Paper Crowns and Battle Cries

 

“It started out as a feeling

Which then grew into a hope

Which then turned into a quiet thought

Which then turned into a quiet word

And then that word grew louder and louder

Until it was a battle cry

I’ll come back

When you call me

No need to say goodbye

Just because everything’s changing

Doesn’t mean it’s never been this way before

All you can do is try to know who your friends are

As you head off to the war

Pick a star on the dark horizon

And follow the light

You’ll come back when it’s over

No need to say goodbye”

~Regina Specktor (from ‘The Call’)

If you’re going to dream, dream big. If not, don’t waste your time. You’d be better off painting your house, or doing your taxes, or trying to nail jello to the wall.

No, seriously, think about your average kid playing make-believe. Do they do it halfway? Do they adjust their creations to fit with what is likely or plausible? I sure as hell didn’t. Not only did I not account for reality, I’m pretty convinced that I lived life until I was in my mid-twenties under the assumption that magic was, in some way, real. I don’t mean literally, per say. More like that vague feeling that all young people have where they are under the impression that *they* can live forever. That sort of thing. Maybe there really is another world out there. Maybe this isn’t it. Maybe my lost socks are on to something.

There is a point where you lose that blissful ignorance though. For some of us, this moment comes earlier in life than for others. I’m always the last one to know. I was eleven when I found my Easter basket in my mother’s bedroom closet, and I’ll never forget the hit to my gut when I realized that this meant that Santa Clause wasn’t real either. It was a very dark day in my household.

Some of us have that same sort of, innocence, when it comes to being authors. Some of us go on to live eternally through our words. Others, give up and let go of the dream and move on to “adult” things—rational and likely things. As usual, I’m still holding on here. I have no misgivings about reality, don’t mistake me. But, I believe in more than what is probably going to happen. I have to. What good is life without goals, or destinations, or a future to spend time imagining?

Planning and being wise, aren’t bad things. I don’t mean that either. You’ve got to have your head on straight and a game plan. But, if we spend SO much of our efforts working towards specific objectives (uber fame, being J.K. Rowling, etc), then we will lose the magic that makes those things possible in the first place. There are no magic formulas, only magic. This goes back to a comment Anthony made on my ‘Sex and the Art of Author Marketing’ post a week ago or so…all of your extra-writerly stuff has to be done for the right reasons, or else it is purely for naught. I couldn’t agree more with him. This might all sound like common sense, at least it does to me as I type it out, but damn, it certainly doesn’t enter my mind when I start to worry about the pace of my career, or how my books are selling, or how the media/public perceives me.

It’s like the lyrics to the song I posted above…it’s a battle cry that we’ve got to keep on our hearts. This dream, of living our lives as authors, is larger than any set of rules, or fenced perimeter, or glass ceiling. There is marketing to be done. There are details to attend to. But don’t ever, ever lose track of the bigger picture of what you want. Be that child in the yard who is building a castle of sticks and stones, living life as a king or queen…even if your crown is only paper for now.

The gold will come later, I promise…

Unless you give up on it, and file that dream away with other lost things. Socks, for example. Or discarded ideas. Or ambitions.

Where is all of this talk of battle cries coming from? My time on Facebook this past week. That’s where. I hear so many writers talking about absolutes and how “things are,” and “conforming to the industry” and so on. God, it’s like hearing two children in the yard discussing the weight bearing properties of a cardboard box.

Hello, it’s a cardboard box. Chances are, you won’t have it forever.

I won’t be in this place in my career for the rest of my life. So why stress out about what is expected of me right this moment by an ambiguous, man-behind-the-curtain, kind of “Industry”? That’s useless. And for all my day dreaming, I’m still fairly pragmatic at the end of the day. The dreaming makes these things happen, therefore, that’s what I do. A query has never once in the history of the “Industry” sold a book. Period. No, hear me…THE BOOK sold itself once the full was requested, signed, pimped out, or sold directly to the publisher from the writer. I’ve seen stellar queries, that receive one request for novels after another, and yet…the books never get picked up. Know why? Because it was never the query that they were looking for in the first place.  You can argue semantics till you are blue in the face, that the book would never have been picked up had it not been for the query, but you’re missing the forest for the trees. THE BOOK, the story, the make-believe, the magic, is what was signed in the end.

So, that’s where our focus should be. Everything else, will work itself out. How can I say that? Easily, because I still suck at queries. I’ve got five novels under contract, and I can’t write a query letter to save my damn life. I can write them for other people (at gunpoint), but never for my own work. I doubt I’ll ever have that skill.

All I am capable of, is dreaming—of wearing paper crowns and carrying that battle cry like it’s burned onto my heart. That’ll just have to be enough.

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The Biggest Lie of Them All

“I grew up in a place where everybody was a storyteller, but nobody wrote. It was that kind of Celtic, storytelling tradition: everybody would have a story at the pub or at parties, even at the clubs and raves.”  Irvine Welsh

It’s visceral, isn’t it? This calling that we’ve entered into?

