The other day, my eight-year-old daughter informed me she was afraid of death.
“Me too,” I told her. “We should all be afraid of death. It makes us careful.”
This, of course, was a dodge of sorts, death being the one and only Big Life Thing she has brought up that I can’t spin or change or somehow fix for her. When she says she’s afraid of death, she wants to hear me tell her how to avoid it. She doesn’t want to hear “Yeah, death stinks. Now quit talking and eat your vegetables.”
But she did get me started thinking about fear. Fear is a big evolutionary bonus, most of the time. It keeps us from doing stupid, risky things like running across six lanes of highway traffic, or walking a tightrope across the Grand Canyon. (Well, it keeps enough of us from doing things like that. The point, of course, is to keep the gene pool large and diversified, not to preserve an individual.) In general, fear is useful, at least where the physical is concerned.
But sometimes…fear is crippling.
My latest task has been to do one final edit of my mostly-finished novel, Dead Hour, based on the beta feedback I received. I am almost finished. For various reasons I decided to do the edit backwards, starting with the epilogue and stepping back a chapter at a time; this, I found, allowed me to organize the plot changes much more easily. Overall, it’s gone fairly well, in no small part due to the incredibly useful feedback I got from my beta readers.
I’m down to the prologue now, and I am paralyzed. I’ve sat on it for two days, doing absolutely nothing. And I don’t think it’s the prologue itself that’s doing it; despite the fact that the prologue has been a horrible problem, it’s in better shape than it’s been since the start, and I think it’s not far from where I want it. If I put on a little music and focus for a couple of hours, I’ll be able to wallop it into more or less what I want.
No, it’s not the prologue that’s the problem. It’s that once it’s done, the next step is the query letter. And I am terrified.
I’ve said before that in a way, queries are a cheat. The query is not the novel (although if it’s any good it gets some of the flavor across), so if the query gets rejected that’s not someone rejecting the heart and soul of your book. It might just be that your query letter is dreadful, or needs work, or just doesn’t strike the reader the right way. Rejection of a query letter, although depressing, isn’t the same as rejection of the novel itself. So what’s the big deal, right?
The big deal is that it’s a point of no return. It’s a commitment to putting this book out there. I’ve always said that if I can’t find an agent and a publisher, I’ll push it out myself, and that’s still the plan. (Sometimes I still think I might prefer to do it that way regardless; but I’m not going to make that decision now.)
Beta was a big step for me, but all of my readers were friends (some closer than others, but still). Committing to publish, traditionally or otherwise, is committing to dropping this book into a sea of strangers who will have every right to pick it to pieces or ignore it.
And I am afraid.
We watched a movie this morning: Queen to Play (Joueuse is the original French title). In many ways it’s a predictable story; but it’s so well-acted and well-told, it doesn’t matter. At one point Kevin Kline’s character is explaining to our heroine that his late wife, a talented painter, never risked putting her work out there: “Her fear was greater than her talent.” Later our heroine says to him that if you try, you may lose, but if you don’t try, you lose every day. This kind of thing works in the film, because we know where it’s going. We know the heroine has talent, and we know that by the end of the film her talent will be recognized.
Good quotes. Words to live by. But not everybody is talented. Not everybody wins. Some people try…and they’re just not very good.
I’ve got enough of an ego that I can brush off a certain amount of that. I’m clear, too, that art is subjective, and there will always be people who dislike an artist. (And don’t we pile on to those artists who are universally popular, accusing them of being shallow, of having no staying power?) There will be people who hate this book I’ve written (although I kind of hope those people don’t bother picking it up to begin with). I tell myself that’s OK – really, did I think I was writing a book for seven billion people?
I fear being so demoralized by some random comment that I find myself unable to write.
That is foolish. I know it. Writing is too much a part of me to give it up. Without it, I’d shrink up into a little dried thing. And that’s exactly why I am afraid: I can tell myself, from this side of it, that I will brush off rejection and criticism and sit down and write tomorrow just like I wrote yesterday – but what if I don’t? What if I am weak, and I let that criticism cut off that part of my life?
See? Fear. Irrational, baseless, procrastination-inducing fear. I’ve been writing more than forty years – random strangers are going to get me to stop? Please. They may get me to stop publishing, but the writing will keep happening. Even if it’s lousy.
Why am I doing this? Why am I finishing this book, and working on the next one, and thinking about what happens after that?
Because it’s fun.
The other thing I tell my daughter, when she worries about death, is that she shouldn’t throw away today for fear of tomorrow. I’m not sure she understands yet what I mean by that. Any explanation I make would probably make her feel worse: That all we know we have is this day, this moment. Wasting time worrying about what we cannot change steals this moment from us – and we don’t get it back.
So I will try to remember that I write for fun, and if I can find other people who get some fun out of my stories – wonderful. But if I don’t? I will do my very best to keep having fun, all on my own.