Swoon Author Karole Cozzo: It's an Art, Not a Science
Hey Swoon Reads community! I want to share with you a very personal narrative I penned back in January 2016…
For me, one of the most important aspects of a story, something I like to pride myself on focusing on as a writer, is emotional honesty. My characters experience emotions honestly, even when said emotions aren’t pretty. That being said, I feel it’s only fair that I challenge myself to be emotionally honest as well. And with that in mind, I share a little story…
After I wrote How to Say I Love You Out Loud, I wrote How to Keep Rolling After a Fall. I’ve often commented to people that my second story practically wrote itself, that the characters felt real and told their story to me rather than me creating it for them. When asked a Swoon Reads coffee date question about second books being notoriously difficult to write, I practically scoffed. I mean, my second book had come way easier than my first!
And perhaps I became overly confident. Perhaps I forgot that the writing game is not at all easy, and defeating the dreaded sophomore novel slump didn’t guarantee smooth sailing ahead.
I write quickly, and within less than a year of Swoon Reads deciding to publish Keep Rolling, I had completed two more manuscripts I sent along to the team for review. There were some kinks, sure, some aspects of both I wasn’t entirely happy with, and some additional questions about the appropriateness of at least one of the stories for the imprint. But overall, I felt good. After spending so many years questioning why I ever felt confident about my writing in the first place—when all I had to show for my efforts was a file in my Gmail inbox of polite but impersonal dismissals from agents—I sent my manuscripts along believing at heart that they were good.
The result? One manuscript got turned down outright. The other still held interest, but would warrant major rewrites in order for there to be further consideration.
Which brings us to the emotional honesty part of this post. I spoke with my editor on Friday afternoon and was convinced my weekend was a wash. I was… dejected; I was a mess of emotions. I felt embarrassed, that I had sent along my work with such certain excitement. I wasn’t at all tentative—I loved this story and was sure they would too. I’m pretty sure my cheeks literally reddened, states away, when I heard how much they… did not. I felt foolish. Foolish for believing I was good at this, foolish for believing I knew what would work in YA/NA romance, foolish over the very idea of confidence in the first place. I felt gutted. Criticism is hard to listen to, and hearing criticism of two stories at once, criticism over characters I’d developed personal connections with, left me working hard to keep the tears out of my voice during the conversation. And then I felt weak. Weak that after all the years I’d spent as an aspiring author, I still hadn’t developed that “thick skin” we all know is needed in this industry. Weak that I wasn’t able to maintain a greater sense of neutrality in receiving feedback, weak that I let it affect me emotionally at all.
So I wallowed a bit. I ate an entire cheesesteak for dinner and a lot of chocolate for dessert. I felt sorry for myself.
And then, bit by bit, starting the very next morning, I began the bouncing back process. I stood up. I brushed myself off. And, with the help of some very dear writing pallies, I reflected on the following:
1.) I wasn’t alone. It wasn’t just me. Every writer friend I spoke to had some kind of similar story to tell. The term “major rewrites” is one we’ll all encounter at least once, if not several times more, as we pursue writing careers. Part of the reason why editors can suggest such an undertaking in the first place, without feeling the need for apology, is likely because the suggestion is offered so frequently. I wasn’t the only person told to go back to the drawing board—going back there happens more often than not. My experience with my second novel was definitely not the norm, and thinking otherwise was simply haughty and unrealistic.
2.) It was okay that I still liked my work. It was okay if I still wanted to consider doing something else with it. I consider my editors and management team brilliant and helpful and wise, but they are not robots. They are people, with personal preferences, with whom some stories will resonate more than others. Just because they didn’t like a story doesn’t mean it’s left without value, doesn’t mean that some other readers might not. And it doesn’t make me wrong for enjoying the story, for thinking it was something I might like to read. (Stephenie Meyer is a waaaaay overused example, but because it’s personally relevant, I have to reference her path to publication. For every person who read Twilight and said “no way”… there’s a girl, or 36-year-old mother of two, ahem, with a Team Edward shirt still in her closet that says otherwise.)
It’s the job of my management team to decide what works within the genre, what works for the imprint, and what will work for me as a member of their team proposing my next body of work. I can respect that, without feeling like I have to immediately start believing my story was garbage.
3.) And most importantly, what a wake-up call, to be reminded that no matter how long we’re in the game, no matter how many books we publish, writing is an art and not a science! Book 2 coming easy does not mean Book 3 will. Books 4, 5, and 6 coming easy does not mean Book 7 will. No matter how much you write, not matter how much you publish, you will never have “mastered” writing, because it is a craft rather than a formula. (And thank goodness for that! How boring it would be otherwise!) I hadn’t messed up. I hadn’t forgotten the formula at exam time. The reality is that there is no formula, and we will all have hits and misses as we attempt the impossible, “perfecting” our craft. I hadn’t failed, because this isn’t a pass/fail endeavor. It’s a try, try, revise and try again endeavor. Ultimately, that’s a really cool thing.
So I decided to stop beating myself up. Besides, like writing, human emotions are an art rather than a science. It doesn’t matter how many times I receive criticism, personally or professionally—it might never be easy to hear. I might never master that either, and that too is okay. If I wasn’t emotionally impacted by the response of others to my work, what kind of artist would I be? It doesn’t matter how weak I feel when I initially receive negative feedback. What matters is what I do afterward. That I allow myself to feel sad. That I find a way to drag myself to my feet when it’s time to get over that sadness. That I embrace my emotions honestly and share them with others instead of pretending them away. That I find perspective, with a little help from my friends. That I regain my pride, and my confidence, because really neither one of them was in vain. That, when I’m ready, I get back to work.
Writing is an art, not a science. And now it’s time to start crafting again.
That story I mention above that was in need of major rewrites? Was rewritten. And was approved for acquisition about three months after I wrote this piece, and became known as The Truth About Happily Ever After. What remains so ironic to me is how similar I was to the person who ended up being the main character in the story. At first, I resisted the idea of anything new and different from what I had in mind for my story. The prospect of starting over, of embarking on a new journey, seemed just as daunting as it does to Alyssa in the book. But some time later, and to my initial surprise, I came to realize that everyone was right, and a much better story and happily-ever-after were just around the corner.
Writers—don’t be afraid to start over; don’t be disheartened when you’re told you need to do so. Just like Alyssa finds out in the book, the story that comes next might be even better than the one you were holding onto.