Thursday, June 20, 2013

Mantras for A Writer

Elizabeth Zelvin

Although I’m a lifelong writer who first dreamed of getting published at the age of seven, my first novel didn’t come out until my sixty-fourth birthday. In the five years since then, my path as a writer has had many twists and turns. In fact, nothing has turned out as I expected. Besides all the things I didn’t anticipate and can’t control—the new technology and the paradigm shift in the publishing industry—I’ve discovered that the learning curve continues. I’ve come to rely on several mantras to get me through. Some I worked out for myself, some came from the community of mystery writers, and I borrowed a couple from certain spiritual traditions because they happened to fit.

Just keep telling the story.
I’m an into-the-mist writer rather than an outliner, which means I write much of the first draft of a novel in a state of terror that I won’t make it all the way to the end. The cure for this is to turn off my internal censor and keep writing. I can’t remember which well-known writer I once heard say, “I can revise a page of bad writing. I can’t revise a blank page.” As my mantra suggests, the same is true of plotting.

Talent, persistence, and luck. I heard this early on, and I’ve found it to be true. As it happens, by the time I turned sixty, I felt reasonably secure about my talent, although I hungered for validation until my first novel came out. (My credits already included two poetry books and a lot of professional material.) If you feel insecure about your talent, the cure is to keep writing, take workshops and join critique groups to hone your craft, and work on your self-esteem with therapy, life coaching, or whatever you think will help.

The B version of this mantra is “Persistence, persistence, persistence.” Persistence is the only one of these three factors that’s entirely within your control. Not that it’s easy! You can persist in your craft by continuing to revise your work and write forward, creating new material while you’re trying to get what you’ve already written published. Persisting in the quest for publication means tolerating a lot of rejection. Before my first novel was published, I’d queried 125 agents and thirty-five publishers and rewritten the manuscript more than once. I still haven’t found a home for my most recent manuscript, a historical novel (the sequel to two successfully published short stories), after two years of revising and querying more than 115 agents and thirty publishers. Will I give up on it? Maybe, but not today.

Luck is the factor we can’t do anything about. All we can do is recognize it when it flies by us, grab its coattails, and hang on.

Don’t send out a first draft that hasn’t been revised and critiqued.
People told me this from the day I joined Sisters in Crime’s Guppies chapter in 2002 with the completed first draft of Death Will Get You Sober burning a hole in my computer. It might not have taken six years for the book to get published if I had been able to hear it. I was so excited, I couldn’t wait. In retrospect, my manuscript was not yet publishable. Nowadays, when self-publishing has become a viable option, I hope that writers are still taking to heart the principle that the first draft is almost certainly not the best possible version of their work.

Don’t quit five minutes before the miracle.
I said this every day for “five minutes” that lasted five long years. I was on the brink of giving up when I got not one but two miracles. One, I met someone who got an editor to read my manuscript, which had been sitting on his desk for two and a half years.Two, when he left his job after I’d rewritten the whole book at his request, he gave it to a legendary editor, and she liked it—the first time I’d gotten two positive responses in a row in my whole quest.

Nothing is wasted.
I don’t throw old material out. You never know. Besides the learning inherent in writing stuff that doesn’t work, it’s never too late to recycle unused material. It broke my heart when my editor rejected a novel set in a New Age community, including one of those characters who magically appears at the writer’s fingertips: in this case, a Tibetan monk who might or might not be able to levitate (and no, it’s not a paranormal story, although the community is known as Woo-Woo Farm). Five years later, this story, monk and all, appeared as an e-novella, Death Will Save Your Life. Trust me, it’s all the better for my having cut 50,000 words.

I’m writing the best I can at any time.
This is true for all of us. “Potboilers” are a myth—with the possible exception of a few bestselling authors who reach a level of success at which their name sells the books and they stop trying to improve their craft or come up with something fresh each time.

More will be revealed.
Certain as we may be that we’ll never get beyond the level of writing or degree of success we’ve reached, surprises are in store for us. Nobody can predict the future. I’m still spotting ways to improve the writing in Death Will Get You Sober that I couldn’t see even a year ago. And thanks to e-books, which didn’t exist (more or less) when the hardcover came out, I’ve had a chance to make those improvements in the new e-edition.

This piece first appeared in First Draft, the newsletter of the Guppies chapter of Sisters in Crime.


Joanne Guidoccio said...

Congratulations on a spectacular second act!

I enjoyed reading all your mantras. Talent/Persistence/Luck is my all time favorite and has kept me on track.

While we can't control much of what happens in the industry, we can control our own attitudes and responses. Sounds like you have a great handle on that.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Thanks, Joanne, I really appreciate it. Believe me, I've worked at it. :)

MEStaton said...

When I was about 20 you gave me the piece of advice around critique groups, now at 41 I've been running my own for four years. It's probably the best thing that ever happened to my writing and I would say that any writer that doesn't at least try it is doing themselves a diservice. There is a lot to be said for leaving your ego at the door and just accepting that there is always room for improvement no matter what level you are at. All great advice Liz!