Writing: Getting My Money’s Worth

 

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It was clear what I was going to write about today–friendship, perhaps a specific friend, current or past. First I shopped at Goodwill with a daughter, then got a few groceries. I worried a bit about having the afternoon free to tackle my subject. Once home, however, I realized laundry needed to be done. After I got that going, I was hungry so took my time eating yogurt and some trail mix for a late lunch. Then I tidied up and that led to lingering over several childhood pictures I’d left on my desk when searching for my passport. Then I stared at the stacks of books and wondered which ones should go into a “Still to Read This Summer” pile. I was able to resist the urge to go through them that moment. Things could wait; I needed to write.

It was four o’clock in the afternoon and I hadn’t put one word on the page. How many more ways could writing be avoided? Not many more; I write something every day. Besides, I am committed to writing two prose pieces (one fiction, one non-fiction) and two short poems weekly for my blogs.

I have many topics for non-fiction. I don’t maintain a list but they gather and file themselves in my mind. From the moment I awaken cogitation about writing begins and today was no exception.

But one topic kept nagging me: how does one continue being a writer despite those dreaded black times when a project or piece seems to be going nowhere, few who know you even care, those who have authority deem your work less than worthy or worse, and your toil and effort seem wasted even to yourself?

I recently decided to pay a well-known editor to assess the first one hundred pages of my first completed novel, the one that I began in 1999 (perhaps before). I had deferred it a long while; it’s an expensive service. I had researched editors off and on, so when I finally found someone I respected, had met before and appreciated and who was willing to look at my work sooner rather than later, I dug up the money. Yes, you read it right: I cannot afford to pay for editing of over five hundred pages of my novel. It made sense that the opening chapters would provide enough material for J. to deeply scrutinize themes, some basic character development, voice, plot development and dramatic arcs, mechanics, and so on. I would take her evaluation and use it to improve things. Or not.

I had felt for the last decade that it lacked what it needed. I had gone through over the entire five hundred pages with a fine-toothed comb at least seven times; smaller cuts and alterations occurred sometimes daily. When sharing it in writing groups, I received mixed responses, much helpful feedback. Around five years ago I stopped revising and mulling it over. I was sick and tired of it, despite the devotion pledged to it. I was busy working on other projects, sending out other manuscripts. But my first novel, Other Than Words, sat untouched until I found J. I had to know if having had an excerpt published and nominated for a Pushcart Prize was a strong enough indicator that the novel could succeed, or if it needed to be rewritten. Or even trashed.

After two weeks J. got back to me with a six page summary and painstaking notations. Somehow, before I opened the email and documents, I knew to steel myself. Afterall, I’d been unhappy with it long before hiring her.

Essentially, she stated the pages fail in critical ways. They don’t move fast enough, offer enough dramatic hooks, are too interior, need more of a traditional plot structure than what I aimed to accomplish. Not only that, the female protagonist of this two-part novel was “unlikable and tiresome by page 100.” That was a bit miserable to hear although the character was supposed to be difficult at the start. She evolves over the course of the story and is even admirable, I think, and loveable–much later. But point taken. The reader has to empathize and be intrigued by charcters to even continue to read. How could I have missed that elementary truth?

I finished the summary of insights and suggestions. It was clear she had put in a lot of effort and given me clear indicators of strengths (there were a few of those) and weaknesses (more than I’d hoped). Her words carried the authority she has in the business. She also noted I have talent, that the concept is fascinating and she appreciated themes noted in the synopsis. I saw those words the second time I read her summary and it helped.

It needs a thorough re-write and I got what I paid for and more. J. gave it acute attention. The novel can only benefit. I started to consider other corrective actions I could make, ways I could re-write the story so it is no longer two parts, change the characters to better reflect the themes and, of course, add more surefire action. The editor’s feedback was crucial in clarifying where it stands, what it needs to deliver the goods and how I might hit the target when submitting to an agent one day.

