A regular reader recently wrote to ask if I might write a post about an experience they’d recently had.
This author worked with a professional on one of their stories who was very helpful, and very complimentary. The pro offered to help get the manuscript in front of some other industry professionals’ eyes.
This is the kind of dream offer that doesn’t come around very often: a champion who believes in your work and in you offering to actively help connect you to the often-elusive gatekeepers. The kind of help and connection that can set an author apart from the slush pile. So of course this author was extremely excited.
And then…nothing. The offer never materialized, and eventually the author let it go, feeling disappointed and confused about what had changed.
We spend a lot of time in our writing careers talking and thinking about rejection, harsh feedback, or even the black hole where you submit your work and you hear absolutely nothing back. Those are common challenges of any writing career.
But what do you do when the opposite happens? When your work is praised to the skies, or an answer comes and it’s a yes, or some other hopeful, positive sign, and then nothing comes of it? It’s often more crushing never to be offered the cookie at all than to have the cookie held in front of you, fresh and warm, and then snatched away before you can take the first bite.
If you’re anything like me, you may immediately start to wonder what changed. What did you do wrong? Did you overstep? Did the person, on further reflection, realize your work’s not that great after all, you big imposter, you? Were they messing with you? Leading you on? Just like in dating, ghosting can be the harshest way for a relationship to end, leaving you with no answers, plenty of questions, and lots of self-doubt and pain.
Because this sort of thing isn’t uncommon in this business, it can help to first understand some of the reasons it might happen, and then figure out practical ways to cope when it does.
Why It Happens
Generally in this business, as in most of life, I don’t think people are out to actively hurt anyone or mislead them. Agents, editors, and other pros are all generally in this line of work because they love story and writing and authors and books. Everybody pretty much dreams of finding the next [insert bestselling author here]. Really, they’re all pulling for you to be that person. Every submission they read, they are hoping as hard as you are that it’s exactly what they’re looking for.
And sometimes, if they find something that does have potential, that’s the Holy Grail. Or at the very least they hope it could become so. Or maybe they simply want to help and encourage a particular author with great promise. And with every good intention, they offer their high praise and maybe make big promises.
But then perhaps they are overwhelmed by their crushing schedule. Maybe their situation changes in some way. Maybe they didn’t get backing from the rest of their team or the other departments in their company—in modern publishing decisions are often made by committee. Maybe their mood shifted, or they overcommitted elsewhere, or they simply realize they overpromised what they can deliver.
It could even just be sheer forgetfulness. This happened to an author courtesy of me recently, when a writer friend told me about her current project and I mentioned an agent I knew of who might be a good fit whom she could submit to when she was ready.
Many months later, when my friend finished the manuscript she came back to ask me again for the name and I’d completely forgotten who I was thinking of. Perhaps this feels like a broken promise to her, when really it’s just menopause brain. (Try explaining that reason to an author when you’ve inadvertently dropped the ball. But for the record I did own up and did not ghost her.)
But the crucial thing for you as the author to realize is that it’s not you. Generally if someone liked your work enough to offer you encouragement or hope in the first place, you’re doing everything right. It just wasn’t in the cards at this moment with this person for this story, for a myriad of possible reasons you cannot know.
But whatever the reasons, in each case the legacy you’re left with as the author is the same: confusion, loss of confidence, dashed hopes, and profound letdown. What are you supposed to do with all that?
How to Cope
It’s not the most fun reality of our business, but this sort of thing is likely to happen to you, and more than once. Creating a lasting writing career means finding productive ways to deal with these realities.
- The Happy Harsh Truths of a Writing Career
- What Do You Do When the Worst Happens?
- A Rational Antidote for Emotional Thinking
- Understand why it sometimes happens and realize this is simply a normal and unavoidable part of this business. That understanding alone can rob these events of a lot of their sting.
- Because of #1, above, adopt a set-it-and-forget-it strategy. Years ago when my mother and brother taught me about investing, they said to treat all the money I put into my investments as sunk costs. To think of it as money already completely gone, as a way of insulating myself against the market’s constant rise and fall and keeping myself from ever touching the principal. The same philosophy is often touted for saving: Commit a certain amount to “paying yourself” and treat that money as gone forever.
I’ve always found this philosophy helpful with things like submitting to agents and publishers too: I send out my queries and then I forget about them. If I hear back it’s a delicious surprise, and if I don’t, no big deal. I’ve already let go of the result.
- But follow up when you need to. There is not one thing wrong with following up on any submission, or a promise, or an offer of help. Generally people make you those offers in earnest and they meant them, before life got in the way. So it’s perfectly fine to kindly, politely send a gentle tickle.
Keep boundaries in mind however, as well as the many limitations on these professionals’ time, and keep your requests brief and only occasional. The quickest way to get any kind of offer of help rescinded is to badger the person who made it. But offering a gentle reminder to a colossally busy person who may simply have accidentally let you slip through the cracks is often greatly appreciated.
- Remember it’s not the end of the world—or your writing career. This business is full of opening and closing doors. It is one of its most prominent characteristics, regardless of how successful an author may become. You may be on top of the mountain at one moment, but you assuredly will find yourself knocked off of it now and again and crawling your way back to the summit. That’s just the way this industry goes. (Read most of my How Writers Revise features to see how common this is among even the most successful writers.) If you miss one opportunity, another will come. The authors who succeed are the ones who simply stay in the game and wait for those opportunities, and swing at every single one. Don’t take any of it personally.
- Have a life. Last week I talked about remembering that you are much more than just your writing career, and I mentioned actor Martin Short’s “nine category” theory of happiness. When your writing category is floundering is a great time to dedicate your focus on some of the other categories that make your life meaningful, like loved ones, or other interests and passions. Don’t let one person’s opinion or action undermine your happiness or your whole life.
And do for others–support other writers (hear how Liz Fenton and Lisa Steinke reminded themselves of that in the in-depth interview we did about their recent writing struggles), help someone, give back. Throw yourself into your writing community–it’s a proven fact that helping other people is one of the most satisfying experiences and indicators of happiness and good mental health. And in the process you are building your own support network and creating wonderful goodwill among people who will be there for you and perhaps help you find other open doors down the road.
The author who wrote me followed up with the person who’d made the offer of an introduction, and then when they still heard nothing back eventually let it go–because sometimes that’s all you can do. But they also took it as an opportunity to spread their own wings a little more, trust themselves, and keep looking for the next opportunity—because often that’s what you need to do…the hidden little gift of resiliency inside every setback and challenge.
As the author beautifully put it, “It’s time I worked solo for at least a year, maybe more, maybe forever, in my journey to trust my own instincts. Trees do make a sound if they fall in a forest and there is nobody there to hear them!”
Over to you, authors. Have you experienced this kind of letdown in your career? How did you handle it without letting it derail you? Are you involved in the writing community, and do you give back and support others?