I’m honestly not certain who is interested in these posts – except me. I am clearly interested in them. Bits and pieces of what becomes a post have been floating in the back brain, and I’ve returned to them time and again.
Practically speaking, leaving the entire musing and contemplation aside, “Just write” is the only correct advice. But… writing can be isolating in many ways. Finding explicit How To, taking courses that teach explicit How To, finding authors who have written distinct How To (and to be fair to them, they are trying to be useful and they are cutting down the musing to get to what seems the skeleton, the bones, of process) are often meant as advice, as dictum.
I am, for the moment, assessing these pieces and wondering if they are useful at all (this is not me panicking, and no one should feel that they have to rush in to be sympathetic to this particular thought. It’s not emotional; I don’t feel bad or emotionally distressed while assessing.)
New writers, writers attempting to write for publication, might find it interesting – but it’s not heavy on How-To; I’m not sure these posts are practical enough to be valuable in that way. In which case, what am I trying to do, exactly?
And I think the answer is: Trying to be open, trying to express parts of my process that I have not verbally expressed, trying to put out an odd sign-post that might say, to some, You Are Not Alone. (Of course, it might also say Here Be Dragons.) If any part of it resonates with people who are struggling with their own writing – and I still struggle with mine – then I feel that they’re worth doing.
This is a long way of saying: I’m going to continue.
So: I had a finished, unworkshopped, read-by-two-people novel. Since one of them was Tanya Huff and she liked it enough to suggest that it was publishable, I felt emboldened, and went about the research to find out the names of editors at various publishers. Because of the work in the bookstore, and because of my own personal reading, I had a clear idea of who was publishing what by this point.
I chose to send the book to Del Rey. Lester del Rey was still editor in chief at that time; Veronica Chapman and Shelly Shapiro were the in-office people, and Owen Locke was, I think, a senior editor. I sent the book in to Del Rey – which was not dirt cheap at the time because everything was done on paper. Nothing was electronic.
Now that the first book was on its way to an editor, I sat down to start book two.
Some people did not think this was a good idea because I hadn’t sold the first book, and I might be spinning my wheels and wasting precious writing time – because I had a full-time day-job – writing something that was doomed to go nowhere.
My contention was that if the first book did sell, and I waited until that point, I’d’ve wasted that writing time, because I wouldn’t have anything written on book two. And anyways, the value of the writing time was entirely theoretical at this point. I wanted to finish the story.
(This is not the correct, practical choice, by the way. It makes as much sense as submitting a story to one market and then setting it aside in a drawer (for which I was criticized much later in my career). This is part of the reason I say that these posts are NOT advice. They’re kind of an interior view of things I remember from that time, and a more direct attempt to make explicit — both to you and to myself — my process.
On the other hand, not following strict, practical, and useful advice did not kill me or prevent me from becoming published or finishing a book, so… there’s that. I made mistakes. I survived them. In the moment of the realization of the mistake, I was just as terrified and upset at myself as people can be when things are unfolding badly; hindsight helps.)
My four rules of writing — which formed the process by which I could get from page one to the end — were firmly in place by this point. I was still working at the bookstore full-time, and still writing on lunch. I tended to do the more mechanical things in the morning (like, say, shelving) and divert attention to less mechanical things (like, say, ordering) after lunch as part of this paradigm.
I did not attempt to write an outline for this one. I did hand the finished manuscript of the first book to Tanya Huff, and one of the first things she said to me was that she had been fairly certain, given the way I worked, that I would never finish a book.
I had clearly finished a book, and that taught us both that process differs hugely between writers. Again: the internet was really not what it is now, and writers were far more isolated with their process than they need to be today.
I, unlike Tanya, was pretty obsessed early on with process. Not so much my own, because I had found one that worked for me, but with other authors’. I read every how-to-write book that crossed our threshold, and a fair few that did not. I kind of liked to see how other writers approached things.
Only one book caused me to throw it across the room in frustrated rage, because I considered the advice to be, if possibly successful, otherwise terrible in ethical terms. But: me. I dislike the idea that to make a villain more repulsive to the “average reader”, one must make him an intellectual. I disliked this strongly.
Sorry, that was a digression. I read a lot of books about process. I read a lot of books about writing, about how to write. I didn’t consider those books directions or commands; I considered them more a published version of “How I write my books” (meaning, how the authors of those books did).
I also listened to anyone willing to talk about their own process — because Tanya Huff was definitively unwilling to do so. Ever. She considered it largely irrelevant, since the only thing that mattered was the book. (And this is also true.)
I started to write the second book. This is where I realized that I had no idea what I was actually doing.
In the meantime, the first book I submitted was rejected. It came with a lovely personalized note on half-size paper, which ended with a request to see anything else I wrote in future – but this book was a no go.
So I started to think about what I might do next, and set aside what I had of book two. Tanya Huff said, no, you will not do that.
“But – she said she’d love to see anything I write in the future, and clearly this book didn’t work, so I’ll write something else and send it!”
“No, you will not. Look, this is the type of rejection that is saying: revise this. Make it better. Send it back.”
Since this was not what the letter said, there was some argument. I was very new to the publishing & writing side of the triangle; not to the bookselling side. However, as I was working in a bookstore that had sales reps, and the editor talked to those reps, one of those reps came into the store to hand me the editor’s card, with phone number and ask me to call her.
I did. There followed a long conversation about 1. What she really liked about the book, and 2. what she didn’t. I was a bit impatient with the first part because clearly if she liked it, it wasn’t a problem; I didn’t need to worry about it. She said, when I said this (because I finally did say this), “too bad. You will just have to get used to this.”
The second part of the discussion was longer. It turns out that the thing she disliked the most was… the protagonist. She felt that every other character felt real, but she had no idea who the protagonist actually was. This was a bit shocking to me.
In fact, I think I had to ask her three times for actual examples — which, in a book that is absent the examples she expected to see was a bit difficult — before I understood what she meant.
I had taken no actual time to develop the protagonist because I knew her; I had taken all the time to develop every other character because she didn’t really know them. There was a large blank space around the protagonist I had totally failed to see.
… So, here I am, flailing wildly as I finally understand what she is telling me.
But she absolutely refused to tell me how to fix anything. Because, she said, it was my book. And she couldn’t ask me to do anything in specific because … she hadn’t made an offer on the book, and asking for work to be done when the offer was uncertain was — in that era of publishing — Not Done.
Remember that I said my impulse is to put something in the drawer when it is rejected, and to work on something Newer and Better?
…this will probably tell you everything you need to know about my ability to actually revise at that time.
The next post will be How I learned to Revise.