The Long Way Home

I’m listening to a great new podcast called The Stories Between Us. Hosts Shawn Smucker and Maile Silva are writers in different stages of their careers, and they’re married to each other. In today’s episode, Shawn talks about how many writers want shortcuts to publication and/or success. They’re tempted by marketing courses that guarantee a huge audience, or by online classes that promise to help them write the next great American novel. Writers are vulnerable, he says. We want so badly for our work to mean something, to be seen and recognized by others, that we’re willing to ignore when some twenty-step program seems too good to be true.

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The unpopular truth is that most of us need time to improve our craft. We need to work really, really hard, often for years, in order to develop skill and style. When we try to take shortcuts, we miss vital steps in our growth as creatives. We end up rushing things and producing subpar work.

Which is really to say, there are no shortcuts.

This is what I tell myself today when I receive the news that a fourth publisher has passed on my novel. It’s just not time, yet, I say to the mirror. There’s something I need to learn right now that will help me later when a publisher says yes.

Do I believe me? Yes and no, friends. Yes and no.

But I’m choosing to be thankful for no’s, even though they sting.

And now, to continue edits on my current manuscript…

When You Don’t Know Which Expert to Believe

I finally heard back about the results of the big writing contest I’d entered back in the Spring. Spoiler alert: I did not win. My novel finaled, meaning it made it into the top three for my category, and that felt pretty wonderful. But, again, I didn’t win.

I was surprisingly okay with it. Two hundred fifty-seven novelists had entered the competition. Coming in where I did was good, it all came down to a numerical score, blah, blah.

But then I got the judges’ comments back. These weren’t average readers, mind you. They were current agents and/or editors, so I cared what they had to say. If I was hoping for some helpful feedback (and I was), I was in for something else.

[Some background: My novel involves a school shooting. It’s gritty in places because real life is. I was inspired by an actual event when I wrote it. There’s tragedy but also forgiveness.]

Here’s what one judge had to say:

“I am absolutely shattered by this piece. Please do not stop, please do not give up. It needs to be published. Thank you for daring to write about the difficulties and His ability to heal. So ready, so right. So necessary.”

This judge gave my novel a score of 100. Wow. Encouraging.

But then there was this from the second judge:

Oh man. The writing is powerful enough, but the subject matter is pretty dark and you might have a hard time getting any publishers to bite on this…It just feels like so much…”

(I left out a couple of sentences because they’re plot spoilers, but they don’t change the substance of the comment.)

This judge gave me a 65 (!). I don’t think I’ve gotten a 65 on anything since Algebra 2. Ouch.

The third judge gave me a better score but didn’t engage with the story at all. They talked about police procedure. I’m not kidding. Well, that, and they mentioned not using “neither/nor” in present tense writing.

O…kay…

Why am I sharing this? Because it was so weird to read such wildly divergent opinions and because maybe it’s also instructive. People’s opinions–even industry professionals’ opinions–are neither monolithic nor are they oracles from God. Sometimes they outright contradict each other.

One judge found the novel compelling and could sense the message of hope woven into difficult circumstances. The other found it to be “too much.” I won’t even talk about the third judge’s comments because it was kind of insulting to have their focus be on which rank of police officer would actually be talking to the press after a shooting.

There’s no smooth way to end this post. I guess everyone feels at loose ends when they receive opposing advice from people they respect. The thing is, I want to be teachable, but I don’t want to ignore my own gut, either. What’s a writer to do?

To be continued…

Circumnavigation

It’s been a million years since I’ve written a blog post. I finished the first draft of my most recent novel since the last time I checked in here, and it took all the mental energy I possessed. I wrote ‘The End’ on August 30th, just in time for my teenagers to head back to their co-op and dual enrollment classes, and for my other work responsibilities to heat up. Not a moment too soon. Not a brain cell to spare.

I have spent the time since then trying not to think about my novel. I want to forget what I’ve written so I can approach it with a modicum of surprise when it’s time to edit. But, of course, I’ve thought of little else. My characters people my daytime thoughts and my dreams, particularly if I’ve taken the occasional dose of ZzzQuil. If anything, they’re more real to me now than they were when I was bringing them into being less than a month ago.

Soon I will begin the familiar journey of hating, loving, and modifying what I penned in secret. It will be less taxing, in some ways, to edit my work than it was to create it but not less emotional. When I’ve done what I can do with the manuscript, I will send it to my agent. Again I will try not to think about it–because what’s done is done. I will try to fill my head with other things while I wait.

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But the story will stick in my mind like something I heard once, like something someone else made up a long time ago, until I’m struck by a new image in the fog. Then I will start down another path guided by a different star.

YA by Any Other Name…

I just finished Shirley Jackson’s novel We Have Always Lived in the Castle. I won’t do a proper book review here since you can read my thoughts on Goodreads (sidebar). I will say, however, that it’s striking to me that she’s writing for adults but using a teenager as her main character (and in first person, no less).

Today, publishers would put Castle in the YA category. But it isn’t.

Bear with me as I nerd out for a moment. Jackson wrote in the forties and fifties when there was no special reading category for teenagers. In her day, there were children’s books and books for adults. The age of the main character in a novel did not put the book in a special lane for “young adults”. This meant that any non-kid lit could, and often did, deal with serious themes, regardless of whether its protagonist was 12 or 35.

