Why Reading Matters

This post is a response to Simon Hay’s “Why Read Reading Lolita? Teaching Critical Thinking in a Culture of Choice.”

I’m a reader. I come from a family full of books; my father was a bookseller and rare manuscript hunter by trade, and my mom spent much of her career as an antique dealer shelving gorgeous, leather-bound classics. I grew up in a house filled to the stuffing with books, so much so that a contractor once told us our attic was in danger of caving in on the rest of the house due to the many stocked bookshelves we had. I’ve never once asked myself why I read. At the danger of sounding trite, asking why I read is akin to asking why I breathe. I’ve never had a choice—the act gives me life.

For Hay, it seems this would not be a satisfactory answer. Asking a group of literature students why they study what they do is hard, especially when Hay frames the question in such a way that giving an “acceptable” answer is near impossible. When students answer that reading literature gives us a glimpse into past lives, he believes they are calling English studies History-lite. The same can be said for each answer a would-be student could give Hay, which to me isn’t fair. Students of literature, in my experiences, come home when they study books. Books are a safe place—a place that makes sense amidst the ample chaos found in the world. Honest students of literature study their discipline because they simply have no other choice—they are held delightfully, helplessly captive by the allure of escape, understanding, and emotional connection that reading offers.

In the end, Hay concedes that it is the choice to study, not the discipline being studied, that matters. As far as I’m concerned, if it matters to you, it’s worth pursuing. If you are called to read, then read, even if someone has the gall to ask why.

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Keep on Keepin’ On

I’ve been MIA mostly because there hasn’t been much to report. I have three full manuscripts out with agents and have received quite a few query rejections. The fulls are thrilling, addicting occasions. The rejections? Usually I can handle them, but when a whole slew of them comes one after another, I find myself depressed. I know I shouldn’t; this is my first book, and I’m 22. I have a whole career ahead of me, so I shouldn’t sweat this first learning experience. However, this book means so much to me, and I want to give it a chance to be heard.

I revamped my query letter based on some sample ones I’ve found. I’m a huge fan of querytracker.net, which has been an indispensable tool during this crazy process. They have success stories posted. Someone sends the same interview questions to anyone on QT who has signed with an agent, and one of the questions is if the user would be comfortable sharing their query letter. Most do. I realized that mine was a little off the mark–I had more information about the market of the book and its themes rather than a back-of-the-cover blurb like most other letters I saw. Interestingly enough, though, my original query has generated more positive responses than this new one. Such a confusing game.

I’ve been trying to query in batches, waiting to see how my query letter is doing now that I’ve made some changes to it, but it’s so hard to keep any semblance of patience. I’d really love to hold off querying until I have at least one response on a full, but we’re entering into the holiday season, which means that soon enough I won’t be able to query. To keep my mind off of the endless conundrums, I’ve decided to participate in NaNoWriMo, which I’ve never done before because I’ve never really had an idea worth fleshing out. I’m happy to say that I’ve already got a bit over 3,000 words on paper, and I don’t hate them. Success! It would be delightful to have a second project to labor over, but sticking with things hasn’t always been my forte. I’m working on it.

Luckily, I’m the master of distraction, so when I’m not writing, I’m binge-watching American Horror Story or playing vintage video games on an emulator I downloaded last week. (Pokemon Blue, anyone?) The waiting has definitely gotten easier, but I still jump every time my phone chimes with a new email. Still, it’s progress.

The Fear

This really has nothing to do with the querying process or any of that. In fact, I just got another full request a few days ago, so I’m feeling pretty good on that front. This fear has more to do with my abilities as a writer, and that’s not something I doubt often.

Well, I guess I should rephrase that. I know that I’m a good writer when I have something to write about, and there’s the rub–I feel like I don’t have anything to write about right now. My last book just kind of sprang to life after many years of trying and failing to write stories that I thought had direction but ended up dying three or four pages in (if that). Under the Surface took hold of me and, after about 15 pages in, demanded to be told. It was that magical moment all writers talk about, when the story takes on a life of its own and you just have to let it happen. I loved it, but part of me is afraid it’ll never happen again.

While I’m waiting for replies from queries and submissions, I want to start a new project, partially because I want to distract myself from the waiting and partially because, if I do land an agent, I want him or her to know that I’m serious about having a career. I’ve started two novels, both of which I have vague ideas for, but they don’t seem substantial enough to warrant a full book. Great concepts, but not enough potential for follow through. I’m panicking.

How do you deal with that? I’ve been trying to work on the one novel in particular, and I love the main character’s voice and the situation he’s in, but I have no idea how to bridge the gap between where he is now and where I want him to be. It’s really, really hard, and it’s something I struggled with at the beginning of Under the Surface. I’m having trouble getting over the hump, and that’s scary.

I guess the main thing is to keep writing because you can’t fix or edit something that doesn’t exist. If I at least have something on paper, that means I’m working and trying to break through the obstacles, and if what I write doesn’t work, I can re-write after I have a better idea of what the story is. Man, I wish I were one of those writers who could effectively outline. I feel like my life would be easier if I were.

But what’s life without a challenge, right? Right?! Sigh.

Editing and Editing

Yesterday I did an editing marathon. The editor I’m working with sent back a marked up draft of my novel, and I spent at least eight hours–six of them consecutive–going over the comments and trying to make things flow better. You know what I realized? Editing your own work is HARD. You see things a certain way when you write them, so you automatically assume that others will see your vision the same way you do. A lot of the time, they don’t.

BUT… that’s why editors exist and why it’s so important for writers to trust them. It’s hard because your writing is so often a reflection of you, your views, and your passion. It’s ridiculously difficult to extract yourself from that, but when you do, it makes the process so much easier. I’ve been trying to do that, and for the most part I’m hoping I’ve been successful. We’ll see when I get the next round of edits. Either way, it just feels good to be transforming this story into something better and better. It deserves that.

I might be a little loopy from staring at a computer screen for so long. I should probably go do real people things like… oh, God, what do real people do?

The Brave New World

I am a writer. No matter how many times I tell myself that, it doesn’t sink in, probably because I have nothing to show for it. I know it’s who I am–let’s be honest, I knew when I was about six–but it’s not an easy thing to commit to.

This comes hot on the heels of having finished my first novel, a story steeped in grief, empowerment, and a really fucked up urban legend. It’s something I’m proud of, and it’s the first time I’ve ever believed in the idea that I could not just be a writer but be A Writer. And while that’s all great and cheerful, I am a 22-year-old lost in a landscape of oh-God-this-is-scary bureaucracy.

There are certain things I know I have to do in order to continue on the path to not being homeless while writing, but what I lack is guidance. I know I need people to absolutely tear my manuscript apart, but friends and family only serve to gush and do some great back-patting, not to give solid criticism. (I mean, getting patted on the back is awesome and everything, but a literary agent isn’t as… gentle.) Last night I started looking into agencies. Holy fucking terrifying. I sent out two queries before the self-doubt set in, which I know is normal, but I feel less equipped to understand this industry than the average person because I really, truly have no idea what I’m doing.

I just want to write, y’know? But beyond that, I want people to feel my writing and have the opportunity to carry it with them. My market is young adult, and I know that by having a market I’m already a step ahead, but I am also completely unpublished and young. Young might not be a bad thing: agents and publishers see potential for a long career, which means $$. However, young also means not being taken seriously, and I’ve had enough of that in my life, thank you.

So the purpose of this blog becomes documenting my way through this brand new world in the hopes that, should I ever get some footing, it might help some other young writer holding their manuscript and saying, “Now what?” Maybe with some luck I’ll be able to answer that, but for now, I wait.