Tuesday, April 26, 2011

One Writer's Journey: A Tale of Many Beginnings by Marilyn Brant

Most everyone is familiar with Lao-tzu's famous saying: "A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step." I've muttered it to myself a time or twenty, especially when starting a new book. And I've thought about it often enough when I tried to understand the novel-writing profession as a whole. Each stage, I figured, was another stride on the long climb up the publishing mountain.

But, more than a decade into this journey, I now realize that it's not exactly a straight-line continuum for me. I haven't been scaling the side of Everest, using ropes and climbing gear (and, thank God, because I'm scared of heights); it's more like walking on a curving, ever-rising path that starts at the base of the mountain and slowly spirals upward. Every new stage -- each circuit around those bends in the mountain, up to a slightly higher elevation -- is like being a newbie all over again. Novels may have distinct beginnings, middles and endings, but I think writers just a have long string of often terrifying beginnings.

At first, the path seemed to be all about learning to believe in the dream. That is, gaining enough experience writing, studying craft and building the skills to recognize when the story was working (or not). Knowing when I was being true to my voice, when I should accept or ignore feedback, when the elements of structure and characterization were coming together vs. just flitting in and out of the manuscript randomly and with no sense of authorial control. To put it in courtship terms, I was flirting, dating, falling in love with writing fiction as I walked along that part of the path -- coming to appreciate it for what it was, and for who I was when I was with it.

But, then, this stage merged into another. I had to stop and catch my breath when I realized I'd circled the mountain once and was now beginning a new rotation -- one I wasn't prepared for in the least. One that required a brand new skill set. This circuit was all about working to make the dream I finally believed in a reality. Committing to it with the exclusively of a soulmate, and attempting to understand what made the publishing industry surrounding it tick. (Rather like a dysfunctional family, I discovered, but that's a post for another time... ;)

I began to research agents and editors, learn more about branding, marketing, publicity/promotion and what was involved once a sale actually happened (contracts, copy-edits and royalty statements, oh, my!), so I'd know what to do when I finally got "the call." I imagined that moment would be similar to a fairy-tale marriage proposal, with the time between contract and publication like the engagement. The release day would be akin to a royal wedding and then, of course, there would be the happily ever after.

Only, I've been married for eighteen years, and I know better, LOL. Weddings -- royal or otherwise -- are lovely, but then the marriage starts...and, as many of us know, it marks a whole new stage in the relationship. Likewise, despite all of my attempts at being prepared for publication, I was, again, left breathless by this new level in my career when it finally came. Two books (well, three in November) down the road/up the mountain, and I'm still trying to get a few good lungfuls of air, stay sort of on that walking path and keep slogging forward without keeling over from exertion and fatigue.

I'm still very much a beginner in this stage, which seems to be all about dealing with the daily reality of the dream. Juggling growing responsibilities, having more writing-related commitments and/or presentations, handling reviews (positive and negative), getting awards and hitting bestsellers lists (or, um, not...), being in the swirl of other professional authors -- online and off, having opportunities to experience the incredible generosity of my peers, especially those who've trekked further up the the mountain than I have and are willing to talk about their struggles and joys and, sometimes, having to face disappointment when either the vagaries of the industry or the insecurities of other people let me down.

It's scary here. As with every beginning, I'm wondering if I know enough to handle this particular leg of the journey...or if I can learn what I need to know very quickly... I'm unsure of what's ahead and can only hope I'll have the strength and faith to continue on, even amidst all of the uncertainty.

Yet, I need to look no further than my current manuscript to understand why I don't know. Why I can't know. I'm on page 92 of the draft -- still, by my account, the beginning of this new project. I need to somehow make it through another 300 or so pages of wobbly narrative and half-expressed dialogue before I get to what I consider to be the middle of the book, which is the revising/layering stage after my first draft. (The end is when I get to tweak and polish -- and that's light-years away at this point.)

Of course, in life we know there's no revising, no copy-editing. It's ALL first draft: one long unpolished beginning. But, I have to be honest with you. I never would have become a writer if revisions and tweaks were all I did. Despite how frightening and perplexing those beginning stages are, despite the self-doubt that arises during them, I also know they can be the most thrilling of the whole book. It is, after all, in the beginning where the magic of the story is born. Where the drive to journey forward originates. And where we get the inspiration and the courage to take that very first step.

So, I wish you, too, the gift of many beginnings on your long and winding journey, no matter what mountain you're trying to climb. May it be filled with life-long passions, wonderful companions and stunning vistas...and may you get to the thousand-mile mark and realize you've only just begun.

