Thursday, November 25, 2010
Failure? It's All Part of the Writing Journey. My Story By Karin Gillespie
When I was eight, I read a casting call in the newspaper for a community theater production of Alice in Wonderland. Since I had long, blond Alice-like hair, I was anxious to try out. Sadly the notice in the paper said actors should be twelve and above. I was discouraged but decided to give to audition anyway, behaving older than my years and ruthlessly scrutinizing my competition. (No one was a match for me in the hair department.) Although my mother tried to temper my expectations, I was convinced I had the part in the bag.
That afternoon I got the call: I was Alice. From that time on I won nearly every role I wanted, and always went for the big, juicy parts. I was very cocky about my acting abilities until I was cast as the lead in a college play called “Hot L Baltimore.” To my dismay, the director was unhappy that my performance didn’t mature during the rehearsals. As a result, I was excluded from his next play, a rare failure for me. Determined to find out what I was doing wrong, I went to the library and checked out at least a dozen books on acting. I finally figured out that my performances lacked nuance. I’d always relied on raw talent, never refining it. I spent months reading plays, working on my delivery. When it was time to audition again, I easily landed the lead.
From actress to writer
Later, in my mid- twenties, I became a single mother and no longer had the time for acting so I sniffed around for another creative outlet. Since I’d always enjoyed reading, I decided to give writing a whirl. Novels seemed too daunting so, at initially, I wrote non-fiction pieces. My first byline appeared in a free weekly, and I was hooked. I started to freelance for the weekly, and I also wrote theater reviews for the daily. Later on I finally gave novel-writing a try and wrote one rambling, autobiographical 100,000 word novel with no idea of structure, characterization or artistry. I also went to my first writers’ conference, clutching the first thirty pages of my opus, convinced I was on the verge of being discovered. Instead the evaluator scoffed at my efforts. Still, the conference fired me up. One of the presenters said that writing a publishable novel was “harder than rocket science.” I’ve always loved a challenge so I trashed my previous efforts and started a new novel that day.
A few months later, I went to yet another writers’ conference; this time the evaluator loved my new novel. (Honestly it wasn’t very good but I guess he saw some sort of spark.) He challenged me to finish my novel in a year. If I did, he’d refer me to his agent. I felt like I’d been given the keys to open the publishing doors.
A dream of a lifetime realized
I accepted his challenge and completed my novel by the deadline with the help of a critique group. The evaluator kept his promise, referring me to his agent, who promptly rejected me. I continued to query until I found an agent to take me on. After several rewrites, she was ready to submit my work to the world; rejections streamed in. (Too quiet, too much plot, too precious.) Finally an editor at Simon and Schuster showed interest, requesting rewrites with no guarantees. I worked diligently to please her and a few months later, my efforts were rewarded. She offered me a three-book deal. Many wine bottles were uncorked that night; I felt like I was living in dream world.
My agent told me to keep my expectations low: no tour, small marketing budget, etc. But another miracle happened; the main fiction buyer for Barnes and Noble liked my book. Suddenly my unassuming little Southern novel was going to be the lead book for Simon Schuster. They flew me to New York to meet with sales and marketing and decided to send me on an eight-city tour. James Wood, the actor, optioned movie rights and I got a starred Kirkus, as well as many other glowing reviews. I was being treated like a rock star, but the whole time I felt like a fraud. I’d just started writing novels. How could people be so excited about my work?
I ended up writing three more novels, touring for each one and receiving healthy royalty checks. Secretly, though, I had no idea what I was doing. I’d start writing a book with a bare bone concept and let my characters lead me around. After the first novel, my editor barely touched my work; it went straight to copywriting. I was starting to get a false confidence about my abilities. It was all so effortless.
The lowpoint of my creative life
Then, the fall of 2008 dawned and my option was not renewed. I wrote two novels that I couldn’t sell, and I didn’t know how to fix them and eventually gave up on them. No one seemed particularly impressed with my track record; it was all terribly humbling and for a long while, even though I wrote daily, I didn't feel like a writer. Instead I felt like a complete loser. Eventually, I recalled those days years ago when my acting had disappointed the director, and a feeling of familiarity washed over me. Again, I’d been relying on raw talent (and a flair for humor) and hadn’t bothered to take my writing to the next level. I’d also been writing novels from sheer instinct, without structure or planning.
That’s when I decided to get my MFA; I knew I needed a swift kick (albeit expensive) in the butt and Lord have mercy, did I get it. I also read numerous books on structure and decided to never again blindly write a novel. Now I make informed, artistic choices, and give a great deal of thought to my characters and their arcs. I no longer write funny just to be funny (or at least I try not to). Now I bow to the story and not to my vanities. And finally, now I’ve arrived at a place in my evolvement as an artist that I know I’d continue to write for seven or eight hours every day even if I knew I’ll never get published again.
I've just finished the first draft of a novel that's very different from what I used to write; trusted readers tell me it's my best work yet. But even if it doesn't work out, there's always the next one or the next one after that. To me, failure is only one part of my long, rich journey as a writer and I would not have changed a thing.
Happy Thanksgiving to all. No blog on Friday but look for new blogs on Saturday and Sunday!
GREAT GIRLFRIEND BOOK GIVEAWAY
During the holiday period and into early January, many of the girlfriends will be giving away books so visit daily and leave comments for a chance to win. Today I’m giving away a copy of EARTHLY PLEASURES about a greeter in Heaven who falls in love with a mortal of Earth. Just leave a comment for a chance to win.