Wednesday, November 13, 2013

No Yellow Brick Road in Writing

I love what Arthur Slade shared in his interview on Monday, especially his confusion about being a YA writer.  Discovering how prolific authors get headed in the right direction can help those who are just starting out or simply not making any headway.  YA, adult, genre, literary – how hard can it be to know what we write or which direction to go? As Arthur pointed out, it’s not always easy to tell.

Dorothy asked the scarecrow, "Which way do we take?"  His cryptic answers were  “Pardon me, this way is a very nice way,”  (points other way) “It’s pleasant down that way, too,”  and (points both ways) “Of course, some people do go both ways.” I’m surprised she didn’t leave him hanging in the cornfield.
We have to start somewhere, and there's no yellow brick road.  Some writers follow one road until it dead ends and their writing gets stalled.  Some branch off at the ‘Y’ in the road and add a few vampires or whatever is currently on the horizon.  Still others take the road less traveled and find success.

So, how far do you travel before you sit down in the dust and re-think your decision?  If you’re traveling alone, you may go far off course before taking stock and honestly considering your options.  It’s not smart to be a lone wolf in the writing community.  You can waste a lot of time trying to decide things on your own.  Writers are generally too close to their writing to see things clearly.  We all need honest feedback.

Sometimes we fall into a certain type of writing because we follow advice such as 'write what you know' or 'write what you read.'  The advice is neither good nor bad, just tricksy.  Sometimes the story gets a hold of us and we think it knows best.  Often a character will demand our full attention and we assume the story is theirs alone.  This happened to me when an insistent character, a 12-year-old girl, told me her side of the story and I bit.  Mean mommy + bad sisters X rotten luck = unjust circumstances.  I was sure I was a YA writer and that this was a YA story.  I read all the ‘how to’ books for YA fiction.  I read and dissected great YA fiction.  I was around kids every day and knew how they talked and what they cared about.  By gum, I knew what I was doing!

The story came together and stirred some interest at a conference, including an agent who went back and conferred with his colleagues about it.  His eventual response:  We don’t do YA.  If it had an adult perspective, we would be interested.

Great gnashing of teeth ensued on my part.  I railed to my family, "It’s perfect the way it is!" which translates to (a) I’m sick and tired of this story, and (b) I don’t want to rewrite it again and (c) how badly do I really want to be published?  I stamped and huffed and scowled, and when I was spent, my husband sagely said, “You know, it could really use the mom’s perspective.”

I stuffed it in a drawer for a week or more.  When I came to my senses, I realized he had something there.  The mom started talking to me.  And then the sisters.  And the grandparents.  Grief, like a spreading stain, had seeped into all their lives and done its damage.  How could I have missed it?  So, I picked it up again and told the whole story this time.

For my part, I had to set aside what I was so sure I knew and listen to what credible sources told me about the story and my writing.  It doesn’t mean I won’t write another story with a juvenile’s perspective.  Kids have such insight and tell it like it is.  But it will most likely be written from the standpoint of an adult reflecting on childhood experiences.

Some writers will insist that they have ALWAYS known what they were destined to write.  Oo-rah.  Good for them!  Even better if they have ever considered another way and had their original choice confirmed.

How did you come to realize what you were meant to write?  Was it a trial by fire or just the quiet affirmation of readers and colleagues?  Maybe you’re still in process.  We’d love to hear.


Sharon K. Souza said...

Debbie, this is such a good question. I wandered in the genre wilderness for a long time before finding my niche in Contemporary Women's Fiction. My first attempt at a novel was a historical novel set in WWII, which is kinda weird because I've never cared for historical fiction. That novel was nowhere near ready for publication, but I didn't know that then. I submitted it to countless publishers, and was often told -- at that time -- "We don't do historicals." It happened to be during Desert Storm, so I took a year and rewrote it as a contemporary novel. Submitted and submitted, and was often told -- at that time -- "We don't do contemporary novels." SIGH. Then I wrote a couple of suspense novels, which I enjoyed, and which weren't bad, but when I began writing Every Good & Perfect Gift, I knew I'd found my place: Contemporary Women's Fiction ala Steel Magnolias -- serious topics with a nice spice of humor. But it took more than a dozen years of writing to get there. No yellow brick road indeed.

Susie Finkbeiner said...

Yup. More like a slippery, icy path covered with raised roots. But the view is pretty and the company is warm. I wouldn't trod a smooth path for anything.

Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

Sharon, I have an unpublished historical novel under my belt, too. Maybe it's a comfortable place to start? So glad you've found your niche, girl.
Susie, ditto. Ditto, ditto. Makes life interesting, doesn't it?

Megan Sayer said...

Debbie this is wonderful, and such perfect timing, thank you so much!
Yes, it's been a wandering old journey for me, and sometimes I still think I'm wandering. Sometimes its easy to believe that *other* writers just got it easily, and knew what they were meant to be writing, and how. Me? I feel pulled, all the time. The writer's conferences I went to this year were a fantastic opportunity to help me see things more clearly. What you said about not being smart to be a lone wolf in the writing community is so, so true.
Thank you, thank you, thank you. And thank you for helping build the writing community. I would not be the writer I am now without Novel Matters, nor the writer I am becoming.

susan gregory said...

As a child, I read "Bronze Bow" by Elizabeth Speare. I was astonished to realize there were other people who lived in Biblical times besides those mentioned in the Bible. That is what propelled me to write Biblical fiction.

Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

Megan, thank you. Writers conferences are such a shot in the arm and I hope this one helped to solidify some things for you.
Susan, it's nice that you knew so early on what you wanted to write. I love Elizabeth Speare. I read 'Calico Captive' and 'Witch of Blackbird Pond' and was moved by them both. Her writing alone could leave its mark on you.

Cherry Odelberg said...

Today, I saw a quote on Facebook, something about writing what no one else is writing about. I think that is what I am meant to write. Who is my audience? I don't know. Author in search of audience, everybody. If you are my soul-mate, please let me know ASAP:)

Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

Cherry, it's difficult to find things that haven't already been written about, but you can write about a familiar topic from a totally different perspective in a way no one else has written about it before. I think there's a big audience out there that would love to read new and fresh takes on old ideas.