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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)

Comments

(Deleted comment)
msagara
Aug. 20th, 2004 08:55 am (UTC)
*puzzled* The first 2.5 novels went fine.

I'm curious -- these were written with the goal of publication? My first novel went fine in the sense that I sat down and wrote the damn thing, (it was the second of the SUNDERED series, fwiw), and my first novel published was the fastest novel I've ever written, but the third was hell. I had to toss the whole thing and start it again. Otoh, the third novel published was the second novel I finished, and I took a break at about the halfway to write the first published novel (Lester wanted the flashback as its own book).

The book that killed me to write: SHINING COURT burned my brain out. I was mental mush for a year after. No, I don't know why.
kristine_smith
Aug. 20th, 2004 10:37 am (UTC)
>The book that killed me to write: SHINING COURT >burned my brain out. I was mental mush for a year >after. No, I don't know why.

You had a brain-burner, too? CONTACT IMMINENT did that to me. I was able to write an outline for Jani 5 a few months later--my agent thinks it's the most solid outline I'd ever done (hate outlining. *Hate* it.) But I couldn't get started on the book. By the time I thought I might try, a family crisis came along. The brain still hasn't adjusted, and I sometimes wonder if I'll ever recover the fire. Part of me is confident that I will, but the actual sitting-down-and-formulating-sentences part is still not happening.
lnhammer
Aug. 20th, 2004 10:50 am (UTC)
Sometimes the well is slower to fill than we'd like.

---L.
kristine_smith
Aug. 20th, 2004 10:54 am (UTC)
You're not the first to tell me this. But it's so flippin' frustrating.
lnhammer
Aug. 20th, 2004 01:32 pm (UTC)
Well, yeah. <rueful smile>

---L.
msagara
Aug. 20th, 2004 08:29 pm (UTC)
You had a brain-burner, too? CONTACT IMMINENT did that to me. I was able to write an outline for Jani 5 a few months later--my agent thinks it's the most solid outline I'd ever done (hate outlining. *Hate* it.) But I couldn't get started on the book.

Just a thought on this: was it Contact Imminent that caused the freeze, or the outline? In my case, I didn't have to outline for either of my first two publishers. I sold DAW a three book series based on 4 chapters and what was a laughable outline, it was so very vague (and a page long), and in the case of Del Rey, it wasn't until the 4th novel that I didn't just hand them a finished manuscript because I just kept on writing.

So... it wasn't until the Luna sale that I was required to outline. I did the partial, and I did the outline, and my agent didn't even say it sucked (he thought it was fine)... and then, although the Luna novel was just racing along, I had two months of solid ... nothing. Part of the drive to tell any story for me is, well, the drive to tell it, and if the outline is good enough it means I've told it :/.

SC was a brain-burner because it was so very late, and it was the first time I had been so very late with anything; I was paralyzed, I has coming up on a production deadline, I was writing as fast as I could (speed being relative <wry g>). I couldn't even look at that book when it was published; it took me three years before I picked it up again and read it. When I did, I was greatly relieved to find that it didn't suck.

By the time I thought I might try, a family crisis came along. The brain still hasn't adjusted, and I sometimes wonder if I'll ever recover the fire. Part of me is confident that I will, but the actual sitting-down-and-formulating-sentences part is still not happening.

This happened to me! In between SC and Sea of Sorrows was a two year period. First, I was brain dead from the stress, and then a family crisis came up that just destroyed my ability to concentrate for about half a year. And when I could think again, it was tentative, and I ended up having to toss what I'd done because I was trying desperately to wind things up in that volume by cutting everything out, and it wasn't working.
kristine_smith
Aug. 20th, 2004 09:53 pm (UTC)
The freeze was part burnout and part CI. It was the Book From Hell. Five or six different beginnings. POV characters that worked in the outline that died on the book page. Words flowing like gravel. Had to ask for an extension, and barely made that. Wound up turning in a first draft to editor and agent that never should have seen the light of day. Had three months to rewrite it and did so, using very little of what went before. One month before the book is due, Due, DUE is *not* the time to finally get a handle on two of your POV characters.

I actually like the book. But writing it was like birthing a watermelon sideways.

I have been wondering whether the fact that the outline for Jani 5 is so solid is one reason why I can't write it. It's written to be the last book in the series, much is tied up/taken care of, and things have to end a certain way to complete the circle. For the first time, I may have an outline that I actually stick to, which means that I have pretty much told the story already. My outlines are long, 60-90 pages double-spaced, with snatches of dialogue, a spelling out of motivations. In the past, I have deviated from them enough that while I essentially kept to the tone, the actual story itself altered mightily. I don't think this one will alter much.

