Wednesday, April 22, 2015

THE WRITER’S MAZE: The Reason You’re Not Published

I’ve talked about writing a book for my entire life, as many people have, but underneath those empty words swam an oozing puddle of fear. Fear that I wasn’t good enough, fear that I wasn’t smart enough, or the right kind of person to write a book. I played with writing over the years, right up until the day I had my epiphany.

On that day I stood on the back porch, staring into the early morning sky, considering the dream I’d had the night before. It was a dream of characters I’d been imagining my entire life. I’d made up stories and plays about them, who they were and where they lived, what their lives were like. But on that night the story ended. 

I couldn’t stand to let it go, but I was so bewildered I didn’t know what else to do. And then, like a lightning bolt of clarity, it came to me. I asked myself, “Five years from now am I still going to want to write that book? In ten years will I still feel the same?”

The answer was an unquestionable, “YES!”

My mind raced in so many directions at once, I didn’t know which thing to think about first. “Was I going to do this? Was I really about to write an entire novel?”

“Yes I was, because I had to. My characters were dying and the only way to save them was to immortalize them on paper.”
But I had a problem. I didn’t know how to write a novel. I could write okay, I did write for a small newspaper. No one had booed me away yet. But a book…an actual book? I was way out of my league.
Then I thought of all the writers, real-life published authors, I knew and I called them. “How do I write a novel? What do I do first?” I asked.
Looking back I see fear in my hesitation. I wanted someone to guide me. I was so frightened I’d make a mistake.
AND, OH BOY DID I! Can I get an Amen?

I had not a clue. I’d taken a few creative writing classes in school, but this…this one-hundred thousand word (I know, right?) novel was something entirely new. It took me eight months to write the outline alone. And a year after that I hired a friend to edit my wonderful masterpiece, without even revising it first. I sent it on its way as soon as I typed THE END.
Looking back, I’m so glad I did (sorta). I was simultaneously terrified she’d say it absolutely sucked. Part of me wanted her to so I could return to my cowardly life where I didn’t have to put my hopes and dreams on display for other people to critique. But the other part of me wanted her to say there was hope. And that’s exactly what she did – bless her heart – I know that so-called manuscript was awful, but she looked at it with teacherly eyes and returned it to me covered in bloody ink stains. Entire pages slaughtered by the swipe of a red pen, as though they’d meant nothing.

But I wasn’t deterred. I thought I can do this; all I have to do is learn… so I went back to school.
Over the next few years (you can read all about it in my older posts), I educated myself on how to become a writer (still working on it!). But there was still this nagging fear that I wasn’t good enough, or I wasn’t the type of person who could be a writer. And then I tried using positive affirmations, “I’m confident I can and will become a successful writer. It’s only a matter of time.”
Back and forth, up and down, my doubts and confidences would struggle. Someone would give my writing a compliment and I’d think, okay, I’m on the right track. But sooner or later that fear, that ridiculous insecurity from childhood (read here and here) crept back.
Sure, I learned to move forward, to keep writing. I joined writer’s groups and attended conferences. I submitted my work for critique and even hired editors again, despite my fear of the red pen. Each time the feedback got a little better, more encouraging with advice for how to fix my authorly shortcomings. At the same time, my friends were getting signed by agents and selling multiple books to BIG publishing houses.

And here was little ol’ me, floundering around for a lifesaver, drowning in a sea of uncertainty. Oh sure, I had agents and editors interested in my work, and though they ultimately turned me down, they had really wonderful compliments and words of encouragement for me to keep writing. They said I was so close

Ugh! I felt like the rejected contestant on American Idol, “Thanks. You’re really sweet and I don’t want to hurt your feelings, but YOU SUCK!”
I pretended it didn’t hurt, after all “It’s only a matter of time before someone says YES.” Right?

That part was up to me, but I didn’t know it then and before I could figure it out life happened (read here) and my writing came to a dream-crushing halt.
“It’s over,” I told myself. Though, to everyone else I said I was just taking a break to focus on life, that I’d come back to it [my writing]. But honestly, I wasn’t so sure. I felt broken, defeated, and hopeless.

All of my friends were moving forward and I was not. I was standing still and they were (and still are) zooming by me on their way to success. And I’m so happy for them, truly.
But what I felt, at being left behind through no fault of my own, was overwhelming despair.
I tried to keep writing, when I could, but it wasn’t the same. My flame had been snuffed and no matter how much I tried to reignite it, it only gave a tiny flicker of my original dream. I needed a miracle.
Miracles are funny things. I used to think of them as being a momentous event, like Moses parting the Red Sea, but I’ve come to realize that miracles can take time. A miracle might be happening right now, because as I scribble this down I understand where I went wrong so clearly. 

