The Writer’s Middle Finger (How to grow it, groom it, love it, and stretch it) by A.S. King

 

A.S. King will be the Keynote Speaker at the 2013 Backspace Writers Conference.

 
This article originally appeared in 2009.

Last winter, I hit a bump. A big bump. I forgot why I write.

Here’s the relevant backstory. I wrote seven novels over twelve years before I found an agent. It was nearly fourteen years before I eventually sold a book. What I want to write about today is what I possess, and what many of you possess, that makes us continue writing and investing ourselves for such long stretches of time without the so-called ‘success’ of publication.

This winter, when I came down to my office day after day with a big empty nothing where the novelist in me used to be, unable to pinpoint why I even have an office, I considered these things. How did I get here? Why did I want this so much? And how do I get it back?


How Did I Get Here?

By the time I’d written a few books, and submitted them, and had them rejected, I’d learned to overcome the frustrating, heart breaking road I was on. Frankly, I learned to write with my middle finger up. I’d had it with the changing fads I never fit into. I didn’t want to do what the how-to books told me to do. I didn’t aim or outline. I didn’t learn a formula for fiction. I didn’t read the right books for pleasure. I didn’t join internet writing groups. I stayed away from advice and articles and books about writing. This wasn’t about selling. It was about learning. So I wrote – what I wanted to write – with my middle finger extended.

Sheer stubbornness. It’s how I got this far. (I bet it’s how you got this far, too.) How else does a person write for years in the land of continuous NO?

But then the YES came.

And you can’t give YES the middle finger.

Why Did I Want This So Much?

I’m not sure if this happens to every writer who finally sells a book, but I felt a massive pressure to hurry up and write another one to sell. In my case, The Dust of 100 Dogs sold as YA, so I knew I wanted to write another edgy YA. That’s where I was this winter, when I hit the bump.

I’d trudge down to the desk, in hopes of inspiration. I’d write openings and more openings. I’d wade through pages of notes, or unfinished manuscripts. Or – God love me – I even revisited the novel that we shopped first and never sold. I realized that this – the writing the next book thing – was the hardest part of writing. And yet, it’s the whole reason we started to write, right? To…keep writing? I found myself in the oddest position. I’d sold a book, which was wonderful, but now I had to sit myself down and write the next book, which was no easier than the last ones I’d written. Actually it was harder, due to non-existent inspiration, total lack of purpose, and a growing awareness of ‘my career.’ (Though, since I don’t believe in writer’s block, I did manage a few shorts, which helped keep me sane.)

Then, something great happened.

In late February, I was skimming the internet for sites with tips for writers and I found so many of them teeming with awful, limiting advice! One should always write in a particular tense and never use certain POVs, and never use certain words (big ones) and should also always name their character Dirk or Sally, because they are so-called ‘strong’ names.

I’m sure it’s true, to some degree, that to sell in certain arenas, a book has to closely resemble all books that came before it, but the idea that there are strict rules in this way, in any genre, was simply ridiculous to me. And invigorating. Because finding advice so poor reminded me that I needed to find my middle finger again to write another book.

Tell me what tense to write my book in? (See it going up?)
You say I can’t write in second person? (You see it don’t you?)
Tell me what to name my characters? (Dirk sees it.)
Don’t use big words? (Can you visualize me hoisting my medial dactyl?)

Suddenly, I remembered why I wanted this. I wanted this because I wanted to write books. I wanted this because I wanted to write books I would love to read, even if nobody else did. I love books that much. I love the process that much. My process – void of Dirks and Sallys, sometimes in multiple tenses, often from several points of view, occasionally requiring a dictionary. It may not follow all the so-called rules, but it’s mine.

(Books are like snowflakes. I want to make a blizzard.)

And How Do I Get it Back?

On my birthday in early March, I drove through my old hometown on an errand. This is still a complete novelty for me, because I never thought I’d move back to the US, let alone anywhere near my hometown. It makes me oddly chirpy. I relax, or something, when I’m there. I passed a place I used to work. A story setting came to me, and a theme. Two characters formed in my head on the bypass home. Later that day, I pulled over into a church parking lot and jotted down the plot idea.

Four weeks later, I was done with the 60k first draft.

After spending January and February staring at the screen, wondering where the novelist in me had gone, without warning, I was me again. Because I remembered to exercise my middle finger and allowed myself to write in frowned-upon tenses, in four points of view, covering bizarre and awkward YA subject matter, while incorporating enormous words as part of the plot. What started out as a boring drive across town to buy organic rice ended in this multi-colored stack of scribbled-on paper here on my desk.

I May Still Fail

The book may not sell. Every one of us shares the murky long game this business offers, no matter what kind of books we write and no matter how many we sell. But I’m starting to see this as a good thing. Without something to rebel against, to make me explore my own fears and deep corners, I am uninspired. Without boundaries to push, or hurdles to clear, I grow lazy. Without something to flip the bird at, I’m bored.

So it’s good for us to read bad advice and get rejection letters and endure the next distant relative who asks, “Have you sold a book yet?” with that mocking smirk on his face. It’s good for us to toil in the land of NO. It’s fuel for the bubbling pit of stubbornness and crazy determination we need to do our job long enough to finally succeed. It is the perfect environment to grow and groom your writer’s middle finger.

The trick is, no matter where you are in your journey, to remember to stretch it.

~~~~~~~~~~~

A.S. King is the author of the highly acclaimed ASK THE PASSENGERS, as well as EVERYBODY SEES THE ANTS, a 2012 ALA Top Ten Book for Young Adults, and 2011 Michael L. Printz Honor Book PLEASE IGNORE VERA DIETZ.

She is also the author of the ALA Best Books for Young Adults DUST OF 100 DOGS and the upcoming REALITY BOY.

After a decade living self-sufficiently and teaching literacy to adults in Ireland, she now lives deep in the Pennsylvania woods with her husband and children.

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