The Fear

The longer I write, the more I try to make this a legit career, the more I realize one important thing. It never stops being scary.

Writing wasn’t that scary when I was younger. Those short stories and attempts at novels that failed before they ever got off the ground were all warm-ups. They were laps around an empty track. They were throwing a softball and shagging fly balls behind the house with my dad.

The first time I sat down with a book idea and actually began to write it in earnest, that’s when it got real. Committing an idea to the page and investing ninety-something-thousand words in it is a scary thing. At least, it was for me. Letting someone read it made me really nervous. (Later realizing I let them read that many words of crap embarrassed me to no end). Reading it in front of a critique group for the first time petrified me. I was no longer hidden in the back yard, I was on the practice field with the whole team.

Writing the second one wasn’t any easier. The writing improved, but that manuscript came with a new, even scarier step. Sending it to agents. Querying. Oh my gosh, querying. All of a sudden, I went from the practice field to a game. People were watching. What if I messed up? What would happen then?

A fair amount of tears, it turned out. Rejection. To be honest, the first rejections weren’t as scary as the requests for fulls. Knowing an agent had my work was ten times more frightening than the critique group reading it.

Each step in the writing process has come with a new fear. The fear of committing to a new idea then discovering it sucks. The fear of someone else reading my words and thoughts. The fear of rejection. Of judgment. Of revising and doing it wrong and having to do it all over again but still not getting it right. Of letting down my family and friends and agent and myself.

It doesn’t stop. It’s an infinite roller coaster that you never get off.

I just finished my fourth manuscript. I love it. SO. MUCH. This is a big deal. It’s uncharted territory. Don’t get me wrong, I usually like my writing, and there are always passages and phrases that I love in each manuscript. But upon finishing my final read through before I send it off to my agent, it hit me that I’ve completely fallen in love with this book.

Loving a book isn’t that different from romantic love. Before my husband, I had several boyfriends, each of whom I thought I had a deeper connection with than the last. It wasn’t until I found my husband, though, that I realized what true love is. Those feelings for those other boys all paled in comparison. I still like my other stories, and I still harbor a deep affection for my last manuscript. But I didn’t know true book love until this one.

And that scares me more than anything else has so far with my writing.

When I went on sub with the last book, it was pretty nerve-wracking. I made my standard color-coded spreadsheet. I jumped at every new email. I prayed someone would want it. The first rejections came and, even though I’d steeled myself, they stung. I cried. I wallowed for a bit, then I brushed myself off and moved on. I’d already starting writing another one–and I’d already started falling for it–so I had something to keep me preoccupied. Each rejection was a little easier to deal with. When six months went by and the list of editors with my sub dwindled, I was prepared. I knew we weren’t giving up on the book, just putting it aside awhile until the timing was right. It was hard, but I’d seen the writing on the wall. Instead of fretting, I threw myself into finishing the new book, and despite trying to keep it at arm’s length, I fell head over heels for it. So much so, that sending the final draft to my agent was the scariest thing I’d done.

Falling in love with your writing is a dangerous thing, and I really felt that danger for the first time when I submitted the draft. The more you love something you’ve written, the harder it is to tear it apart. “Kill your darlings” isn’t just a cliche. Writers can get so swept up with something small that sometimes we can’t see the forest for the trees. I’ve never had a problem cutting into my writing. My agent signed me after a massive revision in which I reworked the entire story. She’s hands-on and editorial, which I love, and I know she knows her stuff. But I didn’t want to see this story carved to pieces. If she’d come back and said it needed major revisions, I would’ve heard her out and given it a shot, because I trust her and I know she sees things from a different vantage point, she sees the whole forest. It would’ve been hard, though.

Fortunately, she loved it too. No major changes, no ripping my baby to shreds. I was thrilled (and shocked, haha). Now it’s time for this one to go on sub. It should be old hat this time around. I’ve been here before. I’ve played a game under the lights in front of a big crowd. This time, though, I’m naked. I’m terrified to sub this. I actually cried when I found out it’s time to send it.

I’m not ready. I’m not ready for this manuscript to get rejected. I love it too much.

When I started writing seriously, I thought I would eventually reach a point where it isn’t scary anymore, where I’d be comfortable. There is no comfort in writing. Each step is just as terrifying, or more so, than the last. If the impossible happens (which I can hardly begin to hope for) and this book doesn’t get rejected, if someone wants it, then I have the fear of it getting ripped apart again. The fear of the whole publishing process. Of readers not buying it, or worse, hating it, or not caring at all. Of never selling another book.

It never stops. Just because you reach that next step in your journey, doesn’t mean it gets easier. Rejection doesn’t hurt less, you just get used to the pain. Fear doesn’t lessen, but you figure out how to cope (at least not until you get into Stephen King/John Grisham/John Green territory. I bet they don’t feel the fear anymore. Although, who knows, maybe they do?). I’m, obviously, still working on that coping bit. Maybe I’ll get the hang of it one day, but until then, I’m going to build my color-coded submission spreadsheet, eat some chocolate, wait to pounce on my phone when I get an email, and write another book to fall in love with.

Because regardless of how scary writing can be, I love it. I can’t imagine not doing it. Fear and all.

