One of my favorite quotes about writing is from poet Paul Valery: “a poem is never finished, only abandoned.” (He most likely said this in French and I’m sure it sounded pithier that way.)
Abandonment conjures up feelings of sudden forlornment, abject misery, a mounting fear of having to go it all alone without knowing how- but these feelings are attached to the one being left. I think the emotions are much more complex in the mind of the abandoner (i.e. Valery, all poets, all creative types): the necessity of abandoning, the consequences of abandoning, the eventual liberation that comes after abandoning and then what all comes after that.
There is an assumed bond between abandoner and abandonee – they have been close for a period of time, but something happens to sever that connection – a change in circumstances, fortunes, ambitions. Both parties may be left wounded, but we tend to put more confidence in the one who has chosen to walk away. This is a decision, and one makes decisions, especially the difficult ones, only after much comtemplation. The abandoner is not only walking away from something, but, sooner or later, toward something else. Moving forward is always a good thing, right?
But so often in romantic novels and movies, the abandoner turns mid-stride and heads back into the arms of the abaondonee, almost as if a mental switch has been thrown in reverse. The two are reunited, mutually aglow, and we know this moment will last forever (because that’s the end of the story – the credits are rolling).
So it may be for writers and their manuscripts. I shudder even as I think about the implications of this arrangement.
The tricky part for the writer – or for any creative type – is deciding exactly when to walk away. I think all artists get to the point when they feel like they’re only tinkering with work that already feels complete, perfect, finished, but they have a difficult time recognizing this moment, and then acting on it. Finessing the poem a little more, replacing this word here, adding a line break there, is akin to the painter adding more blue to the ocean, or the musician abruptly offsetting a rhythm – do any of these things actually make the work any better?
A novel is such a big thing – an enormous collection of words, really – that tinkering in one place may in fact dislodge something previously and carefully crafted in another place. The text is a huge landscape and you can’t just adjust this feature – repave a road, plant a tree, make it rain – and expect the whole thing to maintain its integrity as a place. In order to do justice to the act of writing, even more so to the act of rewriting, the author has to climb back in with a total commitment to live there, to wallow in and possibly to get so mired in it to the point that extracting oneself becomes a near impossibility.
Sometimes we depend on someone else to say to us, stop already! That’s why I was so ecstatic to hear the literary agent tell me few weeks ago, after reading my manuscirpt, “it’s great – don’t change anything.”
I’d been given permission to walk away! And this felt like completion, not abandonment, the distinction being that I no longer needed to engage with this work because my manuscript no longer needed me – my book was done and no further tinkering would improve it further. I could move on to the next one (I am a serial novelist – never more than one at a time).
So why did I dive back in yesterday, starting at the beginning again and trying to work my way through the three-hundred-plus pages, feeling like I was swimming backwards, ineffectually, through quicksand? Making not only small adjustments (“spectacular” is a much better word here than “ultimate”), but also using my writer’s muscles – which I have developed over the past few years – to heft entire chapters and place them elsewhere. I even banished a few passages I’d always considered vital.
Now I must decide whether my efforts are heroic or merely laughable. Significant improvements or mere busywork.
And how to decide all over again when it’s time to roll the credits.
The last time I published a novel there no ebooks, not many blogs,and hardly any social networking – and that was only four years ago! Self-publishing was still in its infancy, and getting anyone to pay attention to your new book was darn near impossible.
Now nearly everyone who knows me – and a lot of folks who don’t – already know a lot about my new novel, even though it’s not yet published.
Which makes me wonder about the shifting boundaries of a work of fiction. All the words in a book used to be bound tightly inside the book itself. You had to buy it or check it out of the library (or steal it if you listened to Abbie Hoffman) before you could access its precious contents. Book ownership was prized and was practiced mainly by those well-off enough to collect expensive tomes. The home library was the ultimate, private literary playground, each hard-cover volume within it proudly displaying a book plate, “this book belongs to…”
Now the contents of a book can leak out in all kinds of ways. The author and others can quote excerpts in a blog. We can “look inside” on Amazon or, once it’s become an ebook, link to its contents. The story easily expands beyond its formal literary boundaries – “in the beginning” is not really the beginning, “the end” ends nothing, and a dust jacket offers no protection at all.
