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How to Protect Your Artistic Integrity: Let Go of Expectations

Hollow Kingdom author Kira Jane Buxton shares the writing journey that led her let go of expectations while writing.

In the Breaking In column of our October 2019 issue, Hollow Kingdom author Kira Jane Buxton says that letting go of outside expectation and writing the book that was bubbling inside her led to the publication of her debut novel. In this hilarious essay, she shares the writing journey that led her letting go of expectations while writing. 

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I have enjoyed telling stories for as long as I can remember. The first story I ever wrote was about an overweight dragon. The stories segued into some luminous poetry—“I feel happy when I read, I make my mum happy when I speed” (spelled “spead”)—and eventually into lengthy tween Word documents about my feverish obsession with horses (an obsession that was tempered when I was thrown from a strawberry roan gelding named Century Fox and torpedoed face first into the sand like a stubbed cigarette).

I was an artistic kid, interspersing the writing with drawings—some memorable early pieces were “Daddy on Wheels” and “Cat with Boobs”—and making up dances to C & C Music Factory in my bedroom. I was always an avid animal lover, famously setting out to rollerblade in our Jakarta neighborhood and returning with puppies or a survivalist guinea pig—we are still not sure how Algernon survived the tropical wilds of our complex where there were often king cobra sightings. I grew up an expat and wherever we were living, we rescued animals. In school, I wrote mini theses about conservation—wolves and sea turtles and about the negative impact of tourism in Indonesia’s Thousand Islands. I found my way back to writing after a decade-long detour to LA where I attempted to become very specifically either Whoopi Goldberg or Gary Oldman. My now-husband bought me creative writing classes at Santa Monica college and when I started diving into stories it felt like a rather novel experience for a lifelong expat—it felt like coming home.

My first book was a mystery that took place in a direct ripoff of Hearst Castle. I might as well have called it Cearst Hastle. It was filled with Clue-like characters and an inordinate number of animals exacting their revenge on people. There were tigers, a bloodhound, and a rhino named Earnest (I thought this spelling of it to be of particular hilarity). I queried agents to a deafening response of cyber crickets and popped a bottle of Prosecco over the couple of form rejections that beeped into my inbox. It turns out that no one wanted to read about Cearst Hastle.

Naturally, the next long-form writing project I tackled, at ripe old age of 29, was a memoir. It was about a strange experience I’d had while living in LA, a place where I had many strange experiences. I queried. Agents were interested in this one, but quickly said there wasn’t enough happening in the memoir. One very prestigious and kind agent wrote to say she loved my writing, but thought she could see the memoir as a fictionalized series. I loved the idea and set about turning strange truth into even stranger fiction. I turned memory to mystery, sent it to her and she said it wasn’t quite there. We went back and forth, while I hired two wonderful editors and reworked the novel until I literally couldn’t see it. I would open up the document and stare at the screen blindly—as if I were squinting into the blustering white confetti of a snowstorm.

What is the sensible thing to do when you can’t see a novel? Write its sequel of course! I did. Then I returned to the novel that was once a memoir over a year later and still couldn’t see a single line of it. Things fizzled out with the gracious and patient agent. I was now sitting on four novels. I felt worse than when I was bucked from Century Fox, winded and sucking in sand.

I was crushed. Pinned under the weight of many years of relentless rejection—from writing, acting, painting, and a ridiculously good-looking horse. I felt destined to fail. I rolled around the floor a lot and drank wine from a salad bowl. My husband, who is very perceptive and noticed something was wrong, suggested that I “go and write the thing about the crows.” I love those beautiful black birds more than I can express and had wanted to write about them for a long time, but didn’t know how. So I picked myself up off the floor and spent time reading nonfiction about the natural world, sitting outside with the two wild crows and the hummingbirds I’d befriended. Time in nature and reading about flora and fauna reminded me why I write in the first place—because I love this planet and I want to protect it. Perhaps a key ingredient in an artistic journey is having terrier-like tenacity, and I decided to take my husband’s advice and write a new book like no one would read it.

This allowed me total freedom. I wrote about the extinction of the human race as told by a feisty, Cheeto-loving crow. It would be literary, but funny and satirical, and have elements of horror but also poetry. I called it Hollow Kingdom. I filled it with the animals I loved—there were tigers and bloodhounds (alas, no Earnest). There would have to be a narcissistic cat and a giant Pacific octopus because I am so enamored of them. I didn’t think about approaching an agent with this book, because who would touch a book narrated by an indelicate crow I impenitently named Shit Turd? And honestly, I had the most fun I’ve ever had writing anything. When I finished, I shared the beginning of it with a friend, and after some sage advice from a Seattle author who felt there was something special about the book, I queried agents. Why not?

The response was immediate. Agents requested the full manuscript. Many wrote to tell me that they loved it, but just didn’t know how to sell this enigmatic beast of a novel and would be cheering me on from the sidelines. I eventually flew to New York City to meet with several agents that wanted to represent me and signed with the illustrious Bill Clegg of The Clegg Agency. Hollow Kingdom sold at auction to Grand Central Publishing/Hachette and AMC optioned the TV rights. We have sold the foreign rights in many countries and it is an Indie Next Pick for August 2019.

I think that, aside from the many necessary years of writing practice and routine, what made the difference with the response to Hollow Kingdom was that I didn’t let outside expectation influence this novel. I wrote unapologetically and combined my passions—humor, nature, adventure, environmentalism, and hope. It’s easy to get caught up in the rat race of accomplishment and the pernicious game of comparison—let it go. You’re the only one who can write your novel; every author and every book is going to have their own unique adventure.

Rejection has been one of my greatest teachers. It’s how I improved, motivated myself, and built my comedy chops. My best writing advice is also the most simple—just have fun with it. Take the pressure off and allow yourself the freedom to stretch creatively. The external goals—agent, book deals—are all attainable, but what lovely landscape opens up artistically if they aren’t the core reason for your art? Write the thing that’s fizzing and bubbling inside you. Stay true to yourself and explore your passions (even personality-disordered horses!), and remember that you will always be the utmost authority on your writing.

I always have the option to go back, dust off, and resurrect my previous novels, but I’m not sure I will. I have no regrets—each was a guerrilla masterclass in novel writing, a pleasure and a privilege to write. Hollow Kingdom stands on the shoulders of those books. The only regret I have is that somewhere in our many expat travels, we lost my early masterpiece “Cat With Boobs,” which might have eventually taken the art world by storm.

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