Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The “Q” Word, part 3

Okay, here we go. At last, the final installment.
(Brings to mind, “Space: the final frontier,” doesn’t it?...)

When we last left our trepid (as opposed to intrepid, as I’ve never been accused of resembling a Dodge) author, she had lifted the lid on a Pandora’s Box of success as an inspirational writer: winning second place in a pretty major contest for a manuscript that was, basically, an experiment. That book ultimately went on to become my first published novel, the story of which could easily take up another three or four blog posts. But the impact of that sale, momentous as it was on the surface, worked some havoc into my previously well-ordered writing life and, I believe—unfortunately—took it off track.

Part of that derailment happened because, as I mentioned, I internalize other people’s expectations to an extraordinary degree for a person who’s normally the “devil’s advocate” in almost any situation. One of the great conflicts of my life, one I thought I was going to deal with in my first marriage, has been a longing to Just Belong Somewhere. To just Be One Of The Girls. I’ve never really been that. I’ve always been the one with the “unique insights” or the “other angle” or the “voice of reason” or even “conscience.” I tried to leave that brand of self behind and become the Perfect (Conventional) Christian Wife in that first marriage. It didn’t work…for many reasons, none the least of which was that the man I picked for a husband wasn’t, in the end, good husband material. But I so wanted to be a good little “Maxwell Housewife” (remember that commercial?) that I swallowed down a lot of who I really was, for a long time, in the desperate attempt to “fit in.” In the end, of course, none of it worked, because anytime we try to “be” something we’re not at the core, the core eventually pushes its way back up to the surface—at which point we have two choices, and only one leads to a mentally healthy existence. :-)

Unfortunately, some of us learn a good lesson in one aspect of our lives but then don’t carry that lesson through to the whole. And that’s what happened to me where my writing was concerned.
It’s hard to explain this without either writing thousands of words or sounding like some kind of wimp, but I’ll try.

Once upon a time, I was a happy secular romance writer. I believed I had found a place to fit in, a genre in which I was going to succeed, and a group of people who would cheer me on every step of the way. Then…things started to change. I began getting repeated rejections and hearing repeated critiques that hinted that maybe I actually didn’t write romance at all. Or at least not contemporary sweet romance…which made me feel a bit unsteady on my writing feet. After all, if what you’ve been telling yourself you do for years and years isn’t what you’re actually doing…is it the fault of your own perception, or is it bad advice? I honestly didn’t know. I was getting advice from people who “ought to know”—writers who wrote for lines I wanted to break into. I figured they were as good as anyone to give me a barometer of where I was going to fit in the genre…only they all said different things. Very different things.

When I read my Golden Heart book first chapter to my RWA group, three Silhouette Romance authors point-blank told me, “This is clearly your voice, and this is a Silhouette Romance.”

When I subjected my romantic suspense to various reads and readers, I got even more confusing feedback. That book has been called everything from a straight romance to a mainstream inspirational romantic suspense to a mainstream novel to women’s fiction to a paranormal to…well, you get the idea.

One writer whose opinion I respect read some of my stuff and told me I ought to think about writing historicals, specifically Regencies, because I have just the hint of “wry” in my writing that would go well in that genre…and a style that tends to the more lyrical and would suit the tone of a historical novel much better than a contemporary.

And then out of nowhere, I came up with a chick-lit voice—with its accompanying comedic tone—that I found myself able to “drop into”—once again, for short periods of time. (Not sure if I could maintain it for a whole book, but then again….)

And then, of course, there was the inspy side to my writing. The spiritual side. The box into which I was getting shoved with ever more (gentle) force simply because I write “clean,” I write characters who go to church, and I had, in fact, published an inspy…and everyone knows that you shouldn’t try to sell too many radically different kinds of stories out of the gate, because if you do that, publishers won’t know what your audience is, or your “brand” is, and…

Along about this time, the romance genre took off in some completely off-the-charts directions, and I told myself, “Well, clearly, I can’t be a part of a genre that’s going to do what this is going to do. So that’s it for romance for me. I obviously don’t write romance. I need to find what I do write.”

Only then the question posed itself: how was I going to decide that?

