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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You Is Kind, You Is Smart, You Is Important.

Six years ago tomorrow, I got married. For a lot of people, most I dare say, this isn’t that big a deal. But it is for me.

I never wanted to get married. In fact, I said I was never getting married. Protested it. I was independent. Strong. A loner.

Truth is, though, I wasn’t. In reality, I was scared. Afraid of committing my entire life to someone and then being left or betrayed. Afraid of losing my independence, of relying on someone else and being let down. I think deep down, it wasn’t marriage that scared me, it was marrying the wrong person, and I didn’t trust my judgment to find the right person.

With good reason. Before my husband, I was in a terrible relationship. I’ve talked a bit about it before, but I didn’t tell the whole truth. The whole truth is terrifying, but I think I can finally say it. It’s hard to admit this, even now, nine years after I dumped the guy. Especially since I know my family reads my blog and there are things I haven’t told anyone except my husband and my brother. I think it needs to be said, though. There are people who need to hear it. Women, in a particular, who need to stand up for themselves. This isn’t directed at anyone specific, but at anyone who has ever let someone else take part of themselves.

The guy I dated for three years, the majority of my time in college, just about broke me. He was abusive. Mostly emotionally, telling me I was worthless and lucky to have him because no one else would ever want me. He would yell and cuss and threaten to leave. He threw things at me. Beer bottles and silverware. He’d kick his cat. He’d grab me hard enough to leave five oval bruises on each arm and shake me until I thought my head was going to fly off, until I became so dizzy I couldn’t stand.

He was an alcoholic. A couple years later I learned he’d developed a prescription drug addiction and went to rehab. I don’t know if it worked. He tried to kill himself a couple times. He always put it on me. His problems were my fault.

It suffocated me. I spent those years believing him. He ran off all of my friends. My parents thought I was just a bad roommate. I guess they thought I was selfish, that I chased my friends away. I never corrected them. It was better for them to think I was the bad person than to think I had terrible judgment. (Poor logic, I know). Part of me also feared my dad would kill the guy if he ever found out, and I didn’t want to put Daddy in that position.

I found freedom in a couple places. One, my friend Sam. We were in the same major. We started out studying together, then hanging out. I told my boyfriend I was studying, then Sam and I would go hear a band or something. Sam had this neighbor, this annoying, irritating neighbor who developed a crush on me. The guy drove me crazy, but later, I realized he sparked something within me. Confidence. Defiance. I learned my boyfriend was wrong. Other people would want me. Did want me.

I also found freedom in Paris.

My mother teaches high school and every couple years she’d take a group to Europe. For every x number of students who signed up (I don’t remember how many), the group got a free trip. So my senior year of college, a month after I turned 22, I got to go to Europe for free. It was there, in the piazzas in Florence, the train to Monaco, the shops of Nice, that I started to feel unbridled. One morning, winding through the streets of Paris, just outside Notre Dame, I realized I hadn’t bought my boyfriend a souvenir. I’d been in Europe almost ten days and hadn’t thought to get him anything. Hadn’t thought of him much at all, actually. I paid a couple Euro for a pen and ink drawing of the cathedral–one I wish I’d kept to be honest–and then forgot about the guy again. Until the plane ride home. Then the thick blanket came over my head again.

By the time I reunited with my boyfriend, the blanket became a plastic bag, killing me. Over the next month I tried to figure out a way to end it without destroying the guy. Even after all he’d put me through, I still worried about him. Isn’t that ridiculous? This was before his suicide attempts, before the pills and the rehab, but I knew how fragile he was. I still look back on that time and wonder if I should’ve said something to his family. There’s a twinge of guilt when I think I could have warned them. Not stopped it. Nothing could’ve stopped this guy’s path of destruction. But I could’ve warned his parents. His dad–who was a genuinely nice person. Realistically , though, I know it wouldn’t have mattered. They probably wouldn’t believe me. The guy had to hit bottom first, and, unfortunately, he still had a long way to fall.

Without me.

