Okay, so, we’re discussing the book that changed me life, and, well, I have a weird one. I have read lots and lots of books that resonated and made an impact, for sure, but as far as a book that literally changed my life? Well, it’s a book that I wrote, and a book that you’ll never, ever read because looking back, it’s so, so bad. But that doesn’t mean that writing it wasn’t well worth it. Here’s why:
About five or six years ago, I wanted to branch out into fiction from magazine writing. I felt that itch that novelists (and aspiring novelists) often feel and sat down and banged out about half of a novel. And then I got stuck. Very, very stuck. Probably because up until halfway through the novel, the events somewhat mirrored my life, and once I reached the point where, um, I had to actually make the stuff up, I felt paralyzed! Sooo…about a year or two later, I was determined to finish that sucker, and thus, I put my head down, wrote the second half, and voila, did I think the book was perfection! I had basically scored and cast the movie (not to mention written my Oscar acceptance speech) when I started shopping around for an agent. And land an agent, I did. Only she couldn’t sell the book. She came close, but in the end, a close sale isn’t a sale at all, and that was that with this (genius! Or so I thought) manuscript.
Now. How did this experience, this book change my life? In a couple of ways. For one, it proved to me that I could finish a novel. Starting a novel is easy. Finishing it is not. But I had the stamina to do it, and this meant a lot to me, as I knew that I wanted to keep writing fiction. For two, the book was a master class in many, many things that you shouldn’t do while writing a book. I learned about exposition. I learned about showing, not telling. I learned about creating conflict for your characters, about how important it is to make your heroine likeable. These were all things that, to be honest, as I banged out on my computer, I hadn’t really thought about. I just wrote. And wrote and wrote. And while the sum of it equaled 300 pages, many of those pages were not very good. More ways it changed my life? My agent grew lukewarm on me, thanks to the non-sale. And I faced a very scary decision of leaving her and finding someone new, or sticking with an agent who maybe didn’t believe in me. It was probably the toughest professional decision I’ve ever had to make. And, not to toot my own horn, but I felt like it took some guts when I ultimately walked away and landed with someone who truly was (and continues to be) my ally. So having had this experience taught me to trust myself, to listen to my instincts and not to let fear rule my decisions. I walked away, and my new agent sold a new manuscript that my old agent had said (and I quote) that, “Taking this out will do more harm than good for your career.” Not only did she sell it, she sold it at a four-way auction and the book was published in 2007 as my debut novel, The Department of Lost and Found.
How else did this book change my life? It showed me that failure isn’t always a failure. Yes, my book hadn’t sold, and yes, it was devastating. But what could I learn from it? What could I take from that experience and make myself a better writer? Asking myself these questions helped me land where I am today – working on my third novel after my second one hit the NY Times Bestseller list. It also taught me that sometimes, failure is for the best. These days, I thank my lucky stars that this manuscript hadn’t sold. It wasn’t my best work…it was terrible, in fact! But I look back on it with fondness because I know, oh do I know, how it helped me become the writer who I am now.