Ask: How Do You Know When It’s Time to Move On?

From Jessica:

How do you know when it’s time to give up on a manuscript? When you’ve spent so much time with a piece and it’s not getting picked up… How do I know it’s time to shelve it?

Dear Jessica,

A timely question for me right now, which is funny because you asked this of me last summer. Both of us sitting at a fancy tiki bar with our fancy tiki drinks with a bunch of other fancy writers, one of whom had a birthday, and all of us talking about our work. You asked this question. At the time, my manuscript was in a lonely purgatory and I didn’t have the heart to answer.

At the time, I had spent over four years with that book manuscript we spoke of. Four years and four major revisions and a year of querying and a year of full requests from agents and a year of requests for revisions from those agents, one of which came through an exciting and debilitating phone call, all of which resulted in painful passes. When you asked your question, I had gone a year without looking at that manuscript, without thinking about it, not because I just didn’t want to but because it was depressing and I needed to be in a state of not depressing for just a little bit.

The year off from the manuscript had been a good one—stories picked up for publication, invitations to read my work on stage under actual spotlights, essays on writing published to sites that ten years ago I would scour for clues on how to become a writer. This was the year I began teaching classes on how to become a writer (also simply known as how to take yourself seriously and trust yourself and your work enough to stand behind it.)

All this good stuff and still the nagging feeling of something unfinished. I had started book two. Book two was a flagging mess of ideas that reminded me of how lonely and confused I was during the first year of book one. All made furthermore depressing because I had left off book one with the distinct feeling that it was broken and would remain broken and I had finally reached the point where maybe, truly, I simply wouldn’t go back to fix it.

I remember saying this to so many people: It’s got a fatal flaw. No matter how many times I re-arranged the pieces, added more pieces, attempted to square the story over and over and over again, it never felt correct. It’s got a fatal flaw, I would shrug. Nothing I can do.

That’s the state of mind I was in about it when you asked that question that night. And at the time, I can’t remember if I answered or didn’t answer—I’m sure if I answered, I answered with some kind of joke because that’s what I do when something makes me a little sad. I might have shrugged, insisted I had washed my hands of the story. Its time was done, on to the new one. And yet, I opted to leave the question unanswered.

I left the question unanswered for months after that night but I thought about it often. The truth was I didn’t know when a person knew it was time to give up on a manuscript. Giving up seemed like such a weak option, quitting. A black and white answer to what was so not a black and white problem. Calling it moving on didn’t help—it just felt like abandonment. Allow it to die or pretend it never existed? Terrible options. I put it out of my mind. I hate leaving questions unanswered but this one in particular was too terrible to contemplate too closely.

Fast forward some months. I am at critique group. A friend comes in sharing excerpts of a book I’d seen before. The voice is so clear. I knew how hard she’d worked on it and was working on it still. My own book knocked lightly. I went home with my heart pounding.

So I pulled it back out. The idea of it shimmered in my mind; I still loved this story, still believed in it. I sent it to an editor to read out of sheer curiosity, just to see, just to make sure. After she read it, I re-read the book myself. It was all there, clear as day. How to square the story.

You have a book. You have a book! the editor said, over and over. I did have a book—finally, after years of arguing with the manuscript, it decided I had suffered enough and made itself clear. The answer showed itself, the puzzle piece that connects all the others. It didn’t even hardly require any rewriting. I worked at break-neck speed to edit and rework the book because to do anything else seemed wrong.

So here now, months later, I have the answer to the question: The work will tell you when it’s done.

When it’s done, it is done in a dead way. If it’s not a story that is to be, it won’t last long. That shimmer will go dormant and you’ll look at it wondering why you ever thought any of it was a good idea. Elizabeth Gilbert describes this as ideas floating in the ether, waiting to land on a person. When the idea no longer wants to be realized, it will leave you and it look as dead to you as the inanimate stack of papers it is.

But if it’s not done, it will remain silent and wait until you are ready. Or better yet, it will wait until it is ready, at which point it will insist on being resumed.