The end came one night when Sam and I were listening to a band downtown. I couldn’t stand it anymore and blurted “I’m single.” I wasn’t. Not yet. But saying it aloud meant I had to do it. Sam’s neighbor had showed up, and soon as he heard I was single, he attached himself to me like a leach. Badgered me into a date. I finally agreed so he’d leave me alone, and because I felt bad saying no. Dude was irritating, but sweet. And the date actually was amazing. Awkward and uncomfortable at times–seeing as how I still had a boyfriend–but amazing.

Something clicked. For the first time in years, a guy was enamored by me. He treated me with respect and deference and made me feel special. It’s like I’d been trying to unlock a door with the wrong key and suddenly all the tumblers fell into place.

I dumped my boyfriend. It took two days. He mostly cried. Squalled like a little girl. He’d been planning to propose after my college graduation ceremony–the next day. While it hurt him terribly, I felt a rush of relief. The bag had been removed from my head and I could breathe fresh air again.

Three years later, the neighbor and I got married. He loves me and respects me and honors me more and more every day. He is the reason I’m a writer. I recently realized, with some measure of shock, that I didn’t write a single word while I dated the other guy. I’d been writing all my life and he killed the words. My husband brought them out of me again. He pushes me to be a better version of myself, but loves me where I am. He patiently discusses plot ideas and character development and sits across from me at coffee shops when I know he’d rather do something else, just so he can spend time with me while I write.

Marriage is nothing like I’d feared. It’s not always easy, but it isn’t the smothering loss of self I thought it would be.

We have this tree in our front yard, a crepe myrtle. It was huge! Way bigger than a crepe myrtle is supposed to be. In the spring, the branches would get so heavy with leaves and flowers they’d almost touch the ground. The leaves were so thick, they formed a canopy across part of the yard, almost completely blocking the sun. Last summer, Hubs and I got tired of it. We attacked the branches, hacking them with saws until only the very top remained. Air can swirl through the yard again. The sun can reach the grass. It had been stifled for years, but now it’s finally growing again.

I’m growing. And I have a wonderful man growing with me.

I’m writing all this now for a couple reasons. The ex popped up on LinkedIn the other day. I saw his profile on my screen and felt…nothing. Not the anger and pain and sadness I’ve felt for years. Not the reminder of the time I wasted on him. Just nothing. I have finally healed. The wounds he caused are still there. That pain and hurt changed me, and I will never regain the innocence and naivety that he stole. But the wounds no longer bleed, they no longer hurt. They’re scars. So small now, they’re barely visible. I still know they’re there, but you have to look closely to see them. Like the tiny white line on my knee where I gouged it on a metal ladder in middle school.

The other reason is because there are others like me. Those who let other people dictate their self-worth, who tell them they’re not good enough, that they aren’t worth love. I’m not better because my husband loves me. I’m better because he helped me learn how to love myself. Self-loathing and depression runs high in writers. I struggle with self-deprecating thoughts every day. It’s easy to let others define your sense of self-worth, especially in this business. But it’s important to distance yourself.

I am not defined by my rejection. I am not defined by my success. Other people’s opinions don’t dictate who I am inside. Even when I get down on myself, I remember, I am worth something. You are worth something. Whether you’re in an abusive situation, or you’re just depressed, or you’re drowning under the weight of rejection or criticism or bad reviews, don’t forget that. And if you’re in a bad situation: get out. Now. Don’t think about it. Free yourself. Find a support system, a kind shoulder, a group, a therapist, a friend, someone and get out. Trust me, it won’t hurt as much as you think it will, and you deserve better.

I leave you with the words of Kathryn Stockett, from the mouth of her character Aibileen Clark in “The Help”: You is kind. You is smart. You is important. 

Don’t forget that.

Stuck in the Middle with You

Whose opinion matters more?  The writer?  The critique partner/beta?  The reader?  The agent/publisher?

