When I was nine years old, I entered a spelling bee and made an unpleasant discovery.
It was my second bee. At eight, I won first place in the local second-grade bee. It was my only extracurricular activity; being relatively friendless and spending all that time in libraries, I read so much that I couldn’t help knowing how words were spelled. The spelling-bee nerds were already at the bottom of the school’s social ladder, so they lost no face by being seen with me, which was a bit like having a social circle, especially with the coach encouraging me. And I found winning relatively easy, and liked it, so I accepted an invitation to enter the third-grade bee the following year.
The night before the bee, I went to bed feeling a little more tired than usual. I woke up the next morning with horrible stomach cramps, but there was no way I was going to miss the competition, and besides, the house rule was that if you were well enough to walk to the front door, you were well enough to do whatever you had to do on the other side of it. I could walk, albeit slowly, so I went to school.
I made it all the way through my first class of the day before I threw up on the floor of the school chapel. A teacher told me I was just nervous about the spelling bee that afternoon, and didn’t believe me when I told her that I wasn’t nervous at all. So I got into some parent’s car and was driven to the nearby site of the bee.
By the time the first round was over, I had to raise my hand and ask to be excused to go to the bathroom. Soon I was fleeing the room after every round, vomiting or passing diarrhea, and the grown-ups running the bee started sending proctors into the bathroom with me to make sure I wasn’t hiding spelling lists in the stall.
You see, every time I staggered back into that room and was given a word to spell, I spelled it correctly. Sometimes I swayed in place or doubled over when I was done, but I always spelled the word right.
In my memory, the day is a blur. I don’t remember a single word I spelled, only the black-and-white tile pattern on the bathroom walls and my fierce determination that I was not going to wash out on a technicality, not on the one thing I was any good at. My mom seemed to understand; while she never pushed me to keep spelling, she supported my choice every time I made it. And so after every round, regardless of whether I’d passed blood or heaved air into the toilet because there was nothing left in my stomach, I hauled my nine-year-old self upright and shuffled painfully back to that room and kept on spelling.
Shortly after they handed me the first-place trophy, I finally let my mom rush me to the emergency room, where assorted medical professionals yelled at us both for letting me get so dehydrated and not coming in sooner. I showed up at school the next day to show that teacher the trophy and the note from an ER doctor saying that I had a stomach virus and a lethal case of stubbornness.
I still have that golden-bee trophy, plus its twin from the year before; I use them as bookends. I’m looking at them as I type this, and remembering the lessons I learned that day.
First, I learned that I was some kind of bloody-minded psychopath when it came to getting something that really mattered to me. That was always a short list of somethings, but it was good to know that I was that disturbingly stubborn about the contents of that list. It made me keep a close eye on the list, lest I waste that suicidal stubbornness on an unworthy goal.
Second, I learned that the fact that a task is difficult, or even painful, doesn’t mean it’s impossible. I hadn’t exactly been a quitter before, but now I knew that sometimes, if you just worked hard enough and thought fast enough and endured enough pain, good things could happen. Sometimes it was just a question of whether the good things were worth it.
With lessons like that, you’ve pretty much figured out this blog entry is bad news, haven’t you?
For the billionth time, I can’t tell you everything that’s going on with Masks … except to say that, at least for now, the book is dead. Some very promising leads have dried up, and barring a miracle, it doesn’t look like Rae and Trevor are going to see print anytime soon.
First and foremost, I want to tell you guys how sorry I am about that.
No, really. I think I may have the most astonishingly loyal and selfless fanbase in the world. The fact that, between MySpace and Facebook, over 1,000 people have signed up to support a novel that doesn’t even have a publisher—that maybe a half-dozen of them have read, in any form, ever—just blows me away. It makes me feel like I’m fifteen again and getting my first fan letter—who the hell am I to be attracting all this attention? I’m just goofing around having fun over here, and I’m sharing the fun because people asked nicely and it seemed the polite thing to do. And so I feel absolutely horrible to come before you now and tell you that the long-promised book is not going to materialize.
I wish I could hand you guys the book right now to read, for free. In fact, until recently, I had planned to serialize Masks on the Web if I couldn’t find a publisher, just because I didn’t want to leave you guys hanging. It’s what I did with the original stories, all those years ago, and I was happy doing it then because I was telling stories I liked and giving people a little joy. That alone is reason enough for me to write.
But, er, remember the lessons of the spelling bee?
