Monday, November 26, 2012

Now and Then

Every so often, I skim through my old entries. It's an exercise in shame and embarrassment, but occasionally a nugget will shine through and I can call it a lesson learned.

So here's the thing. This time two years ago (shoot, this time ONE year ago) I was convinced I was doing everything right. Networking, blogging, carefully working on this or that manuscript and sure it would be THE ONE that would do it. That it would land me an agent, or a professional editor, or a publisher. Dream come true.

It never occurred to me that I was missing out on the most important element.

The crazy thing about writing? You have to write to ever be any good at it. It's unique that way - a lot of creative arts are - because you have to be awful before you can get better. You don't see brain surgeons or bomb defusers walk in their first day and go, "Okay, just reminding you all, I've never done this before. So don't be too hard on me."

So, while I was writing and re-writing the first two chapters of what I considered my First Great Novel, I did everything wrong. I wasn't aware of it at the time, but I did. I told instead of showed, I screwed characterization up from the get-go, I rambled about back story and settings that had ZERO impact on the plot, and I took so long to build up to a scene that by the time I got there, I'd lost myself - the writer. But while all that was going on, I sat back with a smug smile and thumbed my metaphorical writerly suspenders and felt like I had all the answers.

At the same time, I was trying my best to ingratiate myself with a group of writers who were wonderful, but they were years ahead of me, both in skill and in the publishing spectrum. The things they talked about turned into a kind of private torture for me. I obsessed over query letter-writing websites, over trying to learn the ins and outs of the publishing industry, until the thought of drafting a query letter for my (unfinished, unpolished, unoriginal) novel locked me up completely. I got discouraged. I stopped working on First Great Novel and tried jumping to Second Great Novel, where the entire process repeated itself. Again and again and again, all while I told myself, "This is the one. This is the plot, these are the characters, here's your lucky break." I bragged about my progress here, thinking if I talked enough about the writing process, I could fake it until I was through.

It's been two years and literally four different Great Novels. Number five has gone through three different drafts, and it's still not finished.

But there are other things that are different, too. I've stopped worrying so much about the networking. I took the query letter-writing sites out of my bookmark folder, and forced myself to stop going to the sites that promised to give aspiring writers all the answers. I've stopped (mostly) announcing my milestones from the hilltops for all to hear. I've stopped trying to convince myself that finishing something as fast as possible, no matter how awful, would make everything else easy-peasy.

What I have been doing is writing.

And not just Fifth Great Novel (which, for a little hilltop-announcing, is roughly two-thirds of the way finished). About a year ago I realized I enjoyed writing short stories too, as palate cleansers when Fifth Great Novel started weighing me down. They were also ways for me to play with different story elements that I will probably never write novels about. Like werewolves, or mermaids, or sandstone men who die for lost love. In the span of two weeks (or six to eight if I was writing to submit something professionally) I could pop out a short story, edit it, and add it to the 'finished' folder.

The coolest thing is, I feel like doing that is making me a better writer. I've gotten two of those short stories published now (The Keeper of the Trees and another one I'll announce at a later date). Less than ten thousand words, and they've done what I tried to do with who knows how many days, weeks, months of stressful scribbling, trying to do everything right and throwing things at the wall to see if any of them stuck.

Two short stories, and I've networked with awesome editors. I've connected with people who are passionate about writing - not just putting words on the page, but storytellers who can help me grow and get better. Looking at it now, I was missing the forest because I was too focused on the trees. The 'impending query letter' tree, the 'maybe I'll self-publish on Amazon if no one wants me' tree, the 'how am I ever going to break out of the slush pile' tree.

I still don't have answers. I'm still worlds away from where I want to be.

But I feel like I'm closer.

1 comment: