Next Table Please

The writer community is a lot like a high school cafeteria. Not because of the food (although your w.i.p. diet of Cheetos and Dr. Pepper does bring back fond and/or frightening adolescent memories), but because of the cliques. For the purpose of this blogpost, we’ll use a different term: Tables of Earned Privilege.

Chances are you’re sharing a Table of Earned Privilege with Writers of Similar Experience. Let’s say you’re a self-published author. I mean the kind who hires an editor and a cover designer and a copyeditor and cares enough to produce something of quality, not the kind who throws a first draft at Amazon and suddenly thinks himself the next Stephen King. (Those particular writers are sitting at a different table – the Table of Delusion. It’s in the Janitor’s closet.) You’re seated at the Making a Go Of It And I Really Mean It Table. Look around your table. See any traditionally-published A-list authors?

Hey, stay focused here. Your eyes are wandering. I get it, there are some really cool tables.

Like that one with all the pizza and wine. That’s the Hocking-Howey Table of Self-Publishing Success. (It’s a somewhat honorary title, since they both also have seats at another table I’ll describe in a moment, long after this metaphor has exceeded its sell-by date*.) They’re a good bunch of folks, eager to engage in writerly conversation. They were you once. But let’s be realistic – one of the reasons for their success is all the time they spend writing and editing and marketing. So if they don’t have time to chat, don’t fret. You can always visit their website or buy their “How I Made It” book to pick up a few tips. I don’t mean that snarkily. Many of these folks have really good advice.

Or look at that table with all the home-made food and a box or two of Chinese take-out. That’s the Barnes & Noble™ New Book Table of Mid-List Authors. They’re a kind-hearted, sincere, yet surprisingly anxious bunch. If you study them for a while, you’ll see them stealing glances at the Hocking-Howey table, wishing their personal budgets allowed for Pizza Whenever, too. They’ll chat with you if you tell them how much you love their books, or if you manage to say something clever and/or re-tweetably hilarious. But don’t expect to sit with them for long. There’s only so much room at the table. (“But it’s a huge table,” you argue. Yep. And yet they’re always one seat short. It’s like a perpetual game of musical chairs.) Besides, they feel most comfortable talking amongst themselves, sharing encouragement and contract horror stories while they pass the potatoes and scratch-made gravy. Keep watching, though. They’ll often wander off to visit another table. Yes,  the one you’re pretty sure is catered by Ruth’s Chris Steak House, though it might be Outback Steak House – it’s hard to tell from this distance.

That would be the Limited-Seating-Available Table of A-List Authors. Oh, they don’t call it that themselves. They’re mostly really nice people who don’t have much inclination to live up to their iconic status. The best ones are happy to wander around the cafeteria to chat when they have a rare, spare moment. They love writing and writers. But once again, there’s only so much time left for such things, what with the TED talks, the multitude of ancillary projects, the sold-out book signings, the month-long writing retreats in Bora Bora and the wistful moments staring across a mirror-still lake at twilight remembering what it was like to be anonymous.

Pretty much everyone in the cafeteria is a hardworking writer just like you. Some are more talented. Some are more prolific. Some just happened to be in the right place at the right time. But they aren’t jerks who would rather get a one-star review than be seen chatting at your table. (Well,  most of them, anyway.) They’re just doing the best they can with what they have, wherever they sit. So it shouldn’t be too disheartening when your tweet to an author who sits at a different table goes un-favorited, un-responded to.

Of course, it often is disheartening. We say we write because we love to write; that even if we never find success we’ll keep writing. But we say it while staring longingly across the cafeteria. We want to sit where the coolest** kids sit.

Maybe someday you will. But you won’t get there by staring longingly at them across the cafeteria. You’ll get there by writing. A lot. You’ll get there by engaging with other writers, no matter where they sit. You’ll get there because of your talent. Or your hard work. Or because you happen to be in the right place at the right time.

But if you don’t? That’s okay too. Because Cheetos are delicious and all tables are suitable for writing. Yes, even the one in the janitor’s closet.

 

*I’m aware the table-lines aren’t so neatly drawn in reality. But I liked the metaphor. I’m a big fan of metaphors. Especially imperfect ones. They go nicely with my collection of incomplete thoughts and broken dreams. 

**Each of us has a unique definition of “coolest.” You might think the author who sells a quintillion novels is coolest. I might think the author who can burp the alphabet in Klingon is coolest. (Is that even possible?)

 

 

Exercising the Why

Let’s say you’re in a coffee shop. I think we can all agree that’s a reasonable assumption.

A four-year-old girl walks up to you. She’s a precocious curly-headed moppet with curious blue eyes and a surprisingly accurate sixth sense about strangers. She knows you’re the non-dangerous type, despite the army of wrinkle-lines marching across your face while you sort through a particularly tricky plot point.

“What are you doing?” she asks. Because that’s what a precocious curly-headed moppet with curious blue eyes does. She asks questions. She hasn’t learned filters yet. Thank God. Because you need her to ask these questions.

“Writing,” you answer.

“What are you writing?”

“A novel.” She squishes her face because she doesn’t know that word, so you try again. “I’m writing a story.”

“Why?”

“Because I’m a writer.”

“Why?”

You open your mouth, but no words come out. This is the kind of question you need a minute or ten to think about before you can answer properly. Tell you what, I’ll stop time while you consider a few options. (This is my fiction. I can stop time if I want to.)

