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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

msagara
Aug. 20th, 2004 09:00 pm (UTC)
Some of this describes so well my own experience, it's funny. It's a relief in a way that I wasn't alone in my feelings.

Which is most of the reason to post it <g>.

I never realized how easy it could be to fill 700+ manuscript pages.

Me too :/. I've finally figured out, some umpteen hundreds of thousands of words later, that I really really really have to stomp on viewpoints if I want to keep things at a reasonable 150,000 words. My current universe doesn't support this.

The first novel I finished was the first novel I sold. No trunk novels. This was bad in a way--I think I would have felt more confident knowing that I could formulate multiple universes with their own distinct casts of characters.

CJ Cherryh said, when she was GOH at a convention in Toronto, that it's sometimes harder to have success come too quickly (she was thinking of both myself and another writer friend she knows); that in her day, she would wait by the mailbox for those initial rejections that contained no information whatsoever, and that in the end, enduring the whole rejection and isolation made her toughen up enough that the rest of the publishing process wasn't so deadly. Except, of course, she said it better, with humour and a certain wry wisdom I don't have.

Each time I start a book is like the first time for me. I know I've done it in the past, but I still wonder whether I will be able to pull it off one more time. It's been getting harder, not easier. A friend told me that this is because one expects more from oneself, that one has learned more about the craft and thus raised the bar.

This is me. This is very me. This is so much me it's almost shocking <wry g>. Right down to the advice from friends...

... but sometimes I still need the reassurance that I can write lucid sentences.

I keep hoping that I get over that, but I'm not holding my breath.


Me either -- because this is me, as well. I usually reach a point at the beginning of the book where I know that this is the beginning. Of course, it's varied -- it could be my first attempt or my 12th (in the worst case), and I could have spent 6 pages or 600 (in my worst case) -- but at this point in my career, a little alarm goes off that says Right Here, and at that point, I usually pass it on to the spouse for vetting.

In the middle, though, each and every book has been the Worst Thing Written by Man. Or me. Or both. It's the book that will kill me. It's the book that no reader of mine will ever forgive me for. It's the book that will cause them all to say "I waited two years for this??" My husband is so used to this, he plugs his ears. If it helps, I have another friend who is exactly the same, and we make fun of each other where appropriate, but gently <wry g>.

It's only when I've hit that end stretch that things run, and I almost can't stop the book. But... I wasn't sure that SC had a good ending, and, since I've been thinking about it, I'm wondering if that wasn't part of the anxiety and the strain. I know endings. I may not know anything else, but dammit, I know when my endings work. And if I don't have that sense of certainty... blarg.

Mind, it's the only thing I'm certain about for the most part, and even then, my spouse says I waver.
domynoe
Aug. 20th, 2004 09:50 pm (UTC)
I almost feel better knowing that authors who are "well" published have those "this truly sucks" feelings too - now I don't feel like such a freak about it.

But, really, if you feel that way, how do you let it go to a publisher? I'm afraid I'll never let go and a.r. the silly thing to death.
msagara
Aug. 20th, 2004 10:02 pm (UTC)
I almost feel better knowing that authors who are "well" published have those "this truly sucks" feelings too - now I don't feel like such a freak about it.

It's not uncommon. Some people are more open about it, some less open, depending on a number of things. It's nice to look bulletproof, and the nerves might be taken -- by non-writers -- as unnatural, or as proof that you aren't a "good" writer. My first editor once said to me "There are no good writers. Only good re-writers." For her, the ability to revise was essential.

But, really, if you feel that way, how do you let it go to a publisher? I'm afraid I'll never let go and a.r. the silly thing to

I don't so much let it go as heave it out the door <wry g>. I do my first draft, and then I revise as much as I can; I've worked with my editor now for so many years that I can hear much of what she'll say well enough in advance of her saying it that I can head it off when I look at the beginning again. Because it's usually been at least a year since I started, the beginning is old enough that I can be objective, to a point; objectivity diminishes as I approach the ending, which is recent enough that I have no hope in hell of maintaining that objectivity.

But mostly, I send it to her when I can no longer stand to look at even a single word of it; when I hate the sight of it so much, I want the company of misery. Anyone else's. I trust that if it sucks, she'll tell me so in no uncertain terms, and as I'm clearly not objective at that point, I can't hold on to it.

If I had to feel absolutely certain about every word, I would never have submitted anything. I have writer's ego: the sense that I'm at once a genius and also the worst published writer in existence. It varies widely -- but I'll miss every deadline I have if the jitters are in control, rather than me.

kristine_smith
Aug. 20th, 2004 10:04 pm (UTC)
Each time I start a book is like the first time for me. I know I've done it in the past, but I still wonder whether I will be able to pull it off one more time. It's been getting harder, not easier. A friend told me that this is because one expects more from oneself, that one has learned more about the craft and thus raised the bar.

This is me. This is very me. This is so much me it's almost shocking . Right down to the advice from friends...

Again I say unto you, I'm glad to hear that I'm not alone. I feel so pathetic sometimes--come on, this is what you always wanted to do, and you're whining. Shut up and eat your snowshoes! Get on with it!

But the fear remains, that you killed it off with the last book and you'll not get it back again. Whatever it is. That thing that keeps it all moving forward.
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lnhammer
Aug. 21st, 2004 10:10 am (UTC)
You know, I think the 'I killed it off and it will never come back' syndrome is the only aspect of writing not covered by The Unstrung Harp. (Worst book ever written is, of course, "dreadful, dreadful, DREADFUL" in the used room on the third floor without the makings of a fire.)

---L.
kristine_smith
Aug. 21st, 2004 01:35 pm (UTC)
The Unstrung Harp

I love that book. Must locate my copy and reread.
lnhammer
Aug. 21st, 2004 07:03 pm (UTC)
I've decided that it should be required periodic reading for working novelists, as well as for students.

---L.
msagara
Aug. 21st, 2004 10:27 pm (UTC)
I should add that I think there's a difference between 'this is the worst book ever written' middle of the book syndrome, and 'I killed it off and it will never come back' syndrome.

I'd say there's a qualitative difference, at least for me, although I've felt both. I prefer the "worst book every written" middle of the book syndrome, because at least it means I'm getting through the book. But real life always makes its presence known <wry g>.
kristine_smith
Aug. 21st, 2004 08:03 am (UTC)
>"In the middle, though, each and every book has been the Worst >Thing Written by Man"

>Yeah, that's me.

There's a quote somewhere by, iirc, either Rebecca West or godhelpme Elinor Glyn in which she describes the three stages of writing a book. The first stage is like being with a new lover, the end is like going home, and the middle is like the Gobi Desert.

They don't call it "The Mess In The Middle" for nothing. It may also explain in part the problem of Middle Book Syndrome, but I'm sensitive about my middle books so I don't like to delve too deeply.
msagara
Aug. 21st, 2004 10:30 pm (UTC)
Again I say unto you, I'm glad to hear that I'm not alone. I feel so pathetic sometimes--come on, this is what you always wanted to do, and you're whining. Shut up and eat your snowshoes! Get on with it!

But the fear remains, that you killed it off with the last book and you'll not get it back again. Whatever it is. That thing that keeps it all moving forward.


As kateelliott said, you are very, very much not alone.

Actually, I find it gets harder with time, not easier (as you yourself said), and because of that, the fear of burning something vital out -- that something that none of us can define, not even for ourselves -- is stronger.

But as kateelliott also said, hang in there because it will come back.