Updated: Jan 7, 2022
I'm a big fan of calling almost anything a win. Grocery story bill coming to a whole number? Win. Sledding with my daughter and not peeing myself? Win. My favorite wine two bucks off? Win. The dishes washed before I sit for dinner? Huge win.
Now I can see how this paradigm might seem to weaken the concept of winning but it does just the opposite for me. To make the parameters of winning my own, I get to win (and celebrate) all the time.
That being said, I have two bigger wins that don't involve the supermarket or my bladder.
Number one: I finished my second book!
My first book took me five years to complete. This one took me less than a year.
See, last December I was lucky enough to have my first manuscript, The Silver Loop (the 5 year one), shortlisted in the Irish Writer's Centre's 2021 Novel Fair. It was a huge and unexpected honor, my first ever literary validation. After sending out many many queries to agents and not securing one, I decided to lane change and get going on my next novel.
(I've already decided I am going to be a published writer and better just keep on writing.)
I told myself this time I would be more organized than the first book. I would plot and outline, know my characters before I began. I would manage this book and save myself all the headache of the messy creative process.
This book, Flight Path, is about two strangers whose lives intersect when their husbands die in the same plane crash. I spent months researching for one of my characters, Harper, who is a rollercoaster engineer. I learned a new program called Scrivener to organize myself. I wrote about 1/2 of the book from March to August, spending most of the time railing against the structure I had put in place to make myself a better writer.
In August I started getting emails about the 2022 Novel Fair. The submission deadline was Sept 20, 2021.
I couldn't. No. I hadn't even finished the book.
But...the submission was only the first two chapters, not to exceed 10,000 words (about 25 pages) and a 300 word synopsis. Did I dare submit a book I hadn't even finished writing?
No. No. NO....yes?
I spent all of September polishing the hell out of the first two chapters. (Because the story is told by two narrators, they could each only have 5,000 words which meant cutting my first two chapters in half.) My generous readers gave me feedback (god I appreciate you, readers), I did a lot of rewriting and tweaking and on September 30, I hit submit.
They were going to announce the twelve finalists on December 5. If chosen, you had five days to produce the full manuscript. This meant I had about ten weeks to have a finished, polished book.
So I did what anyone would do. I went on vacation and tried to forget about it.
When I got back I sat down to write and was shocked and dismayed to realize that, despite all my careful plotting and organization, I didn't have the HEART of the book. I had the mechanics but not the soul, the thing beyond plot that ties readers to the story, that makes them care what happens, that makes them search for their own humanity between the lines.
This was a problem. And not one an outline could fix.
Here's where my story intersects with my story's story. I knew I could organize and plot, manufacture the "why" for characters to do what they were going to do, but I knew I didn't want to. I don't like to read books like that - contrived, forced, machined- nor do I like to write them. Readers can see right through that bullshit.
I knew I wanted to be a writer who works in a state of inspiration, of flow, whose characters talk to her, whose story reveals itself. This is the most fun and also the most organic. Turns out, I did want the messy creative process after all. So I closed Scrivener and decided, instead, to trust myself and the process. I decided to care more about how I made it than what I produced. I made a thousand choices not to freak out, not to insert myself into the story, not to bully my characters or whip my plot into shape. I made a million choices to trust.
And will you believe it when I say the magic actually showed up when I got out of the way?
Cheryl Strayed says, "Put yourself in the way of beauty." This is what this process was - putting myself in the way of inspiration. I'm not saying I didn't work - I put in all the hours (my family rarely saw me for six weeks), but I didn't "make" it happen. I let it happen. It was a feverish wonder whose energy has no parallel.
I got a full draft to my fastest readers mid-November (readers! thank you! your feedback was invaluable!) and hit the edits hard, tucking myself back behind a closed door and refusing to make dinner or really talk to anyone.
December 5th came and went with no email from the Irish Writer's Centre. I hadn't won. But hey, no bigs, I just finished my second novel! I sent it off to another batch of my (beloved) readers and let myself be 100% proud.
Ten days went by. I was unrolling my yoga mat, beginning an ordinary day when there it was - win number two - the email saying I had been shortlisted for the 2022 novel fair! Out of 375 international submissions, I made the top 24. Two years in a row, two different books. I was floored.
Two wins: finishing a second manuscript and being shortlisted. (Can I tell you how much more fun it is to write a query letter to an agent and have a little bit of literary street cred?) But, in truth, the bonus win, the real win, was surrendering - to the process, to the characters, to the story itself to be what it needed to be - and ending up with a book I love, one that is far more than anything my brain could have formulated.
Turns out I don't thrive by coloring inside the lines. And knowing that about myself, and more importantly respecting is, is what makes anything possible.
The biggest win was deciding to be the kind of writer I want to be and then being exactly her.
And this Christmas present from my daughter, was pretty awesome too. (I asked her if she was going to abide by it and she said what I expected: "Nah.")