It’s no wonder we take things like criticisms, rules, guidelines, reviews, and the like, so seriously. I posted a link on my FB page several days ago that led to a post written by a good friend of mine over at The Lit Lab. The heart of the post was centered around the lies we’ve allowed ourselves to believe about writing and about being a professional author (you can find that post here). Reading that inspired list led me to start thinking…what lies have we told ourselves, or allowed ourselves to believe, about what it means to BE an author—a storyteller?

*You can’t develop your voice as an author until you’ve written for years and nothing that you write prior to your first published work will be worth holding onto.

Um…shall I list all of the famous works of literature that were the author’s firsts? I’d rather not, since it would take me more room than a single post on WordPress allows. This is utter bullshit, I don’t care if an agent (or any other authoritative figure) has told you otherwise. Think of it like this: Not everyone needs to date around before finding the one they’re destined to spend their life with. Some do. Others know the moment they meet them. Some authors spend years in silence, never penning a thing, then suddenly they find their voice and set off writing like their keyboards are on fire.

*All advice from reputable sources (agents, publishers, editors, critique group members, alpha & beta readers), is good advice.

Need I mention again, Tolkien’s advice to Lewis to nix Father Christmas from the Chronicles of Narnia? Even as I type that it sounds like good advice doesn’t it? Except for all of those children who listed it as their favorite part of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. And the fact that Lewis, in his heart, knew that Father Christmas couldn’t be cut from the story.

*You MUST know everything about the craft of writing, in order to be a good storyteller.

Have you never been to a bar before? Have you never sat around a campfire and heard Uncle Whoever retell his childhood escapades in such a way that has the whole crowd dying with laughter? Have you never been to summer camp and been huddled beneath your sleeping bag in dread terror while some counselor (me), or fellow camper (also me) told you the scariest story you’ve ever heard? Do you live under a rock? Storytelling, to some folks, is second nature. I think I can safely say that I’m one of them. You likely are as well, but haven’t gathered the guts to state that you believe that for the record. And before you go there, I’m not saying that you shouldn’t learn the basics. All I’m saying, is that the first guy or gal who told a story, likely didn’t know the parts of the story by what would become their “proper” names. Those are merely formalities. Imagine it like two people who speak different languages, meeting and falling in love. Sure, there might be a little fumbling around in the beginning, but eventually you develop your own method of communication and everything else falls into place. If it’s meant to be, you don’t have WORK at it that hard. It. Just. Is.

*In order to be a great author, you have to be able to write outstanding queries.

I’m sorry, I can hardly type from the tears I’m shedding in laughter over this one. I’ve read this on more than one agent’s blog, and a couple of publishers, but ironically, I’ve never seen it on an author’s blog. Wonder why? Gee…hmmm….give me a second. ‘Cause it’s…you guessed it….total shit. Some of us, just aren’t short-winded. Period. Yes, it’s a fault. Yes, it sucks. YES, it means it’ll take longer to get someone’s attention if you’re in that category and you’re unpublished. Does it mean you won’t ever be successful or famous? No. Not at all. And frankly, I have no idea where this idea came from. Queries and novels are not the same thing for a reason, and the pervasive idea that if you can’t sum up your novel in 300 words or less, then you don’t know what it’s about, is LUDICROUS. And I don’t mean the band.

Seriously, this one is one of the worst bits of writing “truth” I’ve read. It’s terribly discouraging and does nothing but make writing a query harder for those of us who struggle with writing them in the first place. So, do yourself (and me) a favor and don’t spread that horse manure. If you only knew the number of NYT bestselling authors who hired a ghost writer to write their queries for them…(how do I know this? Because I know a handful of ghost writers who have written them for NYT bestselling authors).

*The difference between authors and writers, is that authors have been traditionally published.

I think I just threw up a little bit in my mouth. Really? I’ve read that one on writers’ sites. Shame on you! You ought to know better. Do you think that because you are published that you have the right to make others feel less worthy than you? No, writers are folks who write. Period. This encompasses everything from obituaries and classified ads, to text books and personal weblogs. Authors, tell stories. That’s all. That’s the distinction. Check out Webster if you don’t believe me. Now, I will give you the caveat that in order to be an author, you do have to have actually *finished* a novel, short story, or novella. Publication has nothing to do with it. That’s merely recognition for having done something, it doesn’t have any bearing on whether you’ve actually done the thing or not. If you’re still “researching” that first novel, and have been for the last ten years, then you’re still a writer. Only when you’re done do you get to call yourself an author. Even if your cat is the only sentient being to set eyes on it after that.

I think even Donald Maass may have stated that in one of his many manifestos on how to be a bestselling author.

How ’bout I’ll just settle for being an author, and let the cards fall where they may. Hm? K. Thanks.

*But, the biggest lie of them all is this: As an author, I am worth the value that others place on my work.

Nothing, nothing, nothing could be further from the truth. I’ve told myself this one. I’m willing to bet that at some point in your writing life, you will too. There are two kinds of authors: Those who’ve bought the bullshit, and those who will. Not a single one of us is exempt from taking a reviewer too seriously, or a crit partner, or an agent, or an editor. Not a single one of us is exempt from wondering, at some dark moment, has this all been worth it? Not a single one of us is exempt from feeling, in a moment of weakness, like our hold on the English language is a tad more tenuous than we’d suspected.

