Jump off the Ivory Tower
Two weeks ago, I went to a conference looking for new representation. At around the same time, my friends were flying out to their universities. There’s been a lot of doubt around my decision to take a leave of absence this semester to see my book through, but I’ve never felt such clarity about anything in my life. Going to school was actually what made me sure about not going back (for now, anyway).
The number one lesson I learned from a semester of academic writing was, I don’t like it. Not because I’m three, but because it doesn’t do much for anybody except complicate what was meant to be inherently clear. I’m convinced that bad writing stems from the same frame of mind that most English classes do. Because nobody really cares about structure, or motifs, or vocabulary words, or grammar, or what, exactly, those blue curtains symbolize. When you focus on technique alone, you lose holistic beauty, you lose story, you lose real insight, everybody’s miserable. Writers only keep “literary” concepts in mind because they’re necessary tools, much in the same way that basic algebra is an uninteresting yet necessary tool for mathematicians. What writers actually care about, though, are the same questions that most other academic fields (science, philosophy etc.) are trying to tackle: the hell is this place, what’s going on here, and who’s asking?
But people get confused. They stop genuinely caring about those questions. They get pompous and show off all they know in the most extravagant manner possible, not because they’re actually resolving any problems, but because it makes them look good. I used to fall for this game all the time, and I don’t want to play it anymore. Ever since I figured out what I want to say, I’ve had no interest in one-upping anybody. If academia continues to embrace an attitude of pride without curiosity, I want no part of it. Expanding human experience and the span of human consciousness is more important to me than expanding my own ego by getting some critic from Harvard to think I’m the shit.
And that’s why the conference went better than I could’ve imagined.
The night before, I practiced my pitch and read pieces of my draft to my mother. She hadn’t read anything of mine in a long time, and this is what she had to say: “I love your writing. But it’s different now. There are less words. It’s more human.” When I asked her about the pitch (the non-rambly version that took a week to come up with), she said “I actually really like your book, and I hate sci-fi.” She went on to explain that she liked it because of the overarching concept and because it was about “self reliance in an increasingly systematic and mechanical world”, not because of any particular plot points or literary tricks, which was exactly what I wanted to hear from her. (My mother is the only person in existence who has given me an honest opinion about absolutely everything, however harsh, and I love her for it. Now that I think about it, my dad qualifies, too.)
When I showed up at the conference full of scary old people, I sat down and met with an agent who I’d researched (stalked) before and whose work I felt coincided well with mine. And even though I was nervous, bad at talking, a teenager with almost no merit, I managed to get through everything I’d prepared the night before. I did my best to answer her questions. Just when I thought I’d entirely bombed the meeting and started gathering my things, she surprised me. Turns out, the work itself was enough to establish the connection I’d been hoping for, no matter who was pitching it or how. She wanted the manuscript. She even wanted a sequel. And that was the first formal pitch I’ve ever given for this novel, and the first formal pitch I’ve ever given in person. I immediately drove home to Salt Lake, ditched the rest of the conference and took a three day nap, confused about how easy the whole thing had been.
In summary, here’s what changed this time around: for this book, I stopped trying to sound a certain way or impress anybody. I didn’t play mind games with the reader, although those can be fun. I intentionally decided to write for a YA market for the sake of clarity, even though past me would’ve rather published no book at all than a straightforward sci-fi YA novel. I threw away other people’s concepts of “good”, and my pride, and put my ideas together in a way that would be useful to people. It worked. Or, it’s working.
Even though my draft still isn’t entirely finished, I have everything and everyone I need. We’re getting ridiculously close now, and I can see the end. I have until November 15th to turn it in, and I’ve no doubt in myself anymore. I better not, because, as far as I can see, self-doubt is the only abstraction that can get in my way at this point.
So, forget about looking smart or cool or whatever, and jump off the ivory tower. As one of my characters says, “I’m no longer trying to impress you, I’m trying to help you.” (I quote myself because I’m a huge narcissist.)
That’s all I have to say for now. That, and wow, you’ve got a good attention span.