A Year of Finishing Novels: Special Guest Post from Jacob M. Appel

Though we are in the throws of National Poetry Writing Month and the A to Z Challenge, the theme this year for Experience Writing is A Year of Finishing Novels, and I need to get back to mine. To rekindle my motivation and hopefully yours, we have a very special guest post from author Jacob M. Appel whose new novel, Shaving with Occam, came out this January.

Jacob M. Appel is an American author, poet, bioethicist, physician, lawyer and social critic. He is currently an Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and Medical Education at Mount Sinai’s Icahn School of Medicine, where he is Director of Ethics Education in Psychiatry. He is also the author of novels, short story collections, an essay collections, a volume of poems and a compendium of medical dilemmas.

The Third Priority: Reflections upon Motivation

I have now published twenty books. That places me one volume ahead of the late Joan Didion—if this were a competition—one volume behind Ann Beattie, and some incalculable number of texts short of the prolific Joyce Carol Oates. Some of my books have been reasonably well-received: or, at least, my grandmother enjoyed them. Others have evaporated into that forlorn ether of remaindered novels, shorn of their covers or relegated to the bargain bins that serve library fundraisers. Unlike with my first few novels, which I secretly fantasized might win plaudits from Oprah and Harold Bloom, become staples of cocktail conversation and college curricula, and ultimately alter the course of western civilization, I have now accepted that my twenty-first book is unlikely to outsell Harry Potter. In all likelihood, it will not even outperform the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili. And yet I am determined to see my obscure literary brainchild to fruition. Which leads to the question: How does a writer motivate himself while scribbling well below the cultural radar screen?

The easy answer is that I have not fully accepted that my twenty-first book won’t prove the intellectual earthquake that my first twenty were not. This does happen. Some writers, like Kafka and John Kennedy Toole, have to wait for posthumous glory, but many others—including some of our most cherished authors—did not gain significant readerships until midway through their careers. Toni Morrison, for instance, had published two exquisite novels, The Bluest Eye and Sula, before she won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Song of Solomon at the age of forty-six and finally garnered the attention she deserved. Cormac McCarthy’s first five novels, including Blood Meridian, received limited notice—until All the Pretty Horses shattered the nation’s literary icescape when he was sixty. So maybe there is hope for me yet. In any case, it is never too late to publish a “break out” book—as Harriet Doerr did at 74 and Millard Kaufman at 90. Building up a body of work can be a path to making that happen. Edith Pearlman’s brilliant Honeydew offers an outstanding example of how a crowning achievement can be both the capstone of a literary career and a door to recognition for previous work. Nothing wrong with thinking big, and so you should. It’s not as though you’re asking to play shortstop for the New York Yankees or marry the Queen of England; rather, you’re seeking recognition for work in an area where you have developed skills over many years of hard work and commitment. That is not at all unreasonable.

But how does a writer operationalize that (to use the language of the modern economy)? Thinking big is good and well in theory, but much harder when you’re using your first twenty books as doorstops and your children keep asking you why the heat has been turned off and a mattress-sized hole in the roof lets in the snow. My limited wisdom is to make writing one’s third priority in life. Not, I emphasize, one’s first priority. A mistake many writers make is trying to prioritize their writing ahead of other fundamental obligations like work and family. Maybe this works if you’re J. D. Salinger or Emily Dickinson, but like starvation diets, most such efforts succumb to the pressures of daily living. Earning a living and engaging with one’s family are usually the top two priorities for most human beings, although both definitions of livelihood and family are certainly fluid and flexible in the modern era. Embrace that. But make sure writing is one’s third priority—ahead of learning Esperanto or how to play the oboe or binge watching all of the original episodes of What’s My Line? If writing ranks below third on the list of life’s obligations, one is far less likely to complete novel one, let alone twenty-one.

Often, I have discovered, my students believe that they are making writing their third priority, when they’re not. I confess I am often guilty of this self-deception myself. What they are actually prioritizing are the small, mundane tasks—finishing their taxes, sending out Christmas presents—that they believe stand in the way of writing, so that they will then have a schedule free and clear to write. Maybe it is human nature to tackle these minor tasks before large creative ones, or possibly, we’re trained to do this as part of our elementary school time-management education, but in either case, it’s a great skill set for an administrative assistance, but not for a writer. These minor tasks sap one’s energy, so that when one finally has a clear schedule, one no longer has the stamina or drive to put pen to paper. Write first! Then tackle the chores of daily living. I assure you that nobody is going to send you to prison for tax evasion, or refuse to invite you to eat cranberries and roast goose, if you arrive at the post office at 3pm and not 9am. In contrast, sitting down to your novel after a series of errands can prove daunting.

Yet I suspect the leading obstacle to writing, for most writers, is writing itself. What do I mean? Most writers have a number of literary projects in their hopper—as well as requests for book reviews, friends who seek blurbs, colleagues who ask for a clever, short commentary for a newsletter or solicit a human-interest article for the local paper, etc. These offers are often flattering; they can prove rewarding. In aggregate, they are also the novelist’s sworn enemies. It is not enough to make writing one’s third priority. One must make one’s principal literary project, whether a novel or a work of nonfiction, one’s third priority. Otherwise, one will drown under the weight of interesting yet tangential projects.

Which leads us to priority number four: Submitting. If you’re going to make writing your third priority, you owe it to yourself to make sending that writing out into the world your fourth priority. Do not dither, or doubt yourself, or let the perfect be the enemy of the good. None of us may ever catch up with Joyce Carol Oates, but we don’t have to. It only takes one book, and we are all only 54,000 words away from our own Great Gatsby. If it’s not book twenty-one for me, then at least I’m one step closer.

