Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Easy for Me to Say

"Never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never..." Winston Churchill

"If at first you don't succeed, try, try again. Then quit. There's no use being a damn fool about it." W.C. Fields

This is a tough week for a lot of writers. I'm thinking specifically of the writers who found out yesterday that they will not be advancing to the next round of the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award contest... and the writers who were eliminated in the first round... and those who will be knocked out of the running during the rest of the contest.

This is the contest that, to my surprise and amazement and eternal gratitude, I won in 2009. (Two years ago already?!) So I know the reaction to any comment I make about the need to keep trying, to not give up, might be, "Easy for you to say." As a matter of fact, I do try to avoid saying it because a lot of writers are sick and tired of hearing someone tell them to "buck up." But because this contest draws so many entries from so many extremely talented writers, I'm hoping a quick recap of my decades-long affair with rejection might help someone get back to the writing desk a little more quickly.

While I've wanted to write a novel since I was six or seven, I didn't realize that dream until I was fifty-five. Before I saw my name on the cover of a novel,  I wrote three other complete novels and dozens of short stories and poems that collected enough rejection slips to influence the stock prices of Boise Cascade and Weyerhauser. I've experimented with every approach to writing imaginable. Just try to name a writer's guide or advice book I haven't read. I've taken online writing courses and have tried several different "creative writing" software programs. On the advice of a potential agent, I paid an ungodly sum of money to a book doctor to help me get my novel ready for publication. That novel that was rejected almost as quickly as my check was cashed. On the advice of a different potential agent, I rewrote one of my novels as a screenplay. Have you seen the movie yet? Me, neither. I continued rewriting, reformatting, even re-genre-ing. And still the rejections poured in, every one of them a poke in the eye, a body shot to my self-confidence.

And here's an update: It doesn't end when you get published. There is absolutely no guarantee that my next manuscript will be published. And while the majority of reviews of my book have been, thankfully, positive, the ones that aren't--like the one I read the other day wherein the reader-reviewer expressed disappointment that I wasn't a more talented writer--do, in fact, sting. Getting published did not make my skin any thicker.

But if you're a writer and not someone who simply wants to be known as a writer, you'll keep going. You'll keep collecting those rejections, learning what you can from each one, but ultimately believing in your own hunches, your own voice. You'll put aside that nagging feeling that there are a few hundred other, more productive uses of your time than agonizing over a blank screen or piece of paper. You won't blame. You'll try not to complain. You'll just keep your butt in that chair and keep writing.

If you're not a writer, you won't. Now that was easy for me to say.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Marital Reading Habits

I just received another of those gifts that every writer lives for: an email from a stranger, writing to tell me how much he or she enjoyed my novel. Whenever I get one of these, I always think of what Mark Twain once said: "I can live for two months on a good compliment."

This message, though, was a little different from the others. "This is the first book my wife and I read together, aloud to each other," the sender wrote, "and  it couldn't have been a better choice."

They read it to each other? Aloud? I tried to imagine a similar scene with my wife, Joanne. And as I did so, I felt a stab of guilt. I've worked out of my home for the past 24 years and, as a result, I not only have dinner with Joanne almost every night, we also often have both breakfast and lunch together. (And, yes, we still get along; in fact, we celebrated our 26th anniversary last month.) At breakfast and lunch, my nose is usually stuck in a book; hers, a newspaper or magazine.

Here's the problem: Joanne is a vocal reader. She loves to share what she reads. A health tip. An inspiring profile. A sad story. My reaction, I confess, is more impatience than interest. My attention span is so short that I must guard it jealously. Interruptions that take me away from a story I'm immersed in are just that: interruptions.

There's more. If I appear to be enjoying whatever I'm reading, Joanne will ask me to read a passage to her. Any guesses as to my response? If you guessed something along the lines of, "You can read it yourself when I'm finished," you win the Spot-the-Insensitive-Spouse award.

So when I received the email from the read-aloud couple, I envisioned a happy husband and wife, laughing and cuddling over a good book. I made a vow to respond more enthusiastically when Joanne reads something aloud to me. And I intend to keep that vow... right after I finish this page...