I was running on fumes all last week. When I went to bed on Monday, around half past eleven, I stared at the ceiling and thought, I’ve been awake for almost twenty-four hours straight. Now why can’t I fall asleep? The jet lag finally wore off sometime around Thursday. Unfortunately, its place was quickly taken by anxiety over something I won’t bore you with here. Besides, it had nothing to do with writing, so why would you care? Well, apart from the fact that exhausted and anxious = not too much writing getting done. And I’m not all that enjoyable to be around when that’s the case.
Four years is not such a long time when you think about it. On the other hand, in such a short time a lot can happen. Leaders change, geniuses die, Kate Bush stubbornly does not come out with a new album.
Did you know that in the last four years you’ve traveled 3.76 billion kilometers at approximately 8,800 km per hour? That’s how far the Earth has traveled around the sun in four years. And yet, give or take a few thousand kilometers, here we are, back where we were then.
What’s my point, you ask? (Bless you for assuming I have one.) This: it’s been four years almost to the day since my last novel, The Unwanted, was published. Time flies, right? And just like the example above, more often than not I feel as if I’m right back where I started.
What’s the source of this perception? My lack of a third published book. The way I saw it, after my first book took eight years to write and my second took four, I figured book number three was maybe two years away.
How wrong I was.
I had lunch recently with a friend of mine, Karen. In addition to mutual appreciation of many things (wine is high up on the list), we also have a deep and abiding love of pasta, grilled cheese sandwiches of infinite variety, and pizza. So, as we caught up over a plate of spaghetti and a margherita pizza, she also asked me, “So what happened to the sequel to The Unwanted?”
[It occurs to me that perhaps I should insert a spoiler alert right here, in case you haven’t read The Unwanted (And you can solve that by buying the book! This is a subtle hint, right?), but also a spoiler alert for this unnamed, set-aside sequel that likely never will see the light of day. If you’d rather not, just skip down to the part that says “[end spoiler alert]”. So…
For the past couple years, I’ve tried to come up with one word or phrase that could capture my focus for the coming year. In 2016, it was “completion.” I wanted to complete the draft of the novel I was working on. And I did that, although in 2017 I ended up setting it aside when it was no longer working. That is somewhat related to my goal for 2017, which was “embrace rejection.” By that, I meant I wanted to submit my work frequently and broadly, with the full knowledge that it would be rejected more often than it was accepted. As it turned out, I could have done a better job of that, but I did my best.
Last year came with its fair share of opportunities and challenges, chief among the latter being depression and time, or rather the lack thereof when it came to time. (I had plenty of depression, thanks very much.) As I may or may not have mentioned, after a couple years of freelancing and living very hand to mouth, I took a full-time job last year. While that came with a lot of benefits—health insurance, steady income, less of a persistent fear that I was going to starve or die—it also meant that from eight thirty to five fifteen every weekday, my time was not my own (and continues to not be my own). I’ve been trying to get a handle on the hours outside of that window, and figuring out how to maximize as much of that time as possible in the service of my writing. This is an ongoing process.
I didn’t make a lot of progress on my major projects last year: a novel, a raft of short stories, a community-based writing project that I’d really like to kickstart. Given all that, the keyword for 2018 was obvious:
At the beginning of 2017, I set a goal for the year of actively seeking rejection. What this meant was that I would send out my short fiction to contests and magazines, apply for fellowships and residencies, and otherwise just get my work out into the world so that other people might possibly read it. Because let’s face it, all those stories aren’t going to get published just sitting on my hard drive and taking up space.
Now that the year’s almost over, how did I do? Continue reading
There’s a moment in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (the best of the Star Trek films, if you ask me) when Spock offers Admiral Kirk command of the Enterprise. Spock has captained the ship as a teacher of cadets on a training cruise. If they’re going into combat, though, Kirk should take command. Kirk demurs, but Spock gently and logically persists. Eventually, he says it was a mistake for Kirk to accept promotion to the admiralty. “Commanding a starship is your first, best destiny. Anything else… is a waste of material.”
