Good Hurt

Alicia BessetteHow’d I get my book deal?

Simple version: I got a sharp agent.

Extended version: A few years before she died, the great Octavia Butler visited Bryn Mawr College, where I worked. In the assembly hall, a student raised her hand and waxed eloquently about Octavia’s sparkling talent. Octavia’s response was something like (I’m paraphrasing), I’m not talented, I work hard.

When she first started out, she woke at 2 a.m. to write, before reporting to her job as an inspector at a potato chip factory.

It was probably my Yankee roots, but her notion that hard work trumps talent inspired me. My life didn’t resemble hers. But I could still work hard.

At that point, I was spending two hours a day riding commuter trains. Which meant — factoring in time lost to motion sickness and walking between Eighth and Eleventh streets for connections — I read about a book a week. I read a little of everything, fiction and nonfiction alike. I soon adopted the belief that just about any book — even those I slog through or abandon after a few chapters — can teach me at least a little something about the craft of writing.

Meanwhile, I workshopped my own fiction with a writing group, a handful of likeminded college friends. For about two years, with their guidance, I worked on the same two short stories. One eventually earned a handwritten rejection from the editor of a respected literary magazine, who called my fiction “tonally successful.” I happy-danced when I read that.

The other short story won a contest and was published in Yankee magazine. I happy-danced again, and sent Octavia thankful vibes.

After that publication, nothing really happened. I kept writing and submitting but, aside from a poem published in a small journal, I received no love. Years went by. Then, in 2007, I was rejected by eleven graduate-level creative writing programs.

Yeah. Eleven.

Two programs accepted me, and those acceptances felt good. But I wasn’t sufficiently excited about either school, so I shelved the MFA plan, and instead wrote a novel that just about every literary agent in the world rejected. (More on that experience here.) A few agents emailed to say that I came very close. One agent wrote, “keep writing.”

I clung to those emails, little flares of hope. Roland Merullo once told my husband to “celebrate every step” on the path to publication. I think that’s sage advice, and I think “good rejections” are a step on the path.

Even those good rejections hurt. To coin a phrase, it’s a good hurt. Getting rejected desensitized and humbled me. Too, it tested my mettle. I wanted a book deal. I wanted it bad. So I kept giving myself chances. And eventually, I got an acceptance. A big acceptance, the only kind that really mattered to me: a book deal.

When All Come Home scored me an agent, I celebrated by calling a few friends and loved ones, and then I took a nap. I woke up when my brother-in-law Micah knocked on the door bearing The Glenlivet. Then I resumed the nap.

When I learned that Dutton would publish All Come Home, Matt and I silently hugged and swayed for about two minutes in our living room, donned Phillies red, and went to a game. The next day I called my mom and told her, and she cried. I called my dad, and he got weepy too (though he’ll never admit it). I called my sister Annie, and she yelled, “shut up!” like Elaine on Seinfeld, and I could hear the enormous smile on her face. And my brother Rob kept repeating, “Totally awesome. But I’m not surprised.”

Unlike Octavia Butler, I never rose at 2 a.m. to write, before going to inspect potato chips. Turned out, “working hard” for me meant working through rejection. I’m not alone. Many published authors received hundreds of previous beat-downs—if not from MFA programs or literary agents, then from magazines or publishing houses. And no matter how much or little “natural talent” you have, writing a book is a sustained effort, carried out over months or years. So is getting it published.

So, to sum up: How’d I get my book deal? I do the same as many others in my situation: I read my butt off; I write, rewrite, and submit; I get rejected; I believe the positive messages encoded in “good rejections”; and I celebrate — and share — every step.

I use present tense because, even though I have a book deal, the journey’s not over. And in the years to come, as I grow and evolve, I’m sure I’ll be adding to that above how-to list.

~Alicia Bessette

P.S. The book Your First Novel by Ann Rittenberg and Laura Whitcomb is a bible for many aspiring authors. Happily, Laura will be our guest this Saturday, October 24.

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20 thoughts on “Good Hurt

  1. *Eleven* MFA programs rejected you??? On what planet does that make sense?

    I think you just gave hope to a lot of rejected people!

    And I feel you on the present tense thing. I feel like a different kind of newbie now. I’m a newbie to writing a second book and a newbie to promotion. I haven’t even begun being a newbie to attempted career longevity! There’s always something to learn.

  2. Hi Alicia,

    Look at this saying by Albert Schweitzer:

    Success is not the key to happiness. Happiness is the key to success. If you love what you are doing, you will be successful.

    That is the way you work and that’s why you are successful!!

  3. These pieces you are writing for the Deb are consistently excellent and full of good advice. You are a wise lady and your success is well deserved. I look forward to reading these each week. Keep up the good work. And Go Phils!

  4. I hear you with the rejections. I amassed over 300 rejections from agents. But all it takes is one YES. That stands as one of the best phone calls I’ve ever received.

    And yes, it’s always a “present-tense” journey–thrilling, humbling, and full of surprises.

    Can’t wait to read All Come Home!

  5. another great post! i was rejected from 10 programs and it didn’t sting as much as some of the agent rejections. but i know what you mean by the good rejections. still, it’s hard to stay motivated. a job at the potato chip factory sounds like the right balance to the writing life. you know how I feel about that one Butler book I’ve read, but she just won a ton of respect from me. i mean, how do you INSPECT potato chips? “That one looks delicious. so does that one. and that one.” They’re potato chips! of course they’re delicious!

