Tuesday, February 28, 2012

A House of Words

A book, I have come to believe, is rather like a house.

For the past six years I have been building a house of words from the ground up. I hammered every nail, placed every stone (at first I thought to write "brick" but the unique shapes of words, their roundness and roughness and varied colors make "stone" the better metaphor), and made every single design decision. Then I asked the advice of several friends and professionals. Their suggestions encouraged me to tear down and rebuild some stuff, rip out a wall or two, add some unusual landscaping and a distinctive path to the front door. These helped make my house better and stronger, more attractive, navigable, and liveable.

Then I found my wonderful agent, and she helped me see that I needed a fresh coat of paint and new carpets in order to give it that final spruce-up that would help it appeal to a certain kind of buyer. After that, we put this book-house on the market and showed it a few times. The buyers we approached were complimentary and appreciative, but still skittish. So we had a few more people look it over and give us ideas. We carefully picked and chose among those ideas and implemented the ones that seemed best.

But here's the thing: anyone who buys this house I've built is still going to want to paint it and change the carpets, even though we just did that. We did it to make it sell, but they will do it again to make it THEIRS. In all likelihood, I will have more changes to make that will come only after we make a sale. So I've come to realize that I need to save a little bit of passion and energy for that time or I'll never get through this crazy, lengthy process. And I also have to be careful not to tack on too many things that other people think might make it a better house.

Just because one potential buyer loves plants and another makes birdhouses as a hobby and another wants to entertain friends and still another likes lots of natural light doesn't mean that the buyer we find will want the house to come with an attached greenhouse and a bar in the basement and a woodworking studio and a whole bunch of skylights. If I start to add all of the different things to my house that could potentially make it appeal to a certain type of buyer, in the end no one will want it because it will have become a crazy hodge-podge.It will end up like The Burrow, Ron Weasley's family home. (No offense, Ron.)

So, anyway, that's the latest writing analogy I employ to help me sleep at night. I am a hard-working author, committed to making this book work, but at some point I have to step back and say DONE. I have to stop tinkering and wait for the buyer (who--surprise!--loves the house and wants to own it in the worst way) to tell me what finishing touches I need to add to make it a perfect fit.

Monday, February 20, 2012

What does success look like to you?

I have a good friend who has recently hit a publishing wall. She's a great writer, with a published book that was nominated for a major award. Her writing inspires me. Now she has a second book out on submission and the process is killing her confidence in the unique way that only the publishing industry can. What she describes feeling is common among writers, even the successful ones. We all simultaneously think we're something really special...and nothing at all. It doesn't make sense, but that seems to be the way of the creative mind.

If you are a writer, here's what I think you need to spend at least a little bit of time thinking about: What does "success" look like to you? I'm talking about in your heart-of-hearts, what does success look like? When you have that warm vision of you as a successful writer, where are you? What are you doing? In my daydream of success, I'm standing at a lectern, reading and answering questions and I have a large audience. So, that's "success" for me, it turns out, and that tells me that I am more interested in reaching people, in having an audience, and connecting with readers. Now for another writer, he might envision success as walking on stage and accepting a big award, or getting an excellent critical review of his work, or making the canon. Another writer might just see success as being able to find the time to write, alone, for long stretches. If you know what success looks like to you subconsciously, you can make changes in your work to push it in that direction.

You have limitations, you say? All writers have limitations, even the great ones. And most creative people are working through the same themes for the bulk of their lives. I just read John Irving's most recent book, and thirty-plus years later he is still rehashing the same themes--absent women, dastardly dogs, death of a child, and oral sex (usually taking place in a car) that goes horribly wrong. Every one of his books seems to have one or more of these issues creep in--but he's JOHN IRVING...and he's a writer with limitations.

When the negative responses start to come in, we can parse them for similarities. Do any of the publisher's responses ring true in terms of specific criticisms? Are there common complaints that can be addressed before the next round of submissions? I'm always amazed by the ways that small adjustments can make a huge difference to readers. (And help the writer to feel proactive instead of reactive.)

