Monday, September 25, 2017

Being Fabulous



Ever since my very first day at college, I’ve been an adamant believer in “Fake it until you make it.”

My professors, it became apparent, judged you and your credibility solely by a first impression—at one point in my senior year, the head of the department discussed with me the fact that only one of his students, in all his time teaching, knew how to direct, and it was someone with vision the moment he walked through the door. If you did not immediately cause them to think you were an extraordinary person, they’d write you off as mundane and never give you another chance to prove otherwise.

In fact, after many discussions about the difference between a great play “just over your head” and gibberish, it became clear that pre-existing reputation was far more important than actual execution.

Trust, when dealing with the intense emotional investment as a writer, is a key factor in what kind of response you’ll have on your work. In personal experience, I once found that those who have read the entirety of one manuscript loved it, giving vastly different criticisms than those who have only read the first few chapters. I worked hard, revising and rewriting, to make the beginning suspenseful with a hook, but criticism returned to me from those who only started asked if I was going to answer some of the questions, complained about not having the world fully explained early on, but those who finished the entirety didn’t bring up those concerns at all. In some cases, the conversation was actually a simple matter of, “Do you explain this later? Oh, good! Then don’t worry about it.”

It's a 110,000 word novel. How low are your expectations if you think I’m not going to answer the questions I’ve raised in the first couple of chapters?

And, there is a distinct link between this kind of complaint—the fear that they’ll never understand the through-line—and the amount of respect the reader has for me. Those who felt a twinge of competition or are just generally opinionated on how things should be done were more likely to comment on the potential lack of payoff. Unexpectedly, those more experienced in the field (the editors, agents, and successful writers) tended to trust me and direct their criticisms to specific examples of problems, not borrowing trouble of mistakes I might make.

Recently, I’ve been struggling with the fact that my skills and ability in the craft have drastically increased since I first started writing fifteen years ago, but my imagination and “magic” in the words have taken a hit. I reflected yesterday about the success of my scholarship applications back in 2008, how my college essay was mailed back to me by several schools with handwritten praise. I suppose I didn’t think much of it at the time, but now I am shocked by my younger self’s ability to write something that people would go out of their way to compliment me on. One professor, after reading my first essay, announced to the class, “That girl can write!” only a few years later telling everyone behind my back that my play was “Just bad.” (It wasn't, fuck you very much.)

Today, my compliments look more like, “I trust you know what you’re doing.” “You’re obviously an experienced writer.” “Maybe you should just submit; sometimes you can over work things.”

'It was well-written' is almost the most painful compliment you can get, it seems.

People, more or less, find my work to be of “good quality,” but it tends to seriously lack in enthusiasm. At the last writer’s conference I went to, near everyone (save for the “Here’s every adverb you’ve used,” woman) told me that it was in a shape where I needed to just set it free and see what happens. They weren’t too optimistic about it, sort of a, “Not my thing, though someone else might love it,” but none of us could say what could be done to really make someone care.

And I get it. Would I pick up The Dying Breed out of all the books I could choose from?

Well, that’s sort of the problem.

I don’t anticipate pleasure. In fact, it’s a common description to a form of depression called anhedonia, in which a person is unable to feel excitement for things. I’ve suffered from it since 2015, growing worse and worse until I took actionable decisions in my life and cut out the toxicity that was luring me into a negative void. As of right now, I feel more empowered, optimistic, and excited, with less anxiety and lethargy than I have in years. However, I still struggle to recognize from a first impression if something is going to be enjoyable or not. I have to commit to reading books that bore me, force myself to engage in dull small talk, and use a social media presence as an excuse to live life. I’m happier than I’ve been in a long time, getting excited for things, yet I still struggle to get excited by life.

I’d been waiting a few months for some holds on library ebooks to come through, and, of course, with the returns coming back as they did, I ended up having all of them appear on my phone right at the same time. These were books of authors that I’d read years before and enjoyed at one point, wanting to finish up the series. My views on young adult fiction has changed in my old age, and I don’t really enjoy what I’m seeing anymore. For one thing, after my experience with a terrible relationship, my association of physical intimacy being an expression of love is long gone, and so these intense scenes in which a young man wants the protagonist with all his heart rings false to me.

