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.

33 comments:

  1. This is a lovely post. And it speaks to the heart of what I believe.

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    1. Thanks, Richard. And I believe you. I've read a few posts on your blog.

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  2. PS... and I wish I had the chance to read. :-(

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  3. The thing about those voices is that they can be so insidious it's difficult to know where they stop and we begin. They're paralyzing at times. But I know you'll tell the story that only you could tell. I do know that much.

    This is a beautiful, timely post. I read it on my Google Reader and immediately opened my novel. And you know how terrified I am to do that. ;)

    Also: I have yet to start ELEGIES, but after reading that paragraph, I'm REALLY wanting to drop Moby Dick and dig in. No offense, Melville. You're great, too.


    *One more Sarah Hina mention and you win a free sandwich! Or a Mountain Dew! Or a round-trip ticket to Athens Ohio for coffee! Your choice.

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    1. Yes. YES. Sometimes, they are pretty deep in your head.

      Opening your novel makes me very happy. Maybe I'll open mine. :)

      I'll take the flight, no contest. (And you know how I love my MD!) This will not take long; there appears to be considerably less than six degrees of separation between you and my blog posts.

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    2. Also, when you do read ELEGIES, we must talk!! Coffee and voodoo *and* ELEGIES!

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  4. What a great post. I think it's worth $95 to learn to trust your gut, even if that wasn't the lesson you intended to learn. It's such an important, vital one. A priceless one.

    Trusting your gut will show your authenticity, your uniqueness. There are so many people out there who try to cash in on some "right way" to write, some method, some formula that will give them an edge. And I suspect it works in the exact opposite way. (Yes, the world needs another vampire romance, doesn't it?)

    Okay, I'm done. I have to go figure out how I can work Sarah Hina into a blog post.

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    1. Thanks, Wendy. Yes, in some respects, $95 was a bargain.

      I hadn't met you yet. If I had, I might not have needed the webinar or the lesson.

      If you work Sarah into enough posts, maybe we can both go to Ohio!

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    2. And then we'll all write a blog post together. THE END.

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    3. We should go there to interview her. She can borrow one of our hats.

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    4. Only a pink beret with a sequin poodle. I make the dog wear it.

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    5. We will, of course, need a picture of this.

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    6. I'm using the pic as leverage: he has to complete my novel or it's going on Twitter.

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    7. Tell your dog to get off of twitter and start writing.

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    8. He's addicted. I have to monitor him CONSTANTLY.

      (Btw? Started ELEGIES. And yeah...WOW.)

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    9. If mentioning Sarah Hina got you a visitation, I'd be living in her house by now.
      Don't trust me? Just google : Aniket Thakkar + love and go to images. And see how many Sarah Hina stuff pops up (pics, posts, novel, etc)

      You still have lot to work on before you can beat me. :)

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    10. Well, now I do have to google that. Maybe the rule are tighter for international travel to the Heena home?

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    11. And I do know there should be an "s" at the end of that rules, but like Parrish, I'm going to own my typo and move on.

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  5. Those dreaded mothers with the sex scenes! :-)

    This is a lovely post and ninety-five dollars seems pretty cheap for what you got out of it.

    Looking forward to getting this book!

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  6. Yeah, that kind of sounds like I'm writing a bunch of them, doesn't it. :)

    Thank you for your comment! And get the book!

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  7. You don't mind if I recommend this post to writers who send us novels, do you? Sounds like it would help both writers and editors!

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  8. Thank you, Rick. It's such a lovely comment!

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    1. Of course, I know sentences end with a period, not a comma,

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    2. Thanks, Steve. I'm glad you replied to your (own) comment because I would have been sitting here waiting for a "but" or an "and yet" or something,

      (Given the spirit of the post, I'd say trust your gut on the punctuation,)

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  10. What do I know? I've never published anything in life. But I was enthusiastic about starting a bigger project once (long time ago, in a galaxy far far away) and unlike you I first approached Hina for advice before spending $95.

    I could retell what she said, but why to do that when you can copy paste the original. So in her own words ladies and gentlemen, I present Sarah Hina:



    "Start out with a character that speaks to you. Give him a conflict, a problem. Make it one that has been consuming you, or one you've had a long interest in; otherwise, your enthusiasm for the project might peter out. It can be largely psychological, or relationship-oriented, but present this dilemma almost right off the bat in the first chapter. This is called "the hook." Now, I'm not one who believes that this needs to occur in the first paragraph, or page, and that it has to involve some melodramatic action like someone getting ready to shoot someone, or someone getting ready to commit suicide, etc. It can be quieter in this, more interior. But be sure to show the reader the main thrust of the book early on. Make it compelling.

    Don't tell us everything about the character(s) right off the bat. This is telling, not showing. It can also be boring. If you can plug pieces of important backstory that are relevant to the character's present situation, then by all means, do so. Just be patient about it and spread it around the entire piece. I'm always captivated by what I DON'T know. It makes me want to read on, and find out. Give little hints about a character's motivation, but keep some things from the reader. It will build the tension toward the climax, when the conflict comes to a crisis point. This might be a good point for some kind of major revelation. This is the payoff, before the loose ends are tied, and there is a resolution.

    I think you might find outlining the plot beneficial, since you strike me as someone who likes a good plan. This outline will be your roadmap. Think of the pacing involved in the story--don't pack too many slow sections together; follow a more action-packed scene with a more relaxed one. Let the reader breathe a little, without ever growing restless or bored. The outline will prevent the novel (or long story) from running out of steam in the middle (trust me--this happens a lot!). It will give you confidence that you have a grip on the story, and a process for completing it.

    All that said, do NOT be afraid to veer from that outline! I can't emphasize that enough. If a new idea strikes you mid-way, and you see the story differently because you know the characters better now, go with your gut, and make the changes. I would just recommend starting the outline anew from that point, so that once again, you feel like you have a solid path before you.

    Do not get discouraged. Particularly with a first novel, it is easy to throw your hands up in the air and conclude that you can't do this. YES, YOU CAN (okay, I feel like Obama saying that :P). Self-doubt is our own worst enemy. Don't be too hard on yourself and don't compare yourself to others. Just write the best damn story you can, and root for yourself along the way. Congratulate yourself for meeting your goals. "

    I never got on to the last part. There was more in the mail, but well I'd sulk for not using her well given advise. And today isn't a day to sulk. It is however a good day to be start a big project. Hmm... let me think about it. Till then I leave you with your thoughts.

    Moral of the story: When in doubt - Get Hina.

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    1. I go to Heena ALL THE TIME when I'm in doubt. Seriously. I'm surprised she hasn't changed her email address.

      This comment should really be a post. And this blog should really be called something like "Sarah Hina Sightings."

      Do you think I need to get permission?

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  11. What a series of awesomeness. The post, the comments, the Hina sightings. I'm so far behind on blogs and such - when's the big day?!?!?!?

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  12. Truly a great post, and extends to so much more than writing. Like Sarah Laurenson I am SO far behind, but it was worth it to wait so I could read all the fun commentitos. :-)

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  13. Love this. Sometimes having someone tell you what they think they know only reinforces what you actually know--which is your story.
    I'm a non-fiction writer (so far-not brave enough to write fiction yet), but I blogged about this same idea--trusting your story, today at http://keriwyattkent.com/soul/?p=1391. Feel free to visit and let me know what you think.

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  14. Hi Keri!

    Thanks for visiting. I will definitely check out your blog post!

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