  6. Wonderful story! I agree with you and Octavia. It’s flattering when people want to credit my talent but the sweat and tears went into the hard work part, and let’s face it, that was much more difficult. Whatever “talent” I might have had nothing to do with me, after all.

    And I also love that about celebrating every step. So much of this business is heart-rending and stressful that we should grab every chance to celebrate. (I popped cheap champagne when I hit a particular sales number according to Bookscan. The number itself was totally arbitrary, Bookscan not even a complete picture…I just felt like I needed to celebrate something!)

  7. Alicia,

    You are such a great inspiration to anyone working toward a dream. Find those glimmers of hope and use them to improve your craft!

    We are all so very luck that you kept at it!

  8. I love your description of your family members’ varying reactions to your good news. Sharing your success makes the triumph that much sweeter. It’s clear that your moment was partially their moment, too.

    Your story is pretty inspirational, Alicia! It takes a pretty tough person to see the good in a rejection letter.

    Go Phils!

  9. If a writer reads… and reads everything… even outside their comfort zone… then they have in effect created their own MFA program. Writing and editing and facing rejection… still part of the MFA program. Sitting at the desk every single day even when you don’t feel like it? An MFA program. A writer writes, and while the rejections from the MFA programs stung – they weren’t an indication of talent, even though in a dark hour of doubt they are easy to beat yourself up over! I’ve often found that the best work comes when you face your worst fear, then stay in that place and continue to write. Which you obviously did.

  10. I’m laughing over Evan’s comment – perfect description of a potato chip inspector (maybe sampling for quality control was also involved?)

    This is such a great, inspiring post!

  11. Your Yankee roots have served you very well! Hard work trumps it all as in the end it is reward in itself. Still have that copy of Yankee Magazine and agree with Rob…I am not surprised. And to quote my 86 year old mother in law who has just started following your blogs (although still not really understanding what a blog actually is) “I like what she writes!”… and so do we.
    PS…gotta love that brother in law.

  12. Good hurt? Quoting one of Alicia’s favorite lyricists … “Sometimes love don’t feel like it should.” I used to roll my eyes whenever someone said, ‘You need to suffer for your art.’ I don’t do that anymore. The wise Roland Merullo also told me that you are in a relationship with your writing. The more you give to it the more you get out of it. But like any relationship, there are highs and lows. (Everyone should read Roland’s work. Alicia and I both loved BREAKFAST WITH BUDDHA and IN REVERE IN THOSE DAYS. Those two are probably our RM favorites.)

  13. Another excellent post. And I’m trying really hard not to make a comment about what those 11 rejections say about MFA programs!

    When I called MY mom about MY good news, it went something like:
    ME: “You sitting down, I have some news.”
    Mom: “You and Susan are pregnant!?! Hey, everybody, Kenny and Susan are …”
    ME: “NOOOOOOOOO!”
    Mom: “Oh. What is it.”
    ME: “My book’s getting published.”
    Mom: “Oh. Oh well. Congratulations.” (But she said it like she meant it at least!)

  14. You knocked it out of the park again, Al! I so look forward to this weekly bout of writerly inspiration. Thank you for sharing the bit about Octavia Butler and your own experience. I think a lot of people romanticize the notion of being a writer, when writers know that even though we are in a relationship with our work (Q and RM), most times it is far from romantic! It is like every other relationship, and the best ones challenge us and make us grow through love and tears. I think every single writer has to define what it means to them to be a writer, and we all have to map out a plan and make it happen. Talent is nothing unless you are willing to put in the hard work…. I’ve learned that one!

    I LOVE good rejection letters, and the bad ones haven’t bothered me lately. One of my mentors said you will receive 21 rejections before you receive a yes. I am grateful; I am published on a monthly basis in multiple places (the beauty of being a freelance writer), though non of it is fiction or book-related…yet. I know I have to just shift my focus, work hard, and continue to be inspired, and it will happen. I received a really nice rejection letter for my children’s book. And those letters–the good ones–get the own separate rainy-day file.

    Thanks for sharing and for connecting through your experience and your words! You truly are an inspiration! Keep going and keep on writing!

  15. Thanks so much, all! There’s a very funny & inspirational piece about rejection in the current issue of Poets & Writers magazine, entitled “Go the distance: What Rocky taught me about submission” by Benjamin Percy. I recommend it. (I also recommend A LITTLE LOVE STORY by Roland Merullo!)

  16. Today was the most glorious fall day, featuring a blue cloudless sky, 70 degree sunshine and trees dressed in the most brilliant reds, oranges and golds. I thought of you, Alicia, and hoped that you were enjoying the same day.

    Wind and rain will sweep in tomorrow night through Saturday when the change will take place once and for all, but that’s the good news. Because after fall, winter, spring comes summer and ALL COME HOME…I can only imagine how glorious that will be!

  17. Such a great post! I had a similar MFA experience – 12 rejections, 2 acceptances, and not enough funding from either school to make going an easy choice. Now, I’m glad I didn’t go, because I think the writing process I set up for myself worked out well for me. But at the time – so devastating. Although it is a good way to get used to being put through the rejection ringer, huh? And it is all about working hard (and some pig-headed determination). 🙂 I love the Octavia Butler story!

  18. I thought about an MFA program, but college was enough red tape for me! I’m glad it all worked out for you. You have great determination!

  19. This has been another consistently awesome post! Your stories of “pluck” (persistence and luck as you coined it) are a source of entertainment and encouragement to both the writers (like my husband) and the non-writers (myself) of the world 🙂 Keep rolling with these wonderful blogs!

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