Mainly though, I noticed that the idea of your eyes landing on someone and being blown away by their beauty—male or female alike—isn’t true to my experience. If you want to get something out of being good looking, you have to strategize. Charm is greatly enhanced by looks, I certainly believe in the Halo Effect, but you still have to have a way with words, and, to get any "service," a desire to wrap people around your finger. Anyone who has been openly attracted to me has not offered a helping hand, instead trying to participate and connect by offering up their insights on life and how I could be doing everything differently. The number one pick-up line in my life has been, “Do you want me to show you the right way to do that?”

So to see minor characters fling themselves at the feet of these beautiful men and women who never have to deal with the ramifications of the attention comes across as a naïve fantasy. No one is that good looking. Everyone is replaceable. Beautiful people are more exchangeable than someone with a good sense of humor or work ethic.

I do not believe in love at first sight. It does not mean much if someone is attracted to you the second they see you. The men who stop dead upon landing their eyes on you are the ones who have done so for many pretty faces, and will continue to do so long after you develop and bond and a history, because personality and narrative are non-factors in their desire. In fact, they can be detriments, the enigma and fantasy of the new girl, the potential, being preferred to the concrete mixed memories you’ve cultivated together.

But that’s just my anger talking.

The truth is, I’ve talked to enough women about their attraction to realize that everyone’s experience is different regardless of gender, age, or other demographics. We are drawn to people for all sorts of reasons, and I simply am more attracted to people I have good memories with.

However - and this is my point - that puts me at a disadvantage. I can’t describe the hotness of some guy upon first sight because I don’t experience that. I once had a reader tell me it was interesting how I never described if my characters were beautiful or not while similar writers would take a good portion of time going into abs and descriptions about how stunning the person was. That intense infatuation without a connection is beyond me. In fact, I always considered them slightly insincere until my mother and I were discussing gender segregated gyms and she mentioned how she would prefer to look at the men working out. That's actually a thing?

The same goes for pitching my books, choosing my content, and overall figuring out how to make people care. How do I be interesting when I am rarely interested in anything? How do I know what makes people trust my book from the onset when it takes me at least fifty pages of forcing myself before I start to commit? I’m a Susie-come-lately in terms of books, reading something that other people have insisted I need to read. It’s incredibly uncommon for me to be lured in by a catching summary. The vast majority of books sound boring, to be honest, and it’s not until you’re knee deep in the world that you start to realize the intrigue.

So how the hell am I supposed to know how to pitch my own damn thing?

My query letter for The Dying Breed ended up being more formulaic than I’d normally do. I had a friend help me on it who got his two agents (one didn’t work out) through face-to-face communication. I, with great relief, did what he suggested, which was to meet expectation. I love the story itself, but as for a hook? That's more difficult. People need to care in the beginning, and that's not necessarily happening. I’m not sure if I should keep submitting the same query, rewrite it, if I need to attend more conferences to meet agents, or if I should just focus on submitting the next novel.

I complained to a friend about not being able to get people to care, and she smiled at me and said, “Let me know when you figure it out.”

It relieved me. For a long time I was thinking, "I’m becoming more polished and professional, but that doesn’t mean I’m getting better." In some ways, people are reacting worse. What am I doing wrong? Why can’t I learn how to draw people in? But when my friend said that, I realized, no matter how long someone had been writing, no matter their career or success, no one can tell you how to make people give a shit. We can speculate, we can utilize certain abilities, but people are weird, we don’t know what we want, and tastes change. J.K. Rowling, Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, they can sell books based on name recognition alone, and still get hit or misses.

This probably seems obvious to you. It’s easy to forget though, that no matter how much you try, learn, or reflect, you can’t control everything.

When it comes to being interesting, I often feel like I’m throwing information at a wall and hoping something sticks. It’s not that I don’t have a general inclination of how people will receive something, or that I written pieces I found duller than my shower razor, just that when you write for yourself, it can be difficult when yourself is a cynical, pessimistic shut-in.

With the belief that you have to keep a professional attitude, that showing concern or weakness can lose you credibility, I’d been censoring myself, fixated on how to look good and reputable, and sucked the every living fun out of my writing. Over the last few months, I focused on writing blogs that I wanted to read, as well as posting past pieces that I considered too dickish to attract people (after tweaking) of course. I haven’t seen too vast of a difference in the attention I’ve been getting, and it while I still think there’s a certain magic missing from what I’m doing, I’ve been glossing over the biggest issue the whole time.

At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what you write if no one has any idea if you exist. Sometimes, being fabulous is about just getting out there and trying.



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