How I Got My Literary Agent

I have a literary agent! This is bonkers.

In February of 2018, I finished the novel I’d been writing, off and on, for five years. I was in Paris, because the novel is set in Paris, and if you’re ever going to really lean in to a cliché, why not choose the one about being an American writer in Paris? I came home and set about finding an agent to represent it and shepherd it to publication. Here’s an excerpt of a post from August of 2018, when I was only six months into the query process:

Friends, if I had known this part of the game was going to be as difficult and stressful as it has been, I would’ve hurried the fuck up with the writing and devoted more emotional energy to querying. People warned me! They warned me this would suck! They were not wrong! Writing a novel is only half of the battle.

I sent somewhere around 55 queries between March and December of 2018. In August, I received a full request from an agent who eventually asked me to revise and resubmit the manuscript, but only if I paid an editor for a developmental edit. (In hindsight, this ought to have set off alarm bells; querying authors shouldn’t have to pay out of pocket to secure an agent. They can if they so choose, but it shouldn’t be a requirement to landing representation.) I contacted four editors, two of whom the agent recommended personally (this should have been another red flag), and all of them came back with quotes for their services between $3,000 and 4,000. I’m sure they’re worth every penny they charge, but it was money I just didn’t have and I didn’t think my precious book child needed that much heavy lifting. That’s not to say I disagreed with/refused to be receptive to the feedback the agent gave me, or that I was too protective of my novel to change even a single comma. I’d been editing as I wrote, revising and condensing and polishing; I even had my dear friend Samantha, who had worked in publishing, proofread it. This wasn’t a first draft manuscript by any means.

I undertook the edit myself, which took me a month. I deleted roughly 11k words, changed the ending, and addressed a bunch of other plot and pacing points. I liked the book more. It still felt like the book I set out to write, just better; I didn’t sacrifice my vision for it in the pursuit of one agent.

I resubmitted it to the agent in December, and when they got back to me in January of 2019, the answer was still no. Disappointing, but not surprising. All of the things I’d read about finding the right agent (including many of the rejection emails I got from other agents) reassured me that it’s a subjective industry and it only takes one agent to fall in love with it and champion it to publishers.

Between January and June of 2019, I sent another 10 queries, sporadically at best and with none of the initial enthusiasm I had displayed early on. Every rejection, especially ones that came from full requests (and I received 11 full requests total over the life of my #amquerying journey), hurt. Querying isn’t for the faint of heart. It also takes longer than you expect, and you learn to be very, very patient. It’s basically the chorus from Chumbawamba’s 1997 hit “Tubthumping,” in that you get knocked down, but you get back up again and keep sending your novel out to other agents.

In June, an agent I queried in February requested the full manuscript. In November, I sent a gently nudging email. She responded saying she hadn’t had a chance to read it but promised she would. In December, she reached out to me to let me know she had started my novel and was enjoying it, and that she hoped to finish it over the holidays and get back to me after the new year. Surely that was a good sign, right? An agent not only showing interest but keeping me apprised of her process? I was like a wounded puppy by that point, though, and refused to get my hopes up.

I had, also, ceased querying entirely. I love my novel, but figured it wasn’t its time. I set it aside in the summer and decided to focus all of my creative efforts on writing another one, maybe one that wasn’t so niche, one that didn’t straddle two genres. An unraveled art heist that is neither a straight mystery (we know whodunnit from the first page) or straight literary fiction is a hard sell, I was told over and over again.

So I started writing another novel. And then I abandoned that novel for another one. I was convinced the best course of action would be to write a second novel more firmly planted in a salable genre, go through the querying process all over again, and hope to sell not only the second novel but the first novel in a two-book deal with a publisher. (The universe, it should now be apparent, had other plans.)

On the second Friday in January 2020, I received an email from that agent that said: “I finally had the chance to read VANISHED in full, and I’m thrilled to tell you that I loved it.” (!!!!!!!!)

I screamed and Tom Cruise’d myself onto my couch, which wasn’t medically advisable given that just that afternoon I’d been diagnosed with Benign Paroxysmal Positional Vertigo. To say it was a day of ups and downs isn’t entirely accurate; it was a day of listing to one side and then being shot into space with glee. I was dizzy in more ways than one.

We set up a time to talk the following Tuesday. This, of course, is “The Call” querying authors hope to land, the endgame step that leads to an offer of representation, but which I refused to allow myself to believe was actually happening. Maybe it was another revise and resubmit! Maybe I would get hit by a bus before Tuesday and die immediately and never actually get to have The Call! My brain can’t let me have nice things!