And the characters inside the story can live elsewhere – on web sites, for instance, with their own blogs and Facebook pages. Characters can spawn new characters who interact with the original characters in the story, but strictly outside its original covers.
“I’ve become a character, too,” the offended scientist emailed me day before yesterday. He’d come upon my blog and had read my resentful remarks about his negative first impressions of my novel. There followed a series of back-and-forth emails in which I defended my work and he began to see it differently. But so did I. I realized he was inserting himself into my story, and why shouldn’t he? He’s researched and published on the same subject (Mars, Venus and the other planets); he’s studied the lives of the historical folks I’ve based my characters on (Percy and Wrexie); he even knew one of them (Charles Capen).
If writers have reached a point in the evolution of literature that allows for such “outside” influences, then we have to accept them, and possibly embrace them, when they show up in our expansive world – even if what they represent runs contrary to our own beliefs we’ve nurtured all through the writing process. It’s like we’ve “friended” each other online, but upon further examination, our facebook communities are distinct from each other, with no friends in common. My story is the overlapping section in a Venn diagram, the only common area of knowledge we share.
“Sad how narrowly people circle with those that have the same perspective,” he wrote in his email. “Literati hang with literati, scientists with scientists, etc…However, there’s a great deal to be gained from widening the baseline of one’s perceptual parallax.”
He’s right, of course. Every writer yearns for an expansive audience, but often without any clue on how to find readers outside his or her comfort zone. Now I’m pleased that one such reader has found me. It’s possible that the farther our literary creations travel outside their own comfort zones of book covers, chapters and pagination, the more daring their contextual associations may become.
Though contained inside my book, the ambitious pages of Lulu’s journal tend to wander, constantly seeking new “friends.” She describes “expanded contextuality” perfectly:
“What if the pages were released from their binding and allowed to float freely? What if they could move in any direction? I could still choose one page or another, but the pages themselves could make their own choices, approaching or retreating in order and time, one page snuggling next to another, or racing far away from its kin. The loosened pages from one book might choose to march alongside the pages of an entirely different volume, fiction and reality combined, or fanciful poetry settling down next door to serious prose.
“Reading and understanding might then offer the same impromptu pleasures as dancing across a wooden floor, out the door and underneath the stars; changing partners as easily as we change direction, leaning and twirling with the music toward a destination not yet in place; believing fervently as we gather the pages once more that our story will be assembled in time for our arrival, that all the stars and planets will be perfectly aligned, that our future is fixed and certain – until the next moment, when an insolent breeze arrives to rearrange everything.”
So I’ve predicted my own literary future: the words in my story have no limits, my cast of characters is still evolving, and I’m still writing the story as new ideas arrive in my brain or my in-box.
I have to amend what I wrote yesterday, as I have heard more from the scientist, who admits he was in a non-fiction brain space when he began reading. Not that he’s more attuned to fiction, he actually think my writing is “brilliant,” and moreover, “wonderfully vivid, and visual.” This doesn’t excuse his poor manners initially, but I must give him credit for changing his approach to reading my novel and being person enough to admit he needed to.
Who owns history and all the facts within it? Those who claim ownership usually do so not for any objective reason, but becuase they have invested their own time and brainpower in studying it. But what exactly are they studying?
History is not what happened – it’s the small parts only that we have knowledge or evidence of today. Most of history is unknown and its details will never be recovered. So what is being studied is piecemeal and one can hardly assume ownership of so much that will forever remain so elusive.
But I have just encountered someone who seems sure that he owns my story. He’s just begun reading the manuscript I sent him (I’d asked him for a blurb), but he has stopped already to email me with his considerable concerns. It’s so wrong, he says, because “certain statements or passages conflicted with my own rather highly developed constructions of what these figures whom I have studied my whole life would have thought and done.”
Who is this hideous person I have riled and offended? Not a novelist, but a scientist, and straight-and-narrow scientists have so little wiggle room for any aberrancies.
