I’ll Know I’ve Made it as a Writer When . . .
. . . I finish a whole manuscript.
. . . I learn how to rewrite that whole manuscript.
. . . I get five/ten/fifteen/one hundred/etc rejection letters from real-life agents.
. . . I knuckle down and rewrite the book again. And again. And again. Etc.
. . . I get a request for the whole manuscript from a real-life agent.
The above is taken from the blog of Australian Sci-Fi writer Justine Larbalestier, whose list includes more than 40 criteria -- many of them hilarious, most of them poignant, all of them a bitter bite of reality. As I read them for the first time, my reaction was to wonder why I keep at this writing game. It's fiercely competitive; overly-dependent on who you know and your ability to network. The profit margin is so iffy agents and editors are highly-unwilling to take chances on unknowns. Add to that the fact that fewer and fewer people reads novels anymore, especially novels of the type that I write.
I write literary fiction. In a nutshell, that means character- rather than plot-driven. That's not to say there's not a plot. There is, of course. Characters have to get from point A (problem/crisis) to point B (resolution) somehow, and that somehow is the plot -- the series of events that move the character along. The difference between literary novels and the more mainstream genres is that literary novels are heavy on character development. In other words, character growth and struggle are the plot. There's no crime to solve; no mystery to unravel; no fantastic, futuristic device to drive the action forward. There's a sympathetic character we can identify with. This character wants something very badly; is often in a moral or psychological quandary over what they want and how to get it. We want what they want because we like them; and the plot lies in how they change and grow as a result of getting or not getting what they want.
Literary novels are among the least popular these days. In this high-tech age where questions are answered with the click of a mouse, readers want immediate action. They don't want to get to know characters; don't want to bear witness to their uncomfortable wriggle out of a dilemna. So why not write crime thrillers or murder mysteries, you might ask. I'd likely improve my chances at getting to the fifth criteria on Justine's list -- getting a request for a full manuscript from a real-life agent.
The answer is that I do what I do because I love it. I write literary fiction because I love to read literary fiction. I have more interest in what makes people tick than in how to solve crimes or build time machines. In short, I'm intrigued by what French writer André Malraux called "The Human Condition." Asking me to write fantasy or mystery would be like asking James Brown to record the greatest hits of The Carpenters.
I love a novel that makes me cry when its characters cry; leap for joy when they triumph. I love the sense of fellow-feeling I get reading about something I've felt or experienced. I love knowing characters so well I feel I've lost my best friend when the novel ends. I love giving this to my potential readers (if, indeed, I ever get any!). I love symbolism. Real life is full of it and, when used to good effect by a literary masters like Scott Fitzgerald and Toni Morrison, it's pure genius. I like a novel that reminds us where we've been and gives us a glimpse, perhaps a foreboding, of where we're headed. I don't want anything as quick and tidy as the unraveling of a crime. I want to know why we do what we do, even when the insights are ugly.
When I hit my mark without even trying; when a passage or a chapter that kept me awake countless nights finally comes together, there's nothing better than this writing game. When I get to know my characters so well they seem to write themselves, the feeling is better than any high I tried in my sorely mis-spent youth. That's what keeps me going when, despite finishing surprisingly well in the 2012 ABNA, despite the stellar reviews I now can use in my pitch, I haven't yet gotten to Justine's #5.
On that note, I'd like compose my own list of writing criteria.
You know you're a writer when you keep slogging away at novel #2 even though novel #1 has yet to get much notice.
You know you're a writer when writing is the first thing you do every morning, 7 days a week.
You know you're a writer when every time you encounter a unique individual or situation, you think "There's a story there."
You know you're a writer when the thought that your novel may never see the light of day wells you up with tears.
And finally, you know you're a writer when you've written a novel-length manuscript complete with deep, compelling characters and a believable plot; when, despite the fact it never got edited by anyone but yourself, it finished in the top 1% of a major novel contest.
More to come!
Cheers and Peace,