There are some lessons in life that stick to you like spaghetti sauce stains to plastic storage containers. Others, however, are often quickly forgotten, forcing you to learn them over and over again.
For me, Passion before Publication falls in the latter category.
I first learned this lesson about twenty years ago when I decided to take a writers workshop class at my local community college.
Holy cow. Twenty years … has it really been that long??? Wow. That kind of makes me depressed.
Anyway, moving on.
The workshop was lead by author Christine Lincoln, a vibrant woman I adored right away and whom’s warm smile made me feel at ease, despite my fear of being there. She’s also the author of Sap Rising, (affiliate link,) a novel that sits on my desk as a reminder of the lessons she taught me.
Here’s how the workshop worked: Each week, students would submit a short story, poem, or novel chapter to be read out loud and then verbally critiqued verbally by our classmates, a concept that terrified me.
And by that, I mean TERRIFIED.
And while our stories were being critiqued, aka, ripped apart ruthlessly, we weren’t allowed to say anything. Not. One. Word. We just sat there, taking it all in, until everyone was finished. Then, you could ask questions for better clarity.
Or cry, whatever the case.
Now. At that point in my writing journey, I had given up on picture books. The hundred or so rejections I’ve collected hinted that it might not be my forte. So instead, I had written a mid-grade novel roughly based on my farm girl’s childhood days called An Empty Barn.
This book, I was certain, was going to be published.
That was my focus back then: to just be PUBLISHED. It didn’t matter where or with what. Picture books, mid-grades, a puzzle in Highlights magazine, whatever, I just wanted some kind of validation from my name in print. Surely then, I would finally be able to call myself a writer.
As for my novel, The Empty Barn, it was …. okay. Maybe not the most dynamic story in the world, but certainly not the worse, and a story I believed was on par with others on the market and therefore, publishable.
But I didn’t love it.
I didn’t feel passion for the story, despite some of the tales being from my childhood. And my classmates clearly didn’t love it from their lackluster critique. That was okay, though. I could fix the story and strengthen the plot with more hard work and rewrites, right?
I soon realized it was my lack of love and not the plot that was the problem on the final night of class when someone asked Christine about the novel she was currently working on.
This made her smile, like a shy, coy girl who was just asked about her secret crush.
An enamored, loving smile filled her face as she sat on a stool, her dark hair wound with a colorful scarf and her eyes glowing with warmth as she began to talk about her characters like they were her best friends. She waved her hands with an artist’s flair as she described the setting, making it come alive in our minds.
She laughed about the funny situations her characters found themselves in.
She cried about their pain, their losses.
And all the while, I sat transfixed from her animated glee and the way she’d sometimes pop off her stool to emphasize a point, her sheer, unfiltered passion for this story filling the room.
Then it hit me: I wanted that passion.
I wanted to write a story with characters I adored and loved like family, like best friends. I wanted to create a setting so rich and endearing that I’d be jealous about not being able to live there, myself.
I wanted to laugh. I wanted to cry.
I wanted that passion.
This, I realized, is why An Empty Barn received such a lackluster reception. And why I knew, deep down inside, that it would never be published. That it didn’t deserve to be published.
I didn’t love it. And if the author doesn’t love their own story, who else will?
The next day, I abandoned An Empty Barn, chucking it in a pile of other dud manuscripts that will never see the light of day. Instead, I started writing another mid-grade called Lighten Up, Lilly, a novel my mother loved more than I did, unfortunately, so in the pile it went.
I then read Joan Bauer’s Hope was Here, a wonderful novel that made me fall head over heels in love with the young adult genre.
About a month later, as though by fate, I was driving down the road and saw a sign in front of a charming white rancher that said BEAUTY SHOP FOR RENT, fully equipped, inquired within. The novelty of an old-fashioned home beauty salon, a dying breed thanks to Hair Cutteries and other chains, sparked something inside of me.
What if an older, set-in-her-ways woman discovered her abandoned teenage granddaughter on her front porch one rainy evening.
And there it began. The spark soon became a story with endearing characters whom felt like best friends in a charming setting that felt like home.
A story that I loved and the beginnings of Beauty Shop for Rent.
While writing and rewriting the novel … about a bazillion times … I made the decision to NOT think about publication. I didn’t worry about whether or not the story was strong enough for the market. I didn’t wonder if it’d be a wise choice for a debut novelist or if it’d land me an agent and get me out of unpublished hell.
I only worried about PASSION instead of publication.
And here’s the kicker: By doing so, I ended up writing a charming, lovely, heartfelt story that did, in fact, get me an agent. That was published. That earned out after only one month and won several awards.
As with some lessons, however, it is one that I’ve had to repeatedly learn over and over throughout my writing journey. Like when I worried more about what would make a good sophomore novel as a follow up to Beauty Shop. Or now, when I often worry about the woman’s fiction novel I’m writing being strong enough for self-publication.
I can’t allow myself to think about that right now. Not yet. The first priority is to write a story with passion and love, one that makes me laugh, cry, and smile.
If I do that, the rest will fall into place.
So Christine, if you happen to stumble upon my small blog to read this, THANK YOU SO MUCH for the invaluable lesson! And thanks, also, for the sweet card you sent me after the workshop. I still treasure it!
Happy writing, friends, and go find that passion!