I should be finishing this draft. I have twelve days until handoff. Instead I’m sitting in the living room while my ten-year-old plays Wii MarioKart on a Tuesday when he should be at school but he didn’t make the track team this year so he would’ve been at school playing board games with a substitute teacher while the other kids who DID make the team are up at the track having a grand time running around and cleaning out the concession stand of hot dogs, cotton candy, and ice cream bars so I was like WTH JUST STAY HOME so he did but that means I can’t go downstairs into my shiny new office that smells of books and delicious Bath & BodyWorks candles and finish these last details because then he’s alone and I can’t monitor what he’s watching on YouTube and I am NOT in the mood to describe motor-boating to a ten-year-old although I think his 24-year-old brother may have covered that last summer but leaving him upstairs alone while I disappear into Fantasy Land makes me look like a super-dick mom.
While I was in the shower (I do so much good thinking in the shower, despite our third-world water pressure), I once again revisited a familiar conversation that is never far from my thoughts, gifted by well-meaning folks who don’t understand WHY IN THE WORLD a book I started writing for real in 2009 still isn’t done. The biggest question I get:
“Why would you spend SO much time on one book?”
The better question is:
Sleight started as a short story in 2007. It was the only short story* I finished that didn’t suck rocks during my year with the Writer's Studio via Simon Fraser University (a bonny program, although I learned more about what kind of writer I didn't want to be than the kind of writer I’ve become—it was also the first time since college that I’d given myself guilt-free permission to write instead of listening to the voices in my head from mean people in my life who’d told me for years that writers were losers and I needed to be “more responsible” than wasting my time plunking out words no one would ever read). The early Sleight had a wholly different title and told the story of a 13-year-old girl named Frankie who lived with a circus and had, among her menagerie of circus pets, a frog named Hamlet.
Needless to say, she's changed quite a bit.
In 2011 I self-published a version of the book. It was available for three months, give or take. (There are lots of pirated versions out there, if you’re a jerk and want to steal a book that no longer exists and that I shall earn zero pennies on.) In that same year—and actually, within that same time frame, around March-ish—I gathered my own menagerie of publishing friends, most of whom have gone on to do GREAT things, i.e., published a shit ton of books and made a shit ton of cash and are now doing the convention circuits and book signings and living their dreams. Inspiring, awesome folks, these.
But my dream was a little different, so I made different decisions. WHICH IS SORT OF THE TAKEAWAY HERE, those of you sniffing around the industry or already in the trenches. Everyone’s journey is different. Right? Right. Accept this as your truth now and save yourself heartache later.
An individual at the heart of my dreamy dreams told me the 2010-11 version of the book needed work before he would consider taking me on as a client. So (likely because he was tired of me being a total pest) he referred me to an amazing editor, we retooled the book over the course of ten months (count: three drafts here alone), and in May 2012, we sold it to a major publisher. (People doubt this truth because there was no PW announcement. There will be. Eventually.)
Since then, the book has gone through … a lot. She has been told from virtually every angle; I’ve killed so many darlings and spawned so many new ones; main characters' names have changed (several times) but their hearts have not; the venue has moved south to my home state.
Some stories, though, they fight—they fight the birthing process with everything they have.
Sleight is one of those stories.
Alas in 2014, people far smarter than I am realized we had a problem so we switched gears and started fresh with some added editorial help from a brilliant editor with titles like City of Ember and Seraphina in his stable of clients. Yeah. I KNOW, right?
|Fabulous drawing by Shannon Messenger, author and artist. I know--not fair that she's good at two things, but I LOVE THIS DRAWING. My next tattoo, baby.|
So here I sit, on the brink of finishing yet another draft (this will be #3 in the last 14 months) and she is super heavy and she’s gonna need a super deft hand to trim trim trim, but instead of feeling elation, I’m totally depressed.
I hate finishing drafts.
|OMIGOD JENNIFER STOP WRITING ALREADY|
When I was in the Writer's Studio, our mentor talked about what a dick he is when he’s not writing. At the time, I just felt sorry for his wife who had a toddler and was either expecting a new baby or they had a new baby (I have a hard enough time remembering my own children, I can’t remember everyone else’s too)—I felt sorry for her that she had to deal with the littles all by herself while Writer Husband disappeared into his writerly cave just so he wouldn’t be a pain in the ass to live with.
