New ideas are the sexy sirens of the writing world. At first blush, they’re so fresh and new and uncomplicated. They catch your glance while you’re hard at work, drawing your focus away from what you should be working on. And hey, who wouldn’t want to fantasize about going with the flow, just dropping it all and seeing where this shiny new thing may take you?
The allure of mystery…the thrill of the unexpected…that feeling of going rogue…. The projects piled on your desk seem nagging and frumpy by comparison. …Especially your main manuscript, the one you pledged to love and honor until THE END.
That spark of excitement you felt when first clutching that golden oldie to your chest has long ago faded, replaced by responsibility and complications that naturally develop when you live with something long term.
And hey, commitment is hard. We get it. It’s been weeks, maybe even months, since your original MS bared itself to you fully, allowing you to explore its potential with pure joy and abandonment. Instead, you’re faced on a nightly basis with an unpolished, unapologetically blemished, uncooperative (and let’s be honest, a little word-count-heavy) story that just doesn’t inspire you the way it used to. Maybe it’s your fault. Maybe you ignored the first story for too long, or let yourself forget why you loved it in the first place.
Or, maybe it’s not you. Maybe it’s the original story’s fault, with its empty promises of adventure and its lies about being able to withstand the test of time. This was the story that was supposed to make you rich and famous, and live happily ever after, you scoff under your breath. Alas, you’re still working the same, soul-sucking day job, killing yourself to make ends meet. As it stands, it’s all you can do to drag yourself into the writing chair at the end of the day. I mean come on, you’re only human. Maybe your story isn’t doing enough to keep your attention. Otherwise, your mind wouldn’t have strayed in the first place. Right?
Really, it doesn’t matter whose fault it is. It doesn’t matter how many excuses there are. And it definitely doesn’t matter how sexy that other story is. No matter how irresistible it might seem at first glance. Because here’s the thing: cheaters never prosper. At least, not for long. While plot adultery might sound like a good idea now, eventually you will always end up in the same place. Then you’ll start the “falling out of love” process all over again, with a new story, with entirely new problems.
In writing, much like marriage, the answer to most issues is honest and solution-based communication. Plot counseling, if you will. Ask yourself the following questions, and be as open as possible about how you really feel:
If you can’t make it work, no matter what you try, maybe it is time to move on. Hopefully, at the very least you’ll apply the lessons you’ve learned about what does and does not work for next time. Your expectations will be a little more realistic, a little more suited to your goals, maybe.
Promise me this, kids: don’t throw it out without really working at it first. To a certain extent, you have to love the one you’re with. Leave those literary home wreckers alone, at least for now. Otherwise, you’ll wake up one morning and realize that all those sexy new chapters you’ve been chasing haven’t brought you any closer to the happy ending you’re looking for.
One of the questions I get asked most often, by those who read my blog, is:
“Veronica, why in the H do you hate Hemingway so much?”
The answer to this question is as complex as my love of awkwardness. I hate him because I respect him. Also, because I feel like he probably never tipped a waitress a day in his life. And because, had I been born a few dozen years earlier (and most importantly, male) I very well could have been him.
There’s a saying I’ve been a big fan of for as long as I can remember. Something along the lines of, “We hate most in others the things we recognize and fear in ourselves.” That’s why bullies always target creative types, in other words, those able to more freely and articulately express emotion in a way which bullies have been brought up to believe makes them weak. It’s why the Kardashians are always reaming each other for their ever-escalating and blatant attention-seeking tactics.
IMO, it’s why Hemingway hated the establishment, which in his mind was made up entirely of liars, fakes, and pretty-boy pretenders like Oscar Wilde. On some level, I think he recognized that one day, hipsters in coffee shops would read his novels while sipping $7 soy lattes and wearing non-prescription glasses that cost $40 at Urban Outfitters. I think he knew that deep down, his work was commercial as f***, in its own way. And he couldn’t stand the idea of being remembered forever, but never totally understood as a human being.
Maybe that’s why I hate him in turn. Maybe I’m afraid of getting more and more bitter with age, or becoming so thoroughly fed up with the ridiculous unfairness of the world that I just throw up my hands and move to Cuba, or some shack in the woods. (With cable, central air, and super fast Wifi, naturally.) Or maybe it’s much more Freudian, and I really do wish I was born a man so it would be 100x easier for me to make a dent in this world with my angst-filled words.
