Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Congratulations! You Failed.

During her keynote at the Hawaii Writer’s Conference, Kristin Hannah said that before she could commit to the life of a writer she had to decide that it would be okay to fail.

Like so many first-time novelists, Hannah wrote a manuscript and sent it off to agents, certain that it would be on the shelves within the year. Soon enough, she was lucky to get personal phone calls from a couple of them—telling her it wasn’t any good.

She’d been a lawyer before she took up writing. (She said, “Every lawyer I know wants to be a writer.”) The rejection of her novel gave her pause. Hannah said she did some deep thinking and decided that if she was going to proceed as a novelist, she’d have to come to terms with failure.

Too often, I avoid activities that might end in failure. I lament failure, I fear failure. You Buddhist-types know that fear of failure is really just fear of death. But we’re all going to die, and probably not from a rejected novel. Or from looking stupid, not being perfect or not pleasing people (some of my other favorite fears).

Even after she became a New York Times bestselling novelist (15 times over, now), Hannah said she faced failure in her career. This is something to remember. As a writer there is often the misperception that once you publish a book, you’ve got it made. But publication does not come with a lifetime guarantee. This concept reminds me of when, after a year of trying, I finally got pregnant. I reveled in victory for about ten seconds until I realized all I’d achieved was a state of greater risk. Same thing, once Chicken Noodle was born. There is no endpoint of success; only gradients, each with more at stake.

Interestingly, Hannah said that in retrospect, she believes that none of her failures actually were failures. Each cast her off in a new direction; one that she really needed to take.

My challenge to you all (and myself)—today, go out and do something that might earn you a big fat F. Who knows where it might take you?

Friday, September 25, 2009

The Nose Knows

My plan was to try to think of some thoughtful topic to tie to this photo, some interesting tidbit about marketing and writing to share with you all. Perhaps I could write about how at the Hawaii Writer's Conference we were informed that the title of your project alone could sell it or sink it.

Or maybe I'd write about the Kindle, how value is perceived and sold in writing and publishing these days, how no one knows what is going to happen next in digital publishing.

Or maybe I’d write something about how I never have been very good at selling things; how the concept of convincing people to want something is totally foreign to me, even though I've been hired to write ad copy before.

Or I could go on about how selling yourself is key to success in writing, and icky and weird at the same time.

Or maybe I’d write about the Country Fair, where this I took this shot. Or my nose, which seems to be getting longer and pointier. Or naked chests. Which generally, I like.

But it’s Friday, and Captain Daddy has been out of town for eight days and doesn't look to be reappearing for several more, and I am trying to pack for a weekend away with the chickens, and my mind has been strangely absent most of the week anyhow, and isn’t this just pretty great all by itself?

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

We Interrupt this Blog to Indulge in a Little Meta-Analysis

I read a discussion online recently about how before signing a client, an agent will read his or her author blog. Naturally. For a writer, one major reason to blog is to create a body of work online for anyone to peruse, especially, should you be so lucky, a publishing professional. The point of the piece was that some agents say they won’t take on clients who write about certain things, including how hard writing is. (I can’t remember where I read this. My bad.)

About the same time, I read elsewhere that there are something like 18,000 writer blogs in blog-land. Most of them are pleasant and well-written. One commenter suggested that to stand out, one should create something a bit edgier. (Think that was here: Pimp My Novel)

These two topics are related to each other as well as to a question that applies to more than blogging: What representation of “me” do I want to present to the world? Nice or sharp-tongued? Smooth or edgy? Charming or honest? “Real” me or “Polished” me? You can’t be everything, at least not all of the time.

As for my thoughts on the first issue, I will say this: oh, please. Writing is hard. The life of a writer means facing tough odds, buckling down to lonely, self-directed work and getting your self-esteem cremated regularly. No, of course it’s not as hard as many other paths in life, like being a teenaged slave or dying of cancer. But it’s challenging enough that a little good-natured commiseration with other writers can really take the edge off. I understand that no agent would want to read a constant whine, but I can’t believe all agents want to represent Pollyanna, either. What is a story without a protagonist who faces challenge?

As for the second matter: Edgy or charming, polished or real—pick your poison. The important part is that you pick.

Voice is a basic question for writers: not just finding it, but owning it.
What do you want to project to the world? Are you going to craft a voice or simply be your voice? What voice is just enough out-of-the-box to be interesting but not so much so to become alienating? What is totally you, yet burdened only with consequences you can live with?

Once you figure that out and make it yours, stop worrying about what anyone will think and just jump in the damn water.

At least that’s what I keep telling myself.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Torn Between Two Lovers

The day before I left for Hawaii, I sat with a cup of coffee in front of my computer at 6:30 a.m. trying to come-to after a sleepless night. Suddenly Chicken Noodle burst in, arms aloft, and declared with delight,

“Everything’s better, Mom!”

About what happened next Noodle later recalled, “Mommy went (palms to face, mouth open, sharp intake of breath). Then she cried.”

