Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Lessons Learned at a Funeral

1) Not having a plan benefits no one.
It is scary to have a plan. Making a plan predicts a certain outcome. When it comes to publication having a plan means either dealing with success (whatever that word may mean to you) when it comes or facing the bitter eventuality that this career is not for you after all. It is easy to write. It is harder to set goals, stick to them, and refine or change them when the results are not what you wanted.

2) There is nothing to be gained by being fearful.
Seeking publication is frightening. There is a fear of being judged for what you write. The fear of rejection. The fear that you aren't as good as you think you are. But not doing something because it might turn out badly guarantees it won't turn out well. Taking risks means facing failure. It also means pursuing rewards.

3) We don't know what will happen tomorrow.
It is a particular flaw of many writers (myself included) that we want to take one last look at that story, let it percolate a little longer, tweak it just a little more. And then I realize I've been working on a short story for months and months and it's no longer getting better it's just getting different. No one wants to send a story out too soon, but there is no benefit from sitting on a story 'til you're dead.

In short, make a plan, then write (and send those suckers out for consideration) like there is no tomorrow.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Thick Skin

When I first started looking for advice on how to write, I quickly ran across the admonishment that I must grow a thick skin or I wouldn't last long.

I thought that meant that eventually I wouldn't care any more whether an editor said a piece wasn't right for their publication or a beta-reader didn't understand an integral plot point or thought my characters were flat. I thought that meant the eventually the criticism would just bounce right off and I'd continue on my merry writing way.

Maybe I've not been at this long enough, but that still hasn't happened. I still get a little hurt when a beta-reader tells me I still have issues with the middle or that chapter is just fluff and needs to go. (Yesterday!) And the rejections still make me a little blue for an hour or two.

But I'm beginning to think that maybe thick skin shouldn't imply letting it all roll off, like water on the proverbial duck's back. Or displaying Rocky-like masochism in the face of an editorial beatdown by way of a rejection letter for every day of the week.

I think that "thick skin" means you don't let the negative slow you down. Because once I get past my hurt feelings and blue moments, I keep going. I try harder. I work harder. I take risks. (If no one likes the story now, why shouldn't I try something unorthodox? They can't hate it any more than they already do.)

And about those "not for us" rejections. The form letters that don't really say anything except "we don't want this story at this particular moment". An acquaintance today said "It's not the rejections that matter." (Well, I paraphrase because I'm too tired to look it up and quote with precision.) But she's right.

It's not the rejections that matter.

Believe me, it's hard to remember that when there are bills stacking up and just one sale would really make a difference.
It's hard to remember that when every story I send out is coming back "no".
It's hard to remember that when I really want to be able to say "Look what I made. Someone else thinks it's worth something."

But in the end having a thick skin is not about not feeling the hunger (literal or figurative) or the disappointment. Thick skin is about being stubborn enough to stick it out, to say "My work is good and it is worth something and one of these days I'll find someone who agrees with me." Thick skin is not about not feeling, it's about not stopping even when you do feel it.

So here's to another day of living like John McClane. Well, maybe it's not been that bad. But for those days when it has been and you're standing there beaten up but not beaten down, let's all raise our glasses and salute the indomitable spirit that lives in action heroes and writers.


Thursday, April 7, 2011

The Basics

It's funny where we find inspiration.

This afternoon I was watching Arthur (the children's TV show) and one of the characters wanted to know how to become a writer. She sent a letter to her favorite author (who was a clear homage to Lemony Snickett) asking for advice.

These are the three "dreadful tips" he sent her in response.

1) Read.

This is the one that as a grown-up writer I have the most trouble with. It's hard to fit in the time to not only write but also to read. Somehow it feels wasteful, sitting down with a book. A little voice in the back of my head always whines about how I'm "not being productive". But the truth is that we learn how to write by reading what other people have written. Like an apprentice painter copying the works of the Masters in order to understand how to mix color and use vary brushstrokes to create light and shadow on a canvas, reading allows us to study "how it's done".

2) Write. And most importantly, rewrite.

