Log in

No account? Create an account

Previous Entry | Next Entry

Musing on stages of writerly life

There are stages of writing.

Some people start with short stories, and some, bless them, have success with those. It's common wisdom that writing short stories -- and selling them -- will give you some credibility when you try to sell a novel, although there are authors who make their reputations writing nothing but short fiction. Obviously, I'm not one of those. I started writing short stories, or rather, attempting to, and my third attempt was a novel. Then again, I start out writing a short single paragraph response to anything, and the final result is four pages. I'm not really good with length.

The reason you get to hear this is because I was so relieved when Katherine Kerr told me that her first four Deverry books started out as a short story. It was similar to the feeling I get when I read poetry that strikes an experiential chord: I'm not alone. It's not just me.

Finishing a novel is a rite of passage. It means that you can. The first time I finished a novel I felt like I'd climbed Everest. And had no way of getting back down <wry g>. Because, of course, I'd written the novel with the intent that it be published.

Confession: I compulsively read every how-to book on writing and submission I could get my hands on. Every now and then, I still pick one up. I always found process fascinating, especially when it diverged from mine so greatly. I learned about manuscript format via those books. And about SASEs. Basic things.

I was, I think, 25 when I made my first submission; I time this around my wedding because I know I was in contact with the editor before the wedding. I'm not much for dates, unfortunately -- everything happened yesterday, last week, three weeks ago, or a few years ago -- and there's a great deal of inaccuracy in any of those time periods. Time kind of just moves, and I'm slow to figure out how much of it has gone by.

When I finished my first novel, I gave it to a friend to read. I asked her for her input and her criticism, and while intellectually I wanted a critique, emotionally, I wanted her to tell me the book was perfect. This is the first novelist's dilemma. So much has been put into the book with hope and passion that it's hard to be told things simply don't work. First, she congratulated me on even finishing what I'd started. Second, she told me she loved it. And third, she gave me a couple of pointers. Not more than that -- and certainly there was more wrong with the book, as I would discover later -- but it was enough. Let me be clear, though: The intellectual desire for improvement was as genuine as the emotional desire for acceptance. But pain is pain.

When I submitted the novel, I spent days drafting a cover letter. I was nervous, because I wanted to make a good impression. If I could go back and speak to whoever I was then, I would tell that writer not to worry so much; to write a clear and concise letter, and let the book speak for itself. No such thing as time travel. And anyway, I probably wouldn't have listened.

While the book was out, I started on the second one. I didn't want or need a contract for the first one, and I had no deadline -- but I had hope that if the first one sold, I'd have another book ready, and if it didn't sell instantly, more time with which to finish what I'd started. Being able to publish the books at a half year apart would be good, in the bookstore sense of the word, and the longer I had to wait, the more time I had to make that possible. I also find deadlines daunting. I know that many people prefer to have a deadline because it's a spur and it's concrete -- but the closer I get to one, the more panic I feel -- because what if it's not ready? What if it sucks rocks?

During this time, I didn't really tell people that I was writing. I did write. The two were separate. Even after I'd sold the first book, I didn't say anything much until I got the cover flat -- because then, at least, I had something to show people who would ask. Telling people I was a writer was almost out of the question, because the next question they'd ask would be if I'd had anything published. This is me. I neither recommend nor advise against this approach; everyone does things slightly differently.

Later, I discovered that it's actually unusual for someone to sell a first novel (an author of my acquaintance, while talking about how little new writers knew about the business said "They actually expect to sell their first novel -- how naïve can you be?", and I took a poll, because by that time, I knew a lot more writers <wry g>); many people write three, four, even eleven, before they break into print. I knew two local writers personally, and they'd sold short work before they made their first novel sale. I hadn't. They also sold their first novels, so it seemed to me reasonable to expect -- or hope -- that I could manage to do the same.

If you can't sell your first novel, it's not a badge of shame, and it's not a guarantee that you will never sell. If you stop writing while you're waiting to sell your first novel, it seems to me that you're wasting writing time - because most of us have jobs or other work, and finding the time to write in the first place is always a bit of a struggle. If you stop writing entirely, then you stop writing. It isn't your day job, yet. Some people stop. Some give up. Some come back to the writing years later. There's no set pattern. But at one point or another, rejection is just one of the things that you'll have to deal with. Deal with it by screaming at your friends and pulling your hair out for a day or two -- it hurts, after all, and there's no point in pretending it doesn't -- and then get back to work, because the only people who do make it that far are the people who can.

Many of the writers I know who published first novels workshopped them. If they didn't workshop the specific novel, they spent years in workshop trenches, honing their craft, and learning about structure while they tried to assimilate the critiques they received from their peers. If this works for you -- if you can work this way -- it's my first recommendation. I couldn't. My reaction, in the early days, was to try to fix everything, willy-nilly; to take every piece of criticism to heart, without any objectivity. A workshop requires objectivity on your part. It requires the ability to take the useful advice and jettison the rest. If you can't do this, don't. It won't stop you from writing, and it won't necessarily stop you from being published; you can learn to rewrite on your own. I know a number of published writers who never went the workshop route. I know more who did. Your call. I know none who refused to revise or edit.

