Under the Coffee Shop Table

July 26, 2015

Artist in progress

My first attempt at writing a book kind of devastated me. I was sure that after all my reading and notebook scribbling and dreaming about being a writer, that I’d be able to hole up in a coffee shop somewhere for six months and produce something awesome.

That wasn’t the case.

Yes, I did hole up for six months, and yes I did produce something, but I wouldn’t go so far as to attach the word “awesome” to it. It had okay characters, an interesting setting, and as far as I could tell, some pretty decent writing, but there was only the barest hint of a plot and if I was totally honest with myself, the book was boring.

BO-RING.

And I could have lived with all that if I’d just sort of been half a**ing it. But I hadn’t been. I had worked my very, very hardest. I’d sweated over it, I’d lost sleep, I’d dedicated every inch of spare time I had to that first book, and the results were so mediocre it made me want to crawl under the nearest table of that coffee shop and just give up forever.

It took me many years (and a giant push from my dad) to climb out from under the table and try again. I wish I could say I got it the next time around, but I didn’t. My second attempt was still pretty terrible. And so was my third. Only by that point I had a book deal (potential in attempt #1 combined with a very successful father was enough for Simon & Schuster to take a chance on me). And suddenly a lot of other people were echoing the things I was already thinking. Your book lacks plot. You need stronger characters. It need to be interesting.

In fact, for almost a year my edit letters said things like this:

  • Strong main characters are the meat and potatoes of YA Novels. Yours is coming across as flat.
  • Just like your main character, we feel X is too one-dimensional. He needs to be rethought.
  • Your conclusion to plot point X was disappointing.
  • We don’t think the conflict between X and Y works at all.

It was excruciating. After every round of edits I’d scuttle back under that coffee shop table and I’d have to drag myself back out all over again. When people asked me how the writing was going I never told them how I really felt: I might not be able to do this. I might be about to fall on my face. The stress was paralyzing.

Then one night I hit rock bottom. I had a huge deadline coming up. My last edit letter had pretty much reduced me to tapioca. Sam had been with a babysitter way more than I was comfortable with, David was trying to work full time and take over my role, and I hadn’t eaten anything that hadn’t come out of a vending machine in what felt like days. It was pretty clear that I was incapable of producing even a decent book, let alone a good one, and I couldn’t stand the stress and disappointment for one more second. Suddenly–and more than anything–I wanted to give up.

And that’s when my soul spoke to me. It didn’t say the thing I wanted most to hear, which was: Jenna, you’re totally going to pull this off. You’re going to write something incredible and you’re going to be a crazy famous author and everyone is going to love your book.

No. Instead it said, You were made for this moment. Even if you have a 99% chance of failing that 1% is worth trying for.

Friends, that’s when you know you’re in the right place.

I sat up, wiped my face, and (with shaky hands) threw the coffee shop table into the fireplace. I was still terrified, but over the next few weeks I wrote more than I ever imagined I could. It was the artistic equivalent of a dead sprint. And when I finally hit send at 5 PM on my deadline I pretty much collapsed in a heap. That was it. I’d given everything I’d had. And if I failed…well…at least now I knew I was wiling to accept that.

A few days later my agent called me. Ecstatic. I squeezed my eyes shut as she told me about her conversation with my editor. “They said you did it! They said you completely transformed your book! They said it’s great!”

And then a week later I got an edit letter that said things like:

  • You did a spectacular job of giving your main character a lovely personality and voice!! She’s funny, like really funny, and all kinds of adorable. CONGRATS!!
  • The interaction between X and Y was hilarious!!
  • We love it so much that we sent it straight to copyediting!

They’d never used exclamation marks before. And never ever multiple exclamation marks. I sobbed. I laughed. I turned up music and danced around the house with my 2-year-old. But most of all I was ecstatic because a few days later when I picked up my book I loved what I read. Like really loved it. And it was the first time I’d ever picked up a book by Jenna Evans Welch and thought, What a great read.

I’m not writing about this because I think I am an amazingly brave artist. In fact, I think I’m one of the least brave artists I know. I’m writing this because maybe you’re reading this from under a coffee shop table and you need someone to tell you IT ISN’T GOING TO BE EASY, BUT IF YOUR SOUL IS TELLING YOU TO DO SOMETHING THEN DO IT.

Here, grab my hand. I’ll pull you up. What were you doing under there anyway? You’ve got work to do.

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