This is a post for all those writers who want to give up. Don’t. No matter how long it takes, keep going.
I was so disappointed when the novel I now hold in my hands, A Remarkable Kindness, got rejected by more than a dozen publishing companies in 2006.
Because I was hurt and dejected and feeling a bit sorry for myself, I stuffed the novel in a drawer and refused to even think about it. Then, in 2013, I was at the Jewish Book Council promoting my memoir, The Mom Who Took Off On Her Motorcycle, and it hit me in one of those epiphanies (if it were a Hollywood movie, there would have been a bolt of lightning): REWRITE THAT NOVEL.
That was in the spring. I reworked it through the summer of 2013. Reworked is putting it mildly. I had to rewrite almost each sentence. I polished it the way a guy might polish his first car – with a toothbrush. I originally had the point of view be a third-person narrator. I decided to make each of my four main characters write in her own voice. I had to change every “she” to “I” and every “her” to “my.” Changing the point of view was important because I had to really get into each character’s head and see the world through her eyes. Would Lauren think in this kind of metaphor? What simile would Emily use?
Still, there were some days when I thought, this is crazy, what are you doing I did not have writer’s block – I had writer’s neighborhood. Why are you wasting your time? But then I told myself,
IF YOU GIVE UP, YOU WILL NEVER FORGIVE YOURSELF.
I felt like I was writing in a cave, scratching away at a dirty stone wall. But I kept going. When I was ready, I gave it to some trusted friends to read. Then I sent it out to literary agents. One kind agent told me that it’s really hard to get the voice right and the characters sounded too much alike. So, I rewrote it all again, changing every “I” back to “she” and every “my” back to “her.”
Can you see how tough this all was?
The first time around, my novel was called, The Dead Can Never Thank You. (My daughter, Amalia, said that it sounded like a ghost story.) When I resubmitted it, I called it The Women’s Burial Circle, which sounded too much like an anthropologist’s look at a weird ritual in Papua, New Guinea.
Then I stumbled upon literary agent, Steven Chudney, who accepted the novel. Like an architect able to envision a house in his head, he was able to envision how the book should be. I reworked it again using his guidance. He sold it to Rachel Kahan at HarperCollins within a few months.
So, if you are reading this and feeling the blues because if you haven’t sold your novel yet, keep working. It took me a lot longer than I thought it would – about eighteen years longer – to sell my second book. But don’t smash your computer. Keep moving your fingers over the keyboard or (as in my case) using a trusty fountain pen.
If you’re stuck, here is one exercise you might try:
Write a story in which one character has a secret that she/he has to tell someone about. Begin right at the moment she or he tells the secret, and then work backwards. Here’s a sentence to start with:
“What do you mean, impossible?” I said. This is based on the sentence I used to start me writing my story, “One Kiss, One Baby, One God,” for Commentary Magazine.) You can mix it up:
“What do you mean, impossible?” my boss/my best friend/my lover/my son/my priest said…
Set your timer. Give yourself however long you think you can stand sitting and writing fast. Write as much as you can in thirty minutes, let’s say. Do this a little at a time and you will have a story. Then put it aside for a while. Take it out to show your ideal reader. Do not send it out to magazines until you have had it read and edited. Take your time. As Malcolm Gladwell says, we have to put in our 10,000 hours.
And remember – if we write to get approval and admiration, then we’ll always feel slightly dissatisfied. We have to write for the joy of writing, just for the pleasure and the abandon and the free-fall feeling we get putting words together. Approval is an inside job. We have to fill our own wells.
We have to do the thing that calls us.
My husband, Jonny, wrote me:
“It is yours; you did it. You NEVER gave up. You got knocked down but you got up. You have guts. When I think of the word perseverance, your name heads my list. You experienced ups and downs and near crises but diligently continued no matter how many rejection letters you received. I am sitting back enjoying your success – so well-deserved.”
Proving myself – to myself – is the best feeling around. So all I can say to you, keep going. I really believe that the universe supports our dreams.