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!