These questions have been swirling through my head lately.  At first blush, the answer is “the readers”.  I mean, they’re the ones who will ultimately decide whether or not to buy a book, whether they connect with the character, and whether they want more.  But the more I learn about the world of publishing, the more I’m finding that’s not the case.  A reader may love a story, but agents and publishers may hate it.  I recently read how Harry Potter came to be, and almost never was.  If you don’t know the story, I’ll elucidate for you.  You see, the manuscript for “The Sorcerer’s Stone” was rejected pretty much across the board and finally landed on the desk of a publisher, the last publisher.  All other avenues had been exhausted.  This publisher took the an excerpt home to “read” and ended up giving it to his young daughter.  (At this point in the story, I have images of the Grinch giving Little Cindy Lou Who a drink of water, patting her on the head, and sending her to bed).  She read it and absolutely loved it and couldn’t wait to get more, to find out what happened next. The publisher had hated it and was going to turn it down.  Fortunately for everyone (especially J.K. Rowling), he decided to listen to his daughter and accept the manuscript.

So, unless the reader happens to be a publisher’s daughter, they don’t seem to have much of a say.  I’m certain books are passed on all the time that readers would love.  It’s not the agent or publisher’s fault. They pass on books for all sorts of reasons.  Their client list is too full, they already have something similar, it’s not their cup of tea, they don’t believe enough in the project.  They have to use their judgment as to what will sell and what won’t.  Sometimes they get it wrong.  For example, sixty agents passed on “The Help” by Katherine Stockett.  Sixty.  Stockett tried for three years to get it published.  No one thought it would work or that audiences would like it, but people loved it.  So, again, it goes back to the reader’s opinion.

I recently became part of a wonderful sort of experiment: an online critique group.  It’s a forum with a small number of people, a max of ten, who post their stuff a chapter at a time for critiques from the other members.  No, this doesn’t count as publishing, as only registered members can read the works and everything is password protected.  Unlike some of the other writer’s forums I frequent where you can only post a chapter or excerpt here and there for help, you can post as much as you want.  I’m also a member of a flesh and blood critique group that works the same way.  We meet once a month and read a chapter or two and get feedback.  The only problem is if you work faster than that pace, which is the purpose of the online group.

So I joined and posted the first couple chapters of my new work in progress.  And they hated it.  More accurately, they hated my main character.  They found her shallow and self-absorbed.  However, they loved my plot, and that kept them reading.  I was a little miffed, to be honest, because I thought she was a typical teenage girl worried about prom and the boy she likes.  I will caveat and say my fellow critiquers said they were not normal teenage girls and that’s probably why they couldn’t relate/didn’t like my main character.  Nevertheless, I’ve found myself in a quandary.  I don’t want to have a completely unlikeable main character, but I need her to be a little unreasonable at the beginning so there’s room for growth.

My answer: I co-lead a small group of youth at my church.  All teenage girls from ages fourteen to eighteen.  So, I offered to let one of them read my first two chapters (and ended up with several of them reading it, but that’s the way it goes).  Their initial impressions were that they loved the character.  This only deepens the quandary, leaving me feeling stuck in the middle.  I have a character adults dislike, but teenagers like, in a book written for teenagers.  Yes, I know my adults come from one group of people who may be biased, but I have to wonder: will other adults feel the same way?  And if they do, will they be turned off and not want to read it?  Unfortunately, no matter how much the teenagers may like it, it’s adults I have to impress.

It seems a bit counter-intuitive though, doesn’t it?  I can’t help but wonder if we’re doing it right.  But then again, I don’t know how else it could be done.  I guess if an agent/publisher were interested in a book but weren’t sure how it would sell, they could do a test audience.  That takes time and money though, and what’s the point if the test audience doesn’t like it?  Ultimately, I don’t know any way it could be done differently.  So I’m going to do the only thing I can at this stage of the game: plug on and see how the book turns out, if it’s good enough, query it and see what responses I get.  Then, if the adults in the publishing world dislike her, I can reconsider a revamp, or hope I get lucky and someone’s teenage daughter reads it and convinces her publisher father that it’s good.  I won’t hold my breath for that one though.