Trees grow. So do tumors, but I’m not sure I’m comfortable with likening my writing to a cancerous mass of cells. Others might be, however…
I’ve been querying my third novel, LUMINOUS, for the last several months and in the rejections I’ve received, I’ve noticed something different from the last two books I queried: feedback.
Whereas before I’d send a query letter via an email pigeon, only to have it turn right around with a, “Thanks, but no thanks,” wrapped around its ankle (and those certainly still hit my inbox), today I’m seeing more personal notes. Phrases like “smart sentences,” “strong project,” and “very interesting,” are making their way into my rejections, proving something is different about this book compared to the first two I wrote.
It’s not hard to see what changed—I did. I got better. My writing muscles strengthened. I have a storytelling six-pack where used to reside a keg of naive optimism. And that came about from a simple trick I learned while reading a bottomless pit of articles on writing:
That’s it. That was the big trick. Every morning on my train into New York, I read, and every morning for two hours in a Barnes & Noble cafe before work, I wrote. What struck me as I read was how my brain processed the prose. I used to read only for pleasure. I’d wander into the woods of a plot and set up camp for a few days to breathe in the fresh air. I still love living in books, but now as I wander among the trees, I stop and admire the flowers growing between them - the turns of phrase, the metaphors, the carefully structured sentences. I read to learn as much as I read to escape. My forest is more lush than I once thought.
My observations have paid off, too. When I go back to read my first book side-by-side with my latest, I can see the cringe-inducing difference. I might as well have been hopped up on Benadryl and mushrooms while I queried that first novel because that never should have left the desk drawer. I was hopeful and stupid. I was going to be the one to break the rule of first novels. Mine was not only going to be published, but it was going to define a new era of literature and—
You can stop laughing now.
LUMINOUS, however, is what happens when a writer finds his voice. It’s what is born of voracious reading and near-paralyzing fear of failure. LUMINOUS is the book I always wanted to write. It’s proof of growth. The story is tighter. The language is cleaner. I imagine it as the final project of a class taught by Donna Tartt, Gillian Flynn, and Anthony Breznican - a class I still worry I failed, but one in which I got a few points more than I did the last time I took it.
Reading is everything. It’s almost more important than the actual writing. I absorb the books I read and in turn churn my stories in my mind to thicken them up. To make them richer. And I don’t just read the literary powerhouses to enrich my writing. I read genre novels to observe pacing and romance and action. I read bad books to know what not to do. I read award winners, award losers, and books that wouldn’t be allowed within 50 feet of an awards stage.
Read everything. Read fiction. Read nonfiction. Read short stories and novellas (where some of the best world building and pacing happens because there are limitations for the writer to overcome). Pull it all apart and sew it back together again and use that to nurture your craft.
Growth is necessary for a writer. It’s natural. A writer who doesn’t grow is a writer no one wants to read, for if a writer doesn’t grow, the stories he or she tells don’t grow, either. And who wants to read a malnourished, neglected story? I know I don’t.
Nobody is good enough to tell the stories and ideas inside them. I mean that sincerely. The ideas in my head are shining beams of light, perfect and uninterrupted. And when they finally exist on paper, they end up fractured and imperfect — beams of light through grungy windows and shattered prisms, shot through with motes of dust, filtered up, watered down.
But sometimes that’s enough. Sometimes, a beam of light is still a beam of light no matter how diffuse it is, no matter how dirty the light, no matter how filthy the floor is that it illuminates. And when it’s not enough, you keep on trying until it is.
My books never come out the way I envision them and that’s okay. It doesn’t mean the doubt ever goes away, but I’m glad my feelings are also experienced by successful writers. I don’t feel alone in my failure. It makes me want to keep going, to get better.
Lincoln Michel for Electric Literature:
An appreciation of readers as diverse individuals with different tastes should be a basic tenet of criticism. Instead, it’s common for critics to imagine that their aesthetic preferences are the reflections of “readers” or a special class of readers—“serious readers,” “imaginative readers,” “brave readers,” or some other ill-defined category—whose views truly matter.
I don’t judge anyone for the books they read and love. Any critic can hoist his elbow patches upon a desk and tell a reader he or she is wasting his time enjoying “un-literary” books. The job of a critic is to make us ask questions about a book to better understand it, not dismiss it for its genre or because it’s “for kids.”
There is more great literary content out there than ever—but it is scattered across the Web. Literary Hub brings it together in one place, a go-to daily source for all the news, ideas, and richness of contemporary literary life. With the help of its partners—a cross-section of the best in contemporary literary publishing—Literary Hub will feature original and curated content about books and the people who write them, read them, love them.
I signed up. Seems like a great way to catch up on my literature-related news now that I stopped using RSS altogether.
Harry talks with author Courtney Alameda about her new paranormal horror-thriller, Shutter, as well as the variety of books that inspired her, the misperceptions people have of horror authors, and dealing with the frustrating question, “What is it like to be a woman who writes horror?”
Harry also reveals the winners of the #CoveredConfidant giveaway, courtesy of Baron Fig!
Harry talks with author Eric Shonkwiler about his award-winning debut novel, Above All Men, as well as Cormac McCarthy, MFA programs, and the current state of literature.
And keep your ears peeled for a very special giveaway courtesy of our good friends at Baron Fig!
ᔥ Terrible Minds:
Over the last many moons, my wife busted her ass to make the shed happen. She weathered the (several) problems that popped up. She helped me settle on a design that did not look like a four-year-old painted it with poopy hands. Delays and problems besieged — and oh yeah, right around the holidays, too, whee — but then, it happened.
They delivered the shed. And put it together.
I WANT ONE. Hell, if it weren’t for the flood-happy nature of my backyard (we’re right against a river), I’d put one in.