Call it narcissism if you want. (It’d be just one more thing we had in common.) After all, Hemingway and I have both been trained as journalists. We’ve both traveled the world and lived in the Caribbean for a time. We share a penchant for elevated, yet slightly angry fiction. And I’m sure it’s only a matter of time until the FBI opens a file on me (if they haven’t already.) Like him, I aspire to a Nobel prize, but I’d rather get one for inventing time travel.
At the end of his life, like many great writers, Hemingway became obsessed with the idea that he was responsible for changing the world. In my mind, that pressure was what destroyed him. It saddens me to think that if he’d just learned to let things go, he might have lived a happier life. (Health problems aside, because those he couldn’t help.) If I’m being honest, I’d say both of those issues rank on my top ten list of ultimate fears, as a writer: 1) taking myself and my work too seriously and 2) running out of energy/health/time before I accomplish the things I want to accomplish.
The point of all this is, I think the old saying is absolutely right. We idolize some people because they’re not at all like us, and hate others because they are. Maybe that’s why the world is such a ridiculous, screwed up place.
I feel like Hemingway probably had a lot more in him to say about that.
Dear Literary/Agency Interns,
I feel it is my divine duty, as the self-appointed patron saint of interns (I’ve done twelve internships and counting, holla!) to pass on some of the things I’ve learned in my recent transition to the agent world:
The important thing to remember is, nobody can make you a good agent, but you. You choose this life, because you LOVE it. If you don’t love it, that’s cool–just go do something else.
As the famously grouchy Ernest Hemingway once said, it’s very rare to find an intelligent, happy person. Of course, I’m paraphrasing. (Mostly because I suspect this will seriously piss off old Ernie, wherever he is. …Hell, probably.)
My whole life, I’ve been fascinated by this happiness/knowledge connection. Is it better to see/feel/know too much, and risk becoming broken and jaded? Or protect yourself from certain aspects of life, and remain innocent, even naive in certain respects? Which path makes for the utmost happiness? Is it possible to live both ways?
As the saying goes, “Ignorance is bliss.” Someone far less famous than Hemingway said that. (But I’m using quotes anyway, because take that, you drunk old bastard! Maybe be a little less verbose in the next life.) But what do we most commonly associate with a state of bliss? Ignorance, for one thing, because of that saying. Pleasure, usually fleeting, characterized by its connection with carnal pursuits, drug use and the dystopian state of having complicated thoughts removed from our heads? Or, if you prefer the Webster definition, a form of “perfect joy.”
Perfect is something I’ve never seen in this life. So, being somewhat agnostic (much like our literary friend, Wallowy McGee), I cannot say with any authority whether it exists. But I do believe in happiness, because I have felt it. Ironically, most strongly in some of life’s least perfect moments.
To me, happiness has always seemed less of a state and more of a nebulous and personal concept that most people spend their entire lives attempting to define. More ink blot than emotion, happiness is whatever you want it to be, and what it looks like changes from moment to moment based on experiences and the inevitable paradigm shift of a life fully lived.
That said, I realize this is only my opinion, and one many people do not share. However, I’ve noticed a lot of people–that lovable yet blustering, bearded literary d-bag included–try to impress their definition of happiness on others. Drinking to make the world around you seem more interesting is one thing, but telling other people what happiness is, or isn’t, just seems like kind of a waste of time. Judging the source seems even less worthwhile, if possible. Especially if you’re pointing to people and saying “Oh, he’s only happy because he doesn’t know any better.” Or, “It’s impossible for me to be happy, because I know too much.”
In my sometimes less than humble opinion (still more humble than Hemmy, though, holla!) I don’t think happiness has anything to do with the intelligence level of the person who is (or is not) experiencing it. Instead, I submit that true happiness is the ability to choose whether to laugh or cry at any given moment. No matter what is happening. They say “discretion is the better part of valor,” and “cleanliness is next to godliness.” But that doesn’t have to mean indiscreet acts are always cowardly, or dirty people are closer to hell. (Except Hemingway, of course. We all know it; even he knew it, and he was too drunk to get home half the time.)
