The house is remarkably quiet, so quiet in fact that I can hear the hot water murmuring its way through the radiators. Outside, exhaust from our hot water boiler escapes the pipe, clouds up, gets swept through the breezeway, out onto James Street. It is a ghost, gone in an instant, frightened away by the scream of the passing ambulance.
This time of year always feels like the final stretch of an endurance race — winter not quite letting go, spring sports coming to an end, classes wrapping up, and summer beckoning. And you know me. I’m not great at waiting. Too often, I want to fast forward the journey and arrive.
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Last week, Maile and I went out to Grand Rapids for the Festival of Faith and Writing held at Calvin College every other year. Two years ago, we went for the first time. Maile was pregnant with Poppy. I got to meet online writer friends I had never before met in person.
This year was no different. More wonderful people, more fun reunions. An amazing session with Walter Wangerin Jr. that I’m still processing. It was a beautiful time.
Yet, I couldn’t help but notice how different it felt to be there this time around. Two years ago, my agent and I were about to embark on trying to find a publisher for The Day the Angels Fell. I spent a lot of time at FFW two years ago walking around, staring dreamy-eyed at publisher’s booths, wishing, wishing, wishing. I was about to begin one of the most difficult periods of waiting in my life, those three or four months after we sent out the proposal for The Day the Angels Fell and started getting rejections.
Two years ago, I never would have believed where my writing journey is today.
Two years can bring a lot of change.
Are we willing to wait, to keep putting in the work, and perhaps most importantly of all, to keep hoping?
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Cade wanders through the house, looking for a book. Maile goes up to bed. I chase her up the stairs and give her a kiss. She kisses me back, not a peck on the cheek but the real deal. Then, I hear a little pipsqueak of a voice coming from one of the dark bedrooms.
“You know I can see you guys, right?” giggles our 10yo daughter from her bedroom. “I’m right here!”
This is life. As real and at least as important as any book deal, any goal met, any achievement unlocked. Maile goes to bed and I come down to the dining room. The house is even quieter now. Night has settled over the city, and no matter the temperature outside, I know spring is on the way.
From John Steinbeck’s journal entry on January 29th, 1951 [Monday] as recorded in the book, Journal of a Novel
“Dear Pat: How did the time pass and how did it grow so late. Have we learned anything from the passage of time? Are we more mature, wiser, more perceptive, kinder? We have known each other now for centuries and still I remember the first time and the last time.”
“We come now to the book.”
January 4th, 2018, Entry #0
I will begin this next novel in the dark days of a Pennsylvania winter. Hopefully, by the time the summer sun stretches the hours into the longest day of the year, the first draft will be finished. I am aiming for 80,000 to 100,000 words (because the lower number is what’s in my contract), but how can you ever know how long it will take to tell a story?
First, let me tell you why I’m journaling my way through writing this next novel.
Steinbeck’s Journal of a Novel has always fascinated me. It is made up of his morning writing exercises, the ones he wrote every day before working on his masterpiece, East of Eden. He wrote by hand, and he would write one journal entry on the left-side page, and then he would write one page of the novel on the right-hand side. I found the journal entries compelling in their honesty, but I have also been intrigued by the premise because of how deliberate and important the journal entries seem to him. I have often wondered if I need to slow down my writing, think more clearly about it, explicitly talk about what I’m trying to accomplish in each day’s words. I wonder if this will help me work through various issues surrounding the story.
So, that’s what I’m going to do. Or at least begin to try to do – I can’t guarantee I will finish it. I can’t promise that, once I begin, it will not feel more like an obstacle to the writing of this novel than otherwise. I guess we’ll see.
I am writing this particular entry, dubbed #0, as an introduction of sorts, explaining what I want to accomplish and what I’ve done up to this point. To bring you up to speed: I started work on this unnamed novel – I’ll have to come up with something better than “Unnamed Novel” for the purposes of this journal – about nine months ago, stumbling my way through the first 23,850 words. I say stumbling because I am learning this about myself, that when I start a story it emerges first from a character, and then from a trouble this character has. From there it lurches forward of its own accord for quite some time, but I know now from experience that I must begin guiding the lurching beast at some point or it will meander off into some dark and unrecoverable place. At the 23,000-word mark, I could tell it needed guidance. But it was also at that point that another project took my attention. I had to set this story aside all these months, but now it is the next book in line, and I am eager to write it.
