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