Ever heard of Amanda Baldeneaux?
She's a mom with a full-time job. She's also a writer who worked on a short story for about a year "behind the closed glass doors" of her home office, with her "daughter often fogging up the glass as she sits on the other side, imploring me to come out and play or color with her." When she finished, Amanda submitted the story to publication after publication and was rejected by all of them. Every few months, she's submit it, get a rejection, revise a bit, and submit again.
One day, after receiving a rejection, she decided to restructure the whole thing—to start over. But before doing so, she received an email from the Missouri Review announcing that its deadline for its Editors' Prize was about to pass.
Since we writers thrive on deadlines, she thought, why not? I'll submit this before I crack it wide open and gut it.
Her story "Salt Land" won the prize, the Jeffrey E. Smith Prize—$5,000, one of the most prestigious fiction awards.
It was her only acceptance.
Here's what she says about the experience:
"When I received the email that my short story was on the shortlist for a prize, I was joyful. When I write after my full-time job, I have to essentially ignore my daughter, and mom guilt is real when indulging a hobby. Though my husband is extremely supportive, I'd be lying if I said finding out I'd made the shortlist, and then winning, didn't decrease the guilt."
I relate to Amanda. When I got the call from my agent that we had an offer from a publisher on the novel I'd been writing for six years, I was standing outdoors in the New York winter, holding a yoga mat in the rain, soaked and shivering because I was freezing. Nonetheless, I was aware of my entire body exhaling. The relief! It was going to happen.
Validation is important. It feels good. It justifies the hours and hours we spend writing.
But all of us have to work for a while before this validation comes—sometimes for years. And man, it can be hard at times to keep going without knowing if what we're working on is any good, if it's going to see the light, if it's going to be given space in the world outside our notebooks. But stories like Amanda's remind us that writing is thankless until it isn't, and that rejections are part of the process.
How many rejections did JK Rowling get? Something like 900? I'm exaggerating, but legend holds it's a lot.
When I was looking for an agent, I got over 70 rejections. Ultimately, do you know how many agents wanted to represent me?
And she became my agent.
The good news? You only need one.
You can be rejected again and again and again and again. You can sit alone in a room writing for years without anyone handing you accolades or a gold star or a contract (or, sometimes, even knowing that you're a writer!) Every writer must spend time writing into the unknown future, and your ego is likely to throw a tantrum every now and then. It's okay—give your ego a pat on the back and say, you're fine, go play a video game while I finish this chapter. Because at some point, if you keep writing, you will find your validation. It may not be the form you expect, but it will come...and it might be better than what you expect.
This is not horse s*&%. It's just fact.
So keep it up—you have a community here of folks doing the same thing!
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Last spring, we were planning a move, and my decompressing activity in the evenings was to putz around the Internet for visual inspiration for the new place. I was doing that thing where you move and think, "I'm going to be a whole new person in this new place!" You imagine yourself in your new life and all of your flaws and vices don't exist. No, just me?
Anyway, I found my way into a Google rabbit hole that landed me on this piece of art, and I fell in love with it immediately, before knowing anything about it:
It's obviously pie charts. Unlabeled. What did I love so much about it? I wasn't sure, other than the colors.
Digging deeper, I learned more about the artists and the intention behind it. The artists, Hvass and Hannibal, write that they were interested in "organizing information in ways that draw on locally known visual language, but seen with an outsider's eye...where the actual content and data is left a mystery, and only the form is present, letting the viewer decide which contents to assign the images."
This struck me as very much like writing a novel. Then I discovered the title of this particular work: Losing the Plot.
Losing the Plot!
In every novel, story, essay I've ever written, there comes a point where the story diverges from the path I expected. Even if I haven't outlined, I always have an idea of where it's going...and I'm always wrong. This being wrong, I think, is what makes it work, in the end. Submission to being wrong and following where the story is leading instead of my own preconceived notions is the moment at which the story is actually born. It gets breath, a life, an energy of its own. The "pie charts"—all the facts that I've created for my characters and story—become mere forms, and together they develop into a thing that's bigger than any labels I could assign it. Both any future readers and myself, as the writer, are left to see the composite portrait and interpret it as we do.