Some people “can” only write one thing. Their voice is so clearly, so strongly one thing or the other, that you can’t imagine them anywhere else. But apparently I am not that writer; I’ve seen it for myself in the different kinds of writing I do for romantic suspense or “woo-woo” versus the sweet, funny, and innocent tone of my first book. But where was my strongest voice? Where was I most talented? And then, as a Catholic Christian, I started asking what I should commit to writing…and where my voice should be used, and how…

I’m sure you know what’s coming. The moment that “s” word entered into the mental negotiations, I effectively paralyzed myself. I didn’t know that’s what I was doing; I had an uneasy feeling about trying to reframe my form of expression and the stories I told, but I increasingly began to feel like that was my “duty” somehow. I increasingly have come, in the last couple of years, to tell myself I “need” to write “godly”…or there’s something off kilter in my Christian commitment. And I sure as heck didn’t want my writing to be a bad witness!


The problem was, and is, that I never came from the place where my writing was ever supposed to be a “witness” in the first place. Yes, I believe I do everything for the glory of God; but previously, I considered secular writing perfectly okay, in that I never glorified anything ungodly. I may have dealt with ghostly voices, or spirits, or otherworldly manifestations—but I never portrayed them as something a character based her faith life on. My writing may have had characters swear or use rough language—but those were situations in which most people I know would have used those words. I wrote what I knew, I didn’t write anything dirty, and I told a good story…and for years, that was enough.

But then…I started wondering. And I started “being convicted” on all kinds of things I’d been writing—not because they were necessarily “wrong,” but because they weren’t reflective of a “spiritual” person’s writing…or so I thought. My characters were ordinary people. But maybe they needed to be much more than that, if I were going to be “true” to my faith in my writing.

Over time, as a result of selling one inspirational novel and being surrounded by loving, talented Christian writers—coupled with going to work in a Catholic publishing house where our entire mission is “what the Church teaches and why”—I came to believe that there were simply story types, storylines, and storytelling styles that I would no longer be able to use if I were to be a consistent Christian witness.
With that, one brick went up in a creative wall.

Then, I vowed I’d never try to sell to Harlequin again, because they came out with an erotica line and I couldn’t “be a part” of a house that would do that.
And another brick went up.

Then, I realized that many of my previous fellow genre writers were writing, in a word, smut—and soon, I found myself having difficulty with more than merely not selling to Harlequin; I in effect couldn’t even participate in a genre that could tolerate that anymore.
And another brick went up.

Then, I thought…well, I’ve sold one inspy, so that means I may have a foot in the door of that market. But that then meant that I needed to make sure the spiritual content of my books was Christian, and made no bones about it. I needed to have characters who viewed the world through a Christian lens…all the time. I needed to show them praying, to have them refuse to believe any “spirit” that wasn’t “tested”…to have them going to church and that be integral to the plot of the book.
And another brick went up.

Then, I began to notice—and bemoan—the lack of contemporary Catholic fiction out there. I was a good Catholic, I was a good writer…that must mean that I was supposed to start focusing my fiction on Catholic themes. I was not an evangelical—so what was I doing watering down the Catholic identity of the books? No, I needed to put in more “Catholic references.” I needed to put together my stories in such a way that people had no doubt where my characters stood.
And another brick went up.

Then, I realized there were really no outlets for publishing Catholic contemporary fiction. So here I was, in a Catholic publishing house, the perfect person to bring fiction into this place…only that wasn’t in their plans, and won’t be for some time to come, if ever. So even if I wrote something good, solid, entertaining, and doctrinally steady—or if I knew someone who had, and desperately thought their book should be out there—my employer wasn’t going to be the place where I could even edit that kind of book, much less publish one of my own.
And another brick went up.

Then, I went to ACFW with the idea that I could reinvent myself.
That I could get an agent, or an editor, to “take me on” with something I already have, or something I could “make fit” if I needed to. And I proceeded to commit to doing so.

And then I woke up that Saturday, with that letter in my hand, and realized I had painted myself into the proverbial corner. Or bricked myself in, actually.

Now, you may wonder how a person can deliberately hem herself in this way. You may wonder how my writerly common sense didn’t take over and say, “Yanno, you’re not that kind of writer, so quit trying to force yourself to be one ‘brand’ or another.” I can tell you why, in a nutshell: the uncertainty of too many rejections and too many conflicting opinions on where my talents lay. I had all the good intentions in the world…to find a place to “fit in” once more.

Not to express myself or tell my stories. To tell stories these people would approve of, would buy, would publish. I felt no other choice available to me, as a Christian. I wouldn’t dare just write secular any more. I couldn’t. Not and be a witness…right?

That’s how it came to be that, wanting so badly to “fit in” somewhere, I sold myself out.