Truth is, we’re all learning, and no work is perfect. No work is without its quirks. No author is free of them either, but isn’t that what makes our calling so great? No other profession in the world is quite like it. Some might come close, but they’ll never reach the heights that being an author will show you. You’ll never take another path and reach a higher summit.

Whatever lies you believe…don’t believe the biggest of them all. At the very least, do yourself, and the rest of us who will (or already do) love your writing, and your characters, and your worlds, do us the favor of having faith in your natural instincts.

Own Your Story

“No man but feels more of a man in the world if he have a bit of ground that he can call his own.  However small it is on the surface, it is four thousand miles deep; and that is a very handsome property.”  ~Charles Dudley Warner

Sitting down to a new story, is like opening your vehicle to that, oh—so—wonderful, new car smell. You know what I’m talking about. It permeates everything—the seats, the trunk, and if you have a leather interior you get that old spice suave smell in addition to it. And like cars, stories need gas. What sort of gas am I hypothetically talking about? Well, that depends on you. Fuel is fuel. So what fuels your story? Some require premium, others you can get by with the cheapest stuff available. But there is a larger question at hand here:

Are you leasing, or buying?

You might not think there is a difference, but there is, and that difference determines how you’ll treat that story. Renters tend to ignore all of the little things because they aren’t fully invested in their acquired merchandise, or where they live, or what car they drive. When you first see that story, when you open the door and smell that delicious smell, you’re making a choice right then, whether or not you’re going to be with this thing for the long haul. You might not know that, but you are. Please trust me on this, you are.

If you’re buying, your maintenance will be more regular (usually), the grade oil you use will be higher (let’s assume for the sake of conversation that the oil here is the level of time you spend invested into your craft to make it all run smoothly), and you’ll take better care of it. Why? Because you envision a future with it. You make a commitment to it.

Is it your first work? Are you afraid those bloggers might be right? You know the ones—the guys and gals who emphatically state that all novels are total shit up until your fifth or sixth (or whatever the trend is at the time)? Whether or not you are a beginner, pro, or indeed a writer of total shit, you’re still making a call when you sign up for a fresh work. If you go at it with half your heart because deep down you’re letting your insecurities and fears make your decisions for you, then you’re leasing. If you go at it with all your heart, even if you’re scared to death of the commitment, then you’ve purchased.

Sounds too simplistic doesn’t it? It isn’t really, not when you look at it carefully. Contracts are sticky, complex things. And after all, any agreement between two parties is nothing more than a contract. You’re laying out your terms, and so is the story.

So what are the story’s terms?

Well, here’s some insider information—stories don’t like to be leased. They’ll offer you all sorts of incentives NOT to lease, but if you aren’t paying any attention, you’ll look right over them. Reminds me of rebates on cars—if you don’t ask, they don’t have to give them to you.

Stories don’t want you to bail after a certain number of rejections. That’s leasing. That’s turning it all back in, after a certain number of months (form letters from agents, or publishers, or both). Less the damages of course. And whatever damage you’ve done will cost you if you invest in another story at the same dealership. You’ll carry the cost over, just like you’ll carry the wounds of rejection letters over. And the thing is, if you’ve purchased, you don’t have to deal with that—not in the same way.

When you buy, you have the right to do whatever you want to with it after the title is in your name (that would be finishing the story). You can sell it if you’d like, pocket the profit, or keep it till it has to be retired. Bottom line is that the choices here are all yours.

When you lease, you don’t own anything. You aren’t investing in anything. Sure, there are perks. It’s cheaper, for starters, to lease than to own. Maintenance is taken care of (those are all of those classes and online critique groups you’ve spent years in). The second something is “wrong” and deemed beyond repair, it’s covered and you get to turn the thing back in, whether time is up on the lease or not.

When you buy, anything beyond the warranty is your responsibility. Yet, here’s the thing: Despite all the upkeep and the hassle, once it’s paid off, then it is truly YOURS. Forever. No take backs.

For better or worse, it belongs to you. And there isn’t anything better in this world than ownership. I saw a bumper sticker once that read, “Quit laughing jackass, it’s paid for!” You might not get published right away. You might never get published. You might get published, but not make a huge career out of being an author. But, it’s PAID for! You wrote the novel(s) that most of the world merely wishes to write. Don’t ever, ever forget this. It’s the only thing that matters.

So, you tell me: Are you leasing or buying? Really look at this question and answer it for yourself as honestly as you can. It’s really easy to say, “Yes I am buying.” But are you? Do you have one foot out the door, just waiting for something better to come along so you can slide out of one lease and move onto another one? When you get a form letter, or personalized rejection in your inbox, do you console yourself by saying inwardly, “Well, it’s not my best work anyway. I can do better. Maybe they’ll like the next thing I write?” Nothing wrong with hoping for better luck next time, but my point here is this: Are you giving your story less credit than it deserves because you really don’t plan on being with it for the long run?

