A.S. King and Subjectivity

Growing up, my reading tastes were somewhat pedestrian. In other words, if I really, really loved a book, chances were, it was already pretty popular. I liked some books, especially genre books, that weren’t to everyone’s taste, but if I adored a book, I felt confident recommending it and having it well received.

Obviously, by now, I’ve read several books that land on my favorites list—because for whatever personal reason to me, that book is extra special—but I already know not everyone will love it. (Winter’s Tale is one of those; I think it’s completely great, but know basically no else who has read it, let alone likes it, and the vast majority of my YA reading community wouldn’t care for it.)

One of the first times I was surprised by this revelation was reading A.S. King, specifically, Everybody Sees the Ants. Sometimes I would stop reading because sentences would startle me. They were so smartly placed, so plain and raw and lovely. I quickly read Please Ignore Vera Dietz, Ask the Passengers, and waited patiently to read Reality Boy. Today I finished her latest, Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future. 

glory

The thing is, nobody, nobody weaves magic into reality as well as she does (magical realism, get it?). I just—every time, I think she’s brilliant. And in a world of John Green and Rainbow Rowell, I could not understand why her books weren’t totally flying off the shelves. Don’t get me wrong, she’s still a successful and respected author (Please Ignore Vera Dietz was a Printz Honor), but she’s not as wildly and commercially popular as some of her contemporaries, and at first I genuinely did not get people who didn’t get A.S. King.

Anyway, it also took King a lot of years and a lot of books to get published, and I had the sudden thought of, “That must have been really hard, but hallelujah, she didn’t try to write something more mainstream or trendy.”

We all know publishing is subjective (which, by the way, does not mean arbitrary; hard work and talent still applies here), but I wonder if we remember that when we’re dreaming of our seven-figure book deals. You may have to let go of your dream of being the next Harry Potter, because it might be that your Ideal Reader, the one that will say, “My god, this book was written for me,” is in the minority. Even if the book in your heart is destined to make mad, sappy brain-love with a group of people too small to bump you onto the NYT bestseller list, don’t throw it in the trash for a hook. Readers respond to sincerity, to emotional truth, not to hooks. How many “quiet” books have taken off because readers (not big marketing budgets) love it?

True, publishing can be a little mercenary in that it prefers novels that appeal to a wide group of readers rather than novels that appeal to only a few. But before you ditch the quirky “quiet” book for a young adult love-triangle-story with probably-some-magic-of-some-sort, be persistent, wait for that agent or that editor who will catch a whiff of that emotional resonance, be excited about it, and get it published. (If the story of your heart is the YA love story with magic, then hurray!, you already have mass appeal.) Maybe someday someone will run around waving your book saying, “Read this! Why doesn’t everyone love it already?!”

By the way, go read A.S. King. I don’t know why everyone doesn’t love her already.

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Envy

I’ve gone to quite a few lectures and panels and classes taught by skilled writers, publishers, and editors. Always, if they open up for questions, I ask them this: “What’s one thing you would do differently?” and “What’s one thing you’re still glad you did?”

One of my favorite answers came from Sara Zarr, during an intimate, 7-person bootcamp. She said: “Well, I don’t really regret any part of my journey because it was part of getting me to where I am now, but I do wish I would have relaxed—and not worried that people younger than me were getting book deals, or people in the same place as me were getting better book deals, or making more sales, or whatever.”

Good advice for us all. Envy is a vocational hazard for most writers. I think this is because it’s so competitive (second most competitive career in the country, no lie), and the reason it’s so competitive because there are not enough readers to go around. You can’t say, “There’s room for everyone to succeed!” because it’s not true. Really good writing is often rejected because there’s no space on the market. Limitation breeds envy.

But it’s hard, right? All I’ve ever wanted is to be one of the most brilliant writers in the world (cough). Thanks to Twitter, I now know I’m not even one of the most brilliant writers in my small community.

I saw this on Humans of New York a few days ago:

"I’m always checking the Wikipedia pages of my idols to see where they were at my age."

“I’m always checking the Wikipedia pages of my idols to see where they were at my age.”

