A Writer’s sCreed

According to a New York Times essayist, Joseph Epstein, 81% of Americans think they have a book in them. Canadians are probably just as convinced, lagging behind their American cousins only by their usual margin on the unbridled optimism scale. Either way, that’s a lot of people walking around with unborn books in them.

When I set out to write my first novel, I was undeterred by this because I thought that the required investment of time and brain glucose would weed out all but the most hardy and brave. Plus, I thought that my being a lawyer might give me a leg up on my 81% competition. But, being a lawyer failed to produce any special advantage. As much as writing is a part of a lawyer’s stock and trade and however creative lawyers may fancy themselves, writing fiction is hard work.

It’s the fiction part of it mainly.

You see, in spite of popular belief (and lawyer jokes) we lawyers are not entitled to simply “make shit up”. We’re bound by the facts. By ‘facts’ I mean a constellation of affidavits, testimony and exhibits that make up the ‘record’ in any proceeding. It might be somewhat of malleable concept, but one with discernable limits. To those facts a lawyer must apply precedent and reason, hoping to craft compelling arguments. An argument with poor backing in the ‘facts’ is a weak one and bound to earn the rebuke of a judge.

In fiction, a lawyer is thrown into the unfamiliar and forced, against his or her ethical instincts, to shamelessly, unrestrictedly and bravely make shit up. That’s the hard part, and something that made me feel the full oppression of the blank page. In fiction, there are no interview notes, news clippings, transcripts, contracts or correspondence to consult. Even the backing has to be manufactured. And the backing behind the backing.

After a great deal of coffee, late nights and name-your-poisons eventually something came out, even if it wasn’t exactly literature. Molding that something into almost literature required a great deal of craft. Craft beyond what I may have absorbed by reading fiction. The rules are one thing, content another. There must be believable dialogue, characters who all don’t sound the same, tension, story arcs, internal consistency and above all, a compelling story.

There are dues to be paid.

There’re lots of resources available to help one in their journey, many of them free. I learned the most from the back and forth I had with my editor and cousin, Dan. He broke me down and rebuilt me – cue Rocky training montage – into a facsimile of a writer. Some things stuck. One such sticker was learning how to show-don’t-tell and not to over explain. It happened early in my first book with a subtle yet elegant edit Dan suggested for the line, “it was winter outside” to “there was frost on the windows”.

Nestled in the paragraph, the before version read:

“He’s in the Milky Way, in the Orion constellation, in the Solaris system, on planet Terra, in the northwestern hemisphere, on a large continent, on the northwestern plains, in Manitow Springs, in the suburbs, by an open field, in a townhouse.

“He lives alone.

“It’s winter outside.”

The after version was much improved:

“He’s in the Milky Way, in the Orion constellation, in the Solaris system, on planet Terra, in the northwestern hemisphere, on a large continent, on the northwestern plains, in Manitow Springs, in the suburbs, by an open field, in a townhouse.

“He lives alone.

“There’s frost on his windows.”

In the first version the reader is force fed a factual conclusion. In the second, the reader’s imagination is engaged, the conclusion comes naturally and is more memorable as a result.

Let’s try it.

Say we’re writing a court drama where the plot calls for a lawyer to slavishly research case precedents until he at last finds one that assists his case.

Adverbs and passive writing come naturally to a lawyer-cum-writer:

“The lawyer diligently read cases for several hours until he at last found one that was suitable. “

Wanting to add flourish, he reaches for stock clichés:

“The lawyer burnt the midnight oil poring over precedents until he struck gold with a game changer.”

It seems more ‘write-y’, but it’s actually worse. Much worse.

Dipping his pen, he tries to improve things with more inventive descriptors, less passively and more drama:

“There was smoke coming out his computer and his mouse was worn to a nub, but he landed a gem of a precedent.”

An improvement, but it’s eventually found wanting and discarded. He tries again, this time using his eyes, ears and feelings for guidance:

“His cityscape window view turned from towers of glare to towers of light, while the drone outside his door went from chatter and clatter, to the whirl of vacuum cleaners, to a faint buzz of fluorescents and the slight wheeze of his own breathing. And he was still no further ahead. He took off his glasses to rub his weary eyes and felt the onslaught of a migraine. He was about to power down for the evening, when he noticed one remaining citation. One last link. He paused, yawned and clicked, making a connection to a distant electric cloud. He squinted at the result, put his glasses back on and read, for the first time, the case that would change everything.”

See what I did there?

Now do that to an entire book. Revise it a hundred times. Rinse and repeat a hundred more. Then get it into the hands of a good editor who’ll make you do it all over again. Writing is mostly revising and the revisions are never ending. In the immortal words of T.S. Elliot:

“And time yet for a hundred indecisions,

“And for a hundred visions and revisions,

“Before the taking of a toast and tea.”

