Being the mom of a son with autism, I often hear things like, “You are so patient with him” or “You have the patience of Job”. Sure, I can stand my ground in a public place while my son is yelling at me, throwing a code red tantrum, and not only keep calm with him, but even if someone comes over to offer help or to ask me to keep it down, I can turn to them – while remaining placid as a lake in Canada and controlling my desire to throttle them – and say, “My son has autism and I’ve got this under control. Thank you.” Yeah, the whole patience thing was totally developed by necessity and definitely not by my choice, I can tell you.
I am not naturally a patient person.
One only has to hop in the car with me and go for a drive, then you’ll see me at my worst. (Only in really heavy traffic and then I only swear like a sailor and make creative hand gestures while having loud, one-sided conversations with the other drivers. I’m not dangerous or anything, honest.) I learned the hard way that if you beg, plead, scream and yell, or stomp your feet at a kid with autism to cajole him into doing what you want, if he’s not ready or willing to do it, odds are he’s not going to do it EVER – the mountain will not be moved – and all of your efforts to force him will only makes things worse.
This reminds me a lot of my writing journey thus far. I’ve had to learn to be patient many times over – it’s like someone out there is trying to tell me something as I bang my head up against wall after wall. (Patience is important or a virtue or something, I don’t know.) I’ve wanted to be a published children’s writer more than anything. Before I joined a critique group or let anyone even read my first story, I wrote out a picture book manuscript, I’m the Princess!, somewhere over three thousand words long. I had to cut it down to two thousand words – and I thought that was quite an accomplishment – to submit it to a writing contest. I was sure that winning this contest would be my key to getting published quickly. I was so confident that my story was the best, that I waited for the inevitable notification of my win. When it didn’t come, I was completely shocked. I didn’t even place! What was wrong with those people? Didn’t they recognize talent when they saw it?
After my denial wore off, I decided that maybe I needed to try something else. Thankfully, it wasn’t long afterwards that I came to my senses and joined SCBWI. I was so embarrassed when I learned that the average length of a picture book manuscript shouldn’t really be any longer than fifteen hundred words. (Now, I think they like them even shorter.) I realized after studying many well written picture books and learning more about the whole writing process that I’m not really a picture book writer. Picture books are extremely hard to write well and are a completely different animal. I think the best ones are more like poetry. Maybe some day I’ll master that format, but I know I am far from it right now. Until then, I’m the Princess! will stay buried deep in the vault, as a painful reminder of where I started. Although it did make a brief appearance at one of our local SCBWI schmoozes where some of us brought examples of our writing comparing our early works to our recent works, to show how we’d grown as writers. Yes, the laughter was the loudest during the reading of my “before” example. Okay, I can’t keep you in suspense, here’s just the first paragraph:
Princess Isabelle fluttered her dark eyelashes as she opened her dazzling deep blue eyes. A sunbeam fell across her long wavy light brown hair, making an ocean of golden thread on her pillow. She sat up slowly and stretched her delicate arms into the air, her perfectly pink mouth opened into a tiny, perfect yawn. A most enchanting smile crossed her face as she remembered her plan for mischief this morning. She jumped out of bed, slammed open her huge golden doors and yelled down the corridor.
That’s all the sample I can bear. I’m afraid it didn’t get any better in the following paragraphs. I left nothing to the illustrator’s imagination – mistake number one. (No need to go through them all, seriously, this manuscript was thoroughly dissected at the schmooze.) How could I have crammed so many flowery descriptors into one mouthful? OMG! That is just painful to look at.
Still, I didn’t learn all the lessons in patience that I needed to. I did realize that I wanted to tell too much of the story for the picture book format and moved on to the daunting middle grade format. I was scared at first. How could I possibly write an entire novel? Three thousand words was easy, but thirty thousand words? Fifty thousand? Impossible! But I started writing anyway. Slowly. One chapter at a time. I studied my craft and learned as much as I could this time about the rules of the middle grade format. I attended conferences and joined a critique group. I started reading middle grade novels like crazy. Finally, a few years later, I had my first completed middle grade novel and my critique group loved it. It still needed to be revised and had some plot issues to work out, but it was a great start. I was a real writer. But sometimes it was hard to hear about other writers in our group sending off their work to editors and agents; I wanted to be doing that, too. I went ahead and sent out work that wasn’t anywhere near ready. I received form rejection letters in return for my trouble. Oh, patience! When would you be mine?
After so many form rejections I lost count, no personals, and no requests for fulls, something told me it was time to go back to the drawing board. Then, while in the middle of revisions on my first middle grade and halfway through the first draft of my second middle grade, I had this idea for a YA novel that would not go away. It was so different from what I’d been writing I was a little worried about switching gears so completely. I remembered something I’d heard an author at a conference I’d attended (I think it was Rachel Cohn, but I can’t be sure) about following the voice that pulls you the strongest and I knew I had to at least try it.
I was beyond nervous the first time I brought a chapter of Institutionalized to my critique group. They were surprised by the change of direction, some of the language, and content, but they also loved the main character and THE VOICE. I’d finally gotten it right. And once passed the initial shock, they all were on board and so supportive. I wrote this one so much faster and so differently than all the others. I knew this was one THE ONE. This time, though I didn’t want to rush it. I received some critiques from editors and agents at conferences, all with positive results and some very helpful constructive criticisms. I did the necessary revisions and had it critiqued again and did more revising. Finally it was time to start sending it out. YIKES!
The results so far have been much more promising than the first time, with personal rejections and helpful comments and requests for additional pages, but the road is far from over and I still find myself looking too far into the future, wistfully wanting to skip the necessary steps and be crossing that damned elusive publishing finish line already. One day at a time and one step at a time. I know, I know!
Do you ever find yourself feeling impatient with where you are as a writer? Do you ever wonder ‘why don’t they see how talented I am and pick me already?’ What are some of your embarrassing stories along your road to publication? I’d love to hear them.