Because everything wasn’t “better.” Not unless you think two children with their bangs cut to the scalp is “better”.

Noodle’s happiness crumbled in light of my tears. “Stop crying, Mommy! I’ll never do it again!”

But after a half-hour when I was still crying, she was all eye-roll: “Mom, are you ever going to stop crying? Like, by ten?”

I couldn’t stop. I wasn’t crying out of vanity because their school photos are ruined, even though they are. I wasn’t crying because they could have lost an eye, even though they could. I was crying because I took the situation personally. I saw it as a direct cost of my primary conflict: my work vs. my children. Or put more succinctly: self vs. family.

Because what I was doing in front of my computer at 6:30 a.m.—as beauty school commenced in the other room—was stewing over my book-in-progress. Obsessing, really. Not thinking about my children. Or their access to sharp objects.

My writing life lives in the same house as my family life. It’s like having two lovers. The problem with two lovers is that one of them is usually neglected. I steal a few moments for Lover A and Lover B slashes her hair off.

When I finally got my sister on the phone an hour later (yep, still crying), she laughed. “Almost every kid does this.” I continued to sob, insisting on my singular ineptitude and selfishness.

“Seriously,” she finally said. “When is this going to be funny?”

I sniffled. “Maybe next week?”

Here I am in next week, groping for the humor and self-forgiveness. As well as being practical. I've got to have a life of my own. And anyway, it isn't possible for the chickens and me to spend 18 years together without sometimes being apart. I am banking this will build autonomy and confidence for all.

Still, I am not an idiot. I hid the scissors.

By the way, the reason Noodle declared that everything was “better” after having removed her bangs? “Now I can see my forehead like you, Mom.”

Let that be the final word on the subject: as long as my oldest daughter wants to emulate me, I must be doing something right.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The Emphasis is on Eventually

“You hear what you need to hear, when you need it,” said Kristin Hannah, New York Times bestselling author, at the Hawaii Writer’s Conference last weekend.

So much wisdom and advice was delivered at the conference. It was fabulous—better than I’d hoped. I absorbed as much information as I could, but the message that kept hitting home—the message I needed to hear—was about patience.

Nine years at this game and I am losing patience. The threat of a “real job” looms. I have two days a week to write if I’m lucky. I spent six years writing a book that will never be published. Rumors floated from the industry warn that if you don’t publish a book by the time you’re 40, you never will. An interested publisher just makes me worry that if I don’t give him something really soon he’ll forget about me or move on. Lately, I sit at my computer and feel pressured. I am losing patience.

But in Hawaii so many smart people reminded me that good writing doesn’t come in a hurry.

“Make haste slowly,” said Patricia Wood, who published her first book to wide acclaim in her 50s.

Michael Arndt, screenwriter of Little Miss Sunshine, spoke of the 10,000 hour rule of mastery described in Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers (which I wrote about here in January—from Hawaii, no less—and then promptly forgot about: Thanks, Fred). It was true for him. Ten years of really hard work until he made it.

“Your job is to enjoy the process as much as possible,” said bestselling author Dan Millman, just to drive the point home that writing is a PROCESS.

Of course I knew all of this already, even if I sometimes wish it weren’t true. My best essays have taken months—even years—to write. It takes time for the good stuff to bubble to the top. It takes thinking and breathing and playing and changing. It takes living.

I am grateful to have been reminded of this now, with two good projects in the wings. I shouldn’t expect myself to create anything of substance in a big fat hurry, nor to settle for publishing anything that’s not slow-cooked to perfection.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Nine Lives?

Nine years ago I got married, turned 30, quit my job and decided to take my writing seriously. I wanted to write professionally but had no idea how to do it. So I flew to Maui with my mother for the Maui Writer’s Conference.

For four days I absorbed everything I could about magazine writing. I learned about writer’s guidelines, queries, breaking in with front-of-book stories, features, essays. I learned about the Writer’s Market and how to track down contacts and market research and how to pique an editor’s interest. I took notes and avoided the pool and the mai tais and learned so much I thought my head was going to explode.

But I took it all home and worked like hell and within a few months, I was writing for magazines.

Tomorrow I fly to Hawaii to attend the conference for a second time. (It’s now the Hawaii Writer’s Conference and held in Honolulu, because who can afford four days at a Maui resort on top of conference fees these days? I can only pull Honolulu off because, lucky me, my mom lives there.)

It makes me feel retrospective to go back. Makes me think about that na├»ve, hopeful, determined girl. To just go for it like that—was that really me? And have it work out. Wow.

I’ve been to smaller conferences since. I’ve learned oceans more. Published lots, not published lots. Found out how hard this writing business really is. Gotten wiser. Made choices, made sacrifices, made compromises. Part of me thinks; I’ve heard it all, I know all there is, what more could I learn?

But there’s always more to learn. Right now I think part of why I need to go back to Hawaii is to figure out how much of that girl from nine years ago is still in me.