The Eternal Almost

ivy under snow in our garden

I got an email this morning from the executive editor of a Christian publishing house. That’s the thing about sending out dozens of query letters: you never actually hear back from everyone, so there are always a couple of stray queries loose in the stratosphere that might—or even more likely might not—boomerang back to you at the oddest time.

I think I sent my manuscript to her sometime last winter.

I remember it was cold.

I was at one of Carl’s hockey games. My friend’s husband’s older brother happens to work at a publishing house and happened to be visiting his family and happened to be at the hockey game. My friend had told her brother-in-law about me, and he  agreed to pass the manuscript on to somebody in the fiction department. The power of connection! I thought jubilantly… before never hearing anything more about it for, well, basically forever.

I could string this out longer, but you’re clever people. You read the title of this post.

The good news… I love your writing. The sad news is that our fiction list is very full.  We rarely take novels set outside of America. This may have already found a home, but I wanted to ask if you have other novels you’re working on that might have an American setting.

“You’re getting closer,” Carl said encouragingly, pulling his coat on for work.

Kind of, I thought, making myself a cup of coffee.

But I don’t have any novels with an American setting. I mean, I could write one. It wouldn’t be that hard. I could write an American novel for this editor or I could write a romance novel for that agent or I could…

And BANG, just like that I’ve hit my head once again against the eternal almost.

Almost right, almost good enough, almost what they’re looking for. But not quite. Never quite. The list is too full; they don’t handle those themes; the plot is good but the characters are flat.

In college, I kept taking psychology electives because I never got tired of learning theories of human behavior (I did, however, have an irrational fear of statistics, which means that while I have more than enough classes for a minor, I don’t actually have a psych minor). I still remember sitting in the classroom while Dr. Ehnis told us that the strongest form of reinforcement is positive reinforcement with variable ratios and intervals.

Or, in other words, gambling.

Pretty sure writing and trying to publish novels is my form of gambling. I guess we all have one, and if I wanted to be nice to myself I could at least point out that mine is slightly healthier than those who gamble by staying in lousy relationships and slightly more productive than those who gamble by buying new lipstick colors. But in the end it’s just gambling.

The eternal almost.

I’m not going to lie. It’s incredibly affirming to get nice emails like that. The rejection-with-a-hook is a siren call to the unpublished. After reading that, I’m going to sit down at my desk today and scheme merrily for a couple of hours about what plots I have on hand that could be made “American” or what agents and publishing houses I haven’t tried yet. Twain said he could live for two months on a good compliment. Maybe I can write for two on the same principle.

At the same time, it’s discouraging too. A few good almosts means you’re going in the right direction/maybe with a little work/keep trying. It’s the eternal number of almosts that gets you kind of downhearted. At some point, it ceases to be something you feel you have any control over. I can revise the book a million times, but I can’t make it perfect. I can write a solid genre book, but I can’t make it all genres at once…

I guess the good news is that—should I ever be successful—it’ll be incredibly easy to be humble about it. I’ve been working this gig for ten years. I get nice rejection letters now, but that’s about it. Somewhere down the line, it eventually comes down to opportunity. Or luck. Or good fortune. Or divine intervention.

I do hope you’ll keep pursuing other publishers.  I’ve been doing this long enough to know that most of success is getting to the right inbox at the right time.

And that’s the secret, straight from the executive editor of a successful Christian publishing house.

Keep trying.

Well, I can do that. To be honest, most of us are currently doing exactly that. In the trying stage, shouldering into whatever huge and semi-impossible task we’ve identified for ourselves, whether it’s writing books or starting businesses or raising children. It’s hard, and it’s not terribly flattering to the old ego, but in the end I guess it’s just that time of life.

Maybe the eternal almost is not quite eternal.

Maybe it just feels like it some days.

I can live with that.

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3 thoughts on “The Eternal Almost

  1. Yes. Yes. Yes. It is not eternal but it sure as heck feels like it. Keep on. Luck or Providence will pull your number eventually. That editor is right…you’re the kind. 🙂

    And just now reading this entry I realized that psychology is one of your interests…like macro biology is for me. We could have both had minors…and we aren’t anything official and it’s not the sort of thing you really *tell* people but it’s interesting and it means something. I always have known you were interested in psychological things and materials but it never clicked for me that you’re a hobby psychologist. 🙂

  2. As my niece (who is sitting across from me right now), would say, ‘what the gosh!” I could never imagine a book being turned away because it wasn’t set in America. Grrr America 🙂 On the other hand, those sound like encouraging comments. The right publisher is out there, I”m certain of it.

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