Let me be clear: the title of this blog implies I am a good storyteller. This isn’t necessarily true (I have a chronic fear of overstating my abilities). The following story is not about how I became a great novelist but how I became a better novelist, the word 'better' being contingent on how much you may or may not like old-school animal fiction and long-winded nostalgia.
During an ill-timed bout of colitis (note: they’re all ill-timed), I punched out the final sentence of The Waters of Nyra on September 5th, 2011. This was it: the magnum opus. The next Redwall, the next Watership Down—you know, the best seller debut authors think they've write on the first try. I sought out test audiences online—my last chance to bask in anonymity before I skyrocketed into a gig with Penguin.
This needs to be halved, said the first reviewer. As the first comment, I attributed it to be poor taste. Then came the second. Tell less. Show more. Okay, another person who doesn't appreciate talking animals. Then came a third reviewer, another, and another, each saying a version of the same thing, each a little punch to my formerly-recalcitrant ego. This isn't to say they clobbered Nyra. For each smart tap against the verbose prose, I got a compliment on the story or character development. Maybe my peers were being polite, but it was a saving grace. I was down, but they didn't kick. On the proverbial pavement, I took notes but remained in denial. I wouldn't swallow the bitter pills. Instead they lathered in my mouth, making me begrudge the taste rather than reap much benefit. Thus my rewrites were few. I believed the audience for Nyra was out there and I'd find it in due course. I searched. A lot. In my first attempts to find representation I was rejected in the ballpark of 200 emails. Still, I kept trying, waiting for the market to change, waiting for a publishing house or agency to realize my genius. It didn't come.
Grad school did.
Autumn of 2012 buried me in a new and far more promising career goal (although we can quibble about job security as a wildlife biologist in another blog). I had papers, projects, and a master's thesis to scribble out before I fell off my parents' health insurance. However, I didn't stop writing recreationally. Exhausted by my previous life of minimum wage and the ever-present dragon that went with it, I turned to a new idea: paranormal young adult fiction. It defied my self-ascribed dignity. Don’t get me wrong—it’s a fine genre. Reading is reading. Stories are stories. But at the time, my only exposure to paranormal YA was the glorified domestic abuse of Twilight. It left me disgruntled, yet I read it over and over. My interest in Stephenie Meyers’ sparkly vampires lingered entirely for the sake of satire. So, as a literary experiment, I would copy it with its most hackneyed tropes, including an underdeveloped romance, obvious villains, and magical abilities existing purely to move an already-feeble plot. Furthermore, I would defy Nyra and write as simplistically as possible. No flowery language. No lush descriptions. Dumb it down. Appeal to the popular market and clipped attention spans. That was surely the key to cracking through the wall of success.
I tapped the manuscript out at 55,000 words, writing in the evenings and weekends when I had a low homework load. The finished product was rife with clichés, told through a protagonist as bland as Bella Swan: Grade-A satire. But after the first (and only) read through, I slammed on the breaks. It was a parody, but unfunny. It was simply a bad rip-off. It had no snark, no Douglass Adams or Terry Pratchett-style wit. I halfheartedly wrote a few representatives but quickly gave up. I didn’t’ care if this was marketable (and it likely wasn't). I didn’t want my name on it. I threw myself back into school, a bit older but far, far wiser.
I might have puttered along forever had it not been for Nikki. Nikki was an old friend from high school. We hadn’t been in touch, existing to one another as occasional posts on news-feeds. But sometime in 2013, Nikki caught my eye again: she’d self-published a book. I’d never known an author before, not with which I’d had sleepovers and discussed guppy breeding techniques. Nikki had written an adult scifi novel and, unlike me, had successfully captured the wit and wonder of Monsieurs Adams and Pratchett. It might have been my first instinct to revisit the paranormal novel and “funny it up.” But for whatever reason, I didn’t. Instead, I went back to the dragon, dusted her off, and read her with clearer eyes.
At long, long last, I saw her properly: a decent story told with several thousand words too many. I chopped. I cut. I pasted. I pared. Volume I (the first half) lost about 10,000 in mostly adjectives. Friends jumped in with their own scissors. In 2014 I went live, and though Nyra still has shortcomings, my few readers were kind and anxious for the sequel.
So what changed between the pre and post Nikki eras? Several things, I suppose. For nearly eight years I’d been writing one novel or another (sans my penultimate semester of graduate school, which I dedicated to my research). The paranormal crap-manuscript made up one of those years, at the critical juncture between Nyra’s completion and her intensive editing process. Much as I despise the crap novel, dismissing it entirely was based on hot-tempered prejudice for its antecedents. Yet in creating it, I'd tightened my prose in a way I'd once thought excessive. In retrospect, though, I was slimming down to a new writing style, one much more amenable. Yes, it’s still a bad story. No, you can’t see it. But perhaps the very bland Josephine Jakes (the protagonist) gave voice to a dragon struggling to speak.
