Sunday, November 28, 2010

250 words.

‘I know it’s not easy to rid yourself of the notion that you need something important to commit to ... but the trick of life is to stop worrying about finding the perfect thing to commit to and commit to something, anything at all.’
--Merle Shain, author and broadcaster, 1935-1989.

Sometimes it’s the willingness to make a small commitment— when a big commitment just isn’t possible— that saves us. The longer you spend getting to know yourself as you wrangle with the empty page, the more you will see that some years are better than others. There are seasons in your life as an artist that are explosive, and the words rush onto the screen from your fingertips in a kind of furious bliss. But those seasons, for most, are the exception and not the rule.

There are other seasons— and sometimes they seem to stretch out in a rather unseasonable fashion— when the fits and starts of a once-reliable engine sputter out before taking hold. Momentum is like a dream from a more innocent time, one in which all you had to contend against was the cadence of dialogue— is it authentic?— or the color of your protagonist’s hair— can you genuinely relate to a redhead or does she have a short, brunette bob with the tips slightly longer toward the front, instead?

After you’ve penned your first novel, you feel you’ve scaled Everest and believe the industry is ready to toast your stamina. Hell, it’s finished. Surely it’s as good as the thousands upon thousands of stories which have already managed to make it into print. After the first revision comes the first submission. You’re shocked when the pass— even a provisional one— comes. So, you revise, again, and resubmit. And another pass comes and perhaps you start to wonder if you should shelve the project for a while. Or maybe you overhaul it.

Whatever the case, you are now in the thick of it— living the dark side of the dream. It’s the side that is often romanticized as being drenched in absinthe and smelling of cigarettes though the truth is far less sexy. Trying to break into the elite circle of publication is hard work, and if you’re really committed to seeing this thing through, you might even begin to hammer out your next manuscript while pitching the first.

And herein lies the rub.

Now you have industry feedback. Now you understand that you have to bear in mind truisms such as writing to where your passion meets the market— God help us. Now, you have tears. True confession: I cry when I query agents. I read essays on crafting the perfect pitch and the salt squeezes out of the corners of my eyes because the last time I wanted something so badly it was driving a hand-me-down Oldsmobile 88 and looking mighty tasty in broken-in jeans. At any rate, tapping out that next yarn after submission, for some, may not flow as easily. Mostly because whatever childlike enthusiasm you brought to the former project has been flattened a bit by its head-on collision with target demographics and branding and acceptable word count. The last panel of agents and editors at the conference claimed all you have to do is write the best novel of which you’re capable and let them handle the packaging. But the truth— you have learned— is that even before you’re signed you have to be both author and marketer, artist and salesman. And what can foster greater distaste for our tribe than to have to think commercial?

Scissoring to the proverbial chase, if you’ve arrived at the place where you’re all starts with no big finish— heck, no happy middle— then the key to mastering the maze, I hazard, is to make a commitment. It doesn’t really matter how you got a bit turned around, the vow to yourself’s the thing. And, ultimately, the promises you make to yourself are the ones on which you build a foundation. Then, a first level, next a spot where the windows go and, eventually, the drapes.

Think of this as my love letter to those of you who, at times, feel a bit small in the face of managing your careers in a seeming void. Being your own boss is both a wing and an albatross. So I say to you, today, do what you can— but do it every day. Whittle away at the slope one spoonful at a time, if a spoon is all you have for the moment. Perhaps, in the long run, it’s not about the glamour of having accomplished something big but the quiet dignity of having never given in— even when all you were capable of was 250 words a day. Until next time, dear reader.



  1. Lovely post. I'm in the middle of writing the first novel (almost 40k down so far). There are times when I feel like I'm in a blizzard so thick I can't see the summit.

    I agree that making the commitment to finish is a big part of the battle. I completed 23 words this weekend, but it is 23 words more than I had last week and tomorrow is another day.

  2. Your words drip with hope.....I love this, truly love this. Thank you.

  3. My dear Kari Marie- I officially change the title of this post to '23 words.' in your honor.

    My dear Sand- I feel sorry for anyone who doesn't have a sister like you.

  4. A heartbreaking journey -tears filled my eyes as I read this post. I agree with Sandra, "dripping with hope". Something we must have if we are to continue through the fire. You my dear are approaching golden.

  5. Strong words, Aurora. Ones that I agree with. Commitment is the number one way to get any project finished. Even if it feels at times that your heart isn't in it. I always say that I started this thing, and I will finish it no matter what. If, in the end, no one wants it, that only means I work harder and more diligently the next time around. One never climbs a mountain without failure, so keep on keepin' on!

    ♥ Mary Mary

  6. I am right with you on this one Aurora, as difficult as the journey may seem the idea is to keep plugging on, I could not live with myself if i stopped trying.

  7. Hey Blondie- I still contend you're a poet.

    Mary Mary- Mass-market publication is a stone's throw away for you, my friend. I just know it.

    Joanna- I'm gonna start calling you ray of sunshine, girl.

  8. Dear Aurora,

    You are so right. In a strange way, it's easier to write that first novel (when you think you will be the exception and things will be easier for YOU). The second one for me has been harder. So many more things come into consideration now (and self-doubt kicks in frequently.) But writing a little bit every day helps. The important thing is not to interrupt that momentum until one day, before you know it, the entire novel is finished!

  9. You've got it right. It really is about making a commitment and then continually chipping away at it each day. I've broken my momentum now and it's really hard to get back into the daily chipping away process... but I'm trying!

  10. The second and the third, Sister Lorena. The longer the journey, the quicker the depression sets in.
    Reading Sister Aurora makes me think that if hard-work, perseverance, commitment, and virtue were taken into account by the publishing industry, Sister Aurora would be a bestelling author by now. Just by reading her prose one can tell she is a skillful writer.

  11. My dear Lorena- May I have the honor of kicking your self- doubt?

    My dear Rachel- There are two 'ends.' One is stopping- which means you start, again. And one is quitting- which means you don't. You have simply slowed down. No worries, scribe.

    My dear Violante- I am at once humbled and lit on fire by your words.

    To all of you writers with the balls enough to have a dream that no one will see through but you- .

    Sound the battle cry, my loves! This is your life- DON'T LET GO.

  12. Btw- I propose we stop using the word rejection. It's a pass- they have passed on the honor of representation. We are the ones that have slaved, sweat and bled. Rejection is just a word- and one, out of the many that we deal with every day as writers- that we can afford to excise from our polished lexicons.

    CHIN UP.

  13. Fantastic post! A love letter indeed. Thanks.

  14. wow. wow. wow. this was beautifully written and every word so very true! thanks! i'm working on rewriting manuscript number 1 and am 60% finished with number 2. number 1 is definitely taking on a different "feel" than i envisioned for it when i started it oh-so-naively ago. christy

  15. This is a wonderful post Aurora - and perhaps we can hope that if our naivete fades and can no longer sustain us, wisdom and experience will take its place? (as I said, we can hope...)

  16. My dear Christy- I so hear you about the naivete. But as I remind myself daily- no one starts out of the block a marathoner. We build up to where we are and there really is no other way. Last night I read an apt quote from the short book, 'Art and Fear' that really spoke to the particular leg of the journey on which I find myself (and it sounds like it might speak to you, as well.) 'The function of the overwhelming majority of your artwork is simply to teach you how to make the small fraction of your artwork that soars.'

    My dear Adina- Perhaps wisdom is the rightful heir to having held on past the bloom of naivete.

    Cheers to you both taking flight.


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