I've since learned that "lose the plot" has another meaning in British slang—“to lose one’s ability to understand or cope with events; to lose one’s touch; to go off the rails.”
And yes! Isn't that where writing takes us, ultimately? Off the rails into unexplored territory, and that's where the interesting stuff starts to happen?
Turns out the print was affordable. I ordered one to place above my desk, where it now reminds me daily to surrender, and to appreciate bright colors and these artists across the world, even with all my flaws still intact.
Happy writing this week!
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So you're going to write a novel this month! (Or you're just starting one, or thinking of starting one.) How should you begin?
Here's what I like to do before I start any novel these days—whether I'm trying to write it in a month or not: find a hero novel. A hero novel is a novel that you're going to go back to when you get stuck. It's your guiding novel light. You'll pick it because it's the kind of prose you want to write in your novel, or because the storyline is similar to yours, or because it has a structure you like (three points of view, or epistolary, or in second person, etc.).
For my novel in progress I've chosen The Vacationers by Emma Straub because 1) it's about a marriage disintegrating, which is something my novel is going to touch on, and 2) I read the first few pages and thought, "This is the tone I'm going for."
Once you pick your Hero Novel—and you may have to try a few out—read the first few chapters slowly, carefully, letting them inspire you. What does the author do that you want to do in your beginning? What does the author do that you don't want to do? Take notes, get ideas for your characters and scenes, for how to structure your beginning...the overall idea is to get excited.
If you want to really get nerdy, you can actually break down exactly what the author is doing on each page. When I was starting my novel When You Read This, my Hero Novel (though I didn't have that term for it yet) was Where'd You Go, Bernadette because it's also told in emails. I actually made a chart of each page of the first 30 pages or so: P1 - Email where X happens; P2 - Email where Y happens. This way I got a sense of her pacing, because I knew her pacing worked.
Finally, picking a hero novel is fun. You get to read. And we all like that. :)
Happy writing—and happy beginning of NaNoWriMo if you're doing it!
What do you do when the last thing you want to do is write?
For me, there's no time this is more likely to occur than when I've committed to write something. Once I've promised to complete a project—whether that commitment is to a class, a publisher, or someone else—I suddenly feel like I'm walking underwater. My inner child rebels: But wait, what if I don't want to do that? Now I have to?! I find every reason to suddenly make the most complicated carrot cauliflower soup recipe I can find on the Internet. And I don't even really like soup.
I've experienced this sensation this week. I was plagued with self-doubt this week as I worked on my next novel, and yet, I did manage to 25 (handwritten) pages. Part of me is proud of this and part of me thinks I should have written more. But the proud voice is nicer and a better companion as I sit here typing this with a glass of wine, so I'm choosing to listen to *her.*
In the vein of celebrating those 25 pages that didn't exist before this week...how did I eke those out?
By sitting down and writing.
Just kidding—I hate when people try to make it as simple as a command (even though it may be true).
How I actually did it was by letting myself have fun. When I wanted to write in limited third then suddenly switch to a different character's limited third then BOOM—snap into omniscient just so I could make a foreshadowing remark as the narrator, I let myself. I let myself write two pages of dialogue with nothing else, no context or single use of "said". I created a silly hobby for one character just because it struck me as a funny thing for him to do.
Since when I sat down to write, I would fill with a kind of dread-fear-worry mashup, I rewarded myself for taking that on by letting myself be playful on the page.
While I don't yet know if this particular week's writing will make the final cut come revision time, I do know that by consciously trying to have fun when I sit down to write, I remember how to be creative in the first place. In other words, a commitment to having fun with words is, in effect, a commitment to let creativity do the driving. It's a sneaky way of stepping out of the way.
