The Perfect Storm of My Failures, and Elle Woods

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I received an email from Maria’s Bookshop today, the local bookstore in Durango where my two novels have — up until this weekend — been offered for sale.

The email was to inform me that my books have been pulled from the Local Authors Shelf, and the store needed to know whether I wanted to pick up the unsold books from the front desk, pay to have them shipped to me, or have them donated to an unspecified location here in town.

Of the original merchandise I delivered for sale, Maria’s has one remaining copy of The Etiquette of Wolves, and two remaining copies of Love and Student Loans and Other Big Problems. Which means I have three books to pick up.

This was not an easy email to read. It was the standard form letter Maria’s sends to all authors in my situation, the authors who don’t sell enough work for their books to keep taking up space in the shop. I read the email as such, and I knew not to take that email personally.

And yet.

Within minutes, the logical, businesslike reason that serves me so well, so often —

Well, it pretty much crumbled and tore away like paper in the sea. I lowered my head, and I stared at the wood grain of my tabletop a long while.

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Because the sense of absolute failure just built and built like a storm all around me, like I’d accidentally stumbled into a hurricane that was once known as my work space, but was now the sight of Typhoon Heartbreak, also known as Guess What, You Fail.

I admit that I am at my most fragile as a writer when I am querying literary agents. Which I’m doing right now. And this Saturday, I was able to receive feedback on just how poorly-worded my current query letter is. If you are interested in seeing my abysmal query, and the constructive criticism I received to improve it, you can read that here.

I’m tremendously grateful to author Mindy McGinnis for her thoughtful feedback, delivered free of charge, for the sole purpose of simply helping a stranger attract the interest of a literary agent. Mindy’s blog is a labor of love, a light in the darkness, and I’m definitely putting her advice to work in drafting a new letter.

That still doesn’t mean realizing how flawed my letter is becomes any easier to hear. I thought that was my best letter yet. Turns out, I’m still no better at querying than I’ve ever been, maybe even worse, which explains the rejections and silence from lit agents concerning my newest novel.

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The manuscript is still under revision, as the entire book has only been read by two people — my alpha-reader, April, and my #1 beta-reader, Adriana. As a writer, I’ve learned you have to choose people who have a huge amount of forgiveness for being forced to read severely flawed drafts. April and Adriana forgive me a LOT.

Adriana finished reading my newest novel about ten days ago, sent me all her feedback comments, and I spent all of last week writing nonstop, trying to fix the entire book. While I didn’t need to scrap the entire manuscript, the way I did with the first draft of my mer novel, this book was still so deeply amiss from what I’d intended to write, that I felt massive embarrassment. The kind of shame that makes it really hard to forgive myself, how I’d failed so hard at something I put so much time into, that I would need approximately 98 hours of writing time to fix it. (No exaggeration on the number — if anything, I rounded down.)

This past Saturday, I completed my edits, then sent the book to my second whole-book beta-reader, Jen. And when she’s finished reading, I’ll have her feedback, and a new editing process will begin.

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So here I am, with a flawed manuscript, a horribly flawed query letter, and a critique partner who sat me down over the weekend to tell me the following —

“Look, Melissa. I hate to have to tell you this. I don’t want to tell you this. But you need to know. Your writing just isn’t good enough to sell. Your stories are boring. You’re just not good enough to make it. Why don’t you do something you can actually be good at? Like copyedit? You’d make a good copyeditor. Why not do that? Because I just… well, I’m sorry. I know you think you can make this work. But the truth is, it’s just not going to happen for you.”

Which felt a LOT like being Elle Woods in this scene from the fabulous movie, Legally Blonde — the scene in which Elle realizes the love of her life, the smug and supposedly good-looking Warner, still views her as someone who isn’t good enough to date him. (You can watch that scene here — and sorry I couldn’t embed the video in my post — that capability was disabled for this particular clip.)

The truth hits Elle hard, as she faces what she hadn’t wanted to face when Warner originally dumped her. After a moment of stunned silence, she says, “I’m never gonna be good enough for you, am I?”

The audience knows Warner isn’t good enough for Elle, not the other way around. But from Warner’s point of view, he thinks he’s being kind to Elle. “You’re not smart enough, sweetie,” he says. You’re never going to make it. Give up now, baby. “You can do something more valuable with your time,” he insists. 

Anyone who’s seen the movie knows this is the moment when Elle really grows, as a young woman, as a human being, as someone with a higher purpose in life than pursuing a love life. The moment when Elle stops wanting Warner, and starts to want something bigger and better — it’s the moment in the film when Elle makes a new dream.

And it’s a pretty badass part of the movie —

 

People love this moment in the film, for good reason. Because the movie cannot end with a victorious Elle if she had taken Warner’s advice and done “something more valuable with her time” than go to law school.

The email I received from Maria’s Bookshop today hit me at a time when I felt very much like everything I’ve done so far as an author has added up to a whole lot of nothing. Like Elle, who’s gotten into law school, only to find that Warner STILL has no interest in her — that was me with my books at Maria’s. “Nope, people still don’t want these books, come pick them up or we’ll drop them off at the thrift store.”

Do I let Warner tell me I’m never gonna be good enough, or do I say, “I’ll show you how valuable Elle Woods can be!”

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We all face these moments. Elle loses only when she gives up. Failure doesn’t make her a failure. The choice to give up or not was the only moment that mattered. The big happy ending is cake. Watching her sweat and struggle is what makes the whole movie so great.

