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.

"Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor..."

I've just spent a whole precious hour of early morning writing time typing a few words and deleting them. Type, delete. Type, delete. Nothing is coming out the way I want it to. These days, it seems the only time I can get any clarity on what I want to write about is when I'm outside walking. If I can get away for a walk by myself, without pushing the stroller and my two daughters, my brain starts clicking along and ideas come rapid fire. It happened a few days ago. My husband got home early, so I escaped for a solo walk. I wasn't too far down the street before I started seeing my story a little clearer. That's the thing--I think I know what I want to write about--I even have some scenes worked out in my head--but as soon a I sit down to start writing, nothing works! If I could just hook a voice recorder up in my head to catch the brain waves, I'd have my novel written in just a few days worth of walks.

I've been reading through Bird by Bird again. Yesterday, I read about the sh*tty first drafts. (On a side note, I wrote "First Drafts are Sh*tty" at the top of the first page of the first novel I wrote.) This morning I read about perfectionism and how it keeps us writing in "tight, worried ways." That so describes me. I write in worried ways--I worry that I don't know the entire story yet. I worry that if I start this page in this way, what if I get to the next page and realize I should have started it a different way? I worry about a million different things related to the story, when what I should be doing is mindless writing--especially here at the beginning. After all, who knows where, in all that mindless writing, something great will come out and that'll be the nugget that actually starts the story.

That's much easier said than done though, especially for someone who likes structure and order. Messy bits of writing here and there, fits and starts, twenty opening paragraphs--that all makes me feel tight and worried.

Update on THE HIDEAWAY: You can't be a real writer and not experience rejection, right? I have three rejections under my belt--one form rejection from my query, one nice rejection that came from a full request, and one extremely nice rejection (also from a full) that made me feel like the story had a chance. I have about 12 or 13 queries out there floating around in various agents' email in-boxes. And one 50-page partial. I think I've decided to hold off on sending any more queries until more responses roll in. I wasn't even going to send out this many--I was going to start with 6 or 8 then see how they responded to the query. The early 50-page partial and the full request from the one of my top-choice agents (that came less than 48 hours after I sent the query) told me at least my query was good, which gave me confidence to send it to more agents. But I think it's time to hold off now. I feel antsy about it, but I just read yesterday that impatience is one of the biggest hindrances to a writer, and I think that goes for the querying process too.

Good writing vibes for everyone out there sitting in the same place as me, staring hard at the screen, trying to pull the words out of the air. May we all ditch the perfectionism and find the words, even if they're imperfect.

Signed, Sealed, Delivered

My manuscript for A Soft Place to Land is on it's way to my friend Joy in Chicago at this moment. I mailed it at the end of last week, and it should arrive tomorrow. I'm both nervous and itching with anticipation. Nervous, because she may hate it, but anticipating her reading it, marking it up, making loads of comments, and mailing it back to me. I also have another copy headed to Atlanta this weekend to go to my friend Anna Cate. I trust both of them and their opinions because they're both writers and avid readers. Joy sent me her book manuscript last year, and I have a portion of Anna Cate's with me now. I have one other friend I may send the manuscript to later on, but it'll have to be after I've whipped the thing into even better shape--he works in NYC in publishing, so it has to be perfect before he sees it. Because the manuscript is officially out my door, albeit it temporarily, I don't want to make too many changes to it, so I'm avoiding reading through it. It seems every time I look through it, I find things to change, but I want to wait until I have Joy and AC's changes before I go back in and start revising again. I can hardly wait to get the packages back from them.

Lately, I've been feeling the urge to start writing something new--or at least pick back up on something I've put on hold. Yesterday, I went to a coffee shop for a couple of hours to do some writing, but I was frustrated to find that nothing would come. I went back into "The Brightest Porch Light in Texas," a story I began while I was revising SPTL, excited to add to the story. I settled down in to the comfy chair with my cup of coffee and cinnamon roll next to me, earbuds in ears, white noise on the iphone...and nothing. I couldn't write a thing. I just wasn't in the groove for that story. At some point during the writing of SPTL, I got out of the groove. I think I had been sick, or Kate had, so I had taken a couple of weeks off from writing. When I finally got back to it, I was dismayed to find that I just couldn't get back into the story--I wasn't "feeling it"--and I was worried that SPTL would become just another story beginning that I abandon when the "groove" leaves. Thankfully, the cloud passed and I "felt it" again, and I finished the book. That was just a couple of weeks though--it's been months since I've written in BPIT, and that's probably a large part of the problem. I have to stay in it, write every day, in order to keep a story going. If I take too much time away, it's a goner. I really like the premise of BPIT though, so I hope I can get back to it at some point.

Sitting here during Sela's nap with a major case of writer's block, I instead wrote my Star column for January. I think it turned out pretty well. At least I got some words down on paper (or the screen) even if it wasn't for a book. Writing is writing, and as long as my fingers are moving across the keyboard with purpose, it counts.