This line is one of two that has stayed with me since I first saw the movie in 1982. (The other line, also from Spock, is: “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one.” I don’t always agree with that one, however.
(Have I mentioned that I’m a huge nerd? Huge. MASSIVE. You may not have caught that yet.)Continue reading
They (that ambiguous, omnipresent “they”) always say that you learn more from your failures than you do from your successes. Unfortunately, it’s true. Equally unfortunate for me, I just got reminded of that recently.
I’ve been talking a lot about the as-yet-unnamed sequel to The Unwanted over the past three years. Recently, I came to a decision: I’m shelving it. Or rather, putting it in the drawer. Well, even that’s a metaphor. It consists mainly of a collection of files on my hard drive that I’m going to drag into a folder labeled “Abandoned.”
No, really, I have a folder labeled “Abandoned.” See?
There’s tons of stuff in there. TONS, I tell you.
Here’s the thing, though. I feel pretty good about this decision. I wish I’d come to it sooner, as I’ve gone back and forth on it several times in the last few months. In the process of making the decision, though, I realized a few things:
Don’t go back to the same dry well.
The Unwanted got some nice reviews, including a really positive one at the American Library Association’s GLBT Reviews website. I’m really proud of that one. But the book didn’t really find a significant audience, certainly not in the way that would justify going back and revisiting these characters (and working out just how to get some of them back on the stage for a sequel). There’s also the risk—and this alone is not a reason not to write a sequel—that what happens to them in a follow-up novel could alienate readers who were perfectly happy to let the story end where it did.
I’m not gonna lie. I think I knocked it out of the park with that book. If it ends there, I’m happy.
Don’t fall for the sunk costs bias.
Like I said, I’ve been working on the sequel for well over three years. You might think after that long, I’d be in the frame of mind to just get behind this thing and shove it across the finish line. But that would mean at least a few more months before I had a draft I felt comfortable turning in, and then another several months with all the requisite edits, proofreads, and so on before it even came out. Of course, the job doesn’t end with publication day, either. There’s promotion and readings and everything that goes into getting a book noticed and in people’s hands.
This is not me complaining. I love doing that stuff. And this isn’t me complaining about The Unwanted not being the success I’d hoped it would be. This is me working out tough choices about where to focus my limited time and resources for the good of my writing practice.
Don’t wait to start on the next thing.
I might feel bad about the decision to shelve something I’d worked on for three years if I hadn’t already started four more novels in the meantime. One of them is in revision, another is a very rough, incomplete draft waiting for me to sift through it, the third is a forty-five page story that I wrote in grad school that doesn’t want to be a short story, and the fourth is an idea that’s just starting to take shape in a composition notebook. If I find myself wondering “what now?” I know I’ve got options.
Don’t draw your self-worth too much from any one project.
Or any one part of your life. In addition to my aforementioned facility with ardha chandrasana, I’m a pretty good cook and a more than passable bread baker. I’m also not half bad at Scrabble and, according to a former boss, I have an unusually good recall of the Associated Press Stylebook. When a writing project is giving me fits, I know that I can go into the kitchen and bake a cake and make buttercream frosting with my eyes basically closed, and I can get a batch of homemade pickles started, no problem. I may not be able to string two sentences together at times, but at least I won’t starve. Also, I can hold plank for two and a half minutes, which helps counteract the cake.
Don’t throw away anything.
I could just as easily have dragged all those files to the trash folder and clicked “empty trash.” But I didn’t. Even though the novel won’t ever see the light of day in its current form, there’s something in it that kept drawing me back… and I don’t think it had anything to do with Jamie and Billy. There’s a story within it that’s not the one that I was trying to tell, but it’s one that I might want to try telling later.
This year has pretty much been about embracing rejection. And I would say that embracing failure is a companion on the journey, and maybe the more important one. Do the things that seem impossible. Write the stories when you don’t know how they’ll end. Fail bigger. Fail often. Try again. Eventually succeed.
What I don’t regret is spending more time with these characters, even if it was just them and me. I’m still very fond of Jamie, Billy and Sarah. I don’t think that’ll ever change. I hope it never does.
