I failed at getting my first novel published and I stopped writing.
I wrote a young adult science fiction novel while also playing Division I college basketball at the University of Richmond. Writing helped me cope with the various pressures and expectations in athletics and academics. Working on that story allowed me to escape when I needed to.
The novel mirrored my darkest thoughts of entrapment and loss of control during the hardest months, when basketball seemed to almost swallow me entirely. I removed those feelings from reality and placed them in my own world to make sense of them.
I finished editing the novel right before graduation.
Quite naively, I can say now, I jumped right into the task of finding a literary agent. I was ready to prove myself as a writer, and at the time, that meant through outward validation. Without truly knowing anything about the publishing process, I pushed forward, determined to find success.
I made spread sheets of potential literary agencies before barreling blindly ahead. I became single-minded in my efforts to secure an agent, terrified that if I wasn’t successful, I would be a colossal failure.
That thought terrified me more than anything else. The fear of failure pushed me.
Over the next sixth months, I sent out query letters and sample chapters. Three agents asked for the full manuscript, but none of them signed my work.
I was devastated, frustrated, even humiliated. I viewed myself as weak and inadequate. A drowning wave of self-doubt overtook everything. That failure was poisoning everything, defining me, defeating me. I stopped writing.
For a while, I floundered, uncertain of what my next move would be. I was afraid to write again. Afraid to become emotionally attached to another story, only to have it slowly die as no publisher accepted it. I didn’t think I could handle another experience like that, so I did what no one should ever do.
I did nothing.
Nothing will fix nothing. Nothing will come from nothing. But still, I did nothing.
It was during this highly unproductive phase of nothingness that two truths dawned upon me.
For so long, I had operated under this pulsating fear of failure, afraid of what would happen if my first novel wasn’t signed. I feared the rejection I ultimately received. All the reasons I was no longer writing stemmed from this need for outward validation.
Strapping on my big girl pants, I stopped being stagnant and addressed why I had failed the first time around. I reopened the document of my first novel and read through it with an analytic eye, dissecting where my writing had been most effective and where it had slipped.
I became a critic, stripping down my writing style. I went back to the basics, studying the craft of storytelling. I devoured literature from an analytical point of view. I became a true student of the art form again.
During this reinvention period it hit me. I did in fact have a story to tell: college basketball, the inspiration behind my first novel.
Now removed from the college athletic sphere, I could tackle that subject matter directly. I did not need to turn reality into fantasy. The reality of balancing Division I athletics as a college freshman was enough of a story.
The narrative was already fully fledged. It only needed writing.
Because I had spent time redefining my writing style, when I took a chance and wrote again, my writing had changed for the better. I felt liberated. The writing felt strangely confessional. Capturing the words on the page freed me. No longer craving outward validation, the constraints and reservations were gone.
I simply wrote.
When it came time to look for a literary agent again, I saw the second truth: I still knew next to nothing about the publishing world. I didn’t understand what went into getting a book published.
The first time, I hadn’t been truly invested in the process. My excitement in having actually written a novel had pushed aside the truth of that matter. Before querying the second time, I made sure to properly do the research.
Now I could see how comical my first approach was. I’m surprised that any literary agents took an interest in my first novel with the haphazard and uneducated manner that I had gone about formatting my query letters. I had even queried a couple of agencies the first time around that didn’t represent the genre I had written!
This time when I began to query about my young adult contemporary novel, I had a different confidence because I took the time to really research the process. I know what I’m doing now.
But equally important, I’m no longer burdened by a poisoning fear of failure. I’ve already failed and it didn’t defeat me.
I’m now embracing not only the idea of failure, but also the act of failing: using failure as a teacher, not as something to shy away from in humiliation. That’s real freedom. That’s success.
Ryann Dannelly is a 22-year-old writer, living in Maryland. While attending the University of Richmond, she discovered her passion for words. When she wasn’t sweating her way up and down the basketball court, she could usually be found in the library. Currently, she’s trying to find a home for her young adult contemporary novel about a teenager balancing freshmen year with Div. I college basketball. To keep sane during the literary agent querying process, she’s working a slew of jobs, including working at a preschool, coaching a high school basketball team, training athletes, and freelance writing and blogging. Her blog can be found at ryanndannelly.blogspot.com. Come and say hello!