Now I totally get it. My family knows that I am MUCH HAPPIER when they leave me the hell alone to write. My darling husband can walk in the door and know, just by the tone of my return “hi/hey/hello/growl” if I’ve gotten anything written that day. Let’s just say that some days, he tiptoes up the stairs and helps make dinner without really asking much else, for fear of losing the remaining skin on his face. (I have sharp claws.)
But when I finish a draft, that means I have to leave the world that has become SO MUCH a part of my life in these however many years. I have to leave behind my characters and the elephants and the magic and mayhem I’ve put all these people through. And instead of celebrating with a photo of the last page that says THE END or a LOOK AT WHAT I DID selfie, I mourn. Every single time. With every single draft.
This depression used to last a lot longer. It was bad. I obsessed about hearing back from my agent and editors. And then when I did get the edited manuscript back after six to eight agonizing weeks, it was another bout of wrestling the demons in my head to not give up because I MUST SUCK. (By the way, the latest editorial round came back with over 1200 comments, an eight-page mystery progression “map,” and a four-page editorial letter outlining the project from a bird’s-eye view. From now on, if you whine at me about your two-page editorial letter, I will smack you. Just sayin’.)
Through this whole process, depression included, I wriggled and writhed in the self-doubt and self-loathing that came from feeling inadequate, thoughts like:
“If Person Y and I started at the same time, and she now has 5+ books out and a healthy bank account and everyone loves her and she gets to travel all over the place, then I must be the biggest loser EVER.”
“I’ve been studying writing for years. I must suck if Person X with zero formal training is now buying a yacht, and I am still writing this same book.”
“I must suck if I can’t get this book right. WHO DOES THIS? Oh. Me. I do this.”
That last one … that one hurts the worst. Because no matter what hurtful things anyone on the outside says, the voice in my head is the MEANEST.
And then I get an email from Dan the Agent that says “proud of you,” so after I’m done ugly-crying and wiping the cupcake frosting off my face, I pick up my slobbery self from the crappy IKEA throw rug and I feed the last of the cupcake to the beagle, and I get back to work.
Because this book is one of my children, and I love her so, so much, even if no one understands why the hell I’m doing what I’m doing, and even to that person who actually said to me that “only an idiot” would do this to herself and to all the doubters who think I’m a complete nut job for spending so much time at the circus.
Speaking of doubters, I’ve been assured from both my agent and the executive editor in charge of the project that Sleight will have her day in the sun—and in the meantime, I have had a private, four-year MFA program with three incredibly talented editors.
That’s pretty sweet.
So lads and lasses, if the pen is your calling, don’t despair about what everyone else around you is doing. Yeah, seeing folks buy nice cars and fancy houses and sip tea aboard the London Eye and travel to all the awesome book conventions where all the awesome readers hang out … I GET IT. I wanna be there too. In due time, perhaps—or perhaps not. Who knows. But right now?
Pay for your overnight success with diligence, and find the humility to fix your work and make it as AMAZING as it possibly can be—because honestly, this is your legacy. It is not a race, and readers have long memories.
As my girl Adrienne says to me all the time, “You do you.” Because doing other people is weird and sometimes illegal, unless you’re married or at least dating or if they’ve agreed to replenish your cupcake fund for the next year. Oh. Wait. I don’t think that’s what she meant.
Who wants popcorn?
*My editors are laughing their asses off because they don’t believe that I, Jenn, wrote a SHORT story given that the most recent draft is so far over 100,000 words, we’re going to have to use a chainsaw to rein her in. Me writing a short story is, like, one of those weird anomalies akin to how TIE fighters can’t really fly in the desert because they need a zero-atmosphere environment. Suspension of disbelief here, folks. IT WAS A SHORT STORY.)
|This is baby Gertrude. I sculpted her. Which is miraculous because I am a ridiculously inept artist. Thanks, GareBear, for the help! Sculptor husbands for the win.|
P.S. Local people, Eliza Gordon, aka my alter ego -- her romantic comedies, Must Love Otters and Neurotica, are available at the Chapters in Coquitlam. That was a fun day seeing those babies out in the wild. Watch for Otters 2, Hollie Porter Builds a Raft, in September.
|Notice that sweet Thranduil T-shirt. HOBBIT NERDS UNITE!|
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