The Perils of Early Success: Or, Writing With the Pointy End
So I started blogging “as a real writer” at the very beginning of 2008 in order to share a draft of my novel, The Aldersgate, with the world at large. I had already written two drafts, and then decided to start again and record the new chapters and launch them out into the world for feedback. It’s a steampunk western sort of fantasy story, with low magic and high politics and many point of views. You know; as you will.
While I commenced blogging in that first year or so, I had pretty immediate success with my short story writing and network building, and I felt like I was on top of the world. I was writing very unfettered, gamboling around in precious little Snowflake land (though I’d never have admitted it).
I was simply sharing my story. And I honestly believed that everything would fall into place. Having listened to a bit of Cory Doctorow I felt that, as long as what I was putting out there was good (which I was convinced it was) someone would find it, and I’d ride that golden pegasus out into the sunset and become a True Published Author.
People did come, it turns out. Wonderful readers, writer friends. And wouldn’t you know, but a year and a half later after I’d just about finished the entire podcast of the novel (and attracted quite a few positive responses which made me feel Truly Awesome) I was approached by an editor at Ace/Roc who wanted to listen to my story and read the manuscript. At first, I was entirely sure that the whole thing was a hoax and that someone was trying to mess with me. But no, she was totally legit. So in a state of utter glee and terror, I sent the manuscript to her, expecting to hear back in a few months. I knew that publishing was slow, so I didn’t expect a fast turnaround from a very busy editor. I was willing to wait for glory… or rejection. Either way, I prepared to wait.
No, I didn’t commit the first sin of writing. I didn’t stop writing. In fact, I wrote a few more novels: Pilgrim of the Sky, Peter of Windbourne, Indigo & Ink, and Queen of None. But the entire time I waited, I froze as a writer in many ways. To be honest with you (and me!) I don’t think I thought I had much room for improvement. After all, my book was with a Big Publisher. While I was realistic with myself, even preparing for rejection, I got lazy. Everything seemed to live in the shadow of that hope.
It’s been two years, now. And since you haven’t heard me jumping up and down and shrieking about a contract with a big publisher, you can imagine the result. Actually, I never heard back at all. I pinged the editor a few times, but never heard so much as a peep. Just… silence.
It takes a long time for hope to die. I can still tell you that I sent that manuscript out on June 23, 2009. For the first year, every 23rd was like a new mile-marker bringing me ever closer to the possible answer: yes or no. But by the 18th month, I was starting to doubt that it was ever going to happen at all. (I don’t even think about the editor and that hope these days, albeit in a passing, wistful sort of way.)
The thing is, well, life went on. Life got hard. And as life got hard, writing got harder. And it got harder to look at my own writing and be absolutely honest with myself, even after I stopped believing in the muse!
It’s funny how much something like this can impact one’s entire writing approach. Writing The Aldersgate was a mighty powerful experience. I was smitten with words, high on storytelling. And I think that comes through in the draft that’s out there on the internets (I’m not ashamed; the story has a lot going for it). People seemed to love the characters*, but the nuts and bolts of the story really need work. Work that for the last two years I haven’t given it. (Even though, on occasion, I tried.)
But I’ve always been someone who worked best with tough love. I was smart, but lazy, during school. I never pushed myself until teachers pushed back. “Any other student would have gotten an A on this project, but this isn’t your best work.” Even a resounding rejection of the manuscript would have most likely lit a fire under me.
But nothing? NOTHING? Nothing left too much room for hope.
Hey, I have lots of excuses why things have not gone as well as they did in the magical year of 2008, writing-wise. I have enough excuses to fill a damned book. But the only real reason that I didn’t grow as a writer is because I wasn’t honest with myself. I let hope cloud my better judgement.
Sure, I spent a lot of time editing and rewriting. But rewriting isn’t editing. Rewriting isn’t taking a cold, hard look at the way you write, which is the only route toward improvement and, well, success by extention. (Thankfully I’ve had the pleasure of working with some fantastic editors in preparation for Pilgrim of the Sky’s publication that really wonderfully helped in that respect, as well as advice from a seasoned pro writer friend that helps toward this rather jarring realization on my part, but that’s another post…) Rewriting is simply making another draft. Granted, it’s practice, and practice is part of the improving part, but editing is essential. You know, those fancy book editors don’t rewrite your book. They tweak it.
And that’s not to say that being a taskmaster is the only way to go. It’s got to be a combination. The successful, holistic approach to writing, revising, and editing, is a balance of fact and fancy. The fancy drives it, but the fact improves it. To use a martial simile: Your arm is the fancy, the creative drive, the raw excitement and energy and thought–but fact is your sword, cutting and shaping and ultimately turning your strength into something more. They work together, y’see? (It takes practice, but soon you’re carving through like a Braavosi.)
There is no easy path, it turns out. Would I trade early success for early struggle? I don’t know. But the thing is that early success can be maddening and counter-productive in its own right. (I’m admittedly still a baby about rejections, probably because I didn’t get enough early on!).
My only hope for myself is that I achieve balance, and, more than anything that I find fancy again. Since I started work in December, fancy has been hard to come by; the muscles have gone weak. Fancy has to come first, before fact, otherwise progress can never be made. But it doesn’t always linger in familiar places. Sometimes you have to summon it up.
We all know that writing books is hard. Finishing books is harder. But the hardest part of all comes after all that. It’s being honest about the draft. And that honesty will usher in growth. For without growth, in any career or creative endeavor, nothing magic can happen.* Much of this post was inspired by finding a trove of “pending” comments in the Aldersgate blog. For all my lack of growth, the experience of reaching readers who really felt a connection my story is not something I take lightly. I will finish the story.