At the appointed time, I made myself a cup of tea, sat on my bed, and tried very hard not to pass out. She called, we spoke, she raved about my novel, said she wanted to represent me, the bed opened up beneath me and I fell into my grave. She loved it! She *got* it! She was surprised and satisfied by the main plot twist. She had a few minor suggestions on two or three plot points, all of which made sense to me and I agreed with. I asked her questions I’d googled in advance, like: What is your submission strategy? What happens if you don’t like my next book? And then, because we were getting along so well and the conversation had never felt like a formal interview, I asked her what books she was reading for fun, and it turns out we’d both recently read and loved “Fleishman is in Trouble.” If writing a whole novel is only half the battle, then finding an agent who believes in it enough to sell it to publishers is only the next quarter; the remaining quarter is finding an agent you get along well enough with to maintain a (hopefully!) long and fruitful working relationship.

Everything I’d read online told me to play it cool, that the agent expects you to take a week or two to think about their offer before accepting. If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you know the amount of chill I have when I am excited about something is zero. Precisely none. I have no chill. So when she ended with, “Do you want to take some time to think about it or are you ready to move forward?” I said I was ready to move forward. To my credit, I didn’t holler! It felt right to accept; the feedback she gave me about my book was all sound and enthusiastic and was made with deference to my vision as its author.

And that is how, a little under two years from the day I finished writing the novel, I landed my literary agent. I am now represented by Stacy Testa of Writers House. I know how hard I worked for this and how many times I wanted to give up (both at writing and at querying), but I also know how lucky I am.

And speaking of lucky, the next day I left for Paris. I’d had the trip booked for a few months, and planned to work on my new novel while I was there. I got to work on my first novel, too, addressing the edits we’d discussed. A week after I got back, the agency agreement was signed and countersigned, and it was officially official. I did it. And I am so, so proud.

Thank you all for sticking with me all these years, from the earliest days of this novel. I cannot wait to bring this book into the world and hold it in my hands, and I can’t wait for you to read it.

A New Novel. Finally.

On Tuesday, December 3rd, after I came home from French class (the first of the new winter term), I watched tv and ate a bowl of cereal on the sofa before getting ready for bed. It was 9:45 when I’d finished washing my face, a process that takes exactly as long and is exactly as involved as you’d expect for someone about to turn 33. I passed my office on the way to my bedroom, and made it two steps beyond the doorway—my desk framed by the open door—when the strangest thing happened to me. In what I can only attribute to some sort of divine, creative intervention: my forearms began to feel weird. (Descriptive, for a writer, I know.) As if there was a pent up charge of energy collecting in my hands. I turned back to my office and reached for my notebook. A softcover, navy blue Moleskine notebook I’d purchased almost a year ago exactly at Barnes & Noble with the intention of filling with my second novel. A notebook that, save for three (three!) pages, had sat entirely unmarked and untouched for eleven months. My hands felt shaky, needy, about to fly off my body.

I had to write. I physically had to or I was going to burst. I didn’t even have a choice in the matter. I barely recognized the sensation. I took the notebook to bed and proceeded to write until 12:30 in the morning, page after page of a story that came to me out of nowhere and fully formed. Character names, backstories, a plot, a title. It was all there, dropped into my head and spilling out of me onto the page with very little effort on my part, as if I was merely a conduit for it. If this is what people mean when they say they were “struck with inspiration,” I understand now precisely how physical a blow it is.

In her TedTalk, writer Elizabeth Gilbert recounts a poet describing her experience with inspiration as a “thunderous train of air” she hears in the distance and which eventually barrels towards her, the ground shaking beneath her feet. The poet would run to her desk to write it down, being chased by this poem, so that when it “thundered through her, she could collect it.” Gilbert says she’s also had times where work has come to her through a source that she can’t identify. It is, after all, “the utter maddening capriciousness of the creative process…which does not always behave rationally and can sometimes feel downright paranormal.”

That’s as close to describing what I experienced that Tuesday night/Wednesday morning as I can get. To say this story fell out of the sky and dropped into my brain would not be inaccurate. Yes, all of my lived experiences probably contributed to it in some way. I’ll give myself some credit for being able to write it, but not so much about the source of it.

