Life (Or Something Like It)

I hesitated before deciding to write this post, not because of the words that follow, but because this is a writing blog, and a personal post about my life just seemed a little indulgent. But then I remembered good writing is all about tapping into truth, and what could possibly be truer than the life we’re living?

Well, mine has been…interesting. Some of you know that last May I took on the responsibility of caring full-time for my Granddaughter, Harper. (She turned five in December, three days after Christmas. I know, right? December birthdays. Sigh. think I’ll introduce half-birthdays this year.) The first two months or so, I dedicated my time 24/7 to helping Harper overcome some emotional and psychological challenges that resulted from her previous situation, and also to help her with speech issues that had plagued her since her first word. (No, I won’t go into detail here – but suffice it to say she didn’t have much consistency in her little life in the preceding year.)

(For the record, there will be lots of parenthetical stuff in this post. Think of it as carefully-considered words, not meant to stir up conversation or controversy, but to gently inform. Okay? Thanks.)

Did I mention that I’m on my own? I’m not married, nor do I have a significant other [call me, Kate Beckinsale] who can play a support role in this. (Going on 11 years of singleness and solitude and loneliness in that regard. That’s another story – one for the movies – and one that I won’t share on this blog. Feel free to piece it together from the spaces between the words in my fiction writing. Then cry a tear or two if you’re into that sort of thing.)

Well, I’d already scheduled a full slate of editing projects for the summer, so those had to be delayed, and the ones on the heels of those as well. There’s absolutely no way to “edit faster” if you’re committed to giving both the book and the author your best. All the deadlines went down like dominoes. My meager savings (meant to buy me a month to write my next novel) quickly disappeared, and I was just hanging by a thread there for a while, at least financially. The good news is that when you’re totally consumed with trying to remember how to parent a young child and figure out how to pay the bills without a regular income, there’s little time left to remember you suffer from depression.

Meanwhile (I could do lots of “meanwhiles” here, but I’ll just do this one), I had just released a novel, Stolen Things, which I self-published because I couldn’t find an agent who was willing to take a chance on it (though a few truly wanted to, for what that’s worth). All my clever marketing plans went up in smoke, as did that plan to work on the next book, Beautiful Sky, Beautiful Sky. (It will be worth the wait – I promise.)

I love writing. (And of course, having written.) But writing, along with my income-producing editing work – which I love nearly as much – had been flipped on their heads and all my writerly dreams – of marketing my ass off to get onto the bestseller charts with Stolen Things, of making the next book so good agents would fight over it – evaporated. Yes, I know, the right word is “delayed,” but in the middle of wrestling with the chaos, “evaporated” is what it felt like. Feels like, still, sometimes.

And so here I am, seven months down the road, playing single-parent at 57, not counting on that to change, but still hoping for good things, and still doing my best to keep moving forward. It’s not easy. But what is? (Don’t even get me started on the mess that politicians are making of the country I love and for the people I care about.) That’s probably the only lesson I can give you in the middle of this post. It’s far from original, but it’s about as true as true gets: Life isn’t easy. Writing isn’t easy, either. But if you have to press pause on one, choose writing.

I get mildly upset when I read advice from “successful” writers telling those of us still angsting for that modifier that to be a real writer you have to write every day.

Bullshit.

If you write every day and that’s how you get where you want to be, good for you. But life doesn’t care if you have a dream of selling a million books, or getting a hundred five-star reviews, or being touted by Neil Gaiman as a brilliant, if underrated writer. (Fingers crossed.) Life just does what it does and sometimes it drags you away from your dreams to care for a little girl who needs all of you.

I have written exactly 346 words in my novel since May. Am I still a writer? Damn right I am. And someday you’ll have more evidence of that. Until then, I’ll be raising a young reader-dancer-firefighter-whatever-she-wants-to-be-today while chipping away at all the missed freelance deadlines (many apologies to my long-suffering clients, and many thanks as well for your continued patience) and hoping for an hour here or there to write more of my next book.

And that will have to be good enough.

I’ll leave you with this: Write as much as you can. Be intentional about it. But first, live.

Dear Reader Who Didn’t Love My Book…

Dear Reader Who Didn’t Love My Book,

First of all, thank you. You took a risk on me. I really appreciate that. Asking a stranger to read your novel is just about the hardest thing we writers have to do. (Apart from writing query letters.) So when someone actually decides to purchase a book, we experience a rare and wonderful gratitude that you decided to take the plunge.

A rare and wonderful gratitude that is quickly buried by an avalanche of anxiety.

