What I learned about writing from a broken tooth

by | Jun 8, 2015 | The Writing Life | 16 comments

I recently had quite a health ordeal, and for some reason it reminded me of writing and publishing. Probably because everything does. Bear with me on this one.

A month back, while in the early days of my new job, I bit into a piece of toast and felt a sharp pain in one of my molars. I didn’t think that much of it — I’ve had some jaw/tooth aches in the past that didn’t amount to much — and I went about my business, planning to check with my dentist if the pain didn’t go away. Then, a week later, I proceeded to get immensely sick, coming down with a 104.5 fever. (Spoiler: I survived!)

On top of that, my tooth still hurt like crazy whenever I accidentally bit into something, so as I was recovering from that illness thanks to the miracle of antibiotics, I went to the dentist. Sure enough, I had a broken tooth beyond repair and an infected root. It’s probable that my illness was connected to the broken tooth, as a point of entry for some bacteria or another. Annnd I had to have the tooth extracted. Which I really didn’t want to do. But I had to.

Now, thankfully, I’m on the other side of everything. My tooth is gone, my gum is healing, I can finally eat normally again, and I’m back to 100% health. Win!!

So why am I telling you this?

Last night as I was eating a delicious crab sandwich without any pain, I got to thinking, “You know what? Having *no* tooth is better than having a broken tooth.”

Indeed. And then I saw a commercial for Entourage, which reminded me of agenting, and then THIS BLOG POST WAS BORN.

There are so many times in your publishing life where it’s tempting to hold on to something that’s broken. Maybe you have an agent who you kind of realize is not a good agent, or you are presented with a publishing deal from a micro publisher you’re not totally sure about. But, having an agent is better than having no agent, right?


Just as my broken tooth wound up getting me sick, a bad agent can do immense damage to your career if they send your manuscript around badly. It’s harder to find another good agent to take you on, and publishers may not reconsider your manuscript if they’ve already seen it. They can also set you back from looking for a good agent. And unscrupulous “publishers” out there can take advantage of you financially.

Having *no* agent is better than having a bad agent.
Having *no* publishing deal is better than having a bad publishing deal.

You may worry about the appearances of losing something that felt hard-earned, and no doubt it’s painful in the short term, but you have to think of those bad actors like a broken tooth that you need to extract in order to restore yourself to publishing health.

You will heal. You’ll get back on track. And you’ll realize you’re better off. Good riddance, broken molar.

Art: The Toothpuller by Carvaggio


  1. Caitlin Lane

    As someone who is in the (eternal) process of querying and feels as though she might latch on to the first "maybe" and never let go, thank you. I needed to hear this. It can be easy to become so focused on our goals that we neglect to notice when the path we've taken might be the incorrect time.

  2. Bryan Russell

    I should tell you some day about my wisdom tooth (which had been left in by a previous dentist who said "It will never be a problem") that erupted sideways out of my gums, cut through my cheek, and dug a hole in my jawbone. And then got my face and neck horribly infected. So, empathy, my friend; I feel you.

  3. Starbuck O'Shea

    Nathan, you are totally right.

    And I too had a broken tooth once. Had to persuade the first dentist that removal was best [the roots were clearly rotten, so making a pretty fake tooth to hide it: BAD plan. Also expensive.]. The second dentist got rid of the tooth just as it was needed. Wonderful man.

    Back to your other point: oh my yes. I've a friend who finally saw the back of his awful slacker agent. I am so glad for him, but sorry for the months of suffering my friend went through first. It's so hard for authors to let go of even the hideous agents. :/

    Take care, be gentle with your tooth, and thank you for a great post.


    Anne Zanoni

  4. abc

    Just how hard was that toast, man? Also, I hope you got some nitrous. Also, ban Entourage. Also, thanks for the good advice.

  5. Kate Evangelista

    I needed to read this post today for an entirely different reason. Still publishing related, but still helps. Thank you, Nathan! And best wishes on your new job.

