By the Book: Lessons from an 86,000-word journey
"Say it," she urged.
Amie is my best friend, a wonderful human being, and by trade, an executive coach. As such, she waited patiently for me to stop pouting, then persisted:
"Repeat after me. I am writing a book," she stated—firmly.
"I am writing a book," I echoed—not-so-firmly.
That conversation happened years ago. I’d been hearing a voice in my head (stick with me) of a character not yet in existence—from a story I would have to write if I wanted to read it.
That character informed me her name was Bayla, and as she whispered to me, I found myself detouring during my writing hours into short character sketches and scenes. Before long, a heroine took form before my eyes.
But soon I realized what Bayla was after. She didn't want a mere story—she wanted a whole book.
I was writing essays, poetry, and some short fiction, but it was my dream to write a novel—some day, in the distant future. At that moment, though, putting 70,000-plus words to paper seemed too daunting, too intimidating. What if I couldn't finish? What if I finished and no one read it? What if it was terrible or boring or terribly boring?
What if I failed?
For so many reasons, I knew that writing a novel would be the hardest thing I'd ever attempt, and that it could take years to finish, much less publish.
So, I ignored my would-be protagonist and pushed her away, but she only grew more insistent. Bayla wanted her story to be told.
And I realized, so did I.
So did Amie.
Amie did what a best friend does—she believed in me when I didn’t yet believe in myself. And she did what a coach does—she made me declare my intentions. Putting it out in the universe makes it real, she encouraged.
The rest is history, but it's not a traditional tale of success, with the ending you'd expect. Rather, it's a tale still in progress, and I thank you for letting me share it from exactly where I am on the road.
Last year, I was invited to speak via Zoom at Charlotte Mecklenburg Library's Writers Beyond Borders program. Hosted by Surabhi Kaushik, the program usually features published authors of books. By contrast, I’d accumulated publication credits in literary journals and anthologies, but my full-length novel had only recently been completed, and was not yet on a publication path.
Still, I was eager to share with listeners everything I knew about writing a fiction manuscript. I described how I planned and plotted my first draft, how I revised it, then revised it again—and again—and again. I listed the resources I'd consulted for writing and editing, as well as the tools I'd been using to find an agent and to keep my spirits up during the wait.
I am so grateful to Surabhi for that opportunity to speak. Many people had helped me to arrive at that point, with a completed manuscript in hand, and this program gave me the chance to pay it forward.
Just as importantly, sharing the positives and negatives, victories and mistakes, dreams and realities from where I was in my journey really made me pause and take stock. I realized how much I’d learned, not only about writing a novel, but also about how I wanted to live my life.
Celebrating along the way.
When I began to draft outlines and write scenes for the novel, I couldn't help but dream about the day it would be published. I imagined holding a hardback book with my name on the cover and celebrating with friends and family and boatloads of cake.
But I quickly learned that the novel-writing timeline was a loooong one—and that publication certainly wasn't guaranteed at the end of it. If I believed that publication alone deserved celebration, then I might never get to celebrate. Worse, I might never see and acknowledge all the milestones along the strange, wonderful, grueling, uplifting novel-writing road.
Still, I struggled to celebrate those milestones, feeling that I didn't deserve to do so until I first finished this or accomplished that or did just a little bit more. Often, I couldn't even bring myself to call a friend or two to inform them of my progress, assuming they'd find it silly, or unimportant, to applaud anything before publication. Then I realized that I was the one who felt that way, not they.
Adjusting my mindset is happening slowly, but feels life-changing. By pulling my focus inward from a faraway and possibly unattainable goal, at last I'm seeing how much progress happens in a day, not only with regard to accomplishing tasks, but also overcoming mental and emotional challenges. At last I'm seeing how much there is to celebrate.
Remembering the baseline.
On the days I feel I'm tapping my foot impatiently, waiting for publication to happen, I sometimes spiral downward, wondering whether I've gotten anywhere at all. During those dark moods, I'm learning to remember my "baseline"—the place where my journey began.
As you now know, my novel officially started with that conversation with Amie, when I could barely mouth the words, I am writing a book. In truth, that starting line extends back even further. A few years before, I'd made a commitment to write more regularly and submit work to journals. As I readied my first submission to a small online poetry journal, my finger hovered above the Submit button for over an hour before I could click it.
Consciously remembering those two incidents helps me to acknowledge the ground I've covered. Back then, I had a few character sketches and no confidence in my abilities, and now I have a completed manuscript (version 9, by the way), as well as the representation of a wonderful agent (yay!) who genuinely understands the message it hopes to put into the world.
Accepting that fear is along for the ride.
It was fear that held me frozen that day, unable to click the Submit button—fear of being inadequate, misunderstood, rejected. (Incidentally, that first submission was indeed rejected within 24 hours.)
After that day, I assumed that, over time, as I wrote more, submitted more, and (hopefully) published more, my fear would lessen.
On the contrary, it was always present, whenever I sat down at my desk, whenever I began to write, whenever I submitted work. Sometimes it whispered, sometimes it shouted, but it never, ever diminished.
I realized that much of that fear (ironically enough, given that I was seeking publication) was of being seen—of my thoughts, views, words, self on a public stage, available for public consumption—and condemnation. That fear felt bad enough with respect to my short essays and poems, but in the context of my novel, it magnified tenfold. After all, the novel embodied my lens on the world and on life—it was how I see solidified into words. For this introvert, that sort of nakedness felt almost unendurable.
Elizabeth Gilbert's wonderful book on creativity, Big Magic, helped me reframe and reapproach the constant presence of fear. Gilbert's advice is to accept that fear will always be "along for the ride." She suggests giving it a place in the metaphorical creativity car but informing it that it's not allowed to speak, much less direct the route.
That shift in my mindset has brought me some peace.
Acknowledging that creativity is a privilege.
Trying to live a creative life presents many challenges, from the frustration of being unable to find the right word or sentence to the terror of sending work into the world without knowing how (or whether) it will be received. There's the dreaded writer's block, the struggle to find writing time without the business of life obtruding, and the difficulty of simply sitting down each day to a seemingly vast, blank page.
But woven through the challenges are moments of enchantment, when sentences flow, when characters take on lives of their own, when elusive ideas suddenly crystallize into compelling shapes and patterns. Partaking of that, being awash in it, feels as mystical as it sounds.