I have an idea! Let’s play a game of Word Association. You give me a random word or phrase, and I’ll say the first thing that comes to mind. Ready? Go.
Snail: mobile home
Simone Biles: dynamite
Jumping jacks: I pee my pants just a little
Royalty: Toni Morrison
Red lipstick: Grandma Jackie
Grandma Marge: Coors Light
Armadillo: Steel Magnolias
I know. That’s a long word.
A quick recap: In 2010, I got an agent to represent my first novel. We worked on edits and tidied up the manuscript, but before she took it out on submission (i.e. before she started pitching it to editors) she realized she didn’t want to be an agent anymore. Devastated by her decision, I waited for her to change her mind. That didn’t happen. She left her agency and moved to Texas.
In 2011, I started agent search 2.0 and found fantastic Agent #2. She took Book #1 out to the biggie traditional publishers. Two editors wanted to acquire it, but their editorial teams worried I had written a novel with genre identity issues. The story had a child narrator, but editors worried the plot was too mature for kids and the voice too immature for adults.
Still hopeful, I wrote Book #2 for Middle Grade readers (typically kids age 8-12). Again, we came close to selling the manuscript, but more than one editor expressed concern that “a middle grade book can’t end the way this book ends.”
Well, because writing a different ending would have been like stapling a peacock’s plumage to a sloth’s arse, Book #2 was also relegated to no man’s land.
That was 2013.
My agent offered to take the wrongly-ended manuscript out to mid-size and smaller publishers, but ultimately I decided that first I would write Book #3, really making sure that whatever I wrote would fit neatly into the arbitrary and artificially-processed definition of that genre.
It all sounded so easy. It was such a good plan. Nothing but Hope! (It was 2013. Hope was easier.)
Thus, as Captain of the S.S. Hope, I wrote a version for an adult audience. When that was a bust, I wrote another version with a YA audience in mind. Again, a bust. Merrily, I rowed along, writing a few other partial, not-right drafts for Middle Grade readers. It went on from there: versions with first person narrators, others with third person narrators, another with a creepy adult narrator creepily reflecting on her creepy childhood.
I tried writing from multiple narrators’ perspectives. I tried writing in the voice of an adult male, in the voice of a thirteen-year-old girl, in the voice of a thirteen-year-old boy. I wrote in a box with a fox. In a house with a mouse. On a train in the rain and in the park in the dark.
After more than a few years of prolific word wastage, I started to wonder: Was this book so hard to write because putting together a novel is roughly as easy as stitching two clouds together with needle and thread? Or, was this book so hard to write because the story itself was simply not viable?
I wanted someone to tell me.
Well, it’s now 2019, six years into such silliness, and I still want someone to tell me: Fish or cut bait. Poop or get off the pot. Boogie or leave the dance floor.
I’d really like someone to tell me … and by “someone” I mean somebody who is prescient, smart, and utterly savvy about the publishing industry. This someone must be bigger and stronger than my doubt and insecurity. This someone must see potential in the story and, ideally, laugh at my jokes. I’m thinking this someone is a nice blend of Toni Morrison and Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother.
I have not yet found this someone. I have found no one who can give me a definitive answer to this question: Am I wasting my time with this particular book?
Usually when I’m writing, I hear and trust the still small voice that’s nudging me along. But recently, there’s nothing telling me to have confidence in things unseen. Under those circumstances, it’s hard to maintain my faith.
I remind myself that in other circumstances, when I have felt close to losing my faith in God or humans or my country, I have forced myself to do three things:
- Make sure I have a good community surrounding me, people I can trust to guide me and support me when I feel adrift.
- Remember that faith rises and falls like the tide. My job is to bundle up, stand barefoot on the dry shore, and wait for saltwater to start licking at my toes.
- Ignore the niggling, doubt-making voices in my head. Change the locks on my ears. Rig a security system complete with video cameras and screeching alarms. Remind myself that these voices are the opposite kinds of voices we need in this world. Give them the heave ho, kick them in the natchies, challenge them to a thumb war. And win!
Yeah, but in the case of Book #3, I already had a trusted community, the patience to stand barefoot in cold sand, and the ability to block out the voices. I had those things, yet I still didn’t know whether my faith in Book #3 was misplaced.
That’s the problem with faith. There is no proof. Faith is, by definition, unseeable and unprovable.
But just this week, when I realized I was driving myself bonkers by trying to know what was unknowable, it occurred to me that perhaps I should focus on what I did know.
I gave that a shot, making a list of things I knew to be true:
- I know I love stories.
- I know I love the power of words and language.
- I know I love eavesdropping on strangers, then trying to figure out their stories.
- I know I am still curious about the characters in my work-in-progress.
- I know writing is hard.
- I know I am becoming a better writer every year.
- I know the alternative to writing is not-writing.
- I know I don’t want to not-write.
I looked back over my list, and one statement stood out: I know I am still curious about the characters in my work-in-progress.
And it hit me. If I abandoned the story, I would always wonder what the characters could have been, whether they would have gotten what they wanted, how their plans would have been thwarted or their dreams shattered. Whether they would have recovered.
I didn’t need someone to tell me whether I should keep going. I needed to ask myself whether I was still interested in the story.
Madre de Dios!
I kept on asking questions: If I was the only person on the planet interested in this story, would it still be worth writing? (Yes.) Would I care if I wrote a story with an ending that wasn’t genre-perfect? (Nope.) Would I be alright with self-publishing my novels? (Sure, why not?) If, mid-story, I lose my sense of curiosity and wonder, am I allowed to stop writing this particular story? (Yep. Life is short.)
So there. For now I remain faithful to this moody, still-shapeless work-in-progress. I will trust in the roughhewn characters that can’t be seen by anyone else but somehow manage to pique my curiosity. I will continue to believe in untapped and invisible stories that sit, simmering in the minds of writers, creative wonders who aren’t afraid to faithfully leap, then leap, then leap again.
Your turn! Will you share what you do when you lose your faith in a story? Under what circumstances have you set aside a work-in-progress, and have you ever returned to it? Or, if you want, we can also play Word Association …
Thanks, WU’ers for reading and sharing such rich parts of your lovely, messy journeys.
About Sarah Callender
Sarah Callender lives in Seattle with her husband, son and daughter. A crummy house-cleaner and terrible at responding to emails in a timely fashion, Sarah chooses instead to focus on her fondness for chocolate and Abe Lincoln. She is working on her third novel while her fab agent pitches the first two to publishers.
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Author: Sarah Callender