April Henry on Rejection, Dry Spells, and Tenacity (Writing for the Long Haul Series)

New York Times bestselling author April Henry started writing in 1989 and published her first book a decade later. She joins the long haul series today to talk about rejection, career hard patches, and the one thing she believes long-haul writers need more than anything else: the tenacity to never stop writing.

Do you want to be a writer for the long haul? I think the key is tenacity. Tenacity is at least as important as talent.

In 1989, I had a dream: to write a book. I didn’t know a single writer.

Two years later, I had a finished book and a new dream: that it would be published and I could quit my day job. Instead, I got a ton of rejection letters from agents. Was my career over before it had even begun?

I wrote a second book and sent it out to agents. Agent after agent rejected it. Finally, an agent told me the book was one of the best she had ever seen. It was so good, she said, that she was sure I hadn’t shown it to any other agents. I did not tell her that over 50 agents had already rejected it.

A year later, it was clear my second book would never sell, despite complimentary rejection letters from editors. So I wrote a third book. Which got nothing but ho-hum rejections.

I could have given up, but instead I had been keeping busy writing a fourth book. Circles of Confusion sold to the first editor who saw it. The advance was certainly not “quit your job” money. We bought some new furniture.

But at least I was a real writer, right? I thought the hard part was over. I didn’t realize that just because you have been published once, it doesn’t mean you will be published again.

Circles of Confusion got nominated for several awards and got good reviews. I wrote a second in the series and then a third. I was on a publisher-paid tour for the third book when I learned they were dropping me because the sales of my second book hadn’t been double that of my first (an idea they hadn’t shared with me, although I’m not sure what I could have done about it if I had known). Would I ever be published again?

My heroic agent managed to move the series over to a different publisher for less money. I put out two books with them. The new publisher put very little effort into promoting them. One did great. The other not so great. We came to a mutual parting of ways.

Somewhere in here I wrote a few books that didn’t sell. One was on the chick lit side, the other really didn’t fit into a category.

In 2004, not only did I not seem anywhere close to quitting my day job, but my day job was starting to suck. I worried that I would never be published again. But that did not stop me from writing a new book, one with a 16-year-old main character. It was a YA according to my agent. (I had just thought of it as an adult book with a young main character.)

After that first YA, Shock Point, came out, I hit another hard patch. I had written another YA, but the release date kept getting pushed back and my editor had pretty much stopped answering my emails. Not only had my dream of quitting my day job faded, but my job had actually gotten worse. There were frequent “emergency” meetings in which I would realize one or two co-workers were missing. Then the meeting would turn out to be about how they had just been let go. It felt like everything was falling apart. But I didn’t stop writing.

I finished writing a YA book I really liked, about a blind girl who is accidentally kidnapped when someone steals her step-mom’s car—with her in it. My editor didn’t like it, saying that books about kidnapping were overdone.

In late 2007, I got approached about partnering with a TV legal analyst on an adult mystery series. When we made a four-book deal, I knew I would never again have such a biggish chunk of money at one time. So I quit my day job in 2008. It was the scariest thing I have ever done. A few months later, I sold the book about the blind girl—Girl, Stolen—to a new editor, Christy Ottaviano at Henry Holt.

In 2009, that first adult coauthored book, Face of Betrayal, hit the New York Times bestseller list. And I learned that Girl, Stolen would be a lead title for Holt the next year.

Girl, Stolen, which was originally turned down by my first editor, has since been on nine state lists, named a Quick Pick, and is on the recommended curriculum in Ireland.

From 2010 on, I have published two books a year, one adult and one YA. And I’ve managed to continue to make a living as a writer. I think the key has been being tenacious. Even if—and it’s probably when—I hit another dry patch, I will keep writing, keep trying.

April Henry knows how to kill you in a two-dozen different ways. She makes up for a peaceful childhood in an intact home by killing off fictional characters. April had one detour on her path to destruction: when she was 12 she sent a short story about a six-foot tall frog who loved peanut butter to noted children’s author Roald Dahl. He liked it so much he arranged to have it published in an international children’s magazine. By the time she was in her 30s, April had come to terms with her childhood and started writing about hit men, drug dealers, and serial killers. Look for two new books from her in 2015: Lethal Beauty (written with Lis Wiehl) and Blood Will Tell.

Previous Writing for the Long Haul Posts

Kelly Bennett on Quitting Writing
Pete Hautman on the book that will save us
Elena Acoba on touching reader lives
Steve Miller on building a writing life
Sharon Lee on remembering we’re not alone
Betty G. Birney on always challenging ourselves
Nora Raleigh Baskin on making deals with the writing gods
Sean Williams on unpredictability and luck
Deborah J. Ross on writing through crisis
Sharon Shinn on managing time
Marge Pellegrino on feeding the restless yearning to write
Sarah Zettel on embracing ignorance and writing your passions
Uma Krishnaswami on honoring unreasonable exuberance
Jennifer J. Stewart on finding community and support
Sherwood Smith on keeping inspiration alive
Mette Ivie Harrison on defining success
Jeffrey J. Mariotte on why we write
Judith Tarr on reinventing ourselves
Kathi Appelt on the power of story
Cynthia Leitich Smith on balancing business and creativity

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