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How to Send Your Work Out Into The World

One of the myths unpublished writers tend to believe is that things get easier after you get an agent or after you get published or after you’ve made some good money from your writing. They tend to think of the “before” as frightening and frustrating and painful and the “after” as some kind of writerly heaven. But I don’t know a single well-published writer who would agree with this myth. The fact of the matter is that creating things and sending them out into the world, where they will be judged and measured and bought and sold, is never easy.

I am telling you this because yesterday I sent 93 pages of my novel-in-progress to my agent. She has not yet seen these pages, she has not yet agreed that this is a book that will be worthy of selling but we had decided together that I would send her the work when I had 100 pages.  My goal was to get her those pages by April 1. I didn’t quite make that deadline, but yesterday, after doing a round of revisions that felt very resonant, I decided that it was time.  Sure, I could have kept working on those pages and polishing them up until the end of time, but I decided I was ready for them to be judged.

It was hard to put them out there. In order to make myself do it, I had to close my eyes, hold my breath, say, “WTF,” and press the “Send” button as fast as I could before I changed my mind.

I immediately felt elated, imagining the phone call I would get when she couldn’t contain her excitement. I imagined the auction we would hold, the juicy deal we would nail down, the announcement we would get to make, the interviews I would do. I pictured, in other words, making the buzzer-beater shot to win the national championships – a moment of glory we got to witness earlier this week when Villanova beat North Carolina.

That moment of elation was followed very quickly by a moment of gut-wrenching terror, because I have had that dream before. I have gotten close to that moment of glory before – the ball in my hands, the dream within reach – and it didn’t happen, and it was horrible.

I understand that there are no guarantees.

Did you see any of the photos of those young men who lost that championship basketball game this week? In case you missed them, I put one at the top of the post – a shot of North Carolina’s Theo Pinson in the locker room after the game. I mean, it makes you want to cry. We can all stand back and say, “But that was just a college basketball game, it didn’t really mean anything.” But those players worked for that moment for most of their lives, just like us. They dreamed of that glory for a very long time, just like us. Not getting it, in basketball or in writing, hurts a lot.

When we send our work out into the world, we risk that pain. It is much easier to keep the pages safe on our desktop. It is much easier to share them with a small group of friends who will tell us what a good job we did.

But I am proud to be a writer who meets my deadlines. I am proud to be a writer who gets back up after a tough fall. I am proud that I keep working to get better, and that I am not afraid to have my work judged, even if it’s judged harshly.

I would rather be all those things than a writer who is too scared to share my work with the world.

I have no idea what my agent will say about the 93 pages.  She could say, “Love them, keep going, let’s DO this!” Or she could say, “I think you might want to shelve this for awhile.” Or she could say, “There are parts of this that are very good” (which means that there are part of it that need a lot of work.)

Since my last book died a quiet death, there is even a very real chance that she could say, “I don’t think I can represent your work anymore.”

That’s the dirty secret that published writers never tell you: that they live in fear of not being able to do it again. They live in fear that they have already hit their peak. They live in fear that whatever success they had before was a fluke and now everyone knows they are a fraud.

I think every one of those desperate thoughts.

And you know how I know I am not a fraud? How I counteract the doubt? Today, I will start work on Page 94 and I will figure out where that next scene fits into the whole, and what needs to happen to make it sing.

*****

I have an exercise that my memoir-writing class is doing this week called The Universal Constants of Creativity. It is a way to evaluate the places in your creative process where you get stuck.  If “letting go” and “sending your work out into the world” is a tough one for you, you might want to DOWNLOAD IT HERE and do the exercise yourself.

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What Makes a Book Good vs. Great

After my post last week on rejection, a client asked to hear my thoughts on what makes a book good versus a great one. (I wrote about coming to the realization that my last novel was good but not great.) It’s an excellent question and I believe that there are two ways to answer it:

1.)  The writer decides what is great. If you love your book, if you loved the writing of it, if you love certain passages and turns of phrase, if you love holding it in your hands and if you love what it means that this book exists in the world in a real and tangible way, then that book is great. No one can take this greatness away from you—no critic can diminish its greatness, no sales numbers can diminish its greatness—because the greatness comes from you. You own it. It is yours.