Author Maurine Johnson once said you have to suck a LOT before you make anything worthwhile. New York Times bestselling authors are no exception. I am not a New York Times best selling author. I don’t expect to be one anymore. Even after editing, The Waters of Nyra is unrepresented, which is either my fault or that of the outside force known as ‘the market.’ Likely both. I haven’t bridged past the “suck point” yet (nearly 400 rejections for Nyra are telling). I may have given up on her. I have given up on full-time authoring. I have not given up on writing.
I was once in a writer’s group where a veteran member pushed new members down, kicked them, kicked them again, then spat their ‘better’ writing down in their faces. Do not be this person. Pushing is okay. Pushes helped me. They still do. I was lucky to avoid kicks (well, most of them). Everyone is learning. Those who claim otherwise are missing the point of the art. But spare them your kicks too. We want them to keep writing. We want them to learn how to learn. They may just need more pushes.
Image credit: “Dragon Writer” by 25kartinok
Excerpt from Satan’s Secretary (aka The Crap Manuscript):
I became employed at the Sector, some hundred miles into the Earth’s mantle. Or so I assumed. No one ever told me, but I pictured the Sector deep beneath the mortal surface; a grotto for the grimly employed. After all, Grim itself hired me, to read, to analyze, but mostly to click. Click for Heaven, click for Hell, and give not input otherwise.
Asterisks denote rereads
O Pioneers, My Antonia, Harry Potter, and Where the Red Fern Grows remain favorites. Among books you won’t find in stores (yet) I recommend The Kill Seekers by Marc Hobbs (science fiction) and Angela’s Wife by Jonni Petit (the true story of a transgender woman and her family). Go Set a Watchman had extremely mixed reviews, but I thought it beautiful portrayed the fragility of our expectations. Lastly, everyone should read The Picture of Dorian Grey, which is both imaginative and frightening, as well as 1984 by George Orwell. While you’re at it, reread Animal Farm, which is still relevant decades later.
Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris had me in absolute tears from laughing (When You Are Engulfed in Flames was great too). I reread the Snicket books in preparation for the Netflix adaption. Although the author leaves some major questions unanswered, I’ll always love the dark humor. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is enjoyable, as was Storm of Swords and The Grapes of Wrath. Finally, The Fault in Our Stars remains John Green’s best with its atypical approach to teen romance.
I don’t have any specific reading goals for 2017 other than my minimum thirty and adding more classics to my repertoire. Also, I hope 2017 will be the year I FINALLY start and finish Lord of the Rings. But, given the nature of the world today, I’m hoping to fall in love with some dystopia: new if it’s good, but preferably books that were before their time (i.e. I’ve had several recommendations for The Handmaid’s Tale). If you have something in mind, in this genre or anything else, I’m interested. Please let me know in the comments!
If I inquired about your cultural heroes, smart money is you’d rattle off a list so long I’d regret asking in the first place. Don’t worry. I’d be guilty of the same charge. Then suppose I asked you to pare it down to five, or gave you a category, like scientist or filmmaker? Even then you’d have many. But who would win the most kudos for their craft?
Today, the category is author, and the person is Richard Adams. I put him at the top not because of his recent passing or because he gets top billing as my favorite author. In fact, the latter isn’t necessarily true. Still, for me and most animal fiction authors, Adams was the totem pole base for creatives who wrote for adults, children, or no one in particular. He was not the first to personify animals, not by centuries. But he was the first to do so by preserving the integrity of animal nature. He did not seek allegory in the way George Orwell told Animal Farm (although this was brilliant in its own respect). Watership Down was perhaps equally political, but with the aim of surrounding us in a fresh universe, reading more like an epic than a fable. Adams would batter through rejection and incredulous publishers to lay a new foundation in literature, with other bricks following suit, including Shardik and The Plague Dogs.
Some years back I wrote to Adams. He was elderly, retired, and off the grid for fan mail. After tracking down a few publishers I managed to find an in-the-care-of address. I’ll never know if it made it his way (despite promises from a very kind editor that my letter was in good hands). But as is the impulse of admirers, we want our heroes to know we love them. Love, of course, is a loose word. I knew Mr. Adams no further than his rabbits and a Wikipedia page. Yet in the sense that our creations are a piece of us—ones that we so tenderly share with the world—I do believe I loved Mr. Adams very much indeed.
“All the world will be your enemy, Prince with a Thousand Enemies, and whenever they catch you, they will kill you. But first they must catch you, digger, listener, runner, prince with the swift warning. Be cunning and full of tricks and your people shall never be destroyed.”