Sunday, October 27, 2013

The End of the Dream

My heart is broken today.

My son Michael, now 18, was two months old when I attended my first writer's conference in Philadelphia. I remembered pushing him around the college in his little umbrella stroller, nervously showing my first draft of my first novel, Johanna's Journey, to the few editors I had landed appointments with. A few years later at a Maryland conference, an editor for the first time wanted to show my proposal to his committee.  I was so excited - surely this was it! A few weeks later I received a rejection letter addressed to Dear Author.  I cried when I read the letter. They couldn't even use my name!  I knew the road to publishing might be harder than I had first thought, but had no idea how hard.

The years passed with more novels, more conferences, more meetings with editors. I received some nice compliments and encouraging words, and more rejection letters. I completed Ellen's Intercession, The Return of the Rebel, and Kerry's Calling. After about eight years of writing, an editor requested the complete manuscript of The Return of the Rebel.  Again I was so excited - here was my big break!  I waited a year before following up, only to be told that the manuscript had been lost in a computer crash.  I resubmitted, waited another year, and then received a rejection letter. The publishing guidelines had changed in those two years, and my novel no longer fit the criteria, although "it was a pretty good story and we probably would have accepted it."

Finally, about three years ago, I told God I was done. I had one more conference to attend, and after that I wasn't going to try anymore. At that conference I met with three different editors who all requested that I submit my latest novel, Finding Father. So began another round of submissions, revisions, resubmissions.  One editors seemed genuinely excited about my idea and requested that I rework the entire manuscript so she could take it to her committee. I complied, spending many hours over several months revising the manuscript according her suggestions.  On Thursday I received an e-mail from her, saying that her committee felt my writing "isn't quite there."

So there I am. I hesitate to use the word "never," but at this moment I feel pretty certain that I will never submit a manuscript to a traditional publisher again. I have never gotten as close to publication as I did with this latest house and can't believe that I ever will again.  I have five novels that I would like to share with the world, but I seem to be hitting brick walls over and over again.

I am wrestling with this situation spiritually as well. If God didn't want me to write, why did I keep getting encouragement over the years, only to have doors slammed in my face? Why did he take me so far only to lead me to a dead end? Or maybe it wasn't God leading me at all, but my own wishful thinking, my own fantasy of being a writer? Does God want me to be happy writing novel after novel and not care if I have an audience or if anyone reads them? All these questions are circling through my mind, and I have no answers yet.

The one possibility still open to me is self-publishing. Up till now, I've hesitated to go that route for several reasons. The first, I suppose, is my own insecurity and need for validation. If the "professionals" don't think my books are worth their time and money, why should I spend family's money on something that isn't all that worthwhile? The other reason is a realistic knowledge of my own strengths and weaknesses. If I have a strength in this field, my strength is writing, not marketing. If I self-publish, the burden of marketing my own books is entirely on my shoulders, and that isn't something that I feel completely (or even slightly) comfortable with.

But at this point I don't have much to lose. I am at a crossroad, but I am going to think and pray and explore the possibility of self-publishing.  Maybe it will turn into another dead end. Maybe I will manage to sell a few hundred books through this method and my books will speak to someone or touch their lives or influence them in some way, and that will be worth it. Maybe I will even be one of the rare success stories. Only God knows.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Self-confidence or Presumption?

What is the difference between self-confidence and presumption?  How do I have true humility and also the confidence to promote my work?

As I wait to hear from another editor, this is the issue that again I wrestle with.  For some reason, when it come to my writing, I've always needed a lot of reinforcement from people around me.  If I don't have people telling me that they like my books, that they were meaningful to them, it's hard for me to believe that they are any good or that my writing is worthwhile.  Or maybe I feel that I'm wasting my time if no one is going to read my books anyway.

I suppose this is a personality issue, at least partly.  I've read books that I really didn't think were all that good, and yet clearly their authors had enough self-confidence to go through the painful process of publishing.  In the process, they found an audience:  a group of readers who enjoyed their books enough to shell out the money (or at least go to the library) and spend the time in the imaginary world the author had created. This seems like presumption to me, but maybe it's really just healthy confidence.  And, of course, different audiences enjoy different types of writing, and what seems like trash to me might be thoroughly enjoyable to someone else.

In The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis talks about pride and humility, and the true purpose of humility:  "Let him think of [humility] not as self-forgetfulness but as a certain kind of opinion (namely, a low opinion) of his own talents and character.  Some talents, I gather, he really has.  Fix in his mind the idea that humility consists in trying to believe those talents to be less valuable than he believes them to be.  No doubt they are in fact less valuable than he believes, but that is not the point....[God] wants him, in the end, to be so free from any bias in his own favour that he can rejoice in his own talents as frankly and gratefully as in his neighbour's talents."

