The crux of the matter is, is my writing as good as most and better than some of the work already published?
The honest answer is, I am not sure.
What do I do? My novel is busting to get out and I plan to publish through traditional channels. I created what I call My Grand Plan. At its core, it is:
To retype a copy of a book in my genre by a writer who is better than me and who I admire in an effort to improve the quality of my writing.
I learned to write TV scripts by transcribing shows on to my laptop. The theory being I could then write an episode of the show because I had already written one. I sat at my computer starting and stopping the show on Netflix and typing each word into the format. It was not easy, but it worked. The first spec script I sent out yielded an opportunity to work at Cartoon Pizza in New York. The head writer told me it was hard to believe it is my first spec script. If it worked for TV, why not a novel?
The idea is not mine. When I was twelve, I read a book, “On Becoming on Novelist,” by John Gardener. The only thing I remember from this book is the recommendation to copy the style of admired authors. Copy your favorite books by hand word-for-word with all the punctuation. Somewhere there exists the first few chapters of “Gone With the Wind,” and a short story by Mark Twain in my childish handwriting.
My writing got me into grad school and took me to New York City. I have been published in monologue anthologies. My plays have been produced in New York and in Russia. I have won awards. I do not say this to brag. I pride myself on knowing who am as a writer. It is the greatest thing I learned in grad school. I am a storyteller with a natural feel for dialogue and a knack for creating memorable characters who seem to come off the page and sit next to you in the theatre. Why do I think I am not a good writer?
Since I was in third grade I have been plagued by one thing; bad spelling. Couple that with the inability to remember comma rules when creating and a habit of seeing what I thought I wrote on the page instead of what is actually on the page; and you have a writer who has been ridiculed, made fun of and in some cases yelled at for not having a basic competence in writing. I possess a class ring with my name engraved incorrectly because I spelled it wrong on the order form! These things have left me scared and afraid every single time I put something out there because it may come back with, “You want to be a writer and you can’t even spell “it” correctly?” A handwritten comment I once received on a manuscript.
In person people see me as a confident writer sure of my abilities and able to handle honest critiques of my work. For the most part, that is true. However, a little comment on my grammar or spelling will reduce me to a blithering mess in a second.
You see, when you write scripts, spelling and grammar do not matter so much. When you write dialogue, you write the language the way people speak it. This is not the case with fiction. Yes, there are editors and proofreaders, but it is your name on the by line and you have to know the choices to be made. There are choices of sentence structure, word choice, pacing and a thousand other things no editor or proofreader can do. Long before your book is published you must demonstrate to agents and publishers extreme competence at writing the English language.
When I moved back to Michigan and knew my only writing outlet was fiction, I practiced. I started two blogs; one on tumblr and a cooking blog. I wrote short stories for the first time in 20 years. I even took an online grammar course. And I participated and won NaNoWriMo. I pulled out some of my old short stories and they were pretty good. I was a decent fiction writer before turning playwright. But those stories were proofed and worked in a writing group at Wayne State University and then re-written over a period of years.
Here Comes the Shift
Reading my first issue of Writer’s Digest after returning to fiction, it is the best source for market information, I wrote a 750 word story based on a writing prompt for their Your Story competition. This is the story featured on my tumblr, “750 or Bust.” The story did not place in the contest. I was not surprised since I thought the 1,300 word version was the best. It was different from anything I had written to date, so I put it in my active file to re-write. The plan was to enter it in the Glimmer Train short fiction contest. I knew it was not a contest winner, so I did not enter it.
I thought and thought about the story. It needed something to pull it out of the doldrums. Then it came to me as I was ordering shoes online and remembered a pair I had to return because they made a funny noise after getting wet. If I could make the shoes of the guard in the story unique and use their sound as a way of suggesting the character is being followed, it would raise the stakes considerably. I tried it. And the story came to life.
I re-wrote again, and a little more and little more. I sent it to beta readers. I did more tweaking to it. Then the moment of truth. I printed it and read it aloud to my dogs. This is when my writing landscape shifted 180 degrees. The story was so good I could not believe I wrote it. All my strengths came shinning through; an interesting story that kept you involved, characters that lived and breathed, a strong sense of place, and the right details. It was suspenseful to boot!
But that was not all. Active voice, correct punctuation usage, varied sentence structure; all those writerly things were there and they were correct in the way a real writer would do them. A writer of fiction. Without my realizing it, when I am engaged on a story, when I am re-writing; I know how to spell, how to write a compound sentence, when to use a semi-colon and when not to. It is ALL there. How? I have no idea.
I engage with a story about people in a way I do not on any other type of writing.
It is a very good thing. It is also a very scary thing.
I can do this.