Many years ago, when I was first starting out in this writing game—I’d published stories in some pretty good places and I’d even been able to publish a collection with a new independent publisher—my agent was sending around my first novel. One day, she called with the good news that a very senior editor at a very important New York publishing house had called to say she loved the book and was going to make an offer. She just had to run it by a few folks, and then she’d be back in touch. “She’s very well thought of,” my agent told me. “She won’t have a problem getting approval to make this offer.”

I was, needless to say, over the moon. I even told a few close friends—that was mistake number one—and I let myself imagine what this might mean for me, which is to say I bought in fully to the idea that I would soon have a contract and then a novel out from a major New York house, and, of course, that was mistake number two. Remember Murphy’s Law? Anything that can go wrong will go wrong.

So this is the story of the novel that never got published—the very senior editor never made an offer—and the heartache that followed until enough time had passed for me to be able to see that disappointment for the blessing that it was.

I’ve long forgotten most of that novel. It exists somewhere on an old floppy disk and it’s best that it stay there. It was the very first novel I finished, and though there was something in it that caught this editor’s eye, it wasn’t the book I would one day write, the book I probably never would have written had this first novel been published.

What I do remember about that first novel was there was an element that involved a missing child. This story had been with me ever since I was sixteen, a tragic story of a young girl who didn’t come home one night in the county seat eight miles from where I lived, the story that nearly ten years after my disappointment over the offer that never came became my novel, The Bright Forever, a book that ended up having a fair amount of success. Had that very senior editor made her offer and had the very important publishing house brought the very first novel I wrote out into the world, I seriously doubt I’d ever have written The Bright Forever. Often we don’t know why things work out the way they do, but sometimes patience shows us exactly why the universe makes us wait for the hidden blessings to become clear.

So what does this mean for writers? First, I truly believe we all have one book we’re meant to write. It’s the story that only you can tell. It’s the story you know so well, it’s in your DNA. I also believe that we have to wait until we’re ready to write that book. That first novel? The one the senior editor never made an offer for? I was learning how to write a novel when I wrote that one. I’d go on to write another one that never saw the light of day before writing what would become my first published novel, a book called Quakertown. Three novels written and two left in the drawer. Three novels to let me find the voice, to feel the structure, to know my world so I could write The Bright Forever. The other important thing I learned was to keep writing. Disappointment comes in many ways over the course of a writing career. Things will happen that you can’t control—things that will knock you to your knees and tempt you to throw in the towel and quit. Don’t. The only thing you can do is keep writing with the confidence that you’ll eventually write the book you’re destined to write, and one day the call or the text or the email will come, and the answer will be a glorious, resounding yes.

10 Comments

  1. Roberta W. Coffey on October 19, 2020 at 8:55 am

    What a beautiful affirmation! Many thanks, Lee!

    • Lee Martin on October 19, 2020 at 11:54 am

      Wishing you all good things, Roberta!

  2. Buddy Harris on October 19, 2020 at 12:57 pm

    Thanks for this reflection, Lee. I’ve been thinking about this very thing as I return to writing after a number of years and find myself somehow thankful I wasn’t able to publish the earlier novel. All appreciate your thoughtful blog posts.

    • Lee Martin on October 20, 2020 at 11:54 am

      Hey, Buddy. Thanks for reading my blog and for taking the time to make this comment. Keep doing the good work!

  3. Tina Neyer on October 19, 2020 at 9:28 pm

    Lee, Your words give me courage. “It’s the story you know so well, it’s in your DNA.”

    • Lee Martin on October 20, 2020 at 11:53 am

      Tina, we all need that extra ounce of courage from time to time. Keep doing the good work!

  4. Mary Morris on October 24, 2020 at 11:19 am

    Lee, I absolutely needed to read this today! I’ve been querying agents with my first book since May, and It has been a rollercoaster of near-misses. The most recent one this week was an enthusiastic revise-and-resubmit that had me thinking I finally had my agent, only to get a final regretful rejection that cut me off at the knees.

    I think it’s time to put this one in the drawer and move on. I may come back to it someday — or I may rewrite it entirely — but I have to remember that I am still finding my voice. Thank you for sharing this experience and this perspective!

    • Lee Martin on October 25, 2020 at 12:20 pm

      Mary, also keep in mind that due to the pandemic and the economic turndown, the publishing industry is tightening the reins which means it sometimes gets tougher to publish a book. Just keep doing the good work with the faith that when the time is right, you and your book will find the way.

      • Mary Morris on October 26, 2020 at 2:59 pm

        I will remember this — thank you, Lee! Virtual hugs! ❤️

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