Writing Life: What if I never get that book deal? by Lisa Ahn

Most writers are seekers, restless. If we were satisfied with the here-and-now, the exactly-as-it-is, there would be no call to wander, to imagine otherwise. We pick at all the seams. We pry the edges of “what if?” We are good at doubt and wonder, at the possible and maybe.

With such relentless questioning, we knock against the fault lines of every sort of knowledge. It is a precarious attunement – to see, to hear, to notice. To be open. Vulnerable.  It is a risk, verging on a sacrament, like any other harbinger of grace.

I’ve never had the proper filters, those screens that weed out all the excess, whether harmful or miraculous. “Too” sensitive, a worrier, I’ve always absorbed the world and spun its surplus into both divinity and horrors. Splayed inside a tangle of words, I tease the pleated, indefinite margins. The spaces where nothing yet is. I ask a lot of questions – even the ones whose answers are bewildering or, worse yet, crushing.

What if I never get that book deal?

I have a novel, finished and revised, revised, revised. It is, to be clichéd, a child. Sometimes clichés are worth their due. I send it out. I wait. I doubt. I pick at all my fingernails. I imagine the book chosen, vetted, beloved. I imagine it lost in dusty drawers. Back and forth, the pendulum swings with me in the middle, knocked about.

What if I never get that book deal?

This past summer we adopted a shelter dog, a child of another sort. He is a lovely companion who can, if he chooses, sit and stay and heel. Mostly, though, he pulls and tugs and follows every trail of scent. He eats discarded gum and wadded tissues. He loves nothing better than stealing socks. For the dog, the best part of the game is the chase. He waits until I see him with a knitted heel or toe dangling from his jaws. Then he’s off, careening around the house like a jackrabbit on amphetamines.

He is good company, these days, for my whirling, twirling brain. There must be something crooked, off-kilter in my head. I must be mildly schizophrenic, a masochist, to repeat the single question that drives me to tears and a bucket of chocolate. It is not a “what if” that provokes inspiration, but depression and insomnia. The pendulum swings, and I pick up the pieces. I glue them together – they are me, after all. And then I ask, again.

What if I never get that book deal?

Getting published isn’t easy. Over the last long months, I’ve had a slew of rejections that borders on the comical. One over-taxed agent sent me a letter that opened with “Dear John.” A Dear John letter? For my book?  At that, I had to laugh. I wish I always had such Zen-like, calm acceptance, a faith that everything is out of my hands except hard work and optimism. But the truth is, always, much more complicated.

In the end, though, the truest answer is, for the most part, quite simple.

What if I never get that book deal?

I’d still keep writing. Of this, there is no question.

And really, very little choice. I’d still keep writing because my characters are like ghosts, persistent and ruthless and able to pass through the most impenetrable walls – those of doubt and fear and writerly despair. My characters, sparks and flares, are pesky and annoying. They climb the scaffolding of my neural circuits, knocking knickknacks off the shelves. They blow great clouds of dust from memories half-forgotten. They refuse to take directions. Their manners are horrendous.

In spirit, my characters resemble everything untamed and indecorous, much like the family dog. They lurk in corners until I notice them. Then they steal my hairbrush and my underwear, hold me hostage ‘til I write them. I’ve been harangued by drowned women and enchanted necklaces – for even inanimate figures come to claim their voices. An old photographer’s wooden leg stomps through flower seeds awaiting planting. Once, a reluctant thief came after me with gators from the Everglades. She was no one to defy.

In my rambling moments, wayward girls toss ancient china like fragile boomerangs. Orphan trains barrel through the middle of a nap. A stoic frog hops my brain into a muddle until he gets his fairytale, mashed-up, with a moral equivalent to the square root of pi. A parasitologist with a depressive wife dangles hookworms in my dreams. Such characters are a menace, a hazard to clear thought.

Like the dog, they lead me off the asphalt, through brambles and burrs and thickets. I follow the strangest trails of research, not sure about the endings. A mute piano prodigy demands the fairytales of Anderson and Grimm. She clamors for knowledge of Schumann’s madness, obscure chess moves, and the cruelty of the Snow Queen. I’m a vegetarian who can tell you exactly how to butcher up a hog.

Our young puppy takes a daily nap, but my characters never do. They skitter through all hours, declaiming, pirouetting. I suspect they breed as well, reproducing themselves in hybrid combinations, searching for a population density that requires epic lengths.

What if I never get that book deal?

It’s not my favorite question. I confess it’s made me cry. But not for very long. Mostly, I am left to shrug and trundle back to work. I’ve no time to lose myself in worry. I have ghosts to scrutinize, off-key warblers to address. I must interrogate a hedge-witch and study maps of New York City, Mexico, and Maine. I have long accounts of dream lore and herb lore and Appalachian history to decipher. I am sketching out half-formed beings, characters in tales untold. Deep within the margins, they’ve hidden my best hairbrush, my underwear, and the dog’s favorite socks. It’s up to me to dive right in, pursue, and get them back.

On the blank page, there is nothing left but this: to ask. And follow wisps of answers.

Perhaps, along my travels, I’ll meet an agent or a publisher. I’d be glad to shake hands, to introduce my motley group of clever pests. Like the dog, they’re really quite lovable once you get to know them.  Just don’t mind about the shedding. And be careful where you lay your hat. Thieves are everywhere, you know.

lisa ahnLisa Ahn’s writing has appeared in Prick of the Spindle, Spectra Magazine, Toasted Cheese, and RealZest.com, among others. She is a writer and homeschooling mom with a new puppy under foot. Her days begin with a mad scramble and end with a book. In the middle, there is a jumble of multiplication tables, Greek history, biology experiments, piano lessons, and storytelling. She holds onto her sanity with the help of too much caffeine, just enough chocolate, and an abiding love of words.Visit Lisa online: http://lisaahn.com/
Print Friendly
  • Brenda

    Lisa – another thought-provoking essay. I am in awe of your persistance and fortitude – to understand that you must write – regardless of the answer to THAT question – is a lesson for us all. Like you, I had to smile at the “Dear John” letter – surely that will be a great story for you to tell at your future book signings. I continue to be amazed at your story-telling abilities and the characters that romp in the playground of your head. You must never be lonely 🙂

  • A very cleverly written story, Lisa!  I remember when you got that “Dear John” letter–that was incredulous to me but we did have a good chuckle.  Your resilience, determination, and dedication to your craft is second to none!  The answer, by the way, to THE question is “You WILL get a book deal!  And you will continue to write and get more book deals–I KNOW IT!”

  • Hello Lisa, this is the first time I have read anything of yours.  I think you are very talented and to be honest, each and every sentence seems very thought out and powerful.  Honestly, for me, reading this, it was at first hard to get into your story, more because it seemed very complicated, but as i continued reading, it was definitely worth the read.  We will pray for you to get that book deal! I will buy your book……

  • Yes, just yes. 

  • Wow! Thanks for such great feedback everyone, for the faith, and humor, and persistence. 🙂

  • L_ince

    Dear Lisa, I sat right behind you while you ate and fed your children recently.  I wish I had known then that you are such a brilliant writer; and a good poet too.  Of course, you will get a book deal!  You write with an intensity which all aspiring writers would wish to have.  Congratulations.  I am sure it helps that your greatest fan is your husband.  I promise to greet you the next time I am in your presence.