Sixteen years. That’s how long I wrote fiction for young people—seriously, steadily, lovingly—before my debut novel publishes this October.
I’ve learned some things about persistence. I’m excited to share in the hope that it’s helpful to those slogging toward their dreams, too. First, though, I want to acknowledge the privilege it is to write. I mean financial privilege, specifically, among others.
As an unpublished writer, you don’t contact agents or editors until you have a polished manuscript. That means you’ve already spent countless hours—often years—writing and revising, never knowing if someone will read your words or if you’ll earn a cent from your work.
When I took out student loans to return to school to study fiction-writing for kids, my son was 8, and I was a full-time, self-employed magazine freelancer with bills to pay. It was challenging. It would have been much more difficult if, for example, I’d been a single parent. Time is a precious resource for most folks these days, but especially for caretakers and those navigating multiple oppressions.
In 2012 I became terribly ill with two neurological viruses. I was hospitalized for five days, had to quit my library job, and spent a year in bed, unable to do anything, including write. My husband and I were forced to adjust our budget and live on his income. We were lucky we could.
Fortunately, I recovered, but lasting nerve damage and a neurological disorder make it impossible for me to work regularly outside the home now, even part-time. I have plenty of time, which is frustrating because what I don’t have, because of these conditions, is excess energy. That, along with creative bandwidth, also are necessary to write. As I’ve slowly started sharing this part of my life, I’ve met several writers with similar health challenges. Everyone is facing something, I think, and some folks are facing a lot.
With that said and the caveat that your mileage may vary, here’s what I did when I wanted to quit:
• I gave myself permission to quit. It’s okay to take a break—for a week, a month or however long you need or want. (Sometimes life circumstances give you no choice.) It’s also okay to just…stop. Our creativity and stories are important—for ourselves and the world. But there are many ways to share them.
I love to write. Sometimes it’s hard—I’ve been stuck for months on plot issues in my current novel—but it’s a challenge I relish. The part I didn’t like was trying to get published. That’s very different from writing.
• I clarified my goals—the why and how. I was one of those pasty bookworm kids who had to be forced outside to play. Books were a lifeline. I’ve always wanted to write something that touches a young reader’s heart—that entertains and inspires and gives them hope—the way my favorite books did and do for me. That yearning to connect is a powerful motivator.
The next question: How best to reach middle-grade readers? Self-publishing has come a long way, but because parents, teachers, and librarians tend to buy books for this audience, traditional publishing seemed best for me. To do that, I needed to reach out to literary agents, the bridge between writers and editors who buy manuscripts.
• I put on “my big-girl pants” and queried. (Disclaimer: All my pants are “big-girl.”) I didn’t want to be the writer who sent work too soon. (I saw this when I worked for a kidlit agent for six months.) I told myself I’d query when my manuscripts were ready. (They never were.) I became the writer who never sent work.
I sent my first query in 2011 on a dare. I was five years out of grad school, revising my second YA novel, and my friends feared I’d never query. I sent around 25 and received a wonderful response, but all the agents ultimately passed.
I finished the rough draft of what would become Dad’s Girlfriend and Other Anxieties by the end of 2016. By 2018 or so, I’d revised it a few times and started querying. This was the fifth or sixth novel I’d written and only the second I queried. I was shocked at how the query landscape had changed.
Agents I’d known for years sent form rejections. Agents who’d been enthusiastic about my YA didn’t reply. I thought this middle grade novel was the best I’d written, but only a few asked for the full manuscript. I don’t blame the agents. Their obligation is to their clients, and they are inundated with queries. Publishing is a business. Agents and editors have to consider the marketplace.
• I focused on what I could control.
• My novel. One of the things I love most about writing is that I can always improve. After a while I stopped querying Dad’s Girlfriend, gave it to my critique group, and revised yet again. I cut it from about 70,000 words to 55,000 and resumed querying.
• Agent research. After reading about a bestselling author who didn’t find her perfect match until she’d queried around 60 agents, I was determined to query at least 63, as long as I felt I could find that many who could do a good job for me. (Why not 61? I don’t know.) There also were agents I didn’t query. No agent is better than a bad one.
