Sunday, January 17, 2016

The End is the Beginning

“How’d the writing go today, love?” Bethany asked as I bustled inside.

“I don’t know. Good, I think.” I’d spent the past six hours at a local cafĂ© after work. I managed a hug and kiss for my wife as I slumped into a chair. “I don’t know, babe. I don’t think I’m getting anywhere.”

“You will,” she smiled. “The book is good. Hear anything from the agents?”

“Two more rejections.”

I bit my lip and glanced at our apartment. Our two cats were laid out comfortably on the floor. They didn’t care if I became a successful writer. They were at peace. I knelt down to scratch Nelson, our fat one, between the ears.

“Are you okay?” she asked.

“Yeah, well, I’ve been failing at this for a long time. What’s a few more rejections?” She kissed me again and moved away. I didn’t bother telling her how much these rejections hurt, because they all hurt. I’d been writing for eighteen years. I’d spent the past five working on an epic fantasy novel that had gone through many shifts. I'd been certain that it would break the glass ceiling for me. 

It hadn’t happened.

Hell, not even a sniff from the agents. Nothing but form rejections. And this after completely re-writing it (and sending it out) three times. I don't mean simply editing it, either. I'd probably written about two million words to get to the ninety thousand word novel that it was right now. 

It hadn't mattered.

I had no idea what to do. I’d been writing for so long, and had encountered so little in the way of success, that I wondered if it was time to give up. Oh, I’d keep writing, of course.. (It was impossible to imagine a life without writing stories.) But maybe I had to accept the fact that I wasn’t good enough. It wasn't like I wasn’t a prodigy. I hadn’t studied writing or English Lit. My degree was in theology, and I’d spent most of my life working with students with special needs.

I’d just turned forty-one. Nearly two decades after I’d penned my first novel, I was going nowhere.

My wife walked back into the room. “Are you sure you're okay?”

“Yeah. I just… I don’t know how to be good. I’ve done this every day, babe, and I’m still… They don’t like it.”

She wrapped her arms around my shoulders. “It’s good. You’ll make it. Just be patient.”

I was lucky. I knew that. Bethany understood who I was and that the man she’d married was an artist, successful or not. She didn’t care that I hadn’t broken through, didn’t care that the agents had rejected my work. Instead, she found time to edit my drafts and encourage me. It might’ve been a great story if a publisher or agent had sent me something other than a form rejection.

But they hadn’t.


Two weeks later, still revising my manuscript,  I stumbled upon a website called National Novel Writing Month. (NaNoWriMo) Their challenge was to write fifty thousand words in thirty days. I’d written between two and three million words the past five years, but when I looked at my manuscript, I decided it was time for a change. Something new. Maybe the agents were wrong. Maybe my book was good. It didn’t matter. Unfortunately, I had no idea what to write about. That it would be fantasy was a given. It was my favorite genre, the one I felt most comfortable in. But fifty thousand words in thirty days?

But I had nothing to lose (the website was free) so I signed up. 

That first day, I barely crawled past the necessary word count (1,667 words). Unlike my past attempts, however, I knew that my obsessive self-editing was no longer possible. Not if I was going to meet my goal. Not at this pace. 

So I stopped. I stopped worrying about who I might offend with language or religion. I stopped caring about what my friends and family might think. I stopped editing myself as I tried to unveil the story. In this, I’d reached the end. The end of trying to please people. The end of trying to make others happy. The end of trying to write so that everyone felt better.

I reached the end, and it was a new beginning.

With only a couple of vague pictures in my mind, The Last Angel formulated into something solid. I finished the challenge and completed the first draft ten days later. I still had no idea what I’d done until I showed it to my wife.

“It’s a winner, love,” she said.

But she’d said that before. I began the usual practice of sending it t agents, only this time, it garnered interest. Real interest.

Bolstered by what I’d written, I used the same thirty-day tactic to write the sequel. No editing. No censoring. Write from the heart.

The result, CITY OF SLAVES, was another book I was immediately proud of.

And while the interest from the agents waned, I was no longer deterred.

I had something. I could feel it.

I contacted my old editor, Erin Healy, who’d become a best-selling author in the years since we’d last spoke. I was on the verge, she said. And self-publishing was probably my most viable option.

The publishing world had changed greatly in the past four years. No longer did the gatekeepers hold all the power. The digital revolution had changed everything. And with my esteemed editor’s words ringing in my ears, I published The Last Angel.


THE LAST ANGEL

Four weeks have passed since I made the decision. The reviews for the book have been overwhelming. Every day, I am astounded by the love and encouragement from those who have picked up the book and cannot wait for its sequel.

One might think this to be an easy adjustment for an artist. It is not. I wrote for nearly two decades in the caverns of underwhelming. To have so many people leap to my work and love it is exciting, but oddly disconcerting as well.

The Last Angel wasn’t the beginning for me. It was the end. It was a desperate attempt to change things. And to do it, I had to ignore all the well-intentioned voices in my head, the ones about my friends and family and everything I’d ever read about best-selling books. Instead, I wrote the book that I wanted to read. I emphasized the scenes that I liked. I didn’t have time to consider the “public.” It was just me, my characters and a story that somehow made me feel better about myself and the world. That’s it.

It is so difficult today for artists. I suspect that has always been true, but in a world of fifteen second “takes” and “memes,” it has become increasingly difficult for story tellers to find a home. Hollywood seems more interested in sequels than new stories, and people are reading less than they did twenty years ago.

It’s easy to get lost in the mayhem. Easy to say that it’s not worth it.

But it is.

Even if it’s only your friends and family who read your work or listen to your songs or look at your paintings, it matters.  We have to end this notion that art is just for others. Yes, we hope people admire and buy our work, but art is ultimately for the artist, first.

 It isn’t the end of their dreams that creates life, it’s ours. It isn’t their pain that draws us to the page, it’s ours. And it isn’t their critique that matters.

It’s ours.

Until we stop trying to please people, we will never create the art we want, we will never be the person we want to be, and we will never live the life we long for.

So you’ve reached the end. And you are absolutely certain that no one wants to hear what you have to say?

Perfect.

You've reached the end. It's time to begin.