Alas, I am not there yet.  I fear I am a long way from that true type of humility, and I wonder if I will ever get there.  I want to be told that my writing is good and meaningful, but even when I hear that (as I have, many times - one of the women in my writer's group told me I should look in the mirror every day and tell myself, "You have a really good book here!"), it never completely satisfies me.  Perhaps the reason that I want to be published so badly is that I see it as that final validation:  Some professional actually thought my writing was good enough to take a chance on.  But since I know that professionals often take a chance on writing that really isn't good at all, why should that matter so much?

I am bracing myself for another rejection and wondering how I should react to it.  I know my initial reaction will be that I will never want to try again.  I have never gotten this close before, I don't believe I will again.  But should I be happy to continue writing without any real audience except the circle of loyal friends who have been my readers for the last 18 years?  Or should I try the self-publishing route - which demands more self-confidence (or presumption) than I have ever yet managed to find in myself?

These are the questions that I wrestle with as I wonder and wait.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Death Comes to Pemberley

If one definition of a really good book is one for which readers want a sequel, then it's not surprising that sequels have been written by lesser-known authors for several of my favorite old classics.  Gone With the Wind has been one of my favorite novels since I first read it as a teenager.  Almost 20 years later, Scarlett by Alexandra Ripley was published and my sister gave it to me for Christmas.  As a novel it was adequate, but never something I would read more than once.  As a sequel to Gone With the Wind, it was a huge let-down. Scarlett was suddenly more sensitive and conscientious, less greedy and manipulative, and the reconciliation between her and Rhett (the real reason anyone wanted to read it) was underdeveloped and unconvincing.

Since then I've read several sequels to Jane Austen novels with similar reactions.  One sequel to Mansfield Park really annoyed me.  Although she did an admirable job imitating Austen's style, the author had the nerve to make Henry Crawford into a hero and changed the details of the original ending, so that his affair with Maria Rushworth was really just a big misunderstanding. I'm sure many readers liked Henry more than Edmund and wished Fanny had married him, but in my opinion it requires massive conceit to try to rewrite anything as brilliant as Mansfield Park.

At least P.D. James did nothing to undermine the beauty of Pride and Prejudice.  Her murder mystery Death Comes to Pemberley takes place on the Pemberley estate six years after the marriage of Darcy and Elizabeth. It includes many of the original characters, including Jane and Bingley, Wickham and Lydia, Colonel Fitzwilliam and Georgiana, adding other characters as might be expected. She creates a suitable tone for the novel, less humorous and more mysterious. Most importantly, the characters and details of the story remain true to the original. (The worst inconsistency that I noticed was her statement that Wickham was not welcome in the Bingleys' home, whereas Pride and Prejudice states that he visited there frequently.)

Although the novel could be called a murder mystery, it departs from the genre in several significant ways. The main characters, notably Darcy and Elizabeth, aren't involved in solving the mystery in any way.  In fact, the guilty parties come forward at the end and make voluntary confession, begging the question of why they didn't do that in the first place and save everybody the hassle.  Darcy and Elizabeth, and by extension, the reader, are merely spectators of the whole show, giving the story a passive feel. Several secondary plots could have been developed more to make the story more interesting and add romance.

But the book was an interesting picture of life on the Pemberley estate and the marriage of Darcy and Elizabeth. It provides closure for a few of the secondary characters of Pride and Prejudice while creating clever connections with characters from Persuasion and Emma.  For Austen fans, it was a nice read.  Of course, it falls far short of the wit, humor, and insight of her own novels.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

When Christians Disappoint

Okay, I should be used to this by now.  Back in the '70's, when divorce was still a new thing in Christian circles, we were all shocked by Hal Lindsey and Anita Bryant.  Later the Christian music stars Sandy Patti and Amy Grant each left their husbands and took up with new men. And, of course, we all have innumerable examples in our personal lives of Christians who decided that their marriage vows were just too hard to keep. So this latest disappointment shouldn't be such a big deal.  Should it?

Five or six years ago my husband borrowed a book that had shown up in the lounge at his work, What's So Great About Christianity by Dinesh D'Souza. I had never heard of D'Souza at that point, but I read the entire book in one afternoon.  It was fascinating. In the book he explored the scientific, historical, and philosophical basis for belief in God, responding to numerous atheistic books attacking Christianity. Later my daughter and I attended a debate in Princeton on the topic "Can there be Morality without God?" in which D'Souza debated the famous atheist professor Peter Singer. Again, I was impressed by his intelligence and spiritual insight. I began to buy other books he had written, including Life After Death, The End of Racism, and (for my son) Letters to a Young Conservative. I loved them all.  My son even gave What's So Great About Christianity to a skeptic friend of his from high school.

