So, quick moment of disclosure: I am a pretty hardcore musical theatre geek. This is a side of myself I have been rediscovering recently. And when I say “musical theatre,” I’m aware that the initial connotations are the likes of Wicked and 42nd Street. No, I like my musical theatre dark. I wrote my college thesis on Stephen Sondheim and, more importantly, on his show Company.
Last night, I was watching the DVD of Company, the John Doyle production with Raul Esparza, a show that I saw in New York last year. And, like the rabid fan I am, I was making my way through the special features when I came across an interview with Sondheim and a quote that I think is an inspiration to all writers.
The interviewer asks Stephen if it is difficult to be “a living legend” and to feel the pressure of such an impressive Tony-and-Pulitzer-winning back catalog whenever he sits down to write. This might not be a situation familiar to the likes of us (just yet), but his answer applies to you (yes, you!) this very second:
“I try to pick something that frightens me. I think a writer should frighten himself, otherwise you tend to write the same thing again.”
This is your writing reminder of the day (from a freaking genius, no less!) to take risks, make bold choices and write from that vulnerable, raw place in your heart that you swore you’d never show to anyone. Only then will you emerge with a piece of vibrant, breathing, authentic fiction that’s worth reading.
Okay, so I have some pictures that I’ll put up here after I get home and I have tons of ideas for posts. However, I would just like to take this opportunity to summarize BEA 2009. Here are the essential stats:
Authors met: 27
ARC’s received: 21
Hopeless geeky crushes on other book nerds: 2*
Editors met: 11
Red Bulls imbibed: 3 (We all know I’d be lying if I didn’t put down at least “5”)
Bars attended with writers and friends: 5
Official publishing parties attended: 2
24-hour diners eggs-benedict-ed in: 1
And now for the most shocking (to me) numbers of all: sleep stats. I arrived on Thursday at 6 p.m. and am leaving Sunday at 11 a.m.
Total hours in NYC: 64
Total hours slept on Thursday night: 4.5
Total hours slept on Friday night: 4
Total hours slept on Saturday night: 0
Total hours slept: 8.5
No sleep ’til… Book Expo! I can’t imagine this sheer amount of mind-blowing awesomeness will repeat itself but I’ve made up my mind regardless: I am adding BEA to my annual schedule. Like whoa. Heart, soul, mind all agree: this was one of the best, most interesting, most intense and most amazing weekends ever.
Here’s a post by Mary-the-Writer about writing bravely. 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.
Developing Authentic Voice Requires Patience
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.
Are You Playing it Safe?
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 give themselves permission to write bravely, 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.
Writing Isn’t Supposed to be Easy
But here’s the cold, hard reality. If want to do it well, if you to get published, writing is hard.
So I’m throwing in the towel on my lazy attitude these days. It’s childish, it’s self-defeatist and it’s the last great threshold in my writing life. I’m finally giving myself permission to write bravely. 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.
Writing Bravely Will Carry You Over That Last Threshold
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 bravely in order to craft the manuscript that’ll make me vulnerable, that’ll seem impossible, that’ll take me over my last threshold.
If I’m giving myself permission to write bravely, I expect nothing less from the writers who query me.
I know that writing bravely is hard. Hire me as your book editor and I’ll give you feedback that’ll get you a little closer to crossing the threshold to authentic, vibrant writing.
“Why are you writing for children and young adults?”
This is a question I’ve had to answer frequently in my career. It got me thinking that I should write down my answer and see if anyone agrees with me!
Writing for Children — a Way to Keep Learning and Growing
As most adults grow older, it seems that their world narrows. Doors and windows, possibilities and opportunities, that used to exist when they were kids seem to close or disappear. People make up their minds, stop learning, evolve more slowly or not at all. On the other hand, growing up is all about change. Ideas aren’t set in stone, minds change every day, people explore the world before forming their opinion of it.
Young adulthood is such an engaged and dynamic time in someone’s life. Writing for children and young adults is a way to hand them a road map; a way to help them through the volatility. I also know that if I keep my imagination there, my world will never narrow. I’ll never stop learning and growing, and that’s exactly the kind of life I want to live.
Writing for Children — My Story
My young adulthood is a prime example of this. I immigrated to California from Moscow when I was seven, essentially leaving one childhood behind. To this day, I feel like the ten years afterward, from age seven to seventeen, were some of my most significant. Not only did I have to come into my own as a young adult, but I also forged an identity, juggling between my Russian heritage and my future as an American. Twice the growth, twice the change.
It was such a rich, painful, life-altering time and that’s why writing for children and young adults is important to me… to capture and share those moments. To keep their memory alive in my life because that’s one of the only links I have to my first childhood and the first girl I was, the one that’s still intact somewhere, flying on a rickety Aeroflot plane over Siberia, on her way to a new life.
Are you writing for children or young adults? Hire me as your children’s book editor and I’ll help you polish your project so it’s the best it can be.