Wednesday, June 30, 2010

STRUGGLES ALONG THE WRITER'S PATH

OUCH, OUCH, OUCH. I THINK I'VE SUFFERED A FEW WRITER BOOBOO'S. One of the suggested topics for this blog for the month has been the struggles a writer might experience along the journey. Okay. I'll go there. Maybe some writers don't experience ANY of these obstacles along the way but those I know, good friends of mine (some who will be named and others left unarmed) have endured or continue to endure struggles of varies types. Bear with me. I'll list a few of my favorite struggles I've wallowed around in or hurdled myself through to the other side. I'm sure you have some of your own favorites that you can add! I'd love to hear them so post your stories.


Finding Your Tribe: 

It's amazing how many times we are asked (or maybe this is old school and doesn't happen anymore) what we want to be when we grow up. The choices used to be something like NURSE for Girls and FIREMAN for boys. Ah, yes, the good old days indeed. My granddaughter now has a quick answer to this. Famous. Why? To be super rich. Why? So I can buy a pony and a hamster. Okay, granted. Famous and Rich will get you critters. There's logic there. Deciding to be a writer rarely involves any type of logic or reasoning. It's more of a pull inside akin to the undertow of the ocean. I picture strange little children bumping around in the darkness not being able to come up with a single answer but they are usually making up stories in their minds, playing alone just fine thank you, or keeping a secret diary. Eventually, somewhere along the way, somehow - they see a 7th grade play, get captivated by a book, or a teacher finds in them a sleeping poet. Somehow, somewhere, they find their tribe along the way but until they day comes there is a restless non-belonging of not fitting that pervades.

Discovering Your Voice:

Once a writer discovers there identity they will eventually have to follow suit by finding their true voice. This isn't automatically related to finding your genre although it can be close. It's pretty much - well, now that you know you are a writer - what kind of writer do you want to be when you grow up? In teaching writing classes I love the moment where I see that writers have suddenly surprised themselves by writing in a voice they almost don't recognise. It's stronger and more powerful than what they had imagined. More creative, more original. That's when they've shucked their inner critics and broken away from the pack of writers they've been reading or trying to subconsciously emulate. The writers on special spark hits the page with a laugh or a dare you. What comes before is struggle up until this point. What comes after feels like putting on the right coat at a crowded party in the dark. You know it belongs to you and you alone.


Convincing Those People You Really Are a Writer:

Ah, yes. The struggle to make certain you are accepted, understood, respected. This struggle kind of goes on forever and ever if you let it. Usually, the first people a writer has to face are his or her parents that just might have envisioned a more logical life for their little jewel. Something with benefits and a steady salary. Unless you were born with parents who were Gypsy's or grew up in a theatre troop you will most likely meet just a few obstacles in this area. Spouses can be great supporters or naysayers. Siblings, best friends, and that person looking back at you in the mirror. Good luck. Just try to hold fast to other examples of writers that made it through this one.  Get some advice you trust from a great reader about your work and listen to the quiet place in your soul that speaks to you. Usually, there are great truths to be found in that space -even ones that are most revealing.

Finding a Mentor or a Critique Group: 

I was fortunate to find the right mentor at the right time and to go on working then for YEARS. It would be at least fifteen years before I had my first novel published. That doesn't mean it needs to be that way but remember back in the days of an apprentice? When someone literally worked for years and years to study under someone to learn. As a society we have so lost our patience with the process. We want bestsellers overnight and in a year (I know I sure did!) but when it comes to working the soul of your talent - like a garden it takes work. I've been thinking about writing groups and critique groups. Recently, I've met a book club in Nashville that has been meeting faithfully every month and seriously discussing their book of the month for about twelve years. They are reading great works. And breaking them down like nobodies business. I couldn't image a better critique group than this readership. By now - they are experts. Find the feedback you need that makes you better - really, really better.

Accepting the simple fact that Yes, you will most likely have to have, keep, love or hate - your day job.

