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Not Sucking Is Hard

Leech

Not sucking is especially difficult if you happen to be a leech. (Photo by Chris Schuster, via Wikimedia Commons)

Before I get into the subject of this post, a couple of news items. First, I’ve had another essay accepted for publication, this time in a literary magazine called Hotel Amerika. This is a really exciting place to get published, because although they’re a relatively young journal, launched in 2002, they’ve already had something like 10 mentions in the Best American Essays series, which is a lot by my count. My piece will be in their Volume 9, Number 1, the Fall 2010 issue.

Crazy—two acceptances in two weeks. When it rains, it pours. Or should I say, when it snows, it dumps three feet on us?

Actually, I have been loving the snow. We have these eerily spiraling gothic icicles hanging off our roof, so long they go down past the bedroom windows. The kids in our neighborhood have been digging labyrinthine tunnels into the snowbanks. Amandine and I go for fun walks in snow down to the bridge over the creek. Plus, I have enjoyed all the stupid puns: Snowgeddon, the Snowpocalypse, Snoverkill, Snowverwhelming. Who comes up with these? Possibly most exciting of all, I get to keep all my library books for an extra week with no fees. That’s big for me; as a person with not much money and a large literary appetite, I’m a heavy library user and hate giving books back.

So, back to not sucking. Not sucking is hard. I am realizing this as I slog through the first pass at revising my novel. It amazes me there are writers out there whose first or even partial novel drafts are good enough to get published and be readable. David Foster Wallace’s forthcoming The Pale King, Irene Nemirovsky’s Suite Francaise—I read the Nemirovsky book when it came out a few years and was blown away by how great it was, and was angry when it just stopped, right in the middle.

If you took a first draft of just about anything I’ve written and tried to read it, you’d probably want to puke. I have to revise and revise and revise before it even gets close to readable, and even then it still often sucks. If I died and some idiot decided a first draft of mine should be published, I’d be horrified and rise from my grave to seek gory zombie-style revenge. (Apparently Nabokov felt similarly about The Original of Laura, which I haven’t read but hear is for die-hard Nabokov fans and scholars only—he asked that the draft be burned after his death. I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s plotting vengeance from the hereafter at this very moment.)

It’s surprising just how hard it is not to suck. The other day on the forums on Nathan Bransford’s website, someone was saying that probably 25% of novels are good enough to be published.

I do not expect to ever see my work in print. How could I, knowing the numbers and having attended a few years worth of statistics classes? It’s what, 0.1% of all completed novels that get bought by a print publishing house? Thing is, I don’t believe that only one in a thousand writers is good enough to be print-published, I think a lot more of us are producing publishable quality. My personal guess would be that a good 25% of us write quality that’s virtually indistinguishable from the average published novel. Being (not) print-published is not only a matter of working hard enough and honing your skills, it’s a simple matter of insufficient demand and waaaaaaay too much supply.

But I disagree—I do think it’s more like one in a thousand novels that are good enough to be print-published by a “real” publisher. I’ve read unpublished or self-published novels by family members, friends, acquaintances, and strangers. While I wouldn’t say they sucked, I will say that in each case, I could see why they weren’t published, and could tell a clear difference between those novels and the published ones I read. I was happy to have the opportunity to read these amateur efforts. I enjoyed them, learned from them, found them interesting, memorable, and entertaining; they helped me understand the inner life of their authors better. But they weren’t at the same level of writing as published books usually are.

There are a lot of people out there who like to mock the prose of Dan Brown or Stephenie Meyer, or hate on genre fiction. But the more I struggle to get my own writing not to suck, the more I’m in awe of these writers. Attaining the level of nonsuckiness they do is not easy or simple, it’s not something any random joe or jill schmoe off the streets can do, and it’s definitely not something 25% of novel-writers can do. For example, among my happily extended library loans this past week, I finally got around to reading Soulless, by Gail Carriger (which I learned about from her agent Kristin Nelson’s blog). It’s hilarious and fun vampire steampunk (who knew there was such a genre?), and I highly recommend it. Did I see flaws in the writing? Yes, but then I’ve found flaws in novels by James Joyce and Jonathan Franzen too. The point still remains: these people did it. Their novels do not suck. We should all be so lucky/hard-working/talented/endowed with that certain literary je ne sais quoi.

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Snow and Settling

Holy cow, it’s snowing a lot here. The snowbanks are taller than my toddler. This is the front of our little townhouse—you can see that the snow is as tall as our trash can.

snow covered trash bin

Trash bin in snow

So I got some great news this past week. One of my nonfiction essays got accepted for publication in a literary magazine called Bayou. I’m really happy about it, because Bayou has had a number of essays get notable mentions in The Best American Essays in the past several years (I have a giant anal-retentive spreadsheet where I keep track of such things, so I know which literary magazines to submit to). The essay is slated to appear in their May 2010 issue, so I’ll post about it when it comes out. This will be my first literary publication in a print journal, too. It’s all making me feel almost legit as a writer.

When I got the acceptance e-mail from Bayou, I immediately sent off e-mails to the other literary journals that were still considering the essay to tell them the piece was no longer available. It turned out one of these other journals had actually flagged the piece for acceptance, too, which made me embarrassed and regretful (to have to tell them they couldn’t have the piece) but also pleased, because it meant the other acceptance wasn’t just a fluke instance of some editor being high on crack.

As for revisions on the novel, they are coming along sloooooowly. I’ve heard writers say they like revising better than writing the first draft, but I’m finding it not as fun—a lot more of a slog than the initial drafting was. I am giving myself this whole month just to focus on revising without starting any new projects. I think I need the time anyway to recover and reintegrate myself into society as a normal non-novel-writing person. Writing the book took a major toll on my social life and housekeeping and I’ve kind of got to dig myself out of the rubble for a while now.

By the way, I came across some entertaining articles this week about a new book, Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough. The author argues that single chicks should stop being so dang picky and just settle down with some reasonably nice guy before they get too old and ugly.

Give Up On Mr. Perfect

You Don’t Have to Settle

To some extent, I kind of sort of agree with the author, though. Settling can be a good thing. If my husband hadn’t settled for me, where would I be now? Goodness knows. But I think she could have picked a less sexist-sounding way of stating the argument. If it were me, I would have talked about it in terms of risk-taking, rather than settling. Romantic relationships are risky, no bones about it. When your partner is less than perfect, that increases your risks. But you don’t want to be too risk-averse, or you end up impoverishing yourself emotionally and spiritually.

Maybe that’s a mere semantic quibble on my part, but doesn’t it sound a whole lot more empowering and enlightened than “Hey you, stop being so picky and just settle down already”?

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