Thursday, January 12, 2012

Ballad of a B+ Writer

Recently, I’ve started having weird little flashbacks.

I suppose I should clarify up front and emphasize that I’m not talking about actual flashbacks, where the world falls away and suddenly I’m in some version of the past.

For that matter, I should state that the flashbacks aren’t traumatic. They’re mostly just me suddenly remembering some oddball detail of my life I had forgotten.

For example: I took music composition for two years in college. And at one point, our professor sent the entire class to a room in one of the libraries to watch the movie “In the Heat of the Night.” For reasons that I can’t recall.

I remember him saying it was a good movie. I remember watching it with the rest of my class. I even remember him asking about it, though I don’t recall what any of us said.

This, in turn, reminded me of the time our education professor had us watch “Pollyanna.” Why? No idea. But I had a strong vision of the twenty-odd members of the class sitting and watching the flick.

More recently, I had this flashback:

Well, no. Wait. First, a wacky fun fact.

I make my living as a writer, and have done so for a little over six years. As a writer, I’ve done a surprising number of things. I’ve had screenplays I’ve written produced and go to film festivals and win awards. I’ve been a journalist, covering everything from pop culture to cooking to used cars. I’ve done PR. I’ve been a professional blogger. I’ve been a technical writer and a communications specialist.

And the last time I took a writing course was as a senior in high school.

Now, granted, I took two classes. One of which was a creative writing class I took just because, hey, I like to write creatively. The other was a college-credit course.

It was the college credit course that I flashed back on recently. Specifically, my grades.

Each week, we had to write a paper that was supposed to teach us a particular style or type of writing. Of course, for the life of me, I can’t recall any of the styles by name now. I can’t even recall most of them not by name, if that makes sense.

Here’s what I do remember: Every week, I took home a B+.

Now, ostensibly, the idea behind writing a paper every week is that you improve your abilities in some way. (In my case, I seem to recall an over-use of the work “to.”)

Here comes the important bit. To me, anyway. (See, there’s that to!)

These papers were due on Wednesday. Every week, we turned in our papers, and then the teacher explained to us what kind of paper we would be writing for the next week. We would be given some sort of sample, so we could get an idea of what these kinds of papers looked like in the wild…

And then we had a whole week to come up with a topic and produce 500 words.

Now, 500 words isn’t a lot. (I’m already there, in fact.) And if you’re a reasonably fast writer, and have a topic you’ve given some thought, you can probably churn a paper out in an hour or so.

Which I did, every week, on Sunday. And then, on Tuesday night, I’d look at the paper again, and I would nip and tuck and try to take out the repeated words and bad grammar and whatever else plagued the paper.

Then I would turn it in, and on Thursday I would have yet another fresh and shiny B+ to show for it.

And then one week…

I had, once again, written my 500 words, and edited them, and I felt pretty good about my paper… right up until I didn’t.

The thing of it is, I thought the paper was well-written. But I also thought it was mean-spirited, to the point where I’m not going to tell you what my original topic is, because some things are just better off forgotten and not lingering on the Internet.

My English class was in the afternoon, and in the morning I had a study hall, wherein I could get access to a computer. So I came up with a new topic, sat down, and pumped out 500 words in perhaps 40 minutes. I might have read it twice in order to clear up typos, but I kind of doubt it.

I printed the paper, stuck it in my folder and turned it in a couple of hours later.

Frankly, I was a little panicked about the whole thing. My B+ papers were a result of careful thought, of typo and error weeding. And I realized, perhaps too late, that while my other paper was kind of mean, it wasn’t like anyone outside of my teacher was going to ask to see it. My parents weren’t going to put it on the fridge to admire. Other people were not going to ask me for a copy, so they could learn what a B+ paper looked like.

I had panicked, and damaged the grade in my college-credit course for pretty much no reason.

Except, of course, you probably have a good guess where this story is going.

It makes sense, of course. I would only tell this story if it ended one of two ways. I got an A, and learned I needed to trust my instincts and not do so much revising.

Or I got a B+, and learned that perhaps that was just where I sit in the world spectrum of writing.

I won’t keep you in suspense. It’s the latter.

The fact is, for better or worse, I’m pretty much a B+ writer. The one exception to this rule appears to be research papers, where citations count. I’m a pretty good rule follower, so that brings me up to an A-. (And, in one memorable instance, a grade of “A-ish.”)

It’s weirdly freeing, being a B+ writer. I’ve got to admit, after that I stopped trying pretty much at all to raise the quality of my writing, because there didn’t seem to be a point to it. I was going into Music Education, and frankly, the ability to write to a B+ grade on a college level is nothing to sneeze at.

Of course, in many ways, going to college was the acid test. I had to take a “pass-out-of-English-class” test, which I flew through with no trouble. I was then asked to submit a couple of papers to demonstrate my writing ability, and I turned in the A- research paper I’d done for my college-level course, and my “A-ish” paper I had done for music history.

And that was that.

Except, of course, that college is all about papers. Short essays. Twenty-page annotated research laden tomes.

I watched people work on these well in advance. I watched some people pull all-nighters to accomplish them.

And then there was me. I’d think for a while, as my days wore on, and when the time came, I’d tip and tap and type away and put together my B+ (or, you know, A-ish) paper.

