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: