Failure, A True Story

A few days back, while scrolling through my Twitter feed, I came across a thread by another writer – an admission really – about the pain she feels when she walks into a Barnes & Noble and realizes her novel is no longer on the shelves.

Also a few days back, I was interviewed by Noreen Sumpter for her Live Life Your Way internet radio show and for the first time, publicly discussed the pain I feel about the disaster of my Keeper Series* trilogy.

In both instances, the act of standing on the other side of a publishing failure with toes dangling over, looking that failure in the eyes, and sharing it with others was something both the author of that tweet and myself know doesn’t happen too often. Instead, we’re regaled with the stories of JK Rowling, Stephen King, John Grisham, and the like. Best-selling authors – empires built upon words – whose first novels were rejected.** They’re used as literary talismen, legends, beacons of bright light from the shore, intended to keep us writers sailing our ships into the rough and tumble waters of the publishing world.

We need those Rowling, King, and Grisham tall tales because we all love a good story, and everyone wants a hero.

But what of the not-so-famous authors, the ones who don’t wield all that power or garner all those number one spots on the NY Times Bestseller list? What about the writers who never made it? Or those who wanted it, but never found an agent or signed a deal? What about their stories?

I’m one of them. And we don’t talk so much about folks like me.

Part of it – I’m guessing – is that no one wants to seem a cry-baby, or a let’s-burn-some-bridges type. And part of it – I’m guessing again – is that no one wants to discuss the not-very-pretty sides of writing. The unfavorable deals, sluggish sales, horrible marketing. The books pushed to the back of the rack, genre mishaps, poor reviews. As much as I understand that mentality, the desire to ignore the not-so-glam and keep all eyes on the bestsellers, I also know firsthand how stuck-on-an-island-all-alone one can feel when that book deal doesn’t quite turn out as planned. As much as I understand the desire to move onto the next project and keep our disappointments to ourselves, I also don’t.

What’s wrong with admitting if you had to do it all again, you wouldn’t sign that contract? Or expressing despair over the fact you’ve lost a coveted shelf spot in Barnes & Noble? Where is the shame in an open dialogue on false hope and paralyzing insecurity?

I’ve been down the road of pretend perfection, I know its curves and valleys well, I can map all of its shortcuts for you – I did it for years in my marriage. I made sure the outside world believed all was well, while inside I was a disaster. And in the end of it all, a random counselor I crossed paths with in a room of too-harsh overhead fluorescent lights and 1970s fake wood paneling, taught me the importance of sharing my story, letting others know what’s going on in my life, what’s happening. She left me with the following words: if I don’t speak up, no one else can.

I think that lesson applies here, too.

If I don’t share my story of failure, no one else will. It’s my tale to tell. And maybe in its telling, I’ll feel better and leave someone who reads it feeling less alone. Maybe in admitting I should have never signed that book deal – the one that screamed don’t give away the rights to your words to those people –  another writer will remember reading this and will walk away from the negotiation table. Maybe another writer will entrust their book baby to the most capable and enthusiastic publisher – which might very well be themselves – instead of the only one showing some interest.

I don’t know. I certainly hope so.

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Suffice it to say, I signed an electronic-only deal for my trilogy, The Keeper Series, with a small imprint of a major publishing house. It was a complete flop, from beginning to end. Part of that is my fault – I wrote something no one but myself, and maybe five other people, like. But part of that flop lies elsewhere.***

The trilogy was marketed as women’s romance, despite the fact it’s urban fantasy. It was pushed on romance readers and bloggers who 1) wondered why it was in the romance category; 2) hated it; and 3) hated it so much, they couldn’t finish it. (The Keeper Series is the first time I received DNFs on Goodreads. And I’d published five books prior to Dutch hitting the shelves.) I believed the mere imprimatur of the publishing house would open doors otherwise closed, and my books would be surefire hits.

I was so cute and naïve once upon a time.

