The Persistent Widow

There’s a parable in the Bible about the persistent widow. She wants justice–it doesn’t ever say what for–but the judge won’t listen to her. Every day she begs him for justice and every day he ignores her. On and on until eventually the judge can’t take it anymore. He gives in and gives the woman justice so she’ll leave him alone. (The parable can be found in Luke 18 if you’re interested). I don’t talk about my faith much on here, partially because I don’t want to be construed as pushing my beliefs on other people, but mostly because I try to keep this blog focused on my writing (although I’ve deviated with a couple personal posts lately). This parable has been bouncing around in my brain, though, not just in the context of my faith, but in the context of writing too.

Everyone knows publishing moves at a glacial pace. You learn that the first time you look at agent response times to queries. I’ve talked about trying to be more patient, but patience isn’t all you need if you want to make it in this business. Persistence is also key.

I’ve been thinking about persistence mostly in the terms of my faith, which is the focus of the parable of the persistent widow. The very first line says Jesus told the parable to show how you should pray without giving up. So every day, multiple times a day actually, I pray an editor buys my manuscript. Maybe that sounds silly to you. Sometimes it feels silly to me, but I still do it. I pray persistently. Like maybe I’ll eventually annoy God like the widow annoyed the judge and He’ll give in. I’ve always been such a Debbie Downer. I’d get a rejection and come home and flop on the bed with a giant sigh and bemoan “it’s never going to happen, I should just give up.” I’d wallow for a day or so, then get back up and started writing again. No matter how badly the rejection hurt, I couldn’t quit. I finally culled that urge to throw a pity party by remembering this parable, and instead of whining that it won’t happen for me, I say a prayer that it will.

Like I said at the start, though, it’s not just about prayer. For me, this parable is a reminder not to give up, period. That holds true no matter what you do or don’t believe. You have to be persistent if you’re going to achieve your goals, whatever they may be. My goal is to be published. To have my books on shelves in stores across the world. For strangers to read my words and invest in my characters. I could’ve given up dozens of times. After my first agent rejections, after my first bad critiques, after my first editor rejections, after a previous manuscript was shelved, after I got frustrated while writing another manuscript. But I didn’t. With each rejection, or bad critique, or writer’s block, I’ve pushed forward. Rejections and negative feedback will always sting, but it would be worse to stop there, for that negative response to be the last input someone has on my writing. So I keep going. I’m persistent. Even when I feel like Sisyphus, struggling to push a boulder up a hill only to have it roll back down and have to start over, which is often.

It would be so easy to quit writing. To say “I tried” and throw in the towel. But if you’re serious about this business, you can’t call mercy. You have to dig deep and keep going. Got a rejection from an agent? Okay, move on and query the next agent. Got some tough critiques on your manuscript? Revise and do another round of betas. Decided a manuscript just isn’t going to work? Trunk it and start another. A plot snag is holding up your story? Brainstorm, talk it over with friends, write an outline. Suck it up.

You’ll never reach your goals if you quit. I never would’ve gotten an agent if I’d stopped after my first rejection. And I’ll never be published if I don’t keep writing new stories and improving my craft. It has taken me a while to get to this point. I’m not exactly an optimist (Hubby says I’m a pessimist, I say I’m a realist). Honestly, my outlook on writing and the publishing industry changed because of this parable, which is why I wanted to share it with you, regardless of your religious leanings or even lack thereof. I have to make an effort remember the persistent widow and keep that lesson in the back of my mind every day. If you’re not religious, so what? That doesn’t negate the point of the story. The point is to keep at it. Whatever it is you’re doing, whatever you’re after, keep at it until you achieve it. Don’t even think about the worst case. Don’t think about failure.

One of my favorite stories of persistence is Kathryn Stockett, author of The Help. Here is a snip from an amazing article on her journey to publication:

In the end, I received 60 rejections for The Help. But letter number 61 was the one that accepted me. After my five years of writing and three and a half years of rejection, an agent named Susan Ramer took pity on me. What if I had given up at 15? Or 40? Or even 60? Three weeks later, Susan sold The Help to Amy Einhorn Books.

Five years of writing. Three and a half years of rejection. And she kept going. Her persistence paid off. One day, I want to be able to tell the world my persistence paid off.

I can’t sum this up any better than Kathryn did:

The point is, I can’t tell you how to succeed. But I can tell you how not to: Give in to the shame of being rejected and put your manuscript—or painting, song, voice, dance moves, [insert passion here]—in the coffin that is your bedside drawer and close it for good. I guarantee you that it won’t take you anywhere. Or you could do what this writer did: Give in to your obsession instead.

 

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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).

Writing is Just Like Playing Guitar…Sort of

Writers have tons of tools in their little kits, but one of the most important is one I think is the most overlooked. The ability to take criticism.

Look, I’ll just say it plainly: if you can’t take criticism, you should find something else to do.

You’re going to be criticized. Your ideas, your word choices, your plots, your characters, your everything. Just accept that from the start.

That being said, it’s not easy. You take something you’ve slaved over, fretted over, stressed over, poured your heart and soul into for the last however many months, and you send it out into the world then duck beneath the covers and wait. It’s scary. Really scary. You’ve scattered pieces of yourself throughout your story; it’s hard not to take a critique of your work as a personal affront, but that’s exactly what you can’t do. You can’t take it personally.

On the Absolute Write forum, when you first join a sentence appears under your screen name: “new fish learning about thick skin.” I think that’s a perfect way to describe the process.