So when you asked me that question, I didn’t know how to answer. Because the book wasn’t dead—it was dormant. It was waiting for me. And having been writing long enough to trust the process but not long enough to trust myself, I couldn’t give a straight answer to the question.

I sent that book on its final pass of submissions just last month. Within one week, I had seven requests. One more week and I had a call. One more week, I had more calls. One more week and I signed a contract. It all happened so quickly it may have re-constituted my entire thoughts on the supernatural.

I am now represented by Kerry D’Agostino of Curtis Brown, Ltd., who loves the story and believes in it as much as I do, who asked over and over again How did you do it? How did you write this? The short answer is that it’s a long answer, one of those funny stories that have no ending.

If you would like to submit a question for a “Dear You” post, please email me at lisa.k.bubert(at)gmail.com. 

Photos: The Writing Attic

Dear you,

This is morning. Every morning, if the sun is not yet up. The room is painted in sunrise pink and when I’m up there working, the windows glow for the neighborhood.

 Mornings in the attic are a ritual. Coffee first, of course, but then straight upstairs to get to work. The kitten comes too, every morning. Her level of helpfulness waxes and wanes; some mornings she’s right there with me, watching me type. Most other mornings she’s playing with everything but the immense lot of toys I bought her.

I love this attic. It is my pride and joy, my own little slice of heaven. To have this space to stretch, toss papers around, be as maniacal as I want, is something that I still marvel at, even a year later.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And of course, the kitten has her own desk, where she does all her important work.

I love this attic because it is filled with gifts and creations from my friends and family. The stained glass books are a gift from my mother-in-law. The antlers were a joint effort from my niece and my brother; she shot the deer and he created the mount. The picture of the lady is a gift I gave myself; my grandmother has a figurine of a lady in a similar dress. But this lady’s hair is tied back and proper, her hands are gloved and holding a bouquet. She is prim and small. The lady in the picture above (titled Vivacious) has her hair down. She is smiling and dancing. The picture is part of a calendar created by the local electric company, year 1950. 

The walls upon entering are decorated with an intentional purpose. Artwork from Texas, gifts from new friends, a photograph taken by my best friend from home during her first college photography class (her grown self now an accomplished photographer.)

Ahead are more reminders of how loved I am. There are photographs taken by my father-in-law when he was young paired with photographs taken by my husband when he too was a teenager. Macrame art from a friend named Lisa. A mobile of seashells, sand dollars, and petrified wood created by a friend on a whim and given to me because I happened to be there when he finished it. There is a canvas art print thrifted and created by my mother-in-law for my husband to outfit his first college apartment, something I vividly remember hanging on his wall when I went to this same apartment for the first time. We were sitting on the couch watching Commando. He laid his head near my lap. This was the night of our first kiss.

When I was four years-old, my mother used to dress me in my sleep at four am and take me to my grandparent’s house so she could work her shift at the hospital and still go to nursing school at the same time. My dad drove truck and was long gone by time the four am wake-up call rolled around. My grandfather waited for me in this chair every single morning. We would sit in it together and watch the weather news until my grandmother woke up and made breakfast. When we moved my grandmother into assisted living, she sat in this chair every day with an oxygen tank hooked to the back. After she died, my mom used it as her sewing chair but once I had room for it, she drove it to Nashville so I could use it in the attic, which tells you everything you need to know about our relationship and what kind of mother she is. Now, it’s the chair where I read my drafts.

There are mementos and memories strewn about this room that breathe life into every word I write. Here, my brother’s glass horse forever memorialized in the broken-hearted essay I wrote when we left Texas. Here, a stolen cup from Olive Garden pilfered for me by a boy with a crush on our high school band trip now used to store idea notes. Real good ones like “widowmakers” and “Do the lord’s work” and “artifacts” and “JUST DEAD INSIDE.”

old attic

And here it was before, the week after we were lucky enough to buy it, just a little dead inside but filled to the brim with potential.

Ask: How Many Pieces Do You Produce in a Year?

From Laura:

How many short stories do you write a year?