I had someone in a writing lecture I was giving recently ask me how did she know when was the right time to quit her day job.  Most of us have really beautifully romantic ideas about the writers life. It involves writing ting a few hours in the morning, napping at will, wandering quint foreign streets in the afternoon in search of espresso - then dinner over a fine bottle of wine with other writer friends in the evening. This is it right? The good life! On some blessed great and glorious days - this really is it. They are far and few between because there is serious work to be done either in the writing or publicity end of things and yes, there are bills to pay. Very few writers in the United States live on their writing income alone. Most have either a spouse or significant other bringing in the bread. Or at least contributing to the bread. Many others are teachers to one level or another at colleges, writing programs and otherwise. Some put widgets together in the dark all night long so that they can write for a few hours during the day. No matter what unless you have opted to live in a van down by the river or have built some life sustaining lifestyle off the grid and in the woods - you and the day job  may need to be best friends for a long time. If so, find something you love anyway. Work for a non-profit or become a Barrister. The day may come when you can sustain your lifestyle steadily on your writing income alone but don't count on it. Learn the discipline of skipping those favorite TV shows and shutting yourself up to write for a few hours. And if you can swing it, apply for or arrange a writing sabbatical so that you can at least get away for a week or a month of uninterrupted writing time anywhere away from the clatter of everyday life.

Landing An Agent:  



I think this is one of the greatest, most significant professional struggles. Consider it like a dating game. You are looking for someone with capabilities likes and dislikes, the same work ethic, a open line of communication. I met my first agent at a writer's conference and I think that is a GREAT place to start. Often writing events offer a critique by a visiting agent for 25-50 dollars. Well worth the investment for a little one on one time and in my experience agents don't pull many punches or waste their time by leading you on just to be nice. The other is checking fiction or non-fiction that resembles yours as far as subject matter or genre and searching to see if the agent's name is in the acknowledgments. Usually - but not always (and no reflection on the relationship) the agents name is there. You can do a fast search on the Internet to discover if they are still accepting new material or what their solicitation requirements are. Or you could meet your new agent at an upcoming Dutch Lunch in Nashville where we gather book people for lunch every month for some face to face interaction. Don't be shy right now where this one is concerned - contact agents to start the ball rolling but have your very best submission work ready to go. Don't write to tell them you are just THINKING about writing a novel and here is the idea and do they think they could get you six figures for it. My suggestion - write the novel - first. The Internet offers many sources for guides to agents and publishers worthy of your time.

Landing A Publisher:

My first novel had my agent seeing stars. Naturally - I saw writers with her. And since I had broken that huge struggle of signing with an agent I thought all the hard stuff like writing the novel and landing the agent were out of the way. I was wrong. The struggle continued. My agent submitted novel here and there - maybe everywhere but trying to get someone to buy it was like chasing someone to eat green eggs and ham. And it's a great novel. Promise. I love it as opposed to regretting it. The struggle here - trying to accept the fact that the selling game just wasn't going as I had planned. My life struggles weren't over or even being alleviated by all the years I had poured into learning the craft, writing the novel, finding an agent. Eventually, the novel found a home and received great reviews and what I'd call a little fan ship following.  And if your novel doesn't get snapped up by the first two or twenty publisher - don't worry (so much). It could be the editor had a really bad day and nothing read well. Or they are running out of money. Or they just published/contracted with something too close for comfort.

The Editing Game:

The Editing game seems like it should be one of the easiest parts of this strange adventure. After all, the editor bought your book so surely all the hard work is over - right?
Publishing is now a very busy, competitive world. Yes, the editor at the publishing house may have bought your work but then there is the possibility that you will loose that editor due to budget cuts or restructuring and suddenly be working with an editor that wasn't part of the procurement process. In that case or even if you are with the first editor your shared vision for the novel must be unified. This may take a few discussion via phone or email. And did I mention budget cuts and that most editors are now heavily overworked. Don't panic if your phone calls are not returned right away or if your emails seem lost in cyberspace - chance are your weary editor wills surface with a long list for you. That brings us to the rewrites.  Some rewriting is expected. It's time to polish and tightened the story. Even if you spent ten years writing it an editor has a special gift for following story lines and finding where there are large missing sinkholes that readers might fall into. They help make the story stronger by suggesting you add a line or a page here or there, give a character more room to speak, or even cut 10,000 words to tighten up the story. They are really good at what they do but learning to maintain the perfect dance with your editor and to communicate calmly and clearly may take a little work. Don't worry - most great relationships do.  Even after rewrites line edits will find their way to you. This is one of the many stages where the writer has the opportunity to catch last mistakes, fix a line that stands out as screaming wrong, or brushstroke just a little. Typesetting doesn't like a lot of changes at this point but it really is the last time to make any changes. Just when you think you can't read your novel one more time and your eyes are more bloodshot than you've ever see them - Then comes the actual  proofing of every word and page. Yes, you will amazingly catch typos and mistakes if you are giving it a careful read and you should. Final Titles, Back  copy, inside cover copy and cover art are next. If you have cover approval that is great but usually that part is basically general agreement. I have some wonderful stories from authors on their cover screams, and shocks. Fortunately I have just as many stories on how perfect the covers were for their novels. Count me in the later. It's been a real, wonderful surprise. But be prepared to submit cover ideas. The struggle continues with the understanding that no matter how much you love the writing game - there is some real, continuous work involved. So far I have yet to vacation in Tahiti drinking something cold with a little umbrella in it.