More Novels by Jacob M. Appel

See into the future: No more missed opportunities

Heron in flight

With renewed passion and fresh eyes, my story will take wing.

Happy New Year! I know I’m a week late to the party, but I’m finally feeling like getting started, so better late, right?

A new year, a new project

I have an exciting new project for this year inspired by a tweet from Julie Reeser (@abetterjulie) asking about end of year processing and planning. She got me thinking about planning. I’ve been in survival mode for a very long time and though I’m glad that keeps me in the moment, it has kept me from making plans.

Julie’s tweet got me thinking about the many times I have happened upon a submission that excited me only to find out the deadline had just passed or was hours from closing. I don’t want to live on the edge of submission deadlines anymore. I want to plan ahead and have the time to submit my best work to reach my publication goals. To this end, I am starting a quarterly daily planner with writers who are submitting short stories and poetry while writing novels specifically in mind. As in me and hopefully you.

My original goal was to have the first quarter (January – March) planner available to download already, but that doesn’t make a lot of sense because this is really an experiment in what actually works to motivate me to get stories submitted, rejected, revised, (submitted, rejected, submitted) x infinity, rejected and finally accepted. It’s the multiplication part I appear to have a problem with and hope to overcome.

One of the ideas that has inspired me to submit more–work harder toward rejection–is the lovely goal of reaching 100 rejections in a year. On the surface, that sounds pretty crazy: I would have to write 100 stories in a year? No. Having that many drafts by the end of the year would be awesome! But I don’t think I would have time to do anything else, and I have other stuff to do. I wouldn’t send the same story off to be rejected from 100 different editors either. However, in a combination of daily submission goals for stories I have written and stories I will write along with poetry submissions, contest entries and a grant submission or two, I might be able to reach that goal of 100 rejections along with a pile of acceptance letters. That’s the joy of the idea. If you look for 100 rejection letters, you may have to work harder because of the people who start saying yes. It’s a great form of reverse psychology as long as your actual goal is to publish and not to accumulate rejection letters.

I also have a novel manuscript that I am fine-tuning to submit. I want to create a planner that inspires all types of writing submissions, rejections, editing, and re-submitting.

If my planner design helps motivate me, I hope to have created a tried and true planner for 2020 to inspire all writers by the end of the year.

So far, I’m approaching the project (and the design) like organizers say to approach any project: Large goals, broken into smaller goals, broken into small, achievable goals.

Planners don’t work for me if I waste time filling in my planner, so I want the important stuff to take very little time. The point to creating this is to inform. I want to know at the beginning of the quarter of the year what stories I’m submitting and who to send them to, by name. I don’t want to waste days researching them when it should be at my fingertips. It’s aggravating to me when I have to spend an entire day, or a week, trying to figure out who to address my cover letter to. It shouldn’t ever be that hard, especially when you’ve cared to do the research. My idea, is to include a magazine for each day of the planner, as an idea for one of each day’s submission.

An area that I’m still contemplating is contests. I have heard that contests can be important, but looking through the wonderful poets and writers calendar, it turns out most of them cost money. I think I can add one or two contests to my budget each month, especially if the judges provide feedback.

January Submission Goals

These are the submissions I will put on my January 2019 goals:

1/15 Outlook Springs end submission period

1/15  The Dallas Review  end submission period

1/24  Sixfold  contest $5

1/31 Nelson Algren Short Story award

1/31 Dark Regions contest “Possession”

This short list is a great reminder why it’s important to plan ahead. I have stories I can send to Outlook Springs, The Dallas Review and Sixfold, but I need to read past issues and find the story that fits best. For the Nelson Algren award, I want to get familiar with Algren’s work. Because I planned ahead, I was able to put his book, The Neon Wilderness, on hold at my local library and am already becoming familiar with his work. For the Dark Regions contest, I’m writing an original story. Finding the right story to match a call for submissions, and writing a news story all take time, so planning three months in advance is my goal, but one month will have to do for now.

Submission sources

I have also started a list of magazines to write overviews for and add to the daily submissions goals. I’m finding submissions information from:

Poets & Writers

Submittable

New Pages

and interesting things I see on Twitter

Books, Books, Books

Every writer has to read, a lot. Over the last few years I have been reading like a starving monster, consuming anything that gets in my path. Though there’s nothing wrong with that, I noticed that my reading goals list on Goodreads was pretty much ignored last year and I transferred most of it to this year. To remedy this, I’ve decided to add a reading section to my planner that includes at least two fiction novels, fiction short story collections, poetry collections and non-fiction books per month.

Here are January’s reading goals:

Fiction novels: Hawksmoor by Peter Ackroyd, The Outsider: A Novel by Stephen King

Fiction short story: The Neon Wilderness by Nelson Algren, America’s Emerging Writers (I finally got my paperback and I’m enjoying reading everyone else’s stories. Yay!)

Poetry: The Carrying: Poems by Ada Limon, Selected Poems (William Carlos Williams)

Non-Fiction: The Philippines: A Singular And A Plural Place, Fourth Edition (Nations of the Modern World) by David Joel Steinberg, The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller by John Truby

 

If you have suggestions for what I should include in planner, I would love to hear from you. I hope you will join me in my experiment to plan ahead.

 

Happy Reading and Writing