The Last Yes of 2010

The year 2010 ended for me on a yes.

Yesterday afternoon, on the last day of 2010, I got into a writing-something I’d applied to! I’ll reveal more once I’m sure it’s happening. But let’s just say it involves some foreign travel and if you have any suggestions for travel grants for writers please let me know because I don’t have airline miles.

Here’s one quite majestic hint:

I was surprised and excited by the last yes of the year.

And now my attention has turned toward the year we’re undeniably in: 2011.

I’m hoping for more yeses, and to get those yeses I need to put myself out there and try and try again. I’ll be applying to many things this year. I’ll be writing new things and submitting them. I want to see what all could happen.

What will be the first yes of 2011? I have my fingers crossed for a few possibilities… All I know is you can’t hear yes unless you risk that no.

May your 2011 give you the yes you’ve always wanted.

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The Race No One’s Running

I used to be in a race. With every writer I knew. With writers who had no idea who I even was. With you. With myself.

I thought I was running toward something and that I had to get there, or else. And I thought how long it took actually determined my worth as a writer.

I used to tell myself that if I didn’t “make it” by such-and-such age, then that would mean I’d failed. That age came and went without a published book from me. So I upped the age. Then that age came and went. I upped the age again and told myself all I needed to not be a failure was to have an agent by a particular age. Just an agent. Just the one thing. Guess what? The day I turned thirty was the day I didn’t make it.

I spent a lot of time comparing myself—unfavorably—to other writers I knew. Many people I knew from the graduate-school workshops I took part in during my early twenties had already published their short-story collections and their novels—quite a few of which I remembered critiquing in class. I was happy for them, I was. But I was very disappointed for myself. I thought I’d never reach the place they did. I thought it was over for me, all because I’d crossed over that arbitrary line in the sand.

I cringed when other authors called out their young ages in their bios, like it made them more worthy because it took them less time to publish. Like they were bragging. Like how long it took them meant anything at all in comparison to how long it was taking me.

And, yes, a lot of this comes from jealousy. It’s hard not to compare yourself to other writers, isn’t it? It’s hard, when you’re treading water and whispering in your own ear that you’re such a failure, to innocently walk into a bookstore and see all your former classmates’ books on display. That sounds childish. But, yes, it’s hard.

I once got what I thought was The Phone Call, while I was at one of my day jobs, from an agent who had been considering my full manuscript submission. This was the second novel I wrote since graduate school; I’d already given up on the first one.

When I got this phone call, my heart was in my throat. I thought, THIS IS IT! I thought it was “happening.” A dump truck of fantasies poured itself out onto me as I closed the door to my office and took the phone call.

But, really, the phone call was only to tell me that my novel (one I have since trashed) had potential and could use some revision and she’d take a look again if I did so.

Then this agent asked me how old I was. I told her. “You’re young still,” she told me. “You have time.”

Time? I thought. How much time? I felt like a ticking clock. I felt like I’d expire soon and never get this shot again. I felt like I could have said the wrong number and she would have replied, “Oh, well, you tried. Too bad you didn’t query me a few years ago.”

This agent—generous enough with her own time over the years to read that manuscript and give feedback not once, not twice, but three times—did not turn out to be my agent. That manuscript did not turn into a book I got published. I stopped revising it. I stopped considering myself “young.”

I also stopped writing my own novels.

And querying agents.

And trying to publish a novel at all.

Yet the clock kept ticking. And so I thought I had to keep running.

The race I was running all alone took me through a detour I didn’t expect, where I did a whole lot of work-for-hire writing under pseudonyms, and where I lost the will and energy to keep trying at my own books, and then the race swept me on another detour, where I got the chance to write Dani Noir, a book I never expected to write, and what a wonderful detour that was, and then suddenly when I thought I’d never get the chance again I was leaping hurdles with the pages of Imaginary Girls and getting the perfect agent and getting the book deal I dreamed of and then I looked around and realized NO ONE WAS TIMING ME.

There is no stopwatch.

There isn’t even any finish line.

Guess what? This wasn’t ever a race.

It didn’t matter how long it took. And want to know how long, if you’re curious?

  • First-ever agent query, for a now-deceased novel 4/16/02
  • “The” phone call mentioned above 10/30/03
  • First agent offer, for Imaginary Girls 4/29/09

It’s taken me many years to learn that life lesson, the one about how we all have our own timetable; we live life at our own pace. The one where it doesn’t matter what other people do or how fast they do it.

So I’ve stopped running the race-that-isn’t-a-race. Dani Noir came out, and I got the agent I always wanted, and Imaginary Girls will be out in about six months or so. Maybe it’ll be successful—I sure hope people like it—but I’m not going to hold it up to other books and compare my experience to anyone else’s.

