Publishing · Querying · writing

Don’t believe the dream

“A dream is a wish your heart makes,” sings Cinderella in the Disney movie, “when you’re fast asleep … No matter how your heart is grieving, if you keep on believing, the dream that you wish will come true.”

Okay, I’m not hating on Cinderella here (there’s too much to love about the character of Gus-Gus). Also, the scene where her stepsisters rip her homemade ball gown apart makes me cry to this day.

And yes, I know it’s a fairy tale. But seriously, the lines of that song always gall me.

“Will come true?”

Really?

I wish that believing made things come true. But it doesn’t. All it takes is a little dose of life to teach you that. I mean, there are just so many things that are out of our control. Like meeting the right romantic partner at that perfect moment, preferably when you’re a glowing 21-year-old, un-jaded, free of entanglements and–why not–wearing that perfect dress that makes us look just-so (and, ehem, having someone capture the moment on Instagram, why not). Or having a baby when you envisioned–easily and quickly and at that perfect moment in your career. Or getting that ‘dream job’ that satisfies you on the level of life-meaning and also doesn’t stress you out too much.

Yeah, no. Life just doesn’t deliver dreams on a platter like that. It forces us to leave some dreams aside. And this can hurt, if they’ve really grown into our hearts–think un-anesthetized surgery. I’m talking serious pain. Unfulfilled dreams force us to re-imagine our lives. Bend, and then bend again, and hopefully not break in the process. And then, sometimes, break.

“That’s a grim view of the world,” I can hear some of you saying.

But I don’t believe it is. Hear me out here.

I’ve had the chance this year to do some thinking about the phrase ‘hopes and dreams.’ Those two words are so often paired together, almost as if they were synonymous.

Lightbulb moment for me: they are not.

To me, realizing the difference between the two has been an important part of my emotional health. After being in the doldrums in the early months of 2017, one of my realizations (along with the fact that grey skies seriously, truly affect my state of mind and that I needed to order a full-spectrum lamp STAT) has been: I’ve been hoping in the wrong things. Because I’ve conflated hopes and dreams when they should remain friendly but separate.

Misplaced hope veers you off-course. It takes you down a road that doesn’t deliver.

Let’s back up. So … what is hope?

Hope, for me, is the bright light that I’m walking towards. It’s the vision of the thing I want that propels and motivates me to keep walking every day, to keep working, to let disappointments roll over me and then to keep on swimming. Hope is a direction, a goal, that glimmer of a future prize that makes you happy to be alive and satisfied that you’re working towards something worthwhile. Hope is about what you value–that thing about which you can say, “I want to invest my life and energy and time {or large chunks of it} in THIS.”

Hope is stronger when it doesn’t have a timeline.

Hope births resilience.

Hope is your pair of shoes for the long haul.

Hope is stronger when it’s about a personal journey rather than that very specific (and frequently time-bound) goal that requires the elusive “luck” ingredient. In other words, hoping to become a better writer will have more satisfying results than hoping to make it as big as J. K. Rowling.

And dreams–what are they? To me, dreams are shiny fantasies. They can look suspiciously like hope–that pot-of-gold glimmer that makes you get out of bed and run hard after it until you fall into bed exhausted. But unlike the line in Cinderella, “the dreams that you wish will come true,” so frequently our dreams don’t.

Dreams I’ve had that will no longer happen:

-Being a curvaceous bombshell like Marilyn. Sorry, thirty-three-year-old body, it ain’t in the cards.

-Becoming a world-famous actress. Yep, that dream died the day I stepped on stage at twelve years old, completely fumbled my lines and realized that I hated every part of acting and seriously sucked at it.

-Winning the lottery. (Of course, I’d have to actually play to win.)

See how dreams aren’t exactly dependable, solid-ground type things?

Dreams can be fun. I’m not dissing on dreams. And as long as it’s not unhealthy for you on an emotional level, go nuts in your imagination every now and then. Imagine yourself on the red carpet, or eating sushi on a yacht,  or rocking out on stage with guitar skills that rival Jimi Hendrix’s, or whatever.

Have dreams–but know that they can and will die. Not always. But frequently.

Maybe there’s a reason why the word ‘shattered’ often gets paired with ‘dreams.’ Shattered dreams. Only fragile things shatter.

Hope is not so fragile. Or rather, we should aim to strengthen it so that it can’t shatter as easily as a dream.

When it comes to hope, I find that I’ve got to divorce it from my dreams. For my sanity and ability to run the long race, my hope has to stay rooted in reality–in things I can actually accomplish. Things that aren’t stars in the sky, but earth underfoot. When hope gets tangled into dreams, the disappointments, the rejection, the delays–all that stuff–can become damaging and leave you limping along the road like a wounded animal (read: me earlier this year).

Dream big. But be careful where you place your hope. It requires special care and special safeguards, because it’s the thing that keeps you going.

From my perspective as a writer?

My dream: to get a literary agent in the next few months, followed by a traditional publishing deal within the year, followed by many other book deals in years to come, until I’m making enough to support my family by writing.

My hope: to become a better writer. To grow in the craft of storytelling. To get my work out there some day (which, ultimately, I can decide to do via self-publishing). And to make a little money off of my writing (which I can also do, because my sister will totally by a 99 cent Kindle copy of anything I put out there, so there’s a buck in the bank!–thanks, Erica). And I’m not putting a timeline on any of this, because I think timelines can be real hope-killers.

See the difference?

And what about my ultimate hope?

