On dejection and preserving the light
I’m writing to admit something. I am in the middle of a significant writing slump. Although slump probably isn’t the right word. It’s a writing brick wall–but not writer’s block persay, because I’m not writing much. You’d have to be writing to be blocked. Maybe it’s more writer’s dejection.
You see, I got The Hideaway to a place where I was really happy with it. I’d edited and revised it to the point that I didn’t think I could do any more–or I didn’t want to do any more–without some professional intervention. (I mean an agent, although a professional for my mindset might be helpful too!) I didn’t want to blindly take advice from well-meaning folks who had subjective suggestions about what I might want to think about changing. Like I said, it’s all been well-meaning, and earlier in the process it was *crucial*, but I got to a point where I didn’t think it was wise to make changes at whim, not knowing if it was a change that would further my chances at a “publishable” novel and securing an agent. I queried a lot between the end of the year and February. I think at this point, I’m at about 45 queries. So that means about 43 rejections. (I think I may still have a couple partial or fulls out right now, I can’t remember without looking at my color-coded spreadsheet!)
I’ve had many partial and full requests, several personalized rejections which are great, and a couple of agents who said they’d like to see more of my writing down the line. But no takers, and honestly, I thought by this time, I’d have an agent. Maybe it was naïve of me to think like that, but there it is.
I found another reader through WFWA to read my manuscript. I thought someone with fresh eyes who knew nothing about the story would be helpful–and it was. It just wasn’t what I wanted to hear! She was so detailed in her analysis of my story–really, exactly what you want in a beta reader. I think part of it was that we discussed her concerns and suggestions for the story in the middle of a week where almost everyone at my house was sick, including me, and I was already at a fairly low place. After our conversation, I was like a balloon with a hole, all the air leaking out. (And this was in NO way her fault! I’m still glad for her analysis!)
So those couple of sick weeks coupled with the disappointing story comments really put the brakes on my writing. You usually hear writers talking about contemplating stopping writing because of all the rejection. That’s not my problem. I knew there would be a lot of rejection from the get go. I was prepared for it. I know I still have dozens and dozens of agents left who rep what I write and who I could potentially query. I haven’t exhausted the list yet. No, the rejection isn’t the problem. The lack of confidence in my writing skills is the problem. It’s a new problem for me, and frankly, it puts me in a pretty scary place. I worry I don’t have the storytelling ability to create a story that will appeal “to the masses.” I know I’m a good writer. And no, I don’t think I’m being egotistical to say that. I can write, but am I a good storyteller? There’s a difference, and these days, there are so many books that zoom to the top of lists, books that *everyone* is talking about (at least on Twitter) that (in my humble opinion) aren’t very well-written, but have the *hook* everyone wants. So the story trumps the writing.
Now, obviously there are books out there with both the great writing and the great storytelling. I crave those books. In fact, I tend to lose patience with (and be snarky about) books I read that are full of cliches and stereotyped characters and poor writing but that have those jump-off-the-page hooks or jaw-dropping cliffhangers, etc etc.
And I know you need both. I don’t want to read 300 pages of beautiful sentences about nothing, just like the average reader doesn’t.
I think I’m rambling now. And I’m on a soapbox, so I’ll step down. Suffice it to say, I’ve lost confidence in my ability to write a compelling story. I feel like I’ve lost that drive I had at one point to write the kind of stories I like to read. I love reading Southern fiction, stories about families, friendships, marriages, humor, the Southern world that is so familiar to me. I used to think I could add to what’s already out there, but now I’m not so sure. Part of it is the fault of Twitter, I think. I use Twitter to follow writers and agents so I’ll know what’s going on in the industry, and it’s been very helpful. It’s introduced me to agents I otherwise wouldn’t have known of or cared about. But it’s also worn me down. All the posts about books that zip up the charts, the cover reveals, posts about writers getting “the call,” agents railing about this type of story or that type of query. Helpful stuff, but somehow, it’s gotten tangled up in my mind so much that it’s buried my original desire to write. I don’t know what I want to say anymore or how to move forward with writing another story.
