There’s something about firsts. Most of us can recall them vividly. First kiss, first car, first job, first heartbreak. The specifics of time and place come easily to mind, but so do auxiliary details like smell, touch, sound, and taste. The strong feelings attached to firsts help sear these powerful sensory memories into our brains, reminding us of them again and again.
Whenever I smell musty upholstery, I’m transported to the carpeted basement where I had my first kiss. Rain on a windshield = my first agonizing break up. When my husband smells skunk, he’s fondly reminded of his brother and their first roadkill.
Firsts have a way of altering our understanding of the larger world and shifting our expectations. These experiences, when they happen, are wholly original to us and can generate previously foreign emotions. This newness is what makes firsts unforgettable, and they have a way of changing us.
I completed three manuscripts before the one I would ultimately refer to as My First Story. None of the former ticked all the submission boxes—or, The Trifecta of Publishing, as I like to call it: The right story, at the right time, sent to the right editor. The Trifecta is a confusing, complicated, and often infuriating alignment of metaphysical stars. Having a tenacious agent to navigate the maze of trends and acquisitions and editorial desires on your behalf is preferable, though even with an industry-wise advocate by your side, rejection is common.
The first time my story failed to sell, I was standing in the middle of a playground with my young daughter, surrounded by laughing children. I had been so sure the story would sell (it’s fair to say I was blissfully ignorant to the realities of the publishing industry), and I was crushed when it didn’t. I was two miles from home with a stroller, and it felt like the longest two miles I’d ever walked. It was the first time I’d been utterly unprepared for an outcome. Usually I can see firsts coming. This one knocked me off my feet.
After that first rejection, the submission of My First Story dragged on for years. There were revisions and non-contractual edits and complete overhauls, each more promising than the last, each tackled with absolute belief in an improved version of the original. And the story did get better, but it never sold, and I swear a piece of my soul was lost forever in that manuscript. My creative innocence (and ignorance) lived and died with those pages, with the imaginary world I’d created and the characters therein.
I’ve endured plenty of rejections from publishers since that that day on the playground, but because it was the first, it was by far the worst. Luckily, as the ubiquitous saying goes, it gets easier.
There was a time in my literary lifecycle when I had to write every story that popped into my head. Most of the stories I started, I also finished. That obsessive commitment to completion resulted in a few gems… and plenty of junk. It was a learning experience, a period of growth and practice. It also took time. A lot of time. Now that I’m freelancing, I have to prioritize my hours, because deadlines = paychecks. I have to balance personal writing with professional writing. I have to do that thing called time management. Ick.
In September, I realized the aforementioned My First Story needed to be put aside. Yes, I was still working on it. I think it’s similar to how a parent can never quite give up on a child, no matter how off course he or she goes. I kept thinking: I can fix this story. And maybe I can fix it, someday. I hold out hope for it’s eventual publication. But… life goes on. My First Story was draining my creative energy and my time. I had other stories to write.
Three other stories, to be exact. Five years ago I would have picked one of the three, probably at random, and jumped headfirst into the hours of work. Thanks to the Trifecta of Publishing, I now know better. I wrote a summary of each idea, the same way one might write a cold-call-query to an agent. Hit the key plot points, create interest, sell the idea. They were three remarkably different stories. One modern-day mystery, one complex supernatural fantasy, one past-meets-present sci-fi adventure. I sent the list to my agent and basically said, ‘you pick.’
The next day we spoke at length, brainstorming plots, characters, and strategies for each idea. In the end, she asked which story I felt most strongly about. I asked her which story she could sell.
The thing is, I could have enthusiastically pursued any of them. I was excited about all three. It’s highly likely I will write all three, eventually. But in the interest of time, and productivity, and forward motion… I’m starting with the story most likely to satisfy the Trifecta.
My first publishing failure—and the emotional anguish that accompanied it—taught me that while it’s imperative to believe in the story I’m writing, I also have to be able to walk away when it’s not working. If I don’t, I’m denying other firsts the opportunity to happen.