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.
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…
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.]
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.
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.
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.
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.
On Saturday night, I got a voicemail from a writing contest coordinator. I’d entered a big thing and, it turns out, my novel made it to the semi-finals.
The writing life is one in which a person can go a long time without any kind of outside validation. It’s hard to tell whether your writing is “good enough,” hard to find an agent, hard to break into traditional publishing.
Hard to keep going, sometimes.
So the news about the contest came at a good time. It made me feel I’m on to something, that my story resonates and is well-written. Four days later, however, I got my first ‘no’ from a major publisher. They asked if I had any other novels to show them (which, I guess, is a kind of compliment since it means they liked my writing). Still, a rejection.
It made me feel like I might have been kidding myself, that my story is confusing or weird, that it’s poorly written.
I didn’t cry, but I felt like someone had punched me in the gut.
But then two creatives whose careers I’ve followed died this week. They were young. One was a multi-published author with a big following. I felt sick and unsettled.
In my grief and shock, I decided, once again, that I’m not going to allow my life to be consumed with things that don’t matter in the end. I’m not going to be ruled by the ups and downs of the writing/publishing life.
I refuse. (Of course, I’ve refused before, so I’ll need to be reminded when the next big thing happens).
I’m here to say: I have an agent who’s great, a novel that is winning awards and is on submission to big houses, and I have a growing platform. These are the things I would have salivated over last year. Now that they’re my reality, though, I’m no happier than I was. I still worry about the next thing. What if a publisher doesn’t understand what I’m trying to do? What if I get published and no one buys my book? What if they buy my book and hate it? Or worse, don’t care at all?
My life could be over tomorrow. Or today. I refuse to spend it hand wringing about things I cannot control.
In the end, there are more important things than whether I’m published or not. And being published will not end up making me happy.
Our semester is dying. We are not finished with the teacher/student things of this world, but we can feel our minds letting go, anyway.
In times like these, I find myself 1). staring out the window at the ivy we planted to cover our chainlink fence, and 2). looking for shows on Netflix. I’m okay with staring at the ivy. I’m not proud of the Netflix shopping. I realize I may be the last person in the U.S. to feel shame of any kind–especially shame over Netflix, but here we are.
Anyway, I found an Australian show awkwardly titled Bringing Sexy Back. It’s like Biggest Loser only with one or two contestants whose main goal it is to become “healthier” (which everyone knows really means to get thin and look hot). I have binge watched this show for the last two nights, and I hate myself for it.
It’s supposed to be heartwarming and fun, but it’s actually profoundly depressing. To begin with, the hosts make people who hate their bodies stand in spandex on a stage before a live audience. The contestants are forced to see how fat they are in numbers and percentages, and most of them cry. Then, to address the problem, a trainer makes them work out so hard broken capillaries crop up under their eyes. Since no one can sustain that level of exercise for the rest of her life, this seems like a cruel and non-permanent solution to being fat. Plus, it’s humiliating.
The rest of the show is pretty predictable. When they’ve lost enough weight to be considered okay, the thinner-than-before contestants get their hair and makeup done and wear fashionable clothes (that, honestly, still look ill-fitting half the time). Their loved ones watch them process down a catwalk, and it’s their turn to sob. They gasp and praise, and it feels like our contestants have finally won the right to be accepted.
In the end, though, even after chair squats and chicken cutlets, the contestants stand on the stage, uneven, wobbly human beings with wrinkles and the occasional jacked-up tooth. The “shocking” transformations they’ve undergone are–am I allowed to say it?–sort-of meh. So many burpees for meh.
It makes me sad. Because, also? After the show, these people are going to battle loose skin, swallow endless, well-chewed bites of salad, work out until their knees are shot, and, eventually, get old and die. That’s their future–and mine. And while I’m not saying people shouldn’t care about their health and take charge of it, I am saying our bodies don’t stay the way we want them to.
They get old and fat or too thin or wracked with cancer. We can’t put our hope there.
Give me conversion stories or aha moments or just about anything that deals with the inner person, the soul that endures. Turns out, I’d take those over watching someone hate-lose 50 lbs and wear bronzer on TV.
This is my life at 41. Even when I’m bored, I want to think about things that will last.
Friends who live in South Africa stayed in our home recently. The last one left last night, and they will head back across the ocean in a short while. It was a sweet, if crowded, time of relearning about the world and discovering, once again, how similar people are no matter where they live. We were reminded that true friends are like canned goods. They keep.
Having others in my home is stretching, though. Even if they don’t mean to, our guests (and we’ve had many) hold a mirror in front of me. They cause me to notice my routines, my “must-haves” and quirks, in new ways. The fact that we have to have music playing during every meal? That’s not normal, turns out. Our multiple-pots-of-coffee mornings where even the teenagers imbibe like addicts? Different. The way I fold underwear. The fact that I fold underwear.
It can be a little uncomfortable to see myself and my habits through someone else’s eyes. This is not necessarily because I’m doing things wrong, but because I thought I knew myself well. Turns out, I’m often on autopilot. I fail to notice things. I can be a little (lot?) blind, sometimes…
Like a good spring cleaning, letting others into my personal space can bring on a life audit. It’s easier to discern which things I want to keep and which I could possibly let go when I’ve lived up close with someone who does things differently. It produces growth, which, yes, can be painful. But the alternative is stagnation and status quo. I’m not interested in those.
So I’m thankful for the last ten days for several reasons, among them the chance to see myself and my loved-ones more clearly.