So much about writing is having confidence without losing a cap on one’s ego. If I can’t even call myself a “writer,” then spending time at the keys is even more ludicrous, because it’s too easy to believe these hours are all a waste. At least, that’s how the equation works in my head. Somehow, I’ve muddled through since I moved out West, and all of my education that looked wonky or out of place in the government contract/technology world now fits snugly against these latest endeavors. English literature, critical theory, and psychology are the ham to these eggs, or the Not Dogs, for those who are vegan inclined, to this tofu scramble.
It can seem intimidating that once one has hurdled over this permission to write, that then there are scores of other barriers in one’s way. Do we like the idea? Is our writing any good? Does it all make sense? Am I talented enough to write this? Is it too derivative of something else? Would anybody ever want to read this?
Those of us who have just come to the end of NaNoWriMo have probably asked one or more of these questions, or had some crisis of faith along the way of November. Here’s the good news: those fears are part of the process. They lead us to more honest work and storytelling. If we’re not self-critical at all or if we deign any self-reflexivity, we’re not fully engaged in our writing and 99.999 percent of the time that we’ve disengaged from the manuscript, readers will notice it. We’ll have created less interesting characters, more clunky transitions, wrong-tempo’d pacing, and untenable plots, teetering into the hell reserved for writers: the Unbelievable Tale. To me at least, that is the Place Which Should Stay Untrodden. I’m not looking to be Hemingway, or Plath, or Tennyson, I don’t mind if some people think I’m not a “great” writer, but I never want anyone to come away from a story of mine and say it wasn’t believable. If I have to constantly wonder how I can improve my language and if I’ve got the stuff to put words to page to avoid that outcome, so be it.
After our own internal concerns, after the writing process and all of the angst that goes with it, there is the publishing world. There’s a big part of me that is happy just to write and tell stories and if nobody ever read them, would be okay with simply having penned them. But a more vocal chunk of my psyche really wants what I write in front of the eyes of readers—well read readers at that. People who love books as much as I do, be they hardbound, mass market, or electronic. I’m interested in taking on topics I don’t see often in the market, and I know that this at once gives me a niche I can pitch, and means that many, many agents won’t see the value in my manuscripts. I’ve gotten several requests for partials, and two requests for fulls, and this tells me that I’m marketable, even if I haven’t signed with anyone yet. If I were wholly out of the park I’d have heard nothing.
That is Knowing Myself. Having the confidence to survive the agent-publisher game, even as the rules of the contest keep shifting, sometimes as quickly as the San Andreas Fault. On his blog Bob Mayer gave advice to writers today that the emergent of us can not generally say out loud. We should, after all, have expectations of agents, just as they have particular assumptions about our professional (or not) behavior. Are there a lot of terrible awful deranged query letters out there? Oh, sure. But this just makes my job easier. I’m very good at the business letter and the marketing pitch. And because I’ve thought about a ton about my current projects, I know them well and can modulate my message when I am asked. I’m also quite sure I’m not the only writer out there who can do this, so hey, writers should practice their pitches even before they’re done drafting the story. It can reveal weaknesses one hadn’t realized were present.
There is a lot of merit in the Fake It Till You Make It approach. I had to defer thinking about my authenticity as a writer for a long, long time, and in the time since I really dedicated myself to crafting words, Holly Riggenbach became Holly Black. If I’d been writing this whole time since we shared a summer writing workshop, would I be a best selling novelist in the YA market with a movie adaptation on my hands?
I’ll never know, of course, but I’m not going to spend the next 17 years wondering. I’ve got books to write.