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Question of the Month: The Journey

by Susan Henderson on November 4, 2013

Tell me about your journey as a writer, whether it’s your journey toward publication or you’ve set that goal aside so you can better enjoy the process of creating.

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Writers often approach me for help in getting published. The conversation goes something like this (I’m going to put it in music- rather than book-terms to give the conversation a little clarity): “Hi there! Thanks for accepting my FaceBook friend request two seconds ago! I’ve never actually read your blog or listened to your album, but I notice you belong to the record company I want to belong to, so here goes. I’ve been playing guitar in my bedroom for two years and have written several things I call songs which have never been workshopped. I would like to put out an album immediately and need your help. Thanks so much! And if you offer me any kind of help that isn’t about personally introducing me to your agent or publisher, I just want you to know I’m going to tell everyone you’re an asshole. Okay, get back to me right away!”

Do you get these, too? I’m sorry if you do.

Not all the requests come with this sense of ego and entitlement. Some ask for help in the loveliest, most humble ways, but the hope is the same: Can you tell me that my writing is ready, that it’s beautiful and engaging and important, that it can be published without any more hard work, that there’s a shortcut in this business, that I won’t feel the pain and humiliation of finding out I’ve written something that no one wants to read?

I wish I could answer, Yes. I wish this process could be easy and painless. But the truth is, it’s not. The above photo shows three decades of my work—a poem here, an essay there—and quite the ratio of rejection slips to publications.

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I once had the confidence shown in those letters I get. In third grade, I declared in an autobiography assignment that I wanted to be a poet when I grew up. I said the same, and more forcefully, in seventh grade. In high school, I was the poetry editor of our school’s literary magazine. In my senior year, I interviewed President Reagan’s Press Secretary, Jim Brady, at the White House. Later that same year, I was chosen along with one other student to study with the Poet Laureate of Virginia. When I was an undergraduate at Carnegie Mellon, I won an Academy of American Poets Prize and money from the Pittsburgh Post Gazette for an essay I wrote. I was twenty years old and assumed the trajectory in this field went upward, but I still had so much to learn, and it would be almost two decades after that poetry award before I started feeling like I knew what I was doing.

For me, being a writer has looked something like this: writing poems, flash fiction, short stories, essays, novels, and throwing away the bulk of them; workshopping my own and other people’s stories; taking and teaching classes; entering and judging contests; going to readings as both a reader and a spectator; attending and speaking at conferences; blogging; editing at a literary magazine; editing book-length manuscripts; writing book reviews; interviewing authors and publishers; receiving and delivering rejections; writing for anthologies that never ended up being published; writing for magazines that no longer exist; writing blurbs and then getting bumped by bigger authors; and most importantly, reading; always reading.

In short, what I’ve learned is that…

  • a writer is forever a student.
  • shitty first drafts are what take you down the path to a great finish.
  • nips and tucks do not constitute a real edit.
  • rather than trying to pump life into an old story or an already-published book, it’s better to focus on writing something new.
  • it helps to take breaks on the weekend.
  • it’s possible to write and also live a full life in the present world.
  • grit and endurance matter.
  • the secret to that grit and endurance is being part of a creative community.

If we judge our journeys by rejection slips and publications, we’re likely to view ourselves as failures. But in all likelihood, our journeys have taught us about ourselves and the world, developed our empathy and our writing ability, sparked imagination and wonder. There is more to this life we’ve chosen than a book deal. Writers are my favorite people, not because of their publications, but because they are observing, recording, analyzing, and transforming all they see and experience.

I’m going to leave you with a few hopeful thoughts: Harper Lee only wrote one book (To Kill a Mockingbird). E. Annie Proulx published her first novel (Postcards) when she was 57, Frank McCourt published his first (Angela’s Ashes) at 66, and so did Karl Marlantes, who worked on his (Matterhorn) for 33 years.

You still have time to tell your stories.

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By the way,  if you should ever need some company or inspiration as you write and try to sell your manuscript, I wrote about my journey of publishing UP FROM THE BLUE at the links below. Sometimes the road to success looks suspiciously like constant failure:

We Want a Turn

When Patience is Required

How a Book Can Save a Kid

Places That Capture Us

A 30-Year-Old Letter Arrives

Temporary Ecstacy: The First Book Deal

Career Day

Unraveling the Sweater

Who Owns Our Truths?

Riding the Rollercoaster

Time for Waltzing

Rejected but Not Defeated

A Community of Misfits

LitPark’s Guide to Finding a Literary Agent

LitPark’s Guide to What Happens after You Sign with a Literary Agent

LitPark’s Guide to What Happens after Your Book Has Sold

The Truth about Blurbs

Writer Retreats: My Experience at Squaw Valley

The TNB Self-Interview

UP FROM THE BLUE is here!

