Updated: Sep 10, 2021
No one really talks about that time gap. We love to share good news and social media is all about being funny and celebrating and getting excited and passionate. Other posts are kind of downers. But guess what? There are a lot to downers in the path to traditional publishing.
I had a blog and I updated it frequently in the first year after getting an agent. It was an exciting time, doing well in #DVpit and getting full requests, taking phone calls, making plans and decisions. It’s like crossing the bridge that has been closed all winter season and it’s now open because the ice and snow are all gone. It’s a new beginning on a path you’ve been wanting to take.
And then you find out that beyond that first bridge is another. This one isn’t as sturdy and there’s no end in sight. Sometimes you think that you’re reaching the end of it, that you’re finally on the other side. Except it’s windy and this bridge is suspended. It sways and you become unsteady, gripping whatever you can so you stay on that damn bridge.
Maybe you’ll fall off. Maybe you have to wait. Maybe you have to get off your feet and onto your knees. Maybe it’s easier if you crawl, but it hurts your knees and dirt gets on your hands. You can’t really see where you’re going and how fast you’re moving. You keep trying and then something knocks you off balance again.
Then you’re gripping the edge, fighting to get back on the bridge. To just stay there for a bit until you feel safer. You’ll get there, but this bridge is a lot different than the first one.
I joined #Twitter back in 2016 after I finished the first draft of my first manuscript. It was weird to call it a book at that time, since it was barely more than a Word document with tens of thousands of words and hundreds of pages. It was an absolute mess and I will be the first to admit to that. You will not catch me looking at the first draft of that book for a very, very long time. Being able to write a whole book-shaped thing didn’t seem like something I would ever be able to do—until the right idea emerged and I wrote.
I wrote and I wrote and I wrote and I realized that maybe I could write and maybe I would get published. Imagine that: going into a bookstore and seeing your name and your stories sitting on the shelves. Someone could pick it up and fall in love. Of course, someone else might pick it up and despise it. I learned everything I could about traditional publishing. I entered the writing community and made friends with people who would inspire and encourage me, but also discovered the drama and the competition and the fact that there are a lot of people who want to get published.
Luckily, #DVpit helped me land my first agent. Together, we revised, then months later, my manuscript was sent to editors at several publishing houses. I was so damn excited that first month.
And then it kind of sucked.
There were several things that happened in the years since getting an agent but not getting a book deal:
I stopped writing blog posts
I couldn’t quickly draft new projects.
I became less active on social media.
I only talked about how frustrated and sad I was.
I didn’t feel like I had the experience to be a good mentor anymore.
I didn’t know if my writing was good enough.
I didn’t know if I was cut out for the industry.
These aren’t unusual or new. It’s quite common but no one wants to post about how unhappy they are with themselves and what they’re or aren’t doing. Why? The world wants us to be happy and excited, hopeful and brave. Are people going to think we want attention and/or pity? Does it seem like I’m searching for validation from others? It doesn’t seem fun.
And it really, really sucks when you can’t find it in yourself to be happy or excited for your friends. It isn’t fair to them. You can’t read the announcements anymore or join in celebrations. You can’t be as enthusiastic as you were before because announcements feel like a kick to the back of your knees. They bring you down hard. And it’s not fair to them or you or anyone.
So we take a step back. We don’t want to bother anyone, right?
Failure tastes like a mouthful of dirt. It’s gross and bitter and it doesn’t do anything good for me.
There are a few things that make traditional publishing difficult for someone like me. For starters, while I am in North America, I live in Canada but am trying to get attention in the United States. I’m from an immigrant family and I’m a woman of colour. I’m Asian, but I’m Southeast Asian, a Filipino. I’m Filipino, but in the diaspora. I’m disabled with severe chronic migraines and treatment that takes a lot out of me and my time. I have depression and anxiety and social phobia. I’m low-income. I’m in debt from student loans. I have little work experience because of my physical and mental health preventing me from working. I never took classes on writing. I didn’t have a lot of creative influences in my life.