Once you've finished your first novel, finishing a novel is easier. This, at least, has been my experience. Finishing a good novel is never a guarantee. Most of the writers I know had some trouble with their second books because -- as I've said elsewhere -- it's the first book you'll write on a deadline, with a publisher expecting it. This is entirely natural.

Also natural are the blues that come along when the second book is published (and often by that point you'll have a third sold, and might be working on a fourth). This is when reality sets in and bites you. If you're lucky, you'll find your audience right away. Most of us aren't that lucky. Finding a publisher becomes a thing of the past; finding the audience becomes a driving worry. The emotional desire for acceptance fades, and the intellectual desire to tell the story itself becomes dominant; resistance to critiques and editorial guidance disappears almost entirely. Unless it's bad advice; that, too, becomes clearer.

But all of that seems like nothing when you haven't sold a novel yet.

(next rock)


Aug. 20th, 2004 04:25 am (UTC)
On first novels ...
It also seems to me that a valid question could be, "What counts as my first novel?"

When I was thirteen, I wrote a 20k story and considered it a "novel."

When I was seventeen, I wrote a 75k story that I refer to as my first full-length novel. It sucked rocks. Oh, gods, did it suck rocks.

Thing is, it's not unfixable. I'd started the book with no idea of where I was going and it rambled everywhere. Add in gratuitous violence and 1600 word haircutting scenes without any real description. (I'm still not sure how I managed that one...) By the time I wrote the second book, I'd had more direction, and threw a lot of twists into the plot.

Never did finish book three.

But, anyway, while the execution sucked, the trilogy has promise, and I've reoutlined the first book. (Which had essentially a thin plot, thin characters, and no villain.) I haven't been able to write it yet because the book's themes are too close to home at the moment. (It's key that my MC fall in love with a character who will later betray her, and the problem is, said character must trick her about the same way my abusive ex tricked me.)

When I do write it, I know it will be a good, competant novel.

But will it be my first novel anymore? I'll have rewritten it so thoroughly that the plot and characters are only vaguely the same. Considering this, does it still "count" as my first book?

*all contemplative now*
(Deleted comment)
Aug. 20th, 2004 05:00 am (UTC)
Re: On first novels ...
The first one you sell is your "first published novel" which is what "first novel" is short for.

If that's true, then people wouldn't say, "You're not likely to sell your first novel."
(Deleted comment)
Aug. 20th, 2004 11:02 am (UTC)
Re: On first novels ...
In terms of publication, yes. However, if I manage to get a chronologically earlier novel published after I've had others published, I'll probably still refer to it on my webpage and such as my first novel. (And honestly, it seems very likely that could happen, because I hate rewriting, and even though I intend to get back to those books, I have later ones that don't require so much rewriting to be sent out. :P)
Aug. 20th, 2004 09:45 am (UTC)
Re: On first novels ...
*eyes boggle*

Woo. Another author who's stuff I read and like. Mind if I friend you?

Zhaneel (Dawn)

PS: I almost got to review that for Locus but didn't have the time before Charles needed it. Really enjoyed the book though.
(Deleted comment)
Aug. 21st, 2004 11:03 am (UTC)
Re: On first novels ...
I have already found some stuff interesting. ;-)

Aug. 20th, 2004 05:46 am (UTC)
Re: On first novels ...
I only count novels still in existence, that is, novels I have not burned, when I'm talking about which one is my first. The one I wrote when I was 11 and the one I wrote when I was 14 thus do not count.

I also tell people I've written six books and immediately get sharp corrections from the spousal unit: "Nine," he says in a pained voice. But the other three are nonfiction, textbooks-for-hire; for me, they don't count. They're my only published books right now, sure, but I don't own the rights to them any more.
Aug. 20th, 2004 06:44 am (UTC)
Re: On first novels ...
After struggling nearly 16 years just to get this one book done, I would never discount it. Heck, I would never discount any book - whether fiction or nonfcition and whether I had the rights still or not. If I did all that work, then it counts.

But I have to finish just the one . . . . *sigh*
Aug. 20th, 2004 08:45 am (UTC)
Re: On first novels ...
It also seems to me that a valid question could be, "What counts as my first novel?"

For the purpose of my above comments, I consider a first novel to be the first novel one writes with the express idea that it will be published. So if you wrote your first 20K with the idea that you were then going to send it to market, that would be your first novel (I wrote a lot when I was 13, but I really wrote for myself with no intent to publish; this would be papersky's juvenalia in my case.
Aug. 20th, 2004 10:56 am (UTC)
Re: On first novels ...
Well, I intended on publishing the dribble I wrote when I was eight years old. I was an arrogant child and was certain it could be published. (Only reason I didn't send anything out was because my parents wouldn't let me. I had the habit even then of writing about tough subjects, including abuse.)

The 20k "novel" I wrote was intended to be sold as a children's novel. It was ... bad. And made worse by my father, whose critique I trusted, as he wrote himself. He read the first three chapters and said, "You're hinting at too much here. You need to explain everything about the world in the first few chapters or no one will understand anything."

I'd been very carefully disseminating information in the proper places, and looking back, the draft I wrote before the one he butchered wasn't all that bad.

I still like the base story that developed in draft three of that novel, and I do want to return to it someday. It, like with Sanctuary, the other novel I mentioned, will take a complete and total rewrite for selling it to be feasible. By that point, it will probably no longer be recognizable from the original.

But, that's something that can happen in rewriting ... :)