Monday, July 9, 2012

Writing 101: Don't Fall in Love with Your Work

I'm going to share a personal story...a love story. It's about me and a book. I started writing it around 7 years ago, after I'd been sort of half-thinking about it for several years. I worked on that book for over 2 years. Before I knew it, I had a massive file filled with research notes, pictures of maps all over my desktop, and an epic manuscript of over 300,000 words (that's massive). 

And love. I was filled with love for that book, which I started to think of (around chapter 9) as "my masterpiece." Some of you may not be aware of the true danger I was in at that point. It's for you that I have to share this advice: don't fall in love with your work. It could ruin you. 


Being in Love

What's so bad about falling in love with one's work? Doesn't loving your books make your writing better? You know what, maybe it does. Maybe that epic manuscript is the best thing I've ever written or will ever write -- but that isn't the point, and that certainly isn't the danger. I'm going to tell you about the danger. 

Being besotted with this particular story, I of course did what all ambitious and brave novelists are wont to do: I submitted it. I wrote my queries, hundreds of them, to literary agents and publishers. I refined my pitch and swung for the fences. Then I re-wrote the pitch and did it again. And again. And again. Hundreds of emails went out to hundreds of different professionals. I even engaged in a heated email argument with an agent, who tried to say my facts were wrong in one of my more interesting query letters (by the way, I was right and one of my sources was the New York Times). That's how passionately in love I was with my story.

It paid off. At last, a very well-respected firm sent me a letter, and it was everything I could have ever wanted. "Send us the entire manuscript," it said. And so I did. 

Now, two years had passed since I wrote the words "the end" on the book it took two years to write. At this point, I had four years total wrapped up in this book. So I was filled with excitement, and terror, when I mailed it off to New York. One day, a letter came back to me. 

It was five paragraphs, incredibly detailed, praising the book. The most personal response I have ever received, it was filled with uplifting words. I was told that the dialogue was great, the plot was engaging, the historical accuracy was amazing (of course), the narrative strong and true. My descriptions were great, my heroine was interesting, my story was wonderful.

But, the letter said, in a final paragraph comprised of two sentences at the end, it is quite long. And with the economy being what it is, and the publishing industry being what it currently is, they were sorry to have to pass on the damn thing anyway. 

After all that, this is how that letter ended. 

Having a Broken Heart

I couldn't really write another word for two years. I kept the letter near my desk at all times, and almost against my will I pulled it out to re-read it -- again and again and again -- all the time. I was working on a sequel for "my masterpiece" when I got that letter, and I haven't been able to bring myself to look at that manuscript since. I started about 5 other book projects and even tried to write short stories, but I lost interest quickly in every single thing I tried to write. Finally I stopped writing altogether for about a year. 

I had a broken heart. I had fallen in love with my work, and it let me down. It was everything I wanted it to be -- rich, epic, filled with history and plot-driven -- and all the reasons I loved it are all the reasons the industry hates it. It broke me, because I loved that book so much. I had to fall out of love before I could continue writing. 

One day, I finally did. 

It's Not Personal, It's Business

In the end, I think it was the right choice on their part -- the part of the letter-writer, I mean. I loved that book way too much. I would have cringed at every review, cried at every comment, winced at every single moment. I probably would have fought over the cover design, screeched about the price and spent every moment over-thinking that book from beginning to end. I would never have been able to discuss it sensibly, because I was a woman in love. 

Writing isn't about being in love. Good writers have to maintain a certain objectivity or there's no way they can survive in an era where every single reader has forums in which they get to sound off and air their opinions. As an author, you (and I) have got to be able to listen to (or read) that criticism with an open mind. Love clouds the mind and blinds the eye, and I don't care what the poets say but it's definitely got it's ugly side. I've seen how stubborn love can be, both in myself and in other authors, and it's just got no place in business.

Writing is a business. It's not personal. That book is never going to love you back. It did come out of your heart and your mind, your life experiences and your hard work. It's a part of you. But it's not you. If that book gets rejected or criticized, it's not you getting rejected and criticized. And here's something else you need to know: no one will ever be capable of loving that book the way you do. So you've got to be objective about it, and you've got to separate yourself from it. Once you wrap your heart, your love, your identity and yourself up in something you have created, you're in trouble with a capital T.

You want to know why? Because there's always another book -- if you're lucky, and if you keep your objectivity, that is. I was able to start plenty of books while I was still nursing my broken heart, but none of them went anywhere. I couldn't get into any of the plots and to date I still haven't finished any of them. Once I was well and truly out of love, however, my mind cleared up and the idea for the Deck of Lies series just came to me. Just like that. 

Don't get me wrong: I love the Deck of Lies series. I've loved writing all of the books, and I'll be sad when I finish up the fourth and final installment. But I am not in love with those books. I'll never fall in love again. Because in the business of writing, there's always more writing to do. If you fall too deeply in love with a book, you won't be able to start another -- because then you would be unfaithful to your true love. Get too tightly wrapped up in a single book or a single book project, and that's all you'll ever be. You'll never be able to create anything new. That's why love is dangerous, so stay out of it.

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1 comment:

  1. Ooh that's tough. I have a book like that, in my bottom drawer - I too stopped writing for a long time after it was finished. But it's also the book that is never actually finished because I keep coming back to it.

    That rejection letter is a wonderful thing to have though - it proves that publisher really did like the book - they wouldn't spend so long writing the letter otherwise :-)

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