Writing that thing you HAVE to get published

Throughout undergrad, my professors talked about having a healthy level of arrogance about our writing. It’s right there between being confident and being an asshole.

Mostly I’ve just been trying to reach the confident point—where I can objectively look at something I wrote and say, “Yes, this is a good piece people may read.” Just after that threshold, there’s rumored to be this other mindset that actually helps you get published. They say your attitude changes there. “This piece isn’t just good,” you’ll say. “It’s so good that it has to be read!”

Sure, I’ve had that thought. It was back when I started writing, and no one read a word of it, and I was sure my novel ideas were going to blow so many freaking minds. Then someone did read my first novel, and it did not blow his mind. Really, the whole thing just blew.

I learned to check my ego and to lean a bit more toward being objective with my work. Internally, I’m sure I skewed toward being an asshole toward people who didn’t “get” my short stories. But I still walked into every critique hoping I’d walk out with some ways to improve. That’s the mentality I’ve been stuck in through the last couple years of revising my manuscript.

While I was stuck, I’ve been getting increasingly annoyed at myself for working on nothing else. Even my blog has suffered. I decided to change that, so I opened a new Word doc and started a new blog post. It covered how I’ve grown over the last few months, the turns of my career, and some other hopeful things. It was the blog post I wanted to write for months, but I couldn’t get it right. It was too accusatory, too vindictive, too self-pitying. I hated writing it all those times as much as anyone would have hated reading it, so I never saved the work.

When I tried again last week, it wasn’t nearly the struggle it was before. The story was ready to come out and play. We played on the page, and I found all the magical things it had lacked before: an intention, the proper distance from the experience, and excitement from me, the writer.

But not just excitement. As I looked the piece over and cleaned it up, I realized it was too good for a blog post. Oh, no. This piece needed to go to The Huffington Post. While I’m at it, I might as well shop it around to some other places. This piece isn’t just good, it needs to be read. And it’s just not going to get the audience it deserves here on my blog.

Had I been writing this experience a few months ago, the story probably would end with an explanation of why I chickened out and decided to revise the piece until eventually giving up on it. Today, the piece is under review with The Huffington Post. And it’s about to be under review with some other publications, too.

Honestly, I expected this golden place of confidence/arrogance to feel like an exclusive club I had earned my way into. In reality, it feels more like unloading the dishwasher. This piece is going to these publications because it just belongs there. The plates go in this cupboard because that’s just where they go.

Saying Goodbye: Words of Wisdom from Sarah Domet

Last night, I went to a conversation with authors Sarah Domet and Jonathan Rabb at The Book Lady Bookstore. The event promoted the paperback release of The Guineveres, Domet’s debut novel. For the umpteenth time, I crowded in with the rest of a gaggle of Savannah’s writing and reading community. Toward the end of the conversation, someone asked Domet how she felt about letting go of her first book while moving on to her second.

The Guineveres began in the form of her dissertation before years of work grew it into the acclaimed novel it is today. Domet said she felt very protective over her characters, and an almost maternal fear of sending them out into the world. “My pregnancy hormones might have had something to do with that,” she joked. The Guineveres was released In October 2016, two days before she gave birth.

“The hardest part,” she said, “is that I don’t get to be a part of their lives anymore.”

No character’s life is confined to the timeline of a story. They have memories of events before a novel begins, and—barring a tragic ending—they have a future that goes beyond the words “the end.” After spending years growing alongside your characters, it’s hard to stop writing about them. The draw of a spinoff or a sequel is strong. Even Domet wanted to keep going in the lives of the four Guineveres in her book.

For the last few weeks, a similar thought nagged at me. Despite the many ideas on my mental shelf of novels to write, The Thieves of Traska staked the biggest claim on my time. I revise, rewrite, reorganize. It even took over most of my artwork. Every line I share for the writing hashtag games on Twitter comes from Thieves. Lately I’ve been grumbling to myself: “Why don’t you work on something else for a change?”