It took me as long as it took me.

I’m standing still now and just enjoying the moment. I worked really hard and I wrote a book and, soon (SOON, as in next month when ARCs are ready), people will get to read it. That’s where I am. That’s today. “Be Here Now,” my sister and my mom both always say.

I am.

Here.

Right now.

And I don’t care anymore how long it took me.

Up in the Air

I’ve been hearing a lot of maybes lately. With a volunteer position I applied for, with residencies… I’m not surprised that I’m not getting unequivocal yeses, but I do like to know what’s happening, you know? For now, I look ahead at the year 2011 and have no worldly idea what to expect from it. So much feels up in the air.

What will I be doing? Where will I be? How will I make ends meet? What “ends” will I be meeting?

I’ve also lost touch with so many friends. Now that my flu is finally over and I’m almost fully recovered, I’m looking back at all the time lost and things I let go.

I have a mega-urgent deadline on Monday, and then I’ll let myself take a breath and show a peek of what’s to come in 2011 (the Imaginary Girls jacket and book summary!), and then I’ll return to the synopsis I have almost ready for my next novel and try to catch up on everything I let slip these past couple months.

My sister gave me the above pendant of a steampunk-inspired hot-air balloon and it feels very symbolic at the moment. She knows me well.

I feel like I still have my toe on ground—but I’ll be taking off very soon.

Revision Gratitude

Revision is not easy. No one ever said it was. I’m revising a novel right now, and I have high hopes. My edit letter has brought out a fire in me. Ideas are swirling. I see so much possibility for the book… But it’s hard work.

I have such high hopes and such enormous intentions that I’m thinking of holing up for the entire month of July. I may see only my husband, my barista, and the security guard downstairs as I sign in and out of my writing space.

I just really want this to be the best thing I’ve ever done so far in my life, you know? And that’s pressure.

But no matter how hard this may be—and no matter the worries and stress I put on myself when the doubts come—I’ve been realizing lately just how lucky I am. How lucky it is to have this opportunity to work so hard. To have an editor. (A phenomenal editor. Her edit letter might be better crafted than my novel itself.) An editor who loves my book enough to buy it and spend all this time on it to make it better. Do you know how badly I wanted this in the years before when I was working on an ill-fated novel that ate up years of my life? How hungry I was to have someone give me a shot? How I would have worked, worked like mad, done anything really, if only I’d had this one person who could help me find a way to write that book better?

I may look like a working writer revising for her editor, but in reality I’m the same person I was at my lowest point around five years ago when no one would give me a chance. I’ll never stop being that person—rejection really does shape who you are and, more, who you want to be. It makes you work harder. It makes you want it more. It made me who I am today.

I hate thinking back to those years because they were really painful and embarrassing. But I can’t help remembering now.

Years ago, I would have killed to be in this moment. I feel so grateful.

Back to work.

When the Novel Gets Close But You Don’t Want to Leave the Igloo

I’ve got this novel that wants to be ready. This novel that’s close to show. I’ve spent much of the weekend on it—to the detriment of my unread and unanswered email inbox and putting away the clean laundry and only doing four hours a day of freelance instead of eight, which is really going to catch up with me on Monday. I just completed yet another draft of this novel’s synopsis and wrote some new pages. I have a little more work to go before I can show it and I’m sloooooolllly working through the pages today, taking my sweet time, not yet wanting to think of the moment when I hit the inevitable Send.

This morning there I was in the café, thinking, Oh wow I like this. Wondering, Should I like this? Worrying, It’s too soon to admit I like this. But this novel wants me, and I want it. At least it’s mutual.

At some point, and soon, I’ll have to let go. I’ll have to show my agent. And he’ll have me work more on it and then, once it’s ready, I’ll have to show a publisher. I’ll have to face the scary part. I think that’s why keeping myself writing it feels so safe and secure. Like a nice little igloo. It’s warm inside.

Does it ever get easier for seasoned authors? Every time I have to show something I’ve written and wonder if anyone will want to publish it, it’s the most humbling, frightening experience. If and when it happens for this particular novel, the submission process, I won’t be able to talk about it at all. Not until after.

But I’m not there yet.

Not yet.

What a relief.

Touching Ground

I’ve been home a week now. I’ve come back to responsibilities, and obligations, and stress, and static, and more static, and rejections, two of them, neither of which made me cry, but still: I’m disappointed. There hasn’t been good news in a while, it seems. I know I’m exaggerating, but sometimes the emotions take over and reality gets squished into a corner and you’re too taken up by the drama to let it out.

I’m just having a tough time. Blah, blah, boring.

Yesterday, I felt the weight of it all coming down on me so I did a terrible, evil thing. I napped. Toward the end of the day. I just didn’t want to have my eyes open anymore.

