The Last Threshold and Writing What You Can’t

Here’s a post written by Mary-the-Writer, not Mary-the-Agent. I’ve written a lot of manuscripts in the pursuit of my craft. Each has been better than the last one and I have no doubt I can tell a story, but there’s a threshold in my way that I’m always grappling with. It’s the hardest, most menacing final hurdle, and I haven’t hopped over it yet, as my work remains unpublished.

My struggle is voice. A voice that’s believable, that changes, that evolves and reeks of humanity. Because that’s what is necessary in today’s market. And my biggest problem is impatience. I want to publish a book and I want to do it right now. But things don’t work that way. In my pursuit of the manuscript “just good enough for someone to publish it already!!!” I’ve been turning out lazy, one-dimensional, generic writing. Some writers, those trained in critique groups and workshops, will automatically move to pat me on the knee and whisper that no, it’s actually very good and that I shouldn’t say that, and that I’m being self-critical, and blah blah blah. But compliments don’t help a person improve. They’re the last things you’ll remember, after you process all the real, honest and challenging advice you get.

In the pursuit of the book that’s good enough, I haven’t written a book that’s alive. Something with a pulse. Something that has the “x factor” to succeed. (Hint: the “x factor” in any manuscript is voice.) Not yet. That’s what I finally have to tackle (in all my “spare” time, ha!). And the painful funny thing is, I’ve known it all along. In my rush to write and revise, I’ve known that these manuscripts haven’t been my absolute best work. A long time ago, in college, I figured out that my lazy try was better than some people’s absolute best writing. That’s the moment when I decided to play it safe. I know I’m not alone in this.

People have a tendency to stop short of doing their best. It’s a self-defense mechanism. If they don’t write the things they really want, if they don’t pour out the real effort, then the failure they’re imagining (and will most likely experience) can’t hurt them that deeply. Criticism slides right off, because they have a dirty little secret: this wasn’t the real try anyway.

Well, I am throwing in the towel on that attitude these days. It’s childish, it’s self-defeatist and it’s the last great threshold in my writing life. Is there anybody out there with me who’ll do the same? Have I hit upon anybody else’s dirty little secret? Good.

Here’s my advice to those writing what’s just good enough:

Write what you can’t. Write what you’ve been afraid to write this entire time.

I’m done with writing safe, bloodless manuscripts that get me nowhere. Just like any writer, I’ve faced a lot of rejection. But I’m grateful for it, so thank you to all the editors who haven’t published me yet. Thanks for not letting me get away with it. I’ll be here until next time, getting over my self-inflicted BS and finally writing the manuscript that’ll make me vulnerable, that’ll seem impossible, that’ll take me over my last threshold.

I want nothing less from the writers who query me.

13 Replies to “The Last Threshold and Writing What You Can’t”

  1. I love this post. I just dealt with something similar. I went for broke when I wrote The Deathday Letter. It’s the opposite of everything I’ve ever written. It’s vulgar and funny and mushy and it’s a comedy with death. It’s also my first book to sell.

    I’ve spent the months since I sold that book trying to follow it up. I keep trying to do something similar, but every time, I end up bored. I finally realized that in order to do this writer thing, and do it well, I have to go for broke every time. Every book has to challenge me to push my limits. I have to make no safe choices. Which is scary. It’s easy to think that if I just follow the formula I used for the first book, that the second book should be a hit, but that’s not the case. The first book had only one rule: there are no rules.

    The second I realized this, I stumbled upon the idea for my next book. It’s still got all the things that my agent/editors loved about my first book, but it’s challenging me in amazing ways.

    So good luck on your manuscript! I’m right there with you πŸ™‚

  2. Shaun, so happy you like the post. I’ve definitely gotten all the way up to submissions to huge houses before without realizing this, so I feel kinda like, per one of your recent posts, I’ve been focusing not even on the tree in the background, but on the tree behind that tree.

    It’s a hard mental obstacle to finally decide to do it balls out, broke as a joke. And I can totally sympathize with that bored feeling. While doing this latest manuscript just to do it, I was bored a lot. I realize it’s so unfair to ask people to read something and not be bored while I was even bored writing it, but I was just so impatient.

    The first rule of book-writing-revelation club…

    I definitely feel like I’m learning to write all over again, now that I’ve got my commitment issues semi-straightened out. And I’m really looking forward to the challenge.

  3. This resonated so strongly with me. I still remember cranking out some formulaic drivel for a high school creative writing class. (I, too, learned early on that my lazy try was usually good enough.) When I got the paper back with a big red C at the top I was incensed. I protested to my teacher that some of my friends with only a fraction of my writing skill had gotten higher grades.

    She actually agreed with me but told me that she knew I was capable of so much better, and that she had graded me against my potential, not against the rest of the class. Oh I was cranky for a few days but I grew to love her for that.

    I find now that I have finally gotten serious about writing that there is temptation to say “Well, I think my ms is as good as writer x who got published so I guess I’m done revising.” Not only that, but I have to motivate myself not just to write, but also to read books, read blogs, learn the art of querying, etc. The lazy try simply will not suffice any longer πŸ™‚

  4. I have to admit, I keep coming back to this post again and again. I can’t tell you how often I’ve felt that familiar pull towards “just get *something* out the door – no matter how rushed it is” feeling. Horrible! I’m a writer and an illustrator, so I feel this pull with both the words and art that I try to create – this is a great post to help me ‘call myself’ on my own BS and impatience.
    Thank you so much for writing this one, it has helped me stay focused when every ounce of me wants to try for that quick ‘n dirty solution that will no doubt be a time waste! You’re doing great work here, and we’re all better writers because of it.
    See you in PW,
    Jess (couldn’t help myself there…) πŸ˜‰

  5. Yay, you! Working on this myself. And in my critique group, yes, we’d probably pat you on the knee, but then we’d also give you a little push in the back to get going on this new track! πŸ™‚

  6. I’ve read this post a few times before since I obsessively read all the posts tagged as voice, but I think now that I’m revising, it makes more sense to me than ever before.

    Thanks for the great post as always!

  7. Awesome and vulnerable, Mary. I’ve been coming to terms with this in my new WIP… It’s tough already but if I hold back it’s just going to be worthless. Thanks. Really amazing post.

  8. But you just did it. The above is your voice. Your tone and your juxtaposition…it’s all there. What I’d love to see is a teen character with your voice. Funny and degrading and optimistic. πŸ˜‰

    Anyway. Thanks for sharing.

  9. This post was a kick in my life’s pants! As I consider writing, and as I look at my life, your challenge echoes in my mind’s ear. Oh that I would recall it everyday, and stop making excuses. Thank you.

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