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.

Writing Is Belief

Every novel begins as an idea you believe in. Usually, a really good idea. Humility (real or manufactured: pick one) might keep you from calling it brilliant, but you’ve had good ideas before and this one is a thousand times better than all of those.

This is the book idea that’s going to make you into the author you always knew you were meant to be: a successful* author.

So you sit down (or stand at your standing desk if you’re an overachiever with strong calf muscles) and start writing.

First sentence? Perfect. So incredibly perfect. (Nearly perfect. You’ll fix it later.) First paragraph. Amazing. (Well, mostly. Except for the abundance of adverbs.) First chapter? Nailed it. (The whole thing will have to go when you later realize it’s just backstory.)

Now, on to chapter two.

Chapter two. Chapter…two. Two. Two. Chapter Two. Two is a funny word, isn’t it. Why isn’t it pronounced “twoah”? Oh, right. You’re supposed to be writing.

You can do this. You believe in your book idea. You believe in the story that’s beginning to appear on the page. And you believe in yourself (the force is still strong with you).

You press on.

Chapters three through ten are remarkably decent. Now you’re getting somewhere. This is the story the idea wanted you to write.

Chapter eleven. Hmm…can you just skip chapter eleven? Because it’s not working.

No worries. Chapter twelve is great. Celebrate-with-a-glass-of-wine great. Good thing, too, because thirteen through nineteen are eminently forgettable.

But chapter 20. So. Very. Good. Only. Separating. Words. With. Periods. Gives. It. Proper. Honor. Of course, the new ideas you introduced in chapter 20 will require substantial revision to the rest of the novel, but it’s such a good chapter, the pain will be worth it.

Six months later, you’ve done it. Finished the book that’s going to make you into the author you always knew you were meant to be: an author who finishes things.

Wait, no. A successful author. That’s what you meant, right?

Well, maybe. At the moment, you’re not entirely sure you can write. At. All. Oh, you can finish a story. Yes. You are the champion of finishing stories. And yes, now that you think of it, there are some good moments. But is the plot compelling enough? Do the characters seem believable? Is the pacing sharp or sluggish?

Yes. No. Maybe. Sort of. Probably not. You don’t know.

So you revise. And you revise some more. You get feedback and it breaks your heart and it buoys your spirit and then it breaks your heart again. Three months later you come to a stopping place because there has to be a stopping place, not because you recognize it as a stopping place, and suddenly you’re the author you always knew you were meant to be: an author who edits the work until it’s the best it can be.

Wait. What about the whole “successful” thing?

You’re still not sure about that. The story is better now. Maybe not quite as brilliant as the idea, but much improved from the first draft.

At least you hope it is. Is it?

You need to find more believers. Beta readers? Sure. Why not? Their feedback and support can be invaluable. But what you really want is the Holy Grail of believers: an agent.

So you craft a perfect query** and release it into the wild.

Five minutes later, a rejection appears. Five minutes! Oops, your mistake. That agent isn’t taking queries at the moment.

In the days that follow, more rejections appear, this time from agents who are accepting queries. They just don’t think your book is right for them. Hmm…this isn’t going the way you’d hoped.

Thirty rejections later…

Wait, did you just say “thirty rejections later”? Thirty? What does that mean?

Well, it means one of two things: You’re either 30 rejections closer to being the writer you always knew you were meant to be, or you’re 30 rejections farther away from that dream.

Which will you believe?

Pick one.

 

*We all define success differently. To some, it might mean simply getting published. To others, it might mean handing a freshly-printed copy of the book to a once-disbelieving spouse. And to still others (those selfish authors without an ounce of actual humility), it might mean selling no less than One Million Copies in the first six months. The definition of success doesn’t matter here – just the belief that feeds it.

**The “perfect query” is a mythical beast, like Bigfoot. I’m just using it here as shorthand for “the best query you can come up with after spending more hours studying the art of query writing than you spent writing the first draft of your novel.”