When the Cat Explodes
|Ursula Le Guin|
"Ultimately you write alone. And ultimately you and you alone can judge your work. The judgment that a work is complete—this is what I meant to do, and I stand by it—can come only from the writer, and it can be made rightly only by a writer who’s learned to read her own work. Group criticism is great training for self-criticism. But until quite recently no writer had that training, and yet they learned what they needed. They learned it by doing it." -- Ursula Le Guin, Steering the Craft
On another blog I talk about my current search for an agent. I searched for years for the right agent, firing two agents along the way because they were not serving my best interest. Finally, finally I found the ONE. After five years, and the sale of my two historical fiction middle grade books, my agent decided to focus on picturebooks and so ended our relationship. For a year now, I’ve been in search of a new agent. I write historical fiction, focusing on forgotten characters (usually girls, who are not represented enough) and events (because I think as a nation, we are historically illiterate and have forgotten our own story) that helped build the American landscape. I write historical American fantasy, a unique blending of the tall tale tradition and character that captures so much of the American identity with the historical American landscape.
Careful to do my research, and asking for recommendations, I’ve sent out two to three queries a week. Giving time for responses, I’ve sent out close to thirty queries. Most have given me the silent rejection and not responded. A few responses rejected the manuscript because historical fiction is a hard sell. A few others offered only that it was a bad fit. One asked for a revision, and then ultimately passed. Another asked for another revision, offering detailed observations.
But now, I struggle with the writing. I struggle with getting it done.
I am reminded of Neil Gaiman’s speech on how to live the creative life, delivered in May of 2012 at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts:
“When things get tough, this is what you should do: Make good art. I’m serious. Husband runs off with a politician — make good art. Leg crushed and then eaten by a mutated boa constrictor — make good art. IRS on your trail — make good art. Cat exploded — make good art. Someone on the Internet thinks what you’re doing is stupid or evil or it’s all been done before — make good art. Probably things will work out somehow, eventually time will take the sting away, and that doesn’t even matter. Do what only you can do best: Make good art. Make it on the bad days, make it on the good days, too.” –Neil Gaiman, on making good art. See more at Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings here.
The definition of “good art” seems to shift between readers, between agents, between editors. One agent rejected my story, stating it has too many characters while the plot was exciting. Another agent stated that she loved all the characters but the plot is too quiet. Another said there was too much reflection, while another said it had too much narrative. The indomitable Ursula Le Guin speaks to this notion:
“Thanks to “show don’t tell,” I find writers in my workshops who think exposition is wicked. They’re afraid to describe the world they’ve invented...This dread of writing a sentence that isn’t crammed with “gutwrenching action” leads fiction writers to rely far too much on dialogue, to restrict voice to limited third person and tense to the present. They believe the narrator’s voice (ponderously described as “omniscient”) distances the story — whereas it’s the most intimate voice of all, the one that tells you what is in the characters’ hearts, and in yours. The same fear of “distancing” leads writers to abandon the narrative past tense, which involves and includes past, present, and future, for the tight-focused, inflexible present tense. But distance lends enchantment...” states Ursula LeGuin, on her criticism of John Rechy’s essay that “attacks three “rules of writing” that, according to him, often go unchallenged: These three rules include 1.Show, don’t tell. 2. Write about what you know. 3. Always have a sympathetic character for the reader to relate to.” (Find more of Ursula LeGuin’s wisdom on her blog here.)
So what’s a writer to do? First, have courage to break the rules, but finish the story.
Neil Gaiman reminds us that, “You have to finish things — that’s what you learn from, you learn by finishing things.” (To learn more about Neil Gaiman advice to aspiring writers, and to see a podcast interview, visit Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings here.)
“If you’re only going to write when you’re inspired, you may be a fairly decent poet, but you will never be a novelist — because you’re going to have to make your word count today, and those words aren’t going to wait for you, whether you’re inspired or not. So you have to write when you’re not “inspired.” … And the weird thing is that six months later, or a year later, you’re going to look back and you’re not going to remember which scenes you wrote when you were inspired and which scenes you wrote because they had to be written.” -- Neil Gaiman
So with this new year, during this time of new beginnings: Finish your story. Learn the rules. Break the rules. Make new mistakes.
“Because if you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world. You’re doing things you’ve never done before, and more importantly, you’re Doing Something.
"So that’s my wish for you, and all of us, and my wish for myself. Make New Mistakes. Make glorious, amazing mistakes. Make mistakes nobody’s ever made before. Don’t freeze, don’t stop, don’t worry that it isn’t good enough, or it isn’t perfect, whatever it is: art, or love, or work or family or life.
Whatever it is you’re scared of doing, Do it.” –Neil Gaiman.
Wishing you a year of making good art.
Photo of Ursula Le Guin courtesy Euan Monaghan/Structo