I’ve found myself thinking about this more and more over the last few weeks, and I’ve pondered my lot in life. For better or worse, I’m an indie novelist right now, and there is, quite frankly, baggage that comes with that.

There are different kinds of indie novelists, of course. The ones who state they hate the publishing game, and think that publishers pay nothing, rake in cash, and keep all of it for themselves.

And there are the indie writers who seem to desperately wish that an actual publisher would call them up, tell them that their book is brilliant, and offer them a big fat check to put it out in Wal-Mart, where it will sell Dan Brown numbers, just like the author always thought the book would.

And I’m not gonna lie. I started this novel-writing journey with the idea that to really make it, you need to get an agent, and sell your book to a publisher, and get it out in physical bookstores. I went indie because I sent out 75 letters to agents and none of them even wanted to read the entire book.

That book was “Mercy,” which, as I write this, is rated 4.5 stars on Amazon, and 4 stars on Goodreads. In other words? B+.


That’s pretty good, really. Nothing to complain about.

Heck, “Twilight” is rated four stars, and sold so many copies that I’m pretty sure the author’s kids will never have to work, and will end up with their own reality TV show at some point in the coming years. (“The House that Twilight Built,” perhaps?)

So why am I pondering this?

Excellent question.

I suspect it’s because most writers I know are neurotic on some level, and recently, I’ve been on the receiving end of some surprisingly kind words, and I don’t know what to do with them.

I had a three-book-deal-author tell me that even though they aren’t a zombie fan, they really liked “Mercy.”

I had another friend, a person with a Masters Degree and experience teaching English and running an English department, tell me that “Blood Calling” really needs to be in bookstores, and also in movie theaters. This same person said it was up to quality of “The Hunger Games.”

And I’ve had other indie publishers tell me how much they enjoyed my work, and pushed it towards their readers.

And yet?

And yet I’m still a B+ indie writer. Not a well-off B+ indie writer, or a rich B+ indie writer, or an indie writer who just got a call saying that someone wants to turn his book into a movie, or an indie writer who just got offered a fat publishing contract for his work.

Just a B+ indie writer.

Again, I’m not complaining about this, but the problem is, the kind of praise I’m getting makes me feel like I’m missing something. Like I could do something, or be something more, than a B+ indie writer. It’s like being in high school all over again, with people telling you that you have “potential,” and that you have to live up to it.

It makes me wonder.

Is it possible to sit down with one of my books, or all of my books, and revise and short and sift and shape until the books stop being B+ books, and start being A books?

Or are the ideas themselves B+ ideas, and what I really need is an A idea to go with my B+ writing?

Once, in the middle of my years in college, I had to write a paper for an education class. I wrote the first page on a Monday, and then forgot about the essay until after 1 AM on Wednesday morning. I literally sat bolt upright in my bed and realized that a) I was totally exhausted, and b) my paper was due at 10 AM, and I had classes right up until then.

I went to my desk, wiggled my mouse, and my computer woke up. I opened up the document I had started the paper on, and I began typing. It took me perhaps fifteen minutes, and I never once re-read the first half of the paper. In my sleep-deprived state, it never crossed my mind to do so.

I printed the paper, and turned it in, and realized that I had no idea what the first page said. And the next day, when I got it back? B+.

As I write this essay (which, at something like 2000 words, is probably the very definition of what makes me a B+ writer) I’m wrapping up the third novel in my “Blood Calling” trilogy. (The first book, by the way, is 99 cents and rated, yes, 4 ½ stars) I find myself struggling with my B+-ity.

Why this book in particular? Well, there’s a lot invested in it now. Assuming the book caps out where I think it will, I’ll have written more than 200,000 words during the creation of this trilogy (more, if you count Baby Teeth, a novella in the same universe). Perhaps more importantly, readers will have read more than 200,000 words, page by page by page.

If the previous books ended with a bit of a whimper, well, the next book was on its way. I didn’t need to perfectly cap the book. I just had to say, “Until next time, folks!” and step away from the keyboard.

But this ending has to do a lot.

It has to end the series perfectly, because this is the last book in the trilogy. At the same time, I have to set up a thread that will, alternately, make it look like this world is going to go on, either in the imagination of the readers or by my own hand, if the series sells enough copies to warrant additional books.

Perhaps most importantly, the ending has to be good enough that readers finishing the series will tell their friends to grab all three books right off the bat, as though they were one big fat boxed set. Because a rating of, “Well, the first two books are good, but then it totally falls apart at the end” means I may as well have not bothered to write the first two books at all.

And so, I struggle with my B+.

I struggle to nail the ending of this novel.

I struggle to figure out if I want to stay an indie writer or if I want to try and get an agent and a publisher again.

And I struggle with the question of whether I really have a choice in the matter. If it’s worth sending out another 75, or 100, or 150 query letters.

Or if I’ll always be a B+ indie writer, no matter what I do.

1 comment:

  1. Your story as a writer is such an interesting part here on your blog. You made me realize how is it to be a proudly writer, too. I am not as professional as yours but I am much more willing to learn even the simplest and hardest things in writing. I am now busy composing my mighty students essays and I hope it will be a good read just like your posts here! :)