What I love about the game UNO is just when you think you’ve lost, the momentum changes and things start to look up. The same could be said of the writing life. Just when you’re about to give up, you can’t because you never know what’s about to happen.
Take my summer. It was a weird one. After spending the spring querying and entering contests and submitting to publications, I had meager results. I had a few manuscript requests from agents, but ultimately, no takers. It was disappointing. Heartbreaking really. To be so close and yet so far from not even publication but just recognition. Most agents didn’t read all the way through to the end of the book. I think at most one read 40 pages. Not bad but not enough to win her over.
I’ve seen my name in print several times so I shouldn’t have felt down but confidence is like a balloon that deflates fast. Rejection kicked at my soul. During the first half of 2016, I had worked so hard. I edited. I submitted. I revised. I wrote more short pieces. But the recognition I craved didn’t come. No “yes” from an agent, no, “yes” from a journal. The world was silent or, in most cases, politely saying “No, thank you.” The hardest days were when I’d receive a few rejections on the same day. Two queries and one journal. Or a contest rejection and then silence on a Twitter pitch forum. Together these messages told me, “You’re not winning here. You’re losing. You’re actually a loser. You’ll never shine at writing.”
Playing the Game
One night this past summer, my husband and I took the kids to our friends’ house. We all played UNO. Our friend, I’ll call him Sam, won twice in a row. This upset my youngest daughter. She cried and complained through tears. “I never win,” she said. It took many back rubs and much encouragement to console her. But because she’s a child, she was convinced she’d never be a winner. Ever, ever, ever. It would always be Sam, or her brother, or her sister (God forbid) who would win. She was convinced she would never shine at UNO.
But in UNO, there’s that moment when the cards can go your way. The pile has a Red 5 on top and luckily you have a Red card. Then the color changes to Green and you have a Green card. You might have a Draw 2 to use on a fellow player. A nicely timed Skip or Reverse. Those are the tiny moments of satisfaction in the game. And then, when you get down to three cards, your throat tightens with excitement. You’re almost there. You keep the cards in your lap to discreetly hide the fact that you only have a couple left. But suddenly, the color changes, and oh, well, you just got a Draw Four from the person next to you. When someone changes the color to Blue, the one color you don’t have, you feel aching disappointment in your stomach.
By July of this year, I was holding those cards. I’d been so close to getting an agent or a new publication, but I hadn’t. I felt adrift. What to do now? Revise the book again? (I did.) Read more writing craft books and apply those strategies to my novel? (I did). Query more? (I did.) Write short pieces? (I did.) I dusted off a short story I’d never sent out and submitted it to a few journals. I wrote a piece and submitted it to an anthology about trees, which was right up my alley. I kept on playing the writing game.
Just When You Think You’ve Lost…
During the previous spring, I had submitted my novel to a contest and two nonfiction narratives to journals. Then I drifted away from the writing life and got involved with the kids, gardening jobs, and other non-writing activities. One day in July, an email popped in my inbox. “Your novel has been selected as a semi-finalist.…” What? I read and re-read the email. I was shocked. Being a semi-finalist meant an established author had read my entire novel and actually thought it good enough to be one of only ten semi-finalists. I walked around in awe that day.
This little “win” gave me a huge boost of confidence. And validation for all of those solitary hours, agonizing revisions, and constant wondering about whether my editing choices were the right ones. I went back to searching for agents and publication opportunities. Then one August morning, I received another email. “Karen, I’d be honored to include this rich and beautiful essay in…” What?! My nonfiction piece was to be included in that tree anthology. I was stunned. Not only was it to be included, but the editor praised the piece. This guy thought I had talent too!
During UNO, there’s always that stage when you finally rid yourself of the extra cards and you sit with one card, watching your fellow players take their turns, hoping the color changes to the card or number you have. Be Green, be Green, be Green, or 4, 4 would be good, you think. Sometimes you draw the coveted Wild card. Perfect. On the next go around, you unload that Green 4 and after everyone groans at you declaring, “UNO,” you wait for your turn once again. Now you’re jazzed because of that Wild card, a card you didn’t expect to get, but one you were about to, if you could just hold on, keep playing the game and wait patiently to receive what you needed from the universe.