I started my next novel during the querying process of The Hideaway. I got about 60 pages in then got stuck. My damn indecision (and this is a recurring problem for me that shows up in many areas of my life) has glued my feet to the ground. Or glued my brain. I have about ten different directions the story can go and instead of being able to just pick the one that sits well with me, that feels right, I’m stuck worrying about whether it has the hook agents (and readers) want. When I was writing The Hideaway (and the bad novel before that), I didn’t yet know enough to worry about the hook. I think that was very freeing. I wish I could clear my mind of all the clutter and just write the story I want to read. That’s what I did with The Hideaway–I wrote the story I wanted to read. And I still love the story. But my ability to choose a direction with this next story (or the other one I started when this one stalled) has me glued down and it is so frustrating. I just don’t trust myself or my writing. And I wonder about all the time I’ve spent working toward something that truly may never come to fruition. Yes, I write because I love it (or I did before all this started) and it feels like a part of me, like another arm or something, but my goal isn’t just to put words on the page and feel good about it. It’s to have my books on a bookshelf. To be a writer of books. To add, in some small, insignificant way, to the world of literature. To scratch out my own little corner of The Library of Congress!
I’m coming off about a three-week break of writing. It started when the kids got sick, then I got sick, then the slump/brick wall hit. It just wasn’t fun, I needed the sleep instead of the 5am wake up call, and I felt like the writing was a pointless endeavor. Truly. So I didn’t open my computer for a little while. Then I went to the Southern Voices festival at the Hoover Library. I heard six or seven authors talk about their books and their writing journeys. It was inspiring, as usual, to be around so many book people. One writer in particular said he was rejected by 100 agents. He finally found success with a small press. The festival renewed me a bit. Enough to crack open my computer again this week. I still felt like I was pushing against that brick wall, but I suppose it may feel like that for a while. If I submit to the brick wall and quit writing, what will that prove? Only that I let the voice of the world around me silence my own inner light. (That’s what my desire to write stories feels like sometimes–like a candle burning deep inside me somewhere.) And that applies to other parts of my life too. Our impermanent, flighty, short-attention-span world tries to snuff out all kinds of lights. “You’re too fat, too thin, your breasts aren’t big enough, you don’t wear that quite right, you have wrinkles, your books are too “quiet,” I don’t want to keep turning your pages, I’m uninterested in you and your quiet self, you don’t have enough friends, you should join this group or that group, you’re in the wrong group…” If I submit to that brick wall, it’ll just be one more way of giving in to the loud voices of the world around me. Instead, I should fight to keep that inner candle glowing and try as much as I can to transcribe that light onto the page.
So that is what I’ll try to do. It may be a while before I get back to a place where I’m willingly up every morning at 5 to write. (That actually was a glorious place and it’s what helped me crank out The Hideaway and stick with it through the editing and revising.) But I cannot ignore the siren call of the blank page. I’ll try to meet it when I can and get down the words and fictional worlds that roll around in my head. Maybe it’ll all come together sometime into a cohesive story, maybe not. But I can’t submit. It feels too much like a failure on my part. That I’m failing me–the Lauren who years ago stuck her stake in the ground and said she wanted to be a writer of books.
My heart goes out to you reading this. And only because I know *exactly* what you are going through – and I can tell you that there are some very successful and even famous writers of my close acquaintance who would say the same.
You haven’t asked for advice and so I’m hesitant to give it. However. I want to help you so much that I can’t stop my self. So, WARNING: advice follows. If you don’t want advice – don’t read it!
First: don’t stop writing. Never stop writing. Just switch to writing something else, something without view of publication, something just to bring yourself joy, something silly that no one else need ever read. Something just for YOU. But keep writing. Stories with no rules, ‘letter to myself’ and so on are all good options.
Second: Put the book aside for *at least* a month. Absolutely do not look at it at all in that time. Discount it. Work on other writing projects. Write some short stories, blog posts, essays. Come back to it with a fresh eye and most importantly, a degree of emotional distance. Then read it again, in one sitting if you can, and don’t make notes. I promise you two results: you will be happily astonished by all that’s good about it. You will see what still needs fixing and you’ll have the energy to go about fixing it in a professional manner.
Third: If you possibly can, get a professional, experienced editor to do a thorough developmental and then line edit. Yes, you’ll have to pay for that. But be very careful in choosing your editor. The business is unregulated and anyone can set up their stall regardless of whether she is qualified to do so or not. Asking published writers you trust for recommendations is a good idea (even if you don’t know them personally).
Fourth: Plan your next novel! Summarize the story you want to tell in a single sentence. Map that out into three acts with beats and scenes based on conflict and character development. Know when each disaster is to occur, how the thing will resolve and what the ending is. Write the ending first (you can always change it later). Having this kind of structure mapped out stops you getting stuck, solves plot problems before they happen, gives your story laser-sharp purpose from the get-go, and leaves you free to practice the art and craft of creative writing.
Finally: Don’t give up ever. Write for yourself. Write for your bliss. Write because you are a writer and let the world catch up with you when its ready. Keep that candle burning. Damn it – throw more fuel on the fire – rage, roar and blaze!