The Writers Circle

creative writing community, craft and inspiration

Finger Biting Days

First, my apologies for letting this blog languish these last few weeks. We’ve been busy with holidays, planning for spring and summer, and yes, actually WRITING. In fact, that’s the topic I’ll focus on in this first entry for 2013: Finger Biting Days.

I know I’m really writing when my fingers are a mess, bloody and bit to the quick and slightly aching from all the gnawing. I pick my cuticles when I think. I always have. I know, it’s a terrible habit, but it’s one I’ve accepted as part of the way I work. Honestly, when my fingers look good, I know I’m not writing deeply enough. And right now, my fingers are wonderfully horrific.

(No, these are not my hands.)

(No, these are not my hands.)

When we write, we want our work to be perfect. We think deeply and muddle for hours, days, sometimes weeks to get a scene just right. Yesterday, though my schedule wasn’t luxurious, I thrilled simply to find a single perfect word that I’d been mulling over the day before, going from Thesaurus.com to the real thesaurus and back, knowing that it was there if I could only find it.

We want our work to be perfect because we love it. We want to fully express ourselves and share with the world what is living inside our heads all this time. But on a more practical note, we NEED our work to be perfect – as perfect as humanly possible in the subjective world of words.

If our work going to have even a chance in the competitive traditional publishing world, it’s got to be better than anyone else’s. No – more important still – our work has to look like it will sell.

Now I shall tangent to acknowledge the many avenues available to writers today that don’t require the approval of an established editor and a Big 6(-1) publishing house. Still, that is the brass ring. It’s what every writer who is honest really wants. I recently listened to an interview with Guy Kawasaki, a successful published and now self-published author, talking about the challenge of self-publishing and how, if he had the chance, he’d still go back to the traditional route.

What none of us want is to have to hock our books to the market like common street peddlers. (“Books! Books for sale! Fifty cents a book!” I see myself with a pile of books on my head like the classic children’s tale.)

So we anguish to get our work just right. We muddle and fuss and ponder and fret and bite our nails to the quick because we’re anxious – no terrified – that we won’t be good enough to have a shot at the “big sale”.

In truth, the market is taking fewer and fewer chances. In order to survive, traditional publishers have turned increasingly to sure-bets, authors with well-established reputations or celebrity or both, and fiction from well-recognized names. When you’re not one of those authors, you’re in the midlist. Even in the old days, five or six years ago, midlist meant struggling against obscurity and begging for just five minutes of your over-worked publicist’s attention. These days, more and more, it seems the midlist is simply gone.

And yet any one of us would claw with our half-bitten nails to get that glorious five minutes. We’d claw for the chance to realize at last that someone cares about what we write besides our family and friends.

In fact, I often wonder if publishers today are cutting their nose to spite their face, as it’s said. Without the midlist, they are taking their bestsellers and putting them at risk of the chopping block. In a shrinking pool of offerings, each book simply cannot be a bestseller, can it? Statistically, there has to be a bell curve – some winners, some not quite , a few inevitable bombs. Will the lists shrink more and more until all that’s left are a few prefabricated “surefire hits” as risky and interesting as a McDonald’s hamburger?

So, back to biting nails. I’m clearly almost finished with my draft – yet again. I shouldn’t even say it because the last time I did was over six months ago and I’m still not finished yet. But I’m really almost there. And I want it to be perfect. So I glory in the discomfort and occasional Bandaid.

As Guy Kawasaki said in the same interview, “The best two motivations for writing a book are first, because you have something to say that is of value – what a concept! The second would be because it’s on your bucket list, it’s an intellectual challenge.”

If that’s all I get from all this angst, then it’s worth it. But I can still hope for just a little more.

About Judith

Judith Lindbergh's latest novel, Pasture of Heaven, is about a nomad woman warrior on the Central Asian steppes in the 5th century BCE. (And there really were!) Her first novel, The Thrall's Tale, is a literary historical novel about three women in the first Viking Age settlement in 10th century Greenland. The Thrall's Tale was a Booksense Pick and a Borders Original Voices selection. Judith is also the founder and director of The Writers Circle, a creative writing program offering workshops for children and adults.

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