Chutes and Ladders

Posted by on Oct 18, 2010 in Uncategorized | 16 comments

We all know that being an author is a brutal career choice, a “kiss you and kick you” business. I had (naively) anticipated that the worst of that came before the publishing offer. But with the launch of my debut book, Elliot and the Goblin War, only a few weeks old, I’m learning that was only the beginning.

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.


  1. Wow, this is such a great analogy, Jen! The perfect description of a career in publishing!

  2. Oh this is so true! I guess the positive of it all is that you do keep moving forward, even if it’s at a verrry slow pace!

  3. Very creative post. I remember playing Chutes and Ladders with my kids and I can appreciate how writing feels like this.

  4. I love this post so much! It describes, perfectly, exactly some of what I have been feeling of late! Thanks for putting it into words so beautifully

  5. Great Post, Jen!

  6. This is a wonderful post. You really capture the essence of how it feels to be a writer – and it’s a good reminder that the publishing contract, and even the published book, are not the end of the journey.

  7. Brilliant analogy! All part of the game. I wonder if there’s ever a point where you feel like you’ve reached the end?

  8. I don’t think there is an end, Carolina. I’m thinking of J.K. Rowling’s Oprah interview where she talks about continuing to write and look forward. She still has goals she is trying to reach.

    As soon as I signed my first publishing contract, my goals shifted. And should I ever reach them, I’m certain the goals will shift again. More chutes, more ladders ahead.

  9. This is a great analogy! Glad you shared – helps put the whole biz back into perspective! 🙂

  10. Wow, nice. This really sums it up!

  11. This post is amazing! I love it. 🙂

  12. GREAT post, Jen! Boy, we can all relate! Except there’s no ending because we all go forward, move back, and the game just keeps going and going until we die. Or quit, ha, ha! But I don’t think that’s an option for most of us . . . 🙂
    Just added you to my feeder.

  13. Great analogy!! I love the squares and ladders and chutes, advancing and then going back. True to life!!

  14. I really like this post. It stands true with everything I’ve learned about the process of publishing a work. However I’m writing because I was trying to get a hold of you on your website and all the links are broken. Could you get them fixed or respond back to me with a way to contact you concerning a writing group? Thanks!

  15. I *love* this. So, so true. Thank you for this clever analogy and for letting all of us know we’re not alone!

  16. Jayrod, I’ve emailed you so post again if you don’t get that message. And Ali, I think that’s why this post does resonate with people – wherever we are in our careers, we’re all there. Thanks!

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