Let me back up. A year ago next month I attended one of my favorite writer’s conferences, The Dallas Fort Worth Writer’s Conference, and I pitched a couple of projects I’d been working on despite neither of them being completely “polished.” I told the agents and editors, who seemed genuinely interested in my projects, that I was close (I do NOT recommend pitching before it’s absolutely ready!). 
I went home and got straight to work, but once I delved in an irrational fear consumed me. I had allowed my circumstances to become my excuse for my inability to finish what I’d started and ultimately I never submitted anything. I closed the projects away in a folder on my laptop that I still have yet to reopen. 

I’m sure the agents and editors have never given me or my projects another thought, but it doesn’t help knowing that I promised to deliver something, and I haven’t. That only makes me feel like more of loser. 

And this is where I believe the miracle is happening, right here…right now I’ll admit for the first time that the reason I have not finished the books is because of fear and weakness, not my circumstances.
I have allowed myself to become one giant, walking, talking excuse because I AM AFRAID.

I am so afraid I’ll never get published that I gave up trying.
And here is my confession, which I have just discovered about myself, “I am the only reason I am not published!”

And if you’re like me, you’re the only thing standing in your way too.
I see people bitching and moaning all over the internet about these agent rejections or that editor’s notes. I see people gripe when someone critiques their work. But the truth is…
If we truly want to be published, we have to stop buying into that fear and get busy changing what needs to be fixed in order to get published. PERIOD.
If the world is saying you’re not ready, then YOU’RE NOT READY. Accept it and move forward. Take it from me, denying it only makes you stuck. And I’ve been stuck for far too long. It’s time to dig myself out and make my dreams happen.

Because no one else is going to.
Stay tuned...

Thursday, April 2, 2015

The Writer’s Maze: What a Zoo!

Hi Ho to all of you monkeys hangin' around this zoo!
If you’re here, you’re probably a writer and you know exactly what I’m talking about (or very lost and wondering what the hell is going on). 

Last week the family and I went to the zoo and it got me thinking that each of the beasts, those wild animals held captive in their domestic prisons, is like a writer. 
The writer longs to be free of the chains and enclosures caging us in (don’t miss The Writer’s Maze: WiPs and Chains). We want to be free, to run untamed through the jungle of publishing rules and laws, a.k.a. THE WRITER’S MAZE! But like the zoo, though it is beautiful and orderly to look at, the rules of writing try to control and tame the writer’s heart. 
Yes, there should be boundaries and standards of acceptable writing, but when and how can we writers escape the confines of these laws and get away with it? Let’s look at The Road a Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Cormac McCarthy. 

McCarthy is a lion of the writing jungle. He dared to ignore almost every writing law in existence and he got away with it. For those of you who’ve read The Road you know exactly what I’m talking about. It’s choppy, it’s grammatically incorrect to the extreme, heck he doesn’t even use punctuation. Many people have pondered why he wrote the novel this way, was it to add to the discomfort the characters were feeling? It certainly made me uncomfortable reading it.
Does that mean we, as writers, can follow in McCarthy’s footsteps and get published? Win a Pulitzer? Maybe. What I mean is, are we a lion like McCarthy? I know I’m not. I’m more like this guy…

...not the cutest bird in the world, but my song is sweet.
I’m exotic, yes. I’m different, I’ll give you that. But I only vaguely resemble the rest of my writer species. My writing is more like a bird on a wire than a lion on the prowl. If I tried to break all of the rules McCarthy did it wouldn’t work for me. I couldn’t even live in the same enclosure with a lion let alone try to be one.

That’s why we need the zoo and the zoo keepers. The zoo, rules of good writing, maintains the standard. However, what the zoo cannot do is determine how and why a certain literary work has the IT factor. Now, the zoo keepers, the editors, agents and publishers, remind us daily that even though we must conform to their rules and live with our own kind, they still want us to remember that we are wild.

Now, you might be the type of writer who thinks, eh, writing is easy. Any monkey can do it…if they follow the rules. And though that might be true, it doesn’t mean any monkey can climb to the top of the New York Times Best Seller list. 

The zoo works because of the regulations and environments it provides for the wellbeing of the public, but if we animals (i.e. writers) were to become too complacent and docile no one would want to visit us. The zoo is the best of both worlds. It is a collaboration of dangerous predators and the sweet songs of the canaries presented together in a picturesque and stimulating setting (i.e. books). 

After all, that is the goal, yes? To see our writing tamed and corralled along the shelves of many, many bookstores? I know that’s my goal. Like my fat, long-beaked bird, I pick and gather the twigs and moss of literary dos and don’ts, trying to force my natural tendencies to conform. At times I do still feel as though my wings are clipped, but for the most part I’ve learned to fly up one branch at time.

Maybe one day, the monkeys will be trying to catch us birds.