Seven years of my life comes down to this.
Of course, I didn’t spend all that time working on Death’s Grip, now available on Amazon for the Kindle and out in paperback next week. I did work 40 hours a week (well, 33 to 48 or more, depending.) I had to do dishes, laundry, eat, occasionally catch a flick or go out for a night on the town (will someone please remind me what happened that night in Flagstaff?)
In other words, I lived my life. I also took a break to work on something else, which will soon take form as my sophomore effort. It often helps to step back from a work and find another distraction. Mark Twain said of Huckleberry Finn that he thought the creative well was dry at one point, but he went away for awhile, slept some, came back to it and the well was full again, full of fresh ideas.
In addition to all the above, I made amateurish mistake after amateurish mistake, which is understandable. I mean, few, if any, come out of the womb telling wonderful stories. The perfect physique may make the runner, but even a great vocalist has to train the ear, which often comes from hearing your parents sing around the house. Mozart’s father was the director of the Austrian symphony. Of course, genetics played a role but so did that immersive musical environment.
But writing is something different. It’s almost solely cerebral, as compared to those other disciplines, which depend on physicality to a much greater degree. The size of the fingers or the angle of the hips and leg joints that make for the efficient runner. Writing is just much different. Twain honed his skills through a lifetime of story-telling on the stage and yarns spun for his friends and family. Hemingway picked up his style and absorbed a lifetime worth of story ideas from his experiences overseas as a journalist.
Not that I am any of those, certainly not. Wouldn’t claim to be. They are just examples of what it takes. For one, it takes time to stumble on a good story (and stumble I did; more on that in another post.) It takes time to figure out who you are and who you want to be. These things might seem obvious, but I began this journey from the vantage point of naivete, certain that I would soon be published. “Oh, this won’t take long at all. I can do this.” Of course, reality does make fools of us all (p 295 of Death’s Grip). When I made my first stabs at writing 20 years ago, I wrote in circles, and everything came out as copies of this author or that author, whomever I was reading at the time. I didn’t give myself time to get through that process. I didn’t realize that’s how it works. That’s what all amateurs do, and there’s nothing wrong with it. You make a lot of mistakes, before you learn not to.
Then I crossed some threshold. I couldn’t tell you when it happened exactly. It just did. I began to understand the story at an abstract level that defies articulation. You can’t really teach it. Oh, there are plenty people out there who will claim they have the answers, that they can turn you into a great, best-selling offer. They will gladly take your money, but you won’t be any closer to being a real writer (or a story-teller or both, since they are separate but related skills; let’s face it, we often see interesting stories that aren’t very well written or well-written stories with great, fascinating sentences that are boring as hell.) The point is you have to go on your own journey, suffer through your own mistakes, like a guitarist who becomes really good by playing night after night in the clubs. You have to put in the time. Everyone’s journey is different and takes variable spans of time. Even those great creative writing programs like the University of Iowa or Columbia University can only give you a milieu in which to put that journey in a pressure cooker. You might get there a little faster. You might not. But you certainly will find yourself in a great immersive environment that fosters creativity like Hemingway, Fitzgerald and all those literary and artistic giants in 1920s Paris. That won’t necessarily make you a good writer, and certainly not a great one. Necessarily. It’s got a better shot than anything else.
It all comes down to time. Persistence. A stubborn refusal to quit. Passion, yes, but go a step further into obsession. That’s what separates those who make it from those who don’t. Of course, you have to have a great story, and I found a pretty good one. At least I think so. You’ll be the final judge of that. And then you have to find an agent who believes in you as much as you do, and believe me, that ain’t easy. No one believes in you as much as you do. If you decide to self-publish, a path I would warn you about but certainly not discourage you from in today’s publishing environment, you have to shoot for the same target, a finished product that meets the same standards as any traditionally-published best-seller on the market. Professional editing. A professional book cover, layout and design, all that good stuff. If you are firing on all cylinders, including a fascinating story well-crafted, you might actually have a shot at the best-seller list (which don’t always measure total sales; more on that in another post.) Probably not, but maybe.
Your job, should you choose to accept it, is to break through the noise. Separate yourself from the pack. Make yourself into something different and interesting. That’s what even the great icons of pop-fiction have always down. Clancy. Chrichton. Grisham. King. They all became their own brand, their own unique thing. You know who they are and what kind of stories they tell, because they aren’t like anyone else. That’s how you make it.
But before you can even think of selling books, you have to have a finished, polished book in hand, and even before that, a finished, polished manuscript. Somehow I got there. I don’t even know how. I guess just word by word, or as Anne Lamott wrote, bird by bird in her book of the same name (Bird by Bird is a great book on the writing process and the life of a writer that I encourage any would-be published author to read.) I crossed a threshold, I understand the story at an abstract level and I sculpted that story into its perfect form until my fingers bled and my head hurt. I crafted a delicate, intricate story with multiple parts that wove around each other until they found their expression in the climax, which, unlike some books, was pretty much near the final page. The reader will judge its ultimate place in the pantheon of literature.
But I did it. That’s satisfaction enough for now. A writer gains validation through several means, but the first moment of true ecstasy is leaning back in your chair and smiling, probably at 3 or 4 in the morning, in my case. I did it. I did it. I’ll never forget the journey. I’ll never forget the people who helped along the way and tolerated my insanity. As I say in the acknowledgments, it’s hard to appreciate and understand someone else’s obsession. So thank you everyone.
Of course, the market place matters, and perhaps that validation (sales does bring validation) will come in time. But for now, the satisfaction is in completing the monumental task that took up seven years of my life. It’s like climbing Mount Everest back in the 50s or 60s, without an oxygen tank (that’s just cheating). You look around, as you are slowly dying, and see the world as if for the first time. And you think, I did it. I really did it. Because you can’t speak. You need that oxygen, you know.