Third Time’s the Charm?

Today I wrote the third version of the few pages that mark the beginning of a new phase of my book. The first version got okay feedback, but I and my fellow writers agreed the voice wasn’t quite right.

So I wrote it for a second time. I changed the voice and changed the tone in a way I thought would sound more personal. I put in some new, clever stuff as well. Satisfied, I stuffed the stapled pages into my backpack and brought them to the group.

They hated it.

I wasn’t even surprised–by the time I finished reading the section out loud, I knew it wasn’t working. What had escaped me at the keyboard became obvious to my ears. I hadn’t just failed to improve it; I’d made it much worse.

So today I wrote a third draft. It’s different from the first two; it doesn’t try to cover as much and it’s definitely more personal. (Cried while writing it, which is usually a good sign I’m being authentic.) But I have no idea whether it works or not.

What’s really hard is that I haven’t got a plan for what to do if this isn’t better. I’m pretty sure I’ll need to put it aside for a while and try to work on another section, but I don’t want to. I want to be happy with this piece before I do later ones.

And I want a pony.

First Principles

What helps me when I get overwhelmed by my writing projects, or by life in general? Sometimes nothing…I get to be overwhelmed for a while. I do mindless things, try very hard to choose mindless things that are not self-destructive, and generally buy time until the intensity of the feeling passes.

But when the overwhelm is about my books, it helps if I can go back to what I call my first principles: Why am I working on these projects? What is my duty in regards to them? Do I understand that I am not in control of how they are received when the time comes to send them out? Am I willing to do my best, with no guarantee that they will be published or widely read? Am I willing to resist comparisons and fight insecurity when I hear of fellow writers’ productivity, networking and other successes?

The insight I had (and was questioning) about the structure of my nonfiction book has crystallized into an updated plan. This is exciting, and it’s making me more connected to the book’s arc…which, in turn, sends my mind into the future where the book’s a book and I’m querying agents et cætera. This is not the time for those thoughts. Maybe some writers can do it, but I know I need to concentrate on getting a draft of the book done.

I’m not trying to seal off any knowledge of or respect for the realities of the publishing industry. I’ll continue to get feedback from other writers, but right now I know I’ll hamstring my creativity if I try too hard to write for anyone but me and the people I’d like to help.

Oh, No! Not Perspective!

Don’t make me be aware of how gigantic and complicated the world of writing is! Let me stay in my little bubble of blogs and local poetry readings!

This week I’m trying out a new submissions tracker online. You can use a lot of filters to search for publishers or agents that accept the things you want to send out. I decided to look into it because they really keep their listings current–when I used books, I’d often go to a publication’s website to find they didn’t exist any more or hadn’t accepted new material in years. The tracker also has stats on things like average response time.

I’ve really done very little submitting to non-local things, and I want to change that. But I have to admit it’s intimidating to read some of these sites. I have a tendency to look at whatever I am thinking of sending them and think “nah, they’d never want this.” Especially the heavier literary sites. I suspect some of the guidelines are written in such a way as to discourage as many people as possible from adding to their undoubtedly huge slush pile.

But submitting is not just emotionally intimidating, it’s a pain in the ass too when you’re a newbie. Many publications only accept submissions electronically these days through an engine like Submittable. It’s not too bad once you get used to it. However, they don’t all use that. Some want you to set up an account on their very own server just to do a one-time submission. And everyone wants you to tweak your files in a different way.

And then there are submission fees. They usually run about $3, except for contests and book-length works. It’s an amount designed to feel like no big deal, but they add up! I’ve heard an author brag that she never, ever submits anywhere that has fees–well, that leaves the majority out. She can afford to be picky now that she’s well-known, but…at any rate, I’m budgeting to do about 8 submissions a month. It’s what I can afford.

It’s always overwhelming being the new kid at school. On the bright side, it’s a role I’ve played many, many times. I’d like to think I’ve become more comfortable with it. Or at least comfortable with being uncomfortable, if you know what I mean.

Now That You Mention It…

The other day an old friend asked me about my writing. We hadn’t seen each other in many months, so a lot had happened. As you can imagine, I was off like a shot, talking about progress on the nonfiction book project.

“Sorry,” I said sheepishly, five or ten minutes later. “I’m going on and on, aren’t I? It’s just occupying a lot of my brain lately.”

She smiled. “No, it’s interesting.”

I believe it is interesting to her–but even if it weren’t, it would probably be hard not to at least start chattering about it. It runs so close to the surface these days. Last month I met a friend-of-a-friend at a party and ended up rhapsodizing at length. Again, he seemed interested, but was he just being polite? I can’t be sure; I’m biased.

Truth is, I don’t want to restrain my enthusiasm about my writing projects. I feel like they’re the most distinctive thing about me at this stage in my life. And they represent what I have to give in terms of outreach to the addiction and mental health communities.

