Just received another rejection. Funny how the word “unfortunately” leaps out from the page and smacks you square in the face. But not all rejections are equal; some qualify as what I call “the A1 Rejection”, and what better to illustrate my point than to include the actual text (pertinent details have been omitted to protect the agent’s identity):
I wouldn’t want to be an editor. It’s one of those thankless jobs where you get all of the criticism and none of the praise. Even when you’ve done a stellar job, the kudos goes to the author alone.
“You should write, first of all, to please yourself. You shouldn’t care a damn about anybody else at all. But writing can’t be a way of life - the important part of writing is living. You have to live in such a way that your writing emerges from it.”
The pages are still blank, but there is a miraculous feeling of the words being there, written in invisible ink and clamoring to become visible. ~Vladimir Nabakov
Creating a story is a curious process. It often begins as nothing more than a vague feeling, a certain atmosphere, a memory, the sense of a long-forgotten dream. Anything can spark it: a photograph, a house, a song, even a smell. After that it’s a bit like looking at one of those Google Earth maps where you zoom in closer and closer, first a neighbourhood, then a street, then a single building. Then suddenly you’re inside that building and picking out one family, narrowing your focus to one person in that family, and one event in their lives - one, maybe two, weeks out of that one life.
This is how a story is born. Out of that initial inkling of something waiting just beyond sight, you zoom in on the details and they spring to life. The crucial point here is details. It’s the close focus that engages the reader, and draws them in to identify with and care about your protagonist. You want the reader to see through the main character’s eyes, to walk in their footsteps, to feel what they feel. This can only be accomplished by wearing your character’s hands like gloves, by inhabiting their mind and heart. It’s a lot like method acting, which is probably why some people think writers are a bit - you know - schizo.
Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia. ~E.L. Doctorow
Of course, there’s never just one story floating out there. Usually there are a half-dozen or so, all fluttering and jostling each other for your attention, trying to out-do each other with promises of captivating storylines, sizzling romance, and unforgettable characters. Some even try to whisper in your ear that if you choose their story, the resulting novel will change the world. You must ignore this. Just as a songwriter eventually captures a haunting melody, you must listen to the voices in your head and perceive the one, not with the loudest voice, but the most alluring. Choose the story that moves you, the feeling of which gives you chills. Choose the one that you could paint a picture of. And then, (and this is important) start writing it. You must cut yourself off from the others, for they will try to creep back into your mind. Discipline yourself, commit to the one story you’ve chosen, and focus only on that story, for if you do not, you’ll never finish it. Never fear - once you’ve committed, the others will wait patiently in the wings, and will still be there when you’ve written “The End”.
So, good people, ordinary humans who are not writers: if you’re friends with, or (the horror!) married to a writer, and you see them with that faraway look in their eye, don’t worry: they’re following a glimmer, a hunch, a wisp of ether that carries in it the fertile seed of their next story.
What no wife of a writer can ever understand is that a writer is working when he’s staring out of the window. ~Burton Rascoe
I was just sitting here thinking, if the FBI got hold of my computer, what a time they’d have with my browsing history. Every writer knows that research is key to the authenticity of your story, and while a storyline is brewing, the diligent writer will spend many hours googling all kinds of subjects, the more offbeat the better. As the writer goes along, ideas change, storylines develop and veer away at a tangent, or some new factoid may drop randomly into the writer’s lap which needs to be investigated further.
What most non-writers don’t realize is that research really is an essential task for the writer. Even though your story is fictional, a professional editor will demand that you back up all historical, regional, scientific or other factual details that occur in your narrative. A professional editor will ask you to provide source material so that he or she can verify these details. Thus, the writer’s internet browsing history will, inevitably, become filled with results which would not only baffle the casual observer, but quite possibly become cause for concern.
Here is a sample of my most recent Google searches:
The health benefits of Royal Jelly
Beekeeping in Ancient Egypt
CIA Recruitment Procedures
The Mummification of Cats
The Use of Amanita Mushrooms as Sedatives and Poison
A Map of Abu Dhabi
Serial Killers in Small Town Canada
Jewish Blood Rituals
Was Jack The Ripper a Vampire?
A Map of the 6th Arrondisement of Paris
Welcome to the Paris Sorbonne
Modern Cures for AIDS
Toronto Adoption Records
Bee Colony Collapse Disorder in Nova Scotia
A Comparison of Urdu, Farsi and Arabic Scripts
The Forensic Examination of Fetal Remains
The Presbyterian Priesthood in Atlantic Canada
The icon for “murderer” in Ancient Egyptian heiroglyphics
How to Dessicate a Human Body
This is just a recent sampling of my history folder. Now, any reasonable person who knows me would easily dismiss this bizarre collection of search terms as the eccentricities of the writing mind. But I do hope nobody else is monitoring my computer. Just remember, folks: it’s fiction.
When my husband goes away to work, I stop eating. You see, he works in the Arctic, two weeks on, two weeks off. When he’s home, I do nothing but cook. We eat like kings: a full English breakfast, chicken sandwiches for lunch, steak for dinner. But when he leaves for his two weeks away, that’s it for me. Why? Because it all just seems like such a huge waste of time. I mean, you add up all the hours spent preparing, cooking, eating and cleaning up from meals. Life revolves around eating, drinking, putting the kettle on, making endless cups of tea; and all those cups have to be washed up.
I don’t mean to imply that I don’t eat at all. Of course I eat, but in a very minimal fashion, and I cook as little as I can get away with. For example, today for breakfast I had two slices of bread and jam. For lunch I had a piece of (already made) banana bread. For dinner I had a cold chicken breast leftover from the previous night’s dinner, and a slice of apple pie. Lovely! And no cooking involved. Tomorrow I may have to (grudgingly) cook some sausages, some to eat and some to be cold leftovers for another no-prep, no-cook meal. And what do I do with all this freed-up time? I write! I mean, seriously: why eat when you can write? Why chop carrots, when you could dash off a few chapters of your latest novel?
So, how many words have I written since freeing myself from the tedium of mealtime? How many do you think? Seriously? Really? I’ll tell you: none. Not one single solitary word. Oh, I’ve done things. I’ve walked around the garden. I’ve picked apples. I’ve googled recipes for apple jelly. I’ve updated my Facebook page. I’ve written this blog. But actual, bona fide writing? Zilch, my friends, and I’ll tell you why: because this whole not eating thing is an excuse. Sure, it frees up a lot of my time, but instead of writing, I find I’m frittering the time away on anything but writing. It’s like Chris Baty, who founded Nanowrimo, says: a writer needs a deadline. A writer needs to be kicked up the ass in order to actually get anything down on paper. A writer needs to be forced into a state of panic before he’ll get down to the task at hand. Let him think he’s got all the time in the world, and he’ll never begin; but tell him he has to have his novel finished by next Monday lunchtime, and he’ll start typing like a mental case.
So, instead of skipping proper nutrition, I should really be taking the time to eat properly, and then sit down to write my bestseller. If only someone would give me a deadline!
You know what? I’m hungry.