It’s really easy, as an unpublished author, to get caught up in dreams of the future. My goal for a long time now has been to find an agent, find a publisher, and get my work on the shelves. It’s something I’ve imagined since junior high, something I’ve worked towards for years, now. I want to tell my stories to other people, to hear that they’ve enjoyed the journey, or best of all, that it made them think. Or even that they hated it, though that is less desireable.
I want more than just to write. I want to be read. And more than to be read, I want to have a conversation with people. I want them to know my characters, I want them to go on this adventure with me. I want to know what they think might happen next, how they relate to my story, whether or not it has any meaning to them.
So, in some ways, it’s a bit like torture, to have written so much (I’ve finished one novel in a series, and the first draft on the second novel, and I’m working on a third and totally unrelated manuscript, now) and still have only a few readers among my close friends.
But, this is no way to live as a writer, constantly querying and waiting for responses, waiting for that chance to move on to the next step. It’s a recipe for complete frustration. So, I’m trying to cultivate an appreciation for where I am right now. I’m trying to learn to appreciate the view from right here.
It’s All Mine
What good is there, in being an unpublished writer? What good is there in existing in this state of longing, without any idea of what might happen next?
First of all, I can write selfishly. I can work on making exactly the kinds of stories I want to make, without the expectation of an audience. No one is standing over my shoulder, anxiously waiting to see the next page, the next paragraph, the next novel, filled with ideas of what it might look like. I can explore every little side path on the way, I can indulge in the kinds of writing I like the best, and no one can tell me that I should do otherwise. I am my only critic and I am one of a very small group who is attached to my work.
If a scene wanders off into strange territory, I am still writing to an amorphous, imagined audience. I don’t have to question what they might think. I don’t have to worry if they’re going to find that scene or that character’s actions difficult to believe. Because I know when I start thinking about that, the way I write will change, and the paths I decide to take will be different.
If what I want to write is a long, dialogue-free scene about a character wandering through the forest and contemplating the meaning of her choices, I can. I can appreciate how beautiful a scene like that is, without worrying that it doesn’t fit the overall tone of the book, or that it isn’t what my readers expect. I might have to cut it later, but for now I can write it, fully invested, because it’s what I want to write. I can describe it down to the pebbles in the creek where she stops for lunch. I can detail everything she eats, and never wonder if perhaps it’s a little silly.
So, there is undoubtedly a freedom to being an unpublished author. I’m under no obligation to please a large audience. No one is investigating my work, seeking minutiae to critique, the places where my voice rings false, the grammatical errors, the plot holes. It is only my own criticism that matters, at this point, mine and the occasional beta reader.
Room to Fall
Then, there are the mistakes. For now, I’m allowed to make them in front of a small audience. When my writing is very bad, when I put on paper a character who isn’t as rich and complex as I’d like, it’s a small audience that witnesses my errors. When I write something downright confusing, I still have time and space to go into my manuscript and make improvements.
I can take risks, without concern about what my critics will say. I have room to learn new techniques, with no agent, no editor, no publisher, no audience to tell me what direction I should take, what makes for a good voice or style. There is a place in my writing for falling down and getting back up, unseen.
Yes, this means there are very few who can tell me exactly where I might be going wrong, or exactly how to fix it, but it also means I can learn for myself. There is a frustration in that, but also joy, and ownership of success when I get it right.
I like writing without the burden of abundant criticism. Yes, those critiques are necessary to making progress in writing, but some of them are just plain wrong. Like that time I was told by a critique partner that I ought to read George R.R. Martin to learn how to build descriptions.
Yeah, I’ve read George Martin, and while what he does is incredibly good, it’s not my style, and not what I’m aiming for.
It’s tough, though, to sort out the useful criticism from the bad, and even knowing that some of the critiques I’ve gotten have been way off track, it still stings a little. I’m not trying to write Game of Thrones, but the fact that someone found my writing lacking, even if their suggestion for fixing it was awful, isn’t so easy to deal with.
So yes, being able to make mistakes in my own time, and being able to correct them as I prefer, is a huge advantage to being a writer without an agent, without a publisher, without a paying audience.
Writing in Shadows
Then, there is the wonder of possessing a secret, a secret that most of the world doesn’t even know to ask about yet. I hold my books, all the events in them, and all the places where they might go, in my hands and in my head. It is in my power to talk to my friends and family about the story that I’ve written, but I don’t.
This is mostly because I’m a writer, and not because I love keeping secrets. I am actually a terrible secret-keeper, under most circumstances. The only reason my stories aren’t bouncing out into the world is because I can barely string together the words to describe the plot without a piece of paper in front of me. I write better than I talk, and so for the most part what I’ve written is locked away.
Still, it is all my secret. Every word, good or bad, still belongs to me and no one else. And there is something special, rare, and wonderful in that knowledge, even as I experience the frustration of being in a fandom of one. All the rough edges and all the beautiful moments lie in the dark, known only to me. They are mine, as wholly as an unborn child belongs to its mother.
Finally, there are all the obligations of being a published author – a successful published author, anyway. The public appearances, the book signings, all the I-don’t-even-know-what. I can see, even from where I stand, that being an author is about a whole lot more than just writing whatever you like. There are other people to please, and many places to go.
Right now, I’m sitting at my kitchen counter, typing up my meandering thoughts on what I like about my current writing life. I’m wearing Yoga pants, my sweater (a blanket with sleeves, if we’re being really honest), lunch beside me, my kids playing nearby. It’s not ideal for concentration, perhaps, but it’s comfortable. Far more comfortable than having to go out in the world and convince other people that my book is one they want to put on their reading list.
I’m more than willing to do all these things when the time comes, but for now, it’s nice that I don’t have to.
I look forward to that brave and wonderful moment when a book that I’ve written goes out into the world. I don’t think I will ever stop seeking that achievement. I’ve certainly pursued it longer than I imagined I would when I started on this journey.
But I also am trying to savor where I am right now. I’m enjoying the freedoms that I have, the comfortably obscure corners in which I write. Because the view from right here isn’t so bad.