Dear Laura (and you),

This question is ultimately about production but I also wonder if maybe, just maybe, lying underneath that question is also the one of how much production is enough? Also known more famously as: Am I enough? 

The question of what is enough underlies everything we do, as writers, as humans, and especially as women. If you’re a Type A person like me, then you can just go ahead and double that pressure. 

The short answer to the question is: it depends. And honestly, while I have been writing for years, I haven’t been writing on a “professional” scale (read: hitting the submission trenches) long enough to really have an average number. Last year, I wrote two stories (barely.) That’s because I spent the majority of the year completing requested revisions on a novel that ultimately got rejected. The year before that I wrote three pieces (two that had been started the year prior) because, again, I spent the majority of the year finishing my novel and preparing for query submission. And the year before that when I moved to Nashville, I wrote only two pieces because we were relocating our lives to Nashville. I would say then that my average is looking like two to three pieces a year, except this year I’ve already written six pieces and it’s not even summer yet.

Some years are just more productive than others. Some years you’re not relocating your life. Some years you’re not writing a novel. Some years you’re feeling pretty good. Other years, you’re low in the lowest lows of rejection. Just last November, I was wallowing and complaining to my husband about how I’d had nothing published that year. That was less than six months ago. I’ve had two stories and two essays published since.  I am in the middle of a very good year and I am going to take this year and run with it. I am going to celebrate as much as I can because next year, or even next month, may not be nearly as good as right now. 

The thing about writing is that writing is meant to be read by someone else. At the heart of all acts of writing, no matter how private, is that one day we’ll want someone else to read it so we can say, “See? You see now?” And in order to have other people read our writing, we have to share it. Sharing usually means submitting. And when we start submitting, that’s when things start to get wonky and we forget what it was we liked about writing in the first place. It starts to become more about numbers—how many pieces are out on submission, how many rejections have come in, how many acceptances, if any—and less about the whole point of writing: the communication. 

And yet, the answer still isn’t to just sit down and write and be happy you wrote. Writing is hard. Writing is even harder when there’s no one on the other end to read your work. It’s a rare occurrence to go bounding to the computer with such enthusiasm because the words are just spilling out. Just last night, I told a group of fellow writers that one of the stories I’d recently published had been written in two days with just two drafts and that it was one of the pieces I’m most proud of. The moment that story came to life was almost otherworldly, that channeling thing that some artists talk about. It happened to me. It happened. But of course, ever since it happened, now I go to the page every morning with extra trepidation—will the magic happen again? Will it ever come back? So far, no other pieces have tumbled out quite like that one and the blank page has only become more terrifying when I know there’s no other force to fill it up except for me. 

And that’s just it—there’s no one else here but you. You, with your words and all your other obligations. Your day jobs, your children, your bills, your pets, your lawns to mow, toilets to clean, teeth to brush, and on and on and on. The answer isn’t to sit down and be happy you wrote, but to be happy you sat down and wrote with everything else you have going on. You got up early or stayed up late. You turned down appealing outings. You watched a little less TV, listened to a few less podcasts. The dishes stayed dirty. And for that, you have a story, or maybe just the start of a story. Submit, sure. It must be done. Goals are never a bad thing to have. But we shouldn’t cling to anything we can’t control (which, ultimately, is everything.)

Some days you write the story. Some days the story writes you. Whatever. If you do write anything, you now have something you didn’t have before that came solely from your heart. A little piece of yourself made immortal. Words that will last long after you do no matter where they are. That is what makes it enough. 

 

If you would like to submit a question for a “Dear You” post, please email me at lisa.k.bubert(at)gmail.com. 

 

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Ask: How Do You Muddle Through the Middle?

From Alex:

How do you make sure the middle of your book isn’t a slog, spinning its wheels before the good stuff comes along?

Dear Alex (and you),

It was four years ago (almost to the day) when I first started writing the book that I am still rewriting today. I remember the exact moment I started it; I was in my car driving home from work. I had just gotten married the week before, I finished my library degree and for all intents and purposes, had nothing on my plate for the first time in three years. I had stopped writing three years ago too.