I had a dream.

I was back at the writers colony, my very last week there, and I discovered that there were two doors in my studio that I had never bothered to open. I opened the one on the left and discovered, to my great delight, that it led to a sweeping balcony all along the side of the house. I ran out into the open air, thrilled. Then I was immediately disappointed that I hadn’t bothered to check what was behind this door before this moment. I was about to go home and I’d only discovered it now. I was kicking myself.

Then I found, at the edge of the roof, this little contraption. A step to stand on and then a rope and pulley system to raise and lower it to another level of the balcony. I stepped on it and lowered myself to the second level of the balcony, but I couldn’t get it to stop. The rope plunged me down to the ground. Then I tried to raise it back up and stop at my floor, but I couldn’t get it to stop again and this time I rose up high into the sky, at the very tip top of the house, wavering in the bright blue sky.

I could go either all the way up or all the way down. There was no stopping in the middle so I could get back to where I started. I had no control over where I wanted to be.

The dream ended with me on the ground again, asking another artist if he knew how to get the thing to stop halfway. He didn’t. No one did. I was about to try once more—in the dream I was afraid of getting in trouble with the writers colony staff for messing up some antique lift system and mucking up its rope on the lawn—so I was just about to send myself soaring back upward, hoping I’d find a way to stop this time, hoping I’d find a way to get myself where I wanted to go… hoping, this time, I’d somehow know what to do.

Then E woke me up for dinner.

I opened my eyes and still felt the wind in my face, the beating of my heart as I sped up, up into the sky.

The Writing Part of Being a Writer

Something happens when you publish a book: You need to promote it. I’m not going to go into what your publisher does and doesn’t do for you, what they used to do as opposed to what they do now. Other smart publishing bloggers talk all about that. Let’s just say it’s a given: You write a book and if it gets published, you need to promote it, no matter how shy you are, no matter how uncomfortable you are talking yourself up in front of people. There. Done. Deal with it. (And if you’re shy, check out Shrinking Violet Promotions.)

I’m in a bit of a reprieve until 2011, when this new novel I’m so freaking excited about is due to come out. I feel like I went through some great publicity hazing experiences, so I’ll be even better next time. I had my first group book signing at Books of Wonder. I had my first solo signing. I did my first radio interview. I did my first Barnes & Noble reading. I did blog interviews and answered letters from readers. I got my picture taken. I survived my first Kirkus review. I got my first royalty statement. I saw my Amazon ranking. I saw my book in stores and in my own branch of the public library. I laughed, I cried, and now I feel like I know what to expect next time.

My skin has gotten thicker from all of it, and I’m grateful. I learn by doing, and I grow from every experience I have, as a person, as an author, and most significantly: as a writer.

I’m in a pocket of quiet. And, right now, I need this little pocket. No book festivals. No events. No Google Alerts. No obligations.

I need to do that thing that started all of this, the reason I’m in this in the first place: write.

All so I can be better next time.

But it’s funny how the writing becomes somehow tainted from the experience of having to promote myself in the past. I’ve started a new novel—YAY!—and I am poised to work on a very exciting project while I’m away next month—YOW!—and in the past my way of starting something new was to write silently to myself in my cave for months on end and only poke my head out after I’ve rewritten myself in circles enough to see I’m ready to give it air. Now, staring at my first pages, I’m already thinking: Will he like it? Will she like it? Will they like it enough to want it? Is it good enough / distinct enough / interesting enough? Does it have a big enough hook? Does it fit a trend? If it does, do I want it to? Will it stand on its own? Hello, will it SELL? And if it does, will it keep this name or get named something else? What will the publisher call it? What’s its label? What’s its genre? Where’s its spot on the shelf? What will reviewers say about this? What will readers say about that? Will anyone want to read it at all?

Questions, questions, questions.

In the face of trying to address all those questions, you can find yourself not writing anything.

So I’m wringing out my mind. Letting those concerns wash out of me, swirl down the drain, rinse after rinse after rinse, till I’m clean.

Out go the what-ifs and will-she-likes.

Out go the what-will-he-says.

Out go the panic of future submissions.

Out go the labels.

The names.

The critiques.

The rankings.

The stars and no stars.

The yeses and the nos.

Out they go; I’ll gather them back up later. But for now—for the rest of this month, and for next month—I’m just going to be a writer. The kind who puts words down on the page and doesn’t let them see daylight till later.

I’m trying to, anyway.

It feels like I’m back to that point before I was published.

The beginning.

Where it starts and where it ends: with the writing.

Every single one of us—no matter where we are in our careers or our dark caves—can be found here at one point or another.

Writing page 16 or page 216 or page 1.

So, hey there.

Hi.

I’ll be hanging here for a while.