When I recently heard a rumor that D'Souza was getting a divorce, I decided to go on the internet and check it out. The story seems to be that he and his wife have been separated for the last two years (at his wife's request, he says).  Then he showed up at a Christian conference in September with a much younger woman whom he introduced as his fiancee.  Since he was still married, this caused some natural consternation. When confronted, D'Souza said, "I had no idea that it is considered wrong in Christian circles to be engaged prior to being divorced, even though in a state of separation and in divorce proceedings." (Really?) The divorce wasn't filed until a few days after the conference, but who knows how long he had been thinking about it. There is also hot debate about whether or not the two shared a hotel room at the conference.

Okay, so another one bites the dust. Why does this bother me more than Amy Grant?  Maybe it has to do with the nature of their respective fame.  Amy Grant was a young girl with a pretty voice who was noticed by the right people and became a big name. A pretty face and a pretty voice do not a spiritual giant make. But as I sadly read the reports about D'Souza, I kept remembering his books and wondering, "How could someone who so wonderfully articulated the philosophical basis for belief do such a disappointing job of living it out?"

Maybe the answer is found in D'Souza's words themselves.  At the Princeton debate, Peter Singer argued that Christians are not necessarily more moral than unbelievers. D'Souza replied, (and I'm quoting from memory, not verbatim,) "If you are saying that Christians don't do a good job of living up to their own moral code, I agree with you.  But that supports my claim that morality is transcendent, not man-made.  If we were going to create our own moral code, we would make one that was easier to live up to."

In What's So Great About Christianity, as he discussed the nature of man, D'Souza said, "For Plato, the problem of evil is a problem of knowledge.  People do wrong because they do not know what is right.  If they knew what was right, obviously, they would do it.  But Paul denies that this is so.  His claim is that even though he knows something is wrong, he still does it.  Why?  Because the human will is corrupt. The problem of evil is not a problem of knowledge but a problem of will."  (pp. 55-56)

My grandmother was a quiet, shy, self-effacing woman who stayed in a difficult marriage with a difficult man for 68 years.  After her death, my mother was reflecting on why she stayed with him for all those years.  "I can only assume it was because she believed God wanted her to do that."

Imagine that.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Perfect Ending?

Lately I have been reconsidering the ending to my latest novel, Finding Father.  Most of my readers have told me that they like the ending, and several have said they would like to see a sequel.  I considered this a compliment and thought that it was a good plan to end a novel with the readers wanting more.  But recently a professional who read the book told me that I ended the story too early, that I didn't show enough of the romance, and that I left several of the secondary conflicts unresolved - in particular the tension between the hero and the girl's mother.

I know as a reader that I like to feel a sense of closure at the end of a novel.  One of my favorite books, Gone With the Wind, had a very open ending, with Scarlett and Rhett actually separating and Scarlett planning how she could win him back. But it is difficult to pull off an ending like that, and I don't pretend to be anything close to Margaret Mitchell in literary prowess. So it's possible that, in leaving my ending somewhat open, I was being a bit too ambitious.

On the other hand, I want my story to be believable, and in real life many difficult relationships never become happy, close, and loving. I've also read novels in which characters who spend the whole book fighting and hating each other suddenly fall into each other's arms in the last chapter. To me, this sort of pat, unrealistic resolution is worse than anything. I would rather read a book in which some tension and conflict remain at the end than feel that the author sacrificed truth and realism for a "happy ending."

So that brings me back to the ending of Finding Father. Can I find a resolution between Steve and Bonnie that is satisfying, but doesn't feel trite and contrived?

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Downton Abbey

Like half the female population of the United States, during the last six months I have become engrossed in the PBS series Downton Abbey.  I watched the first two seasons on DVD at least twice each, and now am watching Season 3 every Sunday night on PBS.  Sometimes I watch the same episode two or three times during the week if I can squeeze it into my schedule and steal the television from the males in the family. I'm sure I'm not the only American who would love to relocate to England and be adopted by the Crawley family (if we could figure out a way to travel in time!)

Although Downton Abbey is a television series instead of a book, one characteristic that it shares with many novels is its excellent characters. Each character is distinctive in personality and his or her way of responding to crises, and yet none are unrealistic and few are idealized. As I watched the most recent episode on Sunday night, I pondered which character I admire the most, and came to a surprising conclusion.