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Question of the Month: Focus

by Susan Henderson on October 7, 2013

How do you keep your focus and momentum on long projects?

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This is a picture of how the new book is coming along. (I’m big into bulletin boards!) Each weekday (because I’ve learned to take weekends off), I pick one chapter or theme or knot to tackle. I do many of my edits while hiking, talking my ideas into the voice memo on my phone, because my #1 motivator is getting outside and moving. And no matter whether my edits for the day are great or terrible, I always move on to something new the next day because my #2 motivator is seeing progress.

If this looks especially tidy or easy to you, that’s because I’m sharing only the tiniest glimpse of my writing process. Right now my energy is directed at these book edits. But sometime I’ll share more of the chaotic and nerve-wracking aspects of writing and revising, how some days it’s like untangling necklaces and other days it’s like blowing things up and seeing what survives among the ashes.

Okay, your turn. What tricks and motivators do you use to stay sharp, creative, and productive?

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Many thank you’s this month: To Jamie Ford for mentioning my book in the Barnes & Noble Review! I hope you’ll check out his latest, Songs of Willow Frost… #11 in this week’s New York Times Best Seller list. To The Book Blogger and Read A Book for writing nice reviews of the Dutch translation of my book. To Jessica Vealitzek for listing my book as one of her favorites of the year. And to Corey Mesler for placing my blurb of his newest book right under one of my great writing heroes:

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Thank you to Cathrine, who took this picture in a Norwegian bookstore:

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 And I’ll end with this: My husband’s band, Bad Mary, just released its first video. Now you can see some of the fine people who jam in my basement each week…

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Question of the Month: Endings and Beginnings

by Susan Henderson on September 1, 2013

Tell me about an ending for you that was also a beginning. What was that moment, how did it impact you emotionally, and what did you discover about that moment over time?

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Last weekend, Mr. H and I dropped off our oldest son at college.

The week before the move, I would spontaneously burst into tears. Is this the last brownie mix I’m going to buy until Thanksgiving break? Is this the last load of laundry I’ll wash for him? When will I hear him play the piano again?

In those last days, he and his girlfriend would hold each other, playing sad sad music. All I felt was the impending goodbye and how loved he is here. As he packed, choosing what to take and what to leave behind, it was so clear that I view him differently than he views himself. He packed his Zappa posters and soldering gun, his keyboard and his graphing calculator, but for me, he is not just the 17-year-old going off to college. He is also the little boy who’d climb into my bed after a nightmare and run through the house with a dish towel pinned to the back of his shirt. When he was finished packing, he left behind so many things that are still a part of how I see him—the teddy bear he used to sleep with, the catapults and Lego he built, the this-and-that he made from paper and all kinds of etcetera.

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But here’s a truth about this creative boy I raised: a lot of things he most wanted to do with his free time were not things any of the rest of us could do with him. He has made many amazing friends over the years but when he engaged in his deepest passions, he was always alone with them. When he applied to M.I.T., understanding the near-impossible chances of getting in, it was because it was the one school we visited where he sensed he’d find like souls.

And so we set off for Boston with the car stuffed to the roof and feeling the heaviness for what I believed was going to be a sad day. And then we arrived on campus and saw this… chop saws and piles of wood set out for the meet-and-greet.

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And this…

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Also, his dorm allows cats!

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The idea of leaving him in this place didn’t feel so much like the ending I’d anticipated, but rather leaving him in a community where he will finally, finally be deeply understood and nurtured. These are his people. These are his passions. And more than anything, as we drove home, I just felt happy for him.

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Our home is different without him. I’m used to hearing the piano. I miss him plugging his iPod into my car. I’m not used to the empty bed in the morning where he usually sleeps in with the cat curled up beside him. Sometimes I’ll pass a stack of records he left behind or come across something in his handwriting or accidentally set an extra plate at dinner, and the tears come again. Not constant, just now and then, the feeling of how much I enjoyed having him here.

Endings. Beginnings. And knowing when I see him next, there will be something new about him, a transformation that’s only possible to make by going away.

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Thank you for the nice mention my book at  The Kindness of Strangers and Frequency. And thank you to the talented Heather Fowler who interviewed me over at Fictionaut.

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Question of the Month: Big Picture Edits

by Susan Henderson on August 5, 2013

How are you with feedback? Do edits on your writing leave you feeling crushed or excited? Defensive or freed up to look at something from new angles and with new life?

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My agent is now the one and only person who has read my new manuscript, and while I was braced for criticism, I found, as I usually do, the whole process of feedback and big picture edits to be hugely fun and creative. Part of what I love best about getting his feedback is that he’s not a soft editor. He’s not afraid to kick the legs out from under the table and give me ideas that might require re-thinking the entire shape of the work.