Book by Pat Walsh
Book by Pat Walsh

I may not do a thing to it. A first novel is just that–an amateur’s attempt at writing a story that is predominantly autobiographical despite attempts to clothe it otherwise. If the basic premise is good and the storyline intriguing it has life in it. Yet how much more time and sweat do I have left for this?

And there are other parts to this story. That blasted tightness in the chest when reading J.’s words. The hope that the editing suggestions would get easier and perhaps gentler the longer I read. The realization that despite her stated appreciation of my ability, she was telling me it was not at all good enough. After read-through of the writing itself with edits, I felt first intrigued, then tired out. Then I felt the deep and irritating discontent seep into me, then the sense of doom that comes from fearing ultimate failure, and the thought blinding my mind in neon caps that no matter how hard I work, there will always be something that needs fixing.

And that overarching question came to the fore. Why bother writing at all? If it does not pass muster despite talent and hard work, if someone I so respect informs me it is not great quality, what then? More toil the next five years? Is there any guarantee it will be good enough then to snag an agent, perhaps be published? Since the fourth grade (when I garnered an award for writing and discovered writing’s intoxicating effects) I’ve spent my life working on the craft of writing. Sometimes submitting work and occasionally being published, reading my work at public readings, attending writers conferences and workshops, talking to other writers about their processes, reading books on writing and publishing. Tearing up countless attempts at mastery.

There is absolutely no guarantee any one will want to publish my writing or anyone else’s who is not already well-known.

I attended a couple of lectures at yet another writers conference this week. On the blackboard was: “Agents are our friends.” But they told us what I had already heard. Whose work is selected from a slush pile is random in that they never know what will stoke their curiosity, what will be deemed original and exceptional, what will be seen as marketable enough. Well, unless someone referred you to them or your work has been in literary journals of real note. There are just too many people sending manuscripts to them and limited time and staff.

Yes, they mean to support us in our quest for greater readership–it is to their advantage, as well. But who in that audience might be taken under their wings was a mystery. We all can name books that are published though poorly written or boring, then make a lot of money–and books that are excellent, make little and disappear. And millions of writers worldwide who strive to hone their craft yet don’t ever see a thing in print. It’s enough to stop anyone from wanting to be a writer.

Not writing doesn’t interest me, however. Habit alone dictates it after writing for well over fifty years. I didn’t find enough time or energy to intensely pursue publishing when raising five children and working, struggling as a single mother off and on. Now perhaps I do. All I know is that writing makes my blood run well. It sparks circuits of energy in my brain. It nourishes serenity and fulfillment. The work of writing opens up access to information about people, place, the very nature of creativity and the presence of God.  The actions of idea to hand to paper unveil new ways to experience the universe and our place in it.Writing is alchemy of a sort so potent that words have been able to change the course of history, heal, enlighten, entertain, educate, provoke, liberate. To be able to write and to read is revolutionary. I want always to be a part of it.

That heavy cloud settled a few days, then thinned. It has nearly vanished. When the discouragement creeps in I have to take a break from myself and pay attention to the bigger picture. My money was well-spent on J.’s expertise. I learned more than I expected. Now questions proliferate what I need and want to do now with my writing hours. I may revive Other Than Words once more–my unlikable female protagonist who was struck by tragedy still has good things to say. I might, instead begin a new novel–a title that popped into my head already has me plotting away. In the end I may stick other genres.

While I am at it, it might serve me well to re-read some of the best writing books I’ve accumulated. A few have stayed unopened; it’s possible within those pages I will gain more useful tips. But giving up has never been an option. Stories still arrive and allow me to tell them. This is why writers write, after all.

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(Thanks to brilliant as well as good-hearted J.M.)

Fealty: Definition 2. Faithfulness; allegiance

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I am often jolted from sleep, words blazing in my brain, sometimes whole phrases or poems that demand their places in my notebook. I obey, lest they slip away to the vast hinterland of dreaming once more. I hope they will stay in place on paper, releasing me so I can return to rest, but they often pursue me until given the gift of freedom. Which means: a life to call their own. This ultimately requires my attention in the waking life. The day has begun and I am glad of it.