When I bought that notebook, I intended to write a very different novel. It was set in Rome in the late 90s, about a young journalist who goes missing and whose sister comes to look for him. I had a rough outline. I had ideas. I struggled with the main character’s name. I struggled with an ending. I struggled with the fact that it seemed too like my last novel in terms of the relationships between the characters. Mostly, I struggled. Sitting down to work on it became disheartening, frustrating, so at some point I stopped sitting down to work on it altogether. I revisited it occasionally, but it was like squeezing water from a stone. The story is there, and I think it could be a good story one day, but it clearly wasn’t its time.

I am now 36 pages in to this new novel, in the span of less than two weeks. It is set in London and it is about an affair. I have written every single day since that first night. I write on my lunch break, I write at night, I write throughout the day when things come to me. I carry this notebook with me everywhere, and for the first time in a long time I feel like a writer again. It’s crazy, the extent to which not writing has the opposite effect. I’m going to London for a weekend in February, because it’s been over a decade since I visited the Smoke, and who doesn’t love a quick overseas jaunt in the name of book research?

Writing one novel has provided me with invaluable insights into what NOT to do this time. I can’t wait to take you all along for the ride.

So About That Novel….

Novel. Fin.

*taps microphone hesitantly*

Is this thing still on?

In what will be perhaps my most belated announcement on this blog (for reasons that will become clear), I FINISHED MY NOVEL.

In Paris!

In February.

Ahem.

It was a momentous occasion, one I didn’t even dare to dream about while I was down in the writing trenches, mostly because, as the old saying goes, it seems impossible until it’s done. This book took me five years. Five! Not five consecutive years, by any means–a long bout of depression between 2015 and 2016, coupled with temporary unemployment and a whole host of other unpleasantness, set me back significantly; there were months when I didn’t even open the Word file–but still, approximately half a decade. (Please don’t let the next one take as long!)

In that time, I moved to Paris, changed jobs THREE times, went back to Paris eight more times, and if I look back at my earliest saved draft & outline, I don’t even recognize it beyond the characters, who by now feel like real life human beings. The story changed shape and focus somewhere halfway through, and I followed it. It morphed into its own sentient being, talking to me at 3am, nagging me until I listened and let it tell me where to go.

And this is where it led me: a 390 page, 110,000 word literary mystery set in Paris, about a man who stole 14 paintings from Sotheby’s. It is about art and love and loss. It is tentatively titled “Vanished.” To quote my query letter (we’ll get to that in a second!): Set across Paris, La Ciotat, and New York, “Vanished” explores the profound influence the things–and people–that go missing can have simply through their absence.

I went to Paris in February with a goal to finish it. I was so close, and flights were $400, and I knew that I needed to finish it where it started, where it was set. I wrote every day in my little apartment. I let the city do what it always does for me, and it worked. When I realized I was mere minutes from finishing, I started crying. Gasping, happy tears. I had to force myself back into the chair to keep going; it felt like trying to contain a hot air balloon. And when I hit save, I took a selfie to document the moment (as one does).

Coucou! C’est moi!

(Oh, yeah, I also had bangs back then. And it’s taken me this long to write a blog post that I don’t have bangs anymore.)

And once I backed up the document to my external hard drive, I took myself to the Ritz on Place Vendôme for champagne, because if there is ever an occasion in your life that warrants a 30€ glass of champagne, THIS WAS IT.

Still riding the euphoric high of that wondrous achievement, I came home and gave two copies of the full manuscript to two dear friends; one, to read solely as a reader and lover of fiction to see if the big mystery actually worked the way I wanted it to (IT DID), and the other, to proofread with her sharp, talented eye and whip into shape. I also edited the living bejesus out of it, ruthlessly cutting it down to 350 pages from 390 and trimming it from 110,000 words to 97,000. (That was an intense weekend, let me tell you.) I didn’t cling to each and every one of my precious words the way I thought I would. If they weren’t helping the narrative, they were slashed with red pencil.

In March, I started the process of finding an agent. Friends, if I had known this part of the game was going to be as difficult and stressful as it has been, I would’ve hurried the fuck up with the writing and devoted more emotional energy to querying. People warned me! They warned me this would suck! They were not wrong! Writing a novel is only half of the battle.

