Finishing The Long Game

I achieved something enormous this month: I finished the first draft of my novel! It’s a huge achievement to finish something. Anything. Most of us get a brilliant release of endorphins when we finish an event or great conquest. I know I do. When I complete a project it’s like rising out of the smog and entering cloud 9. Then I crash on the couch because, let’s face it, finishing is a lot of work. That last mile of the race is the hardest point of all. Heck, I think the last several miles are the hardest.

In writing a story there’s an event called the “muddy middle.” Otherwise know as the murky middle, the sagging middle, and the nebulous place. It’s not a fun place to be in, but it’s necessary.

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In the beginning of our lives, events, jobs, friendships, and challenges, everything has that fresh new smell. There’s excitement, adventure, maybe a bit of fear, and a whole lot of unknown. Our bodies are refreshed, motivated, and ready to take on the challenge. We’re excited about the prospects of what could be. When I came up with the idea for my newest novel, Neutral Abyss, on March 27th 2019, I plunged in with energetic gusto. No force could stop my beginning progress as I brimmed with ideas.

Then the middle hits. It’s the time we sputter. A mid-life crisis where we try to reinvent ourselves. We doubt our worth. It’s the middle of a pandemic or race-war where we don’t know which side is right or how to proceed. All roads lead to an event, but which should we take?

In case you didn’t read my opening sentence thoroughly, I’ll say it again: I finished my first draft. The story might be done, but I’m still in the beginning stages. I have a long road ahead of me. Stephen King, and other accomplished authors, recommend to let your manuscript lay dormant for at least 6 weeks before you tackle edits. Why 6 weeks? Well, the goal is to forget the details of your work so you can freely see any flaws. When we breathe, rest, and occupy our mind in other work, we can return to our projects and see their needs/wants/desires. When we immerse ourselves in the media, news stories, propaganda, and fleeting emotions, we can lose sight of how to change the situations we’re in.

Once time has passed, the editing begins. If I’ve done my beginning job well (and I think I have), this time won’t take too long. Maybe a few weeks. Then I give my manuscript to a few chosen trusted readers. I wait for their verdict. When they’re done, I’ll analyze their thoughts, and decide what changes are worth making. I can then choose to give my manuscript to more readers and make more edits, or rest assure my book is perfect. But I’m not done yet.

Life is full of choices. Some think the beginning is the hardest obstacle: deciding which story to tell. They would be right for certain cases. Too few are brave enough to take those initial steps. Even fewer make it out of the murky middle.

When a book is polished and ready to be published, there’s an enormous decision to make. Self publish or traditionally publish? Most writers dream about the latter. It’s a tough, long, yet rewarding road. But few make it to that finish line. Some opt for self publish from the start, others self publish as a cop-out.

Self publishing is not cheap. It’s hard and easy at the same time. Easy because the books are guaranteed to be published within a year’s time. Hard because writers spend thousands on book design, editing, printing, marketing, etc., while these books rarely (if ever) make it onto a bookstore shelf, but instead stay only online. It can be very rewarding for a tiny percentage of authors, but often times these books get lost in the crowd.

Traditionally published is a long, but often times rewarding road. Writers enter what’s called a literary agent’s “slush pile.” They craft an email (called a query) with info on their book, themselves, a few pages of their manuscript, and send this to as many literary agents as they desire. Then we wait. For months. Sometimes there’s rejection letters. Sometimes there’s no response. But If you’re work is good you’ll get requests for a full manuscript which could lead to a signed contract. Once a contract is signed, then the agent contacts publishers. If a publisher loves the book, a deal is agreed upon. The book goes through a series of edits, creative decisions, marketing strategies, etc. before FINALLY hitting the shelves and websites 1 – 2 years after the deal has been struck.

Only 1% of authors make it that far.

There are numerous avenues to give up along the way. You can tire at the first draft, editing stage, but most often times the query stage. This isn’t a career for the faint of heart. But neither are most stages of our lives.

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Crashing on the couch with my kitty.

We live in a world of uncertainty. Maneuvering through the slush-pile of media, news, fears, and multiple road choices. Quarantine/lock-down life appeared to be done, but now the rising covid cases are forcing restrictions once again. Riots continue on. And this year is only half over.

The odds might be stacked against us. The average number of rejections an author gets from literary agents range from 50 – 200. C.S. Lewis received 800 rejections!! It’s tempting to just give up, hide on the couch and eat cartons of chocolate ice cream. Escape to a tropical island and forget this falling world. Or waste our lives by venting on social media.

There’s an underlying theme in Neutral Abyss about not being bogged down by our past and present, but instead learning from them to change our future. It’s easy to get trapped in our hopeless present state. It’s just as easy to be overcome by how this country seems to be set on destroying our history. But how will dwelling in depression or anger on either circumstance bring us to a winning future?

Our country and society are stuck in a muddy middle. We hate rejection and opposition, so we’re consumed in a circle of fighting. The media says we’re living in “unprecedented times,” but all the events in 2020 have happened before: Civil War, Spanish Flu, Great Depression, Civil Rights Movement, Watergate, etc. to name a few extreme events. All of these circumstances in history came before changing tides. Stories that needed to come to completion before new ones could begin.

Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. 25Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. – 1 Corinthians 9:24-25

Don’t give up before you see the finish line.

My son, Riker, also accomplished something significant this month. His nearly 7-years of life has been an up and down battle with water. He was birthed in water. Took his first breath while laying on my chest, immersed in a warm water tub. He hated baths from the start. We took him to the beach as a toddler and he screamed the entire time. At 3 he loved playing in the sink, and finally enjoyed his baths. We took him to the beach again, and this time he played in the shallow waves. Ever cautious to not venture where the water touched his knees. He loved pools as he got older – as long as mama and dada were ever near to hang onto. We’d encourage him to swim, but he insisted on clinging to the side of the pool or our embrace. He’d venture to be brave, but took steps back when friends would splash or be too rough.

This year, I enrolled him in our community’s swim team. He was afraid. Cried on the first day. We encouraged him to try. To take the plunge. The coaches guided him every step of the way. He clung to them with death-grips.

And he paddled through the muddy middle. He didn’t give up. When we went to the pool for fun, I started to notice a change. Instead of playing on the edges or steps, he ventured toward the middle. He said he “was practicing.”

Then, one day I heard him tell a coach “I want to swim by myself.” I watched with pride as he kicked and glided past the middle and to the edge. We erupted in applause.

This weekend was the swim team’s first swim meet. Kids swam in various challenges to win ribbons and show off their skills. Riker swam. He SWAM. And he finished each event. He even took a first and second place win!

To me, finishing means to be successfully published. Traditionally published. To walk into a bookstore and see my novels on the bestseller shelves. To go on book tours, signing events, and continue writing multiple stories. That is my finish line, and I refuse to stop in this muddy middle.

What would have happened if we let Riker give up a few weeks ago when he complained about being in the water? He would never learn how to swim.

What would happen if I had stopped writing in the middle? My story would never be finished.

What would happen if I stop querying due to rejections? My books will never be published.

What would happen if we all finish what we set out to do? We’ll never know the end result until we FINISH.

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