The new car smell fades, yes. And it’s exciting to jump into a new car every couple of years. But nothing smells as good as a title, (pun intended) fresh off the press and I can guarantee you that with a lease, you’ll never see a title. You’re only borrowing it from someone else who will one day own it.

Which I suppose brings up the final question: Are you prepared to give it up to someone else? If not, then might I suggest you renegotiate your terms before your time is up?

It’s been long enough. You’ve waded into the shallow end. Take the plunge and OWN your story!

Just Breathe…

Nothing that is complete breathes.  ~Antonio Porchia,Voces, 1943, translated from Spanish by W.S. Merwin

I have to keep reminding myself of this. I’m not “done” until I’m dead…and neither is my story—the most important one I’ll ever be a part of. Due to the nature of time, we never quite know where we’re at in the plot of our own lives (though some have a better idea than others). But, I know this much is true—there is conflict. And like any good story, there will also be set backs, red herrings, lost time and disappointment. I don’t know what kind of story this is and I’d love to be in the mood to make a witty joke or two about it having something to do with satan wearing designer duds.

But, I’m not in the mood. I’m breathless.

My first novel, as most of you know, debuts in a few months and I’m experiencing what all new authors (and seasoned) go through: cold sweats, tears, laughter, woe, etc. I’m learning to develop, as Ien called it, a filter. It’s tough. I don’t know how to avoid the media and yet maintain a presence in it all the same. In but not of, I suppose.

It will always be Fable to me. And now, as I feel the heat inherent in public viewing, I resort back to that title in my mind. Guardians, is what has been picked up and published. Guardians is what will be reviewed and pulled apart and critiqued—for better or worse. Guardians is what will either sell or not sell and what will ultimately bring in royalty checks—or not.

Fable is the story I fell in love with long ago—the characters who rest as much in me, as beside me on the page.

The decision to step out in faith and welcome a career as an author, instead of living that calling without the professional validation, feels a little like dying inside. And perhaps that is also what Porchia was referring to. In an effort to move closer to completion, you lose a little of who you once were. You die a little. But, so long as you’re still breathing, you’re not done yet.

Your first crush took your breath away. Your first real, deep, chest rattling cry, took your breath away. Your first love took your breath away. Your first loss threatened to take it away permanently. Your first rejection did the same. Your first job interview, your last day on the job, the birth of your children…all the important stuff, whether good or bad, mimics death in part because it is a birth of sorts. A new beginning. And don’t newborns cry? Perhaps my response to this isn’t so unusual after all. Maybe no one talks about this internal struggle because they feel obligated to express only sheer elation over being published.

Allow me, if you will, to once again be transparent. Yes, there is a wonderful, magical sense about all of this. But, like cracks in glass, I feel the cold seeping in. It keeps me real and makes me who I am. I’m not complaining. But, if anyone else is feeling this and thinks they’re alone…rest assured…you aren’t.

So I guess this isn’t it. I’ve still some story left in me. And there’s only one thing to do…

I Do …

I’ve read plenty of commentary on the dread middle, that no man’s land section of a novel that sits down in the center of the map and refuses to be anything of value. I’ve tread there. It’s rocky terrain. It’s also not what’s irritating me right now.

The map is drawn. The plot hath been plotted. I’m seeing the finish line. In fact, I’ve already planned the victory party (If you’re fond of cigars, then you are automatically on the guest list). I’ve written the next to last scene for Nightshade and plotted out the last few chapters for Icarus. Both works are absurdly close to being finished (first draft). So why can’t I finish them? Because…well…same reason the psychic runner that knows how the race will end, has trouble getting motivated to run. Absurd analogy, but I’m going stir crazy in my non-writerlyness…how’s that for a new word? Blog posts this week are no problem whatsoever. Prose? Utter disaster. And it’s all because I didn’t take my bi-annual week of solitude in December.

See what I get for skipping my routine? Madness ensues. I’ve brainstormed a lot these last few days and while it’s been fun, it isn’t what my heart wants. I want, no—I need to finish the other two works and I really need to get through the last few chapters of the second draft of book two in the Fable trilogy. Which means I need to get away from everything for a few days and force myself through the sludge. And believe me when I tell you, writing on anything right now feels like mucking barefoot through a derelict horse stall. Loads of shit…

I’m okay tuning everything out while I am working on a project, right up to this point in the process. Here, is where I’m no longer rushing to the story in order to hear what it has to say, because I know already. The honeymoon is over, we made it through the seven year itch and are complacently settled somewhere between midlife crisis and retirement. We’ve put a down payment on the camper for God’s sake.

It’s time to renew our vows. And so, with any luck, I’ll go hide away somewhere for a few days (soon!) and return triumphant, suffering the writing hangover to beat all hangovers.

Doesn’t Play Well With Others…

It isn’t that I feel your criticism unworthy of making my work better—that isn’t the case at all. It simply makes my work yours and I’m not willing to share the burden. You see, I don’t play well with others. Well okay, I didn’t just figure that out—I’ve known most of my life. It has just been brought back to my attention.