That, or I was too busy lawyering and meeting writing deadlines to think long and hard about the deal I signed. Looking back, it’s easy to see the Keeper Series had failure written all over it from the beginning. At the time, though, I was just too excited to know better. The summer the trilogy was published, the imprint unexpectedly released many of its authors – I remember hearing the news and crossing my fingers in hopes I was on their list. I wasn’t, and as such, they still own the rights to my words.

Circling back to my radio interview with Noreen, I came home that night cursing the fact I discussed my disappointment over Dutch, Juma, and Death so candidly. I wondered at my honesty, chided myself for venturing into that sacred territory of things-we-shall-not-discuss. I talked it through with my therapist. Twice. But tonight as I write this, I have to say I don’t regret it, or this post, as they are necessary pieces in my writing journey.

I have friends who are wildly successful, immensely talented, brilliant gifts bestowed upon us all. I feel lucky to be alive and present to experience their magic.  But I need to stop comparing myself to them, or to any of the other writers I follow on social media, and focus on me. I need to stop feeling like an imposter, a fake who has no right to call herself a writer. Because like Noreen said during our interview, I’ve licked my wounds long enough – it’s time to get over my hurts and back to my words.

I think she’s right. Sharing my failure helps. Talking about my missteps and foolishness makes it a little easier to swallow. Laughing at myself is good medicine.

And now, it’s time to write.

In his poem “So You Want to be A Writer?”, Charles Bukowski implores, “if you’re doing it for fame, or money, don’t do it” and that’s kept me going the last several months. It’s not why I write – the fame or fortune – but for a few months of my life, it did seem I had one foot down the path of tantalizing possibility.

Oh well… maybe next time.

And yes, believe me – there will be a next time.

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*just-now-discovered fact: if you search The Keeper Series on Amazon – that’s the name of my trilogy – you will pull up everything but my trilogy. And that, my friends, is the definition of a flop.

** I’m not even going to touch the iceberg of rejection-and-perseverance stories in writers of color circles. Not because it isn’t important, but because it will derail me from the point of this post. And because it demands a post all its own.

*** My purely unscientific analysis, of course.

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5 thoughts on “Failure, A True Story

  1. Steel is forged by fire. This is a powerful piece! I think you did a great service to many who have shared your experience(s) in one way or another, but mostly I think you have given yourself a wonderful gift by letting this story out in public and thus freeing you of its tight bounds. Here’s hoping you will fly high on the wings your renewed strength, just like the phoenix. (You know – like our home City, Atlanta – rose again from its ashes.) There’s a bit of heritage from that magnificently strong bird’s mythology that I see rising in you!!!

    • Like they say: you can take the girl out of the South, but you can’t take the South out of the girl. Thank you. I love the idea of embracing my inner phoenix. Even more, when you mention steel. Because I think of blades, and how I love writing women who wield a sharp blade and don’t need anyone rescuing them. And once again, I am reminded it’s time to get back to my words. You’re right – putting my story out there frees me of its hold. Or at least most of its hold – there are aspects of it I’ve kept to myself, mostly because of the whole burning bridges thing, and the fact I would just like to move forward rather than set fire to my past. I’m scared of failing again, but I’m also excited to see what the future holds for my words and myself. xx

  2. You know, Madhuri, Bukowski has always been my favorite writer and I Love Love Love the poem you mention. Just a couple days ago I was writing in one of Jena’s groups that “Achievement” for me, as per writing, had nothing to do with getting my inner self out or expressing myself or some such. I follow Bukowski, whose approach was just “get the damn words down on the paper”. Then you’re done. Okay. It’s lousy. Okay. No big deal. Not really your business. Back to the “typer” and get the damn words down on the paper. That’s how I see it. Sort of like private journalism: just say the who, what, where, when and why and that’s it. Or don’t. Just drop the words down and move on. So failure? Success? There are a lot of successful writers who are idiots, drunks, suicides, jealous a-holes etc. It’s none of your business. Your writing is. For most women (maybe all?), the “achievement” of avoiding failure is a systematic demand to force women in their “place”, helping the Patriarchy keeps its domination. Oh well, time to keep writing. I like you, Madhuri. A lot. You know that. So keep writing. I await your Second book of poetry!

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