“Having Doubts is a Shape-Shifting Oblivion”
I first decided that I wanted to write a YA novel in Spring 2014. Within seconds of reaching this decision, I began following all the authors and agents on Twitter that I could find. Looking back, I’m not so sure that was the best move.
On one hand, I learned a lot about the publishing industry and what I was getting myself into just by following along. There was all this free advice from professionals, why pass that up?
While on the other hand, I inevitably ended up comparing myself to others before I had even written a single word. I don’t think that is/was healthy.
In the years since, I’ve gotten better at finding a balance between the two. Still, it takes a constant effort and even then there are times that my foot gets caught in the same familiar traps.
One thing that I’ve found that considerably helps is talking to others.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve been fortunate to exchange a few emails with young adult author, Dave Connis. Dave is the author of The Temptation of Adam (Nov. 2017) and Suggested Reading (Fall 2019). He also contributed a story to the upcoming anthology Welcome Home (Sept. 2017) edited by Eric Smith. Our exchange follows.
Dane wrote on 4/5/17 at 3:22pm:
I hope you had a nice trip. I worked on an email draft to you yesterday, but I wasn’t too confident in it and apparently I deleted it at some point, which maybe is for the best. So I’ll just scrap the direction I was heading entirely and start anew.
Like I mentioned in my previous email, I really enjoyed your blog post from 2015 where you laid out the ups & downs of your writing career up to getting your first book deal. It was encouraging to see how driven and relentless you were as you worked on multiple projects, all towards the goal of getting an agent and/or a book deal.
So I’m interested to know, now that you have reached the promised land of having a book deal and an agent, do you still feel that same drive? Has your mindset changed some after receiving some confirmation that you’re writing for an audience instead of oblivion?
Dave replied on 4/20/17 at 1:03pm:
Honestly, I think having doubts is a shape-shifting oblivion because I went from thinking no agent cared about my book to thinking no reader will care about my book. I think big parts of us creative/writer types long to have our work be affirmed, which, if controlled, isn't a bad longing at all.
The thing is, that sort of affirmation searching is like a slippery fish. It's so hard to control. Anyways, all that to say, I think I've recently realized that every stage of this author-ing thing is going to come with a hefty helping of its own doubts.
The funny thing is, they all boil down to the same question, "Do I matter?" So every set is the same doubt in a different skin. I've really tried to step back and ask myself "what really matters?" and I'm still working on getting my head into a place where I'm not starting over mentally on every step of the publishing process.
Dane wrote on 4/21/17 at 10:44am:
It may sound weird but it’s comforting to know that the anxiety is present at future stages as well. Not that I would wish that on anyone, but more that it helps me feel slightly more content and less alone.
I will say that failing to break out of obscurity as a musician for ten years has helped me to better enjoy the process of trying to become a published author.
Back in the serious band days, there were many long, late-night drives from an awful show where so & so’s label rep was supposed to be there, but of course they didn’t come, the promoter didn’t make enough to pay us, and inevitably we would end up eating at some awful Wendy’s at a gas-station somewhere off 24 in TN, feeling defeated mentally, emotionally, and physically.
So it helps that now as a writer, I can just enjoy being a small part in this. Rejections, revisions, rewrites, whatever may come, I’m going to keep trying and at least now I don’t have to sit in damp-post-show-sweat clothes in a cramped, smelly van. At least now I don’t have to chip in for gas when there’s a weak turnout. At least now I can avoid eating the definition-of-defeated #6 combo meal at 2am ever again.
However, it’s still not easy. Even at the worst shows as a musician, you still receive some slight affirmation that you aren’t terrible. Even if it’s just someone mumbling “good set” as you load out your equipment, that’s still something. As a writer, especially a beginning writer, you don’t necessarily have any of that positive affirmation that what you’re creating is okay.
So that’s one thing I struggle with as a writer, along with the question of “Do I matter?” There are also the questions of: “Am I any good? Am I making a fool of myself? I poured my whole self into this thing what does it mean if they don’t like it?” So yeah, in my limited experience, there’s no getting around the anxiety in a creative field, but at least I’m more comfortable (mentally and physically) with where I’m at now.
You’re a musician too (Whew, what a segue way!). What came first for you, writing fiction or music? Do any of the lessons you’ve learned from one endeavor cross over into the other?
Dave wrote on 4/23/17 at 2:29pm:
Yeah that makes sense. The "Am I just doing this with blind hope?" "Am I fooling myself?" I think the answer is always yes, but that doesn't mean you're stupid. La La Land says "a bit of madness is key" and it's so true. No one who sets out to do this is sane.
Music actually came first. I wrote my first song when I was six, then when I was eight I discovered that fan fiction was a thing and could write stories about stories that I really liked. I wrote music a lot more than I wrote stories in high school, but to be fair my music was a lot more story-based in high school. It wasn't until the latter half of college that I really started leaning on stories instead of music.
I think I've learned more about song writing from writing books than vice versa. For most of my songwriting life, I had a really bad habit of just writing things that sounded interesting without much thought into why I was writing it. Writing novels forced me to narrate a theme or story through someone else's voice, which made me think a little more about the words I was using. I was able to bring that back to songwriting and dig into word choice and carry through a little more.