Querying looks like this: you need an agent to sell your work to a publisher, so you go online and research literary agencies, of which there are thousands, and when you find an agency you think would be a good fit–they’ve published reputable, successful books similar to yours in genre–you then find the specific agent at that agency who is looking for material like yours–some agents only want romance, or Young Adult, or non-fiction, or some want mysteries but not crime, or women’s fiction and not literary fiction, or vice versa–and once you identify said agent you start scouring the web for interviews they may have given that expand upon what they’re looking for, so you can reference it in your query letter–“In your March 2016 interview with Kirkus Reviews, you said you’re seeking literary fiction in an international setting…” or “Because you represented X book, I think my book would be a good fit for your list.”–and then you can start drafting your query letter, which is a one page document that briefly summarizes your book, like a dust jacket blurb–so take your entire book and explain it in two paragraphs that are engaging and intriguing without giving everything away–and explains why you are qualified to write the book you did–in my case, being a writer at an auction house kind of, I think, qualifies me to write about art at an auction house, idk–and then is emailed to the agent along with their submission requirements–some agents want five pages, some want ten, some want a full chapter, either pasted in the email below your query letter, or attached, and some want a synopsis, too, which is your entire book explained and is different from the summary you included in your query letter–and then you hit send, and then! AND THEN YOU WAIT.

You wait for the agent to read your query, and hope that they like it enough to request more of the book from you, either a “partial” (~50 pages ) or a “full” (which, as the name implies, is the full manuscript). Or you wait for the agent to send a rejection, which is usually a pleasant enough form letter that tells you “better luck elsewhere.” Mostly, you wait.

Sometimes you wait and get an email that looks like this:

If it sounds exhausting and convoluted, it’s because it is. If it sounds soul-crushingly depressing, well, yeah, it’s that, too. I’ve sent out 44 queries in five months. I’ve gotten 21 rejections. The first few were fun! “Look at me, I’m a real author now, I got my first rejection!” (Spoiler: they became increasingly less fun as they rolled in.) I’ve also had several full requests and one partial request. In fact, I received another partial request last night. (!!) I still have 18 queries still out to agents. I check the #amquerying tag on Twitter on the reg. I read blogs about authors finding their agent, I check QueryTracker.com for the statistics about each agent I’m querying. This is as all-consuming as the actual writing portion, only this time I have absolutely no control over any of it. But I’m hopeful. And I’m also brainstorming my next book.

And because of all that, I have neglected this sweet, lonely blog for six months. The shame! I still have photos from my last trip to Paris in June to share. (Oh, yeah, I went back to Paris in the midst of all of this, my rationale being that February’s trip was really a working trip, and I really needed a vacation trip, and I hadn’t been in Paris in June since 2014 and I missed the light, and also flights were $550, and also that I never need a rationale to go back to Paris four months after I was just there.)

Did I mention I finished my novel?

A Playlist

Writing: A Playlist

Because I couldn’t bear to have my heartbroken election post at the top of the page any longer, here is a playlist of songs that have become something of a writing security blanket for me over the last three (!!!) years. My incredibly talented friend Herbie compiles a mix CD for me every year for my birthday, and I’m not ashamed to admit that’s where more than a few of these songs came from. The songs on this playlist either get me in the mood to write, help me stay in that headspace, or are so intrinsically linked to my novel from constant looping on repeat that they have formed an unofficial soundtrack (I want to live inside of that Active Child song; two of my characters already do). I listened to Buzzcut Season by Lorde multiple times a day when I lived in Paris (my neighbors must’ve hated me…), and almost wrote an entire blog post about one line of that song: “And I’ll never go home again.” I came home from Paris, but I didn’t really come home, because those weeks I spent there, writing, became my home. I don’t know, it sounded better in my head, but the song itself still does it for me. I know I threw in a bit of a curveball with that Shostakovich Ballet Suite by the Russian Philharmonic Orchestra, but I heard that song on the classical station about eight or nine years ago, and was stopped in my tracks. It is, to this day, one of the most beautiful compositions I’ve ever heard, and I’m not just saying that as a biased former-ballerina.

Happy listening, kiddos! Let me know if you end up streaming or downloading any of these & if they give you as much encouragement as they do me.

A Backwards Whodunit

Writing

I’ve been working on this novel for three+ years, and during that time, whenever anyone would ask me what it was about, my answer was always, “An art heist in Paris. It’s a backwards whodunit.” I’d go on to explain that the book opens with a character stealing a painting, and his storyline works backwards through the novel, going through each painting he stole and why, while another, parallel storyline, about his former colleague and the gallery assistant at his friend’s wife’s gallery (still with me?), takes place present day and moved forwards. Usually there are hand motions involved; I’d literally point my hands in opposite directions to drive home the plot. But it always bothered me that my novel isn’t actually a whodunit, even it if unfurls backwards; we know whodunit the moment the book opens (spoiler: Dubois!). If anything, it’s a whydunit, but that’s not really right either.

