Which writer has not felt this? That trepidation, that gnawing doubt, that awful, awful feeling: maybe I am not good enough? Good enough for who, is the question. Me? I will never be good enough for me. Friends and family? That’s the other extreme: for them I am not only good enough–I walk on water. My readers? Hmmm, now we’re talking.
At first it was just little ole me. Free-flying. Having fun with my draft. My story was taking shape, my characters beginning to breathe and once in a while I’d wake up in the middle of the night with flashes of illumination that made me want to hug myself. I kept my writing to myself– told not a soul. After all, didn’t Papa Hemingway warn writers not to share something too soon? Uncle Stephen (King) seconded that. My writing was still raw. If I cracked it open too soon, there would be no omelette.
I joined a writer’s group and allowed others to peek into my writing for the first time. My first shock came when I realized I was not transmitting my story seamlessly into the head of my reader as I had so fondly imagined. The plot had holes, there were POV shifts, undigestable chunks and bit of fluff I had shamelessly tucked into places, simply because I loved the words so much I could not bear to throw them away. Sometimes the group gave me conflicting feedback. My tendency was to feel fuzzy towards people who liked me (really liked me) and mean-spirited towards the fluff-haters. But our group guidelines (borrowed from AA) states “take what you like and leave the rest.” So I was welcome to keep my fluff (and my arrogance). But when three or more people pointed out the same thing, it made me sit up and think. (More about my writers’ group in a separate post, because we are a terrific model of democracy.)
Eventually I was forced to step out into the world of my readers. Their opinion was the only one I cared about in the long run. I went scouting for beta readers. I stayed away from the too-writerly type, rather I looked for real-world people, the kind who would gravitate towards my book in a book store. Who were they? I had a fairly good idea. They were the book club type. They leaned towards multi-cultural fiction. They were well travelled and had a high Calamari Index (in other words a taste for the exotic. Click link to read this NYT article). Most likely they were tea drinkers. I slyly interviewed them. What are your favorite books? I asked. I made a mental note when names like The Kite Runner, Jhumpa Lahiri, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, The Poisonwood Bible, Lisa See, Abraham Vergese and Amy Tan popped up. I tried to find people with strong opinions, those who were not afraid to mince words: the kind of reader who would make a strong advocate for my book. Then I propositioned them to read my manuscript. I offered them hard copy (spiral bound, fedexed) or electronic. I put my manuscript in their hands, swore them to confidentiality then took off like a bat outta hell for Europe because I was too nerve-racked to think about what they might be thinking about.
Three weeks later I returned home and was almost too afraid to open my email. I finally did and all seven responses were in my inbox. The subject lines made my heart sing. “Awesome!”, “Bravo!”, “OMG”, “Loved it”. Most said they could not put it down. One beta reader said she kept getting up in the middle of the night to read my manuscript and blamed me for ruining her sleep and another one forgot to make dinner for her kids. To hell with sleep and dinner for the kids, I thought heartlessly, they like– no wait, THEY LOVE Teatime for the Firefly. Wow.
Somewhere I must have done something right or maybe I just got lucky because I landed my agent in one fell sweep. April Eberhardt told me Teatime was one of the strongest manuscripts she had read and I should be proud of myself. Did that make me feel super-happy, too-sexy-for-my-shirt? Temporarily yes, but the feeling lasted no longer than a stick of gum.
I am working on my second novel now and guess what? I’m back to my old worry. I am beginning to think I am genetically engineered for self-doubt and this is something I will have to live with for the rest of my life.