[Nowadays, publishers would call The Catcher in the Rye, Huckleberry Finn, and other classics with young protagonists YA fiction. They aren’t. These novels incorporate adult themes, some of which are easier to absorb because the characters living them out are young. In the end, though, they’re heavy books meant for grownups.]

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Why does it matter?

Okay, it doesn’t unless you’re a novelist like me who’s going the traditional publishing route. In my last novel, my main characters open the story as adult women, but at some point they go back in time. They sound like teenagers and process information like teenagers, but the novel itself is for adults. This can be a bit of a sticky wicket because of the YA category.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle reminded me that today’s publishing categories didn’t always exist. And, in many ways, they don’t matter unless a book is being marketed to the wrong group.

In that case, it matters a lot.

Still, I have to believe the best writing advice is to write what you love regardless of the name the industry gives it. Then, hopefully, the right readers will find it.

On Getting Unstuck

I usually write from home. I don’t have an office with a beautiful cherry desk with a globe on it. I have my bed. That’s where I’ve penned at least part of three previous novels (plus the one I’m working on now).

At some point in every project, though, I start to feel claustrophobic. I dread the idea of sitting on the same bedspread, looking at the same closet. I find I can’t concentrate–even in complete silence. So I go to the library.

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The library is a surprisingly noisy place these days. I’m not sure when it happened, but somewhere along the line, people stopped whispering there. They started answering their phones, coughing loudly, and watching YouTubes until, now, it’s almost as “atmospheric” as a coffee shop.

As an HSP, I find it’s not the sanctuary I might have hoped for.

Still, it has what my bedroom does not–thousands and thousands of other people’s books, which represent millions of hours of concentration, determination, and pure grit. And seeing those stacks filled with ideas-come-to-life helps me to get out of the creative doldrums and back to work.

Every time.

Next time you’re in a rut, think about how you might put yourself in a different setting for an hour or two–somewhere that might inspire you to remember why your work is important. It could just be the thing you need to get unstuck.

When It Comes to Nothing

Worry is a soul-killer and brain-washer. It makes us feel we’re doing something as it saps our strength and renders us lifeless.

Jesus said, “So do not worry about tomorrow; for tomorrow will care for itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”

We know this is true, but we still borrow sorrow from tomorrow, as my mother likes to say.

Even now, I find myself sliding into an anxious place–not because of some big thing, or even a thousand small things, but because I’m letting my mind drift.

(I don’t mean I’m letting myself daydream. I mean I’m inching into the land of the Mean What-If’s. It’s good for novel writing, but not good for real life.)

A friend posted this poem by Mary Oliver, and it came at just the right time (as good poetry so often does). Maybe it will speak to you, too.

As Ordinary as Fiction

I don’t normally write about my kids. I used to, but they’re teenagers now, and I’m trying to respect their privacy. Even so, my writing habits are punctuated by mothering episodes, and it’s hard to think about my creative life without also thinking about my parenting life.

My sisters read my novel recently. They said, “It feels like YA in some parts because of the teenage voices.” I thought that was funny. I didn’t set out to write about teenagers. It just happened because that’s my world right now.

So often, our creative lives are our ordinary lives and vice versa. We conceive ideas from of the soil of our liturgies. Novels are birthed after a million laundry-folding moments.

This is as it should be–life informing art, art taking its place among myriad other realities. I hope I always have people or things to take care of, duties that demand I escape the world of fiction and join the one in front of me.

It can only make my life and art better.

Tunneling Through

I wish I had this lil’ gadget on my forehead. It would be so helpful as I continue to press forward on draft 1 of my next novel.

And I have bangs, so I could hide it, sometimes.

Instead, I’ve been giving my loved ones vacant smiles. To be fair, I may have been doing that all along. In any case, I’m using the vast majority of my creative strength on a new project, and what’s left of me isn’t worth much.

On a happy note, my debut novel advanced to the finals of the ACFW Genesis contest in the contemporary fiction category. I’ll head to San Antonio in late September to attend the awards ceremony and, obviously, to see who wins.

It’s such a shot in the arm to get outside validation on one’s work, though we shouldn’t really need it. (That’s what we tell ourselves and each other, anyway. We’re human, though, and this kind of work often leaves us wondering if we’re living in outer space). To have made it to the finals gives me courage for my current project.

Anyway, I’ve promised myself I’m not going to fall off the face of the earth just because I’m in creation mode. It’s summer, after all, and I need to feel like I went outside some. Also, I don’t want to lose momentum in the blog world.

So here I am, popping my head above ground and saying hello.

Keeping On

Still over here hacking away at a new novel. I’m officially around 20% of the way finished. This one’s easier to write than the one before it. Still, I find I have to negotiate with my brain every, single day in order to make my word count.

This is with the wind at my back, friends.

I don’t know why I find it so hard to beat back Resistance, even when I’m in a predictable writing habit. I wish it weren’t so.

All work, even creative work, requires grit and determination, though. (And writing feels like work, sometimes, let me tell you).

So, here’s to keeping on keeping on. Whatever you have going in your life right now, may you find the wherewithal to continue with it until it’s time to move to the next thing.

On Staying in the Purple

I’ve started writing a new novel. I’m 11,000 words in to what I expect will be an 80,000-ish word project. Since I’m pumping out the chapters, I find myself with depleted verbal reserves (most often of which I access to lecture my teenagers). So I though I’d just share this today. Seems about right.

Staying in the purple ain’t easy, folks. But the alternative is moving to crazy town.