So a few weeks ago, I chanced a google of “backwards whodunit” and lo and behold, there’s actually a literary term for precisely this genre of book: “howcatchem.” And as the name suggests, rather than a mystery around who, howcatchems focus on the how. (If only I’d known sooner! I could’ve saved myself all of the gesturing!) Howcatchems are also known as “Inverted Detective Stories,” and usually start with a murder, and are followed by an investigation playing out to piece together the crime. Other crimes (say, for example, stealing 14 paintings from the Paris Sotheby’s over two years) fall into the subgenre of “Capers.” According to Wikipedia:

The caper story is a subgenre of crime fiction. The typical caper story involves one or more crimes (especially thefts, swindles, or occasionally kidnappings) perpetrated by the main characters in full view of the reader. The actions of police or detectives attempting to prevent or solve the crimes may also be chronicled, but are not the main focus of the story. The caper story is distinguished from the straight crime story by elements of humor, adventure, or unusual cleverness or audacity.”

Et voila. That’s my novel to the letter. (Swindles!)

The only problem, of course, is that I cannot bring myself to say with a straight face, “I am writing a caper!” I don’t have an old-timey tweed cap and I don’t use a typewriter. Nor do I particularly like the term ‘howcatchem’; perhaps because it’s not as frequently used as “whodunit,” it sounds less like an actual word and more like a try-hard portmanteau one must pronounce with a southern accent. Backwards whodunit it is.

PS. Want to hear something weird? I’ve already started outlining what my next novel will be, and it follows the same story structure. Apparently I have a thing for capers.

PPS. Yes, I know, I shouldn’t be working on or even thinking about my second novel until this one is finished. Fear not, that day is coming very, very soon. (eep!)

Black & White (And an Excerpt From the First Draft)

Café Saint-Régis

Dubois turned the collar of his raincoat up, adjusted his scarf under his chin, and, shoulders strung up almost to his ears, stepped out of his building into the chilled rain that had persisted over the city for the past three days. It was a fine, mostly annoying mist, spraying him the moment the door closed behind him with a heavy thud. The usual morning soundtrack –a dog scampering to the nearest tree, the trash collectors rolling bins across the sidewalk, background noise to him on any other morning– had the sudden effect of being jarring, too loud, too accusatory. He hurried on, trying to make his feet move faster than his brain, trying to trick himself into forgetting the streets he’d memorized years ago. Right, left, left again. If he didn’t look up he could pretend he was lost. And that morning he needed to be lost.

The entire enterprise seemed entirely fucking stupid now, out of the suffocating confines of his apartment. His apartment. He couldn’t even think about it without feeling it was booby-trapped and rigged to blow. He had more still lifes than he knew what to do with. He’d taken three of them inexplicably, because they’d been there, available. And though he’d only spotted one at first, he later took two additional Henri Fantin-Latour pieces because his recollection told him they matched, that they’d make a perfect triptych of florals. Only he’d gotten them home and realized the colors were all wrong on the first one. Sleep on it, he’d told himself. They’ll look different in the morning light. And they had, only worse. As he’d lined them up on his dresser this morning, he’d become so nauseated and sickened by the sight of them that he had been gasping for air as he slipped on his coat and locked the door behind him.


I’m writing a novel. You can read more about that here.

100 Days (And a Novel Update)

Blue Skies, Paris

Blue Skies, Paris

Blue Skies, Paris

I.

Yesterday marked 100 days until I head back to Paris again, but who’s counting. (Me. I’m counting.) I leave after Thanksgiving, which sounds so far away, but with the way this year has been moving I know I’ll blink and be boarding a plane, embarking on my second solo trip to what, honestly, feels like home. It will be my second time going in winter, too, though I think late November/early December tend to be more temperate than the deep midst of March (at least, that’s what I’m hoping). I love winter, I love everything about it; the cold, the damp, the early darkness, so I’ll welcome the grisaille that Paris is known for at that time of year with an almost emo-kid excitement. Blue skies, like the ones above I experienced last spring and this one, aren’t bad either, though.

II.