Where are you in the UNO game of writing? With a hand full of cards and no “wins” or have you recently laid down a Wild and won?
I’ve been searching for representation for about a month now. Recently, one agent requested my full manuscript but passed on it. In her comments she mentioned the first chapters were slower than she preferred for the books on her list. (She represented grittier, faster paced novels than mine.) And she said her comments were, of course, “subjective.” I felt sad that she thought she needed to include that caveat. But I knew the underlying subtext. She was worried I’d defend myself immediately. But I don’t do that. I’ve worked as an editor. I know I don’t need to be defensive. I need to write a good story (though I appreciate her sensitivity). I actually welcome editorial feedback from agents. I appreciate it. I’m always ready to revise because I want my work to be better. And editorial feedback from agents is some of the most precious feedback out there.
Literary Agents Know Story Structure
Agents read dozens of manuscripts a year. They know issues of plot, character, setting, voice, etc. Conflict. Even if a story doesn’t match their list of titles, they know a strong story when they read one. So if an agent is willing to offer aI actually welcome editorial feedback from agents. I appreciate it. I’m always ready to revise because I want my work to be better. And editorial feedback from agents is some of the most precious feedback out there.particular comment about my book, I’m all ears. I’m not so wobbly that I’ll for sure change it, but if the comment touches on a doubt I have, it tells me the issue resonates in a more universal way. If more than one person thinks an aspect is weak that means it’s not a matter of taste, but a flaw that needs to be addressed.
A Comment Can Be Inspiring
That this agent who passed told me my book was “beautifully written,” made my day. I take her comment to be authentic since she has no investment in flattering me, especially since she ultimately passed on representing me. But that one positive note propelled me to go on. Okay, I thought, I know the writing’s strong. Mark that off in the plus column.
Of course, my writing ego doesn’t live or die depending on one agent’s thoughts. As my husband says, I should write the book that I want. But feedback from a person who sells books for a living holds more weight than the average reader, and helps me narrow my editorial focus.
Feedback Strengthens a Story
Since that agent’s comments came in a week or so ago, I’ve since revised my manuscript. In the past when I’d edited the book, I thought, “Wow, the danger really starts cooking on page 67.” I often wondered if I needed to move that danger up in the story. I decided to go for it. Now the main conflict starts earlier and a piece of essential back story is further on. My lesson learned is to be open to the feedback and think carefully about how it fits in to my overall vision. In this case, I believe it did. It helped me strengthen the story for the next agent who may request a full manuscript. And when that time comes, I’ll feel more confident when I send it off.
Lately, I’ve been judging my sentences as too clunky. They get to the point but there’s no inspiration. So I thought about what books in the past inspired me to write interesting sentences. European greats like Tolstoy, Hugo, Balzac, Dickens, James. And then contemporary writers like Anthony Doerr, Richard Ford, Haruki Murakami, Cormac McCarthy, Kazuo Ishiguro, Don DeLillo, Richard Yates, E.L. Doctorow, Ta Nahesi Coates. Why did I just list all men? There are plenty of women: Joyce Carol Oates, Barbara Kingsolver, Tracy Chevalier, Ann Patchett, Alice Munro, Sarah Waters, hell, even Suzanne Collins. There are too many to remember and list.
But one thing I’m convinced of is that every time I’ve read a great book, it’s helped me write more clearly and poetically. Perhaps, it’s because of intellectual osmosis or perhaps in imitation of these people, I don’t know. What I do know is if you want to write great sentences, then you have to read great writers. You can’t read Dan Brown and expect to write like Charles Frazier. What’s in the book seeps into the subconscious, one way or another.
Anthony Doerr and All the Light We Cannot See
Take this passage, from Anthony Doerr, about Werner, a German cadet, in a scene from All the Light We Cannot See. Werner realizes his friend has been apprehended and may be killed.
Werner skips lunch and walks in a daze to the school’s infirmary. He’s risking detention or worse; it’s a sunny, bright noon, but his heart is being crushed slowly in a vise, and everything is slow and hypnotic, and he watches his arm work as it pulls open the door as if he’s peering through several feet of blue water.
