Guest Post: Author Christina Soontornvat on the Downs (and Eventual Ups) of Making It Past that Debut Year

By Christina Soontornvat

“You’re on fire!”
“You’re killing it!”

Those are the types of comments that came across my social media feed last fall as I posted screenshots of my most recent book deal announcements.

Due to publishing’s funky and unpredictable timing, I had back-to-back announcements two weeks in a row: one for my middle grade nonfiction about the Thai Cave Rescue and another for my new chapter book series, Diary Of An Ice Princess (Scholastic, 2019).

To the outside world, I was “on fire.”

Inside, it felt like I was finally crawling out of a hole.

Flashback to four years earlier: I had been overjoyed when my first agent sold two projects: a middle grade fantasy and a picture book. I felt like my career was getting ready to blast off into outer space! Instead, I found myself stuck in orbit.

After the excitement of that first sale, I struggled to write another novel. And then my agent and I parted ways just months before my debut hit the shelves. The split was amicable and non-dramatic. It was the right thing to do at the time, but when I found myself in the whirlwind of my debut year, fielding agent rejections when I was supposed to be “living the dream,” I felt sort of…pathetic.

I had worked for years on improving my craft, then tried for years to get an agent, then went through a long submission process to sell my work. Somehow, it felt even worse to be having a tough time after experiencing some measure of success. This felt like starting all over again, but with even higher stakes.

Christina says: “At the release party for The Changelings (Sourcebooks, 2017), my debut novel. It was amazing and fun! And the day before I had received an agent rejection in my inbox. Talk about ups and downs.”

I told myself I should be grateful for what I had. After all, I knew friends still searching for their first agents. It seemed whiny and entitled to feel the way I felt.

So I didn’t share my feelings with anyone. On social media, I posted smiling photos of me at school visits and bookstore events. Meanwhile, my spirits sunk even lower.

I am happy to tell you that eventually things turned around, and I ended up a success story. Not because I finally connected with an agent who was a wonderful fit (after a year of querying), and not because we finally started to sell books (after many rejections).

For me, my success was battling my way out of a very low and destructive mental state that was impacting my ability to write.

If you are a writer who has hit a slump/bump/down-in-the-dumps at the beginning of your publishing journey, then allow me to share some of the things that helped me keep trudging along.

  • Recognize that social media (mostly) shows happy fun times. If you judged publishing based solely on social media posts, you’d think everyone was winning armfuls of awards and raking in the contracts. That’s only a fraction of the story, but it’s the story that most people choose to share–including me. While I happily shared the deal announcement for Diary Of An Ice Princess, I kept the rejections of a different project completely private. Those rejections hurt, and I didn’t want to discuss them with thousands of people on Twitter. Many authors feel the same and that has a definite affect on what you see as you scroll through the app of your choice. If it ever seems like “everyone but you” is enjoying success, just remind yourself that you aren’t seeing the whole story. And if social media still feels demoralizing, feel free to switch the whole thing off. It will all still be there when you get back, I promise.
Friend and Red Fox Literary agent-mate, Lindsay Leslie
  • Disconnecting from social media can be a good thing, but don’t disconnect from actual humans. Part of what got me feeling so low during my debut year was that I wasn’t opening up about anything to anyone—including my close friends. I felt embarrassed that I couldn’t get agents to request my manuscript, or that I couldn’t sell my second novel. By closing my shame up inside, I let it fester and grow. It is remarkable—maybe even magical—what saying words out loud can do for your soul. Just saying, “I am having a tough time, and I feel like I’m not good enough” helped the dark clouds to lift. So find someone you can trust to listen (really, really listen – without judgment or advice), whether that is your spouse or partner, a critique group, or a mentor. And just tell them how you feel.
  • Arm yourself with concrete evidence that you are not alone. Yes, we have all heard the same inspirational phrases at writers’ conferences: “It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon;” “Publishing is a journey, not a destination.” But knowing in theory that other authors have struggled is different from hearing actual stories from real people. If you have published authors in your personal network, don’t be afraid to reach out and let them know you are having a tough time. You may be surprised and comforted to know that they have gone through the exact same things (and probably even worse!). I remember how reassuring it was to me to have a frank conversation with a published friend whose career I admired. She told me that she had struggled for a long time to find her second agent, too. I had no idea and assumed (wrongly, of course) that her career had been an easy path strewn with success and gold stickers.
  • Author Liz Garton Scanlon, whose interview for the Cynsations Survivors series is one of Christina’s favorites.

    Soak in the wisdom of your elders. If you don’t have a published confidante or mentor you can turn to—or even if you do!—I highly recommend the Cynsations Survivor series. This is a running series of interviews with published authors who openly share their struggles and successes over their long careers. Part of why my debut year was so difficult was because I felt so much pressure to be an instant success. I didn’t learn until later that it’s actually quite rare for an author’s first book to shoot to the moon. Somehow I had put that unrealistic expectation on myself. Sure, I would have loved for my debut novel to hit The New York Times list! But much more than that, I just wanted to write more books. In an industry that can seem to over-value the shiny and new, I felt strengthened by reading the wise words of authors who have survived in this business for a long time. If publishing is a marathon, their stories are those high-energy goo packs that will help you keep going.

  • Keep writing. Yeah, I know. That’s the advice everyone gives you for nearly every situation. Well, that’s because it’s good advice! If you are reading this, I’m going to take a gander that you got started writing because it brings you joy. I have learned that publishing’s most “Insta-worthy” moments—signing with an agent, your book launch party, your deal announcement—don’t happen with great frequency. They are certainly (definitely!) worth celebrating, but if you rely on those moments to fill you with joy for the long haul, you will be disappointed. However, writing can bring you joy every single day if you allow it to.

Even following my own advice, I still have days when I am sure that I’ll never write anything good ever again. But now I know that practically every writer gets those same feels.

I’m also aware that I will almost certainly hit another challenging stretch at some point in my career. If I’m lucky, I hope to some day be one of those wise elders that shares their publishing survival stories. I already have one ready to go.

Christina says: “Box of ARCs of the second book in the Diary Of An Ice Princess series arrive. I Instagrammed this moment. I did not Instagram myself obsessively checking and re-checking email (which happens way more often).”

Cynsational Notes

Christina Soontornvat is the author of fiction and nonfiction middle grade, chapter books, and picture books.

Her latest project is the Diary Of An Ice Princess series, which tells the story of a science-loving princess with magical winter powers. The first of these chapter books released from Scholastic July 30.

Christina is an active member of the Austin chapter of SCBWI and will offer a presentation at Saturday’s monthly meeting, “The Sweet Spot: Writing Chapter Books That Are “Just Right” for Young Readers” at 10 a.m. Sept. 14 at BookPeople in Austin.