Seriously, though. I believe knowing when to stop taking things so seriously is one of the coolest and most useful benefits of higher cognition. A good sense of humor is what separates us from the plankton, and the republicans. It gives us power over pain like nothing else in the world.
And some of the funniest people I know are also the smartest, and happiest, because they’ve figured this part out. So stick that in your pipe and smoke it, Sighballs Stogeyface. I defy your assertion–however misquoted–that you can’t question and explore, devour all the knowledge you can hold, and still take limitless joy in all the world’s f***ed up glory. Laughing at things like Epic Fail videos on YouTube, and political satire, and Milli Vanilli, and wine.
To be fair, Old Blustery and I do agree on one thing, and on this topic I will happily quote him: “Wine is one of the most civilized things in the world and one of the most natural things of the world that has been brought to the greatest perfection, and it offers a greater range for enjoyment and appreciation than, possibly, any other purely sensory thing.”
You know what, Ernie? You’re okay. Carry on, my white-bearded bro.
In this business, the siren call of relatively vibrant plant life is a genuine and daily hazard.
Ridiculous, you say. What does she mean, you ask? In laymen’s terms, we say “The Grass is always greener…on the other side of the fence.” Sounds simple, even silly. But in my opinion, it’s truly one of the most pervasive problems in publishing.
New writers look at agented authors, eyes filled with envy, thinking, “If I could just get an agent….”
Agented authors look at published authors and secretly fester with jealousy. “If only I had a deal and a release date….”
Traditionally published authors look at successfully self-published authors and sigh, “If only I had more control over my work…a larger cut of my royalties…less time to wait in between releases….”
Self-published authors fall into bed at the end of the day wishing, “If only I had a huge publishing house full of experts and interns who could back me up with some of this work…an agent to help me fine-tune my marketing strategy…or at least a day off.”
Everyone wishes they could steal the lives of authors with movie deals, household name status, or castles in Scotland. (Because seriously, who doesn’t want to be famous? Who wouldn’t want a super awesome and probably haunted castle? Or the power to make their favorite celebrities act out scenes from a personal fantasy?–I’m talking story fantasy of course, don’t be gross.)
Sadly, at every level, this attitude persists. Agents look at signed authors, deals, or sales, and say to themselves, “If only I could be the one to sign that author/make that deal/see those sales for my client’s book.”
But here’s the thing, children. Your third grade Math teacher was right when she said that cheating off your friend’s homework wouldn’t make you any smarter. And while I fully believe that you can (and should) learn from the mistakes of others, it’s pretty pointless for you to try and learn from their success. Success is a mysterious phenomenon that happens when you combine hard work, inspiration, talent and timing. (Also, caffiene.) Because it’s so hard to duplicate, it just seems a little short-sighted to waste time thinking about how you could have maybe, possibly had the same result. Doesn’t it? Especially since, in this business, a huge part of the hard work happens behind closed doors. Or late at night, while no one is watching.
Pain and suffering isn’t pretty, which is why most people only talk about it in past tense, like “I used to be a failure.” Or, “I used to wonder if I ever had what it took.” Accentuating the positive is part of the business, which is why you have to be so, soooo careful not to fall for the “sales are better on the other side” or “life is better in the Scottish castle.” Unless you’ve actually seen the reports, or personally experienced the horrors of renovating Medieval plumbing.
If the world in general was more transparent, publishing would be a lot more fair, I’m sure. But “fair” means different things to different people, and so does “hard work.” So does “success.”
“If only” is not a recipe, or even a set of steps. It’s what you waste your time doing, when you should be collecting ingredients and planning your path as carefully (and intelligently) as you can.
Mixed metaphors aside, let’s not forget about the human ingredient. Which I personally think is the most miraculous, powerful and unpredictable in the world.
Personality quirks can turn a no into a yes.
Individual ideas can make things happen that never should have otherwise happened.
A single cup of coffee in the right person’s bloodstream can change the course of history.
Smiling at a stranger at a conference, or sharing a bit of advice, or being the weird one who does things that “will never work,” is worth while.
Wishing you had someone else’s life, or lawn, is not.
Writer. Agent. Lover of wine and smelly cheeses. Solver of problems. Drinker of coffee. Champion of real life HEAs.