I just posted on Facebook a brief little update that went something like this…
What the heck is my deal? Why is it taking so long for me to get books written and out the door for readers to devour?
The complete answer is that it has to do with me and that it’s complicated. And yes, that’s pretty much what I wrote on the Facebook post as an answer.
But what the heck does that mean? Did my creativity dry up? Have I run out of stories?
Then what gives, Ellie Mae? Why aren’t you writing those stories and getting them out the door?
Okay, fine I’ll give you the truth, because really, what do I have to lose at this point?
Not a durn thing.
Agreed. So here goes…
Back in the mid-90s I was dared to write a book. More specifically, a friend dared me to write a book that was better than the one I was complaining about. Not being one to turn away from a challenge, I accepted the dare and the offer from the friend’s wife (who volunteered to co-author a novel with me) then started studying the craft–writing craft, that is. At the time, I was an undergraduate student and had access to an awesome university library that had more than enough literary and scholastic material in it to fertilize my already over active imagination. It didn’t take long before I was hooked on writing–and no, before this event I never had the idea that I would (or even could) enjoy the act of writing fiction. But I did and actually, in hindsight, it was a natural extension of my love of reading.
So that first book got written. In a short time. (I’m thinking it was done in less than 2 months.) Was it perfect and salable? No. But–like many authors out there can tell you–it was a first book which was a huge learning curve and its function was just that… as a learning experience.
After that book was completed, I was ready to start working on more books, because (like I said) I had a slew of ideas pouring in to me after I spent so much time in the library stacks immersed in dry history books that were begging to come to life in my imagination. So, like a good little writer, I went back to the keyboard and started working on the next book. (This time, I went at it solo–which worked better for me as a person since I’m about as introvert as they come.) I was maybe three chapters into the new book, when suddenly a secondary character in that one came to life for me and… zooooooom, I scrambled to open a new document in Word then wrote 23 chapters of the secondary characters story in about 15 days.
Okay, now let’s get some perspective here. 23 chapters in 15 days.
Did I sleep? Yes, it was required because the story was one long dream where each “nap” I took gave me new scenes for the book.
Did I eat? A little.
Was I working? A part time job. (Can you say waitress and pizza delivery driver? Yep, that was me.)
Was I going to school? Yes.
What did these 23 chapters look like? 108,000 words, over 400 pages.
How about from a story structure perspective? Was there a plot structure to it or was there just a one thing leads into another? Nope, there was a plot structure and looking at the 108K manuscript now those 23 chapters take the protagonist all the way through to the 95% mark of the plot structure. (Now for the big question…)
Why didn’t I finish it? The simple truth: Because I didn’t know how to end it and be (or rather, stay) true to the characters. The complicated truth: Because I got confused and yes this is where the real nuts and bolts of today’s blog post start…
How in the world could I get confused about a story that I dreamt up and wrote in a short period of time? I mean, wouldn’t that be nearly impossible? You’d think that’d be the case, but I fell into a scenario that is encouraged for most newbie authors… that
trap scenario: Critique Partners and Writer Groups.
First, let me say that both writer groups and critique partners are a great invention. They really are. They can give great feedback and they can really push a writer to the next level. That is, IF (and yes that is a HUGE “IF”) those writer groups and critique partners (CPs) know what the heck they’re talking about and have the presence of mind to think outside
the book and their ego and the writing craft the box when needed.
So what happened? *chuckle-snort* I sent the first few chapters of the new book to the critique partners. They hated (HATED) it. Gutted it. Wanted the beginning shortened. Said I gave away the conflict. That I didn’t have enough conflict to carry the story through to completion. Said that it was drivel. It took too long to get to the action. And then one CP in particular picked up the phone to call and yell at me that I didn’t know conflict. Yeah, I know what you’re thinking. There’s no way that CP yelled at her–but it’s true, she YELLED like I was one of her errant children refusing to clean her bedroom or take a bath.
So what did I do? I tried to edit the book, but couldn’t. It would have totally changed the characters. So what did I do? I asked a non-writer (aka, a reader) to read the story (with the promise that I’d tell them my idea for the ending if they could make it that far). That reader’s response? In less than 48 hours, I received a frantic phone call–I have to know what happened at the end of the book. I have to know who did what and I need to know NOW! Does that mean you liked it, I asked. Liked it, they asked in a high squeaky voice. I LOVED IT–when is it getting published?
That was great to hear, but silly me (being a scientist in training at the time) had to go and get more empirical data. So what did I do? I submitted some of this work to a new set of critique partners and another round of readers. Response: Writers HATED it and Readers LOVED it and wanted more. Not to be a slouch in the gathering more empirical data department… I repeated that experiment several times over the next few years (ahem, can we say decade?) and damn if I didn’t get the same response from both readers and writers. And when I say “readers”, I’m not saying I just gave it to family members. Oh no, I gave it to females and males to read. People who didn’t have a vested interest in my overall happy demeanor. Heck, I even handed that manuscript to soldiers and said… I know this isn’t something you normally read, but I’d really like to know your opinion on it. And they liked it–wanted more. Was I shocked? Yes. Confused? YES. Very, very confused.
