The Second Hand Unwinds

February 19, 2019 § 35 Comments

Finishing a writing project is awesome. Hitting that last page, fingers speeding toward the end of what happened, now that you finally know.

Finishing takes forever. Thus far, I’ve published one short writing-life book with a hard deadline from a small press. From idea to publication took three years. I’ve written two more books of greater weight (for me), a memoir and a Young Adult novel. Each took ten years. Sure, they overlapped, I wasn’t writing continuously the entire time, I published other short pieces throughout, but from generating pre-first-draft material to querying agents was ten years.

The memoir agented but never sold. Recently, a friend urged me to revise and send it out again. She texted:

At this particular point in cultural and political history, a searing memoir…might be particularly welcome? Maybe the time is riper now…

While I appreciated the encouragement, that book is over. Years ago I would have been glad to publish. Now it’s not a life I want to present to the world. I’m not that person any more, and now-me looks at that manuscript—at ten years’ work—and says “meh.” It’s just not that good. The level of better I could make it isn’t worth the time it would take.

The YA novel is on a break from submission. Two months ago, I was devastated by a rejection from an agent who’d been very excited to read the full manuscript. She told me more or less, “Great opening, you write well, nothing happens in the middle.”

It took a week to become un-devastated. A couple weeks to actually receive the feedback and truly consider her words. I mean, hadn’t five beta-readers, all excellent writers themselves, loved it? What about the high-school student readers who agreed to come early to talk about the book and were already deep in discussion when I arrived at 6:50AM? Meanwhile another agent rejected the full: “It slows down in the middle.”

I printed one copy through Createspace having fun mocking up a placeholder cover, thinking if I read it like a real book maybe I’d notice what was wrong. I carried the book through three states and four countries without opening it.

Then a writer contacted me about editing her YA novel. I looked at the first 25 pages and emailed her, “You write very well, but the story hasn’t started yet.”

A bolt of lightning hit me. I dragged out my own book and flipped through.

Chapter One: Girl with gun ready to shoot

Chapter Two: Flashback…to a nap…in a library.

Chapter Three: Flashback...to a scene in which the girl recaps everything we already know to another character.

Well, fuck.

My readers were wrapped up in clever voice and interesting premise. They hadn’t noticed what a merciless stranger found: Nothing happens in the middle.

You can be an incredible writer and still lack dramatic structure. You can be a sharp structuralist and lack voice. You can make characters live and breathe on the page, then find them staring at each other over a kitchen table while the agent flips ahead to see if it gets good anytime soon. And you won’t know any of these things about your work until after you have invested as much time as it takes you to write a book, plus some more.

I’ve done the Seven Drafts process and quite a few more than seven drafts. I’ve had beta readers and entered chapters in contests. I’ve taken pages to a workshop and paid for query feedback. Theoretically, I’ve done everything right and I’m still not done. ‘Not done’ interferes with my sense of entitlement. I ticked all the boxes! Why aren’t I finished? It’s frustrating and annoying and makes it hard to want to work on the book. But now that I know it’s not as good as I can make it, now that I understand the problem, I need to work some more.

The biggest separation between writers who publish and those who don’t is that writers who publish keep working after they feel entitled to be done. They write yet another draft. They painstakingly revise thousands of words that end up cut. They let time pass.

The more involved we are in a particular project, the more meaningful it is to our writer-self, the longer we spent writing, the more time it takes to let serious feedback sink in.

We all feel the clock ticking, watching emerging writers spring forth apparently fully-formed. We all want to be done, to share our book with the world. It’s not just you. We all need a little more time.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Manager. Follow her on Instagram—her bruised writer spirit could use some likes.

The Practice of Writing (and Writing, and Writing)

June 18, 2018 § 11 Comments

IMG_4171By Maddie Lock

Three years ago I fell in love with Rebecca Solnit. It was at the start of my re-decision to become a writer. A bibliophile with a BA in English and high hopes to make my mark as a writer, I had allowed myself, many years ago, to be distracted by the business world. As I reached a definitive age and had acquired all the things that society says you need in life— a career, family, home, things to fill the home, a second home, vacations, and so on—I woke up one morning and said “enough.” Actually, it was “ENOUGH!”

Let me tell you, it shook life up; my marriage, my business, my circle of friends all had to come second for now. I sat down to write, allowing the strained and shaken pieces of my life to settle in.

I began with a children’s book about a dog who wants love and understanding. I self-published and won a small award. Encouraged, I wrote a few fiction stories which didn’t excite me or anyone else. Then, a friend gave me a book, a memoir, that in my brain begat fireworks. Now dog-eared, filled with yellow highlights and notations, spine struggling to hang on to worn-out pages, I keep it close to me as a talisman when I write.

The Faraway Nearby was a revelation to me. It fired receptors of desire and weepiness no other book had ever done. I wanted to write like this! When I finished the book, I immediately read it again. And again. And began my first essay.

It was about a trip I had taken recently, a solitary two weeks, off-season, on Monhegan Island, isolated from people but enfolded by nature. Into the essay I poured the story of my life changes and conflicts that had sent me away, of my husband’s confusion at the changes in me, the pulling away from the business I had worked so hard to build, the practice of meditation and study of Buddhism, and, mostly, my desire to be alone. It was a masterpiece in the Solnit style: meandering, contemplative, exploring the intricacies of life, revealing bruises and broken parts, threads reaching out and over and beyond, only to meet up again for a new revelation. I couldn’t wait to send it out for publication.

I googled the top nonfiction journals and, since I knew it would be snatched up immediately, I chose just one to submit to. I received a form rejection via email—about two weeks later. Shocked, I tried another top publication; another quick rejection.

I was devastated. I stuck my 5,500-word masterpiece into My Documents and simmered. I began my second children’s book. Every few weeks I picked up The Faraway Nearby, opened it randomly to read a few pages before my eyesight became bleary from tears and I tucked it away again.

I signed up for an online writing class: Writing the Personal Essay. Once again, convinced of accolades, I submitted “Sojourn in Solitude” as my first project. Like Ralphie in A Christmas Story, I envisioned a stunned and ecstatic review from my teacher. With a flushed face I opened up the highly-anticipated critique, and…cried. Honestly, I did.  Although carefully worded, the message was clear: boy, do you have a long way to go. It also told me there was potential.

As with any skill, to be good requires hours and hours—10,000, it is said by many—to become a master at anything. So I began writing. And writing. And I’m still writing, because, according to the statistics, I’m looking at seven years at four hours a day before I can clearly see what my skills are.

I have this fluttery feeling I’ll still not be writing like Solnit; her meandering and my meandering share a big difference: her brilliant mind knows where the maze is taking her and can illuminate the path, whereas my only-adequate mind stumbles around, relying on hope and determination to find snatches of brilliance. An online teacher gently suggested a sizable gap between my writing skills and my reading tastes.

In the worn-out copy of Solnit’s beautiful book is a torn-out inside flap from a paperback copy of Paul Coelho’s The Alchemist. I use it as a bookmark. At the top is a quote: “To realize one’s destiny is a person’s only obligation.” I use this as encouragement.

And I’ll keep on writing, tallying my hours. I’ll call it practice.
___

German born and American bred, Maddie Lock fell in love with words as she learned the English language. Now a semi-retired business partner, she is putting her BA in English to good use. Lock has published an award-winning children’s book, has essays published in Gravel and Narrative Map, lamented about her writing obsession on Brevity Blog, and is working ardently on a memoir about her scattered roots.

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