There are also things in this book that in a way presaged the crisis I mentioned before. I had a feeling something was going to happen, and it was almost as though I started working through it ahead of time. Then the crisis came, but it wasn't what I expected--same tone, different content. :-/ Now I need to work through it again in the writing, and I'm not really looking forward to it, even though as a plot progression, it is necessary. I feel the entire story arc would suffer without it.
msagara
Aug. 20th, 2004 10:13 pm (UTC)
I have been wondering whether the fact that the outline for Jani 5 is so solid is one reason why I can't write it. It's written to be the last book in the series, much is tied up/taken care of, and things have to end a certain way to complete the circle. For the first time, I may have an outline that I actually stick to, which means that I have pretty much told the story already.

Some people find endings hard. I remember Katherine Kerr writing up to an event that she had known about for her long, long series of books -- and it was painful on many levels to actually write it. I think that slowed her down.

I've ended three series. The first one as Michelle Sagara, and the second two as Michelle West. But the latter weren't so much the end of the -story- as the end of arcs or segments in a larger tapestry, so the incipient sense of loss -- of those characters, of that world, of all the emotional entanglements I always have with my creations -- wasn't part of the process of either ending. The West books are books with a definite end for most of character arcs. The first time I hit one of the mid-point arcs was the end of a six book series. That's the mid-point of Kiriel's arc, for anyone who's read the books, fwiw.

If I were writing the last book, as in no more of these characters, I'm not sure what I'd be feeling. I'm not tired of them because, in the end, I'm not finished telling their stories.

The Luna novel is different; it's got a beginning, middle and end -- it's more of a series in a discrete sense than it is an Xology. When I finished the first of the three, I was ready to write something else because I had finished that story. The characters continue, and the situations change -- but this story that involves them is done. Mostly.

My outlines are long, 60-90 pages double-spaced, with snatches of dialogue, a spelling out of motivations. In the past, I have deviated from them enough that while I essentially kept to the tone, the actual story itself altered mightily. I don't think this one will alter much.

I'm so impressed by this. My one outline was about 12 manuscript pages in length, and even that killed me :/.

There are also things in this book that in a way presaged the crisis I mentioned before. I had a feeling something was going to happen, and it was almost as though I started working through it ahead of time. Then the crisis came, but it wasn't what I expected--same tone, different content. :-/ Now I need to work through it again in the writing, and I'm not really looking forward to it, even though as a plot progression, it is necessary. I feel the entire story arc would suffer without it.

I think that this is also dead on for making the book harder to write, fwiw. The two things in combination would slow me down. Glacially. But for my part, even with the uncertainty and our crisis (which involved my youngest when he was three), my brain did kick in, and I was able to begin to feel emotionally again.

Oh, word about that: I write from an emotional core. When I've been blasted to emotional cinders and I'm still standing at ground zero, I've got nothing left to give the book. Nothing. Zero. I learned this the hard way.

I also learned that my emotions do recover, that I can find my way out of ground zero, and that when I do, things pick up, sparks start to fire.

I have no idea if this is helpful at all, because it's always a dead zone while you're in it and there's always a stone cold fear that you're never going to leave :/.
(no subject) - kristine_smith - Aug. 21st, 2004 07:53 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - msagara - Aug. 21st, 2004 10:18 pm (UTC) - Expand
lnhammer
Aug. 21st, 2004 10:10 am (UTC)
Part of the drive to tell any story for me is, well, the drive to tell it, and if the outline is good enough it means I've told it

Bingo. Exactimudo. Yessitudes.

---L.
(no subject) - msagara - Aug. 21st, 2004 10:21 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - lnhammer - Aug. 23rd, 2004 10:20 am (UTC) - Expand
lnhammer
Aug. 20th, 2004 08:58 am (UTC)
Maybe I'm working on the wrong novel?

Without hearing more details, that sounds likely. When one thing is easier to write than another, Fred the Muse is usually trying to tell you something.

---L.
janni
Aug. 20th, 2004 09:04 am (UTC)
Your muse is named Fred?

I suppose I should be glad their entry standards no longer discriminate. Or is that short for Frederike?
lnhammer
Aug. 20th, 2004 09:12 am (UTC)
MY muse has yet to tell me her name. Fred is Richard Parks's generic name for muses.

---L.
msagara
Aug. 20th, 2004 09:04 am (UTC)
Maybe I'm working on the wrong novel?

Without hearing more details, that sounds likely. When one thing is easier to write than another, Fred the Muse is usually trying to tell you something.


I could not write a decent word while pregnant (I don't do anything well while nauseous). I started writing at hell hours with a baby, and I don't recommend it. But I'll say this: I started HUNTER'S OATH before baby, and what it became after baby was the first quantum leap in my handling of structure; it's the second of two, but it's definitely imho the better book. It took longer. It was more painful to write. It did not, however, kill me (see SC).

So it's possible that you're working on the wrong novel, but it's also just possible that the life situation is making the work more difficult; I'm assuming that the first 2 were written pre, and the one you're working on now is demonstrably writting post <wry g>.
trektone
Aug. 20th, 2004 12:57 pm (UTC)
(I don't do anything well while nauseous)

I'll keep that in mind ...