Vol. 3, Novel Writing
I'm on a cyber-circle with a group of women from college. We're almost all writers. We talk about life and work and encourage each other to go beyond our comfort zones in lots of ways. Last summer, one member, upon return from Cave Canem challenged us all to write a poem a day for one week. We took the challenge and it was a giddy and fun experience. It was also really difficult. By the fourth day I was dry and I had to force myself to write a poem. But the group nature of the project forced me out of my "I'm-not-a-poet" attitude and made me write 5 poems in one week—5 more poems than I had written all year.
Fast forward to this year and I am quietly trying to convince myself it's time for me to start a new novel. I have a novel, 400+ pages of inspired musings, unfortunately it's not as tightly structured as it is well written. The responses I have received from agents and publishers have been encouraging. They like the content, but there is no through-line, no central kernel holding the book together. Basically, I got the goods, but not the right product. This is something I've had to face and make peace with over the past two years. I may be fidgeting and eager to get "out there" as a writer, but I don't have the product. I don't have a saleable novel, so I can either spend two more years complaining about how I can't get a break as a writer, or I can write something that works.
You might think the best thing to do is to fix my existing novel, how hard could that be? Immensely difficult. I wrote the original material over the course of 12 months abroad. I didn't know I was writing a novel. I just kept writing and writing and characters kept popping up and I wove them in. I ended up with a multi-generational fictional autobiography. The manuscript has so many characters and story lines, it's almost impossible to see what's going and what's coming. After that year of traveling and writing, I moved to New York to get my Masters in Publishing. A year and a half later, when I finished my degree, I quit my job and went to Brazil to work on my novel.
It's hard to write a first novel. Partly because you're not just developing a book-length world/story, you're also learning how to write a novel. My first novel-writing trip was a joke. My girlfriend traveled to Brazil to study textile design, I was going to write. She would leave in the morning to go to class and I'd be sitting in front of my laptop, bright-eyed and determined to write. She would come back from class and I would be in bed sleeping.
Two months into the three-month trip, I finally started pulling myself together and paying attention to the organizational needs of my novel. I decided to break up the novel into four sections and each section would have four chapters. So now I had a 16-chapter novel. I looked at the lengths of my chapters, some chapters were 28 pages long, some were 14. I decided to normalize them, make my chapters approximately 20 pages each. If it was anything less than 17, then I probably wasn't delving deep enough, if it was over 25, I was probably rambling on too far. This helped to give me a tight focus to edit around. Then I addressed the fact that the first half of the book was overdeveloped, the second of half of the book was virtually nonexistent. I had to figure out how to stop myself from constantly editing the beginning of the book and never reaching the end. So I wrote an outline, briefly describing each chapter. I thought about my writing schedule and decided to define how much time I'd spend on each chapter. I already knew I could write 3 hours a day, 5 days a week. So I decided I would work on a chapter a week. Whether I was writing or editing, I had to be done by Friday so that all the chapters would get the same amount of attention, and consequently be equally developed. By the time I figured all those logistics out, I was ready to write. Unfortunately, I had reached the end of month 3 and my money had run out.
Back in the U.S., all my coworkers wanted to know: did you do it? Did you write the great American novel? I learned to paint, I told them and showed them pictures of my paintings. I had a lot of fun, I told them, showing off my dark dark skin. It was somewhat embarrassing to admit that I had wasted three months. What I didn't know then, was that those three months set me up for every writing trip I have taken since. I now have clear parameters for achievement. I can either meet those parameters or slack off, but I have a definitive, objective, REALISTIC guide to measure my progress. Now that I had parameters and a process, I could see myself moving forward rather than simply spinning my wheels. Since that first trip, I've taken 3 three-month writing trips. Finally, I finished the novel in 2000.
My organizational techniques helped me reach my goal: to finish the novel, but I had to face the fact that the novel wasn't structurally sound, it wasn't whole. There can be so much more to writing a novel, than simply finishing it. Jack Womack, one of my instructors at Clarion, said you might have to throw out your first novel, you might have to throw our your second one, maybe even the third. But each novel you write teaches you about the craft, and by your fourth novel, you should know what you are doing.
Nalo Hopkinson's first novel, Midnight Robber, was actually published second. Midnight Robber was deemed unpublishable because the entire book was written in a created Caribbean dialect. Nalo had to go back and find a language pattern that both represented her created Caribbean dialect AND was relatively easy to decipher by the mainstream reading public. In the meantime, she wrote a simpler, more straightforward novel that received critical praise and opened the way for Midnight Robber. The notion of a novel as a place to develop your craft was mind-boggling to me. Doesn't one write a novel once they have it all together? Apparently not. I think one of the biggest mistakes I (and other writers) make is thinking in terms of "ends." After I write this novel, I will be an amazing writer and I'll just crank one amazing novel out after the other. Yet the reality is each novel, each story is a place to expand and grow and learn the craft. Any novel I write right now will be the best I have in me at the moment. But after it's published I will continue learning and growing as a writer and my next novel will reflect my new understanding of the craft. I will one day put my first novel out there, but only once I've figured out how to make it hold together. In the meantime, I'm ready to put something on the market.
