The learning curve

Way back in the old days when I was I was still a querying virgin, I stumbled upon an online discussion about the number of novels writers completed before they were published.
A talented few were published immediately.
Most had written two or three books before their writings went public.
But a surprising number kept writing even after half a dozen novels were rejected.
I scoffed.
That will never be me, I thought.
If the first novel wasn’t published before the second one was finished, I was sure I would have deemed myself a failure. All the stamina would be gone, all the excitement, the fervor, the self-confidence. There was no way I could go on.
Yet here I am working on my third novel while the other two have yet to see a bookshelf.
And what shocks me is that I am more confident, more excited, than ever before.
This is why.
The first published novel sets the tone for a writer’s career. It also starts the timer for the completion of another work and then another and then another. The pressure is on and learning curves can be incredibly dangerous if they are taken too fast.
Those who want to make careers of writing cannot afford to make mistakes early on.
At least not publicly.
I made mistakes and, thankfully, they were neither permanent nor public.
Better yet, I learned from them.
Like so many before me, I was too excited by my first novel to sit on it for a while. I rushed into queries before all my beta readers had finished. When the verdict came in, the errors were glaringly obvious to me. I couldn’t believe I had queried it.
I cut characters, revised the first half and tried again.
It worked.
But then came more mistakes.
I signed with an agent who was not a good fit for me. I wrote my second novel too fast. I approached my third novel with sales figures in mind instead of focusing on the story I wanted to tell. I was letting ego overrule passion.
Again, I stepped back and re-evaluated.
I needed to slow down.
I terminated my contract with my agent and started the hunt again, taking a more cautious approach this time around. I revised my second novel and entered the first novel into a contest that targets the appropriate agent/publisher audience for its genre.
I ditched several chapters of my third novel and started over again, being true this time to my desire to write a mystery that is both suspenseful and worthy of the term “literary.”  I am so much happier and my passion has recovered its strength.
With two completed novels and a third underway, I have more choices and more experience.
I learned a great deal about the business in my two years with my first agent, who is wonderful person and was always willing to talk with me about such things. I am not sure precisely where I want to take my career, but I know where I don’t want to be.
And, in this business, that knowledge is equally important.
I look back at that woman who scoffed at the thought of banking completed novels and try to see her with a sense of humor. At the time, I also thought I had a pretty good handle on parenting with two young kids close in age.
Then came a surprise set of twins.
The twins have taught me that I have a lot to learn and that the learning never ends.
Writing multiple novels has provided the same kind of lesson. Balance is key in this business just as it is in every other aspect of life. With each mistake, I have gained confidence — confidence that has led to positive change. That confidence comes not with perfection, but with the ability to see and correct those mistakes and to learn from them.
The twins opened my eyes as a parent.
The novels opened my eyes as a writer.

Criticism: tough love for the ego

An acquaintance once asked me to critique the first chapter of her work in progress.
I didn’t know her very well and I was unfamiliar with her writing history, but I figured she had only recently contracted the writing bug because her work was so raw.
So I decided to tread carefully.
I started with all the good stuff.
I piled it on.
Then, I began to point out sections that confused me.
I had barely begun when she stopped me and began to explain. She explained not because she believed her words would elicit more advice or solutions to the problems within the work. She spoke up because she decided that, like everyone else, I “just didn’t get it.”
She would have to move on.
I was stunned.
She’ll never make it.
Not with that attitude.
In college (both in undergraduate and graduate school), we were not allowed to speak while our work was critiqued. For a good 45 minutes, we’d have to sit there jotting notes and biting our lips while six or seven other people tore our work apart and analyzed it bit by little bit.
Sometimes I had to bite so hard it bled.
I doesn’t matter what we intend to say with our words.
Readers can’t stop, pick up the phone and ask authors what they meant.
The writing must convey the message all by itself and the critique I received in those workshops was invaluable.
It toughened my skin.
The rewrites that followed taught me how to sort through it all.
How to ignore some criticism and embrace that of others.
And, most important, I learned to recruit readers who would be tough on me.
I might not always agree, but I’ll take what I can get.
When people offer criticism, it’s like they’re giving away money.
Some people gives us just a penny or two.
Others give us gold.
But why would we reject the pennies? We don’t have to spend them, but it doesn’t hurt to accept them and, when we gather enough pennies, we just might find that they are more valuable when combined than we once thought.
But, then again, we need to be careful that we don’t waste too much time gathering pennies.
Don’t request critiques from people who will simply be enthralled by the fact that we can write at all. Seek out the gold, the readers who read critically and, therefore, are most likely to offer constructive feedback.
It becomes less painful when we think of the work as a joint project, one in which the person giving critique is invested. The work has been created. Now it needs fine-tuning. Sharpening. The critiquer can sometimes see the flaws that we cannot see because we are too immersed.
The critiquer, or beta reader, offers perspective.
I feel sorry for that woman whose chapter I read.
She will likely waste plenty of time seeking out readers who agree with her.
With each honest critique she rejects, her dream of publication will become less and less vivid.
It’s a waste.
But it’s also a choice.
A choice that requires strength of character, humility and confidence all rolled together.
We all have it within us.
But, if we want to be successful, we cannot let ego rule.

Giddy

For 11 years, I saw my name in print most every day.
Sometimes, I had several stories in one edition; I believe my record was eight.
I loved it, not because people knew my name, but because I believed in the power of writing. I believed in newspapers (and still do). I believed I was changing lives, even if sometimes that change was barely perceptible to most.
But none of that compares to the rush I got today when I received an email from an editor at Aethlon, a literary sports journal centered at East Tennessee State University. My short story, “Conquering Iwo Jima,” has been accepted for publication.
I was giddy.
Really giddy.
(Okay, so I’d had a little wine before I checked my email!)
This is different.
Different because this is fiction.
And this is my first.
I had stopped writing short stories soon after I finished my thesis for Binghamton University in 2000. My first son was two months old when I earned my degree and I had started teaching as an adjunct English instructor four months later. Then along came my daughter and, after she was born, I started the novel.
I freelanced (changed diapers), taught (changed diapers), and freelanced some more while I worked on the novel. Five years later, after a weekend of revisions, I was finally done.
Then I learned I was pregnant again.
No biggie, I thought (after the shock wore off).
Nothing was going to stop me.
Nothing except maybe twins.
They kind of brought things to a crawl.
But now they are two and, slowly, I am started to emerge from my mommy fog. One day in November, through that fog, I spied a folder on my laptop marked “short stories.” I read through a few of them, made a some minor revisions and started searching for appropriate markets on Duotrope.com.
Within 30 minutes, I found Aethlon.
I submitted “Conquering Iwo Jima” in November and forgot about it.
Then came the email.
And the giddiness.
Just a few weeks earlier, I learned that my novel, Spring Melt, had made the quarterfinals for the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award. I’m competing against 499 other writers, so my chances are slim. But I get at least one professional review of my full manuscript out of the deal and validation that I’ve got something good going here.
That makes it worth it.
I still love writing nonfiction.
I still love interviewing, investigating, creating.
But writing fiction is, for me, like that second child that you love with the same strength as the first, but you love differently. It offers a different path to change. Not better. Just different.
Fiction is a passion for me and one that I have not had the opportunity to pursue as fully as nonfiction. The giddiness comes from the realization that I might, just possibly might, finally get my chance.