Believing that something you made is great is enormously satisfying on a soul level. It’s a big reason why creating things feels so good: somewhere deep inside we know that we were made to do this work, and actually DOING it, closes the loop on that initial creative impulse. If you make it, you are no longer just talking about making it. You have transformed yourself into a creator.

2.)  The world decides what is great. You knew that was coming, right?

When the world decides that a book is great, the author gets an agent, get a book deal, gets some big marketing dollars behind her, gets a ton of book sales, gets a bunch of media attention, gets asked to speak about her creative process, gets accolades, money, power, prestige and probably the invitation to write something else again. I have been that author and I am not going to pretend that it wasn’t fantastic. It was fantastic.

But the honest truth is that it wasn’t satisfying on a soul level. It was satisfying on an ego level, on a “Wheeeee this is fun” level, on an “Aren’t I so awesome??” level, on an “I can buy a cool pair of boots” level. But for me, the best part about it was being invited to do it again. It was being invited to create again, knowing that my creation would be seen and heard.

Because here’s the thing: when you are called to create, creating closes a loop, but there is another loop that gets opened, and that is the loop that can only be closed by a reader. We write because it’s satisfying – for sure – but we also write because we want to be read. When that doesn’t happen — because we couldn’t get an agent, we could get a book deal, we couldn’t attract readers — it’s SAD. Our inner reality  (“I wrote a book and it is great!”) doesn’t align with the external reality “I wrote a book that no one wants to read.”)  It’s sad and it’s also confusing.

You can go on from there, continuing to believe in your book’s greatness, and there have been some books of mine that warranted that belief. I mean, I happen to think The Threadbare Heart is a great book. The world didn’t agree to the extent that I hoped it would. (Note that I am not talking about minor flaws here. When I went to book clubs to talk about The Threadbare Heart, people would point out small errors of continuity and little typos and the horribleness of the cover—which is their right as readers. Those are things that could have been done better, but they don’t impact the quality of greatness that I felt that story had. I am talking here about attracting a lot of readers. I am talking about sales. And The Threadbare Heart didn’t take the world by storm.) Well, screw the world. I still say it’s a great book and I’m going go on believing that and taking pride in that.

Sometimes, the lack of validation from the world causes the author to look with fresh eyes upon their creation. That’s what happened to me when Perfect Red didn’t garner the deals and sales and awards I thought it would. I saw what the world was seeing, and I realized that the book had some deep flaws. And here’s the thing: I knew all along those flaws were there. I was hoping to sweep them under the rug. I spent a huge amount of time on that book trying to shore up holes, trying to add a layer of logic on top of a logic that wasn’t wholly there. So when I didn’t win that award, I didn’t think, “Screw the judges.” I thought, “They’re right. It’s true. This is a good book, but not a great one.”

What is the takeaway from this?

a.)   Well for me, the next time I write a book, I will try as best as I am able to build a good, strong, solid foundation before I start to write. It’s not for nothing that I hammer away with my clients on knowing what you are writing and knowing where it might fit in the marketplace before you write it; I do that because I have found it the only way to solve the big problems that will inevitably crop up 300 pages down the line, when they are no longer fixable.

b.)  I will try harder to listen to my voice when I’m writing and to choose wisely who I let into that conversation, so that if something starts going off the rails I can stop it before it’s too late. I urge you to do the same.

c.)   I will go into the writing of my next book knowing what I can control and what I can’t. I can control the creative act and the writing process. I can control what I want to convey and the story I want to tell. I can’t control what the world will think.

d.)  I will remember what feels truly, deeply good as opposed to frosting-on-the-cake good, and that is doing it.

To read an outstanding, authentic, story about a musician’s creative journey from small-time success to big time success, and the compromises and decisions along the way, click here. (And FYI this story came to me via Dan Blank’s blog.)

 

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