I was so delighted! I thought I was the only one who did this. Of course, I only do it with writers I admire, but the point is still there. It’s a fever, a madness. I see a new book hit the lists and I go straight to the author’s website, seeing if they’re young or old, my age or even—crap!—younger.

Anne Lamott has said: “Jealousy is such a direct attack on whatever measure of confidence you’ve been able to muster. But if you continue to write, you are probably going to have to deal with it, because some wonderful, dazzling successes are going to happen for some of the most awful, angry, undeserving writers you know—people who are, in other words, not you.”

Envy—comparing, festering—sucks. Literally. It sucks the joy right out of writing, taking what we loved about it and souring it. And there’s something inherently chilly about a feeling that is dependent on another’s misery and failure.

But the root of envy is often desire—we want to accomplish something—and how do you be a writer without desire? That same feeling that leads you to send a manuscript out to be rejected again and again, that same feeling that urges you to write another book, is the same source of what makes us jealous.

(I’m about to quote “The Lego Movie.” Just thought I’d brace everyone.)

The main prophecy, part of the repeated theme of the movie, is the claim: “You are the most talented, most interesting, and most extraordinary person in the universe.”

And this got to me, because isn’t this sort of what we all want, just a tiny, tiny bit?

I read this story in the New Yorker, about a woman who says to the writer of the article, unabashed, “I want to be a star.” What awed this writer was not that she wanted to be a star—didn’t we all?—but that she’d say so, flat out. “I thought if you had the gumption to say what you wanted, you’d probably have the nerve to get it. And I was, in fact, impressed by her desire. Most of us wanted the same thing, but we tried not to know it. Such grand wants exact a price. Better to content oneself with the small success.”

Here’s what I think. I think it’s fine—even good—to want to write something brilliant. To be, as it were, a brilliant writer. But often we confuse the desire to write with the desire to be validated in our efforts.

The spiritual teacher Krishnamurti once told his students, “We want to be famous as a writer, as a poet, as a painter, as a politician, as a singer, or what you will. Why? Because we really don’t love what we are doing. If you loved to sing, or to paint, or to write poems – if you really loved it – you would not be concerned with whether you are famous or not. Our present education is rotten because it teaches us to love success and not what we are doing. The result has become more important than the action.”

In 2006, a public school teacher had her students write letters to famous authors, asking their advice on the arts. This is the response Kurt Vonnegut sent back:

vonnegut

You have experienced becoming! Isn’t that fantastic?

So go—be a brilliant writer! Have the gumption to demand to be an artist. Go make your soul grow! Write an awesome poem about envy, then tear it up and let it fly.

Part One: Take Yourself Seriously

quote-i-think-you-should-take-your-job-seriously-but-not-yourself-that-is-the-best-combination-judi-dench-49405

This is a two part blog post. Part one is “Take Yourself Seriously,” followed by its counterpart: “Calm the Crap Down.” Both are important and I think highlight one very important truth to the writing business, that there is never a singular right answer or way of doing things.

I want to start by posing the same question Elizabeth Gilbert posed on her Facebook page a week or so back.

What are you willing to give up in order to have what you really want?

Gilbert says, “A great teacher I knew once asked me that, and it felt like the world stopped for a minute, and all the birds ceased their singing, and every car on the highway paused and the universe just looked at me and said, ‘Well, lady? Your answer?’”

It’s easy to like writing. It’s easy to say, I want to be a writer. But how seriously are you taking your desire? Do you really believe this is a viable career for you—or deep down do you already assume it isn’t going to work out? There will always be an excuse as to why it’s too difficult to write for a living. Please remember that it’s normal for there to be things you have to do before you can get to the place you want to be. No one expects a doctor to waltz out of high school, strap on some surgical gloves, and successfully remove someone’s appendix. Most of us have to go through the writing equivalent of medical school.

We aspiring writers are quick to complain that there is no way to get into traditional publishing now. No Way. Or that literary agents are only available if a writer is “connected.”

I’m calling bullshit friends, sorry.