Marilyn Brant did a lot of traveling in her pre-novelist days, which meant a bunch of long journeys, seemingly endless roads and a few mountain hikes (often wearing inappropriate footwear, which wasn't wise). She started writing women's fiction in 2000 and wrote for almost eight years before selling her first book. She's the author of According to Jane, Friday Mornings at Nine, and the upcoming novel A Summer in Europe.

Is there something in your life -- a hobby, a career, a relationship, etc. -- that you're in the process of beginning...or beginning again?


  1. Great analogies, Marilyn! This journey does feel as though I'm circling the mountain. Sometimes I fall off a bit. Most of the time, I'm scrabbling for footholds.

    Have fun climbing!

  2. LOL, Edie -- thank you!!
    And, yeah, I know what you mean about scrabbling for footholds ;). This turned out to be a more strenuous journey than I ever expected, and a much longer one...
    Wishing you a wonderful week!

  3. Thank you for this generous post, Marilyn! Comforting and inspiring at the same time. I thought I'd be *there* once my book launched, but now realize *there* is entirely and forever relative.

  4. Marilyn, another really lovely, insightful, and funny post (hey, a lot like you!). So happy to have met you on the road when I did. It's a real pleasure sharing this journey with you! And I know this fall will bring lots of incredible highs when A SUMMER IN EUROPE comes out. It's a wonderful book, and I've no doubt that readers will fall head over heels for it. Hugs!

  5. Very inspiring (and comforting) post, Marilyn! Thanks for writing it!

  6. Thank you, Marilyn for reminding me I'm not alone on this writing journey. Sometimes I stop and think, "does anyone else feel this way?" I have a couple cp's that make their first draft and it's beautiful, the agent loves it and publisher offers three book deals...sigh....I'll get there one day:)

  7. You don't know how much I needed to hear this right now, Marilyn. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

  8. A wonderful post Marilyn! Thank you for sharing your experiences which give insight into this journey that many of us hope to make. I loved your analogies and hope that in the end, you get the happily ever after you so richly deserve.

  9. Everyone, thank you so much for your lovely comments this morning! It was wonderful to wake up to them ;).

    We all overslept today because we were up watching the Chicago Blackhawks last night in game 7...in overtime (ohhh, so close!! congrats to the Canucks), and now I have to leave to an appointment...but I will be back in a few hours to respond to everybody personally. See you soon!!

  10. How a wonderful post! It's nice to know that others share my tendency to detour. Have to say, though, some of those detours have led to my best writing - and best life experiences.

  11. Lovely post, Marilyn. Saw your latest on the B&N table last night. Looks so great in person.

  12. Good one Marilyn! It's so true. From dreaming--and a lot of less than stellar manuscripts to each new thing you really learn as more than just a term. The ah-ha moments when it clicks. Haven't gotten to the call but I have had interest and a couple who very nice rejections and they took the extra time to encouraged me by saying good voice but...telling me what didn't work for them and why.

    Seeing and doing the amazing amount of work involved to make the dream reality.

    I'm looking forward to reading A Summer in Europe. If you need a review...

  13. Lovely post Marilyn! I could have written some of those exact words! You struck a chord that many of us relate to. Sometimes this whole writing thing can feel so overwhelming--circling the mountain . . . but it does lead you where you need to be. Thanks for sharing such a stirring/inspiring post! Your cover is beautiful!

  14. Cindy~oh, how right you are about the relativity of "there." I remember reading a wonderful passage by Elizabeth Berg where she was talking about her own writing ambitions -- at first, all she wanted was to see her byline in a magazine somewhere, anywhere. And she got that, but she soon realized that, maybe, this wasn't really *all* she wanted. That there was more...always something new to reach for, somewhere further to go...

    Susan~you've been so kind and supportive from the moment our paths crossed -- I'm incredibly grateful we met when we did! I'm looking forward to this fall for both of us and hoping the year ahead will bring many good things... xo

    Laura~thank you! I'm so glad you enjoyed it ;).

    Tonya~you're far from alone {hug!} and, while I know lightning can strike and everything may come together perfectly for someone at some point in time, most writers I know are used to the path being VERY unpredictable and full of ups and downs...with as many "no, thank yous" as there are "yes, pleases" -- just hang in there!

  15. Jill~you are so welcome, sweetie!! Glad to have helped a little today ;).

    Pamala~thanks, my friend. You know I wish you every success on this journey and can't wait to celebrate each new step with you. Looking forward to seeing you again soon! xo

    Sandy~I *love* how you wrote that some of your best experiences (in writing and in life) were detours!! That's happened to me on occasion, too, and I've always been grateful for those moments or insights. Here's to serendipity ;).

