Monday, October 24, 2011

Figure Skating and the Subjectivity of Writing

I recently spoke to a fellow writer who was, to say the least, confused.

Let's assign a name to this writer -- Paul. Eighteen months ago, Paul landed an agent. In fact, three agents were interested in Paul's manuscript. He received accolades like, "brilliant," and "original," and "would be honored to represent."

He selected a reputable agent and they spent three months polishing said manuscript. The agent knew exactly who would love this story, and the agent was right. The editor at imprint of major publisher said "yes" and all was golden. Edits, proofreads, the whole nine yards.

Shake up at publisher, editor leaves, and the manuscript is now an orphan. Publisher is no longer interested because a) they already have titles slated for release similar to Paul's manuscript, and b) the shakeup is because they want to exit that genre anyway... so, best of luck.

No worries, right? After all, this thing is solid. Agents wanted it, and the first editor approached gobbled it up. How hard can it be? Nine months later, Pat is hearing things like, "the conflict isn't big enough," "I'm not connecting with the characters," and similar phrases.

Paul's a good guy, highly skilled at story telling, has written an excellent story, and I am sure it'll get published (if he doesn't then I worry about my own chances).

I wanted to cheer him up. But more than cheer him up, I wanted to explain something regarding the nature of this industry. Granted, what do I know, right? I don't have an agent, I don't have a deal... but I read a lot, I talk to a lot of insiders, and I know the nature of business--the machinery, the cycles... Because, after all, that's what I do when I don't write.

I asked Paul, "Do you watch figure skating?"
"Figure skating."
"As in, guys in very tight pants spinning on ice?"
"Yes, that's it."
"Yeah, I guess I've seen one or two competitions during the Winter Olympics. Why do you ask?"
I felt like Master Yoda. I whipped out my iPad and found what I wanted on YouTube.

But before I played it, I gave Pat a bit of background about Torvill & Dean. During the 1994 Olympics, they were no spring chickens. They were both in their mid-thirties at that point, competing against teenagers and others who were in their prime. This was a story book return for Torvill & Dean. They had won Gold in 1984 in one of the most electrifying performances the sport had seen. Perfect 6.0's across the board. Back in '84 they were it. Could they repeat in '94 after a ten year lay-off?

We watched and Pat got the beauty of their performance. "That was beautiful," he said. "But I don't get it. What's your point?"
"Everyone said Torvill & Dean were the best that year, that they recreated the sport, that they raised the bar for beauty in figure skating. Yet..."
"They got the Bronze medal."
"Yup. The judges claimed they wanted the dancers to go back to the 'traditional' and what Torvill & Dean did, included an illegal lift. Of course, no one was able to actually point out when this phantom lift occurred but that was not the point."
"What was the point?" he asked.
"30 million people saw one thing and cried over the beauty, but all it took was two judges to change the history of the Olympics."

The sport of writing is objective on all levels.

Good writing will eventually find its way. It may not happen today, or this year, or even this decade. But we all understand--must understand--that writing is a marathon. There will be false starts. There will be moments of unadulterated joy, and years of face-on-the-asphalt pain. That's how it goes.

Most people get hung up over the miracle stories. Sometimes writers get lucky and all the stars align--more power to them. But the reason we hear of those cases (example: first novel written was picked up with a three book deal and movie rights optioned, blah, blah, blah) is because they are so rare. Those are the carrots that lure so many people into this world of writing, but only the few will last the marathon.

It is a statistical improbability that anyone reading (or, alas, writing) this blog will have that type of fortune. So what? 

Do you think I would stop because of a rejection? I certainly hope you know me better than that. I hope I know myself better than that. But who knows, right? We are all human.

When the moment of truth stares me in the face, I hope I have the mental and emotional fortitude to smile, learn from it and go back to my next manuscript. Because I have stories to tell. And I will face many judges who will say no. One day, a judge will say yes, and I will keep the same cautious optimisim I have today. Because Torvill & Dean were objectively awesome, but the subjective nature of the game they played in, gave them bronze.

Fight the good fight!

BONUS - 1984 Winning Performance


  1. And oftentimes, the "judges" making the decisions are the ones with very little grasp of what will bring the proverbial "30 million" to tears (or joy, or laughter, or what have you). Talent eventually rises to the top, and that's all Pat/Paul(/Ara/so-many-others) need to keep in mind.

  2. JM, my friend, it's so good to have you back. You caught my little name mess up :) It's hard to keep keep up with fictitious names!

    Coming from you, this means even more. When the others didn't get it, you found a publisher that did. And now we're the better for it because you've been able to get your story out--And if you're wonder, I'm still haunted by The Great Leonre. Can't wait to get my greedy hands on your next novel.

  3. Great take on the industry. :-)

    Thanks for a great blog.

  4. Thank you, Christine. Both for visiting and the nice compliment. I'll treat myself to some Nutella and coffee.

    We do have an interesting industry, but I think the writer community is greater, and stronger than any challenge that comes our way. Everyone wants a great story. Take care.

  5. This is awesome. And it's so important to keep in mind. It's really easy to get frustrated, and what happened to Paul is right up there--holy cow! But what strikes me the most is the absolute honesty of what you're suggesting. No tricks or turns... just good ol' fashioned hard work, attention to the story and the craft, and just telling the best damn story you can. So many times I feel like many of us look for the shortcuts, but then we've totally missed the journey.

    Thanks for this!

    Looking forward to seeing you on Nov 16 at Tahereh's launch party! :)

  6. Thanks, Kathryn. Believe me, I've tried to find the shortcuts :) As you said, no tricks. We just need to keep the dream alive and place our butt's in the chair and write. Our time will come.

    I'm also looking forward to connecting (in person) with you. I hope Tahereh's book party is not one of those ginormous events. I'll be very upset if I can't find you and if we only see Tahereh on the big screen. I'll still think she's brilliant and will leave my review of her book intact (it's such a well written book). I'll just be a bit miffed :(

  7. I don't think Tahereh would let it be simply a big screen at the front. She's pretty cool, and I think she's really excited about connecting as well. :) I've read your review on SHATTER ME a few times, and I checked out the first 25 chapters online on Saturday. Can't wait to get my book! Lucky, you got an ARC.

  8. I know you're right. Is it odd that I'm looking forward to meeting her mom as much as her? I hope to get the ARC and the book signed. I'm getting all excited now. This'll be fun!

  9. Her mom must be made of awesome. Seriously.

  10. Aloha Ara,

    I will gladly stand by your side and pick up a really big sword (or jar of Nutella... have you seen the damage one of those can do!) and fight the fight.

    You come up with some great analogies and I hope Paul O'Pat doesn't give up... You know the memoir I'm writing... I was one person away from a six-figure advance with a major print, but he/she said no. Here I am, two years later, and by gosh, this book WILL one day be published:) Mahalo for a great post, as always.

  11. Mark, my heart goes out to you. When you told me your story at the conference, I nearly lost it. I know you'll get it published. Because our words, our strong declarations are what creates the future. Thanks!


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