I’ve stayed true to the promise I made myself when I started this new job, and have spent a ton of time working on my novel, dedicating solid, uninterruptible chunks of time to it (along with starting my real estate license studies!), which somewhat explains my extended absences around these parts. I have a nine page outline, going chapter by chapter, of how I want the book to come together, with questions for myself, things I need to fill in, flesh out, rework. There’s so much editing and cutting out and paring down. When I first started three years ago (!!!), this was just about a French girl. Now, she’s just one character in a story that has evolved past her, into something entirely different.

The one upside to taking such an extended break from working on it for the better part of the last year is that I can approach the draft with fresh eyes, and less of an attachment to passages and portions I previously would have been unable to chop. And chop I have, to the tune of roughly 20k words. Before, I had one massive, 183 page, 80k word document with virtually no sense of cohesion, and I would rely on my memory of specific words or phrases in each scene, to ctrl+f whichever section it was I wanted to work on (author’s note: I do not recommend this strategy). Now, I have a new document, organized by the chapters I’ve set up in my outline, and have been placing in large blocks of text that I’ve already written, tweaking them, cutting extraneous backstory that, while helpful to me originally, doesn’t help the story as it stands now. I am really happy with the way it’s coming along, and am aiming to have a completed, presentable first draft by the end of the year.

That week in Paris already has its work cut out for it.

“Who The Bleep is Harry?”

Who the Bleep is Harry?

I keep a red moleskin notebook for all of my scribblings and novel ideas (literally and figuratively). It’s half-full of half-sentences or half-finished thoughts. It’s all over the place, but creatively, I have better luck physically handwriting (or rewriting) things before sitting down at my computer, so that I have a store of pages to use as a jumping-off point.

I’ve written before about my frustrating in attempting to decipher unfinished thoughts, so imagine my reaction when I discovered, while flipping back a few pages in my notebook, an entire page dedicated to a character I can’t even remember. I read and reread it, and while I like this passage, I cannot for the life of me figure out who the fuck Harry is or why I started writing about him. What role was he going to play? Was he going to be important? I have no idea!

Here, let’s see if you guys can make sense of this for me:

Auctions are spectator sports as much as they are flagrant shows of wealth, both masked by a facade of indifference. The more important bidders sent representatives or bid by phone, while the audience quietly surveyed one another under the guise of polite interest, when in truth they were speculating as to the presence of Mrs. So-and-so, quickly calculating which painting or buyer a particular person signified. Sylvie knew that the attendance of, say, someone like Harry deJong, an impressively slight wisp of a man who could be counted on for a bold ascot and who had a shrill, tinkling laughing, meant that the former –or even, perhaps, the current– First Lady had her eye on a lot in the sale. But that was only if he sat in the first few rows; if he chose a seat along the side, or nearer the back, or even more telling, seemed subdued, his interests that particular evening were more international. That was a blanket term for any buyer with oil money to spend, rich sheiks with expensive Parisian penthouses, or American diplomats with more money than taste. Harry could be seen at nearly every evening sale at both Sotheby’s and Christie’s, and his bidding pattern was so perfectly honed and subtle it was impossible to really tell what he was after. It drove the dealers at both houses crazy.

“Oh, it’s been too long,” Sylvie said to Harry, taking him lightly by the shouldrs and kissing him on both cheeks. She had to bend slightly to reach him, but for his part Harry seemed not at all embarrassed. Tonight, he wore a shocking swath of purple silk around his neck, coordinated with–

And then it just ends! Like I had a stroke mid-sentence. I can attribute my cluelessness about Harry and this passage to the fact that I took an eight month break from writing; of course my brain is a little fuzzy on the details, I haven’t touched this notebook in almost a year (I am so ashamed). Let this be a lesson, self! Writing is like any other habit. If you don’t practice, you end up confusing the shit out of yourself when you try to pick it back up.

