I’ve always been a Jill-of-all-trades, master of a couple. My interests lie everywhere, and it’s so hard for me to focus them. Exhibit A: I have degrees (between majors and minors) in psychobiology, chemistry, health education and behavior, biostatistics, epidemiology, and health behavior, with a concentration in quantitative methods. Oh, and just for good measure, I’m 1 credit short of degrees in physics and anthropology. All of these come from a Tier 1 school.
I’m not bragging—quite the opposite. I’m self-deprecating about it because I’ve always seen my diverse interests as shameful, flighty, like I was not good/disciplined/smart enough to focus my mind on performing one thing and excelling at it. Everything interested me, and I wanted to knoooooow. Plus, I was good at most of it.
The proclivity for dipping my toes in too many things complicated graduate school, in part because mania (which makes you expansive and creative) always lurks behind the temporary experience of clarity, ready to pounce when I’m under duress, and in part because everything was interesting. Hey, look, here’s a system of mathematics that tells you whether your data mean anything, and since it can be programmed into a computer, I don’t even need to take Diff-Eq (differential equations)! And wow, if you just follow Bandura, you can predict (and thus manipulate) any behavior! I was everywhere. Master of quantitative methods especially, but with an emphasis on the qualitative stuff, too. Because why not?
And I got to the point where I had no clue what I was “good at” because I was spread too thin to focus specifically on the treatment of AIDS in Zimbabwe or whether anxiety and depressive symptoms in cancer patients fueled disease progression, or whatever. My Dissertation Chair called me a methodologist. Rather than being a master of a specific discipline, I could tell you how to build your study and/or what was wrong with it across any discipline.
Those of you who really know me can imagine how happy that made me. Getting paid to tell you what to do and what you’ve done wrong is so very Jaimie.
I berated myself, feeling like UNC should never have awarded me the PhD, that they probably thought I didn’t deserve it because I didn’t have A THING. I feared I’d never belong anywhere and would get stuck doing mundane work forever because I was “less than” and “flighty” by focusing on how to do things more so than what, specifically, to do.
So, you’re probably sitting there thinking, yeah, but what does any of this have to do with writing? Let me tell you.
Between the expansiveness of mania and the critical perfectionism that is OCD, I sought an outlet for my energy that allowed me to use analytical skills without having to crunch numbers or devise theoretical models. Writing provided such an outlet, plus it enabled me to implement my behaviorist hat to develop and manipulate characters according to how they “should” operate. (As any of you who are writers know, characters tend to have minds of their own.)
I realized through writing that I longed for a prescription, a tried-and-true method that would help me structure my stories and get published. I love Save the Cat! for that reason, and I’ve recently discovered a book called Romancing the Beat, by Gwen Hayes, that is prescriptive about writing romance novels. Honestly, I once balked at the idea of being prescriptive. But having this kind of guidance provides the structure I need to learn the rhythm of writing properly. It’s flexible. I don’t feel the need to “stay within the lines,” so to speak, without tweaking the prescription to fit my needs.
If the recipe says to boil your chocolate on medium-high for 3 minutes, but the chocolate starts to burn at 2, you wouldn’t keep cooking it for that additional minute just because the directions say to do so. (I learned this not with chocolate, but with acid in organic chemistry lab. Yikes.) This principle demonstrates my personal approach to these structures. They’re more like guidelines, and you should do what works for you. This fact kills my inner methodologist!
I had the most beautiful epiphany about this process: I was approaching writing as my usual methodologist self. I assumed X + Y = Z. You write according to a structure and have a strong query letter, and you’ll get an agent.
It needs to be a “heart book,” coming straight from within you according to what works for you. In an industry like this, you cannot predict getting an agent because the competition is fierce, and agents are particular. In mathematical terms, too much chaos or error in the equation. There is no “right way”—or if there is, we haven’t discovered it yet. People say the formula is good writing + characterization + stakes + emotion + like a hundred other things + good pitching = getting an agent. But the truth is, perfecting all of that doesn’t guarantee anything.
That’s super hard to accept for someone who likes formulas. Sometimes, I feel helpless. When I feel helpless, I grab onto anything I have that claims to help, and that’s structure. Aha!
This realization validated everything I’d experienced about myself in school and work: I have flown all over the place trying to find my niche (thriller, suspense, romance, paranormal, fantasy…omg!), when all along I’ve been a methodologist. Like, I read two romance craft books yesterday for fun. Understanding this quirk is part of who I am, not some horrible behavioral flaw or byproduct of depression and anxiety, helped me accept it (and myself).
It’s not that I am NOT a thriller writer or a romance writer or a paranormal writer. Rather, I am a methodologist who needs to find her niche. There is nothing wrong with that.
So, maybe with this understanding, I can settle into a niche that lies in my heart rather than trying to write to the market or what I “should” write. I got into this field to write a supernatural romance about a teenager and the archangel she loves. The story has evolved both on paper (well, computer) and in my head, but I keep pushing it aside because it didn’t work the first time around (9 requests out of 80 queries—ew).
Did I mention my own “Shard of Glass” is fear of failure?
I am not as keen on writing angels these days because supernatural romance is a hard pitch (see, there I am being prescriptive again), but the love story is powerful.
For what it’s worth, my thriller reads like a romance, and that’s no good. Yet, its tone tells me where my heart is and where my talents/inclinations lay. Maybe I need to write my heart book now. And now that I know the “rules” and the “prescription” and how to construct a proper novel, maybe I can step outside their bounds a bit to find a method that works for me.