When I was in junior high, I wrote my first novel. It was a story about a girl whose father was murdered and she was kidnapped by the murderers. Turns out her dad was a bad guy who did bad stuff and when crap went down, he ended up taking a swim wearing a pair of cement shoes. I wrote it long hand, on loose leaf paper during study hall and lunch. After I got a cheap typewriter, I spent months teaching myself how to use it. Eventually, after lots to tears and correction cassettes, I had an error-filled (but typed!) manuscript. Oh, it was beautiful, that stack of eighty-two typed pages. It proved that I had what it takes to write a book from beginning to end. It was proof that I could be a writer if I tried hard enough. It proved that my dream of being a writer wasn't stupid. There was only one thing left to do: get it published.
Writer's Market. Back at home, I flipped directly to the Publishers section and wrote down the addresses of a few publishers that would accept unsolicited work. At that point, I didn't understand what an agent was or why they were important. Mostly, I thought agents were something you had to pay for, like a lawyer or therapist, and that gave wealthy aspiring writers the upper hand. The whole thing seemed unfair to me and I wanted no part of it. Youth is full of misconceptions.
My school counselor was impressed that I had written and then typed a novel, and he gave me permission to use the faculty copier to make a single copy of it. The smell of paper, fresh and warm from a copy machine, still makes my heart hammer with excitement.
I deliberated a long time over which publisher to send the only copy of my baby to. I don't remember who I picked or why I picked them, but I can recall that dropping my book down the mailbox chute felt like abandoning my beloved dog. I was pretty sure I'd have to barf into the bushes before I got home. Good thing for every homeowner along my route, lunch stayed in my belly.
Weeks later, I got a personal reply from that publisher. I don't recall who sent it, but I do remember how kindly worded the rejection was. She said that, unfortunately, they no longer accepted unsolicited manuscripts (damned out of date Writer's Market!), but that she had taken it upon herself to read my novel. She said it was promising for someone so young and that I shouldn't give up. She said it could use some polishing and that maybe finding an agent would open more doors for me. She ended the letter by saying she felt confident that I would go far in my writing career if I kept at it.
I was crushed. All I could see was the rejection. The nice stuff, the encouraging stuff, didn't register. It didn't occur to me what an amazing person this woman was for taking the time to read all eighty-two pages of my poorly written, unsolicited manuscript and then to take the time to craft an encouraging rejection. My good fortune was completely lost on me.
Life continued. I went to high school, got a job, went to college, got married, and had a baby. Somehow, that memory of my first submission and rejection got buried. It wasn't until just recently, when I started the process of querying agents for Average Simon, that I remembered. It's sad that something so huge was shoved to a dusty corner of my mind and left to rot. But I'm grateful, too. I'm grateful querying brought the memory back. That recovered memory is as much of a gift as the long lost letter the publisher sent to me.
The years have taught me that writing, from the first draft to the querying stage, is full of hidden gifts. Forgotten emotions. Abandoned memories. And that, sometimes, it can take decades to remember that your dreams are worth chasing.
Saturday, July 26, 2014
Friday, May 24, 2013
- Writing can be a lonely experience. It's hard to say "no" when friends invite you out for coffee or a movie. Locking yourself in a room and pounding at the keys is isolating in a way that's difficult to describe.
- When the world is going on outside your closed door and you're feeling sorry for yourself, keep your fingers moving. Soon enough, the characters in your book will gain substance and you'll be carried to their world. As long as you have characters, you're never alone.
- Once you're in the world you've created, prepare to lose yourself. You'll find that this fictional world is rich and full and absolutely endless. The characters who live here are just as real in their world as you are in yours.
- When you visit your fictional world, remember that you are a guest. Sure, you conceived it, but you're not God here. At best, you're maybe an advisor. You can suggest to your characters that they behave in a certain way, but you can't force them. You can outline what a town looks like, but you can't paint the details. Trust that this world will develop itself in the way it needs to be developed.
- Don't expect anyone to understand why the actions of your characters make you angry, sad, or excited. Nobody will ever get that, to you, these people are real. Sure, your spouse might nod sympathetically, but he or she just can't understand. As far as anyone can tell, they're just characters in a book you're writing, not actual people with annoying and endearing personality traits.
- Just write. Even when you don't know what to say. Even when you don't think anything will come out. Even when you think you'll be staring at a blank page forever, make your fingers move. I've been known to write the word "something" over and over again until my fingers start to form words of their own. Sometimes I reread the last few sentences I wrote the day before and then tweak them a bit. That small act is often enough to get the juices flowing. The important thing here is that you sit down and make your fingers move. The words can't come if you don't let them know you're ready for them.
- Internet radio, such as Pandora, is your friend. Create a brand new account for use when writing, and then learn what your characters like to listen to. Add stations that reflect the vibe and emotions of their world and lives. Every time you write, put on your headphones. You'll find that the music not only drowns out the barking dogs, but it makes transitioning to your characters' world a whole lot easier.
- Stay off of social media when you're writing. Nothing will suck hours out of your day like scouring facebook for writing groups. Along this same vein, stay away from YouTube. Cute puppy and kitten videos are deadly to the craft. They suck you in and before you know it, you've spent an hour watching "just one more."
- Speaking of time, there is no such thing as the perfect time to write. We all have busy lives. We're all balancing a hundred things at once, and we all wish we were able to write full-time. For most of us, that's a pipe dream that does more harm than good. Time isn't going to present itself to you wrapped in a bow, you have to make it. Choose a block of time, whether it's half an hour, or three hours, and write at that time. Every day.
- When the time for rewriting and editing comes, be kind to yourself. Don't let the roughness of your first draft convince you that you're a bad writer. Rewriting and polishing is part of the process. Nobody gets it right the first time. Not even you.