Yeah, I understand that this is part of the industry, get a thicker skin, blah, blah, blah. I’m not talking about career moves here. I know better than to argue with the editor who is trying to get my manuscript in shape, or to refuse my agent’s suggestions. I do have a brain and a smidgen of common sense (not much past that, mind you). I simply have a different opinion on the value of a ‘critique’ than most.

Before I say anything else, let me make clear that I have beta readers—a couple of which are brutally honest and I handle it just fine. I want to hear what they have to say, because I trust them. I know where they are coming from—I know their bias and their preferences. We don’t always agree on things and more often than not, we clash. But the dialog is always beneficial because I know what to do with it. Now, with that said, let me state that I personally would never join a critique group. Why? Because my belief in positive reinforcement pervades my ability to give what others consider ‘useful’ criticism, and I am an independent creator. I’m not alone in this viewpoint. There are a slue of other authors who agree with me, but an even larger population that doesn’t. When I’ve voiced my opinions on this in the past—without fail, I always get the you should toughen up and take what’s good for you lecture. It’s always well worded and backed up with solid logic. Problem is, Thalidomide also had fairly sound logic behind it…oops. Feel that an unfair comparison? Toughen up and take what’s good for you. Thalidomide is a powerfully effective drug, and works wonders for patients with Multiple Myeloma and Leprosy. In other words—what’s good for one person, isn’t necessarily good for everyone.

I did a little research to see if I was being a sissy. Turns out there are more than a few authors who swear by cautiously accepting critiques on their work. According to Kristen Painter:

“Luna/Berkley author P.C. Cast doesn’t use a critique group for two reasons. One is that she feels her writing process works best as a solitary endeavor. “Often it feels as if I’m soughing through mud, but it’s mud I have to fight through myself. That’s how I resolve plot problems and how I develop characters. If I had help, or even too much input from others, I don’t think my end product would be the same.” (http://www.kristenpainter.com/writers/CritiqueGroups_RWR.pdf)

Painter goes on to list the second reason Cast doesn’t use a critique group as time. “Many authors produce work at a greater rate than a critique group can critique.” To be fair—in addition to the authors she lists as not using groups, Painter also shows the other side. So, I’m not saying that there isn’t value in it. I’m merely saying that it doesn’t work for me. I find it infinitely more useful when a reader points out areas of strength than when they comment on what they personally didn’t like. If eight out of nine readers mention my character development as being strong and no one ever says anything about the worlds I’ve created—I’m going to get the idea that I need to work on my level of description. Maybe some authors don’t take subtle hints…rest assured, I do and have no need for others to tell me what they would have done had it been their story.

I suppose that gets to the heart of my issue. When you hand your work to other writers, you are asking for just that. No writer can read something in the draft stages without the question, ‘what would I have done here’ staining their ability to be objective. And that’s the problem, it isn’t your story. You’ll never hear me tell another author how a story should have gone—that isn’t valuable feedback. Nor will I ever suggest tearing a story apart because it isn’t ‘marketable’ the way that it is. Critique groups as they are now, are a relatively new creation. A writer in decades past would have a few trusted readers, if he/she showed an unpublished work to anyone aside from their editor. The concept of a collective or collaborative effort is an invention of mass market production. If you want to produce a manuscript to please the masses, show it to them first.

Personally, no thanks. I’m a purest when it comes to fiction. If it didn’t happen that way, I’m not changing it or adding fluff to make it more palatable to the market. Period. Burn me at the stake for it—the masses are good at that. I’m simply tired of seeing it worded as an absolute, when it isn’t. I’m tired of reading that in order to take yourself seriously as an author, you should sign up for the unsolicited criticism of an anonymous online community or a face to face, weekly commitment with other authors…because no serious author does it alone. This simply isn’t true at all. While we may be the exception, we aren’t a myth.

I’m not interested in hearing critique groups or critiques in general defended. I’ve heard it all, more than once, and saying it again won’t change how I feel about it. Writers get up in arms over this…which makes no sense if you think about it—I’m criticizing the norm and you’re immediately rushing to the defense…doesn’t that fly in the face of your argument? Shouldn’t you take my words for what they are and maybe see if you can’t learn something from them? Improve? My favorite argument thus far is the assumption that since a work hasn’t been published yet, there must be something inherently wrong with it. Really? You believe that? And passing it through enough critiques will eventually whittle down the ‘errors’ and you’ll have a ‘publishable’ novel at some distant point in the future? Formulas don’t work. That, is a formula. To hell with those who say it needs shredding. Tolkien himself told Lewis that he should scrap Father Christmas from The Chronicles of Narnia. Several years ago a poll was done in the united states that asked grade school children what part they liked best, and wouldn’t you know…Father Christmas won by a landslide. So, it isn’t even a matter of who is giving the criticism—whether they are qualified or not—you know when something is right or wrong in a story. Have a little more faith in yourself and your ability to write.

Stephen King said it best, No, it’s not a very good story – its author was too busy listening to other voices to listen as closely as he should have to the one coming from inside.”

You Want a Piece of Me?