• My attitude. I often thought about a blog post I’d read years ago by Jennifer Laughran—aka Literaticat—a senior agent at the Andrea Brown Literary Agency. She said something like (paraphrasing roughly): Let’s say you’re at a store browsing through a rack of winter coats. A sales person doesn’t rush over and demand to know why you bypassed that blue one. Maybe you love blue and already own three, maybe you hate blue, it’s not a good fit, or not your style. Rejection is a big part of publishing, and it’s not personal. It still hurts, though.
• I reached out to friends. I can’t imagine anyone doing this alone, and I’m so grateful for my writing friends. After one particularly heartbreaking pass, I texted a YA author friend: How do you keep going? Her answer pinged immediately. You do it for your book.
She’d queried 80-ish agents and signed with one of her top five. It took that agent six months to request her full manuscript and another six months to offer representation. Publishing moves slowly—but you only need one yes. I moved my goal from 63 to 83 and kept querying. In total, I queried more than 100 agents for Dad’s Girlfriend. The agent I signed with was new, and she had solid experience working with an agent—and great mentors. (New agents are eager for clients!) She is smart, creative, and encouraging. I can’t imagine a better agent for me.
• I re-defined success. I was hiking with my husband when we stopped on a bridge to catch our breath. When we continued on, I asked if he’d noticed a crushed beer can in the creek far below. He hadn’t. When I saw that can, I told him, the whole beginning of a story opened up for me.
Why would stories come to me if I wasn’t called to do this work? And if, say, the universe wanted me to do this work, why then, wasn’t I published? My mood hit a new low.
After some serious journaling, I realized it’s about community. I’ve been a member of the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) since 2000. For years I’ve advocated for young readers, their books, and their right to read. I love supporting authors, teachers and librarians. As an occasional visiting teacher for a literary nonprofit, I encourage young writers to be fiercely themselves—on and off the page. I’ve given careful feedback on countless novels-in-progress, and this year served as an SCBWI mentor. I’ve received far more than I’ve given.
The way I see it, my job is to show up and do the work I feel called to do, as best I can. That doesn’t guarantee publication or any result, but it doesn’t mean I haven’t made a difference, either. None of us knows the impact we have on others.
“That’s fine,” you might say. “But! I! Want! To! PUBLISH!”
I get it. I do. That’s why I had to redefine success in a way I could control. I couldn’t keep creating if I felt like a failure every day.
• Focus on the joy. I did all these things imperfectly, forgave myself when I messed up, and moved on. I try to make writing as fun as possible. When it’s not, I try to accept where I am in the process and proceed with as much optimism as I can. (Calling a friend, browsing a craft book, reading a terrific novel, and going to Twitter with the goal of encouraging another writer all help.)
I also asked myself: What would you be doing if you already had the perfect agent, if you’d already published a bookshelf of bestsellers? The answer, of course, is that I’d write the next one. That’s the job.
In Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert talks about writing with “stubborn gladness,” choosing to work with “as much good cheer and as little drama as I can…” She wrote with stubborn gladness, she says, before she was published, when her books sold well and when they didn’t, when critics praised her and made fun of her, and when the work went badly and well.
I try to do the same, gladly. Stubbornly. That’s why I’m not quitting.
BIO: Kellye Crocker’s contemporary middle-grade novel, Dad’s Girlfriend and Other Anxieties, was inspired by her surprise move to Colorado and her own anxiety disorder. Her debut novel will be published in October by Albert Whitman & Co. Kellye is a long-time journalist who’s also worked in library youth services and has taught writing at two Iowa universities. She teaches creative writing to young people through a large literary nonprofit. She holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She’s an empty-nester who lives in Denver, where you’ll find her reading, making art, and hiking with her husband and their rambunctious Black Lab, Daisy. Connect with her at kellyecrocker.com or on twitter @kelcrocker.
Headshot photo credit: Laura Carson Photography