Last year, I dove into the first draft of the sequel to Thieves. Okay, that’s not really something else. I made significant headway before going back to revise Thieves. Those revisions ultimately made the half-novel I had drafted moot. Any time I try to start it over, I worry it’s just a waste of time. I’m still revising Thieves. When it gets an agent, that will probably mean more revisions. And then there will be an editor and—oh, right—more revisions.

“Oh god, this will never end,” plays on repeat in my head.

“For Amanda – Best of luck with your book! Thanks for coming out tonight!”

A few months ago, I managed to get out two and a half chapters of a completely unrelated novel. I decided to give it some space when I caught myself doing an info dump in chapter three. Last week, I drafted the first chapter (again) for still another novel. That one excites me; it combines an old idea—the incomplete National Novel Writing Month 2012 project that inadvertently created Thieves—with a new one I came up with last year.

In spite of that, most of my time goes to Thieves. I keep thinking the next revision will be THE ONE. Then it’s ready to pitch to agents. Just as soon as I change this one thing. And this other thing. And, oh, a beta reader has more suggestions! Better make those changes, too.

When Domet signed my copy of her book, I asked her how she transitioned from the stage of making one more revision to actively seeking an agent.

“I think you get to a point of frustration,” she told me. “I just realized that nothing was going to come of it if I didn’t do something. You can’t get anything done if you just sit on your behind.”

A lucky find at The Book Lady Bookstore

Over the weekend, I went to the latest Seersucker Live reading in Savannah. It was my first in a while, which I was shamed for, and I brought my brother along, too. We arrived early and poked around the back shelves of The Book Lady. I ended up in the cooking section, trying to diffuse my irrational panic over my own fledgling collection of cookbooks. On the top shelf, a dark green spine with shiny copper letters made me laugh quietly.

Julie and Julia, first edition

Julie and Julia. I’ve never read Julie Powell’s book, or the original blog. But the movie has a special place in my heart. I remember seeing it with my mom when I was 16, just before my senior year in high school. So many quotes have become inside jokes with my family — reverently whispering “butter” whenever we use it; almost always pronouncing “surprise” as “supreese”; and chanting “lobster killer, lobster killer, lobster killer,” whether or not it makes sense in the moment.

It’s also one of the main reasons I have a blog. From the moment I watched Amy Adams punctuate the air with her knife as she declared, “I could write a blog — I have thoughts,” I figured I could, too.

Flipping through the book, I fell in love with the chapter titles. They are as charming and hilariously honest as the rest of the parts I skimmed. While the voice in the back of my head told me I don’t need to buy more books right now (probably the voice of the stack of yet-to-be-read new purchases), I was reluctant to put it back. I remembered looking for this book after I saw the movie, but I either couldn’t find it or, since I was unemployed that summer, couldn’t afford it. And here it was. Just to entertain the thought and try to rationalize with that voice in my head, I checked the price in the front.

The Book Lady, Seersucker Tots, Lucy Artigas
By sheer luck, a photographer for District captured me trying to make up my mind in the background of her photo for an article on the reading. What you can’t see is my brother behind the shelves, trying to talk me into buying it. Photo by Lucy Artigas, used with the photographer’s permission.

Not only did the price surprise me — $6.50 for this hardback beauty?! — but so did the words “First ed.” written underneath it. Normally, I’m not one to get giddy over touching a first edition. I just get giddy over books. New, used, hardback, paperback, like new, or dog-eared and annotated, I love books. And this first edition copy of a 2002 book I’d never read felt special.

Next to its empty spot on the shelf, a later edition of the same book sat. Bright yellow paperback spine, title in red script — it might’ve even had the text “NOW A MAJOR MOTION PICTURE.” I didn’t touch it.

What little edits and addendums might be in that later edition, besides a flashier cover? It wouldn’t have made the story any less real, or the book any less valuable. But my crazy brain decided that the book in my hands was The Original, and therefore held some elevated status.

If not for my brother, the voice of my other unread books might have won out. I might have returned at some later date, hoping to find it again. Or life could have swept me away, as it tends to do, until I forgot what I found. But now Julie and Julia has a place on my shelf.