The first answer that comes to mind is, “Because I can’t not write.” Aside from confusing a four-year-old with a double negative (she’ll become an expert on double negatives in due time…right around middle school), it’s also a damn lie. (Don’t worry, she can’t hear us while time is stopped.) You can indeed not write. That is, unless your laptop has been rigged by an evil genius such that if you stop typing 55 words a minute, it will explode. (Note to self: Write spec script for Speed 3: Caps Lock; call Keanu and Sandra.) But even then you still don’t have to write. It’s a choice. (BTW, if you do blow up, I’ll read a lovely poem at your funeral that celebrates all your artistic choices, especially the last one.)

Then there’s the ol’ standby, “Because I love words.” Yeah. That might work. But is that it, really? Isn’t the search for the right word among the most frustrating activities known to man and/or woman? Then there’s the impossible task of figuring out where to put those words. I don’t write because I love words (though I do love them) I write in spite of words. But that’s just me. If this is your final answer, I’ll restart time now and you don’t have to read any further. (But you will. Because you love words. Here, have a few more.)

You briefly consider “Because I want to be rich and famous someday,” but no four-year-old is going to care about anything that might or might not happen “someday.” She doesn’t understand the concept of time. If you were to tell her, “We’re going to DisneyWorld next summer,” she’d wake up every morning between now and then (at five thirty) and pester you with “Is it today? Are we going to see Mickey today?” until you’re tempted to answer, “Mickey Mouse is dead. Goofy shot him. DisneyWorld had to close because there’s blood everywhere.” You don’t really write to become rich and famous someday. I mean, that would be a nice bonus and a well-earned reward. But if “getting rich” is your primary motivation for being a writer, you’ve chosen the wrong field. Try Lottery Ticket Buyer.

Okay, what about…sorry. I have the attention span of a four-year-old so I’m going to restart time. And just to keep things interesting, our four-year-old moppet will keep repeating “Why?” until she gets an answer she likes. 

“Why?”

“Why?”

“Why?”

“Why?”

Quick, say this: “Because I like making things?”

Our fictional moppet tilts her head (as fictional moppets do), says, “Okay,”  turns like a music box ballerina, then skips away to sidle up next to a woman collecting a salted caramel macchiato from the bar.

“Mommy, that wrinkly person in the corner likes making things,” she says. “Just like me.”

Just like her. Yup.

Now go back to making things.

In the Company of Strangers

If you want to be a successful (i.e.: published, well-read, income-producing) writer, you’re going to have to get comfortable in the company of strangers.

I’m not talking about the strange fictional people who inhabit your novel, I’m talking about the In Real Life kind. You know, those ugly bags of mostly water* you bump into while standing in line for your half-caff-soy-latte-with-a-double-shot-of-arsenic. If you’re anything like me (and I pray you’re not,  because this could lead to a sudden loss of cabin pressure), approaching strangers, let alone asking them for something, ranks right up there with public speaking, pregnant spiders, and admitting to an un-ironic love for Coldplay on a list of top fears.

But that’s exactly what you have to do.

Let’s say you’ve finished your novel. I mean the sixth draft, not the first. (If you approach strangers with the first draft, they will spontaneously combust and you will choke on their ashes. This is not as fun as it sounds.) You’re going to need some feedback on your masterwork before you take the next step. Mom’s already given her oven-mitt thumbs-up. “One star! Wait, which one means it’s really good? Got it. Five stars and six exclamation marks!!!!!!” Your best friend Louise told you it’s the best book she’s ever read. (Do I need to mention that it’s the only book Louise has read?) Being the wise person that you are, you know those glowing reviews may not represent the opinion of your target audience: everyone else.

What you need is a few strangers. Crit-group members are strangers. I know, I know. You  call them friends, but have you ever told them about your un-ironic love for Coldplay? I didn’t think so. Ask them to read your novel. Then consider their criticism. Use what works, ignore the rest.

Now it’s time to find more strangers. If you’re pursuing traditional publishing, your next strangers will probably be literary agents. Most of them will reject you without even trying to get to know you first. This will hurt because it will remind you of your sad, sorry, single life and the fact that you always dine alone and haven’t kissed anyone since the Bush administration. I mean, that’s one example of what it might feel like. Theoretically.

If all goes well, one or more of those agent-strangers will want to know you better. And then, gods-willing-and-favorable-winds…Representation! Your agent-stranger is now your biggest fan. (Don’t mention the Coldplay thing quite yet, though.)

If you’re self-publishing (and are going about that the right way), or your agent-stranger has sold your book to a publisher, your next strangers will be editors. They tend to be an agreeable sort, despite their fascination with red pens and love for strong drink and crisp bacon. But they’re still strangers. You’ll be trusting your precious baby with people who don’t know you from Chris Martin.

Once the editor-strangers have finished their work (and you’ve finally accepted that they’re not the Devil Incarnate, but rather some of his more talented literary demons), it’s time to face the biggest stranger group of all: readers.  

Reader-strangers tend to tell you what they really think. Some will make you insane. Some will crush your spirit.

And some will make you feel like a writer.  A real writer.

There’s no way around it. Your writing future is in the hands of strangers. You might as well make peace with that today. Then, as always, get back to writing. Don’t worry. There will always be strangers.

You’re counting on it.

 

*Nerd alert. Name the reference and win the satisfaction of having named the reference. I know, Best Prize Ever.