It’s the one lesson I remember from my father, who died when I was young: play your hunches.
Three years ago I went to a writing workshop in San Francisco. I had just been forcibly retired and thought I might look into another profession – one that didn’t involve Boards of Directors, staff, agendas, emails and endless meetings that resulted in nothing but a string of follow-ups and not much productivity.
So I tried watercolor, pottery, sewing, knitting, all sorts of creative endeavors that might make a few bucks to support my Starbucks habit. I even tried teaching a college course on Psychology and one in Sociology.
Loved them all.
But when I went to the writing workshop (a five-day intensive pitch workshop, which I didn’t realize was to pitch a book I hadn’t written yet) something clicked. I settled on a concept and went wild building a pitch, a tag line, a synopsis, and all the goodies necessary to query a book. I didn’t even know what a query was, but I learned fast.
So this man, this pied piper of the group, told me my concept was excellent and helped me craft my pitch. On the last day he had five agents come in and I pitched to them. He told me all five of them wanted to see more. I hadn’t written a line of dialogue yet.
So we worked together, through a strict formulaic program, to get the book “where it needed to be”. The story is that of a fifty-seven-year-old widow rebuilding her life. She is asked to hand-knit a wedding dress for her niece, and an eclectic group forms at her new knitting shop, friendships are born, the dress comes together, has to be ripped out, and rebuilt; a clear allegory to her life. I didn’t like it from the start; it was too cozy, too done, too…chick lit. To me, the story was about growth and challenges by a menopausal woman, not a dress. I expressed my doubts.
In reaction, what I got from him was: “It’s about the dress, the dress, the dress. Somebody in the group has to mess up the dress; that’s where the conflict comes in. It has to be all about the dress.”
I tried. I really did. But who’s going to mess with a wedding dress? I’m not built that way. I’m deeper than that. The conflict, to me, came from my protagonist’s challenges of finding and fitting into a new life, not some stupid dress that in the end won’t matter a great deal. It wasn’t enough of a downfall (the “stake”) for the protagonist if the dress wasn’t completed. Again, I expressed my doubts.
“No, no, no. It has to be all about the dress. The antagonist has to be strong and has to destroy the dress somehow.” I couldn’t make it work. But as a newbie, I followed his direction, beating my head against the wall and even having minor meltdowns trying to be a good girl and follow directions from an expert. All the while I knew what I wanted the book to be, and this wasn’t it. “But all the agents are waiting. This is what we pitched to them. The book is sold. Make it so.”
I finally cut the apron strings and followed my own heart. The day I severed the relationship, which was, I admit, painful, was the day my muse took over. I rewrote the whole thing and doors started to open for me. When I finished, I had very encouraging rejection letters from agents, some with requests for my next book because they liked my writing, but for some reason or another this one wasn’t for them at the time.
I landed with a publisher, and this morning I received an email from my editor revising my original pitch and synopsis, the one I had created with Mr. Wonderful, and they have taken out all references to the dress and the shop because “it’s not about the dress, it’s about Jen’s growth, which is the real story.” I confess I snickered a little.
Almost three years was spent trying to make it work his way. But in the end, the time was not wasted. I revised and revised, added a lot in, took masses out, and refined it to be what I wanted it to be.
It was my first book, and I’m being published by a reputable publisher, not a vanity or self-publisher, but a small press who has an excellent reputation. This is not chick lit, romance, or a cozy. This is a novel in the womens’ fiction genre. It is finished, it is polished, and it is good because I stopped listening to him and started listening to myself.
Trust your intuition, your gut, your own innate knowledge of what is good, of what will work. It won’t let you down. Play your hunches.