Climbing the Tree (or, maybe I’ll just drink like John Cheever…)
Here is the piece I originally wrote for a compilation our writers group did for the Edmonton Public Library. Unfortunately, my piece was a bit too adult for the age group they were going for. I like my title. Didn’t feel like changing it. Because sometimes, a Bailey’s on the Rocks makes the sting hurt not quite so bad.
It’s always something, isn’t it? If it’s not those insistent little voices in your head screaming to get their stories out, it’s the darker ones that tell you you’re no good and you should just quit while you’re ahead.
But there’s nothing quite like having the last laugh on the voices—for the first bunch, developing their personalities and making them come alive. For the second, proving them wrong.
You can, you know. Anybody can say they want to be a writer, or that they have a great idea for a book. Distinguish yourself by saying it and meaning it. Harlan Ellison once said, “Anybody can be a writer. The trick is staying a writer.” The only way to do that is with lots and lots of practice.
The early birds like me grab a java before work and get in our 1000 words sipping Starbucks or Second Cup at 6:30 a.m.
If I can, I write at lunch as well. Boom. I’m done for the day. Moms can squeeze in a few words while the baby naps. Nights owls and insomniacs stay up until 3 a.m. and rarely feel it the next day. Do whatever works for you. But do it regularly. You want to keep those writing chops in shape. You don’t have any time but lunch at work? Grab something that you can hold in your hand (sandwiches were invented for just this purpose…), and write for your half an hour, forty-five minutes, or an hour. Keep a notebook with you. Start scribbling.
Yes, people may laugh or joke, or call you eccentric. But when you can pay your electric bill from a royalty check (or face it, order a Tim’s double-double, it’s far more realistic), you stop being a joke and start becoming an inspiration.
I once heard the struggle for publication compared to climbing a tree. The low-hanging branches are the ones everyone can access. We all start there, simply trying to finish something. Once you’ve gotten that far, pat yourself on the back and climb up a limb. Statistically, you’re an oddball. Few people who say they’re going to write a book ever do.
But first drafts are crap, right? So then, the real fun begins—rewrites. I’m one of those people who love rewrites. I’m actually a better RE-writer than I am a writer. Last book? Twenty-five of them. And I’m still not convinced that’s enough. Done with your rewrite? It’s up another branch for you.
Once you think you’re ready, you have to do what writers equate to having their fingernails pulled out, slowly, one by one—the dreaded query letter. You’ve got approximately three or four paragraphs to make an agent fall in love with what you’re selling, whether it’s sparkly vampires or boarding school wizards, or something even cooler—you.
“Why do I need an agent?” you ask. “Isn’t print dead?”
The answer isn’t a simple one. Print is still around, and bookstores are still around. We don’t know for how long, but the truth remains—as long as they are and you (like me), want to walk into a bookstore and see your baby on the “New Releases” table, an agent can be your best friend at offering well-intended suggestions and criticisms, and getting you the best deal for your money. But obtaining one is a long hard slog. You’ll send out queries. LOTS of queries. E-queries. Paper queries. Or you might even summon enough gumption to pitch your idea to an agent at a conference. Climb another branch.
But if you do finally find the person who actually gets you, and what you’re trying to bring to the world? Who understands what you want to say and wants to help you spread it to that wider audience? That person is worth their weight in some sort of precious metal. If you find one, climb up another limb. And this time, buy yourself a drink to celebrate. That is a milestone, my friend.
The rejections—from agents, from publishers, or from just about anyone who reads you and decides to rate your writing as sub-par will mess you up. It’s no exaggeration, so prepare yourself. Imagine holding up your beautiful new baby, and some wiseacre saying, “That’s the ugliest baby I’ve ever seen.” This is exactly what it feels like. Imagine no one ever saying anything nice about your precious creation. Imagine them asking if your kid has a lazy eye or Down’s syndrome. They’ll never say, “That kid’ll grow up to be president!” However, they will be sure to point out his numerous flaws.
But here’s the thing. Melville, Fitzgerald, Steinbeck, Margaret Atwood, even Stephen King have all felt the nasty sting of rejection, and look where they are—the upper echelon. You all wear the badge of honor. Climb another branch. You’re in good company.
While all this is going on? Learn about the art of writing. Master your craft. We all have weaknesses, so it helps to figure out what yours are. Join a writing group and get critiques of your baby. Not family, because they can’t be impartial. They’ll always tell you your baby is beautiful, even if it has three heads. Get beta readers to check out your stuff. Don’t know any? Join a website like www.absolutewrite.com and hang out in the forums. If you socialize and make friends, you can find betas to give you tips on what’s working, and what’s staler than 10-day old Bundt cake.
It’s hard. Really hard. But someone once said that a professional is just an amateur who didn’t quit. It’s corny, but true. Hang in there. Keep getting better and keep reading a lot in the genre you want to write (and every other genre too). You want to be able to recognize the good stuff so you can aspire to it, and know the bad stuff so you don’t imitate it. Pretty soon, you’ll be hanging in those top branches with the best of ‘em. Maybe I’ll see you there.