But this morning was the sort of re-entry into daily life that I would rather avoid. I rose from murky consciousness toward a sheerness of wakefulness as sunlight tried to illuminate my thinking. My eyes remained closed against the morning as a weightiness threatened to hold me hostage. Unbidden words passed through the darkness under my eyelids: The music is over; your voice was lost. Too much means less and less. Travelling alone without one good compass ends good journeys. Who can even see your footsteps upon the earth?

All the things I don’t like and who among us would? Uncertainty, the remnants of loss, weariness, old hurts that reconvene like a war council. Unease remained as I pushed out memories that can still haunt me, the times when problems didn’t resolve despite earnest effort. The errors of judgment that hollowed out places where defeat still can burrow. I called on God of all, of east, west, north and south, God within and without, Jesus who finds and comforts me, reminds me of revolutionary love.

Capture all old tears and bring them back to me as shining orbs. Set me straight. Let me see again, a woman without misgiving.

My eyelids flickered and the room in its blueness came forward. The variety of pictures greeted me. Morning was grounded as light slipped over my hands and feet. I let the scattered threats fly away. But not before one more word lodged itself where the others had lain in wait.

Fealty. I knew the word from somewhere. Fealty. Didn’t it have something to do with truth? Or…money?

It presented itself many times as I prepared for the day. With a fragrant mug of tea beside me, I picked up The American Heritage Dictionary. I opened the volume.It was there, the word, right on the page before me. Out of all the pages that might have been interesting to read first, the dictionary opened to this page.

I read the first meanings: “1. a. The loyalty of a vassal to his feudal lord. b. The obligation of such loyalty.” I immediately recalled watching an historical drama, “The White Queen”, the previous night and believed I heard the word there. But, wait, a second meaning: “2. Faithfulness; allegiance.”

I sat back, held the mug between both hands and sipped. The words ran through me. Spoke to me. What am I faithful to? What loyalties means the most  and what am I called to do? Where is the allegiance that matters no matter what? My family, yes, of course, and friends. Then, as though unearthed from beneath the unwanted sourness, came this: Divine Love. Compassion and the causes of mercy and enduring hope. Celebration of all that the Creator gave us. And this fierce passion to write.

How foolish I can be, a small soul making my way through the unbearable and marvelous phantasmagoria of life. Fortunately I am still teachable.

This is the life I most care about, the one I choose. This morning began as a puzzle tossed into disarray, then reassembled in one swift movement. The day and my place in it came together again. I have my  compass. I have notebook and pen. A guiding Hand, an angel, a sudden crack in the dark that allows the right clues admittance to my heart.

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What Circles At the Edges of the Story

The room was large enough to seat hundreds but there was only one more person I was seeking. I headed to the left until I spotted her name on the table. She was checking her phone. I breathed deeply and composed myself. My mind was stilled and all I could see was her blonde head. As soon as I approached, she gave me a welcoming smile, then spoke my name. As I would at any important interview, I held out my  hand and returned the favor.

But it wasn’t an ordinary interview, not the sort that might land me a nice job. It was a pitch, which essentially is a sales pitch of a writer’s book. I was attending Willamette Writers Conference for the third time; she was literary agent number five.

It had once more taken me weeks of rumination and a couple of days of intensive, systematic work to prepare a two paragraph summary of an entire plot. It had to interest her enough that her eyes would not glaze over and her mind wander. Enough that she would ask for pages to read.

I had finally boiled it down to a few choice sentences that introduce the two protagonists, Sophia and Cal, what they need and what they had to rise above to get it. That wasn’t impossible, just challenging. I know my characters so well after years of writing and revising that they live their lives vividly in my waking and dreaming. Sophia is a dancer and choreographer who stops speaking when her husband, a respected biologist, drowns one night in a lake near the village of Snake Creek. But no one knows what really happened except one witness, her dog. Cal is a successful photojournalist who returns to Snake Creek after his friend and mentor disappears in the Amazon jungle. He has lost the desire to take photographs, and lost himself in his risk-taking, globe-trotting lifestyle. Then he runs into Sophia crossing the street.