See, here’s the thing: I want to have written the book just for you. I do. But there’s a good chance I didn’t. It’s not that I don’t respect your personal taste in fiction – I am a cheerleader for diversity in books and the people who read them. Love what you love, and do so unapologetically. But whenever someone picks up my book, I reach for a tremulous hope that it will be the next thing you love unapologetically.

When it is? Well, we’ve just proven that magic is real. That’s the only word to adequately describe the inexplicable connection between writer and reader. Somehow a writer finds a story and manages to write it down, and then a reader – usually a complete stranger – finds herself in that story. How did she get there?

Magic.

I’m pretty sure when you picked up my book, you were hoping for magic. Otherwise, why read a book at all? Okay, there are other reasons. But magic is the best reason. So you started reading, and maybe a few pages in – or perhaps as late as a few chapters – you started to get a sinking feeling, a gut-level ache that told you my book was absent magic.

I’m sorry you didn’t find yourself in my words. I mean that, sincerely. After all, you invested time and money in hopes of making a connection. Do I still believe in my book? Yes. Usually just slightly more than I believe I’m a hack. (It’s a writer thing.) True, my ego gets bruised from time to time when people say they didn’t love the fruit of months, sometimes years of hard work. But I won’t spend even one second trying to convince you why you’re wrong. Because you’re not.

I didn’t write it for you. Wish I could have warned you of that in advance. (My time machine is on the fritz, else I would.)

I truly hope the next book you read is chock full o’ magic. Meanwhile, feel free to share your non-magical experience in a review. A thoughtful negative review is just as valuable to a writer as a thoughtful positive one. Your words probably won’t change my approach to writing, but they will remind me of an important and universal literary truth: no book is for everyone.

And that’s okay.

Happy reading.

Sincerely,

The Author

 

Why

It’s a common response to the big “why” question. I hear it all the time. I’ve used it myself once or twice.

“I write because I have to.”

But unless someone is pressing your fingers to the keyboard, it’s simply untrue. Even for those of you who are facing a looming deadline. You don’t have to meet that deadline. Really, you don’t. Yeah, you’ll ruin your editor’s day, and you could theoretically lose your publishing deal, but no one is forcing you to give up binge-watching “Jennifer Jones” in order to finish chapter sixteen – the one where that thing happens you haven’t yet thought of that makes the whole novel work.

No one is forcing you to write. Not your muse. Not your mother. Not your editor. Not your existential angst. Not some insuppressible gut-level compulsion. (You should see a therapist about that. Or a gastroenterologist.)

Writing is always a choice.*

Then why write? Don’t answer that. It was a rhetorical question. For you, I mean. It’s not rhetorical for me, because I’m going to give you the correct answer. Two, actually.

Here’s the first. The writer-focused answer:

To find out what happens.

Some of you will get this right away. (You can stop reading now.) Others will mumble, “Oh, I already know what happens.” Hmm…really? Maybe you’re one of those oh-so-organized plotters and you have bullet points describing every little thing that happens from page one to The End. Cool. I’m happy for you. But that doesn’t change my answer.

You didn’t know all that plotstuff when the idea for your book fell into your head, did you? No, you didn’t. Plotting is at its core an exercise in “finding out what happens.”

See? Told you.

But that isn’t the only reason “to find out what happens” is the right answer. You also write to find out what happens to you, to your life as a writer, hell, to your life in general. Will this novel make sense? Will it be “the one”? Will it find an audience? Will you grow as a writer? Will you become besties with Stephen King? Will you change the world? Will you give up writing altogether?

There are a million discoveries waiting for you as you write…and some of them are actually about the story.

I said there were two correct answers to the “why write?” question. Here’s the other one. The “reader-focused” answer:

To help me go places. By “me” I mean specifically me (I’m selfish that way), but also metaphorically all of the “me’s” – the readers.

A well-told story can take readers to places they might not otherwise be able to go. I don’t just mean physical locations – though I can’t imagine any other way I’ll get to Mars. I’m mostly talking about emotional places. Heartbreak. Hope. Love. Despair. Wonder. Loneliness. Belonging. Joy. Those places.

Some of us [raises hand] struggle to feel things in the real world. Maybe that’s because we’ve suffered more than our fair share of feelings and numbness is the only safe place left [hand still raised]. We still want to feel – after all, that’s what makes us human – but the cost in the real world is too high. That’s where you come in. Your story gives people like me a safe place to feel. The emotions we experience when reading fiction are just like those we experience in real life, but much more affordable.

You could look at it this way: when you write, you are providing a much-needed service for the feeling-impaired.

The bottom line is ultimately quite simple: You don’t have to write. But you probably should. 

 

*I put an asterisk at the end of that sentence so you would look down here for an exception to the rule. Because you are the exception, right? Well, I don’t have an exception for you. Sorry. You’ll have to work that out on your own.