This morning I received a note on my website, and at first I wasn't sure how to answer. It's such a subjective question, and there are so many blogs out there talking about this topic. The person could look this up anywhere online and read a thousand answers.
But they wrote to me, not someone else. So I'm giving an open answer and hoping it helps this person, but also any other writers out there looking for some kind of truth about writing.
Dear Genevieve Graham
My name is XXXXXX
I am an aspiring author and wanted a few pointers on how you kept your spirits up and perfected your craft.
I'll start my answer with a question.
What do you mean by aspiring?
Are you using the word as an adjective or a verb? What I mean is, are you writing, or do you aspire to write? If it is your dream to write, then what's holding you back? If you're already writing, then drop the word "aspiring" from your vocabulary—unless you mean you are aspiring to finish your novel, aspiring to impress people, aspiring to create something of which you will be proud.
How do I keep my spirits up?
You're assuming that my journey to this point along this crazy, winding, laborious path has been dotted with wildflowers, spotlighted by warm rays of sunshine. That I started every day with a smile at 9am and finished up at 5pm with a song and dance as I skipped joyfully to greet my family at the end of the day. Well, sorry to disillusion you, but nothing about writing is easy if you are aspiring to do your best. My first novel was written in eight months, after which I had a glass of champagne, then sent the whole book out in a three ring binder to half a dozen friends. As a result, many of them suggested I get therapy for unresolved issues. Some refused to ready any rewrites after that. Regardless, I balked at their well-meant (though obviously ridiculous) comments and boldly sent it out to probably a hundred agents. Funnily enough, those agents saw the book the same way as my friends had. I received nothing but rejections. Oh, there were tears for months after that, as well as days and nights of glaring (and unfair) scowls at my defenceless family. I read the book over again and again, throwing my hands in the air, questioning the sanity of agents everywhere. I resolved never to write again. Even now, when I have been blessed with three published novels with Penguin, life is not one happy sentence after another. I've had editors send back my beloved books and tell me such and such doesn't make sense or needs to be taken out entirely, and I've had subsequent books rejected. How do I keep my spirits up? Read on.
How have I perfected my craft?
Let me start by assuring you that I have not perfected anything. I have improved my writing, I have built upon it, I have learned to let it write itself (within reason), but I can't imagine ever perfecting it.
Okay, then how did I improve it?
Well, I go back to my first novel and its dozens (felt like hundreds!) of subsequent rejections. Oh, was I hurt! That novel was the best possible thing I could write, wasn't it? Except … it turns out that it wasn't. What I had to do was step back from my bruised ego and learn from everyone around me. I met an award winning author (Rona Altrows) who was leading a Writers In Residence programme (free) at the library, and she critiqued my first twenty-five pages. She opened my eyes to my strengths and my weaknesses, and from that amazing experience I saw my potential. Then I went online for the next three years, learning from others, weighing suggestions and criticisms (not everyone knows what they're saying, though they'll pretend they do), and reading. So much reading.
When I went back to my book, every word, every phrase, every sentence was taken apart and reworked. Every page was considered for its validity. Every chapter was brutally evaluated and hacked at. My book lost about 50,000 words through that phase, but the 90,000 remaining words were so much more effective.
I think when you ask about keeping my spirits up, you are really asking how I keep doing this when it seems at times like it would be much less painful to bang my head against the wall for an hour or so.
At my stage in this "game," I am not hoping for my first contract. I'm hoping for my fourth, my fifth, my sixth … You see, the need to succeed, to create more books never goes away. And each book has to be better than the one before—or at least that's how I see it. But it's not the need to publish that pulls me back to my keyboard. Yes, I hope every day to hear something good from my agent, but that's not what drives me.
Writing is what keeps my spirits up.