So, I tell this to the open-faced, encouraging woman sitting across from me, but with the quiet passion I feel for this story. For it isn’t just about two people who meet and become catalysts for change. It is about dreams lost and found, about the power of speaking the truth. It is about domestic violence and addiction and the myriad ways people can and do recover and heal from great loss. It was written in part because I believe that trauma and the resultant grief and pain one feels does not need to defeat people, or stop them from living happier, fulfilled lives. Instead, a process of reinvention can occur through creative activities, spiritual nourishment, and the balm of nature’s wisdom. Connection to a caring community can become a lifeline, a safety net. And forgiveness happens even though the world tends to believe justice is often tied to revenge. The justice that Sophia and Cal discover rises up from courage and compassion.

But I don’t have time to say all this. She asks me some questions and I fill in a few details, climactic scenes. And then she asks: “Why this? What qualifies you to write about these subjects?” So I tell her. It is my life work; my specialty is working with women and men who have been beaten down, even brutalized, and seek relief in alcohol, drugs and other addictions. And I have seen them get better, stronger and even laugh again.

I want to say: I, too, have been there. I know how the dark can make you blind or grant you night vision if you choose to learn and adapt, and how the faintest glimmers of light finally bring you to your feet and out of the maze of misery. But I am too circumspect and this is not the place for this, perhaps.

So I say: we all suffer. No one is immune to sorrow and rage over life and what it can bring. And yet we usually go on. It is worth writing about.

I only have ten minutes and time is running out. Still, we are suddenly talking about books we like, authors we admire, and when the timekeeper comes by, the agent with the soft smile and clear blue eyes gives me her card which I look over as she asks for twenty-five pages.

“I am intrigued,” she says, “so I want to read more. If I like those pages, I will request the whole manuscript.”

So, I left with excitement and joy in my heart, right? Not so. I left with a sense of one tiny step forward. I have gotten this far before and nothing came of it. I have submitted many stories, poems, and creative non-fiction over the years; a handful have been published. Every writer knows that it is a crap shoot, that what an editor or agent likes is likely to be something other than what you have to offer.

But this novel is another thing. I have worked on it for twelve years, in between and around other projects. After getting home from ten long hours of paid work, at night, with dinner plate by the computer. On my days off. When sick and tired. It has undergone at least ten revisions. It is still too long. I always see something that can be improved. But I do not tire of Sophia and Cal and their lives in the woods surrounding Ring Lake. Or of the village of Snake Creek, the residents’ adventures, failures and triumphs.

So why, a week after the conference, do I sit here and write a blog post instead of further cleaning up the manuscript and sending it off happily? Because it is still mine as I examine and savor it again. It speaks to me as an old companion. It came from a place deep within, where what really matters to me lives free. I have cut and tossed out parts many times, a word here, a paragraph there, using the sharp knife of a rational mind, trying to make it shine even more. I have worked with other writers for months who have given excellent feedback. But it may not be excellent enough yet. It may fail to inspire the agent enough that she has to know what really happens to Sophia and Cal and the village that shields secrets while designing hope for the future.

So there is it: in my hands this novel’s life is still safe. Once sent out into the world of the publishing business, it may falter, even sink. As I write this post, there are wraiths of doubt slinking around the edges of this novel. There is still my lack of ironclad belief that someone will read it and be glad of it, then help it arrive in print.

It seems part of the creative life, this terrible self-doubt that arrives despite hard work and denial of it. But no risk, no gain is one of the elementary rules of life learned and I know it to be true. We just keep creating. Besides, if the story was enough to keep me writing all these years, it surely will be enough for someone, some day, to take a chance on it.

I will get down to business this week-end and scrutinize the first twenty-five pages to make certain they are the very best I have to offer. Finally, I will send them off while I start work on a short story. Or a poem. A new novel. In fact, I look forward to being taken on a new journey with yet-unknown characters who are searching for something that remains hidden from me only until I place words on a clean sheet of paper. There is just no greater task–and  joy–if writing is in your blood.