When I was wee, maybe as young as four or five years old, I frequently went on adventures with my Aunt Martha, aka, The Coolest Aunt. Aunt Martha reminds me of Jo March from Little Women. She’s brilliant, fearless, and ferociously dedicated to her family. Getting the chance to ride in her shiny red convertible with the windows down while we blasted Billy Ocean and munched on Cheetos made me feel like the coolest, happiest little nerd-girl in the world.
I mean, really:
Besides cruising in the Mazda, going to the park, and playing grocery store in my room with plastic cheese, one of our favorite pastimes was going with Aunt Martha’s friend, Patty, and Patty’s niece, Tiffany, to that pantheon of high-class dining and entertainment, Chuck E. Cheese’s. You know, with the cardboard pizza that, when you were wee, was the pinnacle of culinary achievement, and the tickets and plastic twisty tunnels and ball pits and TERRIFYING ANIMATRONIC CREATURES:
My favorite part about Chuck E. Cheese’s, however, was none of these things.
It was skee-ball.
I cared not for Whack-a-Mole or air hockey or that weird game where you had to slide the coins around (?). All I cared about was skee-ball. Glorious, glorious skee-ball. I can still remember the sound and smell of the balls rolling down the chute. (Don’t go there, you dirty readers, you.) I would spend the entire outing camped out at the skee-ball area. Pizza? Psh. Ball pits? Yawn. Not even the plastic twisty tunnels, with all their potential for pretending like I was crawling around Jefferies tubes to hunt down an alien macrovirus, could snatch me from my skee-ball for long.
My most vivid memory is of one particular Chuck E. Cheese’s trip. There stood Tiffany and I at our respective skee-ball lanes, having a grand old time. But, as my observing Coolest Aunt pointed out, there existed one enormous difference between my skee-ball strategy and Tiffany’s.
Basically, I had none.
I was like the baseball player who swings at every pitch, no matter what. I rolled every ball up the ramp with the force of a Titan. Sometimes they even flew with such velocity that they bounced off the top of the scoring area and fell back below without earning me any points at all. I never paused to look or aim, save for a cursory glance at those little white tubes. “I will OWN you,” I thought. “I WILL BE THE BEST SKEE-BALLER EVER,” I thought. And the balls rolled down the chute, and I kept cranking them up the ramp, one after another after another.
Now, granted, this might mean that if aliens allergic to water had invaded our water-filled planet with its water-filled atmosphere, I’d have been able to save the day with a well-aimed
swing of the bat throw of a skee-ball.
But in this situation, it just meant that I hardly ever scored anything and came away from the game frustrated and despairing. Not to mention envious of Tiffany, who took her time with each ball. She gave it a few practice swings. She calmly analyzed the angle of the ramp and the position of each little white tube.
Me? I cranked through a whole game before she’d even gotten through the first three balls. I GLARED at the ramp, at the taunting lights of my abysmal score, and threw ball after ball until I was red in the face and the people around me started backing away, perhaps imagining the headline: “INNOCENT BYSTANDERS DEMOLISHED BY ANGRY GIRL’S RUNAWAY SKEE-BALL.”
But, despite my frustration, I couldn’t abandon the skee-ball. I loved it too much. I had too much fun playing it, despite my awful scores. I’d walk into Chuck E. Cheese’s, and my eyes would immediately gravitate toward the skee-ball ramps. They called to me. They were my Precious.
When I started writing about fifteen years later, I, sadly, approached it in the exact same way.
Claire’s Initial Thought Process Re: Writing:
Claire: I think I’d like to start writing again. You know, that thing I did before I was a musician?
Claire’s Brain: Hey, that sounds pretty neat.
C: But I’m not just going to write. I’m going to WRITE.
CB: Of COURSE you are, sweetie.
C: I’m gonna be A FRICKIN’ BEST-SELLER.
CB: Ain’t no harm in reaching for the stars.
C: MAYBE I’LL WIN PRIZES. LIKE THE NEWBERY. OR THE PULITZER.
CB: …With fantasy fiction? Oh, honey.
C: I’LL WIN THE BOOKER PRIZE, TOO. I’M NOT EVEN IN THE COMMONWEALTH OF NATIONS. BUT I’LL WIN IT.
CB: All right, your English accent is passable and all that, but still…
C: AND IF I DON’T SUCCEED AT ALL THESE THINGS, I WILL BE AN UTTER FAILURE.