Procuring Endorsements:

Okay. Yes. It is the truth. For the most part you are expected to ASK people if they would consider reading your work and if they like it - giving it a short blurb. Do writer people want to do this. No. Most don't even want to ask their own Mother for a blurb. Also, we really do care if people like our work and truth be told all writing is not for everyone. But the publishers don't just magically send our work out to a magical list of authors waiting breathlessly for your galley. They are in the middle of the own deadlines and they have personal life to juggle as well. Ask anyway. It doesn't hurt unless you let it. Unless you crawl under the covers when someone says flat out NO I'm too busy, don't wanna, can't come out to play! Or they agree and you never hear from them again. Let it go. It's just one for the struggles you'll encounter.

Getting Publicity:

More and more publishing houses are cutting back in their marketing and publicity departments. It's a fact. So the publicity people (and/or person assigned to you) will also  be juggling a huge workload of authors and deadlines. Cooperate. And while you can make a huge amount of great and creative suggestions - you might want to tread through those waters carefully. You can also just wear your publicity people down, overwhelm them, or make them feel that you don't think they are doing the best you can. Do what you can. To the best that you can. While you are also working as best you can in tandem with them. Many writers I know have entered into agreements with private publicists who all have different rate cards/situations in the way that they work. Many of them read this blog and for those who would like to drop your calling card here - just leave a comment! There are so many books of all types being published every month there is no question that now isn't the time to go into your cave. The time just before and at publication of your book is crucial. Accept it. You must promote your work no matter how introverted you may be. Writers and readers festival can be great places to meet readers and get connected as well. Find them all listed at the Library of Congress/Center for the book.

Reviews Good and Bad:

It's a part of your life now. You may get a great review, even a starred review in something like Publishers Weekly only to find yourself in a fetal position after someone lambastes your writing on Amazon or other blog/reader sites. Time will help with this personal struggle for writers. Personally, I had to give up reviewing books simply for this reason - I know what it feels like to be on the other side of the coin. I know how much goes into a work whether I relate to it deeply or I don't. And I know how subjective words and stories are. Why is one person's worthless is another's saving grace. Keep your perspective here and remember to breathe deeply.  Don't walk on air too long after good (or great) reviews - and don't go outside and eat some worms if you get bad words. Just keep working, writing, and getting better.


Connecting with Readers:

Every writer must meet this struggle and find a way to overcome it. Ad Hudler created his Summer Tailgate book tour. Susan Greg Gilmore just baked 100 pound cakes and took them to the famous NY Book Blogger convention. Kathy Patrick has done more through her Pulpwood Queens Girlfriend Getaway Weekend than anyone I know to help writers connect with readers. Most publishers are no longer sending writers on all expense paid 50 city tours. Embrace the challenge and find creative ways based on your time and money to reach the reader. But do it. (Yes, Twitter, Facebook, Myspace count!)

The Dark Night of the Soul: 

Most the writers I know have experienced this dark night moment. Surprisingly it didn't happen in the early stages of the struggle. Not near the beginning when they were learning to write or trying to get published. It has happened after a bad review followed great reviews for earlier work. It has happened after they had pretty healthy (large) contracts followed by trouble getting a book sold or selling for much less money. It's happened when financial worries only grew instead of disappearing. When agents didn't like their latest novel. When they ran out of words and felt dry to the bone.

Returning to the Page: 

Ultimately, what I've seen again and again seemingly save them was returning to the page. Recognising that above all they were created to write no matter the numbers, critics, or your mother-in-law (love mine for the record :) ) might say about how crazy you are. Returning to the story always seems to center writers. And beyond centering, when we hit that tap-root of words where we know what we are writing holds beauty, and timeless truths - makes us laugh aloud, feel deeply, fall in love - the light breaks through and the struggles feel like just another bump in the road.