There was a point in my life when I’d decided to play to guitar. My dad bought me this beat up old thing from a pawn shop (I loved it by the way) and a few tab books and I set off full of grand dreams of all the amazing places my band, Siamese Cousins, would go (our first album was to be called “Joined at the Spine”). Then I tried to actually play. The strings cut into my fingers, especially the thin ones! It was like running wire under my nails. Especially doing any sort of slide. When I finished the song (“Brown Eyed Girl”) painful red lines striped the tops of my fingers.

For those of you who have never played guitar, you have to play constantly and build up callouses across your fingertips. The more you play, the thicker your skin becomes until one day you pick up a guitar and it doesn’t hurt anymore. If you don’t play much your skin will stay thin and supple and you won’t escape the pain. (I never progressed and quit trying after a while, but my husband is really good and plays a lot–so I know this from him).

Writing isn’t much different. As a baby writer, your skin is soft and pink. It hurts when people criticize your work. You can’t stop and dwell on the pain, though. If you stop, the callouses never grow and it will always hurt. The same holds true if you ignore the criticism. You won’t grow. So you keep at it. You keep writing and keep putting yourself out there and, gradually, you realize one day the pain isn’t so sharp, your skin is thicker and you can take more pressure.

Like I said, it’s not easy. And even after you think your skin has thickened, it’s possible for criticism to cut you pretty deep. The key is to pick yourself back up, and keep moving on.

I write this because I think I’ve got pretty thick skin. I know the feedback and criticism makes me a better writer and I embrace it. “Bring it on!” I say. “Hit me with all you’ve got! Tear my manuscript/query apart so I can whip it into shape!” I can usually take the heat, but sometimes…sometimes I get knocked down and find it hard to get back up.

I’m in the middle of editing a manuscript I just finished. The ending needs to be pretty much re-written, and I’ve got a good idea where I want it to go.  There’s just one problem: I read the first couple chapters at my critique group last week. They loved the writing, but they didn’t get the plot. Maybe I didn’t explain it correctly, because some key elements were misinterpreted, but, while I usually leave the group feeling energized and ready to write, this time I left dejected. Worried. Nervous.

Were there really holes in my plot? I didn’t think so. I thought I’d explained away any gaps and problems throughout the story. My husband and CP both thought the same thing, but that little nugget of doubt had been planted. Every time I sit down to finish editing, that doubt creeps back to the surface. “Are there really problems?” I think. “Is it worth it to finish? Will anyone want it?”

The answer, of course, is yes, it’s definitely worth it to finish. I still believe in the story. I still love the story and I have faith it’s something people want to read. The only answer is to uproot that dadgum seedling of doubt and throw it away. Develop even thicker skin to keep it from wriggling back in there.

So, it’s a process. You don’t just start writing and are magically able to take criticism like a champ. Heck, there are some published authors who I’m sure still have trouble with criticism. But you pick up the guitar every day and play. You grow. You take the criticism with a grain of salt; mine what you think is helpful, discard the rest, and move forward. You’re a new fish, learning about thick skin. Learning. It’s not going to happen overnight, but with time, and practice, it will happen.

Your Love is Like, a Roller Coaster Baby, Baby, I Wanna Ride

The song “Love Roller Coaster” has been in my head.  The Red Hot Chili Peppers version, not the Ohio Players.  (Yes, I had the “Beavis and Butthead Do America” soundtrack and yes, it was awesome.)  I feel like I’ve been stuck on this ride, but I can’t get off because no matter how many ups and downs there are, I still love it.  Writing is a roller coaster.  Every bit of it.  At least, it is for me. From start to finish I have so many ups and downs I feel like a pogo stick.  From the story idea, to putting it on paper, to changing the idea, to changing the order of chapters, to writer’s block, to character development (you go through a whole separate coaster ride along with your character), to revisions, to querying.  Everything goes up and down, up and down, up and down–highs and lows.

I experienced this roller coaster in one day recently when an agent (a dream agent) rejected my full manuscript because it was too similar to something the agent already had.  Low: rejection.  High: the agent liked my concept.  Low: but the agent didn’t want it.  High: there’s something similar, which means my story is (maybe) marketable.  Low: there’s something similar, which means my story isn’t as fresh as I thought/hoped.  High: I don’t know how similar.  Low: it doesn’t matter, the agent rejected me.

I spent one good day and night wallowing in my rejection, then pulled myself up by my boot-straps and kept plugging on.  I’m going through one more round of revisions before submitting my manuscript to a contest (fingers crossed!).  Three days after I decided on the contest, I experienced another high when another agent (a dream agent) requested my partial.  Then quickly a low when I realized the agent asked for a synopsis too (eek!).  Fortunately, I think I got my synopsis in decent shape (see my post on the horrors of the synopsis here).

Right now I feel like I’m more in the  middle of the roller coaster, or the big incline at the beginning.  I’m slowly click-clacking my way to the top, unsure whether there will be a big drop on the other side, or whether the track will run flat for a while first, or maybe there will even be another hill to climb.  Regardless, I’m in for the whole ride.  That’s the thrill, right?  Not knowing what’s coming next.  It’s a good thing I love roller coasters.  As soon as I get off this one, wherever it may stop, high or low, I’m ready to step on the next and start all over.  Because that’s what I have to do.  It’s what we all have to do if we truly want to be writers.  This business is full of ups and downs (mostly downs), but its the ups, those few glorious moments, that make it worthwhile.