Here, briefly, is the reason Masks has died: it’s not quite good enough. After four or five major top-to-bottom rewrites, trying to incorporate every set of notes under the sun—get rid of this character, bring them back, have one protagonist, have two, use this villain or that one, bring in these themes and toss those out—I couldn’t quite get all the disjointed pieces to fit together. When I was growing up in the South Bay, near the old aerospace factories, I used to hear the saying, “Beat to shape, trim to fit, paint to match.” Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, that approach works … but when you do it the hundredth time, you often destroy your aircraft’s structural integrity. The major criticism of Masks, ultimately, was that it wasn’t “organic”, that the pieces no longer worked together as they should. I have been told I am a very good writer, good enough that I almost made it work … which is apparently very impressive all by itself. But I didn’t make it work, not quite, and ultimately publishers are no longer in the business of taking almost-but-not-quite-perfect books and trying to make them perfect.
Most people outside the publishing industry who have read Masks, including some Hollywood producers who got the manuscript by accident (long story, and it really was an accident), think it’s phenomenal. But I don’t want to write a screenplay, at least not yet. I want to write a novel. And I want to make it the best novel I can possibly make it, the kind of novel you guys deserve after waiting so long and so patiently for me to tell you this story. I want to write the kind of book that will curl up in your heart and keep it warm for years to come, the kind that never leaves you. I want to write something worthy of your support. And I want it as badly as I wanted that spelling-bee trophy in third grade, and for the same reason—this is the only thing I’m really good at, and there is just no point in using your one gift to do things half-assed.
So I am going to do the hardest thing I can imagine. Harder than passing blood, or spelling words when the only thing my mouth wants to do is vomit. Harder, even, than giving up on the book that has broken my heart, harder than digging a hole and burying it and moving on to more promising projects.
I am going to wait.
Right now, I have another project on the front burner, and it’s attracted a fair amount of interest. It’s a science-fiction story, both the darkest and the most joyous thing I’ve ever written, and intimately personal to me. It’s also—and I say this as someone who hates speaking ill of any project she’s worked on for more than a decade—quite a lot better than Masks. I have been advised to pursue this project, which is considered more saleable, for now. I love writing it, and I think it has great potential. You’ll hear more about it in the coming weeks.
And eventually—maybe after this book, maybe after the next, maybe a few years from now when I’ve learned enough to properly execute an idea as ambitious as Masks—I will come back to the world of Rae Masterson and Trevor Gray, and I will get it right. I will start again from the beginning, and I will use the lessons I’m learning now to write that book that will move into your heart and take up residence. And when it’s right, you’ll get to read it. I’m working on developing the maturity and the perspective to recognize right when it finally comes along, and while I’ll understand if you’re not willing to wait around indefinitely for a story you’ve never seen, I will do my best to make that story worthy of those who stay. And I promise that you’ll get to see it when the time does come, regardless of whether a mainstream publisher wants to take a chance on it.
I’ve tried a few times to quit writing Masks stories, but in 13 years I haven’t been able to do it. Perhaps I never will. Every story I write has a little fragment of my soul in it, but Masks has great heaping chunks. I go off to write other things and pursue other interests, and I never give it less than my full effort, but somehow Rae and Trevor never really leave me.
I don’t quit. I take occasional sabbaticals, but I do not quit. If it matters enough, I go back in that room and I keep on spelling. And this matters to me more than anything else I’ve ever written, not least because it matters so much to you guys.
So this blog will keep going. Some of the entries and videos will disappear, because they won’t be accurate anymore to whatever Masks will eventually become. The stories will go away, too, to be replaced by something better. I will wait for the wounds to scar over before I pick myself up and get back into the fight. And once the scarring’s done, from time to time, you will see little bits of what the world of Masks is turning into. Maybe there will be artwork, maybe a scene or a short story, maybe just a little fragment of something. I may ask for your opinions sometimes, and when I do that I’m asking for your real opinions, not your support (unless you believe the matter in question deserves that support).
You won’t see those fragments anytime soon. The current book, and the next book, and the others, will have to take priority for now. But difficult is not impossible. Painful is not insurmountable. I am a better writer now than I was when I started Masks, and if I keep practicing my craft and honing my skills, I have no reason to think I won’t improve still more. And I make you this promise now—when you do get to read Rae’s and Trevor’s story, whatever form it eventually takes, it will be worth the wait. It’ll be a thousand times better than almost-but-not-quite-perfect. I’ll do my best to earn your continued support with assorted interesting bloggery, and when the time comes, I will justify your faith with a book that’s worthy of all the time you’ve spent on it.
I hope you’ll stick with me until then.