I sat at dinner with a writer and an agent talking shop. Stimtulating conversation kept us glued to our table as others came and went. We ordered dessert and coffee to further prolong the enjoyable evening.
Stories about our past work wandered back to a novel I wrote in 2003, called If Pennies Could Talk. The writer asked me to describe it. I gave it my best and offered a brief overview. I mentioned how much I loved the creative work of fiction. The agent asked me why I focused on non-fiction now. I felt my mind squirm a bit, getting restless as it does when I fear I’ve wandered off too far from my artistic path.
Then the agent asked me the most important question of our long conversation.
“What shelf would that novel be on if it was in the store today?”
I paused. Stymied.
“Whose book would yours be next to?” he asked as a follow-up question.
Gotcha. I didn’t know. My restless mind turned into an anxious squeaking wheel with a hamster running along it. I stayed up a couple of hours after I tried to go bed. I awoke the next morning as if my mind hadn’t stopped picking at this all night.
I realized how easy it is to miss the most basic things required to be successful. If you don’t know what you goal is with a book, you won’t hit it. If you don’t know what shelf in a Barnes and Noble you want your book to eventually sit on, it’s a good chance it won’t. If you don’t know whose writing is similar to yours, it’s a good chance you don’t have a style of your own.
Why am I using second person? I write to myself.
I spent the next morning polling those who read my book. I asked them who they think I write like. Their answers surprised me, especially they were all very similar. If I didn’t know now who I wrote like, I knew it then. I just lose focus too often trying to be something I am not.
I learned more from that than I had in a while. I learned I had gotten stagnant at the worst possible time, a time when I am actively shopping books, when my focus, prose and projects should resemble the edge of a barber’s blade, glistening with precision.
A couple of months back we started a writers’ critique group that meets once a month. It has become one of the best events on my calendar. I catch the motivation and creativity of the other writers like a contagious disease. In their company, I am reminded of my most basic life goals: to write and work with writers. I rediscover the focus I need to get better at my craft. It sharpens my writing blade. It reminds me I can’t write alone. Nobody, in fact, writes alone.
My frustration eventually gave way to gratitude for the talented writers I work with these days. From the sense of gratitude grew renewed energy. From that energy my resolve stiffened.
Then, I got back to work, keeping in mind exactly where I expect my book to sit to very soon.