CB: Well, that’s a bit–
C: I’M GONNA START RIGHT NOW.
CB: Wow, really? Because–
C: RIGHT NOW. RAH RAH FORGET ALL OTHER RESPONSIBILITIES! EXTREMISM!
CB: …You know, maybe you should do some things first. To prepare.
C: LIKE WHAT? *GLARES AT EMPTY WORD DOCUMENT* *ROLLS UP SLEEVES*
CB: Maybe you should, I don’t know, read. You don’t really read anymore.
C: NO TIME FOR READING. MUST WRITE GREAT AMERICAN NOVEL.
CB: Yeah, but you don’t know anything about writing, really. Or publishing, and what’s selling, and how to get published, and–
C: STOP TALKING. TIME FOR
And then I proceeded to, well, crank out a bunch of scoreless balls. (DON’T, I said.)
I wrote a book that was too big for me.
I didn’t read. Like, anything.
I researched the publishing industry only long enough to find out about these things called “query letters,” and then before going any further and researching things like appropriate word count and how long a query letter should be, I started querying IMMEDIATELY.
I received requests for revisions, thought about them for maybe twenty minutes, hurried to finish them in a few days, and IMMEDIATELY sent them back without even a pause to sit back and breathe.
BALL AFTER BALL AFTER BALL. With no thought behind it whatsoever.
No thought, but a lot of passion.
And the scoreboard remained blank.
It’s like I was afraid to slow down to plan and think and put in the grunt work of becoming a writer, because if I stopped long enough to do that, I’d see how much work it was actually going to be. How many words I’d have to write before I could even begin to truly grasp story structure. How many books I’d have to read before I understood how to write something that would sell.
I’d see that the shot I really needed to win the game was into that little white tube way up in the corner. Big points, that tube. But hard to reach.
It took me a long time to realize that it takes a long time to write books.
It took me an even longer time to realize that it’s okay that it takes a long time to write books.
I’m still realizing that even once you write a book, even once you sell a book, you’ll always be learning.
And sometimes, you have to stop, take a step back, breathe, and give yourself time to learn what you need to learn to be successful.
I struggle with this. I probably always will. My instinct is to CRANK CRANK CRANK, and if it doesn’t work out on the first crank, and the ball doesn’t score, I have to fight to not feel like a failure, like I’ve wasted my time and am not working hard enough.
But the truth is, my friend Tiffany, who took her time before each shot, who planned carefully and analyzed what she was about to do, even if it meant that it took her longer to complete a game? She scored higher than I ever did.
She wasn’t afraid to take her time.
I’m working on a couple of different projects right now. One of them is particularly awesome but has also been particularly challenging, and it’s taken me longer than I expected to get it where it needs to be.
When I first realized this, that it was going to take longer, that it was going to be more of a challenge than I’d thought, I went straight down The Vortex of Doubt and Self-Loathing: “Why can’t I work faster? Why can’t I write better? Why can’t I figure this out the first time around instead of having to revise and re-work and re-think? I can’t do this. I’m not going fast enough. I’ll never finish.”
If you ever experience these moments — and I’m sure that you have — just stop.
You’re wrong. You’re going just as fast as you need to be, for you, your project, and your career.
When you have these moments, Think Skee-ball. I have to remind myself to Think Skee-ball all the time. Going lickety-split doesn’t always work out (although it might be impressive in a train wreck sort of way). There’s no rule about how fast or slow you play the game. What matters is the score at the end, and if your score keeps improving, and if, maybe someday, you can make the shot into that high corner tube in every single game.
Don’t rush to finish a book just because “it should be finished by now.”
Don’t send out a project before it’s ready with the thought that “if I don’t send it out now, I’ll lose my chance forever.”
Take the time to read, even if it means you write fewer words per day.
Story structure is a challenge for you? World-building? Character development? The technicalities of prose? Don’t be afraid to take the time to learn, even if that means it’ll takes a month (two months, six months, a year) longer to finish your book than it would otherwise.
Take the time to research — the publishing industry, the best agents for you, winning query letters, great synopses. Five well-placed, well-researched, well-ripped-apart-and-put-back-together-from-scratch query letters will get you farther than twenty query letters sent out without a plan.
Don’t crank out ball after ball until you’re red in the face and scare innocent
What matters isn’t how fast you play. What matters is the score at the end.
Okay, I have a huge craving for skee-ball right now. Writers’ party at Chuck E. Cheese’s, amirite?