Dane replied on 4/24/17 at 10:58am:
Music came first for me too. I think I held off trying to write fiction for so long because it was too intimidating. I felt like only geniuses could write books. Plus, I knew if I tried and failed then I could no longer entertain the daydream of being a published author.
However, when I did finally start writing, it was so exhilarating. It was freeing to not be limited by my guitar playing or my voice or the dependability of other band members etc. My favorite parts of making music have always been the writing components: the structure, lyrical parts of it so when I started writing, it felt right.
With that said, I am (of course) still figuring this writing thing out. I’m just trying to learn as much as I can every day. I’ve found that lessons come along with both successes and failures.
What are some things you’ve learned as you gear up for the November release of your debut novel, The Temptation of Adam?
Dave replied on 5/1/17 at 11:47am:
Oh, man. Lots of lessons. None of these are in any particular order though, but they all have this theme of dealing with my desire to matter.
1. Some author Tweeted this, I can't remember who, but: don't live in the publishing land of Twitter. Hang out there. Visit for sure, but don't live there. The world is just so much bigger than publishing and it's not fair to yourself or anyone else really to be consumed by Publishing land.
2. Success isn't a pie. It doesn't run out after slices have been distributed. Success is a river. Always flowing and you miss out on a lot of joy if you don't celebrate with people.
3. The above being said, be careful what you share and how much you share concerning accomplishments on Twitter. I see this deep part of me that desires validation, and I can see how I could fall into this trap of sharing good news and have it be like this, value mining rig where you harvest likes and hearts and convert them into fuel to douse your insecurities as a creator. I just see that in me, ready to take over, and I think practicing restraint there helps me fight against my tendency to show people how I'm the shit 24/7.
4. You aren't the sum of your accomplishments. You are the sum of you, and that's good enough.
5. Don't be a Slughorn by collecting people by the rank of perceived value you give them. I've done this and I hate myself for it. I think it was Adam Silvera who said this, but treat everyone like a NYT best seller.
6. The only thing you have control of is making the best book you can and caring for other people. The two aren't mutually exclusive.
Dane wrote on 5/2/17 at 10:26am:
Thank you for sharing those lessons. There are times where I find myself getting caught up in some of those things too.
Your second book, Suggested Reading, is planned for a Fall 2019 release. A quick summary from your website: “It's about a girl named Clara who responds to her private school's overreaching book ban by starting an underground library in her locker. Her secret book hustling sparks a reading rebellion that sweeps through the school, sparking a wildfire of unforeseen consequences, friendships, and conversations about the importance of empathy.”
I love that premise. Do you care to speak on what inspired that story and if you found any extra motivation to tell that story following the recent election?
Dave wrote on 5/14/17 at 7:47am:
It's pretty ironic actually. I wrote Suggested Reading at the end of 2014. So, I wrote it with nothing political in mind. I actually wrote it without planning on tackling any specific "issue." I just really liked the idea of a girl running a banned book library in her locker and started writing. The thing is, you can't talk about banned books without talking about censorship, and you can't talk about censorship without talking about why people want censorship and you can't talk about why people wanting censorship without digging into the root desires of the human heart. So of course, SR turned into this exploration of all those things.
It's funny. I've gotten this question a few times and haven't really been able to say that the election had anything to do with it. My editor, Claudia Gabel, offered on Suggested Reading in October of 2016 with the caveat that I do some major revisions. Of course, the offer came right before the election. Literally the weekend after the election, I attended YALLfest in Charleston, SC and the main discussion was about empathy and I walked away from that weekend with this multi-month collection of emotions (all of them really) churning in me.
Since then, my brain has been picking and pulling at the threads of the plot of SR. However, it wasn't until a few weeks ago when I was revising during an early morning writing session that I saw the impact of the election on the plot. I'm actually really excited about the changes moving forward, because I think it's a little bit of an unexplored idea in light of the election, which also means there's a good bit of pressure to get it right, but that's the pleasure of writing. Even though you have this massive responsibility to get things right, you get to explore those places.
Dane wrote on 5/16/17 at 1:47pm:
It’s always cool to see how an idea grows over time. Thank you for being so open with your writing process. I really feel like I’ve gained some things from our exchange.
For this last question, I just want to know what you’ve been enjoying lately. Are there any books, movies, or albums that you’re looking forward to for the rest of the year?
Dave replied on 5/20/17 at 2:00pm:
Thanks! It's all stuff I've learned and am still learning really. So hopefully it's helpful!
In terms of stuff I've been enjoying. I've been really digging the Uncharted video game series (I'd also like to go on record and say that if Naughty Dog were to call me and ask me to write them a Cassie Drake YA novel, I'd totally say yes.) Albums I've been listening to Henry Jamison, Chance the Rapper, the Moana soundtrack, Jed Whedon and the Willing, Seaux Chill. My music taste is weird, I know.
Books and I have had a strange relationship as of late. I'm really struggling to connect with them. I did recently finish Elon Musk's biography by Ashlee Vance, which was amazing. Also finished Dan Gemeinhart's Some Kind of Courage, which was also great.
What am I looking forward to? Star Wars Episode 8 and the new season of Rebels. Though I am nervous because I felt meh about the teaser trailer. Also the next season of New Girl!