Sitting and creating and feeling another world flow from my heart to my fingers is what brings me here. When a story comes from so deep within me that I cry or laugh out loud at an unexpected change in plot, there is no way I could walk away, abandon those words. Whether I'm alongside an exhausted, injured warrior in battle, overwhelmed by a character's loss or illness, or lost in the passion of an undying love, it is all the same. I have been taken away by my own writing, and to me, that's a miracle.
Why do you write?
I write because an impulse came to me one day and I didn't deny its presence. I figured I might as well try. Then I discovered the magic within my fictional worlds and I was hooked for life. I write because I must, because it's what my heart craves.
Are you writing because your heart tells you to write or because your head is in there, nagging, prodding you forward, demanding to see your name on a book cover in a store? Lately it seems everyone is publishing something, so peer pressure is intense. But the truth is, a whole lot of those books aren't worth reading. Make sure the writing comes from your heart, not your head.
They call writing an Art for a reason.
Anyone can slap paint on paper or shape clay into something resembling a dog or a mug. Anyone can jump and spin around and call it dancing. I have a camera—can I call myself a photographer? Can my beginner piano students call themselves musicians while they're learning the location of Middle C?
Anyone can write. But can you write something that people will want to read? Something that takes them away from their world and moves them? Something that pins them down, breathless, so that they can't even think about what else might be going on around them, like changing laundry or making dinner?
Learn about your Art.
Stephen King said in his book, "On Writing," that an author should hand their book over to someone, then sit across the room like a creepy stalker and watch them read. When do they set the book down to do mandatory things, like bathroom visits? And why did they pick that exact moment to set the book down? What's missing on that page? What's so non compelling that they were okay with leaving it? Fix that. Take it out. Rework it. Stomp all over it, then gently, lovingly shape it to how it needs to be.
People like easy-to-read tips, so here are a few from me:
I attended a terrific workshop the other day, and I came home with a whole lot of thoughts. I’m not a workshop kind of person. I’m kind of an anti-meeting person altogether, so this was somewhat of an anomaly for me. I’ve always written on my own, albeit aided by invaluable words of wisdom from other authors on the internet and in books. I’m a bit of a hermit, and I’m also an insanely busy hermit. The idea of sitting stationary for a few hours, listening to other people talk, doesn’t always entice me. But I really wanted to meet these authors, since they’re all from my area. Plus, they’re all members of the RWA, and I’m not, so I wanted to get a feel for what I might be missing. I'm so glad I went.
What struck me the most was how different a lot of the perspectives were … and how different some were from mine. I had a couple of beefs, but I’m keeping those to myself, because really, everything in writing is subjective (except for grammar and spelling). Nothing I write is any more valid than something anyone else might write.
But I woke up this morning with a niggling thought—you know those? Those little voices that won’t shut up long enough for you to convince them that you’re too busy to write a blog? Anyway, mine was insistent, and I did think its idea was interesting, so today’s blog is about SEX.
Writing sex, anyway.
One of the questions put to the panel yesterday was by an author uncomfortable about writing graphic sex and/or violence. I can’t recall all the responses, but I got the general feel that the author should just do it, dare herself, be free! And yet … I’ve written a lot, and I still am uncomfortable writing either. In this day and age, where we’re relatively dulled to violence and hard to shock when it comes to sex, do we have to juice it up? Write such rip roaring scenes that you’ll get past the rest?
In my opinion, no.
I’ve written relatively sexy stuff (which I haven’t even considered publishing), and that includes a couple of wedding nights. And oh boy, I’ve written violence. My most controversial scene of “Under the Same Sky” was one of the first things I ever wrote, and it shocked me to the core. I had no idea I had that in me! I wrote absolutely everything my character saw, everything she heard, everything she felt. Through my words, the reader knew every little thing that was going on. Then I remembered that readers had brains and imaginations of their own. I cut, cut, cut, and in the end I came up with something a couple of people have called “Fade to Black” violence. I created the setting, built the tension, put up signposts and fences so the reader couldn’t avoid the scene, but I let the writing suffice. Did I have to indicate every kick, every punch, every thrust? Did I have to repeat the abusive language those creatures used? No. Absolutely not.