This is not to say the last nine months have been without work on this story. It has simply been interior work. It is kind of a weary metaphor, perhaps overused in the world of creativity, but here it is, nonetheless: pregnancy comes to mind. The last nine months have been full of mostly unseen work, interior work. I have spent many hours, mostly while driving for Uber, thinking about this book, getting to know the characters and places and problems in my mind. The story has changed and solidified during this last nine months. It begins to feel less like a story I am making up than a story someone once told me, or a family tale passed down. I am ready to write it.
To clarify, for those who have been following my writing up until this point:
– My first novel, a YA book of magical realism, came out in September, 2017, and was called The Day the Angels Fell.
– A work of nonfiction that I wrote with the help of my Syrian refugee neighbor, called Once, We Were Strangers, releases just after that, in October of 2018.
Those three books are all written, so now I finally have time to work on this novel, which has no name and will come out in the summer of 2019.
Here are my goals – to write one, short journal entry and then to write at least 1,000 words in the story every weekday. Simple, right?
Come along on this journey, if you’d like, and I’ll send you the journal entries I write about writing. I won’t give too many details about the plot or the story itself (although I’m sure a few things will slip in). But I will talk about what I’m trying to accomplish with the development, pace, and all manner of other things having to do with writing this story. I’ll talk about where I’m writing and how it’s going. I’ll talk about how many times the children interrupt me and when I feel like the writing is no good and working past the voices in my head. I’ll probably talk about that last one a lot.
I’ll be emailing these out every morning as soon as I write them. Expect plenty of typos. And some entries that are boring or don’t make sense. And some that arrive first thing in the morning and others that hit your inbox at 10pm. If you’d like to receive the inside story behind the the writing of this novel, you can sign up here:
*This is your regularly scheduled, completely honest post about the ups and downs of freelance writing and self-employment. If you have had your fill of these posts from me, feel free to move on, nothing to see here. Tomorrow, we will return to our regularly scheduled programming*
A week ago, in all of my optimistic glory, I nearly wrote a blog post about how much better I’ve become in regards to waiting. Imagine that! I felt like Mario at the end of the level, hanging onto the flagpole, trotting gamely towards the next challenge. I was all set to write about how I’ve got that old anxiety about waiting under control so bring it, God, I’m up for whatever the next challenge is.
Yesterday, for some reason, my optimism came crashing down:
There is a silence in these post-Thanksgiving days, these almost-winter days, these early-Advent days, that can be enough to squelch hope in most of its forms. It is a natural season of waiting, in so many ways, a season in which there seems to be so little response, that it should not surprise me, it should not catch me off guard, yet nearly every year it does.
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In desperation, I turn again to the Advent readings from this last Sunday, and the first was from Isaiah.
Return for the sake of your servants, the tribes of your heritage. Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, with the mountains quaking before you, while you wrought awesome deeds we could not hope for, such as they had not heard of from of old. No ear has ever heard, no eye ever seen, any God but you doing such deeds for those who wait for him.
The second from 1 Corinthians:
He will keep you firm to the end, irreproachable on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, and by him you were called to fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.
The third from Mark:
Jesus said to his disciples: “Be watchful! Be alert! You do not know when the time will come.
* * * * *
Wait, the readings implore. Wait, but not with your own strength. With mine.
Also, Be watchful! Be alert!, as if to remind us our waiting is not in vain. Our waiting will be rewarded. Sometime. Somehow.
Today’s post is brought to you by my good friend Andi Cumbo-Floyd in celebration of the release of her book, Love Letters to Writers.
When I would get sick as a child, Mom would make a bed for me on the couch: my pillow, my favorite blanket, a rare treat of clear soda nearby, a bowl just in case. Then, she’d turn on the TV – which was never on in our house during the day – and leave me to doze and watch Bob Barker.
Every once in a while, she’d come over and lay her long, cool fingers against my forehead to see how my fever was. Sometimes, I’d be half-asleep, but I’d feel her hand on my face and instantly slide deeper. Her skin bore comfort.
I think of those couch beds, the plastic cups of Sprite, and Mom’s hands often, especially when life feels like it’s infecting me with the illness of over-busy and too much to do. At this moment in my life, I feel that infection sliding into my lungs as I finish up book revisions for a publisher and launch my new book, Love Letters to Writers. Some days, I just want Mom to give me permission to lay on the couch with my pillow and doze through the hours.
