In my agency hunt yesterday, I came across a set of submission guidelines that asked new writers for two pieces at a time instead of one. Of course, this is children’s literature, not the next blockbuster trilogy, but author wet dreams notwithstanding, an open invitation for multiple work samples is still a rare request. In this maddening technological age, I can send a new story halfway around the world in a matter of minutes, yet writers are still somehow expected to wait as long as six months to be rejected so they can start the whole hellish process all over again with new material. We’re not even supposed to mention all our other works in progress, the literary etiquette gods have decreed, unless one of the gods first smiles upon us and bothers to ask.
Having been a frazzled news editor in a past life, regularly beset by pesky denizens who never read past the jump and could not write their way out of a square room with one door in it, I remain firmly convinced of the value that gatekeeping roles bring to any publication. My sympathies lie with the agents and editors who must routinely contend with general douchebaggery and entitlement disguised as “artistic personalities.” Yet for the thousands, if not millions, of writers aiming to publish, and publish professionally, the textbook industry wait times are nothing short of demoralizing. Nobody normal can afford to spend half a year getting ignored or rejected by agencies, more months getting turned down by publishers after an agent has finally come on board, and up to several years in revisions, preproduction, and marketing before something hits the shelves. For all the publishers busily saying they want diverse books and new voices, there seems to me to be a relative lack of acknowledgement that being able to support one’s writing habit while the cogs continue to grind so painstakingly slowly is often a rather privileged position.
Sending out more than one project to the same agency at the same time, or at least not having to wait for a response to the last query before sending out a new one, sounds pretty darned good. In theory, it allows for better rounded and more accurate evaluations of new authors’ writing abilities. If they’re going to reject our work anyway, they might as well be thoroughly devastating about it, right?
In practice, though, that would probably make for a gigantic slush pile. How many of us have zombie manuscripts hidden away that we might drag out for just such an opportunity? And how much longer would it then take for one starving agent (let’s call her Greta) to get around to reading our own works of sheer brilliance?
I guess I’ll recommend keeping the communal slush pile at its current size, instead of campaigning for the construction of Word Vomit Mountain.
But Greta, could you get a move on, please? We’re kinda going broke over here.
We’ve been off for two weeks, in part due to travel and illness interrupting my regular schedule, and in part due to the insanity that was the American election last Tuesday. Getting anything productive done on the writing front has been all but impossible; instead, I’ve been venting my frustration and purging the germs with Christmas shopping and cleaning fits. Multiple rooms in my home are now freshly rearranged, scrubbed, or filled with holiday miscellany. Yet the mental turmoil continues.
Since we’re hosting a foreign student this fall, the election and its implications for the rest of the world have been top of mind in our home. After all, it was not only we Americans who watched another spot on the televised map light up in red every few minutes on Election Night, but also our counterparts across the pond. The subsequent conversations among my parent and minority friends have all been variations of the same theme: What does this outcome say about our country, and what do we tell our children?
To tell a story authentically, we must endeavor to understand those who are not like us.
Perhaps the events of the past week have jerked your writing, like mine, to a standstill and tossed your concentration out the window. Perhaps, too, you were focused on telling stories about a particular part of the world–one whose inhabitants you are now struggling to respect. Is your exhaustion from the election–be it result or violent protest–sapping your creativity? Worse, is it causing you to second-guess everything you’ve been working on?
It has for me. I am, quite literally, back at the drawing board this week, sketching out new story ideas. How do I write sympathetically and objectively about people I’m fighting not to hold in contempt? How do I work with a character whose interests and abilities are so fundamentally different from my own?
For some of my friends, the response has been to channel those emotions into art. Recording themselves singing their favorite songs. Drawing cartoons. Writing poetry. Chaining themselves to their computers for NaNoWriMo. For others, it has been more of an existential crisis: We’re questioning everything we’ve created.
The election did not cause this. It only highlighted an existing artistic conundrum. To tell a story authentically, we must endeavor to understand not only those who are like us, in thought, ability and action, but also, and more significantly, those who are not.
Right now, I do not understand. And so, the story waits.
It waits as I wrestle through the media overstimulation. It waits while I listen to friends and family as they vent. It waits during the afternoons when I find new things to scrub and throw away, in vain hopes of clearing my mind as well as my environment. It waits while I browse Pinterest in search of anything pretty or happy or beautiful to take my mind off the growing pains of this horribly divided nation.
It waits because for writers and creatives, this is a pivotal moment. Do we turn to light, escapist pieces? Or do we go down the rabbit hole?
Your story is coming along swimmingly, until suddenly it isn’t. You’ve just realized that thriller you’ve been working on is morphing into a cozy. Or perhaps your fantasy novel is skewing toward sci-fi. Is your dramatic tale of forbidden love devolving into light chick lit?