Unfinished Thoughts

Tuileries

Because I surely haven’t bored you enough with talk of my writing process: while the majority of the writing I do is in paragraphs or pages at a time –fully flushed-out ideas with a cogency both standalone and in the grander narrative arc– there are other, blurrier snippets that pop up from time to time, unmoored from the novel as a whole. I’ve made mention previously of the “single sentences squeezed out of my early-morning brain on the bus,” or the half-formed lines that burst into the forefront of my consciousness before I fall asleep at night, desperate to be documented. Usually a phrase, a line of dialogue, or maybe even just two words strung together that, for whatever reason, carry an urgency that finds me scribbling by the light of my cell phone or adding yet another line to saved draft email I use for writing on the go (word count of that email alone: 9,169). More often than not, I find their rightful home in the novel without too much effort, am able to work out these unfinished thoughts eventually and nestle them in the writing where they fit, where they were meant to fit all along only it took my brain a little longer to catch up to. But then are things I’ll write down that had such an immediacy when they came to me but now might as well be hieroglyphics for all the sense they make. Herewith, a few examples:

  • a life of unrealized potential
  • vibrating with promise at him
  • “She lives,” Sylvie said in a low voice.
  • “And ad the risk of running this animal analogy into the ground,”
  • —But you did love her, she says in her sleep —Yes. —And now you don’t love her anymore. —No. —Now you love me.
  • “Monet and everyone else. Or whatever went missing. They still won’t confirm anything.”
  • escalating neediness
  • It lacked the necessary permanence to
  • Too many to count, too few worth counting at all

 

In a way, these are as illuminating about the way this novel is going for me as the ‘official’ first draft document. But I also feel like Lucas, from “Empire Records”: “Who knows where thoughts come from, they just appear.” I love these little unfinished thoughts, even though sometimes I feel schizophrenic when they charge into my brain out of nowhere and disappear just as quickly, leaving me muttering whatever it was out loud so I don’t forget it, as I’m digging through my bag for a pen.

The Myth of Writer’s Block

I came across this quote from author Lois Lowry over on Goodreads earlier this week. Someone asked, “What is the writing process for you…and how do you get over writers block?” Lowry’s response was incredibly simple, an obvious statement that was a lightbulb moment for me: writer’s block is a go-to cop out we authors employ when we are too lazy to buckle down. (I’m paraphrasing.) Here’s what she said:

I have never suffered from writer’s block. In fact, I don’t believe in it. It’s a made-up term that has taken on some kind of silly importance. Writing is a job. Some days you don’t feel like doing your job. But there is no “teacher’s block” or “dentist’s block.” I can’t figure out why we have created this mysterious phrase, only for writers, which only means, “I don’t feel like doing this right now.”

I’m guilty of using writer’s block as an excuse many, many times over the course of the last two years spent working on this novel. And sometimes I don’t even blame writer’s block, but rather I admit to my own incapability of prioritizing. (“Last weekend was just too busy, I didn’t even have time to think about writing.”) But writer’s block is a no-questions-asked response that people sort of expect you to give at some point if you’re a writer.

Lowry is right, though.

Writer’s block doesn’t exist. You just don’t feel like writing.

When we find excuses to put off filing a big stack of documents at work –“I don’t feel like doing this right now. I wonder what’s new on Twitter…”– we call it ‘procrastinating.’ When we sit down at the computer or in front of a blank page, and the words don’t come, we call it ‘writer’s block.’ “I’m not feeling inspired. I’m blocked.” I think we believe creative pursuits operate on a different, higher plane in the hierarchy of our needs. Because writing is something I enjoy doing, rather than something I know I have to do (like getting up and going to work every day), we assume it’s immune to the same resistance that quotidian, mundane tasks present. Surely because washing and folding laundry is tedious and no where near as creatively fulfilling as working on my novel, the procrastination I experience when faced with putting away an entire basket of clean clothes couldn’t possibly be the same wall I run into when I sit down to write, only to decide the words just aren’t “ready” or “there.” It’s totally different. It’s writer’s block.

Except it’s not. It’s difficult to dig deep and find the words to put on the page; if it wasn’t, everyone could write a book a week. But while it’s hard to push through and get the writing done (the other side of the same coin: it’s easy to default to blaming the mythical trope of writer’s block), we don’t get to have the same luxury at our day jobs, because we’d find ourselves unemployed. You can’t be fired from writing a novel, so there’s no immediate accountability of a boss bearing down on you and, as a result, we’re more likely to be lenient with our procrastinating and wrap it up in a fancy name. We do our jobs because they have to be done, except when it comes to creative blocks. My mother was a teacher and my father was an architect, and neither of them ever complained about having a block in their chosen professions. “You know, I just couldn’t teach, today.” “Those blueprints just won’t come out of my head this week.”

Do your job, because it has to be done. Write, because this novel has to be written. (This is mostly a plea to myself.)

What do you guys think? Do you believe in writer’s block, and is this an over-simplified theory? Just some food for thought leading into the weekend. I’d love to hear your thoughts on it.