Thursday, August 14, 2014

The Writer's Middle Finger (How to Grow It, Groom It, Love It, and Stretch It.)

Yesterday, my friend Joanne Levy alerted me that my Writer's Middle Finger links in the sidebar didn't work anymore. I came to the blog and tried them only to find that RedRoom (described many years ago as Facebook for writers) had upped and disappeared. Luckily I was able to grab my archived RedRoom blog content and store it here on this blog.

The only posts I saved were the Writer's Middle Finger posts. They're old in many ways. This first one was about writing PLEASE IGNORE VERA DIETZ, but no one knew it then because it didn't have a title yet. When I read those words at the end--I May Still Fail--I find it interesting looking back. I had no idea VERA would become what it did. I was, and still am, just a writer writing books.

In order to get all these posts live somewhere, I plan on posting one per day until they are all up. So, I'll see you every day this week and over the weekend. I will fix the links once there are links.

Also: the plan for tomorrow was to post some spectacular fan art by Ana, but that will now be pushed to next week. But D100D fans: just wait. There's a cape here to die for.

And so, I give you WMF #1.

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First published: June 2, 2008

The Writer's Middle Finger (How to Grow It, Groom It, Love It, and Stretch It.)

Last winter, I hit a bump. A big bump. I forgot why I write.
Here’s the relevant backstory. I wrote seven novels over twelve years before I found an agent. It was nearly fourteen years before I eventually sold a book. What I want to write about today is what I possess, and what many of you possess, that makes us continue writing and investing ourselves for such long stretches of time without the so-called ‘success’ of publication.
This winter, when I came down to my office day after day with a big empty nothing where the novelist in me used to be, unable to pinpoint why I even have an office, I considered these things. How did I get here? Why did I want this so much? And how do I get it back?
How Did I Get Here?
By the time I’d written a few books, and submitted them, and had them rejected, I’d learned to overcome the frustrating, heart breaking road I was on. Frankly, I learned to write with my middle finger up. I’d had it with the changing fads I never fit into. I didn’t want to do what the how-to books told me to do. I didn’t aim or outline. I didn’t learn a formula for fiction. I didn’t read the right books for pleasure. I didn’t join internet writing groups. I stayed away from advice and articles and books about writing. This wasn’t about selling. It was about learning. So I wrote – what I wanted to write – with my middle finger extended.
Sheer stubbornness. It’s how I got this far. (I bet it’s how you got this far, too.) How else does a person write for years in the land of continuous NO?
But then the YES came.
And you can’t give YES the middle finger.
Why Did I Want This So Much?
I’m not sure if this happens to every writer who finally sells a book, but I felt a massive pressure to hurry up and write another one to sell. In my case, The Dust of 100 Dogs sold as YA, so I knew I wanted to write another edgy YA. That’s where I was this winter, when I hit the bump.
I’d trudge down to the desk, in hopes of inspiration. I’d write openings and more openings. I’d wade through pages of notes, or unfinished manuscripts. Or – God love me – I even revisited the novel that we shopped first and never sold. I realized that this – the writing the next book thing – was the hardest part of writing. And yet, it’s the whole reason we started to write, right? To…keep writing? I found myself in the oddest position. I’d sold a book, which was wonderful, but now I had to sit myself down and write the next book, which was no easier than the last ones I’d written. Actually it was harder, due to non-existent inspiration, total lack of purpose, and a growing awareness of ‘my career.’ (Though I did manage a few shorts, which helped keep me sane.)
Then, something great happened.
In late February, I was skimming the internet for sites with tips for writers and I found so many of them teeming with awful, limiting advice! One should always write in a particular tense and never use certain POVs, and never use certain words (big ones) and should also always name their character Dirk or Sally, because they are so-called ‘strong’ names.
I’m sure it’s true, to some degree, that to sell in certain arenas, a book has to closely resemble all books that came before it, but the idea that there are strict rules in this way, in any genre, was simply ridiculous to me. And invigorating. Because finding advice so poor reminded me that I needed to find my middle finger again to write another book.
Tell me what tense to write my book in? (See it going up?)
You say I can’t write in second person? (You see it don’t you?)
Tell me what to name my characters? (Dirk sees it.)
Don’t use big words? (Can you visualize me hoisting my medial phalanx?)
Suddenly, I remembered why I wanted this. I wanted this because I wanted to write books. I wanted this because I wanted to write books I would love to read, even if nobody else did. I love books that much. I love the process that much. My process – void of Dirks and Sallys, sometimes in multiple tenses, often from several points of view, occasionally requiring a dictionary. It may not follow all the so-called rules, but it’s mine.
(Books are like snowflakes. I want to make a blizzard.)
And How Do I Get it Back?
On my birthday in early March, I drove through my old hometown on an errand. This is still a complete novelty for me, because I never thought I’d move back to the US, let alone anywhere near my hometown. It makes me oddly chirpy. I relax, or something, when I’m there. I passed a place I used to work. A story setting came to me, and a theme. Two characters formed in my head on the bypass home. Later that day, I pulled over into a church parking lot and jotted down the plot idea.
Four weeks later, I was done with the 60k first draft.
After spending January and February staring at the screen, wondering where the novelist in me had gone, without warning, I was me again. Because I remembered to exercise my middle finger and allowed myself to write in frowned-upon tenses, in four points of view, covering bizarre and awkward YA subject matter, while incorporating enormous words as part of the plot. What started out as a boring drive across town to buy organic rice ended in this multi-colored stack of scribbled-on paper here on my desk.
I May Still Fail
The book may not sell. Every one of us shares the murky long game this business offers, no matter what kind of books we write and no matter how many we sell. But I’m starting to see this as a good thing. Without something to rebel against, to make me explore my own fears and deep corners, I am uninspired. Without boundaries to push, or hurdles to clear, I grow lazy. Without something to flip the bird at, I’m bored.
So it’s good for us to read bad advice and get rejection letters and endure the next distant relative who asks, “Have you sold a book yet?” with that mocking smirk on his face. It’s good for us to toil in the land of NO. It’s fuel for the bubbling pit of stubbornness and crazy determination we need to do our job long enough to finally succeed. It is the perfect environment to grow and groom your writer’s middle finger.
The trick is, no matter where you are in your journey, to remember to stretch it.
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Stay tuned for tomorrow's post. WMF #2.


LJ EKlund said...

You just made me cry. Thank you for this post.

A.S. King said...

Aw! I'm so glad you enjoyed it. Thanks.
Stay tuned all week. There are 7 more to come. Reading them in order yesterday after recovering them from RedRoom had an impact on me. It's really strange to see how much has changed in my career, but more importantly, how much hasn't changed at all.

Unknown said...

Thank you so much. I was just getting discouraged with my writing sample for Grad school, which I know is not the same as a book, but fear was locking my mmind down.

Unknown said...

Thank you!

I've been falling into the doldrums. This was just what I needed to kick the doldrums where they hurt.

Dammit yes. And I will trust the story to give me what it needs.

Joanne Levy said...

I am SO glad you had these saved. Gold. Seriously.