First off, Werner is moving from place to place, and we get a sense of the scene, a sunny, bright noon on his way to the infirmary. That bright, seemingly nice day nicely contrasts how he feels, his heart being “crushed slowly,” his world “slow and hypnotic,” and then, the minute detail of how separate his arm is, as if an independent appendage, when it opens the door. We get the sense of removal loud and clear. Doerr says it’s like “he’s peering through several feet of blue water.” These images are concrete, we can imagine them.
They may even be too obvious, like a heart in a vice, but we understand, Werner’s heart is aching, his experience of life is detached. It’s a sense of “I can’t believe this is happening. It seems like a dream” to Werner. That he sees blood right after this description makes the passage even eerier and more chilling, as we can deduce what’s happened to his friend.
The Art of Not Trying Hard
I don’t know that I could ever write as well as Anthony Doerr, but wow, can I learn from him. As anyone can. It doesn’t take any great academic degree or familial pedigree to improve one’s writing, just time and interest. If willing to study sentences closely, we often find a vivid, concrete truth. Experienced authors don’t try too hard to be poetic. But to simply describe what the character sees and feels. If we can do that clearly, then we create poetry and profundity naturally. And then a masterful story takes place.
What writers do you learn from? Tell me in the comments below.
Whether I like it or not, I’m inundated right now with work and visitors. August is always a month of visitors for us because two of my children were born in August and relatives like to come for their birthdays — which for me means cleaning and guests and cake and touring around the region. Writing is out the window (unless you count a bit of revising in bed at night). Here are a few Seattle sites worth visiting and where we’ve spent our days.
Last month I finished my to-do list of edits on my novel. The next step? It’s what it always is: ask my husband to read it. He’s my most trusted beta reader and best editor. I’ve come to realize how precious getting his feedback is.
So we do what we always do. I send the chapters in email. He reads them on screen. Then we sit together and go through them one by one. “These paragraphs on page one need to be longer. It’s difficult to picture what the protagonist is seeing exactly. So there are mountains on the left, a field in front of them, and a lake? Lay it all out for me.”
Oh wow, I think. He’s got stuff to say right off the bat. Ugh. I take notes. We move on.
A few chapters later: “Would [character] really get that upset about it? He seems to be picking at his son for no reason.” I debate him on that point. He makes his argument. I debate a bit more. He shrugs but I know I haven’t changed his opinion. Occasionally I can change his opinion if I can locate another sentence or section of text to back up my point. But this time I haven’t so I take more notes. This goes on for almost two hours.
An Objective Logical eye
My husband is an engineer and he thinks like one. How do the various parts fit into the whole? How to build this? What is logical? He gives me feedback with a polite cool eye. Sometimes I’m surprised by what I’ve missed or a weak link. I hadn’t been thinking about that aspect at all. Now I am. And more importantly I’m getting a feel for where I am on the “How much work does this manuscript still need?” spectrum.
A Tender Approach
This time he gives me is precious. I wonder why it’s more special that he read it rather than a friend. It’s because the work is in its infancy and needs tender care. That tender care is most likely to come from him. Working with him makes me feel safe. He won’t be mean because he can or because of a power trip. (Any writer who’s been in a workshop knows about that.) He criticizes early unpolished work in such a way that I don’t think I stink as a writer and should give it all up tomorrow.
I believe anyone in a happy relationship can benefit in this way. Usually your life partner is a person who thinks a lot like you do. Maybe the most of anyone. They will bring a similar but different perspective. They need not be an expert writer or artist, they just need to be delicate and want to help you. If it happens, I urge you to be gracious. Probe. Get details about what they think. Prepare a list of your own questions based on your doubts and get their thoughts. If you do, your work will be ready for the even more objective, scarier feedback from secondary readers of friends or colleagues.
In the meantime, I make it as easy as possible for my husband to read my work. If he wants to go over the manuscript later, we go over it later. If he wants to read it then and there, we do that. His opinion is one I trust and having someone’s opinion you trust may be the most valuable thing to have as a writer.
Do you have someone you trust above anyone else with your work? Let me know in the comments below.
If you’d like more information on writing, sign up for my newsletter. I send a monthly digest of writing tips, book discoveries, travel posts and gardening tips. Subscribe here.