So this weekend, I hope, if you find time to write, you enjoy yourself. It makes it all the more likely your reader will enjoy reading your words, too.
PS - There's a giveaway on Goodreads this month for my upcoming novel—we're giving away 50 early copies, so your odds are high if you enter! :)
This past week I've been in New York, and on Tuesday I found myself back in my old neighborhood at my old favorite coffee shop. (We moved to Nashville a few months ago for my husband's grad school program, but we lived in New York for 10 years before that.)
Sitting there drinking coffee brought back my world two summers ago, right after I'd had a baby and sold a novel on proposal (literally on the same night). I was thrilled, of course, to have sold it. But it also meant I now had to write it. And as a brand new first-time mom, writing felt the most daunting it had ever felt. I was under-slept, very emotional, and full of questions about who I was in the world now. I also felt inexplicably guilty for leaving the baby at home while I went off to write, which my breasts would remind me of by filling up with milk and aching as I tried to focus on things like narrative voice.
So I did the only thing I could: I made myself a daily goal that didn't feel too scary. I would write, by hand, 10 pages a day.
Every day after my son turned six weeks old, I found time to go to this coffee shop while my mom, husband, or friend watched the baby, and I sat on a hard, wooden stool and tried to tune out the teenagers skipping class at the nearby arts high school while I thought, Mary, you can get to 10 pages. Some days it took me only an hour; others it took me two or three.
And in this way, I finished a draft. Specifically, 90,000 words in 6 months.
Just over two years later, this week I sat in the same coffee shop and thought about how the greatest feats are possible when we tackle them in increments.
You don't have to write 8 hours a day to write a book.
You don't have to write every day to write a book.
You don't have to quit your job to write a book.
You can write a book in a few pages a day while sitting on an ergonomic nightmare piece of furniture, having slept 5 hours the night before.
The question is...do you want to?
For me, finishing my first novel meant trading in a job that didn't allow me time to write for one that did. This came with a big pay cut—I went from being a lawyer to being a tutor (which is what I did before I was a lawyer), but it was so worth it. You can hear more about that story in this video:
But not all steps toward completion are so dramatic. Equally important were all of the little choices I had to make along the way. Choices like:
I'll leave you with a quote from Julia Cameron about the power of creative decisions: Learn to accept the possibility that the universe is helping you with what you are doing... Expect the universe to support your dream. It will.
My second novel Privilege (out in March) sold the night my son was born. I had him at 7:30 PM, and the next morning I awoke ("awoke"—hahahahahahaha—I was sleeping next to a newborn; we were up all night) to an email from my agent that my publisher had bought it on proposal.
Suddenly I had a kid to keep alive and a novel to write.
It took me six weeks to feel up to the task of diving back into writing. When I finally picked up the chapters I'd already written (a proposal includes sample chapters) before giving birth, I was struck by an observation I'd never had before about my writing. It was obvious and alarming: I hadn't given my main character any moments of joy.
As a brand new mom, joy was what I wanted most for my son from the moment he was born. That discovery led me to notice its presence or absence in my characters' lives as well. I wanted to give them joy—and not just because I liked them.
Joy is one of those things that makes life worth sticking around for. Narratively speaking, its power is that it is something to lose. When we give our characters moments of joy, we instantly deepen the stakes.
You may have heard the writing advice to "chase your characters up a tree and throw rocks at them." It generally means make things really bad for your characters so that the reader can root for them to get out of whatever dire straits you've thrown them in. But if what was on the ground to begin with wasn't anything to celebrate...is being stuck up in a tree so bad?
So I now say—chase your characters up a tree, but first, give them something to lose, something to yearn for...give them a moment of joy.
On another topic, today on my channel you can hear my thoughts on that wonderful and terrible writerly influence--feedback from others.
Hope you have a wonderful long weekend—and happy writing!