You don’t need to know anyone special to get a literary agent. In fact, literary agents want nothing more than to find the best writing they ever read . . . from a complete unknown.

It took one my favorite writers, A.S. King, 8 novels and 15 years to get published. She got over 400 rejection letters. She started writing novels at age 24 and saw her first novel on a bookstore shelf when she was nearly 40. I’m so happy she never gave up because I love her writing (and also her, but first her writing).

On her blog years later, she wrote: “After 300 of those 400 rejection letters, I stopped and asked myself what I was doing wrong. I knew my work was good enough—not the first six novels, mind you, but the ones after that. I knew I was ready to give my agent search more than a half-assed try. I had the Internet by then. And I stumbled upon Miss Snark. I read every post on that blog in a 7-hour binge. I stayed up until 3 in the morning. I even remember the date. It was January 31st, 2006.

Up until that day, I didn’t realize how not-serious I was. I was a serious writer, yes. I was a serious reader, sure. But I hadn’t realized just how serious getting into this business is and how that package I first sent—a query and whatever sample an agent wanted to see—was an introduction to me. Up until that day, I didn’t realize that my work had cliches in it, was sometimes too out-there, was hard to categorize (even just a little), was sometimes lazily written, was simply . . . unpublishable. Up until that day, I whined about how different agents want different things. I complained that writing synopses is hard. Miss Snark’s archives made me see just what it would take to get here. Sounds crazy, but it’s true. February 1st, 2006 I became deadly serious about what I had been trying to do for 12 years.

I got an agent a few months later.”

I experienced something similar my junior year of university. I knew I wanted to be a writer, but at the time, I was an English Teaching major, which meant yes I wanted to write, but I would be a high school English teacher in the meantime to help pay the bills. I went to a popular science fiction and fantasy writing convention that year and I remember thinking to myself, “I don’t even have a finished, polished novel to talk about with these people.”

For about a month I was having trouble sleeping and concentrating and I finally I realized . . . I want to be a writer, not a teacher. When Neil Gaiman gave his commencement address to the University of Arts, he said: “Something that worked for me was imagining that where I wanted to be – an author, primarily of fiction, making good books, making good comics and supporting myself through my words – was a mountain. A distant mountain. My goal.

And I knew that as long as I kept walking towards the mountain I would be all right. And when I truly was not sure what to do, I could stop, and think about whether it was taking me towards or away from the mountain. I said no to editorial jobs on magazines, proper jobs that would have paid proper money because I knew that, attractive though they were, for me they would have been walking away from the mountain. And if those job offers had come along earlier I might have taken them, because they still would have been closer to the mountain than I was at the time.”

All the hours I would spend working to get my teaching license would be moving away from the mountain. So I dropped it. I switched my major to creative writing (an entirely unnecessary move, but in this instant, was symbolic as well as literal). Writing is serious, serious work. Sometimes it’s much harder than it sounds and sometimes it’s much easier than you imagine. It’s definitely not easy deciding whether or not the path you’ve chosen is the correct way. As Gaiman also says in the same address, “. . . you’ll have to balance your goals and hopes with feeding yourself, paying debts, finding work, settling for what you can get.”

I went to that same conference the next year (this year, February 2013), had two completed novels under my belt and stepped into the fray with my first pitch session. I now have a publishing contract and a literary agent and have signed up to teach on panels of that same 2014 conference. A friend recently said to me, “So I know a lot of people who talk about writing, but you’re the only one I know who seems to be getting paid for it in the near future—or you just actually really good, or what’s going on?” (Note how doubtfully she seemed to suggest this was based on talent).

My answer was to tell her that, no, I wasn’t that good. In fact, I was probably a lot worse than any other friends she had when they started. “I work really hard,” I said instead. “I can’t even tell you how many hours a week I put into it, how much time I spend practicing [in other words, reading and writing]. I’m a little bit obsessed.”

There are always obstacles. Sometimes it seems there are nothing BUT obstacles.

But in the end, the question is the same: “What are you willing to give up, in order to have what you really want?”

I don’t know what your answer is or would be, but I know what mine was. How about you? What are you finally ready to be?