Time

Olympic athletes train every day. They wake up at absurd hours because they need more time than a normal human schedule allots. Before the average Olympian has ever won a medal, they have supporters. The public cheers them on because they want them to succeed. When they compete, they are known for either life altering mistakes (broken limbs, public falls, etc.), or dream achieving performances. If I have my facts right, most of them don’t hold full time jobs while engaged in a ‘training’ season.

Writing is no different. Save the public’s basic understanding of what it takes to become a master of our craft. Family members question our absence at holidays or get-togethers. Friends whine about unanswered phone calls, unaddressed emails or short visits. In-laws, acquaintances and neighbors ask why we don’t do something more directly related to gainful employment…or worse, success. I suspect they don’t truly know the definition of the word.

Publishing companies, those few who are willing to accept unsolicited submissions, make the bold requirement, ‘No multiple submissions’ yet with the same tongue, ‘Expect a reply within 6-8 months.’

For each agent, a writer must research all the particular likes and dislikes, the format (there are just as many ways to submit a query as there are stars in the sky), the amount to include (five pages, no pages, query only, full synopsis), and even how to address the agent. This essentially boils down to personal preference. Agent X doesn’t appreciate being addressed by their first name. Agent Y wouldn’t get past the greeting if it didn’t specifically address her by first and last name. Bottom line: you don’t want us to succeed.

I don’t want to hear the usual crap I hear from the publishing world about professionalism, courtesy and all of the excuses used for  supposedly ‘streamlining’  the process. We get to read all of the time about one author or another who had the audacity to….fill in the blank with the offense of the week.  I’ve read more than once how it isn’t possible for an agent, NOT to be FOR authors. Really? Step outside of your self-righteous shoes and read your bullshit for what it is. “Don’t submit to anyone else for half a year, wait for me to send you a form rejection.” Really. That’s–FOR authors? Did that sound supportive to you? Oh wait, you didn’t say it like that, did you? But that’s what you meant. There are whole blogs dedicated to educating authors on how to better get along with agents by way of bettering their queries and synopses. How about a blog dedicated to agents on how to respect the amazing amount of time and soul it takes to write a single piece of work? I’d be blacklisted in a NY minute. If I’m not already. Oh and don’t bother telling me that they are being magnanimous enough to spend a few moments of their precious time to ‘help’ us out.

*Sigh* I’d love to see just one agent, make a single dime from selling books without the authors they’ve signed. Wait, books don’t exist without us. So, unless HAL develops literary aspirations, we won’t EVER see that.

Why would I be blacklisted? Free speech right? For everyone but us. I have a big problem with the amount of arrogance it takes to expect every writer to take hours out of their time researching your personal tastes in such depth that a simple slip of the tongue could warrant a rejection slip. Don’t think that possible? Do a little research and then come tell me it’s never happened. I have better things to do—like, I don’t know, bettering my craft, for example. I know, how dare I expect to spend my time actually practicing, actually writing. Will I stoop to this heinous act myself?

Yeah. Because if I ever want to see my work on the shelves of a brick and mortar store, I don’t have a choice in the matter. But let me assure you—should fortune ever smile on me, and I find myself in a position to REALLY say something about this, they’ll get a serious piece of my mind.

Oh, and because I know some smart-ass will either ask or think this. Yes, I would be saying this if I were published or currently signed with an agent. Don’t believe me? Well, nobody’s perfect.

Foundations of a Writing Life

This will likely translate to another article for Examiner, but I’m going with the casual side of things for now (for this blog anyway). After being stuck on the last few chapters of ‘Nightshade’, I broke ground. Once I voluntarily walked away from gainful employment back in September, I struggled to overcome depression and heartache and to really write like I once had—with total abandon and dogged perseverance.  I realized today, just like I realized after my first really bad block, that all it takes is the promise of a deadline. An immediate deadline. You see, I sat down in my kitchen this morning and proclaimed to the dogs (I mean this literally), that I wasn’t going to get up until I had the rest of Nightshade plotted.

They laughed.

And yet, I emerged triumphant, despite my own fears and doubts (and those of my hairy companions). 1500 words of plot, fully fleshed out and ready to be written. Tomorrow (or likely the very wee hours of tomorrow), will bring with it an excitement that I haven’t genuinely experienced in over a year. I wrote Icarus (the vampire novel that I’ve been working on and no, that isn’t the title…consider it a nickname) while I was working in the dredges of hell. Ok, that was a tad dramatic, but you’d understand if you worked there. And while I love the characters and their story, it wasn’t the same as Nightshade and the Fable trilogy. It’s a matter of urban vs. epic fantasy. Even though Nightshade is a stand alone piece, the stakes involved are epic indeed. So, the bottom line is that the emotions involved in those works differ from one to the next: Icarus is gritty and harsh—bloody, gruesome, gratuitous sex and violence (and inappropriate humor). Nightshade and Fable, are light and while there are most certainly darker scenes in both (this is me we’re talking about here), they don’t translate the same to me emotionally, as an author.

