As the more than gazillion National Novel Writing Month writers prepare to knock out another 40,000 novels next month, here are some words of advice: follow your muse, but don’t worry if you decide you don’t get along after all.
My debut novel, Washed Up, was produced in the 2009 NaNoWriMo. I revised it over the next year, and it was published in 2011 by North Star Press, receiving a “smashing debut” review by the esteemed Library Journal.
It was not, however, the first novel I ever wrote. And, since publishing Washed Up, I’ve written four more novels. So far, two of those are complete — they are follow-ups in the mystery series and they have been published. Two are in progress.
Then there are the other novels I don’t talk about, both completed and uncompleted works. For all of these, my muse and I started out inspired and with high hopes, but the books languished, I lost interest, and I expect never to return to them. These are novels where my muse and I didn’t exactly see eye to eye. And frankly Muse got a bit pissed off that I paid no attention to his ideas (my Muse is a he), and called me a lazy hack more than once.
Since then we’ve reached an understanding and are on speaking terms, most of the time. Here’s the understanding: some novels die an early death, and many will never to see the light of day on a book shelf or in an eReader. Others get finished, but author lacks the interest or ability to go back and do the necessary revision that will get them where they need to be.
It’s hard, at first, for a new novelist to understand the difference between a first draft that can grow up to be a real novel, and one that has nothing but high hopes of greatness. New novelists may develop wonderful characters, but have them do nothing. Some may come up with a great plot idea, but develop flat, boring characters that can do nothing with the great story they are given. My problem is generally a great love of place and poetry, that shines through, but interesting people and stories live elsewhere and no one comes to visit.
I learned a lot from writing my novels, especially the ones that never got finished or will never be published. The real lesson was that sometimes I just needed to let the unfinished project remain unfinished. There’s no point in beating yourself up over a book that refuses to be a book, and basically letting that stagnation keep you from writing anything. Take what you’ve learned from it and move on to the next one. Trust me, the next book will be better. The next one after will be even better. And maybe you’ll publish the fourth one, like I did and it may even happen to be a NaNoWriMo novel.
The important thing is to do the work. If NaNoWriMo helps that work happen for you, wonderful. I’m wishing all gazillion 2013 novelists the best of luck.
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about this interesting notion that the ultimate goal of being a writer is to quit your day job. The extreme busy-ness and stress of my day job has brought the idea to mind, but not for obvious reasons (as in: can’t I quit yet?).
I’ve watched as writers of my acquaintance announce that they are being forced to give up their dreams and get a job, as if that’s the worst thing in the world. They’ve found that book sales aren’t paying the rent, or they can’t get a second- or third- (or any) book deal, or other writing-related work is falling off.
As a woman who has worked steadily/hard for three decades, I take offense that all this effort during the work day is somehow not as noble as that of the penniless scribbler, who gives up everything to pursue his or her art.
On the contrary.
It is very noble to roll up your sleeves and do what it takes to pay the bills.
Kahlil Gibran wrote about this very thing. And while there are many days that it’s hard to think that my day job is “love made visible,” I can totally agree with Gibran that ” if you cannot work with love but only with distaste, it is better that you should leave your work and sit at the gate of the temple and take alms of those who work with joy.”
“For if you bake bread with indifference, you bake a bitter bread that feeds but half man’s hunger.
And if you grudge the crushing of the grapes, your grudge distils a poison in the wine.
And if you sing though as angels, and love not the singing, you muffle man’s ears to the voices of the day and the voices of the night.”
Okay, my job doesn’t involve any baking, grape-crushing, or singing, but I do get the occasional joy of having given someone exactly what they needed — a helping hand, an answer, some advice — and in that way get the kind of fulfillment out of it that Gibran speaks of.
The business side of writing is work and it’s a tougher business than you’d think — promoting your work, keeping a website going, having a thick-enough skin so that criticism doesn’t sink you — these kinds of non-writing related tasks take up a lot of energy and time. Just like a day job. And somehow you need to scrape up the time and energy to write the next book or article or poem or story.
So what’s the difference really? The job of novelist doesn’t typically provide a steady, reliable income and the employer (you) can’t afford benefits. Every vacation is a working vacation. You might as well work, in an honest-to-god day job, and get paid for the toiling. You’ll still have time to write. If you really want to.
So there’s my piece about day jobs and writing. If you are keeping or getting a day job to pay the bills, it’s a good thing. Be okay with it. Everyone has to work. That’s why it’s called work. That’s why it’s hard, not every day, but most days.
Speaking of working vacations, in three weeks, I’ll have some time off to finish revising the next Arvo Thorson mystery. I’m hanging in there to make it through, envious of friends and family who are NaNoWriMo-ing this year. Washed Up started out that way.
In the meantime, I’ve made good on my promise to donate Dakota County honorarium to the Crisis Nursery. It was easy. The work they do is not so easy, but I’m hoping my contribution, and others I’ve sent their way, somehow help.
Finally a plug: the list of upcoming events. Come on out and support a hard working business woman, mother, wife, friend, and sometime philosopher, who manages to write novels in her spare time. You’ll be glad ya did!
Washed Up Events
November 14, 7:00 pm
607 East Lake Street
Washed Up reading and book signing at Minnesota’s oldest independent book store.
Looking forward to seeing friends and signing books at Minnesota’s newest book store. Just a few days before Christmas!
February 15, 4:30 pm – 6:00 pm
Totally Criminal Cocktail Hour
The Dock Cafe
425 East Nelson Street
Stillwater, MN 55082
This monthly event for local mystery writers and fans always includes lively discussion and a great time. Reservations are required; call Valley Bookseller at 651-430-3385. Appetizers are included in the cost of $10.00. A cash bar will also be available.
