Friday, January 08, 2010

On The Road Again

The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can.
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And wither then? I cannot say.

~ The Fellowship of the Ring, J.R.R. Tolkien
The road to publication, from what I've observed, is composed of long-distance endurance runs, a few sprints sprinkled in, then periods of pausing to wait. And wait, and wait. For some, publication has happened, but the road goes on, with more long-distance runs, more sprints, often more waiting. At the moment I'm engaged in waiting (KINDRED) and running (WILLA), a mental image that bends this writing/road journey analogy back on itself like a pretzel, but never mind!

There are lots of other writers on this road, each running their own race. No one is in competition with anyone else. We run against ourselves. Or that's how it should be, and how I want it to be for me. Recently I had an email conversation with a writer friend, about reading novels by writers who we see as having traveled farther down that road of learning and perfecting the craft than we have. Then there are those writers who seem to have started out with more natural talent than we could ever hope to possess no matter how hard we train.

When I've encountered such novels, I've noticed a pattern of response. Part of me is thrilled to have found a writer that stirs in me a longing to have written that book, that passage, that sentence, even that phrase. And another part of me simply, basely, is envious. There usually comes a moment of thinking "why do I even bother? I'll never be this good." But that brief discouragement is quickly replaced by, "But maybe I could be...." And I'm fired up to do that much better with my own writing. To dig deeper into character, or pay more attention to craft, to throw out that tired simile and find a fresh one, one that only my character, in her time and place and circumstances, would use. To do my utmost to (in the words of Madeleine L'Engle) "serve the work."

And I think this is a perfectly natural part of the growth process, as a writer. I won't say don't compare, because I don't think that's possible. I can't help but do so with nearly every historical I read, but it's important to keep a right perspective when I do. When I compare myself to another writer and feel my own work is wanting, I try to figure out exactly what they're doing that I want to be doing and if I can, let it expand my horizon. Are they using dialogue more suited to the time period than I do? Then I need to refresh my inner ear by reading a few more letters or journals from the time period, to better capture its flavor. Is there such rising tension, chapter by chapter, that I can't stop turning the pages? Then I need to study how they pulled it off, and probably read all the Tension chapters in my writing craft books again.

I accept that this writing journey is a never-ending road. Seeing other writers way ahead of us on the journey shouldn't discourage, but inspire, and provide a point to aim for (and not with our arrows!). I want to be stretched, painful as that can be sometimes. Reading prose that sparkles and sings and fills me with joy and reminds me why it is I ever wanted to write a book in the first place is one of the best means I know of to make it happen.

If the work comes to the artist and says, "Here I am, serve me," then the job of the artist, great or small, is to serve.... And with each book I start, I have hopes that I may be helped to serve it a little more fully.  ~ Madeleine L'Engle


  1. Lori, your posts always touch me. I think I'm reading my own thoughts sometimes, save a title or so. After a wonderful week I have become tired. Yesterday I started having a few discouraging thoughts. Almost shot me right down. I came across a fairly new novelist who has a similar theme to my new WIP, same year and everything. When I started reading her 1st chap. I thought I might as well stop trying. A similar thing happened later in the day. I think I just have to stop thinkng when I'm tired.

    I am not happy that you experience similiar things, though it gives me comfort to know I am not alone in these thoughts - which I must take captive!

    I'm glad I met you along this road. I've been traveling it alone for nearly 20 years and it is so good to have companions. You are a blessing. And your writing will be a blessing to so many, I just know it!

  2. Thank you Carla! Yes, it can bring moments of discouragement when we read writers who are more skillful, talented, or whatever, but it doesn't have to stick. And I hope I was clear in my post that the reason I strive to do better each time is like L'Engle said, because I want to "serve" my characters and their story, and do them the justice I feel they deserve. I love these story people, and no one knows them but me. So it's up to me!

    And your story is the same. It doesn't matter if another writer has written something similar. Your characters are individual and distinct. So is your voice. Your themes. Your life experience. Your view of life.

    A friend of mine told me about a project she was involved in, in which a group of writers were given an opening sentence (and maybe the closing one too), and several key elements a story had to contained, and told to go write their story. Each of them came back with a radically different story. I believe they were all made into a book, but the title escapes me at the moment! If you're interested I can find out. :)

    So don't stop your WIP. You can't help but write a different book because you are unique, and the elements you bring to it won't be a duplication of the other author's work. Perhaps a little rethinking of it won't hurt, but if you're still passionate about the work, then don't abandon it. It may take a surprising turn along the way that sets it distinctly apart from the other story. Most of my stories surprise me, even when I outline!

  3. Great post, Lori! Carla said something so important about taking those negative/comparing thoughts captive. It's something I struggle with, too. A few months before TFD was released, another book was published in the CBA so similar to my own story - same theme, time period, setting, etc. I remember feeling physically ill over it. I think I was the first person in the country to order the book and read it! And it was just like Lori said, the author's voice and way of viewing that time period was so vastly different from mine (despite all the similarities) that I was a bit shocked. She's a good writer but God created her to tell her story a different way. Lori said it so well - "Your voice. Your themes. Your life experience, etc." will set yours apart. And Lori's. And mine. Hallelujah:)

    Praying for you both today!

  4. Thanks for the encouragement, Lori, and Laura, too! Laura, I can see my self doing the same thing. I'm glad you both emphasized that my voice, ideas and all will set my own story apart. I'll have to remember the words from two wise and dear friends.

    Lori, I do like that idea of serving your characters and think it is wonderful that you truly endeavor to do so. It reminds me of serving others for Christ. To make our characters authentic we should also serve them and in the process we'll be submitting to God's inspiration that he gives us for them.
    I'm thinking of asking my characters a few questions like "what can I do to serve you today?", "what can I do to help your voice be heard?", "what do you need to get out of this predictament", "is there anything I can do to help you reach your goals", "can I encourage you in any way today? (and if so how might you respond to that encouragement)".

    Again, thank you!

  5. Lori, I was just thinking about this the other day! One of my CPs was feeling really down about her own writing and saying she sees the spark in other people's work, and she just doesn't see it in her own.

    But then, I can't say I really see it in mine either. For me, reading my own writing can be like listening to myself talk. It just doesn't seem special. Particularly after editing, and revising and rewriting for a long period of time! I just want to tell me to shut up already!

    So we might read another author's work and say 'wow, I wish I had that!' but I think the big thing is that it's harder to see the sparkle in your own writing, in your own voice, sometimes.

  6. Maisey, your comment reminded me of something Pastor Jon has taught. When the Holy Spirit fell on those in the upper room, everyone could see the tongue of fire on everyone else's head, but not on their own. Doesn't mean it wasn't there!