News So Good It Deserves a Fanfare

May 7th, 2009

I have to say that what follows is the best feedback I’ve ever had on the writing portion of this site.  Helen Simonson — whose novel, as you’ll see, has just been sold to Random House and is being translated into every language except Esperanto — wrote this at my request in the hope that it would inspire other writers to keep their fingers on the keyboard, even when the doubts turn into dread certainties.  Thanks, Helen.

I just sold my first novel to Random House and now I’m forced to contemplate with horror how close I came to not finishing it. I might have continued to hang around the MFA workshop circuit forever, living on a few small accomplishments, fishing for praise of my potential and never having to face the risk of failure that comes with completion. For five years I thought I wrote steadily – but every time I came back to the computer, the date stamp would indicate that I had missed a month or two. Two children and a home to run were a convenient excuse. My wonderful MFA program at Stony Brook Southampton (New York) allowed me to take one class at a time and provided a community I never wanted to leave.

There is a Nabokov story in which a bad writer finds out that his editors are laughing at his work, which they have published only because of his financial investment in their magazine. The crux of the story is not his disappointment, but the way he rationalizes away the shame and decides to continue investing and hoping they publish more work. This character was my personal demon and I think I felt that as long as I never finished my book, no one would know whether I was a good or bad.

Two things happened to change my direction and push me over the thin line of barbed wire and jagged glass that separated me from all my dreams. First, the economy tanked and second, I Googled ‘finish your novel’ and found Tim Hallinan.

When our family faced the same kind of economic pressures that many people are now suffering, I knew it was time to get a ‘real’ job and make a financial contribution to our family. I gave myself one last semester to finish my thesis so I could at least return to the workforce after fifteen years with a new MFA in hand. My novel had always been my thesis, but the writing was still a struggle and I faced the grim reality that I might have to cobble together a thesis from short stories and never complete the longer work. In one of the darkest of days, (a sunny, sweating hot September) when I couldn’t keep myself from surfing the net instead of confronting the page, I typed in the words ‘finish your novel’ and those marvelous Google people somehow aligned the forces of the universe so I would stumble upon the “Writers Resources” of Tim Hallinan.

Tim’s website became my book of hours, my only permitted escape from the page. During four to six hour writing sessions, when tempted to surf my email or the web, I allowed myself only the one website. I attached it to my ‘favorites’ menu and made it my only hobby, my automatic vice. I read over and over the sections on the dead scenes and the dread middle.

I found the advice on Tim’s page to have the refreshing authority of the professional writer who makes a living by the pen. The ivory tower of literary thought is all very well, but the time comes when you have to remove the damp linen handkerchief from your brow, give up communing with Tolstoy and get the bloody thing finished. I also learned from Tim that it doesn’t matter in what genre you write, the self-doubt, the crushing fear, the sudden lack of ideas – we all share these afflictions equally. Thanks to Tim’s last ditch support, I finished my novel, graduated from my MFA program and – incredible to me – I was able to get a wonderful agent, Julie Barer of barer literary, and sell my novel.

I’m not yet sure what lessons to draw from my experience. I can’t tell you that if you finish your novel it will get published – I have too many friends with solid work that has not found a home yet. I can’t tell you to keep writing whether you publish or not – if I had failed to sell this novel I would now be looking for a corporate communications job. In reality, how you write now is also how you’ll probably continue to write after you sell your first novel. Also, regular life will continue and the kids, the sick dog and the cable guy don’t care that you are now a WRITER and should be treated as a princess.

Still, I can tell you that there will be moments when a tiny glow will spread inside as you remember ‘oh I’m being published.’ You will get to hum the Mary Tyler Moore theme as you hurry to a celebratory dinner with your new editor. And yes, your agent may ask if you’re in town next week to have drinks with your French editor!

Now I’m launching into a second novel, not much has changed – and I’m grateful. I’m going to stick strictly with what worked last time. Tim has taught me what’s important. If you want to write, and believe you can write, then whether you are published yet or not, you have no business treating it as some slacker part-time hobby. It is not enough to say ‘shall I write today or shall I go to yoga?” As Tim says, “some days are like breaking rocks” but you just have to keep doing the work.

Helen Simonson is a former advertising executive who lives in Brooklyn NY with her husband, two teenage sons and pug J.J.   She has been writing for over ten years and has an MFA from Stony Brook Southampton. Helen spent five years writing her first novel, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, which — as you will see below — is to be published by Random house in spring 2010 and has also been sold in the UK, Australia, France, Italy and Brazil.

13 Responses to “News So Good It Deserves a Fanfare”

  1. Merrilee Faber Says:

    Congratulations Helen, and also Tim – it’s lovely to see the physical effects of such a great site for writing resources.

  2. Thomas Says:

    There are those who do and there are those who don’t. There is nothing else.

    Congratulations to Helen for having the stamina, will-power, and talent to pursue her dream. As Tim points out in the writer’s resources that Helen refers to, the trick to writing a novel is finishing. All the technical details of writing don’t mean much if words don’t end up on the paper, and it takes many words to finish a novel. Helen, good for you!

    If I may be so bold, I would like to direct a question to the readers of Tim’s blog cabin; all you prospective writer’s out there. Does anyone else share my problem and, if so, does anyone have any good advice for how to overcome it?

    The problem is this: My attention is constantly shifting from one genre to another. Some read nothing but thrillers, or poetry, or romance, or non-fiction science. Me? I dabble in all genres and can’t find that special allegiance with anyone of them.

    While I don’t want to narrow my interests, I do want to be able to stay focused on one genre long enough to actually finish something. Too many writing-projects have been interrupted in their infancy because I wake up one day and discover that the grass indeed is greener on the other side. So what do I do?

