Archive for August, 2013

Five Unexpected Things

August 22, 2013

Sometimes you can’t tell what things will have an impact on your breaking in as a writer until much later. With me, these were some of the surprises.

the traveler

I took a stand. I always wanted to be a writer, since grade school. And I was a writer. I practiced a lot and produced many mediocre stories, embarrassing poems, and not-half-bad unpublished novels before I sold my first book. But what I think made all the difference psychologically (and spiritually) was the day I declared what I wanted. It was a Monday holiday in about 1998. I had a full-time job and was fantasizing about how much writing I could get done if every day were a holiday from my 9-to-5. I said aloud, “My favorite job would be to make a living writing what I want to write.” In ways too complex to describe here, from that point on circumstances aligned to land me my dream job.

I made mistakes. Sometimes when I tell people about the mistakes I made in my early years, I do it to warn them about various common pitfalls they should avoid, but the truth is that we learn from our mistakes and I needed to screw up and find out how the business worked in order to become a professional novelist. For example, I had a bad agent before I had a good agent—with the first one I didn’t ask the right questions, I didn’t do research, I was afraid no one else would want me. I used to believe I had wasted a couple of years as her client, but the truth is I needed those two years to write that next manuscript which would launch my career. And stumbling through a bad agent experience taught me a lot about myself and the publishing biz. I have barked my proverbial shins in other ways, as well, such as having my hopes crushed by a vanity publisher’s offer, but it was all part of the process.

I stopped fretting and started listening to the voice in my head. As I was writing the novel I broke in with, I stopped about halfway through and wrote a draft of a screenplay. I wasn’t sure why I hesitated to move on with my book. When I decided to go back to it (I’d taken a two month break) I was nagged with doubts: Maybe I should be trying to get another teaching job. Maybe I should write a different movie. What if this book doesn’t pan out? What if I never get published? But a voice in my head said, “Just write this book.” The next day the anxious thoughts would return: What if no one likes this story but me? But the voice kept saying, “Just write this book the best way you can. Don’t worry about anything else right now.” And pretty soon I couldn’t hear the doubts any more—I could only hear the voice that told me to write this story.

I learned to love the rewrite. I used to hate the revision process. I’d write first draft after first draft of novels and put them away without rewriting one sentence. It was good practice—can’t knock that. But I think something inside me shifted just before I broke in. I went from thinking that the creation phase was the only fun part of writing (other than getting praise) to thinking, “I can’t wait until I get a draft down so I can start making it really good.” It’s not that I began to dread composing the first draft—there’s nothing like discovering your story as it appears on your laptop screen—so powerful and delightful. But in order to become a full-time writer I had to find a balance between writing and rewriting.

I took some (very) old advice. This is probably the oddest inner shift I made before I broke in. One I never would have guessed at. Back when I was in my early twenties, and had written only a few manuscripts, I got a long rejection letter from one of the editors I’d queried. She’d read one of my YA novels and was not offering me a deal, but she said she was so intrigued by the plot , my characters, and my writing style, that she wanted to list for me some revisions that, if I chose to make them, might improve my book enough for a second read-through. I was pleased that she saw something in my work, but as I read the letter, everything she suggested seemed wrong to me. I ended up thinking, “She doesn’t get my novel at all!” But years later (let’s see, over 15 years later) I thought about that letter and remembered her ideas. Removed from my former ego attachment to the book and generally wiser by age, I embraced the advice in a new way. 1. Be more specific. Don’t make the place or period of history vague as if you are trying to make it every place and time. Instead be very specific to make it feel real.  2. Don’t be so gentle with your characters. They shouldn’t just get into physical trouble (in danger of hurt or death) they should be troubled in their hearts and souls. 3. Maybe the lovers shouldn’t get together at the end of the story. At the time I thought this was madness—it was a love story! Of course boy gets girl! But I later understood the message. Sometimes you need to give the readers something they aren’t expecting or something more believable. The editor said that perhaps the hero should be sent away and at the end of the story so that the heroine has to go find him. Again, I thought she was crazy, but now I know that some of the best stories end with the beginning of a new journey.

Every writer’s path is different, but if any of the above experiences can help someone out there get to a book deal faster, I’m all about sharing.

(reprinted from the Willamette Writers newsletter)


August Give-Away

August 16, 2013

The winner of the July Give-Away was Vitoria from Brazil . The August Give-Away will again be a signed copy of Under the Light. (Seen below with my son, Robinson, at the Barnes & Noble in Tigard, Oregon.) To enter send your name and physical address to me via the “Email Laura Whitcomb” link on my websiteB with UtL Tigard