I shouldn’t say I stopped writing. I didn’t really. I wasn’t writing a blog anymore or working on a novel that suffered a fate of perpetual false start, a story with the same problem. I had no plans to submit anything—at the time, I thought I would never write professionally again. One too many burns and a whole lot of anxiety. Plus, I had no money and it was 2011 and we were occupying wall street after it had already occupied us. I needed a real job, full-time, benefits. Stopping and starting the same novel/story for eight months proved to not be a real money maker after all. So I closed up shop and applied for my library degree.

But I was still writing. I kept a blog I wrote on for six months until I transitioned into poetry. I wrote so many poems between 2011 and 2014. They were perfect for the not-writer I considered myself to be. They would bubble up, a line here, an image there, and I would sit down and hurl the words out of my fingers faster than my mind could keep up. At first they were random documents on my computer. Then I collected them in a binder so I could look at them. Then I took them to readings. And eventually, I started to submit them. And once I started submitting them, it was as if the flood gates broke and everything I had been trying to ignore about myself (that I did want to write, that I would always write, that I wanted writing in my life more than anything else) washed away. The first day back to work after my wedding, (literally a Monday), I drove home with the thought of what now and of course. I got home, opened a new document on my computer, and started my novel.

At the time, I thought all I had to go on for the story was a single image and a flickering idea. I wrote around that image, dictated from the voice I heard talking about it. Just pages, no chapters. People but no story. I kept writing some poems but they got swallowed up by the other things I was doing—the stories, the essays, the book. I let them lie and took up the task at hand that I thought was far more important than the small things that had no bearing on anything else.

There was one point, a year after I started writing, that I thought I would give up on the book. I was doing the same thing I did before—starting, stopping, rewriting, starting, stopping, rewriting. I got a little mad at myself. I tried to make an outline, some kind of plan, but that only made me madder. I’m a super planner in life but when it comes to writing, I can’t plan a thing, not even this piece I’m writing right now to you. I went back to the poems. They’re easier, you see. They don’t have to work a certain way, call up anything for anyone except for me. They could be whatever style I wanted and it would still be right, at least to me.

But upon reading the poems, I noticed something. I was already telling the story I meant to write with each one. All the characters I was trying to sketch, all the setting, the theme, the trails. They were all already there, just a little buried. I thought I was writing something different and it turns out I was writing the same thing all along. It was clear, reading those poems, what mattered to me, what path I needed to follow, cause I couldn’t get myself off of it, even in my subconscious. I went to bed. I woke up the next morning. I opened the doc and added another 500 words like I did every other morning. Four years later and I’m still doing the same thing, still not tired of it, still ecstatically delighted with every new thing I learn.

All this to say that if we are writing, we are always in the middle of the book. And it’s always a slog. The wheels always spin but the point is they spin. Good stuff becomes shit stuff becomes good stuff again and you just have to show up and trust the process. Everything looks different from day to day because you are different from day to day. You are evolving with your story. (That’s all writing is—evolution via words.) You’ll write it and re-write it and write it again, uncovering each new discovery like a delicious, infinitely-layered cake. You’ll never finish. You’ll realize you began way before you thought you did. And one day, it will click and feel right and you will know that it is as close to true as you can get it. Not done, but true. And then you’ll give it to someone else to read and you’ll start on the new slog, already buried in the muddled middle.

The Authority to Write

Dear You,

I am writing my book again. This is the third time I have written it and the third year of working with it. In draft one, the story went in one direction, took a turn toward another in draft two, and now seems to be going back to the original idea with some tweaks.

Having spent some time now writing other stories, I’ve come to find that this is a pattern for me. Three drafts is what it always takes (so far) for me to get to the story I am sure I want to write. The first draft is always a mess of spewed words, snippets of images and conversation that won’t go away but don’t seem to have any purpose, all stitched together by sheer will of I MUST FINISH THIS THING. The second draft is always out of left field; I’ve read the first draft, confused myself and what I think I’m trying to say, so I write something that, using sound-ish logic, works plot-wise but reads like shit and leaves all the characters’ needs and wants aside. This one is stitched together by sheer will of I MUST MAKE THIS MAKE SENSE. And after reading it, it never makes sense, ever.