Don’t panic. WRITE.
Go back to your hook.
Summarize your story in one sentence. A string of popular genres doesn’t count. “It’s an epic mysterious science fiction fantasy about baby dragons.” If what you’ve written looks anything like that, it’s time to go back to the drawing board. While your story can successfully draw elements from multiple genres, or simply not fit well into a known sales market, you should be able to identify the core premise of your work.
For example, the hook for Westworld might read as follows: “An android living in a theme park struggles with her newfound ability to remember abuses by humans.” The story incorporates setting details from classic Westerns, but it originates from a science fiction writer.
Identify the problem.
Does what you’ve written match your hook? Reread your story in order to pinpoint where things started going off track. Was it the introduction of a new character? A character’s decision or action? A change of language or slip in point of view?
Once you’ve confirmed what caused the story to shift, you can examine it further. Why did you write that section to begin with? What were you trying to accomplish? How was this character or that event supposed to advance the storyline?
Try another perspective.
Perhaps you didn’t set out to write this kind of story. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a mistake. Play around with characters and scenes. Could the story be better this way?
Make a command decision.
I ran into this earlier in the week, when I realized the story I’d been drafting was turning into a much lighter read and properly belonged in a different genre than originally anticipated. The problem turned out to be my protagonist. The character doesn’t work for the role I need to fill. So, I can either keep my protagonist as is and push forward with the lighter tone and a new genre, or I can make fundamental changes to the character. It’s my call, of course, but it’s one that I do have to make in order to progress.
For over a year after Love Me Back came out I woke up every day with this loop in my head: I should write. But I need money. If I write something I can sell it and I’ll have money. But I need money now. If I had money now, I could calm down and write something. I don’t have money now, so I’m probably not going to be able to calm down and write something. To have money now, I need a job. I should get a job.
She resorted to carrying mail, a role she found helpfully financially but not energetically. After a full day on the job, she was usually too drained to sit down and write something new. Could she call herself a writer when she wasn’t making money in a full-time career?
No matter how you do it, no one is paying you to write. They may pay you for something you wrote, or promise to pay you for something you have promised to write. They may pay your room and board for a month or two at a residency. They may pay you to teach, or to edit something someone else has written. They may pay you to come to a university and talk to people about writing. None of this is the same as being paid to write.
I would like to be paid to write.
Most of us would.
Instead, many of us are doing the “boring” writing that pays the bills. We’re writing proposals. We’re writing advertising copy. We’re pitching blogs and magazines in hopes of a quick cash turnaround. We’re writing form letters and blurbs for brochures. It’s typically not “fun” or “creative.” It’s a job, one that often distracts us from the fun writing we’d rather be doing.
We write, and write often, for function and necessity rather than art. We write to support our families, to keep the hounds at bay. We write because we’ve prioritized pragmatism over idealism. For many of us, that’s all we will ever do. That is our career destiny. Some among us may even prefer it that way. We have acquired a marketable skill, and we’re taking it where the market demands.
We’re not sellouts. We’re survivalists.
I would like to be paid to write, too. Nothing sounds more enchanting, most days, than living out the fantasy of an author’s world filled with launch parties and book groups and invitations to film premieres based on adaptations of my work. Even if I never produce a fiction piece good enough to launch my author career into the stratosphere, however, I am still a writer.
National Novel Writing Month will kick off in less than two weeks, sending 400,000 aspiring authors, if last year is any gauge, into a month-long wordsmithing frenzy. The annual race purports to be a novice writer’s dream, dangling the promise of publication and literary bragging rights above our procrastination-loving selves. You, too, can have a finished novel at the end of just 30 days’ hard work! All you have to do is write at least 1,667 words per day, every day.
For a writer fast approaching the end of a year-long quest to draft a debut novel, with a very low word count to show for it still, NaNoWriMo should be a match made in heaven. We could all stand a little writing discipline, and NaNo, as it’s affectionately termed, is all about learning to make time to write regularly. At least, that’s what we’re told. Yet the more I think about signing up again this year, the more I realize that while NaNoWriMo might be a wonderful exercise for the right person, I should be sitting this one out.
NaNoWriMo is held at the wrong time of year. What cruel mental torturer decided it would be a fabulous idea to sit a bunch of hapless writers down and pester them to type like their little lives depended on it at the start of the holidays each year? November is smack dab in the middle of the Halloween-to-New Year’s rush. That’s when we’re all supposed to be baking up a storm and ordering Christmas gifts and decorating cheeseballs shaped like feathered farm animals, not plinking out 2,000 words daily. Besides, we don’t need any more excuses to give up all pretense of dietary control and dive into the leftover fun-sized candy in between coffee fill-ups.