Have I mentioned lately that I’m revising two novels? Yes, two; one two buckle my shoe novels. One is the as-yet unnamed sequel to The Unwanted, and the other is a revision of the near-future dystopian speculative fiction I wrote in grad school. For many industrious and talented writers I know, this would be no big whoop.
I am not one of those writers, however.
Anyway, my goal is to finish these revisions by the end of the summer, so I’m taking a temporary break from here (and yes, I know “temporary break” is redundant, but I can live with that, and so can you). So that I can focus (something I always have problems with, as you know if you’ve read, like, anything I’ve posted here), I’ve also deleted a whole slew of apps to make my smartphone as dumb as possible. I’ve caught up on all my must-see TV (which, granted, isn’t much) so that I can ignore all the other things piling up on the DVR, and I’m not going to even think about seeing what’s new on Netflix.
At the moment, as in last week and this one, I’m focusing on the as-yet unnamed sequel to The Unwanted. (At some point, I really should come up with a title, shouldn’t I? What do you think of Prophecy Sucks? No? Maybe?) I finished revising chapter 15 this weekend, and chapter 16 in its current form is a bit, well, sketchy. There are lots of bracketed notes to myself that say helpful things like “[FIX THIS]” or “[MORE HERE],” Will I get them both done before September? Maybe not. Probably not. Maybe I’ll get one of them in the can, though, and the other one farther along than it is now. We shall see. Wish me luck!
In the meantime, maybe you’ll find something worth reading in the archives. I’m going through them and clearing out some of the mundane stuff from the early years, but I’m also working on organizing the rest of it into more helpful categories. Because good heavens, looking back at posts from 2006 and 2007, it’s like Captain Kirk opening that storage unit on Space Station K-7 and getting buried under an avalanche of Tribbles….
You never know when inspiration is going to cross your path. In my case, I never would have expected inspiration for my young adult writing to arrive at a leather convention.
Let me back up. Recently, we went to Chicago to visit my friend Scott. He’s a photographer and a good friend I originally got to know through blogging. Yes, it was that long ago. Blogging was still a thing, dinosaurs roamed the earth, and we all drove Model Ts. We’ve known each other for about 15 years, but I hadn’t seen him since before I went to grad school. So five, maybe six years. This is far too long, and I hadn’t been to Chicago in about as long a time, and he’d just recently moved there. So, up we went.
Amid all of our sightseeing and museum-going and dining and cocktailing (is “cocktailing” a verb? Well, it is now), Scott also was scheduled to promote a book of erotic photography that he’d published and was getting ready to publish a second edition. So he had to work a shift at the book table at International Mr. Leather.
Yes, that IML.
As a writer and someone who writes about writing (insert obligatory “dancing about architecture”-type comment here), there are two things that I tend to worry about more often than all the other things I worry about: repetition and focus.
This applies to my fiction writing as well as whatever half-baked principles and ideas about writing I may spout off. (Just kidding; all my ideas are fully baked.) Case in point: in one of my fiction workshops in graduate school. When my story was up for discussion, a friend of mine* started off by saying, “This has the trifecta of a Jeffrey Ricker story: love, longing, and loss.” As the discussion went on, I missed a few things because I kept wondering, wait, is this story a retread? Am I just writing the same thing over and over?
It was a different story from all the others I’d submitted that year—different characters, plots, settings. However, as I mentally scrolled through my pile of stories for that class, it was true. I was writing about people longing for other people, losing other people, and loving and unloving other people.
Love, longing, loss. Surely there’s more to the world than that, isn’t there? On the other hand, those three things count for a lot, don’t they?
When I sit down to write a blog entry about writing—about the things I think about when it comes to writing—at some point in the process I usually flip back through the last few entries I’ve written to confirm that I’m not rewriting the same thing I wrote a month or three months (or six months) earlier. And sometimes, while it’s not word-for-word the same, the topics and the points are… well, familiar.
photo by Matthew Hamilton, Unsplash