Typhoon Heartbreak sucks. I came so close to crying today. And I hate — HATE — crying over my author failures.

But a louder voice in my head than “Guess What, You Fail” said, “Pull your sh*t together right now. This isn’t the end of the road. This isn’t the end of anything. Dream bigger. Dream better. That door is closed now. Leave it closed. Find the window.”

“And keep dreaming.”

So that’s what I did.

 

14 thoughts on “The Perfect Storm of My Failures, and Elle Woods

  1. It is very poor form for any writer to tell another that they should give up, that you aren’t good enough. What bull. Story and style are so objective, what one person finds awful, another loves, so how in the world does one person have the gall to decide? History is littered with artists, writers, painters, movie makers, actors that have a mountain of rejections and we’re told they’d never make it and then went on to do great work. Stephen King was called a hack for decades and that man can STORY. Do not let this person dictate your art!

  2. What Adriana said! Do not give up those dreams. If this is your Elle Woods moment (oh man do I enjoy that movie) then you take your smarts, come back with the stellar intelligent zinger and you walk away with your head held high to do amazing book things. I’m devastatingly sorry about your books being pulled from Maria’s though and truly know there will be a moment down the line when they are embarrassed about having to beg you for more copies to put back out there.

    Shimmies and hugs!

  3. Yeah! To heck with that critique partner! Honestly, from the stories you post about them, it sound like they’re just transferring to you what they think about themselves. Well, add to that a heaping helping of self importance, their own lack of talent, and writer jealousy, and you get to be the poor person looking for a good critique but accidentally wandering into abuse!

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RDjCqjzbvJY

    (Hmm, as for Elle, I wonder if there’s any fanfiction where Selma Blair’s character from that movie crosses over with Hellboy?)

  4. Mellissa….I just finished reading 2 of the most compelling works of fiction I’ve read in a long time. They were written by a young author who lives in my old home town, Durango, Colorado. I am a devourer of current fiction and these 2 reads were worth all of my time reading and pondering the direction of the plot lines and everything else that comes with a good read.
    Please keep writing like this, you will improve and succeed as you practice your craft, as any artist does. We artists are a curious race, we listen more to negative criticisms than the positive ones and can be very insecure regarding our craft and talent. We inherently understand that the gift we have is to be shared with the world and so our self worth is tied to their acceptance of that gift. So I’m here to tell you that these 2 books of yours succeeded in striking me to my heart, more than any of my recent reads, I know they were written from your heart.
    Thank you again for sharing them with us. I can tell you gave a lot of yourself to us in them both. Can hardly wait for your next to hit iBooks so I can read it, too!
    GW

    • Thank you, GW!! It really means a lot to me to read your response to this post. I appreciate your words a great deal. Thank you <3

      • It was no big deal writing to you about this post. I’ve been where you were with my craft and I just wanted to encourage another craftsperson to continue on. I really do think the books are way good and am so grateful that you shared them with us.
        Telling stories was one of the art forms my father practiced and taught his children about, having wanted to be an author himself. It is a craft that my youngest son has attempted to pick up, but like his Grandpa, never has gotten far with it. I think that artsy folk mostly like to tell stories wether it’s in a painting, music, poetry, or prose we are story tellers first. Authors are just a little more pure because they can make a church out of words that take their readers on a journey where the readers wouldn’t otherwise go. Such is your book “Wolves”, that whole journey to college that Jimmy took dragged me along to a place I’ve never been a part of. I was not only entertained but educated, also. My whole thought process was expanded from reading that tome.
        And I appreciate it. Thank you from the bottom of my heart for the trip from Colorado to the Eastern US.
        One last thing…please let Greg know that I thank him, also, for sharing you with us. I know he couldn’t stop you, but he could have made it harder for you, that he didn’t speaks volumns.
        And lastly, again keep practicing your craft, I look forward to the results.
        Your friend and faithful reader,
        GW

        • Thank you so much, GW — your words mean a lot, and I read your comment aloud to my husband, so he could hear some praise too. Your kindness and appreciation toward me and the stories I write mean so very much! Thank you! <3

  5. I’ve been trashed so many times I can’t even count them on two hands. I got up, dusted off, got back on and I kept going until I got where I wanted to be–published. It wasn’t what I hoped, so I took the reins in my own hands and I took control and my career is exactly where I want it–on track. I make a little money, a lot of readers see my books and I no longer give two shits about NY. Guess who’s having the last laugh now???? My advice? Shake it off. It’s hard, but this biz is filled with people who want what you have…the ability to tell a good story. And btw, I have 24 5* reviews on the book of my heart, then this one: I must have missed the review that said how raunchy it was. I couldn’t get passed the first couple of chapters. The H only seemed to want to have sex w/every woman he met, and I found the h rather blah. I’ve never read this author before & probably never will again. I didn’t even make it as far as where the action began, so I have no idea how well that was written, but I’m sure the it continued in the same raunchy way. This book needs a disclaimer on it for language & sex scenes.

    • I think that quoted review was left by a troll, D’Ann — and definitely not someone who is in your target market. I’m glad you don’t take reviews like that seriously! And I’m *really* glad you didn’t give up, you took control of your career, and are making money with your work!! You’re at a place I am still aiming for, and your example gives me hope! Thank you!! 😀

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