So yeah, it’s going to come up when you talk to me for any length of time. It’s inevitable. Your only hope is to steer the conversation to specific topics and not ask open-ended questions.

Tear It Apart

So I’ve written something. Do I have the guts to rip it apart and put it together a new way? Or more than one new way?

The workshop I went to a few days ago talked about this. It was interesting to hear–although I’ve read a lot about revising poems, I’m not as exposed to writers talking about how to revise a short story or book. Joshua Mohr, the instructor, wasn’t shy about suggesting big changes instead of just small ones.

Chop out the first 600 words of this scene and start here instead. Move this scene and do this other scene first, then put in some of the first scene with suitable alterations. Shuffle the chapter order in your book. Cut a chapter that no longer fits with the arc of your story. Take the whole damn piece and rewrite it in a different voice.

I notice that, even when I’m excited about the possibilities a change has, I’m resistant to some of the big ones. One reason is I cling to the version that exists because it’s been around long enough to be my baby. To change it, I have to say goodbye to the previous version–or at least shove it into a smaller area of my brain to make room for the new one.

Perfectly normal. But the other reason change is hard for me is one that’s more problematic: it’s an attitude of scarcity.

Wait, I spent time and effort writing this. Maybe every word was an ordeal if I wasn’t in a good place at the time. If I rewrite a scene, or drop it completely, all that effort has been wasted! Oh no!

This flawed logic leads me farther into the land of scarcity: I only have a certain amount of time, strength, focus. I have a limited amount of words in me! If I don’t use every single one I manage to squeeze out, I’ll never write the things I want to write!

Unsurprisingly, I don’t write very well when I have this attitude. Nor do I enjoy it very much. My first book’s an intimidating project, but I must make room for the happy preschooler with her scissors and paste.

Cinderella

I spent yesterday in a fairy-tale world, feasting on delicacies and dancing with handsome princes and princesses. But the ball had to end, and I departed without leaving so much as a shoe behind.

Okay, so it was really a one-day writing workshop at the office of ZYZZYVA magazine in San Francisco. They accepted my piece for the event, and I’d promised myself that if I got in I’d go. So I did.

I call it a fairy-tale world because it’s so unknown to me; I had never been to that type of workshop before. I compare it to the ball because I associate it with having more money than I have; the cost was such that I don’t expect to be able to do such a thing again any time soon. Let’s just say I got my Christmas present early this year.

I enjoyed myself very much. The author who led it, Joshua Mohr, had insightful things to say about writing personal narrative. Here’s a distillation of what I feel was the most valuable reminder for me as I work on my book:

When you write a narrative that’s about yourself, you still need to treat the “you” in the story like a character. You need to pay attention to the same things you’d look at when working with a fictional character you’re creating: Are they interesting? What am I doing to let the reader get invested in them and want to know more? Is it clear what they want, or think they want? What are their obstacles, internal and external? Am I building complexity; giving the reader new perspective on them with every scene? Do I avoid either idealizing or demonizing them?

This kind of perspective will help me as I make choices about the structure of my book: order of chapters, what to keep and what to cut, and what isn’t written yet but needs to be.

I’m aware of a part of me that feels envious when I think of how many workshops and classes some of my fellow writers go to, or that focuses on my wistful desire to be someone who can do the same (or, for that matter, who can submit a ton of stuff without worrying about how those submission fees will add up.)

But that’s my baggage talking. It’s understandable that I want these things, but focusing on what I don’t have is toxic. I create things when I am focused on what I do have, what I truly want, and what I can do to move closer to it.

The Deadly Reflex

Have you ever won something, or been chosen for something, and immediately started playing a negative tape in your head about it? Coming up with reasons it’s no big deal instead of just being happy and honored?

Two weeks ago I sent out a piece applying for a narrative writing workshop. I thought getting in was pretty unlikely, but decided to give it a shot. Well, I’m in.

Any bets on how many seconds it took that part of my brain to go from joy to rationalization?

They must not have received many submissions. The submission process was probably just a marketing ploy to make the workshop seem more exclusive and therefore more desirable. They’re really taking anyone who is willing to pay the fee.

It has to be something like that, right? Surely they couldn’t have really liked my writing and chosen it over some actual competition?

Yeah, I do this. When I won a couple of prizes in a local poetry contest last winter, I told myself the contest must have had very few entries. When I shared the happy news that one of my poems was accepted for a gallery show project, I always emphasized that it was a small gallery!

The weird thing is, not all of me is this way. I’m capable of the opposite. I can admit that I really like how I write; that I think it’s good. (And why not? Of course I like my own style, and work toward improving it in ways that make me like it even more. It’s mine.)

But that other voice is eager to chime in, and I need to recognize it. “Oh, you again. Hi. Uh-huh. Really. All right, you’ve had your say, now fuck off.”