“Encumbered by idjits, we pressed on.” – John Fusco, Young Guns II
We’ve been talking lately here on Writer Unboxed about coping with our devastating self-doubts as writers and, by contrast, our unreal expectations of the publishing industry. We writers often find ourselves swinging from one end of the spectrum to the other, from the Self-Loathing Phase of Revision, to our secret (or not-secret) Delusions of Grandeur, and back again.
It’s so easy in today’s publishing environment to panic. We read about the burden of self-marketing that falls on modern writers and worry that we’re not marketers. We’re told to use log-lines in queries in one place, and someplace else tells us never to use log-lines. We see “best seller” crop up on the blogs of authors we’ve never heard of and wonder why we’re not best sellers.
We hear that traditional publishing is dead, self-publishing is where it’s at, but when we self-publish our novels the silence is deafening.
And we eventually cry out, in the words of the hapless Gussie Fink-Nottle, “Stop, stop! It’s complete gibberish! What does it all mean?”
It just means we’ve lost sight of the game.
The game of art. The game of craft. The glorious, luxurious, mesmerizing game of creation.
When I’m working on one of my novels, I carry around a briefcase-sized bag of notebooks wherever I go, from my office to the kitchen to the living room. At some point near the end of the first draft, when I’m starting to over-use certain aspects of the story and have completely forgotten others, I sit down and read through all of my notes (hours of reading) and write up fresh notes on bits and pieces of the story I haven’t yet employed, rediscovering plot threads I’ve considered and having epiphanies about how they all weave together.
“Hmmm. If Rupert were dying of lupus, then I could use Flannery O’Connor’s crutches as an authentic detail, because I know a lot about Flannery O’Connor and almost nothing about lupus. Also, that would mean Isabella could spend a lot of time with her arms around him helping him walk and caring for him, and there would be plenty of opportunity for showing the tenderness and wit between them. That’d be great fun to write. And there would be all that terrific potential for subtext when Rupert gets sick of being babied and hot-head Isabella starts getting worn-out from the constant stress, because of course lupus can last for years, and that would give them both gripping internal conflict between their love for each other and their exhaustion and short temper. . .
“But wait a minute! Lupus is a hereditary disease! Rupert wouldn’t be taken by surprise learning he has it. Good grief. He’d know which of his parents or even grandparents had died of it. Which means he’d have taken measures long ago to have Maggie declared his rightful heir, just in case. Which means Isabella would already know about Maggie’s existence, long before the Climax. Which would completely alter my premise. . .Hey, I wonder if it would be more exciting for Isabella to already know about Maggie but have issues with her, complicating the inheritance of Rupert’s throne? That could be rich material.”
Oh, such wonderful fun—exploring the nearly endless potential of a storyline! I go through my notebooks ripping out pages to sort my notes into categories so I can refer to them more easily. I do it over and over, every time I come to the end of a draft, re-reading my notes and filling new notebooks, until I know I’ve delved into every fascinating aspect of this one story, used every single detail and subplot I mean to use.
The secret design inside it all.
Then when I have some first draft stuff written and I’m sick of my notes, all I want to do is sit down with a stack of manuscript and a black pen:
heavy wooden door opened with a deafening bang banged against the giant tapestry with unicorns among pine trees by a lake on the wall unicorn tapestry in the corner, and Maggie stood silhouetted in the doorway against the light, her face swollen red and running wet with tears. “Daddy?”
Rupert dropped his crutches and staggered
haltingly across the room, the weight of his royal purple robes tangling his feet legs, his arms outstretched. “ My daughterMaggie.” His voice caught in his throat as she ran toward him. “ MaggieMy daughter.”
“Who?” Isabella rose from the low couch
in shock, wringing her hands in front of her pale blue gown, her face pale. “Your what?”
Oh, line-editing—such a delicate, mesmerizing task. I can keep it up for days, weeks, months. Sometimes years.
And this is why I write: because I love my darn notebooks. I love line-editing my drafts. I love my characters and their desperate, fierce, hapless struggles to free themselves from the disasters they’re constantly bringing down upon their own heads.
I love writing fiction.
Sometimes the idjits with which we’re encumbered are the doubts that torment us, the terrible, sickening fears that our writing will never be good enough. And sometimes the idjits are the absurd, overblown hopes that mislead us, the expectations of impossible fame when all our talented and dedicated friends are barely getting published or maybe not even that.
Sometimes the idjits in this line of work are other people, it’s true. But more often than not they’re us.
So what do we do about it?
What else can we do?
We press on.
Photo courtesy Flickr’s Daniel Y. Go