When I’m reading, two things will prompt me to set a book aside, unfinished. Predictability and Redundancy. Do I know just about everything about the characters and story within the first few pages? Yes? Not interested. Do I need to learn the details of how to tie a knot? The material on the chairs in a room? The weather? Unless these things are directly related to the storyline or are a central focus of the scene, I could care less. Touch on them, but let’s not dwell, people. I get bored.
The same goes—for me—with writing sex. I figure we all know how sex works, right? Insert Tab A into Slot B, create friction … Why do I have to include thrusting or sweating or groping or panting? And don’t get me going on descriptions of how she’s feeling during her orgasm. I can build to what’s going on through other actions, but once my characters are into it, they’re on their own.
On the other hand, I’m not going to just shut the door on what’s going on. Take this example from “Sound of the Heart.” It was actually pretty graphic for me.
He wanted her to love this, to feel the exhilaration he felt. He wanted her to want more. He certainly did not intend for this to be their one and only time. He tried varying his speed depending on the little purring noises she issued, then realised he couldn't stand thinking anymore. He closed his eyes as a familiar, delicious rumble began deep within him, taking ahold and growing, wave after wave, taking possession of his mind and body.
Not one thrust, not one unnecessary grab, though I’m sure there were plenty in his mind. I could have gone into the down and dirty descriptions, but in my heart, that was enough. I didn’t look away, but I didn’t take away from Dougal’s moment by over-narrating, either.
I think there are three distinct schools of thought on writing sex and violence. The first would be the hands-off, the author who wants nothing to do with writing more than a peck on the cheek. The second is the full frontal, go-for-it, no holds barred (or add in holds just for the thrill of it, if you’re into erotica). But the third is one that people often forget, and that’s Fade To Black.
What I want to say to readers is ... if you’re looking for more graphic stuff from me, it isn’t forthcoming. I am in my characters’ heads already. They deserve a little privacy now and then.
What I want to say to writers is ... if you are uncomfortable about writing sex or violence but it’s necessary for the story/scene, consider writing Fade To Black.
I won! I won! (and I didn't even know I had entered!)
I won an award! How cool is that? And it's not even for writing! Well, it kind of is, but not novels — blogs! That kind of fascinates me because I'm a terrible blog writer. Then again, I've tried a few in my past and maybe my friend, Tom, is referring to how different each attempt has been.
I'm hoping to keep up with this blog. I really am. I plan to write what it's like, having my dream come true with "Under the Same Sky", navigating like Alice through the Wonderland of publishing. I"m just probably the most disorganized person around, so while I promise to try, I can't promise to succeed. Your comments are encouraging, though!
So, over here is my writing blog. And right now I'm in the midst of giving away novels by bestselling authors. I think that's pretty great. Not my book, not yet, but these books sitting here beside me look awfully interesting. Check my earlier blog to find the titles of all the books.
Over there is my editing blog. That's where I have to do all the hard work, but work that I consider kind of fun, and definitely meaningful. Over there I try to help writers put a bit of sparkle into their work, giving techniques that I hope will help. And I try to keep them user-friendly, with as little use of grammatical terms as I can mention. Pop on over there if you're looking for some how-to advice. I take requests!
I did have another blog, but it's kind of faded into the background, so I'll skip over that. It was more of a mish mash, which maybe I should do on here.
My next step is to write a Newsletter because lots of people have requested one. So if anyone knows how I can put the little thingies in my newsletter, the "Subscribe Here" doo-dad and the little picture windows that link to facebook and twitter, I'd be REALLY interested in hearing from you!
I guess that's why I won this Versatility Award. A bit of everything. And I guess that's when my disorganization comes in handy. So would you like to contribute? Send me a topic, I'll see what I can do.
Thank you, Tom Kepler!