History, I maintain, because of its incompleteness, must be speculative. We augment what we know, filling in gaps with plausible fictions. The scientist will apply one kind of filler, the novelist another. The scientist’s material is fixed, rigid, and impervious to fancy. The novelist uses a substance more permeable, one that can ooze or flow beyond the known factual boundaries.
My character Lulu (modeled on Wrexie Louise Leonard, secretary – with benefits – to astronomer Percival Lowell) follows his lead at first, sees the canals on Mars just as he sees them, but eventually she seeks her own answers to the mysteries of the universe. Her “research” methods are questionable (I am a secretary, not a scientist, she writes in her journal), her conclusions so daring that she can only record them in her secret diary. In my story, Lulu is reprimanded by her boss:
When we are not observing them, we invent and tell each other stories about the Martians – what tools they use, what nourishment they need, what lives they live…
The Martian marriage must be built on a mutual commitment to survive the difficult circumstances of their lives. I begin my story and then stop it abruptly. I can tell from their uncomfortable shifting about that none of them has ever imagined a Martian female alongside the Martian male.
“It may not be that way at all on Mars,” Dr. P politely disagrees with me, and I sweetly remind him that we are spinning tales which are not necessarily truths.
“Stories,” he declares, “must have some factual component.”
“As does mine,” I stand my ground. “If the Martians have survived to this day, and if they are to survive into the future, they must have some way of coupling and bearing young ones, as we do here on Earth. Otherwise, who will maintain the canals? Who will benefit from the water they transport across the planet? Who will visit the shaded oases in the company of a pretty young Martian in a fancy outfit?”
My offended scientist offers this well intentioned advice, mirroring the same know-it-all male perspective:
“…I think in writing about what Wrexie may have thought about what was happening around her it would be better to stay within the scope of what her closest colleagues were thinking. She would not have been a more advanced thinker than Percy, for sure, and would have been submissive to his opinions (he wouldn’t have tolerated anything else from a secretary).”
This is actually good for me. Once published, I have to be ready to defend what I’ve written. This is good practice, and surely the practice will make me perfect.
So hard work pays off. Just days after sending out several email queries to small indie presses my non-lit agent recommended, I heard back from one who touts itself as being author-friendly. Based on an excerpt I’d sent them, they’ve asked to read the entire manuscript! Yeah, I sent it to them, then drew my next breath.
My words have left home, again, and are being read by someone who’s actually requested them. This is not enough to generate a happy-dance, not yet – there are so many worst-case scenarios (sitting on it, losing it, rejecting it) and only one best-case outcome (loving and publishing it) – but it does represent progress.
I’ve also begun the agonizing search for “blurbs,” those brief but glorious comments you usually see on the back of the book cover (“couldn’t put it down, even to check my Facebook” “I recommend this book to anyone alive,” etc.). I figured you have to ask folks nicely and then give them plenty of room to say no – but so far no one has declined.
If there’s anything short of publication that’ll make me feel like a real author, it’ll be those blurbs. That’s almost worth popping another button.
It’s not enough that I’ve written a great novel; now I have to compose a brilliant, mesmerizing, self-aggrandizing, and succinct document – the all-powerful, one-page marvel called a query letter. And as soon as I’m done with it, I have to turn around and do it all over again.
The super-helpful literary agent I talked to last week (who passed on my book but gave me lots of advice) encouraged me to shop my manuscript around, widely and simultaneously. You should contact thirty agents and publishers at once, she said. The only problem is that if every hopeful and industrious writer is getting this same advice (and they are), there’s a flood of submissions out there (and there are). The only way to swim rather than sink is to ace the query letter, each and every time. Multiple submissions, sadly, means the writer must generate a masterpiece with each and every query letter. Boilerplate copy just will not do.
Pumping out an original and masterful query letter time after time requires unflagging energy, the brainpower to compose a freshly original letter each time , the ego to continue believing you’re really as amazing as you say you are despite contrary evidence that most of your efforts thus far have resulted in naught, and the courage and resilience to continue in spite of it.
