Trust Your Gut, Tell Your Story

When I was querying agents for my novel PAINTED HANDS, I will admit to a moment of desperation, born of a novel with four point of view characters, which resulted in my forking over $95 dollars for a query-writing webinar. As the very patient Sarah Hina* could tell you, the webinar just about put me over the edge. "No more than six sentences," the moderator admonished us. "You must summarize your novel in SIX SENTENCES. If you cannot do this, you are not ready for professional representation."

My query? WAY more than six sentences. The best part? The webinar instructor provided links to examples of "stellar" queries. I, with the freakishly-long-but-still-on-one-page query letter, eagerly clicked on those links. And the first one -- the very first one -- had about six PARAGRAPHS of plot. Literally. It also broke many of the other "rules" including the one where you are not supposed to write your query in the first person voice of your main character.

But it was a kick-ass query letter. Anyone could see that.

Essentially, I'd paid $95 dollars to learn to trust my gut more than the "rules."

Yesterday, the Literary Lab talked about how engaging with the publishing process can mess with a writer's head. You start to worry too much about marketability, about hooking readers, about what will sell. And sometimes that focus makes it difficult to tell your story.

I was thinking about this as I struggle with my second novel -- about all the different voices that get into our heads when we write. Editors who hate multi-pov novels. Mothers who will read our sex scenes. Mullahs who will abhor even a minor gay character.

And always we are told to worry about marketability.

We forget about truth. We forget about characters who will not be forced into neat little boxes. We forget to tell the story we desperately want to tell.

I'm currently reading ELEGIES FOR THE BROKENHEARTED by Christie Hodgen. And I am dragging this out as long as possible, savoring it, reading sentences and passages and whole chapters over and over. I am gobsmacked by the prose -- the long, lyrical, devastating sentences, the bleak professions of  the narrator's truth:

Then you were gone. This was life. This was the lesson we kept learning over and over, the lesson our mother was best capable of teaching us. Love -- whatever else it might or might not be -- was fleeting. Love stormed into your life and occupied it, it took over every corner of your soul, made itself comfortable, made itself wanted, then treasured, then necessary, love did all of this and then it did next the only thing it had left to do, it retreated, it vanished, it left no trace of itself. Love was horrifying.

ELEGIES explores the way we are shaped and changed and broken and patched together by the people around us -- people who are close to us and people who, but for a fleeting, critical moment, skim the surface of our lives. It is told through the eyes of Mary Murphy, who grew up poor in a post-industrial New England town, and consists of a series of elegies --  for an uncle, a classmate, a roommate, a piano prodigy, and her mother, each addressed as "you": "...Michael Timothy Beaudry, for a time you were ours."

The first sentence of the novel has more than 150 words. It is sublime. Genius. Perfect.

Imagine worrying about querying such a novel. Imagine worrying about marketability.

Tell your story. Tell it the way it is meant to be told, the way your gut tells you it must be told. Worry about the rest later.

Just tell your story.


* I would like credit for mentioning Sarah Hina in yet another post.