Alternatively--and this is a scary question, but bear with me--could it be time for you to give up? Maybe it is time to ask that awful question. Asking is just asking, just admitting to a possibility. Why not give up and see how it feels? No one has to know but you. Just stop caring and tell yourself you are never going to write another fricking word again, ever. Not one. Then see how that feels. Freeing? Good. Go with it. It is guaranteed to take you somewhere. I've given up about five times in my writing career. I do it once every three years or so. I simply swear off the stupid writing. What a relief!! I don't ever have to write again. Thanks be to God. And yet somehow I always come back to it. It's how I process the world, so I can't seem to not write. And when I come back to it after sincerely swearing off the writing, I come back with renewed vigor and fresh eyes because I know I'm doing it by choice. I usually feel less pressure when I come back, because hey, I quit writing, so who cares what my next "thing" looks like?

And my final words of wisdom...chances are good that you are actually closer than you have ever been before. Look behind you at the long road you have already traveled and imagine yourself back there at the start of it all. Wouldn't where you are now look like success to that far away writer? Here is what I told my friend: You have an agent who believes in you. Your work is being sent out and landing on the desks of big NYC editors. It's getting READ!!! CONSIDERED!! It only takes one yes. You've done your part, let the agent do the hard work now. And maybe it's best if you tell her to hold onto the responses for a while. Ask her not to tell you what they are until she has a common complaint that you can address. You don't need to read and obsess over the nuance of every single rejection. Let her do that, let her absorb the blows for a while. She's got more distance. It isn't her baby in the same way it is yours. It sounds like it is self-defeating and counterproductive for you to be kept apprised of the responses as they come in. Plenty of writers tell their agents they don't want to know, they just want to write. You could try that with this next round of subs and see how that works for you.

And in the end, maybe the truest sign of success is simply being able to write and not worry about how it is (or will be) received. Maybe we all need to remember that the real joy is in the writing.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

It's All About the Writing

Before I began writing full time, I was a production potter. I strove to create beautiful work that was also functional. For me, beauty and function have never been separate ideals. A pitcher that is easy to lift and pours a smooth stream of liquid without dripping is beautiful for how it becomes an extension of the hand, an aid to human intent and ability. Beauty, likewise, has its own unique function: to make us happy, to carry us beyond the mundane details of our daily lives, to engage our souls and help them briefly soar.

During my days as an MFA student studying creative writing, a beloved instructor gave me the following advice: "It's all about the writing." Focus on the writing, she said, and the rest will follow. She's a brilliant writer and a kind and generous soul, so I believed her. But I now believe that I took those words of hers too literally, as in, ONLY the writing is important. In today's publishing climate, this is not the case--if, in fact, it ever was.

I'm not only referring to the fact that agents and publishers want to know if you have 1) a "platform" (i.e. some claim to fame beyond the writing, preferably still related to the writing) from which they can help you to launch your writing, 2) if you have a blog, 3) how many Facebook friends you have, and 4) how many Twitter followers.

No, I think what I'm talking about is the fact that readers crave beautiful writing, yes, but they also want good, solid characterization, they want a functional story. And why shouldn't they? I want those things in my reading, too. Writing beautiful descriptive passages has never been a problem for me. I've got that pretty much nailed. But it isn't enough to keep a story hanging together. It isn't enough to fully transport the reader.

I'm a stubborn person. I know this about myself. For those of you who follow such things, I'm a Taurus, so yeah, bullheaded and all that. But I can be taught. I can learn. And what I have learned from my novel currently out on submission is that it is "beautifully written," and that I am a "wonderful writer"...and yet... somehow it isn't fully capturing the reader. It doesn't quite deliver that fictive world that readers want to inhabit for 200 pages.

Until now.

I've spent weeks revising with this in mind, that it isn't only about the writing. It is also about the character and what he/she wants more than anything in the world. It's about the experiences in life that brought her to this critical crossroads and inform the choices she makes, good or bad, from here on out. And it's about how she is changed, and by extension how the readers is changed, before the final page is turned.

I feel like I get it now. I finally, finally understand. And so I'm taking all that beautiful writing and making it just a little bit more functional. A little less likely to drip when poured. I can hardly wait to send it out and see.