“Don’t you ever just, like, want it out there already?”
This question was asked of me by my brother-in-law at a recent family gathering. Over the past couple of years, and his series of inquiries into the current state of my writing journey, I’ve endeavored to explain to him that most novel-length stories are rewritten and revised, often over a period of many years, before they are ready for publication. I appreciate his interest, and he’s evidently begun to grasp what it entails, but I suspect he still thinks I’m hedging.
The question speaks to the anxiousness of those around me. Those who care about me wish for my success. It’s difficult for those who’ve never tried to write one to understand how a successful novel can be so difficult or take so long – particularly if they know a complete draft exists. It’s sort of funny, but in some ways staying patient is more difficult for those who care but who aren’t constantly exposed to the vagaries of the publishing industry, and to constant conversation about the need for diligence and perseverance among writers seeking traditional publication.
I suppose I’ve developed an odd sort of ambivalence about publication. As much as I want it, and as long as I’ve striven for it, I’ve also grown a layer of psychic armor—an emotional shell for my literary ambition to retreat into. If I get to another New Year without a publishing contract on the horizon, it’s no big deal. I’ve already been through several New Year’s Days with the realization that I thought the prior year would be ‘the one’ on the prior New Year’s Day. Why set myself up? It’s really about having grown as an artist in the prior year, right? No idea which manuscript will be ready or when? Ah well. C’est la vie. Check the armor and continue the climb. It’s like a sort of artistic somnambulism.
As much as I hate to mention the phrase, I may be guilty of too tightly embracing the notion of the artist’s journey. It’s not about the destination, but the journey, right? Embrace the moment, love what you’re doing this very day, this very moment. Be diligent, be grateful, continue to learn, to seek. An artist can only be happy if they accept each artistic effort as a step in a never-ending quest.
Well, I have learned a lot. I am grateful. And don’t get me wrong: I love to write. Once I’m into a story, there’s nothing better. I am often perfectly content in the knowledge that I’ve made progress. But getting myself back into a story I’ve already rewritten several times takes no small amount of effort. And in the process of getting there, Resistance (with a capital R) often rears its ugly head. I admit, for a few weeks this past summer, my diligence slid into a slow idle. I knew I had important work to do, but artistically I was sleepwalking through it. I knew my Resistance was just a part of the journey, but my motivation to continue the climb sort of got lost in the clouds on the horizon of that never-ending quest. The darn summit is obscured by the knowledge that it’s only the first of more heights to conquer beyond it.
If you deny the existence of a destination, it’s sort of tough to convince yourself how wonderful it will feel to vigorously climb on.
A Niche of a Niche:
Those of us still seeking our first publishing deal have all seen the warnings. We know that our lives will not be magically changed by having our books published. We know that new trials await us, that life in the world of publishing isn’t always grand, or even fair. We’ve been warned to keep our post-debut aspirations in check.
And seriously, I’ve never been the type to daydream about best-seller lists or book-signing tours. I may write fantasy, but I’m a realist about it. It’s fantasy. When it comes to books, I’m a geek on the fringe, always have been. I’ve never imagined gaining Oprah’s interest or anything. Beside all of that, over the years I’ve come to recognize that my particular style of fantasy (epic historical, closer to alternate history than fantastical world-building) is really a niche of a niche. Like an odd dangling strand of the fringe.
I’ve been so doggedly keeping my expectations in check that over the years I found myself all but unable, or unwilling, to imagine what success might even look like for me.
The View Beyond the Crest:
I think my somewhat jaded outlook is in part due to my unique position here at WU, as a moderator of the group page, and as the former curator of community articles for Writer Inboxed, the former WU newsletter. It’s a bit of a catbird seat, with a fine view of everyone else’s view. I’ve also been blessed with great friendships with many writers who are further along the road of publishing success. Through them I’ve been afforded a glimpse at the road over the publishing crest ahead. I know that there are bumps and ups and downs in that road beyond the debut, even for the most prolific and successful among us.
I honestly consider myself lucky to have been afforded the unique perspective. But I’ve recently decided it’s sort of like looking at someone else’s vacation pictures. As grand and enlightening as they might be, there are no pictures anyone else can share that will compare to standing atop the summit, and taking in the view for myself.
As the title of this essay might imply, I’ve recently allowed myself to dare to dream again. Something awoke in me, and you’ll probably never guess what prodded the waking. So I’ll tell you. Fan art.
Yep, an artistic rendering of a character, by a fan. I’d recently finished The Mistborn Trilogy, by Brandon Sanderson, and a link to a related article on Tor.com popped up in my Facebook news feed. The link’s thumbnail featured a picture of my favorite character from the series, Vin (by artist Sam Weber). And even though the link didn’t identify her specifically, I immediately knew who it was. The fact that she wears a very distinctive type of tasseled cloak may have tipped me off, but it still seemed really cool to me. There on my screen was Vin, almost exactly as I envisioned her; as another writer described her, and as yet another artist wrought her in two-dimensions; in living color, as they used to say in TV ads back in the day.
I’d seen fan art collections before. They’re fairly common in the fantasy fiction world. Some of it is quite stunning, by brilliant visual artists. But I thought about the picture all that morning. The author of that work inspired that artist’s effort. These talented visual artists have not only read and enjoyed the books, they’ve evidently connected with them. Connected so completely that they are compelled to use their talent as an expression of what they feel, as a manifestation of connection.
The Art of Making It:
I am long out of practice, and have no aptitude left for drawing or painting, but I remember the compulsion. I remember filling notebooks as a tween with pencil drawings of story and comic book characters; warrior-women and Vikings, hobbits and elves. It’s definitely a labor of love. I remember wanting stories to go on, to further explore their worlds; wanting to somehow be a part of them, or to better define and convey how they are a part of me.
When I saw that picture of Vin, so perfectly rendered, I went on to spend over an hour looking at fan art, first from the Mistborn series, then from other favorites. There are vibrant fan art collections and communities for the fictional worlds of Robin Hobb, Jacqueline Carey, Patrick Rothfuss, and George RR Martin, to name a few. And I’m sure such artworks exist in other genres, as well.
As I surfed the fan art links I remembered something I’d forgotten, about myself and why I do this. And through that memory I realized what making it as a writer looked like for me. It looks like someone’s earnest artistic rendering of a beloved character or story element. And it feels like an understanding of the reason for the effort of that rendering—how it’s born of human connection. This is what it’s all about, and what I’d forgotten. I can only imagine how thrilled I’d be to have someone use their talent to produce art inspired by my story world—to use their creativity to express their appreciation for mine. And that day, seeing Vin, I found I am pretty darn excited by imagining it. It rekindled my motivation.
I remembered. I’m awake again as an artist. Creating that kind of connection is worthy of my ongoing effort. It’s worthy of my daring to dream.
How about you? How do you keep your dreams alive? How will you (or do you) define having “made it”? Is Oprah involved? Has your work ever inspired another artist? If so, does it feel as awesome as I imagine? (No wait, don’t tell me. It’s more fun to imagine it.)