But Mom died 7 years ago, and so she is not here to give me that permission or to lay a cool hand of grace on my forehead when the fever of doing becomes too much. Instead, I have had to learn to give myself permission to rest, to step back, to step out.
This lesson of rest, perhaps more than any other I’ve learned in my writing life, is the hardest because there’s always more to do. Always another way to promote. Always another guest blog post I could write. Always another idea I could explore. Always another book to draft.
The further I get into years of living life as a writer the more I realize that this is steady quest, not a quick sprint. What I give to frenzy and frantic, I do not have to give to play and questions. So I have learned to slow down, to write some words every day but not all day, to set out a few things to try for a book launch but not everything, to trust that in the end the balance of rest and work will come anew each day.
I ache to feel my mother’s hands on my forehead again, but until the day I can, I give thanks that she taught me to rest and heal in a world that most often recommends a never-ending hurtle toward forever.
I’ll start by telling you that I have co-written somewhere around 20 books with various people. Sometimes these books are independently published and sometimes they are brought into the world through publishing houses. But in every case, as soon as I sign a contract, I become gripped by a terrifying fear that I will not be able to write the book the person is looking for.
These are the negative voices in my head. We all have them. Mine live in covered fifty-gallon drums, some of which are all rusted out while others are marked with radioactive symbols, ooze leaking out around the base. I’m usually able to press…the…voices…down…into…the…barrel by all means of distraction and positive self-talk and strength of will, but as soon as I sign a new contract, as soon as I start writing another book, the voices begin clamoring, their little fingers reaching out from under the barrel lids, trying to escape.
“You’re a pretender!” they shout. “You’re not much of a writer! And even if you were, you wouldn’t be able to write the book this person wants! Good luck, idiot!”
They’re not very nice. Sometimes, I’m a little rough with them when I try to close the lids. No one’s perfect.
Before the ink is dry on the contract, before I’ve scanned it and mailed it back to the client or the publisher, I begin questioning my vocation. Why do I write? Wouldn’t life be easier if I delivered newspapers or neutered cats or pumped sewage tanks for a living? Maybe I could work at the post office – I’ve heard they have great benefits. If that didn’t work out, I could donate my plasma, sell a kidney.
But I keep writing. I’m not good for much else, to be quite honest. I’m barely employable. And I eat way too much sugar for anyone to be seriously interested in my organs.
A few months ago, I sent in a three-chapter writing sample for a new project to both the wonderful client and the editor I’m working with. As soon as I hit send, the voices filled my head with the same old din, and I ran around from barrel to barrel, stuffing them in, trying to find something to seal the lids. Something heavy. A few days went by, and when I didn’t get any feedback, I stopped even trying to quiet the voices – I sat down among the barrels and bathed in the self-criticism, the self-doubt. I figured I might as well start brushing up my resume. Maybe I shouldn’t have deleted my LinkedIn account? Maybe I should start shopping for decent job interview clothes? I have nothing nice to wear. This writing-for-a-living thing means I rarely make it out of my pajamas.
I finally heard back. The client loved loved loved one of the three chapters I wrote. It made her and her entire team cry when she read it out loud to them. But I sensed some hesitancy about the other chapters. The editor said, “I like so much of what I see…The chapters here are solid, but they should come later in the book, after the reader is already invested in your journey.”
So, of course, I was devastated.
For clarification: this is not negative feedback. This is valuable feedback! This is positive feedback! But can I be honest? As a writer, even after writing this many books and working with this many editors, I still have an unreasonable desire – I want my first draft to knock everyone over. I want people to read my first drafts and fall backward, exclaiming something along the lines of, “This is the best thing I’ve ever read please do not change a single word or you will diminish the awesomeness you have created.”
This is not realistic. This is not ever going to happen. Never. Not ever. The first draft of any created thing can always be improved upon.
Ten years ago, when I got a similar response from an editor, it plunged me into a despair so crippling that I could not hear what she was actually saying, I could not move forward, and the project stalled. I took the feedback she gave, not as a way to improve the manuscript, but as personal criticism and reasons that what I had written was not, and evidence that I would never be, good enough.
Thankfully, I am not that writer anymore. This time, after I got their feedback, I went for a drive. I thought about what the editor said. I knew she was right, and I had felt it even when I submitted the chapters – that was one of the voices I should have listened to, but sometimes they’re so difficult to differentiate between, the helpful voices and the mean ones. I attacked those three chapters and started the book at a different spot, taking into account her suggestions. Recently, I submitted a third (or fourth?) draft of the manuscript, and I heard the golden words from my client: “I really love this manuscript.”