Then it reads too picked over and must be done again to try to bring back some freshness. So many times and over the same ground that the very thought of having to read your book again makes you ill. So you vomit. Because that’s when the real writing begins.

Let’s say you make it to the end. Let’s say you survive the trek across this ocean of fire holding in your hands a chiseled manuscript crafted by the Muses and wrest from the hands of your own inner Sisyphus, who would have you roll a boulder up a hill of revisions for all eternity. You’re ready to publish. Surely, glory, a Man Booker and a movie deal await, right?

Right???

Nope. No sir and/or madam and no way. But thanks for playing. That book that cost you so dearly to write is not one in a million, but one of millions. Good luck finding an agent or publisher willing to skim your synopsis, a few paragraphs and then raspberry it to the trash bin. Forgive them, they live in a flooded world of thin margins and diminishing returns.

However popular self-publishing has become, traditional publishing is still considered a gateway to a better world. And one that’s hard to crack into. Agents are understandably not excited about signing up another dreamer with their first manuscript. They’re more likely to go with the safer bet of signing up authors with track records and proven sales, or at least with something bankable in a popular genre.

Publishers accept unrepresented submissions. But those manuscripts have the stench of desperation, since they are likely, after all, to be the stones that the agents rejected. I read an interview of someone who worked as a “first reader” for a major publishing house that still accepted direct submissions. Agented submissions went straight to the second reader. Direct submissions went to his “slush pile” of query letters and sample chapters where there was a one in two thousandth chance of making it through.

Of course there’s self-publishing, but that requires learning a whole other skillset, not to mention capital outlay for book and interior designs, editing and proofreading. Marketing plans must be developed and there of plenty of expensive mistakes to make dealing with scam artists and from not knowing what you are doing.

And it gets worse.

A frequently cited stat from Nielsen Bookscan is that the average book across all platforms sells only 250 copies in its first year. Not a big return for your labors and outlays. Meanwhile, book sales in general are down and the number of books being offered for sale keeps growing. Amazon adds about a hundred thousand new titles every year to its thirty-two million existing catalogue. At an average thickness of 8.3 centimeters, all those books stacked would make a pile 2,656 kilometers high. That’s nowhere near high enough to reach the moon, but still, a pretty towering stack.

One cannot help feel belittled in the face of such a vast sea of novels. In the humbling words of JFK’s favorite prayer:

“O God, Thy Sea Is So Great And My Boat Is So Small.”

And then it gets ugly.

After one realizes after having paid so high a price to produce something so insignificant, the publishing industry pours even more salt on the wound. The most common response is no response at all. Next to that are the boilerplate sorry-but-no’s that arrive many months later. A lot of the writing experience is spent waiting on replies that never arrive.

Who would voluntarily submit themselves to such humiliation?

So, why bother at all?

I expect this cancerous question grows inside everyone who attempts writing. It’s not just the belittling realization of having produced a drop in a deluge of books. It’s having to swallow the bitter pill of one’s own apparent failings and mediocrity. There’s also no shortage of critics to pile on your misery, to counsel you to step away from the pen and stick to your day job. They tell you are part of the problem – that your voice is just adding more noise to the grand cacophony that’s making it difficult for a signal to get through.

So, should I quit? Abandon ship?

No.

First off, I find that bitter pills of mediocrity are best chased down with a rum and coke. Secondly … those critics? As far as I’m concerned, they can go flick themselves. Flick themselves on the nose with a rubber band, because I’m not going to quit and neither should you.

I think of the publishing world as a pyramid with the few on the top generating the most sales. Even so, I am confident that those on the top are as miserable as we are. My working hypothesis is that our inadequacy and happiness levels are more influenced by our factory settings than our experiences. Success will not likely move the needle. It’s better to focus on something that will.

Writing.

The pure and utter joy of it. There are moments in writing, when the clouds part, inspiration shines through and one can see, with a clarity of focus and purity of thought, far beyond oneself. Even though it’s otherwise mostly drudgery and rain. There is that.

So, keep with it. If you’re driven to write, then you’re meant to. Never be fooled by those loathsome devils (in the world and in your head) out to convince you that your voice doesn’t matter. Get this straight … your voice matters! It’s the timbre of your experiences and the music of your suffering that no one else can claim. Present failures lead to future successes. Who is to say where it leads? Simply engaging in it can strengthen one’s focus in any endeavor and bring to it the skills of storytelling and dreams.

Writers can see deep into our world and reflect back who we were, are and yet to be. So, keep writing. It’s a worthy pursuit. Perhaps even a sacred one.

I’m not sure what I’m going to do with Dancing Star Publications or where my books will go. The name was inspired by a Nietzsche quote, “one must still have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star.” With chaos in my heart I begin this, not knowing where it will lead. Wherever it goes, it will be founded on a deep respect for writers.

Like you.

Dancing Star Publications

 

 

 

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