    Is the trick to not read any fiction at all while writing?

    Is the trick to get on Ritalin?

    Is the trick to actually do dabble in all areas until one finds one’s own voice –the clothes that fit – and then stick to that genre no matter what?

    Is the trick to determine what I want to say with my story and then find the style that best fits the message (assuming there is a message)?

    What do people do to stay focused on one genre of writing until the last page has been written?

    Just curious,
    Thomas

  3. Suzanna Says:

    Helen,

    Congratulations! Getting your MFA completed and getting published are great accomplishments.

    I am really happy that you found Tim’s website and made great use of his writing advice.

    Tim,

    Congratulations to you too. It must feel very gratifying to have helped Helen achieve her goals. And if I had a way of inserting some loud fanfare it would go right about here…You have gloriously defied the wiseacre who said that those who can do and those who can’t teach because obviously you’re terrific at both.

    Cheers!

  4. Sylvia Says:

    That’s wonderful! Reading this has made my day.

  5. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Helen’s story is very inspiring to me, which I suppose brings the interaction full-circle. I’m struggling with a new book now, having a rough time editing another one, and up to my eyebrows in trying to get everything lined up for the launch of BREATHING WATER. (Do I rour or not? Do I do 50 blogs? 100 blogs? No blogs? Do I hire a publicist? Do I lose weight? Should I consider a new career?)

    All these things give me plausible reasons not to write (or edit) but instead to wait until I “feel more like it.” This is poison. And Helen’s post is helping me through it.

    So thanks, Helen.

  6. Helen Simonson Says:

    Dear Tim Watchers,

    Thanks for all the congrats – and to Tim, I’m ‘butt in chair’ plowing through revisions so hence I’m checking your web site again! I have ‘lose weight’ as part of my book PR ideas as well. Why do I think it’s not happening? Why, when my son asked who ate all the cookies, did I look him right in the eye and say ‘your brother’? Thinking of all you Tim Watchers in your writing cubicles as I slog away in mine. Regards!

  7. usman Says:

    Congratulations Helen.
    And Tim as well.

  8. Brynne Sissom Says:

    I’m writing too, and a friend showed me Tim’s site, and it does help. The humor helps.
    Unfolding from the heart helps, but that means(so far, to meat least) letting your character have your feelings…that’s an autobiographical experience…

  9. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Brynne — welcome and all the best with the writing. I think all your characters have your feelings, both the saintly and the horrifying ones, and (for me) that makes the writing process very therapeutic. And it’s free, too. In fact, sometimes you get paid for it.

    My captcha is Sesame creepier, which is mysteriously evocative.

  10. Brynne Sissom Says:

    Thanks for the up beats, Tim. That I think has been part of the difficulty in getting into my story is that it keeps taking me into my heaviest emotions, where I feel weak and of course, don’t want to go. But if it doesn’t work in the writing, I don’t have to keep it. I suppose as my characters resolve the feelings, I find a way out too. I also like the way writing slows me down, and emotions and surroundings become more distinct.

  11. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Annie Dillard said that writing, when it’s working, is a line that begins with the hand on the page and probes inward until it pierces the heart.

    Do I write dressed in dramatic clothes (a cape, maybe) and sobbing brokenly? No. Lots of writing is mechanics, by which I mean it’s primarily intellect: where are we, what does it look like, what’s her voice like, would this sentence be better if it were only half as long? Those things are important not only for the book itself (readers want to know where they are and what time it is and they want some nice words once in a while) but also for the writer to pace him/herself. You want to be able to write in blood when it’s needed, but that’s not something you do all the time. (If you do, the book might be too dense/intense for most readers to stick with.)

    It sounds to me like you’re well on your way, but remember that writing should be fun sometimes, too.

  12. Heather Leach Says:

    Also inspired by Helen’s story – brlliant. I also googled ‘finish your novel’ and found Tim’s helpful site. Just wanted to respond to Thomas – and say that I have similar problems – find myself so interested in something a character says or does – or another idea/event that I allow them to wander off onto a new track – until there are so many tracks I’m in Borges forking path universe. Lost.
    No final answers – but lots of sympathy. For me I suspect that the key is that I haven’t fully clarified exactly what the story/theme is in the first place – not enough preparation. Also that I am so afraid of not tasting all the sweets in the sweetshop, I am too greedy to choose just one.
    I’m trying to get over it.
    Heather

  13. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Hi, Heather — So glad you enjoyed Helen’s piece. I think she’s giving me more credit than I deserve, but I’ll happily accept it.

    And about the Borges labyrinth — it’s all part of the creative process. The trick is to understand on some very simple level what your book is about — and I mean simple. For THE FOURTH WATCHER, I was writing about someone whose first family was destroyed by his father, and who creates a second family, only to have his father re-emerge and threaten the second family’s existence. As always, lots of plot lines and characters came to me in the writing of the novel, and I usually gave all of them some time just to see how they’d develop, but at some point I asked myself what they had to do with the simple issue at the heart of my book, and if the answer was “nothing,” I cut them. There’s a big counterfeiting thread that I kept because it seemed to offer a reflection of counterfeit human behavior, and then there was a huge sub-plot with a white lizard that could ostensibly carry messages to the spirit world, which I developed all the way through the book because it was the way that one character could apologize to her own father, who had recently died, and at the very last minute I razored out the whole thing. This called for some major rewrite, but it was worth it.

    So my recommendation is chase everything that seems to move, but ask yourself periodically how it strengthens the book you’re trying to write. You can still taste everything, but you’ve got to be merciless in the end.

    My Captcha is “tutor strong.” Honest.

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