There are a lot of reasons why my publishing journey is a little bit more difficult. There are facets that aren’t in-demand or my perspective might not be the kind of perspective they want. I’m not writing books about suffering and persevere because those aren’t the stories I have. The themes and dynamics can be highly specific and hard to understand for someone who doesn’t share my intersectional identities.
All things considered, I’m doing well. I’m improving. I’ve accomplished a lot.
But I have a dream I haven’t yet achieved. I reached one milestone and I’ve been stuck in that one spot for three years.
I got my first agent in spring of 2018. I got my second agent in January 2020.
And now, when this post is being published, we’re more than halfway through 2021.
I still don’t have a traditionally published book in stores, online or in-person.
There are things I’ve done to make it better. I have accomplished so much and it’s both in my writing and in the rest of my life. Things that I’m so happy about, that are fulfilling and exciting, and yet they don’t take away from the ache of dreams feeling crushed. What if these dreams are only ever going to be dreams? No reality, just hopes.
It’s hard to have hope when a feeling comes to you again and again, like waves. Waves of gaining hope then losing hope. Did I write something good? Something wanted? What if my stories don’t work for anyone but me? My readers like it. My friends are cheering for me. But it still ends up not being the story that an editor and their team loves. The story is great, the writing is great, but it’s not what they want. They want more, so you send another, but they aren’t in love with that either.
Getting out of a 5-year relationship made me worry if anyone would ever be in love with me again and I would love them back. Having 3 books flounder on submission to editors made me wonder if I could ever love a book again and then someone would love it too, someone who could change my life.
I’m grateful for the friends who stayed with me during my struggle, the agents who fought with me and for me and still love and celebrate my books that haven’t ended up on shelves yet.
But it’s a long road. I feel like getting an agent from a pitch contest made me skip a whole bunch of steps, but now friends are catching up or moving ahead and I’m staying behind.
Before we can get to survival strategies, can we talk about the things that make it hard to survive the journey? There are a lot of obstacles in the way, gates and bridges and fences and whatnot. There are roadblocks and dead-ends and wrong directions.
I’m grateful for the BIPOC Bookshelf for giving me a platform with this three-part series about this period in traditional publishing. There are lots of posts about celebrations at the end of the journey, but I wanted to look into being in the middle of that journey.
Most authors go through this. First books don’t sell very often, let alone right away. The ones that do are rare. Some people go through years of querying before getting an agent, then who knows how long before they actually sell a book to a publisher.
It sucks. It’s tough. It’s something that many writers endure.
But that’s the reality. I’ll never tell you to stop dreaming, but I’ll always be willing to share my deepest and darkest thoughts for those wondering if they’re alone. You’re really not. It’s okay if you feel that way and it’s okay if it’s hard to talk about. The truth is, though, there are so many others in the same place. My hope is that someone will read these guest posts and find relief.
Thanks for reading! Take care of yourself. Next month, we’re talking dreams, big ones and small ones, and little successes.
Kay Costales (she/her)
Kay Costales is a Filipino-Canadian author and poet, represented by Lesley Sabga of the Seymour Agency. She has a passion for pretty things, ice cream and desserts, and trying to sound smarter and more interesting. She is queer and disabled and proud to be open about it. When not writing, she works as an administrator in property management. Currently, she lives in Toronto with her partner and their spoiled cat. Her next poetry collection, Tell Your Truths, will be out October 1st, 2021. Preorder HERE.
Purchase Kay's Poetry: https://www.etsy.com/shop/byKessCostales
Poetry books (as Kess Costales):
SO SAYS THE HEART (2019)
SPEAK YOUR DARKNESS (2020)
TELL YOUR TRUTHS (October 2021)
LOVE LIKE INSECTS (2020)
LOVE LIKE GARDENS (TBA 2021)
COUNTING (Ruru Reads, 2018)
MUSEUM (Room Magazine, 2018)
WHATEVER SHE WANTS (Keep Faith, 2019)
MY MOTHER (Marias at Sampaguitas, July 2021)