Can I tell you what I am learning?
When you don’t get something right the first time, it doesn’t mean you’re terrible at what you do – it means you’re a human being who is in the act of creating something.
When someone offers criticism that is genuinely meant to help you and improve your work, accept it. Listen to what they’re saying and not the translation you’re getting from the voices in your head.
Understand and accept that your first shot at anything will never be your best effort. This may include (but is not limited to) parenting your child, nurturing a relationship, applying for a job, doing your job, starting a business, or, yes, writing a book.
If you want to be a writer, you have to realize, contrary to all appearances, you are not engaging in a solitary undertaking. Bring trusted people along. Let them speak into what you’re creating.
Revision is your best friend, even better than the one who watches The Bachelor with you or knows you secretly still listen to Britney Spears on road trips.
I walk quietly in the field of 50-gallon drums. As I get older, I realize the voices are me, the voices come out of some long-ago hurt or praise or experience. I pat the lids gently, remembering the little boy who lived through the experience that birthed each particular voice.
I keep walking, to the hill beyond the field, the hill that holds a solitary tree at the top. I walk up the hill and take out a notebook and sit down, my back against the tree.
I look at the words in the notebook, a story I started long ago. I read it again, from the beginning.
As Bob Dylan sang once upon a time, “The times, they are a changin’.”
Have you ever felt your life slowly going in a new direction, even a good direction, but you still felt hesitant about the change because of the unknown variables? Maybe you had the opportunity to take a new, better job in the same company. Maybe you were offered a raise that would require a little more responsibility. Maybe you felt compelled to step into a new volunteer position or start creating in new ways. These changes, sometimes they can percolate up into your awareness in a gradual way, almost unnoticed.
But then, suddenly, you see what’s happening. And you’re not sure what to do. Should you resist? Make the leap? Allow things to continue unfolding, or make some hard decisions?
This is how I have felt for most of the summer. My writing life has been changing, not due to any conscious choice on my part, but due to new circumstances. For most of the last seven years, I have blogged almost daily. I did take almost a year off at one point, and this year I only posted once a week or so, but for the most part, blogging has been a huge part of my writing life for almost a decade. Over a thousand posts. Over half a million words.
Then this summer happened, a whirl wind of new things. It has contained the lead up to the launch of my first novel, The Day the Angels Fell(you can preorder it on Amazon, B&N, ChristianBook.com, or from your local bookstore – it’s even on audio!). I’ve been working on a co-written book that I love, one that included a trip to Iraq earlier this year. I’ve got a serious, in-depth revision coming up for the sequel of The Day the Angels Fell (coming out next summer, which you’re going to love). And (this is the fun announcement), I’ve signed on with Revell to do my fourth traditionally published book, a work of nonfiction, one that will come out at the end of 2018 (you’ll hear more about this one in the fall).
Writing my own books (and selectively taking on co-writing projects) has been the writing life I have been eyeing up for at least the last seven or eight years. And while I’ve made a good living during that time by co-writing, this year and next will be the first years that I release my own traditionally published fiction. I’m thrilled about it, and it’s thanks to all of you and your support that it’s even happening.
But when good things start to happen, when these positive shifts start taking place, there are always things we have to set to the side. We simply can’t do everything. Blogging is one of the things, at least in the short term, that I have to put down. But you know what? I didn’t know it, not for sure, until I read this post by Tsh called “Changes.” Turns out, she’s going through a similar season in her writing, and reading her post helped me navigate my own thoughts about change.
I’ll still be floating around Facebook and Twitter and Instagram. I’ll still be sending out the occasional email newsletter (which you can sign up to receive HERE). I’ll still let you know when my books are coming out. But I won’t be blogging much, if at all, for the rest of this year – and yes, this means a pause on the ever-popular Rideshare Confessional series (but I’ll still be driving for Uber and collecting stories to share later).
Hitting pause on my blog-writing makes me a little sad, but I want these books to be the best possible books they can be, and I only have so many words.
You’ve probably heard the amazing quote by Howard Thurman: “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
I think my writing life is going down a similar path. Sometimes, we have to be willing to lay aside things we enjoy in order to go deeper into the things we’re called to do. I couldn’t be more excited about the books I’m writing for you. Now, it’s time for me to focus on them.
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Is there an impending, necessary change in your life you’re hesitant to make? Leave a comment below – I love hearing from you.