Deciding to write a new novel brings up a lot of fears. I don't want to take another trip and come back with some "good material." The next time I return from a three/six month writing trip, I want to have a manuscript ready to send to publishers and agents. I know my odds of returning with a completed manuscript is much higher if I write a rough draft now, before I go away. So that my time away is spent rewriting, cutting away the fat, and bringing the novel to a higher level. With my trip fast approaching, that means I need to write a rough draft now.
I embark on my commitment super aware of my past failures. I have the utmost respect for those writers who wake up at 5 a.m. to work on their novels, then they get their family ready for school, go to work and edit their writing during the commute. I've tried waking up early in the morning, that just doesn't work. I'm too sleepy to focus, I start rationalizing how little time I have to get my work done, so I get back in bed and go to sleep. I've tried writing after work, but my brain is so exhausted and simultaneously on hyper drive that I have neither the energy, nor the focus to write at night.
I have friends who let their phone bills lapse in the name of their work. I have friends who will not/cannot work a 9-5. I admire them, but I've never been that type of an artist. I freelance, I have flexibility with my hours, but for all intents and purposes, I have a 9-5. Yet, the longer I write, the more aware I am of the costs of each of my decisions. I become more aware of how important it is for me to write ALL THE TIME. My time away is precious, I earned it by shirking certain luxuries, and that time to write can't be duplicated at home. So the urgency to produce grows every year. Without making a conscious decision, this urgency has been creeping up on me. Last week I woke up at 7:00 every day and committed an hour to working on an essay. I finished the essay in three days. In response to the demand: write every day, my response has always been, I don't want to pressure myself. Now the pressure is on. I have so much to gain by producing my work. The work that is just sitting here inside of me waiting to be written down.
Which brings me back to my online group and my need to write a novel. On our cybercircle, a member of the group was talking about how much she loved Zadie Smith's White Teeth and wistfully wondered why she hadn't written a novel yet. I smiled, thinking of all that had been swirling in my head about novel writing and e-mailed back: "announcing the 1st annual femail girl-you-better-write-your-novel season. Let's all write our novels, 4 pages a day, 5 days a week. 12 - 16 weeks. Let's have fun with it and not take it too seriously." So far three of the women have taken on the challenge. So we're going to do it together, 4 pages a day. Baby steps into literary fabulousness. What about you? Are you ready to take your writing/art/family/relationship/career to the next level?
Be well. Be love(d).
Kiini Ibura Salaam
For the record, I want to tell you all that I received a rejection this week. Though she couldn't use my story, the editor was very respectful and said she would be looking out for my books in the future. From her tone I could tell she was really saying: Girl, you is a writer, and if you even think about pretending this rejection is going to stand in the way of you and your future, I'll smack you upside your head. And, of course, she's right. I am a writer, no matter how many rejections I get. Or perhaps, because of how many rejections I get and keep moving forward, I will forever be a writer.
So I want to introduce a new section [the entire KIS.list is new I know, but...]. I'm going to share my acceptance and rejections with you. Not because I want to big myself up or because I want people to feel sorry for me, but because I want to give you all a clear idea of the amount of perseverance required to stay in print. A lot of my friends who are new writers take rejections to heart and some of them have even expressed surprise that I get rejections (uh, yeah, all the time). There are all kinds of reasons why an editor may reject your work. It could be that the piece isn't strong enough, or it could be that the piece didn't fit in with the scope of the collection. Maybe there wasn't enough space and the editor had to make a tough decision, or perhaps you got cut to make space for someone with a name who will help the product sell, or your piece was too long, or too profound, or too anything, but not necessarily "bad".
Rejection is part of the life of a writer, it's part of life period. There will be rejections, there will be acceptances and in the face of it all, you have to keep doing your work. I apply for all kinds of things: publication, residencies, fellowships, grants. I've had good success with publications and no success with the rest. But I keep applying. Within the next few months I'll be applying to a fellowship I was rejected from three times (I thought that was a lot but people assure me that I gotta keep applying if I want to even pretend I really gave myself a chance), a grant I was rejected from twice (but I made it to the final rounds!) and a residency I was rejected from once. I'll find out in April if any of these things pan out. In the meantime, I have to keep writing, keep developing my craft and keep sending my work out for publication.
Now this is going to be skewed because I've already been writing and publishing for 10 years and I've already established some success, so I'm not starting out with the disadvantage of a new writer. I've just come back from a writer's workshop and just had something published (so there will be some successes unaccounted for) and over the years I've had about 100 rejections (so there will be some rejections unaccounted for), and I can't accurately remember them all. So, I'm going to start counting with the month of August and see how it builds from there.
==KIINI'S REJECTION/ACCEPTANCE O'METER==
: : : August 2001 - present : : :
==KIINI'S REJECTION/ACCEPTANCE O'METER==