All of this got me thinking about what it means to be a writer. We’ve discussed writing rituals and how isolating an experience it can be, but those are different things. I am talking about the decision to become more than merely a writer by title, but by practice. You are essentially laying down a foundation for your life as a writer—unknowingly, you are setting a cornerstone into place that will determine how you deal with frustration, sorrow, relationships and ultimately, how you will see your writing in light of publication or lack there of. You’ve got to ask yourself the question, “Am I writing for recognition, or for the craft of it.” This is not the same thing as asking if you wish to be published or not. Don’t confuse the two. The former question is simply clarifying your motives. The answer is the cement of your foundation. It is the thing that glues it all together and not unlike a story, it is what gives you strength while you are still learning and developing. Consider this: If you knew, right now, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that your work would never be published, would you write it anyway?

Would I? You ask. Without any hesitation, my answer is yes. Yes, a thousand times. When I started, I feared what all new authors fear—not being talented enough. But, I’ve come to learn that while I will always fear not being ‘good enough’, you only lose this battle when you quit. So what if you suck right now? Most authors who write for a living will admit to sucking worse five years ago (assuming they were writing then), than now. Some claim to still suck, though we as readers know better. What was their answer to that question? Agents tell us all the time, that the chances of getting published are akin to winning the lottery. Friends and family ask why we don’t take up something more, profitable? But if you love writing enough and believe in your characters and stories enough, there is no other option but to spend time with them and work on putting down a reasonable resemblance to what we see in our heads.  It may take much, much longer than you expect. It may flow better than you dreamed possible. But you will never know until you begin.

So, lay those foundations. Set a goal, find someone to hold you accountable. I’m always here. Have a great Monday tomorrow!

J.S.

Long time no speak…

n55716324_35424739_3118I wish I could tell you I’ve come back here to suffer through a writing hang-over with like-minded company. Alas, I have accomplished no such thing. I could give myself a little credit for having forced myself into some edits for book two. That’s worth half a cookie at least. Okay, a crumb. I’ll take what I can get.
This is my favorite time of year. I can’t say for sure if it is the chill in the air, the quiet frosted nights or just my love of the holidays, but for whatever reason, I love this season. I am, for better or worse, a winter girl. Yes, I know it isn’t officially winter yet. Hush, my mind isn’t aware of that. Anything in Georgia that feels below 70 degrees, is winter. Right now it is a frigid 40 something. Wonderful.
With all the banal pleasantries out of the way, let me get down to business. I have found lately that every time I spend more than a few minutes on the blogs and websites of agents, and industry “experts” that my muse all but vanishes. Its an amazing little act, no doubt…but not one I’m very fond of. Like the life that fuels my writing, so these mechanical formulas are like the ever present ‘Old Age’ that slows down youth and carelessness. The joints and bone and sinew have slowed till each stroke of the pen is like an inevitable broken bone or slip or fall. Leaning on the ‘Right Way’ to do things in some cases may be likened to living in a Retirement Community–Assisted Living.
I want to be careless again, near wreck-less in my ventures. Who cares what the market is right now? Who cares about the odds? I certainly wasted no time considering these things when I first started writing…what has changed to make this…creature…so important now?
Nothing. Plain and simple. Yes, query letters are important. Yes, form is important. But, I am letting the directions get in the way of the path.
So, while this little blog is still in fledgling posts, let me ask you. Why do you write? What warms your bones and fuels your muse?

Enjoying the process, and the art of writing

Enjoy the process.  If you are destined to be a published writer, the months and years spent working on early manuscripts may be the last time you ever have the luxury of writing for the love of it at your own speed.  As soon as you sell, things like deadlines, the sales department’s mindless prejudices, the editor’s input, and so on become a part of your work.  You will, trust me on this, look back with nostalgia on the days when the only person you had to please was yourself. ”  Vivian Beck

I read this earlier, and appreciate her candor. She is a literary agent who spends a great amount of time giving good solid advice to writers. Why? Because she is an author. There is possibly no better person to have as an agent than one who knows what we go through. I’ve listed her page to the right, please go check it out. You’ll be glad that you did.

The great and necessary solitude

What is it that beckons that inner voice? When the hours draw long and still, and the world quiets to merely a whisper, then it comes. Peace. A deeper solitude than can be found in any writing book, or literary commentary or within the tawdry lines of any blog. There is no price high enough to place on this state of mind to equal its worth.
I spent a long weekend at Oak Mountain, enjoying the crisp fall air and the smell of a campfire. I had originally intended on getting a fair amount of writing done, but found instead that the simple enjoyment of true rest was more beneficial. After a day of getting adjusted back to the monotony of city life, I am ready to write again. Its funny how much can be figured out by listening only to the silence.

For two years a question has hovered over my current project, reeking havoc on my concentration and muddying my plot lines. After listening. Really listening. I now have my answer, and it was there all along.
Tonight, I write!

So very lost…

“So, here are two pervasive reasons that people write novels: (a) for the approval of others and (b) for the sake of writing itself. Nobody does it for either reason alone. There are easier ways to get approval, and the novelist who works in isolation, never publishing, is not a true novelist but a hobbyist.”  Donald Maass

I’ll admit, he had me through the first line. By the end of the quote, I was slightly put off. In case you don’t know, Donald Maass, is a literary agent with his own agency in New York. He wrote a book, which is where I obtained the little gem of wisdom above. So, my question is, are you telling me Emily Dickinson was not a true poet? In fact, here is a list of other works that were published posthumously:

So, tell me again how being published makes me a ‘serious’ novelist? Maass actually has a great deal of good advice in his book. However, it was clearly written by someone who has more of an eye on the market than on the craft of writing.

