Waaaaaaay back in 2001, when I decided to take a real stab at this writing thing, I started doing research. My college, as great as it was, was not so great with the whole “career planning” thing. I remember going to their career services center during my senior year. They had a lot of information on: law school, consulting, i-banking, the Park Service, Teach for America, and the Peace Corps. That was it (I actually considered the Park Service, what with my Geology degree and all). But nothing for me.
The thing is, if you want to be a lawyer, there’s a delineated method. Step one: take the LSAT. Step two: go to law school. At law school, they funnel you into summer jobs with law firms and then from there into an actual job with a law firm. With a little effort, you can diverge this path into a clerkship or a job with the government or any number of other lawyerly jobs. It’s all very spelled out. (The challenge, the many lawyers in my life will tell you, is to avoid these golden handcuffs.)
That sort of thing doesn’t exist with writers. We come from all over, and we have all different kinds of paths. To some, this translates as being very confusing and rarefied and as if it’s all some big secret handshake. But I found two things: 1) the more you do research, the more it all becomes understandable, and 2) the regular old pound-the-pavement job market is much much harder to wrangle, especially in Manhattan in 2001. Let’s put it this way: I got better responses from the editorial departments of publishing houses to my writing than I did from the HR departments of those same houses in my job search.
Anyway, I did a lot of reading on how to be a writer. I learned the central tenet of all pro writers: “Money flows to the writer.” I learned what a query was and how to write it. I learned how to pitch. I learned that there were professional writing organizations out there that would help train me to write. I learned what standard agency agreements were and how one pitches to magazines and the non-fiction market (it’s different than what one does for novels). I learned that no matter how personal it feels, rejection is not personal. I learned that rejection is not the end of the world. I learned about structure and pacing and black moments and “save the cat.” I found some of this information in books, and a lot of this information on the internet, and this was 2001, so blogs were just getting started.
And I learned to separate the wheat from the chaff. I learned what was actually useful to me in terms of my own training, my own process, and my own career, and what was just some blowhard spouting off about the “right” way to do things. There are people in RWA, for instance, that truly, truly believe that your romance writing career should start in category. There are people in SF who would never dream of writing a novel until they had a bunch of short stories published. This is the “traditional” way to do things.
But traditional doesn’t work for everyone, and I learned that sometimes you have to throw out the traditionally accepted paradigms if you want to move forward.
When I learned that I was expecting a baby, nine years later, I pretty much did the same thing. I’d never had a baby before, never been pregnant before, and they didn’t quite cover this at Yale, either. So I started doing research. I read a lot of books on pregnancy and babies and baby STUFF (Oh my gosh, do babies have a lot of stuff!). I read parenting blogs and medical journals and went to websites. I took classes (Lamaze was a bust, but pre-natal yoga was awesome). I learned all the jargon (not only do I know what a mei tai is — NOT a drink — I actually own one, and I can tell you the differences between a Graco Snugride and a Chicco Keyfit, not to mention all the joyful varieties there are to baby poop).
Parenting, like writing, comes with a lot of traditionally accepted expectations. But, also like writing, there is no clearly delineated path. You could get pregnant easily, you could struggle with fertility, you could adopt. You can sell the first book you write or you could come up through a popular blog or a column in a newspaper. You could write category or change your name, you could have a tough pregnancy or complications that throw all your plans out of whack. You could choose to breastfeed or formula feed, to stay at home, to put the child in daycare, to wear your baby, to have a planned c-section or a home birth. You could pitch your book at a conference or write ten query letters or do work for hire or have your friend mention your book to a hungry editor or win a contest.
And, just like writing, there are people out there who are going to disagree with any and all of your choices. Now I want to say that the folks that tell you you’re going to hell for having an epidural are much more vehement than the ones that tell you your book will never be published if you use flashbacks, but there are fundamentalists on every side. And again, I had to learn to separate the wheat from the chaff.
While it’s uber scary to have a NYT bestselling writer tell you your book will never be published if it contains prologues, flashbacks, and other things she hates but were in my first published novel, it’s a hundred thousand times scarier to hear that your child — the little human being you are 100% responsible for — is going to get a developmental disorder if you, say, vaccinate them from deadly diseases. The answer to both of these issues is more research. You look at published, successful books that have flashbacks and prologues, and you see how they are done right and you make sure your book does that. You read medical articles debunking vaccine hysteria and books that explain how the adverse reports work and you learn about the real dangers associated with the diseases you’d prefer your child not to get.
You smile and nod at experienced writers who have good advice — advice that clearly works for them and their books and their readership (make the boy more alpha! don’t let your heroine get brain damaged! don’t write a mixed-race romance!), but that would be anathema to you. When your critique partner tells you that under NO circumstances should Poe freak out about suddenly and unexpectedly punching some kid out on cross campus, you listen to her, because she’s a brilliant writer, and then you look at that scene and you think about how well you know Poe, and you think about how you want people to question not only why he punched out that kid, but also why it scares him that he did, and you decide that keeping that scene is a risk you’re willing to take — the risk that people will suddenly find Poe to be wimpy because he freaks out — in order for (hopefully) most of your readers to wake up and notice that none of Poe’s reactions are what they (or Amy) expect them to be.
You smile and nod at experienced parents who have good advice — advice that clearly works for them and their kids and their family (you should try a Bradley birth, breastfeeding is too hard, aren’t you playing her Mozart in the womb?) but would be anathema to you. When your mother or your friend or both tells you that cloth diapering will never work, you listen to her, because she’s a great mom, and then you look at your schedule and your desires for your baby/budget/planet and you decide that you’ll just try it to see how it goes, so you try it part time for two months and actually, you really like it and it’s not at all as hard as you thought it would be so you keep it up.
And you learn that sometimes, the best laid plans go right out the window — often in wonderful ways. You thought you’d be writing category romances, but it turns out that you aren’t as good at writing straight romance as you are at writing other kinds of books that have romance in them, and you end up making a living doing that. You never thought you’d write work for hire or short stories, but you do, and you end up really loving it and making good money and getting unexpected critical praise and all of a sudden you have this whole other facet to your career.
You don’t want an induction but your baby decides to go a week over her due date and everyone is afraid she’s starting to burn a bit around the edge of the pan so you decide it’s time to get her out of the proverbial oven, and your labor is short and easy and your baby is healthy. You are determined to breastfeed exclusively like the books tell you to, but you have supply issues and your baby isn’t gaining weight so you start letting your husband give her a bottle or two of formula in the evenings when your supply is lowest and you learn that it’s actually a much-needed break for you as well as an opportunity for your husband to bond with the baby.
And you constantly question yourself and the choices you’ve made. Would I be a bestseller now if I’d sold to this publisher rather than that publisher? What would have happened if I’d written this other book? Would my daughter be sleeping through the night if I’d done scheduled feedings rather than feeding on demand? Should I have put her in her crib from night one instead of letting her sleep in a bassinet in our room? Should I cut the flashback because it’s too complex for the reader? Is she getting a flat head right this very minute because I’m letting her sleep in her bouncer while I write this blog post? Is everyone right that my career is over if I don’t get involved in Facebook? Should I be worried that she hasn’t discovered her hands?
I know that none of this is exclusive to the world of writing or to the world of parenting. We’re all trying to figure out the right choices, take the best advice, and not get mired down by our insecurities about our own decisions. But for some reason, the process of becoming a parent reminds me a lot more of the process I went through to become a writer than anything else I’ve done (the process of becoming a homeowner, a dog owner etc.). I think it’s due to the infinite variations, and the fact that you, you, and you alone are utterly responsible for an entire creation.
Both of which I have to get back to now.