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Thursday, July 2, 2015

Things I've Learned Along the Way

When Mary assigned this topic, my first thought was: Wait, me telling someone else what I've learned? I know nothing!  Then I thought about my experiences over the last three years and it dawned on me that I have learned a few lessons along the way, only some of which pertain to the writing craft, but all of them were valuable in becoming a better, happier, writer.

When I finally sat down in the summer of 2012 and wrote that crappy first draft, it was after a lot of years kicking myself around mentally for not doing it sooner. Remember when you measured your success by your age? "I need to do _______ by the time I'm _____." Well, as far as writing an actual book, that didn't come for me "as soon as I finish finals" or "by the time I'm thirty" or "by the end of maternity leave." And each year and every milestone that went by, the crummier I felt about the piles of notebooks I stuffed in the nightstand drawer filled with scraps of dialogue, post-it notes and unfinished stories. When you start off early in life (third grade to be exact) proclaiming to the world that you're going to write a book someday, blowing out forty candles, then forty-five, on your birthday cake seems like an admission of defeat instead of a celebration of everything else you've accomplished.

But here's the thing. Everyone finds their voice at a different time in life. Yes, I always wrote. I wrote quite well in my career, which is not in a terribly creative field, but one that forced me to make every word count, which became a useful skill. By my mid-forties, I'd won a few, lost a few, and eaten crow more than I cared to admit. I softened up on some issues (just let the idiot in the wrong lane merge in front of you), and got tougher about others (no, it's not okay to tell a random woman on the street she should smile and I will call you out on it). And while I lived and collected life experiences, that nagging story I'd started scribbling about decades before bubbled back up in my mind. But while it simmered, I wrote the first draft of a book for teens. By then I had a teenager of my own who will bankrupt me if I let her loose at the bookstore. And she told me I should write that book since I always said I would someday. So I dug out my notebooks and started writing.

That summer, while she was in camp, and I had an empty house at night, I wrote. It was a total "seat of your pants"style authorship. And this time, I finished it. I learned a whole lot over the next several months about querying, publishing and how to critically edit your own work. That's when I discovered all the great folks at QT and found that the writing community is unlike any other as far as writers supporting each other.

But, still, that story from over two decades ago was still thumping around, so I sat down to finish it, figuring, Hey I'm a pantser, let's do this! Turned out, not so much. This book, an offbeat thriller set in a fictional town I'd thought up in 1990, wouldn't write itself like the first one. I outlined, wrote scene summaries on index cards, cut characters, added characters, changed the order of scenes, gave one character's dialogue to someone else, and re wrote it about three times. I ended up doing even more revisions when I finally made it to the querying stage, where I made fewer, and different, mistakes.

So back to the "What I've learned."It's pretty simple.

Stop beating yourself up about not writing sooner or not yet hitting whatever success milestone you've envisioned for yourself. Everyone blooms at a different time in their creative life. Grandma Moses didn't paint until she was a senior citizen. Maybe you have your voice when you're nineteen but probably not. (If you're nineteen and have already bloomed, I hate you, but mostly because you probably don't need a knee replacement) Maybe you won't be hailed as a genius in your lifetime. Write anyway. My first book had modest sales, but when a little girl at a middle school I visited asked me to "please hurry up and write the next one," it was better than a starred review in the New York Times.

With the second book, I've hit the milestone of obtaining representation and trying to think up a different author name for the adult genre. This book took twenty-five years to birth, but I had to live it before I could write it, just like having a teenager made writing for a teenager click. Instead of mourning our publishing failures, we should celebrate the things in life that inspire us to write in the first place.

Cheers to all those great books out there that are still being born. See you soon.


Toffa Davy said...

This is very encouraging. I'm one of those who have been threatening to write a book all their life but have never "got round to it.'

When I finally started giving it a serious go i started with a little research about how successful writers got their creative juices flowing. Depressingly, it seemed that the vast majority did not have to trigger this process. For most being a writer was inate - something that came naturally to them. Their only challenge was to filter, organize and structure the fast flowing stream of ideas into a book.

Well, that's not me. I have a reasonable imagination but I'm not in that league. That lack of creativity has caused me to abort several attempts to write books over the course of my life. However, I think I might be getting there now. So what has changed? I'm no more imaginative now than I was ten or twenty years ago. I believe that up until recently I just wasn't ready - I needed to live a life before I could write and I've done that now.

It's early days - I have yet to complete my debut. But I have done enough to know that I can get there. Hopefully it's never too late! .

Kim English said...

I'm a firm believer that it's never too late, and I think creativity can be learned and isn't a birthright of some sort. Being a late bloomer has advantages- for one thing, rejection that would have crushed me twenty years ago rolls off me now. Good luck with your book!