To date, I’ve been very good at beating around the bush when it comes to being a writer. I don’t like to discuss it when I’m around other writers, regardless of where they are in their careers. I have done so because I felt it was my duty to show great humility when it comes to my accomplishments, talent, and ambition. However, it’s been pointed out to me that the way I approach it is not through humility, but through poor self-esteem and lack of confidence. Am I not proud of the good work I’ve produced? Of the dedication I’ve put into developing that talent? Wouldn’t I rather be writing full time than anything else? Of course, but I’ve stood in my own way.
So here I go, preparing to out myself as prideful, ambitious, and talented.
I have an agent (Victoria Sanders), a novel (Habits and Hijabs), and an editor (Benee Knauer). At present, I’m in the process of editing the novel for perhaps the sixth time with Benee’s guidance, and I’ve been working toward this singular goal since I started playing with the Brother word processor my mother bought when I was in second grade.
I have just shy of a dozen published short stories to my name, a handful of non-fiction articles, and occasionally I write for a Kentucky tourism website.
What’s funny is that I just realized this week that I have a friend who didn’t even know I was a writer. That’s not being modest, that’s just being closed-off.
Let me get weird and personal in an attempt to explore why I am this way. 99% of my life has consisted of me not speaking up when I should have, not having the composure to carry myself in a debate, not having the confidence to stand up for myself. You know how you think of the best comeback when you’re back home all safe and sound? Just imagine that happening every day for as long as you can remember, every time someone talks to you. You never say what you mean, what you need, what you want. You feel guilty for having something to say.
Habits and Hijabs is a beautiful book. I say this not because I want to oversell my new pride and self-confidence, but because I am profoundly connected to the characters, world, and story I wove nearly 6 years ago. When I first wrote it, I titled it The Appalachian, and the only thing beautiful about it was the main character, Maggie, a sixteen year-old runaway. I put it away for a couple of years thinking it was one of those projects that wouldn’t go anywhere. When I got it back out a few years ago, I liked it enough, put some work into it, and entered it into the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Contest.
Round 1: From 5,000 to 500 (I think). Made it through. Nice.
Round 2: From 500 to 100 (I think). Made it through. Huh.
Round 3: Semifinals (Top 50…I think): There’s my name. There’s my book. “Honey, come look at this…”
And that’s as far as it went. I was ecstatic. Didn’t care that I didn’t win. Didn’t care that I was so close yet so far. It meant the novel was viable–people would read it and like it…but it needed work.
So with another round of edits, I went the route of submitting to agents (for the umpteenth time in my career) and got the usual round of form letter: Not what we’re looking for, good luck in the future, sorry, we’d like to represent your novel pending structural revisions and editorial development.
Damn, that sucks.
“Honey, come look at this…”
So, this novel has been pending representation for a while as I go through the editorial process. The first attempt with a professional editor was pleasant enough, but it wasn’t what I needed as a writer. You see, I’m a special kind of stupid…
“Novelists have, on the average, about the same IQs as the cosmetic consultants at Bloomingdale’s department store. Our power is patience. We have discovered that writing allows even a stupid person to seem halfway intelligent, if only that person will write the same thought over and over again, improving it just a little bit each time. It is a lot like inflating a blimp with a bicycle pump. Anybody can do it. All it takes is time.” --Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
I’m not brilliant at the novel but I’m persistent. Now, after hundreds and hundreds of attempts at short story writing, I’ve become semi-brilliant–that is, I can occasionally pump out a stellar story–but that persistence is what gets them published. I’m still submitting stories I wrote years ago because I know they’re good. They just need to hit the screen of the proper editor at the proper publication at the proper time.
Back to novels. Being semi-brilliant at the short story means I have the ability to write, edit, and submit one within a week (or trash it and move on). I don’t have a formula, but I can quickly get in the Short Story Zone (SSZ (c)) and have a rough draft over a weekend. Single story line, single-sentence revelations, characters you only want to be with briefly. I got that. Trying to translate this same skill to the novel is a lot like a gold-medal sprinter deciding to do a marathon in the middle of training for the 50m dash. Vomit. Vomit everywhere.
Or, back to writing, it results in flat storylines, flat characters, and ponderous revelations that absolutely make no sense because you’re 100 pages in and you realize every other page is trying to be too…revelatory…important…significant?
The most common critique I got from Victoria Sanders after several successive revisions was that the storyline and characters were undercooked. Undercooked? I got it. I’ll fix it..I think..I’ll cook it more. I’ll be the grillmaster of literary perseverance.
Enter Gordon Ramsay yelling at the top of his lungs: “It’s fucking raw! Are you trying to kill people? Get your shit together, man!”
See, if you don’t know what undercooked means, then you’ll probably do something stupid like put more salt on your steak or hit it with a hammer and put it in the fridge. I had no idea what Victoria really meant. Whew. It felt really, really bad to admit that. Much worse than I thought it would. I’m glad it’s out in the open.
Enter Benee Knauer–a woman whose name you’ll find in the Acknowledgements section of many books in your local bookstore. Go on and look. You’ll find one. There you go. Benee absolutely knows her shit, and she knew my shit before I even knew there was shit to know. I’ve been working with her for a few months and so far I’m floored by my experience with her. I’d love to go into detail about working with Benee (ie, what working with an editor is actually like and why I love it/need it/crave it) but I’m afraid that has to wait for another entry. The point of this entry was simply to tell you that I’m a writer–no self-deprecating joke about being mediocre and no humility whatsoever–and I’m on this journey that sometimes I forget about because at the same time I have a lot of other things going on…like real life (Dad stuff, work stuff, drinking stuff). Right now, I need to stop procrastinating and actually get to work on Habits and Hijabs. Seriously, I wrote this post instead of working on my book.