But, bless him, he always begins with the strengths, or what creates the bedrock of the story for him—in this case, the world of the story (“It’s a spectacularly drawn landscape—physically and emotionally.”), the main character (“I love her and the way she interacts with dead bodies.”),  and two key characters (“Their relationship, their history, their rootedness to the town, each other, and the main character are perfect.”). This all helps build my confidence and my sense of what’s working.

But the important part for me is what comes next—What’s not working for him? Where and how can I make this book better? And so we spent a lot of time talking about the story’s villain (“His personality is too outsized for the story. He overwhelms the landscape. He’s not sympathetic.”) My villain, as he helped me to understand, is kind of like a Marvel Comic Book supervillain trying to fit into a Carson McCullers story. And so we talked about this character and why he doesn’t seem to fit, and how this problem creates other problems with my plot and my main character.

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I have pages of notes from our talk—notes of what I can explore more deeply, where I should slow down, and all kinds of tangents and questions and challenges. This is all thrilling to me! My mind feels on fire, re-imagining my story with these new questions in mind and this new blast of energy.

And here’s the thing… I wouldn’t have thought of any of these things. If I took two more years to edit this book, I would peck away at the sentences and trail off into interesting quirks and backstories, but I wouldn’t have taken this turn. While I sensed there was something I couldn’t put my finger on that the book was lacking, I didn’t realize how much of it radiated from a villain who isn’t organic to this setting.

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Getting feedback that inspires (rather than crushes or stunts or angers) takes having the right reader. And it takes trust. Trust that you and your early-reader can both take risks, be open to wild brainstorming, try out ideas that may fail spectacularly. I am grateful to have this kind of supportive but challenging feedback and psyched to get back to work. I can’t even slow down the new ideas, they’re coming in such a rush!

So talk to me. Tell me your experience with edits and editors, the good and the bad!

Let me close with some thank you’s: to June Sundet (The June Blog) and camillaho for kind words about UP FROM THE BLUE, to the chaperones on my sons’ AllStar tour for offering such love and care to the kids, and to the parents of MIT students who reached out to me to offer help and friendship for the journey that lies ahead.

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P.S. I had posted this a month or two ago on FaceBook but I thought I’d post it here, as well. It’s that important to me. I know I’m a little unusual in the way I use FaceBook and email, but for me, private messages are solely for my family and people directly involved with publishing my work (i.e., my agent, editor, and publicist). Everything else, including congratulations, questions about the business, requests for help, condolences, small talk and deep talk, belong in the public domain (in comment threads on my FaceBook wall or here at LitPark). Otherwise, I can’t keep up with all these many ways for people to reach me, and it causes me more stress than you could possibly know.

Here is how I said it on FaceBook:

A note about how I use FaceBook: I don’t read or respond to private messages. I do, however, enjoy interacting with everyone in the comments sections on my page. If you need to contact me for any professional reasons (interviews, blurbs, etc.), please go through my literary agent at Writer’s House. Thanks!

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Question of the Month: Childhood Obsessions

by Susan Henderson on July 1, 2013

What were you obsessed with as a child?

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Part of what I loved about writing my new book was delving into old obsessions. When I was in elementary school, I loved looking through my mom’s nursing books with the often gruesome drawings of deformities and diseases. Sometimes, she took me to her nursing classrooms, where I remembered looking at human fetuses in jars and stacks of stiff cats in clear plastic bags.

When I was in middle school, I became obsessed with one of the authors on my mother’s bookshelf, Richard Selzer, who made surgery seem like poetry. I loved to read about the instruments, the cuts, the problems that couldn’t be fixed, the torment and wisdom of both doctor and patient.

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All the while, my father would talk to me about the work he and his colleagues did at DARPA, the Pentagon, and the various colleges and institutions where he consulted. He told me about ARPANET, missiles, microchips, robots that tried to balance on one leg, digital speech, computers that might one day think, unmanned vehicles, robots that could go into dangerous places and try to fix the damage.

When I applied to college, I fully expected that I would one day be a biomedical engineer, something that combined so much of what had been swirling around me and piquing my interest for years. But after discovering the shock of my own limited brain and hopping through a handful of majors, I realized it was the stories of these things that fascinated me, not the idea of doing them myself.

As I stared at the blank page and wondered what my second book would be about, I found myself wandering back to these early obsessions with surgery and with the minds of inventors moving beyond what was known or what was even likely to be successful. I went back and read Richard Selzer’s books and found him even more fantastic than my memories (that doesn’t happen very often!) and suddenly, in fiction, I was able to go where I had failed in real life.

I will leave my story there for now. I’m still waiting to hear from my agent on the manuscript and looking forward to (and also fearing) his response. I know many of you know the feeling!

Okay, your turn. Let’s hear your stories of childhood obsessions, and which ones are still alive in you today?

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Some thank you’s: The Writer magazine, for including my thoughts in the July and August issues, and De Woordenregen.

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