When I found a welcome among Christian fiction writers, I decided I just needed to learn how to work with the inputs restricting me on one side (“Be careful! “shucks” is a euphemism for worse things! And that goes for “drat,” “darn,” “golly,” “gee whiz,” and what kind of Christian are you if your characters even think those words????”) and demanding more of me on the other (“CBA fiction is not Catholic fiction, and you’re gonna have a hard time selling Catholic characters to it, so tone down the Catholic content”).

The problem was…in my heart, I didn’t want to—and in fact, couldn’t—“write to a market” that restrictively. I simply wanted to write plain, old-fashioned, horking good stories…in my own style, with my own voice, my own word usages and my own worldview.

With the Guideposts submission, I thought I had a niche I could fill and be happy with. But point of fact is, I was trying to play fast and loose, even with that. I was taking something that I figured I “could work with” to use as a way to break into what I saw as a heck of a good market; only I knew, in my heart of hearts, that the thought of trying to write those books the way I was proposing them made something in me sink, made something in my stomach knot, and made me worry about whether I’d have it in me to fulfill a contract if I did get one.

But I so wanted to belong, I was willing to try. And that’s what it was about, once again…just as it had been in my first marriage.

I so wanted to find a way to be “let in” to the place where the “big kids” were playing. I wanted to find a place where I could “land,” with my own particular style, my own holiness, my own quirks and crazinesses, and have them be at least tolerated well enough that I could once again have a book cover with my name on it. That was the bottom line. To try anything once, just to see what worked…and then find a way to work with it.

But for me, real, edge-of-the-seat, fire-in-the-belly creativity isn’t about finding a way to work with a piece of fiction. It’s not about finding something serviceable to sell. It’s not about putting together a story that glorifies some publisher’s vision of God…or preaches Jesus in a particular way…or reveals some deep truth I need to learn and want to share with the world. My fiction can do all those things. But starting out to do that from the get-go? That, I can’t do. I thought I could. I was wrong.

For me, it has to be about nothing but story. And story is what I’ve completely lost in all that feedback, all that selling and editing and reworking and experimenting and retelling and revising. Because of all the things I have available that I could work on to sell to the Christian market, the bitter truth is,
I don’t care enough about any of them to finish them now...I might never care enough to finish them…and I have no other ideas that are “suitable” or “godly” enough to get past the gatekeepers in that market.

In other words, boys and girls…I’ve hit the breaking point. Thank God.
Even though it was painful to hit it.
Even though I loved meeting the Guideposts editor.
Even though I would still love to sell them, or another Christian publisher—or even a Catholic fiction publisher—something, someday.

That someday just isn’t going to be soon…because I’m quitting.

That was what I resolved at the sink that Saturday afternoon—that it’s time I stopped doing this to myself. Stopped trying to write what everyone tells me I’m talented at, and go back to writing what I dang well feel like. Stopped worrying about whether my writing is “suitable” and just make it great. Stopped doing what I think I ought to do, or should do, or have a duty to do, and go back to doing
what I love to do.

In short, I quit being a Catholic Christian writer.
I’m going back to just being a writer who is a Catholic Christian.
A writer who can tell a horking good story, one that’ll make the hair on your neck stand on end, make you sob at the page or make you laugh yourself out of your chair…but only if it’s
already worked that magic on me.

So I’m done.
Done with doing anything but what will make me shiver, or jump out of my seat pacing with the emotional turmoil I’m putting myself through, or cut so close to the bone that I cry when I read what I write, even as I’m writing it. Because anything else, boys and girls…is no longer worth doing at all.

Anything less, I have to stop doing.

This moment.
And forever.

Hopefully, the big kids will still let me play.
But even if they don’t, I can’t make myself over into someone they’ll allow in.

Not today.
Not tomorrow.
Not now.
Not ever.





Thursday, November 06, 2008

The “Q” word, part 2

Okay, I won’t say there’s been panic in the streets…but close. (Yeah, I flatter myself. My crit partner’s paying attention…and maybe three other people. But, hey, it counts.) That’s worth looking at in and of itself. Which we will do, as we go along.
First of all, though, let me say a couple of things about the word “quit.”

