Monday, August 5, 2019

The Muck of the Middle: A Writer's Query Quest

This week marks the one year anniversary of my MFA graduation. I’ve spent the last 12 months turning my thesis into a novel, crafting the perfect pitch, and mustering up the courage to hit the query trenches. 

While I’ve always been a “writer” – it took me a little longer than most to remove the quotations and truly embrace my creative path. Like countless others before me, I have worn many hats: publicist, media relations, teacher, professor, consultant, queen. We often dance around our destiny as if we can somehow distract or delay its ultimate arrival. I’m sure there’s a deeper psychological force at play here, but that’s a post for another day. 

I entered my creative writing for young adults MFA program armed with my MA in theology. Ironic? Truth be told, the YA community can be a bit of a cult and it happens mostly out of necessity. Let's call it survival skills for navigating the writing universe as the “serious” poets and literarati often hold us at arm’s length.

Despite the success of young adult literature, many people still harbor bias based on limited knowledge about YA’s possibilities, quality, and genre scope. I can’t tell you how many snide comments I’ve heard about Twilight (which happens to be a masterful depiction of our innate human desire to be seen but is NOT the only YA book in the world). I’ve listened to people belittle the speed and force of young adult literature while bragging about how “true” writers take decades to create their masterpieces as if struggling is a precursor to success. 

Trust me, there’s enough struggle in the first ten pages of any YA book to last a lifetime. One of the reasons I love writing for young adults is because of the hyperbolic nature of the experiences we dive into. Everything is intense, passionate, or potentially life altering. I get to tap into my own pain, desire, and potentially destructive choices / memories from my teen years and “re-do” all of it for the sake of fiction. 

In my stories, the girls carry their own swords and aren’t afraid to save themselves because those are the sort of protagonists I wish I’d had when I was dealing with confidence, body image, and the butterflies of something more. My motto: Forget waiting for someone to save you – get out there and save yourself! 

Like the teen years it details, YA Lit is a hotbed of activity often modeling the intended audience. There are twitter feuds fueled by the explosiveness of cancel culture and intense reactions bordering on something more. There is defensiveness and offensiveness in equal measure. 

But the passionate YA Lit community is also fiercely loyal, notoriously collaborative, and transparent. I love how open my fellow YA writers are about process, pitfalls, and potential; however, despite the openness, I still struggle with mastering my day-to-day querying life. 

Things they didn’t teach in my MFA: everything that comes after the MFA. 

I know the querying is an essential part of the process and a necessary step on the epic journey that is a writer’s life. Hey, let’s be honest – it’s really uncomfortable. Maybe there are reasons why more agented/published writers don’t talk about the sheer difficulty of it. Maybe they want to put forth a positive front, forget the trauma, or simply move forward. Or maybe this process isn’t meant to be understood in reverse. Either way, for those of us stuck in the muck and mud of the middle – we sure could use a lifeline. 

I can’t tell you how many times a day I check my email, refresh my twitter feeds to stalk agents who have my full, or make sacrificial offerings at my altar of good intentions. 

I know the middle isn’t as sexy as basking in the glow of “the call” or singing the song of signing the coveted book deal. Sure, writers are weird and secretive and superstitious… but we are also people, living, breathing, and working in the real world. We have to get on with the business of laughing and loving while we wait. So, we might as well talk about it with people who understand. Lord knows the non-writers in your life don’t get why it’s “taking so long” or understand the adrenaline rush of an answered email (even the rejections). 

No matter the current stage of our writer’s journey, we’re all just chasing the high of validation, the joy of "yes" and the moment when the whole world confirms what your grandma knew all along: 

“Honey, you’re special. Now, you’re a REAL writer!”

Yeah. The middle is a wasteland filled with delay, detour, and denial. The middle is fertile ground for second-guessing, doubt, and downright fits of frustration. It’s the dark night of the soul that lasts and lasts and lasts….sometimes for weeks, months, and/or years. And the worst part is you never know when your “yes” will come so you basically exist in expectation. 

The middle is torturous. It’s when you need the most support and receive the least. Honestly, nothing in my MFA prepared me for what came after. I wasn’t prepared to slay this dragon alone. Where the hell is my sword? Where is the wise troll to guide me through this haunted forest? I simply refuse to believe the fancy hood and coveted diploma are false relics without magic.

There’s alchemy in effort and power in facing the dreaded question: “So what have you been working on since graduation?”

Most of the time, I resist the urge to respond by declaring that I’m working on not breaking into tears. Giving up is not an option for creative souls and that is part of the pain. Not because we are owed anything, but because to be in community we must not be afraid to be at the bottom. 

Everyone will tell you that you need to keep writing. Write while you wait, write while you query, write in your sleep. It’s the only way to fully walk this path. But it shouldn’t feel foreign or dirty or taboo.

We should be so excited, thrilled, over-the-moon for the next idea that we fix our eyes, minds, and hearts forward. Perhaps this is the reason agented/published authors often seem as if they are beyond the struggles of those of us on our query quest. It’s not that they don’t want to share the secrets to their success, it’s just that their success is a result of that forward motion. 

After all, you can never enter the same river twice. The river is always changing and if we are doing it right…so are we. 

So, for all my writing witches stuck in the querying trenches, here are 4 things to keep in mind when the muck of the middle is threatening your progress: 

1. PARTY OF ONE: Look, let’s be honest: you’ve got to walk this journey on your own. But you don’t have to be lonely. When you are feeling up against it, remember to share your experience, talk about your challenges, and ask your mentors for some wisdom. Eating alone at the buffet of creativity means you get to choose how much, when, and where. 

2. TIME GOES BY: It may seem as if time passes differently in the query trenches, but that’s just an indication that you need to use it wisely. Or, consider this: time is moving whether or not you sign with an agent this week. You might as well use the time wisely instead of worrying and go ahead and write something new. After all, the very purpose of being in the middle is to keep going. 

3. CREATIVE WELL: Yes, it’s important to keep writing while you query, but you also need to remember to replenish the creative well. It’ll be impossible to write something new if your creative well runs dry as you wait. Some great things to reignite your spark are to read something for sheer pleasure, take a road trip and snap some potential settings for visual research, add daily meditative walks to your writing routine, or just call an old (non-writing) friend to reminisce. The important thing here is that you mindfully balance your writing life with your non-writing life. 

4. “WHEN” IS A MYTH: There is only now. There is only this moment. “When” something wonderful happens you’ll want it to find you writing.  

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