Everybody is already doing it. How awesome to compete with one’s friends! Let’s all spark literary feuds on Twitter as we boast about our daily word counts! How droll. While the prospect of having others in the trenches with us–misery loves company, I hear–does carry a certain appeal, bear in mind that the fact that everyone else is writing hot now also means you will all quite possibly be overwhelming agents with your pitches around the same time later.
NaNoWriMo’s target isn’t novel length. The NaNoWriMo organization openly admits this in the FAQ section of its website. The official target is 50,000 words. The leadership doesn’t call it a novella, which is lovely, but in today’s publishing world, that’s what it is. Of course one could write more, but if you’re shooting for the minimum word count, it’s good to keep in mind that although you might close the month with 50,000 new words on your screen, you still won’t have a novel-sized product.
In short, you can “win” NaNoWriMo without actually writing an entire novel in a month. That’s what most people will do, if they even make it that far. If you follow the contest guidelines, you’ll have a head start on what could become a novel-length manuscript, but you’ll still have a long swamp to slog through.
Most of the writing will be crap. Certainly, we expect–or should expect–to edit our rough drafts and tweak our storylines. As I mentioned last week, however, many fiction writers are character-driven. They don’t do much to plan out their stories in advance, and NaNoWriMo itself doesn’t offer all that much in the way of structure. Plop folks down in front of a computer for a month-long drafting race, and their stories are likely to go off the rails at some point. A situation like that takes a lot more than a couple months’ worth of cursory editing and rewriting to fix.
An interesting study is NaNoWriMo’s own data on how many of its fiction writers get published. The contest began in 1999 and officially became a nonprofit in 2005. That means there are 10 years’ worth of publication figures under the organization’s current structure available. In 2015 alone, NaNoWriMo recruited 431,626 writers. So how many of these people got a book deal?
NaNo’s list of traditionally published books, going back 10 years, has 398 entries. Another 212 were self-published. Even if we assumed that some participants who eventually got book deals simply never credited NaNoWriMo with boosting part of their writing process, those numbers are depressingly low, averaging 61 NaNoWriMo participants who published any of their books per year of NaNoWriMo competition. Translation? Based on the 10-year publication average, last year’s participants’ success rate was one in 7,076.
Some agents hate it.Laura Miller’s takedown in Salon a few years ago is probably the most famous reference to agents’ rumored loathing of NaNo books, but she’s far from the only source on this subject. While I’m not opposed to NaNoWriMo in general (Miller’s take sounds positively disdainful at the thought of new novelists emerging from the woodwork), the warning signs are there for those of us willing to heed them.
Literary agent Amanda Luedeke objects to the structure of the challenge. Calling it a “crash diet for
those looking to get into some kind of healthy writing lifestyle,” she says NaNoWriMo sets writers up for failure. The project, she argues, has a way of discouraging writers who follow a slower process or simply have busier lives, while simultaneously encouraging would-be authors to engage in word dumps that are far from being in any sort of publishable state by the end of the month.
It suggests writers will enjoy success as long as they stick to the formula. If you buy this protein powder for three easy payments of $19.99, you can get a rocking bod, too. (Also, you will have to go to the gym and lift heavy things regularly, and skip the junk food, and drink this mysterious clear liquid called “water” a whole lot.)
At first glance, NaNoWriMo is forthcoming: Writers have to put in the work. We’re all on the honor system, but you don’t win by writing part of your story in advance, and you don’t win without hitting your word count goal. January and February, meanwhile, are billed as the “Now What?” months, in which writers are supposed to focus on editing their projects. So far, so good.
In practice, though, most people focus on NaNoWriMo’s big selling point: the prospect of a quick turnaround. The organization itself, meanwhile, does plenty to encourage this. “Write a novel in a month!” the organization’s home page touts. “We don’t use the word ‘novella’ because it doesn’t seem to impress people the way ‘novel’ does,” the NaNoWriMo website notes. Right, because calling it a finished “novel” is an easier sell, if a rather deceptive one.
It interferes with my writing process. I’m no gym rat, and quality writing is not a track race. It’s a strategy game. One does not simply sit at a computer and type whatever comes to mind until time is called. Writing well requires deep thought. It demands we take breaks, brainstorm, research, travel, experience. It calls for regular pauses to brew a cup of hot tea and take notes, a walk through the woods, a trip to the shooting range. If we cannot pause and think, we cannot truly push ourselves.
NaNoWriMo has its place. As exercise, as challenge, as goal-metric, it is admirable. The contest attracts hundreds of thousands each year: people who read, people who write, people who want to write more. The publicity it brings to the craft of writing and the efforts it encourages to get young people involved are highly praiseworthy.
It’s not for me, though. Not this year.
What do you think? Will you be taking the NaNoWriMo challenge?