So then we get to the third draft. I have usually let a gulf of time pass, not out of some smart reason of resting or allowing time to help things gel in my mind, but usually because the second draft is such a train wreck, it hurts to have to think about putting another draft back together again. There are always casualties in the third draft. Whole plot lines are re-worked, characters invented, scenes I liked before disappeared into the upside-down to happily never be retrieved again. I know this will happen and because I expect it, I dread it.

But another thing happens after I’ve read the second draft and absorbed the mortal blow of its exquisite shittiness on my level of confidence as a writer and human. The story begins to write itself. Once I get up the courage to actually sit down and do it, that is.

It’s an amazing feeling; one of those times that writers talk about when they say that the characters are telling them the story, that a “muse” is whispering into their ears, etc., etc. It really does feel like magic and it’s the whole point of doing the work because it’s as exhilarating as the feeling of publication or even a comment from a reader saying “I loved this.” It’s hit a nerve and it’s correct and you know it.

While I love the idea of magic and do bask in the feeling of mystical fairy dust when this happens, it’s, sadly, not magic. Or any kind of natural artistic talent finally rearing its head after all this goddamn time. It’s simply the fruits of labor. It’s the recognition of work.

I have spent years in critique groups with writers in various stages of their craft. I have seen heavy hitters come in with work that sings and watched them sweat as we peons flip through their pages. I’ve seen newbies come in excited and confident and seen the little flicker of hurt in their eyes when the critique really begins. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard a newcomer ask an old timer, “But how do you do that?” As in, how do you weave in backstory so seamlessly? How do you come up with characters that read readers minds? How do you write a story that reads like a secret being shared only with you?

Hilariously and tragically, the newcomer always think they’re reading a first draft when they ask this question. It’s never a first draft. It might be a first draft of a complete rewrite but it’s not your typical “I woke up like this” draft. (And if it is, then they are in the presence of someone who either has been at the craft diligently for years and have learned to write a draft the way they flex a well-toned muscle OR that mother fucker really is magic.)

What they’re really asking is: How do I gain that level of authority in my work? How do I make it read like I actually know what I’m doing? Like I’m a goddamn literary force to be reckoned with?

Answer: You toil away until it does and you are.

Just like the story that finally reveals itself, gaining that level of authority in writing takes the kind of sweat and tears that must be suffered with time and diligence. It requires taking your dedication to the writing craft from a giddily stupid first draft stage, through that shitty second draft stage which will beg you to give it up, and into the third draft stage where you can come to your craft clear-eyed, seasoned, and ready to work.

And that’s just the overhaul we’re talking about. At this point, I can predict that it will take me three drafts to get a story in the right direction. But it takes god knows how many more to get it just right. And it never, ever feels just right. It feels right enough to send it out into the world.

There’s different tricks to getting the story right, getting the words on the page, discovering what exactly it is you’re trying to say, just as there are different paths in writing careers. One person toils longer than another before feeling validated in their craft. Another feels validated even if they weren’t seeking it. Others never feel validation, even when there are other literary heroes validating their work on a regular basis. And none of it matters anyway; while respect from peers is nice, none of us followed the rabbit trail of a story idea solely because we thought it might lead to someone we admire admiring us. We do it because it’s interesting and fun and we want to.

Waiting for the authority to write, for goddamn literary hero stardom to shine upon you, is like waiting for magic to happen. It might — but it’s faster to simply sit down, take a deep breath, and do the work over and over again. Instead of magic, it will feel like nothing at all. Just another day where you’ve written your words, submitted your stories, until you can look back and see the full breadth of a body of work, and how it ebbs and flows with practice. Maybe you’ll recognize your authority then. (Maybe, but unlikely.) You’re too busy doing the work.

Authority may come, but it will not announce itself. Rather, it will be a sudden awareness, much how a story’s ending is a conundrum one moment and finished the next. It won’t feel like you’ve arrived even when you already have. It will always take longer than you think.