It’s like the game of Chutes and Ladders we played as children. Move forward a square or two at a time. Occasionally you get a little ladder, sometimes almost to the top. Then you get a slide, sometimes almost back to the bottom.
You write a manuscript. Unlike your previous attempts, this one is coherent. Maybe even good. Advance a square.
Advance one square for each critiquer who gives it a thumbs up.
Submit to agents. Get a nibble? That’s a one-row ladder. Get a bite? That’s a two-row ladder.
Agent subsequently rejects. That’s a chute almost back to the beginning.
Eventually you get an agent. Same routine now with the publishers, except the ladders are bigger, and the chute won’t take you back to row 1.
The publisher makes an offer. Depending on the publisher and the terms, it could be a one row or a ten row ladder. But it’s definitely a ladder.
Good editors, good cover art, good publicity: all squares forward.
But maybe your editor leaves to another house and the replacement has no passion for your work. Maybe your cover looks bland and uninteresting. Maybe the total publicity you get for your book is a signing at your local bookstore, if that. All chutes.
The book is released. It feels like it should be a ladder, but it’s really not. It’s a square forward. A terrific, amazing square, but just a square. And no, not the last square.
Good reviews are squares forward, great reviews are little ladders. Bad reviews aren’t necessarily chutes, though they’ll feel that way.
Amazon rankings are will feel like an endless loop of chutes or ladders, recalculated every hour. Which bookstores stock your book? How is it placed? Spine out or cover out? Are you getting any awards or nominations? Are you on anyone’s lists? How many Goodreads bookshelves is your book sitting on? Are you mentioned in anyone’s blogs or tweets? Probably you have a mixed answer to this, meaning that you’re going up ladders and down chutes multiple times per day.
Someone sends an email that they love your book. A bookstore sold out of its copies and has to order more. You have a successful signing. A school somewhere not only invites you for a visit, but prepares for your visit. You earn out your advance. Your editor asks to see your next WIP. Squares forward.
And so wherever we are in our journey, the reality is we’re all playing a game. We think we know what that last square will be, but the fact is, that last square is a shifting goal, raising ever higher and more ambitious. And for the most part, it happens one square at a time. There’s an occasional ladder and yes, an occasional chute. But whatever comes, we roll the dice again, and continue climbing.