career in traditional publishing. Anyone who tells you differently is either misinformed or sugar-coating it.
I’m proud of the books I’ve put out into the world (Harmonic Feedback, Amplified), but the books I’ve written since are better. The book I’m working on now is better than the one I wrote last year. And I’m not just saying that to make myself feel better—all of my trusted readers, my agent, even editors have told me this.
I have not failed.
And if you are a fellow writer in my situation—neither have you. Unless you’re giving up, of course. You WILL feel invisible. Fan letters slow to a trickle. Nobody responds to you on Twitter anymore Fellow writers you used to talk to nearly every day WILL start disappearing. Many times it’s because they don’t know what to say to you. They’re afraid to talk about their success with you. You probably feel very alone, very much on the outside looking in. But chances are…a couple people have stuck around. THOSE are your friends. Appreciate them. Whatever you do… don’t let this break you. Your writing career doesn’t define who you are. Being a writer is who you are.
For those of you writers who tell me my situation is your worst nightmare and ask how I cope…here’s what I have to say:
Life goes on. You can either go on with it or sit around and wallow. It’s much better if you go on with it. Keep writing. Insist on putting your stuff out there…because, hello? We live in the 21st century. And I’m not afraid to self-publish. Nobody but ME gets to decide when or if I stop writing. Nobody can tell me not to share my stories with the world, if I choose to. And most importantly, nobody can tell me I’m a failure. Only I can decide that.
To the newly published writers out there who are terrified of this happening to you:
It might happen. It happens to a lot of us. If I could give advice to myself four years ago (when I first sold) I’d say—Tara, stop stressing over the small things. Stop worrying about your cover. Or how long it’s taking to get something. Or how other debut authors are getting more love than you. You achieved your lifelong dream. Short-lived or not—fucking ENJOY IT.
If your numbers suck, you’ll deal with it. Because you won’t have a choice. That’s life. It doesn’t mean you have to stop writing. After all, how did you go through life BEFORE you were published? You figured it out, right? You’ll figure it out again.
I figured out what I want to do with the rest of my life (in addition to being a writer, of course) I want to be a school counselor. I want to help teens who struggled as much as I did. I want to be the support I needed in high school. That is also why I write YA…and why I’ll continue to do so, whether New York wants me or not
You want to know how else I cope? Well, it’s not hard when I get sent things like this:
Trust me when I say…no matter how invisible you feel your book is, there is someone out there who got it. Some kid who is so glad you wrote it. Your writing MATTERS.