One of the things people ask when they hear my first novel is being published is: “how long did it take you to write it?”
It depends on what your definition of ‘it’ is.
They also ask if I’ve written any other books.
Yes. Three or four. Depending upon what you count.
Washed Up began as a novel called Capa City. The year was 1994. That first novel grew from a few emails I shared with a coworker, to novella length (around 100 pages). Versions of it were reworked during my early M.F.A. years at Hamline. A good chunk was written when my daughter was a baby, during the stretch of leisure time in 1996 more commonly known as a maternity leave.
I stopped working on Capa City when one M.F.A. class came to an end, somewhere around 1997 or 1998. My instructor told me that the novel contained beautiful descriptions. So did the Minnesota State Arts Board, which passed it through one grant round but didn’t send it to the final round.
People loved my lovely descriptions of landscape. However, not much happened either in the book or to that book. I was never sure what to do with my main character, so I killed her off around page 100. I began part 2 without her, and, well, that’s sort of the end of that story. You see, there’s this little thing called a plot….
I began another novel that I named Sleepwalking the Seals. It’s an odd title I know, and I can’t tell you what it means because I don’t know, I just thought it sounded quirky and interesting, two attributes the book didn’t end up having. That book was about a woman working in an office tower who spent a lot of time looking out the window. The main character, Lyra, is wandering through life unable to make decisions. She drives around aimlessly and takes up with a handsome slacker named Martin. Um. That’s about it. This is what we call not much of a plot, and to be honest, it’s semi-autobiographical and pretty boring. I stopped writing it.
Then I began another book, Mr. Unbelievable, somewhere at the end of the 90’s. This book is about a pathological liar. It’s the genesis for another book I’m started writing late last year –Albert Park: A Memoir in Lies. Neither is finished, but Albert Park is now 100 pages long and I think it’s a promising book. I’ll get back to it again.
In 2002 I began the novel that would become my master’s thesis, Lucid. Set in western Minnesota it weaves together four particular and interconnected journeys through grief. Told through alternating points of view, Lucid immerses readers in a deeply felt story that challenges them to look unflinchingly at the high cost of oppressed desire and intense sorrow. (Yes, those last few sentences come directly from my unsuccessful query letters.)
The book was nominated for Outstanding Prose Thesis the year I graduated from Hamline’s M.F.A. program (2004). Judith Guest, the outside reviewer of the nominated works, called Lucid “beautiful and spare”. It didn’t win, and after multiple submissions to agents and publishers, it has not yet been accepted for publication. I’m not sure I’m interested in sending it anywhere anymore.
Are you keeping track? It’s 2004. Ten years writing novels (Capa City, Sleepwalking the Seals, Mr. Unbelievable, Lucid) and there is one complete novel, a novella, and starts on other several works. Some might call this persistence. Or insanity. It’s a little of both. Budding novelists perform solo, often to an audience of none. You have to be crazy to do that.
Four years later, writing group friends suggest we participate in National Novel Writing Month, an annual event challenging participants to complete a 50,000 word novel in a month. I’m game. A few months earlier I wrote my first mystery short story , featuring a detective named Arvo Thorson. I think of Capa City and decide maybe I can build on it – it’s a mystery after all, starts with a murder. Arvo becomes the main character, not right away, but gradually he takes over. The book gets a new name. Riverbaby.
I finish my 50,000 words, but not the whole book, at the end of November 2008. I spend the next year revising the book, with the help of my writing pals. By 2009 it has a new name. Washed Up. I submit it, off and on, as my enthusiasm comes and goes. By the middle of 2010 I’m frustrated and completely depressed about writing. After a writing weekend in the country with Lindsay, Anika and Melissa, I’m ready to throw in the towel. The piece I write during that time is about my failure as a writer.
I’m tired of being rejected. All this work that goes into a novel, years and years and years of work, and I have nothing to show for it but a lot of manuscripts scattered in boxes and across several computers. I think maybe I just don’t get it. I’m no good. No one cares.
Sometime in the fall of 2010 I read of new releases from a Minnesota publisher, North Star Press. They specialize in books set in Minnesota and have a particular interest in Finnish-Americans. Hm. My book is set in Minnesota and has a Finnish-American detective in it. Well. Maybe.
I sent it off late in 2010. I’m so used to rejection that I basically forget about it. In the meantime, I start writing — you guessed it — another novel. I’m determined to just write as I please and in a tear I write the first 100 pages of Albert Park. Chapter One gets accepted in a literary journal.
Then, in March of 2011, that email finally arrives. The one that comes from a publisher and says, “I’d like to talk to you about publishing your book. Call me.”
What a whirlwind that phone call set into motion.
Now I look ahead to September 1, only a few short weeks from now. I can’t quite believe it’s finally almost here, the day when I will hold in my hands a book I wrote, that others can read. I’m so happy that writers I respect have good things to say about it, a Library Journal review is imminent, and a major chain is carrying it.
There’s still so much more to do, after the book launches. I’m prepping for some major regional publishing events, planning talks for the library, and scheduling events at bookstores.
Onto the next phase. The one where I pitch, pitch, pitch Washed Up, go all out and finish the follow up book, maybe get back to Albert Park. What’s beyond that I don’t know. My only goal is to write the best books I can, and give readers something they enjoy.
So how long did it take to write Washed Up? Somewhere between one month (November, 2008) and 17 years. How many novels have I written? Two. Plus or minus three. But who’s really counting. Not me!