I have lots to say about “Venus on Mars,” but I’ve said most of it already. I’ll spend two,three hours refashioning the same thoughts into a glitzy new package and then once I’ve sent it out, immediately I have sender’s remorse about what I should have said.
I ordered the book my non-agent (but the closest I’ve gotten to having one) says will help me – Jeff Herman’s Guide to Book Publishers Editors and Literary Agents. I never heard of this Jeff Herman, but I’m willing to give him a chance. It’s more-than-a-thousand pages lists publishers big and small and literary agents, and includes rousing how-to essays (on the topic of the query letter he suggests, “write one that sizzles.”)
Skimming through its entries, highlighting the ones that seemed promising brought me full circle when I came upon this what-we-are-looking-for listing:
“literary fiction…historical fiction, new fabulist and literary speculative fiction…popular science…women’s issues…”
Right-on accurate!!! That describes my work, without a doubt!!!
It was the agent who’d just rejected me.
It all depends on whether anyone notices, and sadly, on whether anyone appreciates the results.
So if I write a bodice ripper, I can sell it and make money – it’s formula fiction and there’s a market for that. If I write literary fiction, nobody cares – an unpublished manuscript is the writer’s equivalent of an unripped bodice.
Unripped, the bodice and its contents are intact, its secrets contained. Ripped, the bodice is split open and its secrets spilled asunder. A book contains its pages and the words on them and an unpublished book will remain that way, its contents never revealed, its treasures never plundered.
A book caught up in the publishing business offers hints, titilation, about its eventually being ripped open and its passions explored, but all such possibilities are in the clumsy hands of the “rippers” – agents, publishers, publicists, reviewers – meanwhile the writer (“rippee”) remains the passive recipient of their sometimes questionable and often lackadaisical efforts.
So the problem with ripping is in the act itself – it’s supposed to be a passionate act, but the rippee is usually not a part of the action.
But there’s a new ripper in town – and it’s the rippee herself. My character Lulu (Wrexie Louise Leonard) writes and then rips, removing pages from her journal. The missing pages function as an untold story; a partial narrative remains behind that must be augmented and assembled by the reader – which becomes the opposite of ripping (stitching the story together, binding the errant pages into the book). The result is a complete and mutually satisfying effort.
So I should let my own written words inspire and guide me. If I write and then do my own ripping, I can decide when and to whom to reveal myself, rather than depend on someone else doing it for me and to me – i.e. being “ripped off.”
I have something amazing here – great content, still contained. At this point my thoughts and my words are still my secrets. I can flirt with them, flaunt them, allow them to generate all sorts of ravishment fantasies – and eventually reveal them. I’m in control of when to rip or not to rip, how to rip and for whom.
Surely Venus on Mars must do her own ripping!
Fulfillment publishing, vanity presses – these used to be pejorative descriptions for self-publishing. Does anyone really want to see this bodice ripped? Yes, I do, and thanks for asking.
So my FNYE (fancy New York Editor) turned out to be a nut case, started demanding fees we hadn’t negotiated, which I refused to pay. End of story. Finished the book without her. Since April I’ve been in yet another holding pattern while my manuscript languished in the office of a literary agent who’d promised to read it. Many email reminders later, she actually did and called me yesterday to say it’s great, but in her opinion not commercially viable enough for her to take it on (I guess I should be writing bodice-rippers instead). On the other hand, she gave me a lot of advice and information on how I might proceed without her. So lit agents and editors – who needs them!
I’m striking out on my own, again – and feeling brave enough to resume the blog. Now I think it will be less about the book and more about how I negotiate the various approaches to independent publishing. Today I began contacting small presses who accept unsolicited manuscripts (there are still a few out there), looking into writers’ publishing collectives and still thinking I’ll end up inventing the novel of the future, some kind of hybrid form that retains its narrative integrity while also incorporating what I’ve started calling “amplified moments” – media, hyperlinks, interactivity. Ebooks are just the beginning and a bad one at that – they’re utilitarian, not aesthetic, market-driven and not artist -inspired. Writers, we can do better!