RIVER JORDAN is novelist who has survived a few struggles on the writer’s path. Her work has been cast most frequently in the company of Flannery O’Connor and Harper Lee and her latest novel, The Miracle of Mercy Land will arrive September 7, 2010. Her first published non-fiction work inspired by a New Year’s Resolution – Praying for Strangers will be published in Spring 2011. Ms. Jordan teaches and speaks on ‘The Power of Story’ around the country and produces and hosts the radio program, Clearstory, on WRFN, 107.1 FM, Nashville. Jordan and her husband live in Nashville, TN. You may visit the author at www.riverjordan.us

PS - Without their permission in the first place - a few incredible authors who have shared some of the funniest stories about writing struggles along the path that I have ever heard - and they keep on writing in all their different and  amazing ways. Whether it was a book cover or a doctor that said - Whatever you do - forget about writing and just make babies (or something like that - they've all endured, survived, and SUCCEEDED BEAUTIFULLY!


Janis Owens, Michael Morris, Susan Greg Gilmore, Robert Hicks, Eric Wilson, Charles McNair, Shellie Rushing Tomlinson, Patty Callahan Henry, Michael Lister, Tony Simmons, WaylonWood,  Raymond Atkins, Joshilyn Jackson, JT Ellison, Cassandra King, Darnell Arnoult, Silas House, and yes, Even The famous Pat Conroy who had us in stiches at the PQGW with writer stories and a few hundred unnamed on purpose or by mistake. Long live all that wave that crazy flag from the Tribe of Story. (And yes, I'm claiming that for a future title. :) )

12 comments:

Dinahbee Menil said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
River Jordan said...

Dear Ms Comment. Not searching for adult companionship. Just for the record. Had to remove your post - just for the record. Because hey, I needed one more writer struggle hurdle to add to the list. :)

Karin Gillespie said...

Wow. What an essay. Reading it, made me think that I'm crazy to be a writer. But then I got to the end and, of course, returning to the work is all that matters.

Tony said...

Like Kate Bush sang, 'keep running up that hill' — and wearing out those keyboards.

All my best to you.

T

Peggy Webb said...

Everything you said about the writer's journey is true...and so beautifully articulated.

By the way, your latest cover is fantastic. I look forward to reading the novel.

River Jordan said...

Karin,
Thanks so much and yes, we are all CRAZY to be doing this. As John Dufresne says - Quit if you Can! Get out! But if you can't. . .
Thanks Tony for dropping by and Peggy I really LOVE that cover too. It was a total surprise. I couldn't think of any images to even suggest for this novel. Hat's off to the Waterbrook design team!

River Jordan said...

I have received many emails and phone calls regarding this post. (Thanks to all) One writer brought up the fact that the day may come up when you get a letter or phone call from your publisher that says your books have gone into remainder which means they will be sold for pennies or destroyed and you are being given the first option to buy as many as you would like. Don't become suicidal. Buy what you can to give away or donate to charity. Then let it go and return to the page!

Ad Hudler said...

Wow, River, how thoughtful and complete. Thanks for taking the time to write this. FYI: I have found that book clubs, especially the really brainy ones, make great focus groups. When you finish the novel,give it to the book club members to critique.....they're readers, after all.....very, very helpful.
I look forward to seeing all the Pulpwood Queens on my Tailgate Tour later this month!

Herman King said...

Great post, River. Perhaps we are addicted to that felling you get when the words seem to come through you instead of from you; when you look at the page and wonder who wrote them, "In the wee hours, when the dead poets whisper in your ear."

Augusta Scattergood said...

I love what you said about finding a mentor and proceeding, apprentice-like, on the journey.
Excellent post. Thanks for sharing.

River Jordan said...

Herman, Where is that quote from? Love it! Yes, it is that moment when the story comes through us and once experiencing that you can tell a difference when you are just banging on the keys.
Augusta - wouldn't it be something if everyone that decided to be a writer had to first sign on to be an understudy for 5-10 years? :) We sure would reconsider. Unless we all started at ten! Thankfully we can mentor ourselves by reading great books as well.

Patti Callahan Henry said...

This is such a fantastic post, my sweet! Amazing and completely on target! xoxoo pch