An Essay by Karen Dionne
I’m ten years old. My Big Ben-style alarm clock has stopped working. Maybe I wound it too tightly, maybe it’s just worn out. Whatever the reason, the alarm hasn’t gone off in days.
I know I can fix it, if only I can get a look inside. When I tell my parents, they don’t laugh. Instead, my dad gives me a set of miniature screwdrivers, my mom gives me an empty shoebox, and on that day, my writing career is born.
Okay, technically, I didn’t take up novel writing until I was in my mid-forties. But by encouraging me to go ahead and try to fix that clock, even though they knew full well that all I’d have to show for my efforts would be a shoebox full of clock parts, my parents in effect said, “We believe in you.”
Their faith in me, along with the corollary that it’s okay to fail as long as you try, laid the foundation for every major challenge I’ve undertaken since. Moving with my husband and infant daughter to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to live in a tent while we built our tiny cabin; traveling to an active volcano on Red Alert in Northern Patagonia, Chile to research my second novel; running a writers conference in New York City two days after Hurricane Sandy.
Faith in yourself and your abilities is not the same as self-confidence. There’s not a writer on the planet who doesn’t suffer from massive insecurity and self-doubt. And yet we are compelled to push forward. No one will want to read what I have to say; millions will pay to read what I have to say. With those conflicting voices screeching constantly inside our head, it’s no wonder the stereotypical writer turns to drink.
The truth is, it’s not easy to write a novel. Like a clock, a novel has many moving parts, and they all need to work together in perfect balance. Pace. Momentum. Tension. Plot. Characterization. Story arc. Character arcs.
“A novel is a large, complex, fluid and difficult-to-manage undertaking,” warns literary agent and writing instructor Donald Maass in his how-to book Writing the Breakout Novel. “It is a tough art form to get right, one tougher still to master.”
And finishing the novel is only the beginning. The author still has to get their book published.
Most aspiring authors have no idea how difficult it is to place a novel with a major publishing house, and that’s okay. If I had known it would be 8 years from the time I began writing with a view to publication until my first novel sold (or that it would be almost another two years before the novel appeared on bookstore shelves), I might have opted to invest that decade pursuing a career that had a better chance of success—like becoming a nuclear physicist or a brain surgeon.
What keeps a writer going through years of uncertainty and rejection is an unshakeable belief that we can do this. We have no evidence that we will eventually succeed. No outside validation that the creative process taking place inside our head will one day pay off.
But we don’t need proof. We know we can write. We know we’ll get a book contract eventually, if only we keep at it. If our current manuscript doesn’t find an agent or a publisher, we’ll write another. And another, and if necessary, another and another.
At my recent post-Sandy writers conference, I saw this conviction demonstrated over and over again. One attendee drove to New York from Washington D.C. after her Amtrak train was cancelled, not knowing for certain where she’d stay, since the hotel where she’d booked her sleeping room was closed. Another who came from Toronto stayed in his hotel even though the hotel was without power and had only cold running water. Another aspiring author’s husband drove her and their children first to Pennsylvania so they could drop the children at their grandparents, then drove her into the city, then drove back to Pennsylvania again to take the kids trick or treating that evening—after himself driving 14 hours to get home after his own flight was cancelled.
Was attending the conference really that important? After all, the entire East Coast was in disarray. People had lost power, lost their homes and possessions, lost their lives.
Without in any way minimizing the staggering economic and personal loss of the hurricane victims, the answer for these writers was “yes.” They’d finished their novels—most after years of sacrifice and effort. Meeting with literary agents to get professional feedback and (possibly) an offer of representation which could lead to a publishing contract was the next step.
Some might think that traveling to a city that had been devastated by a hurricane to attend a writers conference was irresponsible and foolish. But the genuinely crazy part—the true act of faith—was that these authors had written a novel in the first place.
For those who eventually see their novels published, I’m willing to bet that somewhere in their past is a shoebox full of clock parts.
Karen Dionne is the internationally published author of the science-based thrillers Freezing Point and Boiling Point. She is co-founder of the online writers community, Backspace (www.bksp.org) and organizes and runs the Backspace Writers Conferences held in New York City every year. Her next novel, an original story based on the Fox Television series “The Killing,” is forthcoming in 2013. She blogs at The Huffington Post, and has written about the publishing industry from an author’s perspective for AOL’s DailyFinance. She also reviews for The New York Journal of Books.