In the opening chapter, he remarks that there are a good many ‘novelists’ out there who write because they feel they must…who adopted the identity of ‘writer’ in adolescence and never learned to let it go. I have worked closely with teenagers for the past decade, and I’m afraid I disagree. There are a myriad of psychological reasons why someone who has the desire to write, cannot.

It has always come easily for me.  Though I have never felt forced to pen my thoughts, I have known others who struggle with it daily. It has nothing to do with their want to write, more with an inability to say what they mean or the reluctance to come to terms with their own emotions. It isn’t just because they’ve likened themselves to angsty, reclusive writers … but nice try, Maass. I’m sure many people thought that was a brilliant insight. Perhaps it is. I just fail to believe that those who consistently publish soulless drivel are any more true in their endeavors than those who don’t care for the scrutiny of the likes of agents, editors, etc.

I mean, even a blog can get you blacklisted these days…

Woe is the writer who mounts their merit on the masses

M John Harrison: (On World Building)
Every moment of a science fiction story must represent the triumph of writing over worldbuilding.
Worldbuilding is dull. Worldbuilding literalises the urge to invent. Worldbuilding gives an unneccessary permission for acts of writing (indeed, for acts of reading). Worldbuilding numbs the reader’s ability to fulfil their part of the bargain, because it believes that it has to do everything around here if anything is going to get done.

Above all, worldbuilding is not technically neccessary. It is the great clomping foot of nerdism. It is the attempt to exhaustively survey a place that isn’t there. A good writer would never try to do that, even with a place that is there. It isn’t possible, & if it was the results wouldn’t be readable: they would constitute not a book but the biggest library ever built, a hallowed place of dedication & lifelong study. This gives us a clue to the psychological type of the worldbuilder & the worldbuilder’s victim, & makes us very afraid.”

I read this earlier today, and had to share it with you. A keen observation, this is. Look at what he says closely. As a reader, it is our job (nay, our pleasure) to fill in some of the blanks. As writers it is our duty to allow all others the freedom to do so.
We musn’t tell them everything. Some things, certainly, but not everything. I mean this as no excuse for poor detail or fractured narrative. What I mean is this; know it, inside and out, every detail: The peoples, long since faded from memory that once thrived where your hero now treads; animals that will never wander in your protagonist’s path and ruins that are too covered with centuries of stories to be seen. Every rock, village, tide and turn. This is the foundation upon which worlds are built. These are the underpinings of much greater things. Like steel beams in a modern building, it holds…it structures the fabric of your imagination.
Because after all, it is the utterance of a thing that makes it what it is. As an author, you will always (without fail) know more about your worlds than can be shared with your readers. Your acknowledgement of it is enough. If it is strong, it will carry through your prose and filter into the minds of those who dare dive deep enough. Those are the worlds that leave us dreaming long after the last page has been turned. Like the never ending story, some worlds will never die.

Madness ensues…

Nathan Bransford asked a really good question yesterday…What is the worst writing advice you’ve ever been given? A myriad of responses flooded in, and much of it sounded like some of the stuff I’ve been told.  In stead of talking about what shouldn’t be done, I thought I would chat a moment about what should. Consider this quote concerning fads:

Love. Fall in love and stay in love. Write only what you love, and love what you write. The key word is love. You have to get up in the morning and write something you love, something to live for.” 
–Ray Bradbury 

How true. How startlingly, frustratingly true. I lightly considered, as I complained about the current trends, changing my next project…or I should say I considered shelving my next project and replacing it with something that would fit the market. To even contemplate setting aside something that warms my soul to make room for something that fills my wallet, is true defeat.

So, in light of such a humbling revelation, I suspect I will get quite a good ways into book four this weekend. Nothing like stark reality to get the ink flowing again…

The written word and all its worth…

I was reading through one of my favorite blogs this morning, sifting through the archive and found this little gem: http://literaryrejectionsondisplay.blogspot.com/2008/02/one-rejected-writers-manifesto-listen.html

F. Scott Fitzgerald is one of my favorites and I found this brief commentary powerful, heartbreaking and poignant. I also found it mildly entertaining. With my recent feelings about the state of things in the publishing world being so grim, and with consideration of how much crap is being praised as ‘fresh’ and ‘urban’, I smiled, drank more coffee and wondered how we let it get this far? Where did we give up literary value for shock factor, or merit for quick entertainment? Sure, I might get a kick for a day over reading some of the nameless drugstore drivel out there, but does it last? Do I find myself pondering over the characters or the worlds they populate, days later? Sadly, no.

It’s been quite a while since I read something truly fresh. My personal taste is for fantasy work, but literary and fantasy fiction are not mutually exclusive. But, I relent. I fear I am standing on a rotting soapbox here…