  16. Karin~ohhh, thank you! I love seeing my books and those of my friends out in stores. I try not to let the sales staff catch me waving or blowing kisses at the novels, LOL. (Yeah, I've been known to do that. ;)

    Sia~how wonderful to see you here! I'll definitely send you SUMMER when I get the ARCs in (thank you!!), and I'm so glad you've found encouraging readers for your stories along the way. I know how much it meant to me when, at different stages, somebody took the time to tell me a few things that *worked* so I knew what *not* to change... Fingers crossed for more good news headed your way soon :).

    Marian~thank YOU so much for taking time to stop by and for sharing that you've felt similarly! It helps so much to know we're not all going through this alone. And thanks for the compliments on the cover, too! It's a picture I wish I could step into and visit...

  17. Very inspiring Marilyn! As a writer, I can relate to much of this. I have found myself gasping lungfuls of air lately, overwhelmed by new beginnings, both scare and anxious. :-)

  18. Fabulous post, Marilyn.

    This line particularly spoke to me and made me feel better about my own journey.

    "Novels may have distinct beginnings, middles and endings, but I think writers just a have long string of often terrifying beginnings."

    I often feel as if I should be more secure at this point, have more confidence, or that the highs and lows I experience (often within a single day) mean I'm not cut out of this business. Hearing that others feel this way, too, makes me feel so much better. :)

    You are wise, my friend.

  19. Really gorgeous, Marilyn.

    And I was just telling a friend how I'm only now, four years into this gig, starting to feel like a professional writer.

  20. Beth~yeah, I hear you!! I keep thinking of a character in a Susan Elizabeth Phillips book, who got herself a bracelet to remind herself to "breathe" -- I probably need to get one of those, LOL.

    Maureen~thanks so much! You're such a wonderful friend and a talented writer. I'm really lucky to have gotten to share so many beginnings with you ;).

    Therese~thank you. And I know just what you mean. I've had similar conversations with friends -- all of us still a little disbelieving of how far we've traveled. And how far there is to go...

  21. Marilyn
    What a good post. The journey continues...and I'm not sure there is an end until...well we reach 'the end' both with a manuscript and in life. There are mile markers and guideposts and interesting sights along the way. And I forget how far I've climbed until I look over the edge from time to time...

  22. Ah, lovely post, Marilyn. You always put things so nicely! I'm at the beginning stage, the sweating, swearing stage when I think this is all crapola. How did I get a contract to write this book? Then (and hopefully again) it all seems to come togther, and hopefully, gets started all over again. And again.

  23. Marylin, thank you for your post. I am beginning a new phase this fall, my twin daughters will be going off to college. We are in the midst of graduation prep, just 3 weeks from today, and I'm excited and hesitant about all that will be happening.
    Wishing you the best with the new book.

  24. Maggie~I love what you said about the mile markers and guideposts...I think that's so true. As for forgetting how far we've climbed, sometimes I'll reread a great essay on writing craft that I thought I understood a few years ago and I'll get brand new insights from it. It reminds me that I'm actually moving down the path -- however slow -- not just running in place ;).

    Maria~thank you for the sweet words! And, oh, I know that sweating, swearing stage WAY too well. (Have you been eavesdropping on me talking to myself this week?! :) I know your new book will come together beautifully, and I can't wait to get to read it!

    Anita, you're very welcome -- thank you!! And, wow, congrats to you and your twin daughters on the big graduation day coming up. That's an enormous step for all of you! I remember how surprised I was as a kid when I learned that the word "commencement" in those speeches during graduation meant "beginning"... I kept thinking, "But, they're *finishing* high school," LOL, and only later realized just how huge a beginning that day signified.

  25. Beautiful, Marilyn! I may just have to print this one out and frame it for easy reference for when I battle with self-doubt or need encouragement. I've happily written my whole life just for myself. Only in the past year or so did I decide to pursue publication, so I'm at the beginning of the journey. Sometimes I think I'm crazy for starting it. Friends like you inspire me to keep going!

  26. Clara, thank you so, so much! I'm glad to know my post was a little encouraging for you ;). I can't tell you the number of times I've felt as though I must be insane for trying this publication game (just about every day...), so please keep at it -- I want to read your future books!

  27. I LOVE this, Marilyn! You captured those feelings so well. I'm at the beginning of a new book now and was feeling a little intimidated (how did I DO this several times before???) but now you've got me excited again and I can't wait to dig in.

  28. Caryn, I'm SO glad to hear that!! At the moment, I'm procrastinating online because facing those early, very draft-like pages of my current manuscript is hard...but knowing I'm not alone always helps me ;). Good luck on your new book -- I bet it'll be wonderful!