  6. Norma Beishir

    I had a wonderful agent–but we disagreed creatively, and she wouldn't show anything she didn't love. In the middle of some major personal problems, I started to feel angry and frustrated. I doubted I'd ever get to write what I wanted to write.

  7. Angela Brown

    As writers, we're often tossed to and fro in the waves of doubts, uncertainties and "what traditionally works." With so many of us seeing the "green light" for others around us, it can be frustrating being stuck in the "no" zone. So I can see where a writer with an agent – any agent at all – may feel what you describe in today's post.

    The desire for success is a strong one in many of us entering the publishing industry, but your advice to hold on to what helps – not what hurts – is pivotal and in many cases, a necessary reminder.

    Thank you 🙂

  8. Neil Larkins

    Ow! Know what it's like, guy. Back in '64 had an infected tooth for five days (long Thanksgiving weekend). Dentist pulled it but should have given me penicillin first. Got an awful case of Bell's Palsy that affected me for two years and my face still sags a bit on that side. Good analogy. Never had an agent. Can see the problem, tho. Glad to hear you're better all around.

  9. Anne R. Allen

    Much wisdom here, Nathan. I had five bad agents and two bad publishing deals before I figured this out.

    I also relate to the tooth ordeal. I've had the same thing this month. Rotten tooth gave me a fever (not as high as yours). Now I've had it removed and bone grafts put in so they can implant a fake one in four months. I can almost chew again and I'm no longer in pain or running a fever. No tooth is definitely better than a bad one.

  10. Cynthia

    I'm glad to hear you're feeling better. A fever of 104.5 must've been very unpleasant. I haven't had any agents or publishing offers yet. But I've dealt with [insert noun for a seemingly positive thing writers should have]. Recently I learned that having this "thing" doesn't guarantee good things if I picked the wrong thing. Well, I picked the wrong thing. I learned from this, and I let go of that thing. And you know what, I feel so much freer now.

  11. Elizabeth Cooper

    Thank you for this reminder that not everything happens in our time. We tend to get so focused on our goals that at times we lose site of other opportunities or if we're just settling.

  12. Julie Butcher

    Thank you for this. You have no idea how timely it is.

  13. Jessie Oliveros

    Thanks, Nathan. I'm glad your painful experience is over.

  14. Art Rosch

    Carl Jung wrote "The Gods are in our diseases". This is a cryptic remark for those not familiar with the Jungian world view. My interpretation is that Pain is a great teacher. What you just did, Nathan, was to accomplish an alchemical operation. You changed a painful experience into a positive: you acquired wisdom about crucial aspects of life as a writer. And then you shared this wisdom with the rest of us.All from a broken tooth. That's why I take Jung's dictum very seriously. Good work!

  15. Pimion

    Very well said. Brilliant metaphor! Exactly, no tooth is better then a broken one. You should always be ready to reject something/someone if you think it's for the best. Be initiative!

  16. Adventures in YA Publishing

    Quite the good metaphor! I think it's very hard, and frankly, scary, for a writer to think about taking the leap from a bad agent (or a bad manuscript, for that matter). We've worked so hard to get this to point, and we're always lectured against being quitters, and if we work just a little bit harder, or lower our standards, maybe things will be better and work out in the long run.

    But our agents are supposed to be our advocates to us to the publishing world. They're business partners. If a business partner wasn't pulling through his or her end of the bargain, would you hesitate to say something or correct the situation?

    Yes, it is a lot of work to complete a manuscript and get an agent. Writers, you've worked TOO HARD to get to this point to not have your agent be the best advocate possible for your work. So stick with the agent you deserve.

    –Sam Taylor, AYAP Intern


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Hi, I’m Nathan. I’m the author of How to Write a Novel and the Jacob Wonderbar series, which was published by Penguin. I used to be a literary agent at Curtis Brown Ltd. and I’m dedicated to helping authors chase their dreams. Let me help you with your book!

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