(Also, this is the song (Lily Allen “The Fear”) I’ve been humming while writing this post. It will get in your head. You’ve been warned).

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Just Write It

Yesterday, my amazing CP, Alison, wrote an equally amazing guest post for YAHighway. It got me thinking about my own writing process.

A couple weeks ago, I finally finished the manuscript I’ve been working on since June. Right before Christmas, I posted on Absolute Write looking for a couple beta readers. I told them I’d just finished my first draft and needed fresh eyes before submitting to my agent. I had some great people offer to read, and they all told me the same thing. When they saw the words “first draft,” they got really nervous, until they started reading and realized it read like a later draft.

“Well,” I said, “I guess technically it’s not a first draft when I think about it, but in a way it is.” Which, I realize, makes no sense. Around this time my agent tweeted that she’s convinced everyone’s first drafts are complete crap. Everyone.

This all got me thinking: what is a first draft?

See, I consider my first draft to be the first one I complete. When I type those last few words and lift my fingers from the keyboard, I have finished my first draft. But I don’t think it’s crap, necessarily (depends on the day, haha), because I’ve already worked it to death by the time I finish. Technically, I suppose, it could be thought of as a second draft, or even third–but that feels weird to me, since it’s the first time I’ve finished. See how I talk it in circles? It’s kind of confusing, so let’s back up.

Google “writing advice.” Go ahead, I’ll wait. One of the first links you’ll get is a post called 21 Harsh But Eye-Opening Writing Tips From Great Authors. I linked it for you in case you didn’t Google it. The very first tip comes from Ernest Hemingway. It says basically the same thing my agent tweeted. If you keep going through the links, though, or talk to the majority of writers, or read writing blogs or websites, you’ll inevitably see these words over and over again: “Don’t self-edit. Just write the first draft, then go back and edit later. Keep that momentum going.” Pretty much everyone hands out this little piece of advice like Halloween candy.

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but they’re wrong. Dead wrong. Don’t close the page just yet, hear me out.

Ever read Query Shark? Janet Reid gives excellent advice for writing queries. One thing she constantly harps on is following the rules. No rhetorical questions, no gimmicks, no first person, start with the plot, etc, etc. However, she says once you have a good grasp of the rules, they can be broken. The famous example of this is the wonderful Josin McQuein’s query. It breaks all the rules, but is so darn captivating it doesn’t matter. (The book, by the way, is also excellent. Go pick up a copy. Get Arclight while you’re at it. You’ll thank me for the cover alone. All the pretty!). Man, I’m all about some links today!

Janet’s query advice should extend to all writing. When you’re just starting, yes, follow the rules. If you’re having trouble getting motivated to write, by all means just get words on the page. Get the first draft down, however crappy and messy and convoluted it may be, and fix it later. I started this way. I just wrote, and wrote, and wrote.

But it didn’t work for me. By the time I finished, I had SO MANY WORDS! Plots that started and dropped off. Threads that twisted into a tangled mass. Characters that weren’t consistent. Revising was such a headache. I would look at the draft and think “I can never do this. It’s too much.” You know what? I was right. I got overwhelmed by the amount of work the first draft would need. It was like finding some pretty necklaces at a yard sale, but they’re all in a box together and the chains are intertwined. You try to tease out the couple you like, but everything is so tightly knotted you just throw the whole mess down and say screw it.

Then I found my CP. We started working together by exchanging a few chapters at a time, initially of a finished draft, and then of a WIP. I’d write a few, then she’d email and ask how the writing was going. So I’d send her the pages, she’d send feedback, and I couldn’t not go through her comments when I got them. (How do you like that little double negative? Here’s another). Then I couldn’t not incorporate changes and fix problems she’d noticed. Next thing I knew, I had a finished first draft that read more like a second. I self-edited. And I didn’t die. (By the way, I totally have this scene from Mean Girls in my head. Except insert “self-edit” for “sex,” and “write terribly” for “pregnant.”) My writing didn’t suffer. In fact, I think it got better.

My most recent WIP went through lots of changes I as wrote. I ended up plotting more than I ever have, even though I didn’t marry my outline or anything.The initial words that went on the page: yeah, they were crap, but I fixed them as I went.  I rewrote the beginning and moved chapters around. It went slower than any other ms I’ve written, which frustrated me. I’ve always thought of myself as a quick writer. When I think about it, though, it really took the same amount of time. Before, I wrote the first draft in three months, and revised for three. This time around it took six to get through the “first draft,” but it wasn’t the sloppy, just-get-words-on-the-page kind of draft I used to turn out. It was polished, edited, neat. Reading back through and revising was a breeze.

So, self-edit, or don’t self-edit. Revise chapter by chapter, or revise all at once. Follow the rules, or break the rules. It doesn’t matter. Just write it. Everyone is different, and everyone works in their own way. There is no one size fits all writing advice. Find what works best for you and do it.

I’ve heard a few writers refer to their first drafts as “draft zero.” Personally, I’m not sure what to call mine. First draft? Second? Fred? Quite frankly, it doesn’t matter (although I’m partial to Fred). As long as the ms you finally query, or submit to your agent, or whatever, is polished, who cares what you call it? Forget rules and advice and labels and everything. Clear your mind of all but the story, and write.