This is probably the easiest of the three tips for me. I love writing. I can write really fast. And I've learned how to kill my darlings and edit with a machete so that only the best parts survive from one draft to the next. But rewriting is still a challenge. I start to feel frustrated that I'm writing a particular chapter again. Or reworking an opening I thought was perfect on the previous draft. But successful writing is rewriting. The more I do it the less stressful it is. (And, since I'm continuing to write by keeping myself rewriting, it all improves. A win-win.)

3) Look for opportunities to publish your work.

This falls in the middle of the three points for me. More challenging than writing, less challenging than finding time to read. It is also, by far, the scariest part of the path to writerly success. Publication means other people will see my work. They can make their own judgments about whether it is good or bad or simply boring. But that's only if I am published. First I have to "look for opportunities" and that's the real bugger.

Seeking publication means facing the inevitable rejections. It means telling someone else (even if only via email) that I think my story is good enough for them to publish. (And not just publish, but pay me for. Yikes!) My palms are getting sweaty just thinking about it. But this is the risk we take in order to share our stories with the world. Even if it's only editor's desk at a time.

I truly believe that sticking to these three points will eventually get me that "Yes" I've been waiting for. And if it never comes I'll have spent my time doing things I enjoy (reading and writing) and challenging myself to have faith in what I produce.

No matter what, that's a win.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Steampunk Mammoths: excerpt

When the men from the west first breached our mountains they promised many things – technology in exchange for the use of our animals; finished goods in trade for our raw materials; and peace. Most of all they promised peace.

Naturally, that was the first oath they broke.

Even now, as they continue to encroach on the foothills - taking the only land that is capable of providing our food – they bring goods: fabrics that are rough and do nothing to keep the chill of the snow at bay, and beads and baubles that are too cheap even to glitter. They bring these things and they pass them out with smiles on their faces and guns in their hands, as if they are making a fair exchange.

They bring technology, as well. Pressurized guns capable of firing hundreds of rounds in a minute, capable of reaching far up the slopes of our mother mountains. And machines that tear up our fields, devouring fertile soil and leaving behind ruin and waste in the search for the metal and stones they call precious.

I adjust my long-gun in the crook of my arm. If they will not bring peace, then I will take it to them. I will forge an alliance the same way my mother-ancestors forged it in the deep times. I will hunt among their settlements until I find a husband. Once I make him mine, we will have peace.

I will cross their borders above the snow-line. Far above the gates and the guns they use to protect the pass. It is cloudy, I doubt they can see me even with their telescopic scanners, but just in case I put on my snow-cloak and cover Ye'var as well. He protests, mild, because it is not truly cold enough for him to wear the extra blanket, but it is necessary. His fur, mottled brown and black, stands out against the blue-white glare of the snow plains.

"Just for a little while," I say. "'Til we have passed the gates, then we will come down and you may walk free."

He harumphs like an old man, but reaches up with his trunk to pull the hood over his massive head. Only his feet are visible under the edge of the blanket. From a distance they will be nothing more than moving black dots against the mirror of the snow, much like the spots one gets from staring at the sun. No one will notice us.

I put one foot in the curl of Ye'var's trunk, grip the braided forelock with my free hand and climb up his broad forehead to settle on his back. "Go on. The sooner we're past the gate the sooner you can uncover."

He flaps his ears in agreement and I lay low, holding tight to his blanket and the thick fur underneath. The westerners make such an ordeal out of beast-riding. They have harnesses and platforms and safety belts to keep from falling. All of it proves useless when the animals refuse to move. It is the one reason we still have a foothold in the mountains.

The machines the men of the west have brought are terrible, but they cannot survive above the snow-line. Their joints freeze and their fires go out or melt through the snow and leave the mechana buried in ice. A few attempts have been made to scale the peaks on foot, but the altitude sickens them and the cold is too intense. No army can match us on the snow-plains.

Not as long as we have the mammoths.

Despite their size, they move swiftly through the snow and the cold has no effect, unable to pierce their thick fur or the layer of fat beneath their skin. They are the reason the Ka'nesh conquered these mountains in the deep times. They are the reason we still rule the peaks.

But with our fields all but gone, taken by men who want only what is under the ground, it has grown more and more difficult to feed our beasts. Every year there have been fewer calves born. Every year we lose a few more of the elders, and some of the adults. This year we lost one that was barely two hands old.

For this reason above all else, we must have peace. For this reason I am headed into the lowlands to hunt a husband.

We must have peace.