Very few four-letter words inspire the same knee-jerk reaction from writers as that one does. I mean that literally. You can hang around writers who’ll cheerfully pollute their (and my) airspace and ears with cusswords of all variety—colorful, even scatological—over the slightest thing…with a smile.
But you mention the word quit, and their blood runs cold.
Or they look real, real nervous.
Or they get defensive, maybe even condescending.
Or they pretend they didn’t hear it.
Or…they laugh. Sometimes derisively, sometimes…not so much so.

Because quitting writing is something real writers never do. At least not real writers who also eventually expect to get published in some recognizable form in the English- (or any other language-) speaking world. This is a given.
This is also a fact. If you quit, those words will not only never get on your computer screen…they’ll never get to a reader. Any reader.
Ergo, since no one has yet mastered the technique of sending brilliant prose via brainwaves to an editor whose brainwaves will pick it up without typos...the act of quitting, stoppage—even taking a break, for heaven’s sake—means you’re one day (or a lot of days) farther away from gaining space on the page, the bookshelf, and the marketplace.
So of course, if one wants to have one’s name on a book cover, the first advice one has to remember to follow is Finish the Dang Book. Which means Not Quitting.

Fast-rewind to our previous installment of this chat, however, and you will see that this particular writer has an impressive track record of perseverance.
I mean, for heaven’s sake, I joined RWA in 1988 for the express purpose of entering the Golden Heart competition—because I wanted to win that thing so badly I was willing to part with hard-earned dollars to actually join an organization.
Those of you who know me know what a step that was. In high school, I was a great “joiner.” I was in lots and lots of extracurricular activities—but that’s the clue. They were activities. I did them with people who were already my friends. So for me, at the age of 36, to jump into a professional writers’ organization in which I knew not a soul...well, let’s say it was an act of what felt like colossal chutzpah at the time, not to mention almost dizzying optimism.

Lots of water has gone under that particular bridge in the ensuing years, but one thing that remains out of all of it is that I’m not usually One Who Quits easily.

So, you may ask, why quit now?
When I have one published book that slipped neatly under my belt, and now has slipped just as neatly out of that belt and is back in my hands to sell…someday…again?
When I’ve won a major writing contest, even if it was years ago?
When I’m probably just that
one more submission away?
Putting aside the ack-ack response to that last sentence :-), let me elucidate.
I am quitting being the writer I am now.
I am quitting that so I can go back to
being the writer I used to be.

Okay, now you’re scratching your heads, but at least you’re not tearing any more hair out. I hope.
So what do I mean by the above?

Rewind again…to 1998, when I was a Golden girl. If you woke me from a sound sleep at that point in time and asked me my goal, I would have said, “A three-book contract with Silhouette Romance.”
I knew where I was headed, and I had no doubt I would get there.
But then some things started to happen.

It takes some of us a long time to internalize others’ expectations, but it takes me almost no time at all. Some of them, of course, I can resist. But others...find their way in.
Because I wrote clean books, with no sex on the page, I was starting to notice the winds of change toward fewer and fewer of those kinds of books...and more of the steam I had no intention of writing.

It was about that time that someone suggested for the first time that I write inspirationals—because they were “clean.” This notion, I pooh-poohed out of the gate...for a number of very good reasons, most of which had to do with my Catholic roots, and some of which had to do with the truly hinky lack of quality I was seeing in so-called inspirational romances at that time.

To be blunt, early on, those books weren’t very good. I didn’t like them, I didn’t know anyone who did, and so I’d be darned if I’d sell to one of those markets—even if I could break in somehow, which I doubted. Since my characters liked to dance, go to movies, play cards, drink wine, and were even known once in a while to say a “darn,” a “gosh,” or a “shucks”....well, there wasn’t a chance in Hades I was going to get one of my little books accepted by a standard inspy house any time that I could see, not without gutting most of what my characters were otherwise free to do in the real world. :-)

But the suggestion stayed with me.
Through more and more rejections of my sweet, traditional romances...
Through rejections of my dark, murky romantic suspenses...
All the way up to the day when I thought, “Oh, okay. What the heck. Let me see if I can try one of those things.” But I wasn’t going to start from scratch; I felt I had a much better shot if I took one of my already squeaky-clean books and...gave it an extra dimension.

I did it as a lark. Honest.

And then, liking the first three chapters of what I’d done, I thought, “What the heck,” and entered the Faith, Hope, and Love RWA Chapter’s inspy contest with it.
And it won second place.

Second place.

To which—had I been prone to say such things then—I would’ve said, “Woot!”