Well, anyone who’s been following me for a while knows about that.

And I encourage everyone to find that solid ground upon which to plant their hope.

Only firmly planted hope can get us through a life that will include delayed, shrunken or just plain shattered dreams. And this isn’t a sad or cynical view of life. It’s hopeful. We were made to last. We were made to weather. We were made to persevere.

Dreams don’t define you; they come and go. But your hope will define you. It has the power to make you road-weary or road-worthy. So invest wisely.

So, friends. Allow me a battle cry:

Find your hope, plant your flag in it, and march on.

Publishing

The road to publication: if I’d known

This is how I imagined my writing career would go during that wonderful, magical time when I sat down to write my first novel in the late summer/early fall of 2014:

I would write the novel (no problem, I had the first draft done in a month).

I would revise (this turned out to be way fun, so, cool).

I would send to beta readers and revise some more (check, check).

I’d submit to agents (yep, not a problem, the internet is full of information on how to do this).

They would request the full manuscript (this happened too! Things were looking good).

They would fall in love with it and bing-bang-boom, I’d get a publishing deal.

Cue a long and prosperous career, movie deals, etc.

This would probably happen by Christmas.

Um, no.

What actually happened:

I wrote four novels (plus many many other half-finished projects and idea-flirtations ranging in length from a couple pages to 100,000-word forays into stories that, in the end, didn’t cut it).

I queried two of the finished novels (make that “am querying”) (with a year-break in there to have a baby, etc.) until the present day. For non-writers, “querying” means pitching my project and myself via a short email to literary agents who, if they love your book, will agree to pitch it to publishers and sign you on for the remainder of your writing career.

That’s one and a half years of active querying, or overall, two and a half years, if you’re counting.

(Can you tell I’m counting?)

I have received more rejections than I care to count. (Please. Don’t make me tally them. It’s in the three digits).

Anyone who’s been through the querying process has heard all the phrases:

“Not quite right for my list”

“While you have an intriguing concept …”

“Didn’t connect with the characters …”

“Oversaturated market …”

“Didn’t love it enough …”

As of now, two and a half years after embarking on what I was certain would be a quick journey to becoming a published author, here I am, unrepresented and still searching for that agent who will say, ‘yes! I love this story!’ Along the way, I’ve also recognized that neither of the two manuscripts I have floating out there in query-land on various agents’ computers and tablets may land me that effusive love-love relationship that writer and agent must have for their relationship to work.

Which is fine.

Looking back, I was in NO way ready to be represented in 2014. I had a lot of work to do honing my craft, learning about what gives a story good bones, and scraping those early-writer flaws out of my writing (-ings, “just,” “start to,” fancy dialogue tags, and everything the internet can tell you about, too), and I imagine I still do. For all I know, I’m not ready now either and two years from now I’ll be grateful that no one snatched me up.

That said, waiting is hard. Just to give you non-writers an idea of the molasses-speed timeline of things, it can take three months for an agent to respond to an emailed query (sometimes longer!). If she likes your query and requests the full manuscript, it can take up to a year for her to read it (my longest standing full manuscript out there is currently over the eight-month mark). If an agent signs me, I will still need to go through revisions with her, probably for a number of months. Then, she’ll pitch it to publishing houses. Cue another wait. And down the road, I know, there are even more waits. Even if I get a ‘yes’ today from an agent, it will still be years until any book of mine hits an actual shelf (and there are still no guarantees it will happen).

This process is not for those who need immediate gratification.

If I had known it would take this long, be this hard, and involve so much waiting and rejection, would I have started the journey?

Maybe, but with less spring in my step. Maybe, but perhaps with less enthusiasm and drive. Which are some of the ingredients that kept me writing.

I’m so grateful that I couldn’t (and can’t) see the future. I’m even grateful that I started out thinking I could spring up the mountain of publishing like a young goat–because it got me going. It got me writing. Now I’m readjusting. It turns out I’m not a young goat–or at least that the top of the mountain has turned out to be much further and the goat has aged along the way.

I think I’ll be a donkey instead now. Still climbing. More slowly, but steadily (I hope). Ready for the long-haul. Not exactly less hopeful, but with a hardier kind of hope that’s a little broader in its scope.

For all I know, one of the agents currently reading my manuscripts will fall in love and sign me. Though I’m not holding my breath like I was in 2014 (I’d have passed out by now). So for now, I’ll keep plodding, hopefully upwards (though ready for detours).

What’s at the top?

It’s a question work asking.

Is it becoming famous? Making millions?

I’d be lying if I said I wouldn’t love to support my family with my writing. But right now, the top of the mountain is this:

Sharing my work with readers.

Because there’s nothing like putting something you create out there and having someone else enter into your creation and respond to it.

And the thing is, of all the different dreams I could have, that is a dream that lies within my power to realize–whether it’s in two years or twenty, with or without the backing of New York Big Publishing. Self-publishing is a viable option for the future, and I’m finally allowing myself to recognize that. It’s such a relieving thought–that I have that power–and that helps me be patient. Wait another day, another week, another month, another year. Maybe many years.

Thankfully I don’t have to make decisions now. I certainly don’t want to send half-baked work out into the internet–I need more time to hone. Revise. Perfect. See which path opens up and which does not.

The bottom line is that I love writing. I love what I’ve written. And eventually, I will get those stories out there.

But that day is not today.

So right now, I need to write and I need to wait.

Here’s to more writing. More waiting. Then more writing. And–I know–a lot more waiting.