Contributed by Holley Long
I wrote my first book my junior year of college; before that, I’d put pen to paper for a handful of short stories, numerous poems, and one novella that read more like my diary than anything I’d want to pursue publication for. But this was different. It was a novel sparked from a creative writing class workshop piece, which itself sparked from memories of my childhood - as well as a desperate need to get the assignment done on time. Though that story I sent in for critique was the result of an all nighter and lots of caffeine induced recallings, I would look at it months later and see potential for a larger work.
The workshop piece told the story of Byron and his friend Joe, through short vignettes (I liked writing vignettes or flash fiction back then because I thought it was easier, and I was lazy). I wrote Byron as this character who teetered on the edge of popularity, an easygoing kid who could be friends with the soccer playing, dodgeball champions of the playground, if not for his friendship with social outcast Joe. Joe came from a broken home and a broken spirit, which made him prone to lash out and view the well-to-dos of his small town with suspicion, which was the same view most of the town cast on him. Byron would find himself torn with whether to stick with Joe or embrace a clique he seemed meant to fall into, and the decisions he’d make would shape not only his future, but Joe’s as well.
It was a mess of a story, but it got a point across, and I got some helpful feedback for it. During the summer months before my junior year started, when I was trying to figure out my next great idea, I revisited the notes from the critique. Reading through them, and the story again, I saw a bigger story, one where I could follow Byron and Joe through middle school, and high school. Maybe even take them to college, if I wanted to go full Boyhood with the project. With the notes and story in hand, I crafted an outline and wrote a rough draft for a novel. Several months later, I turned the rough draft into a nearly 80K word first draft. From there, I reworked some issues, tweaked wording, sent it to some people - my mom and my roommate - to read, all the time thinking, without a hint of doubt, that this was the one.
I went through about five drafts before I submitted my first queries. When a few rejections started filtering in, I didn’t take it to heart. Rejection was a part of the path to publication, all the writing blogs said so. But when every email I sent to an agent or small publisher was returned with a “thanks, but no thanks” - some just moments after I’d hit send - I started to feel those first seeds of doubt plant in my brain. I didn’t want to look at my novel - my beautiful, beloved book child - with anything but the adoration I’d bestowed on it the minute I started working on it, but as months passed and even my friends didn’t want to read at least the first chapter, doubt began to sprout.
Looking back, I think I could have done a lot to combat that pest. I could have made the novel the focus of my creative senior thesis with an advisor there to take look. I could have sent it to a professional editor and gotten a hard strip down to find out what was wrong. I could have gotten help. But I gave up. Doubt became a field of weeds, and tangled in them were all the problems my book had: it spanned too great a timeline, it didn’t fit into one specific genre, it wasn’t “artsy” enough to be literary fiction. Now I know problems like those are fixable with time and hard work, and advice from those more experienced, but at the time I could only see it as bad writing, and me, by extension, a bad writer.
I moved on. With my next projects, I tried to stick to a genre. Mystery, YA, apocalyptic. Stuff known, stuff popular. But when you don’t kill the weeds of doubt, they eventually become an infestation that takes over the garden of your mind. It never failed, halfway through a first draft, sometimes even in the planning stages, I would recoil from the work, worried I was wasting my time, scared that, like last time, I’d get to the end and reap no rewards. Don’t get me wrong, I know this is normal for ALL writers, and we have to push through it, but I was unable to. I lacked the confidence to finish, because, if my first book had failed, what made me think I had anything worth reading?
Then the real one hit me. I’m out of college now, with a full time job that’s as rewarding as it is mentally taxing. I’d stopped writing so much fiction, and I knew I needed to get back into it. Not just because I wanted to be a published novelist, but because I needed that outlet again. I started thinking about what it was that made me start writing, and I remembered how I’d feel after reading a book in junior high and high school. It was freeing to let myself wander in made up, magical or supernatural worlds for hours on end. That was what I wanted; I wanted a reader to become lost in my words, forgetting her adolescent troubles if only for a minute.
I revisited a YA, supernatural idea which really was just an image: a mysterious figure in the woods. But from that image I grew an outline, and from that now a first draft. And though while writing it I did feel those pesky jabs of doubt, I found I could ignore them because I didn’t care. I didn’t expect anything from the book, because while I wanted readers to be freed by it, I found myself feeling liberated just writing it. I’m excited to look back at it, again and again, and continue the story even if I’m the only one who ever lays eyes on it. This book, this garden, is mine, and I will joyfully slay the weeds that try to take it. Because while I would love for others to come in and read and for the book to give them life, it’s enough that it sustains me.
And that lets me tend it as I see fit.
About Holley Long
Holley Long is an American writer and professional storyteller. Currently she works in the southeast as a digital reporter, and when she isn't covering breaking news she's writing stories that make her heart sing or detailing her trials and tribulations as an aspiring author on her website awriterslifeforme.com.
Thanks for sharing, Holley!