This was something that thrilled me to the skies. Heck, getting good scores on a contest always does that for me—but to get good scores in a contest with your first try at one of those weird little “religious” books that you swore up and down you couldn’t write?

That made me start thinking...
What if I, in my heart of hearts, was actually an inspirational romance writer?

Little did I know that I was opening a Pandora’s box by even asking that question. By even thinking myself into that framework...exploring it...and wondering if that would be, indeed, where I was going to “make it.”

In retrospect, I have come to realize that that question led me down a desperately wrong path. Maybe not a wrong path for anyone else...but a wrong one for me.

Why and how it did so, I’ll talk about in my next post.

More to come,

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

P.T. Barnum was right.

There’s only one thing I can say about the election results this morning.

A running joke on the Law and Order program says, “The DA’s office can indict a ham sandwich if they feel like it.”

We in America, however, have just gone even farther.
We’ve elected one President.

God help us all.


Tuesday, November 04, 2008

The “Q” Word

Over this past weekend, I opened one of those envelopes we all hate: the SASE with the single sheet of paper in it, saying, “Thanks, no, thanks.” In short, Guideposts Books rejected Rainman’s Bride…and the editor said nothing about any of the other books that I had proposed as a trilogy with RB, only encouraged me to consider Guideposts with my future writing.

Now, for those of you who don’t know the drill, that encouragement is good news…but only to a point. It could have been worse—the letter could have closed with one of those say-no-evil sorts of endings that neither encourages you to submit anything else nor enjoins you never to darken the door again, just wishes you “luck” in your writing career (which most authors, being naturally paranoid, will look at and wail, “She hates it! She hates me!”).

Or, it could have been much blunter and conveyed the editor’s dislike for something particular about your work or your style—thereby effectively shutting the door on you for any further conversations. (And yes, I have gotten letters like that!) So in that context, being told to feel free to consider them again for other work is encouragement of its own sort.

It also must be said, in fairness to the editor in question, that she did not send a form letter. Far from it. This was two to three paragraphs in which she told me, quite specifically, what she liked and didn’t like about the premise and the story. So in that sense, it’s kind of like that MasterCard commercial: there are some things money can’t buy. In that context, there are authors out there who would kill for that much detail in a note from an editor, and the sage multi-pubs among us would be nodding their heads in agreement: Yes, this is very good. Personalized, detailed, it means you’re very close.

Trouble is, I was getting letters like this back in 1988. And sage multi-pubs were nodding their heads meaningfully then.

Twenty years ago.

So I think it’s only fair to wonder, at a point like this, just how long one can be in very close land before one has to face the possibility that one really hasn’t gotten any better in twenty years…or that one really is only kidding oneself.

That’s not a question you want to be mulling on a Saturday afternoon.

The added complication in this mix, of course, is that this work in question wasn't exactly "recent" work. What I did was take a pretty darn good book (Golden Heart good, in fact), tweak it, polish it up a bit, and send it along. I've toyed with completely rewriting this book several times; every time I do, however, I get into it and start thinking that if it was good enough to win a national award ten years ago, doesn't that mean it's good enough to the right

Apparently not. Because in the subsequent time I’ve been submitting it to various places, it’s gotten reactions ranging from polite indifference to a return with grammar markups on it (!) to—probably the most interesting one—a multi-page “rant” from a publisher who all but advised burning the thing and starting over.

What it hasn’t gotten is a read sympathetic enough to merit the letter that says, “…should you elect to make this change, and this one, and this one, we’re inclined to go to contract.”

It’s bad enough when one’s ten-year-old work is treated this way, but when work that’s more recent than that—or work that is revised and redone, based on the much-improved talent one has now—also gets a similar reception...

Well, it's not like I've never "quit" before.

Many authors do. Or want to.
We get to some point or other in this endless cycle of euphoria and despair/disgust where we don’t want to do this to ourselves anymore. We don’t want to keep hoping. We don’t want to keep pursuing a dream that seems “stalled out” at a point two decades old.
So we quit.

And that is what I’m going to do.
I decided that Saturday afternoon at the kitchen sink.

Again, maybe not an optimum situation in which to make an important decision about one’s writing. But I’ve spent a generous amount of time thinking stories through, mulling over plot problems, and dreaming of success at the kitchen sink—so when I come to an important crossroads, thinking about it with my hands in water is not necessarily a bad way to go.

But before you howl too loud...

Hold tight and I’ll explain what “the Q word” is going to look like in my life.

In the next post.

Stay tuned!