Monday, September 26, 2011

The Whole Package: Part 1 Voice

The Whole Package is a series describing the whole writer. This is part 1 of (n+1) where n equals the number of posts that I think it takes to cover the topic (subject to change)

Finding my voice (or Learn From My Fail)

When I started blogging (not all that long ago), I think I did it because it was the expected thing. I didn’t put too much into it, and I really REALLY didn’t want to be directing agents to my super secret blog where I’ve clearly shared too much, and in all the wrong ways. But when I started blogging what I noticed was that all the blogs I read were written by writers about writing. At first I thought, oh, I’ll use this as a way to update people on what I’m doing. I can just talk about the whole publishing process (and won’t my future fans be pleased when they can read all this crap online?). But then I read somewhere that I wasn’t supposed to post about the trials and tribulations of querying. Besides, it would get boring “I queried agent XYZ today, and I got another form rejection letter.” Yeah, that would get old quick.


It was hard to put all of that away though. In my mind’s eye, I was just a successful query letter away from finding Agent Awesome, and that was just a tiny stepping stone away from the book deal. I really felt like I was knocking on the door to the greatest party on the planet. But if that’s not what I’m supposed to do in a blog, I decided to play along, but finding something else to talk about, or ways to talk about how the querying process sounded more like a side note in my life and not the crushing defeat that it felt like at the time was grueling.

I had to dig deep and find other things to make it worthwhile. There were blog fests (One of my all time favorites was Elizabeth Poole’s 50 follower blog fest, OMG that was fun) and the friends. There were silly contests. And there was the talking about the process. Lots and lots of talking about the process. What I’ve learned from blogging about my process is that I have no clue how my process works. Every time I think I have a process, I go and do everything differently, and I mean everything. The whole thing was a struggle. Being involved and not talking about how I got my thirtieth (I know that's a baby number for rejections) rejection on the same day where I read about some writer who whipped out a query letter for her first novel ever and landed an agent a week later, that was a struggle. 

But for me, struggling is good.

It’s stupid, but it’s true. I don't like to struggle, and so I do everything I can to not struggle the next time through. I knew I needed to work on my craft (and oh boy, I am not saying I'm 'there' yet). I knew my grammar and storytelling had some issues. I worked. And I started to realize that the project I was working on was not going to cut it with anything shy of a full rewrite. When you find yourself with your back against the wall, the truth will out. With a pile of rejections at my feet, I was able to look at my writing in a new way, and to realize something very important:

I might never be published.

Seriously, I could write awesome stories and through the world’s crummiest set of luck--poor timing, bad ideas, wrong market, not the greatest writing, never finding the right agent, never selling a book, you name it—I could really and truly never be published. It became a real possibility for me.

Before that moment, I’d sort of taken it for granted that given enough time and effort, I could open any door on the planet, and publishing just had a tricky lock. But with my stack of rejections, the other option looked startlingly real.

I guess here is where I should say something like, “No, I haven’t given up. I haven’t even given up on the project that brought this home for me. I’m still writing, and I’m still going to try to get published.” So there’s no need to send in a rescue mission full of chocolate and red wine—I’m okay, I’m just sharing (probably too much, as usual).

In that place where I faced the cold reality that luck, completely beyond my control, is part of the road to traditional publication, I took a step back and looked at what I was writing. I wrote a book I was just sure would take off like a rocket. I wrote it in a way I thought an editor would like. I put it in third person because I thought that’s how the more serious stories are told. That’s “how it’s done” so that’s how I did it. I should have known better. For years I’ve been writing stories to please editors. I have nearly thirty little stories that have, in one way or another, been through the hands of an editor, and not one of those stories has ever pleased the people I’d written them for. Not once has an editor said “Wow, I can see that you wrote this for me, so I’m going to buy it because I’m sure there are tons of other editors out there and they’d like to read this story too.”

Not once. Not ever.

Staring down the barrel of maybe never finding my name in print—at least when it wasn’t right under a title like “Heterogenous alteration of Allende CAIs, constrain parent body alteration conditions,” a real bestseller there, I tell you—I realized I’d been writing everything all wrong. I had a moment where I said to myself, “Well, if I’m never going to be published, then I have a simple choice: I can give up now, or I can write for me.”

And something happened: I found my voice. I’d been suppressing it for years because I thought that the luminaries of publishing would frown on my down and dirty telling it like it is, laugh in the face of tragedy, and flip the bird to any asshole who tells you you're not good enough. My sarcastic tongue could be better put to quoting Hemingway, or at least Silverberg. Wouldn’t my tributes to Frank Herbert at least catch the eyes of the serious editors and agents?

It’s one of life’s most basic lessons, and I continue to ignore it at every opportunity. Do things for you, not for other people. You can sing till you’re blue, but until you sing for yourself you’ll never have anything worth listening to. Writing is no different. I went back through some of my old work and the parts my old crit partners loved were always the places where I let my voice through. Those moments were usually only for a line or two because I had some “serious” writing I needed to do, but every time the me in my writing snuck through, everyone wanted more.

And here’s where things get interesting. So, I’ve started writing for just me, and that means I’ve now alienated some people. Not everyone wants down and dirty, tell it like it is (with a side of humor). There are plenty of people who want the world wrapped in pink tissue paper and carried in a nice little gift bag. I wrote like vanilla ice cream to please as many people as possible, but let’s be honest, I’ve always been a bit more pralines and cream (you know, a tasty blend, with some rough edges).

I know agents and editors always go on about voice, but it really is just that simple: Voice is you. It is the only bit of you your novel really gets to have. The story you’re writing? someone has already written a version of it, probably a couple hundred times. The words you’re using? Those are someone else’s too (unless you’re a word forger, but chances are one of the other 1.6 billion English speakers has come up with it once or twice already). It’s kind of like a building—yes, this is the cheesy analogy to writing—we’ve already made a ton of buildings; mostly buildings are put together with a standard set of building materials: nails, screws, bolts boards, metal I beams, etc.; but every building that is well designed is different. That’s voice. It’s the difference between the Guggenheim and your next door neighbor’s house.

Guggenheim, see, it's all pretty and different.

Possibly your neighbor's house.

The difference is Voice.

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