How was I suppose to really step into my own as a writer to claim my spot as a writer who understands craft and can put together a story that readers find enjoyable if I can’t even get the first chapter past a critique group? How am I supposed to be able to publish an enjoyable book if after I revised the first chapter to this story (according to suggestions from CPs) I then hand it to readers who now say… “yeah, that’s nice but I couldn’t get into it or I much preferred the original version”? What was I missing? What was I doing wrong? Why couldn’t I get both sides to work together and enjoy the story for the sake of the story?
The answer: There’s no way I could get both sides to agree on what made this story work. Why? Because, in general, writers have been taught that every story needs to hit the ground running–that readers want to see action right away–that readers value their time so much that they don’t have the luxury of waiting for the other shoe to drop… they need and expect gratification right now! Or something like that.
Then there was the “yelling CP’s” perspective that I didn’t put enough conflict in this story or that I gave it away in chapter 4–to that, I can now say Pshaw– Conflict is not always External–sometimes it’s way more important to have internal conflict with characters who are true to who they are and are trying to figure out how to navigate through life without changing than it is to see one fight or argument or arch villain thwarting the day scene after the other. That’s how you engage the readers–that’s how you bring suspense to the page–and yes this all my opinion, but what reader (or movie watcher) is going to care about a character if all they’re reading is a verbal tennis match that neither side of the tennis court really cares about? I mean, who likes to see arguing for the sake of argument? (Okay, so I fully admit that I have met people who enjoy to argue (they call it debate) for the sake of arguing, but does it float my boat? Not in the least.)
Now before I go and wrap this novella of a blog post up with a “lessons learned, the world has been righted, blah-blah” sort of snippet, I have to tell y’all… this conundrum of what to do with this story has bugged me since the mid-90s. Not being able to answer the simple question of what to do to make the story better or what did I do wrong or why can’t I see where the conflict was given away… la, all those questions, totally undermined my confidence as a writer. Heck, as a person. It made me so unsure of myself that I stopped actively writing and started studying the craft, because if CPs couldn’t tell me what was wrong with and, more importantly, how to fix it, then maybe studying the writing books could help me cop a clue.
Of course that didn’t help, but I did learn a helluvalot about the fine art of writing a well crafted story from a structural point of view. Hell, I’ve probably studied enough about writing to put together a dissertation to get a PhD from it, but eh, whatever, I learned and that’s what was important.
Was this writer’s block? No, it was confusion–plain and simple. I was confused and couldn’t figure out which way to go. Couldn’t figure out how to appease both sides of the fence. Figured there must be something wrong with me, that I had flawed thinking, or a flawed perspective on what constitutes a good book.
Then this summer happened. And before that, the past two years happened. What’s so important about that? In a nutshell, I started studying (on my own) life coaching techniques, motivational coaches, philosophy, psychology, and the human condition. I spent a good bit of time speaking to individuals about their fears and dreams and conflicts and what motivates them and… slowly, I began to understand my own philosophy on life and about taking ownership of the things you think, do, and believe.
Then I looked at the law of attraction to see how the things you attract come into your life and why is that? What is the impetus for making things be attracted into your life? What does it take to release a fear? How do you own your life? Who’s really in charge of your life? What are the real reasons why we sabotage ourselves when things are going our way or not our way or…la, the list goes on and just when you think I couldn’t be anymore distracted, I started using this new found knowledge with writing. I worked with a small group of creative individuals and listened as they described their dreams, hopes, and desires then listened as they described in vivid detail what conflicts or obstacles prevented them from finding the presence of mind to function in their busy life and find time to “be creative and express themselves as writers”. I listened to their story ideas and read their drafts and helped them find who their characters really are.
And somewhere along the way… I found me. The lost writer within me who’d gone into hiding because she’d been yelled at by a critique partner and encountered several other writers who HATED the story she loved so much.
Once found, I needed time to spend with myself to really come to grips with who I am as a person and a writer–in all my many different forms. I’ve never been a niche driven person (explains why I have so many different stories in so many different genres). I’ve never been a person who strives to be good at one thing, but someone who strives to be good at whatever task she sets out to accomplish (the more tasks, the better). But more than that, every task I set out to tackle, it’s all about learning. I love to learn new things. I’m like a sponge, one of those crazy people who could spend all their life in school just learning–because it’s what floats my boat and keeps me from getting (dangerously) bored. (Case and point, I took a job working in microbiology–a subject I previously despised with a passion–and conquered it; now, I’m in a graduate program getting my masters in… *smote the forehead* microbiology while I’m prepping to pass a SAS programming certification exam. Come on, what kind of person is into this kind of geeky pain and frustration? Not a sane one, but back to the point…) So this summer, I spent time not going to school, but immersed in life as it is. And got to know me. And my writer self.
