My Writing Journey: Is It Good Enough? Dealing with Self-Doubt [Part 2]

My name is Stephanie Chen and I am a 2nd generation Taiwanese American. Like many of my peers, I followed a prescribed path towards success: studied hard, got good grades, went to an Ivy League college. I studied finance and after graduation, started a job at a top-tier investment bank. I then joined an investment fund, where I eventually became a partner. However, if you had asked me when I was in the 6th grade what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would have said “a writer”. In early 2017, a post on this very website took me down the path to following that dream. In just a few short months, it felt as though my life had changed completely. Follow me on my journey–the new challenges, the overwhelming uncertainties, the small, but cumulative successes–to becoming a published author.

Revisit Part 1: How It Began.

So, I had written a book. Now the question was, was it good enough? Was it publishable, or just a random, fun thing I could tell my friends and family I had done during my years abroad? I had been reading bits of it aloud every night to my husband, who chuckled at many parts, but also, truthfully, often fell asleep before I even got to the end of the chapter.

It happened that I finished writing the novel just a couple of days before a girls’ trip to Thailand with the friend who had inspired me to write it, so I emailed the manuscript to her. However, the entire time we were away–at the pool, on the beach, hanging out in the hotel room–I wondered, “Why isn’t she reading my book?”

I sent it to another friend, an attorney who had left her legal career two years ago to write full-time, who wrote back, “How did you write a book already? That’s crazy!”, but made no indication about when she would actually read it. I sent it to my brother, who had read the first chapter a month prior and commented that it was very “factual”, but after receiving the whole thing: nothing. I sat on it for a week, proofreading, moving a few parts around, but more or less just twiddling my thumbs.

I realized I would never know if it was “good enough” unless I actually sent it out to literary agents. So, I started drafting a query letter–a one-page sales pitch to get agents excited about your book. Of course, there was plenty of advice available on the internet: “Don’t start your query letter with a question!”, “Don’t send the first one to your dream agent!”, “Send five queries; if you don’t get at least one request for a full manuscript, your query sucks!”; the list went on.

I made a list of authors who had written books that were similar to mine and started with their agents. I actually found an agent that said on his website that he responded to all queries–it seemed like a good place to start; at a minimum I would not be left hanging, potentially until eternity, without a response. I shot off a query email, and held my breath.

Two days later, I got a polite rejection from his assistant. OK, I confess! It was Shawna Yang Ryan’s agent. I had sat on a Berkeley TASA career panel with Ms. Ryan nearly 10 years ago, where I had been one of the few representatives of the maybe-not-my-passion-but-pays-the-bills-type job; the other panelists, besides Ms. Ryan, were a doctor-cum-community organizer, a program manager at Facebook, several start-up guys, and a former assistant to the Vice President of Taiwan. My book is nothing like her two novels (Green Island and Water Ghosts, check them out!) but I thought, maybe her agent would be interested in representing me, another Taiwanese American author? Turns out, he wasn’t.

Needless to say, I was dismayed. I sent the manuscript to a few more friends, including my sister-in-law, who seemed much more interested in reading it than my brother (OK, granted, he had just gotten a new job and was in the process of moving across the country, but still).

A day or two later, buoyed by the one friend who had actually started reading the book and sent me the comment, “So far I absolutely love it. I’m not sure if it is good, as in, are you a good writer, or it is just our shared experience?”, I thought to myself, why I am I messing around? I want to be a writer, right?

So, I picked a handful of agents, drafted my query letters, and hit Send.

Then, I really started the waiting.

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