As I watched the various characters react to the most recent crises in the story, I decided that Matthew's mother Isobel Crawley is the character that I would most like to emulate. She is one of the less glamorous women in the story, maybe because she is middle-aged and comes from a prosaic middleclass background.  When she first appeared in the story soon after Matthew learned he was the new heir to the estate, I felt a bit  sorry for her because of the way she was patronized and looked down upon by some of the other women, especially Violet.  But Isobel never let herself be intimidated by the difference in wealth and class.  She was so confident, but was also very gracious and courteous.

Isobel always acts according to her own principles, even when others criticize and disagree.  I especially admire the way she cares about Ethel Parks. So many of the other characters want to shun Ethel because of her fall into sin, but Isobel actually hired her as a cook in order to give her another chance in life.  Although Downton Abbey isn't a Christian story, I see Isobel Crawley as the most Christian character in her attitudes and outlook on life.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

How I Got Here

In beginning my new blog, I want to go back and reminisce a bit about the journey that I've been on for many years now. I've written off and on ever since I was nine years old, and in my early twenties began a romantic fantasy about two characters named Rodwyn and Lisare. I never finished more than the initial story, and my personal life in my late twenties was so full of upheaval that I put my writing aside for a number of years, not sure if I would ever take it up again.

In my early thirties the idea for Johanna's Journey began to grow, and I continued to develop the story and characters in my mind for several years.  Still, I hesitated to actually start writing a novel. It seemed like such a big commitment, I was afraid that I wouldn't finish it, and if I did no one would want to read it and all my effort would be wasted.  But Johanna (a colonial indentured servant) refused to die. One day in discussing these concerns with my twin sister, she said to me, "Write something for me, Susan. Write it for me, and I'll read it." Knowing that I would have one reader of my new novel encouraged me to sit down and start writing, and the story was so complete in my mind that I finished the first draft in six months. A few months later I learned about a small local writer's group, and when I joined it I now had three readers for my novel. Without this support, I would never have been able to continue writing.

For several years I continued working and refining Johanna's Journey, until one day an author I met at a conference suggested that I create a series that I could promote to editors. Soon afterwards I began a sequel based on Johanna's stepdaughter Ellen, who appears as a small child in the first book. Although I loved Johanna's Journey and was happy with the result, I believed two weaknesses were that I focused only on Justin and Johanna and developed few secondary characters; also the plot was not very complex. In writing Ellen's Intercession, I created a more plot-driven novel with many twists and turns to the story. I also included three men and three women whom I tried to develop well.  The romantic pairings kept changing so that it was difficult to predict who would end up together (a technique I admired in Jane Austen's Emma). I thought this worked well, but the downside was that the reader does not become as attached to Ellen's ultimate hero as she does to Justin in the first book. This book also required a great deal of research. I read about the Huguenots, French galley slaves, 17th century midwifery practices, and smallpox, and also took a couple of trips to visit Huguenot towns in New York.

I thought I would keep writing about Johanna and her progeny forever, but a few years later I was given the chance to submit a novella for a three-story book. The theme for the first book was a historical "Christmas Homecoming" and the second was a contemporary "Love on the Job." I decided to stay with the colonial time period for "Christmas Homecoming" and wrote my first novella about a Revolutionary War soldier returning after the battle of Trenton in 1776. In researching this I learned a lot about the American Revolution (more than I remembered from school!). I later expanded this into a longer romance called The Return of the Rebel.

I had never written a contemporary novel and at first was stuck for a idea for "Love on the Job." At this point my sister suggested I write a story about two missionaries who fall in love on the mission field. I have always been interested in missions and spent a summer as a summer intern with Wycliffe Bible Translators in the Solomon Islands. I also studied linguistics in their school and have met many Bible translators that way. I decided to set my story on a fictional island in the South Pacific based on the Solomon Islands, creating a fictional organization modeled on Wycliffe. In writing the novella I fell in love with the characters (especially the struggling Bible translator hero, Chad) and decided to expand this story into a novel. I introduced more characters to add tension, and created a terrorist element as well.

As I was finishing my missionary book, the idea for my fifth book came to me. I was still polishing Kerry's Calling so I didn't start writing it for several years. Of all the books I have written, this is the one that I was most hesitant to begin. The idea seemed far-fetched even to me, I was afraid it would turn my readers off, and I wasn't sure how to end the story in a way that would be both believable and satisfying. But the story wouldn't leave me alone, and finally, with great fear and trembling, I decided to write the first chapter and see how my writer's group reacted to it.  Finding Father is the story that most of my readers have had the strongest response to, mostly in a positive way. Although I have gotten some negative reactions, they were much fewer than I expected.  Many readers have told me they didn't want to set it down once they began.

So this is where I am, many years after I first began to write.  It has been a long journey, and I wonder where it will lead next?