Then something happened last week. A miracle, a blessing, an epiphany, a… whatever the heck it was, I was finally ready for it. A conversation with a writer friend. A conversation that tugged at the core of my writing angst… then lead me back to that original manuscript and my emotional angst that was wrapped up all around it. That writer friend had never heard of or read this manuscript and she requested that I send it to her to read–for (hopefully) a different opinion. Later that evening, I mentioned to a reader (who’d previously read the manuscript and loved it to the point that she’s still nagging me to get it published with a lengthy acknowledgement that cites her as the ass-kicking-driving-force-who-made-Ellie Mae-finish-writing-this-book) that a fellow writer had requested the manuscript to read… and the lines of battle were drawn, bringing me back around to the beginning of my writer’s conundrum.
And what do I do when faced with a conundrum of epic proportions? I journal. A lot. (Until I work out the problem or give up and face a life of alcoholism–which is already an impossibility because I really don’t like the taste of alcohol and given the choice between a soda and a beer, I’ll opt for the soda every time–unless said soda is diet, in that case, I’ll opt for dehydration and wait for the clouds to form and a thunderstorm to quench my thirst.) But thankfully, alcoholism wasn’t on the menu that night.
I journaled about that original manuscript and the characters and how to end the story and what the hangup was and… holy crap, I discovered that I’d been stopping myself from editing the manuscript to incorporate other writers’ suggestions because it would have impacted the characters in such a way that they would no longer be true to who they are. And if I can’t even bring myself to make other people act in a way that would make them untrue to who they are at their core, then how the heck could I do that to a character? Simple answer–I can’t.
So what did this mean? It meant I finally had found my voice–you know, the one who could stand up and defend what I wrote. To defend a character. To defend my writing. More than that, I could now defend it from a logical–unemotional–perspective. Because I-GOT-IT.
I now understand what the heck is going on and where I went wrong in chapter 23 of that book.
I now understand what icky internal conflict the heroine has to cope with and how she has to traverse it and how the shades of grey world she walks can’t always fit into black or white lines.
And now I understand why I saw the ending in that dream so many years ago the way I saw it… because it’s the way it has to be–the way that it is, but how it wasn’t at the time what that character wanted me to see, because it is… icky and sticky, but sadly the only answer to a difficult situation.
This was the best thing that could have happened to me… especially given that yesterday, I checked in with the writer friend reading the manuscript–not surprising, she suggested pretty much the same thing that every other writer has mentioned about this manuscript since the beginning of time. And no, I didn’t get ugly, but something really interesting happened… you know all that knowledge I gained by spending years studying the writing craft? Well, that stuff snapped together in my mind and, along with the epiphany from the journal entry, I defended why the opening of the story was set the way it was and then explained that if I did what she suggested that I’d wind up confusing the readers about who the hero and heroine of this story are–and we all hate being confused and after being confused about this damn story for over a decade, there’s no damn way in hell that I’m going to propagate anymore confusion… so yeah, I suggested that the writer stop making comments in the first chapter and pretend she’s a reader and read the whole book before making comments… which brought about another amazing thing…
The emotional wad of cotton blocking my writing from pouring out… it shifted and suddenly I saw the endings and middles and beginnings to another old manuscript–one written shortly after the one mentioned in this post. Then another sliver of cotton slid out and I saw more of what’s going on with the stories I spent this summer plotting and then… I checked my email and saw notes from readers who were asking about the next books and… then I sat my butt down at the computer and wrote this blog post.
Am I out of the woods, yet? Not totally. I still have to write the ending to the 108K word monster. But I will, because I can now. And it needs to be cleaned up–some minor writing craft edits. Then I have to decide what to do with it. I did get a request from a NY editor and an agent for it (which isn’t surprising since it was pitched in passing discussion as a Regency ninja story, lol)… but I’m not sure that’s who needs it. Because as my good friend Qwillia Rain pointed out to me last night… in the big scheme of things, editors and agents fall into the category of “writers” and since this book has been blasted by writers, but loved by the few readers it’s had… I should consider skipping the editor/agent thing and letting the readers have it.
I haven’t made my decision yet, but regardless, the bottom line here… and the thing which I am most grateful for… I found a way out of hell and rediscovered my writer self along the way.
Now with some hard work and focus, I’ll drag my ass back on track and get this crazy train rolling toward my dream goal–to be the most prolific writer of “entertaining as hell” fiction this century has ever seen.
(And you better believe that title will be mine… oh yeah… it will soooooo be mine. Mwahahahahahahahahaha!)