The Preliminary Results of Good Intentions
Well. Alternating one day off and one day on isn't ideal, but it's improvement. At two articles each "on" day, it comes to a week averaging one per day. Which I haven't had for months. So. Improvement.
Via researching articles at my Day Job, I now know far more than I ever wanted to know about nitric oxide boosters, saunas, marine phytoplankton supplements, and Colorado authors whose words may or may not have been embroidered and used without permission by promoters of marine phytoplankton supplements.
Also, via certain "improvements" to the Day Job's author interface... OK, the scare-quotes weren't really appropriate their. They really are improvements, I have to admit. But the "Recently Submitted Work" section I've discovered has more than one possible status per article. There's "Pending," which I'd expect. But then there's "With Editor," so that neurotic writers like me can get the heebie-jeebies. "OMG! An editor is looking at it RIGHT NOW! They're still looking at it! Why are they taking so long looking at it? I did a bad job, didn't I? It requires stupid amounts of editing, doesn't it? It's going to get rejected, isn't it? I FAIL AT LIIIIIIIFE!"
This is how many writers' minds work. This, despite the logical voice in my head that quietly points out that "With Editor" probably means the editor selected my article out of the ready-for-edits queue and will eventually get to it.
What "eventually" means I do not know, because the new-and-improved interface is missing an editor's deadline on my pending articles. Oh well.
I'm beginning to really miss working on fiction. Which I hadn't done except in fits and starts for... well, months, I think. Fiction is work, too, but it's enjoyable work.
Now, there are times when I begin to think fiction isn't enjoyable. I'm told all authors have times like those. For me, those times are mostly when
- I've begun to think the story I'm working on sucks great big sandstone boulders,
- I think the story is fantastic but my ability to get it down on the page is nonexistent, so I'm not even trying.
Not that I'm complaining, mind. I am transmuting words into money. But it doesn't hurt to use these moments as teaching moments: there are other words you can transmute into money. The process is much less certain and depends on a hell of a lot of other external factors, but it's so much more enjoyable.
Roll on November, eh?
Oh Hey, I Already Have a Job
As those of you already know who follow my husband, John, on Facebook or on Twitter, he's between jobs at the moment. Since 2004, John's been the only one of us who's been employed full time outside the home for actual real money, so when he's not in anyone's employ we both get a little antsy. Not that we're really worried--he has a couple interviews scheduled next week and recruiters lighting up the phone like a Christmas tree. Turns out, they hear "senior-level java programmer" and they want a piece. Excellent. And we're covered for basic expenses for a reasonable period of job-hunting. But, still, antsy. Perhaps more me than him with the antsiness; I'm a pro worrier, and I'm the household accountant.
Also, the reason we've been a one-income household for more than 5 years now, the very specific reason, is my writing career. I left a well-paid web development job in order to write full time. So what's my excuse for not having written much recently, hmm? Non-productivity causes guilt. Lots of guilt.
So, feeling guilty about being the household bum, I asked him last week what he thought about my going back into the workforce. He told me not to sweat it yet. I nodded and felt simultaneously relieved and unconvinced.
And then it occurred to me this weekend: Duh. I already have a job. And I don't mean "I write like it's my job." I mean, "I have a job. A writing job."
I write short articles for Demand Media Studios. That right there is as much of a job as I want to make it. The gig goes like this: They have a list of titles. I get to choose titles from the list and write the corresponding article. Once a copy editor approves the article for publication--which they generally do, giver or take a rewrite request--I get a flat fee of $15 to $25. My accumulated earnings show up in PayPal twice weekly.
It is absolutely within my power to conjure up money by the power of my pen. Well, my typing. And some mad l33t Google-fu.
But I'd been holding onto this one article title since researching it from Chicago Union Station, and had done nothing with it whatsoever. I hadn't earned much in September or August, either. I could hide behind the excuse of recent travel getting me out of my rhythm, but the fact remains: I hadn't really been using this power of mine for awhile now. And, really, that's inexcusable.
That quiet muttering noise you hear is me calling myself all sorts of foul names.
So this weekend I reserved as many titles as it took to fill my queue, and I wrote and submitted two of them today--including the one I'd been hanging onto since Chicago.
And it was a pretty darn full day already, what with grocery shopping, assembling a two-week supply of cat food, doing laundry, tending a compost pile, and other household chores. Not to mention lunch at Harpo's and watching the Saints rip the asses off pretty much everyone on Tampa Bay's defense and handing each back to the corresponding player in the end zone. (After last week's embarrassment, that felt good.)
So after doing two articles on a Sunday full of Stuff, I am imagining how much I could get done on a weekday when I'm supposed to be "at the office" (usually Atlas Purveyors, sometimes Red Rock Coffeehouse) for a full working day.
Of course, part of that working day should involve fiction. I have several short-shorts that really, really, really want to go out and meet the nice people if only I'd take the time to redesign their wardrobe and give them driving directions. But I think I might put some of that on (further) hold while I concentrate on making up for lost time at the day job. At least until we see how John's interviews this coming week go.
Besides, NaNoWriMo is on its way. Fiction will absolutely happen then, never fear.
Action Comes Before Motivation
Today was one of those terrible doldrum days, when I couldn't seem to raise the energy to even figure out what I wanted to do. After getting my Examiner stuff done, I sort of ran out of momentum. I knew what I ought to do. I ought to do any number of writing tasks that have been languishing for weeks. But of course the very fact that I hadn't done these things already made it harder to get up and do any of them. You know the routine.
This morning's Examiner stuff included blogging about the upcoming Rebel Tales e-zine and its submission guidelines. Reacquainting myself with Holly Lisle's internet presence reminded me that I had a print-out of her free e-book Mugging the Muse: Writing Fiction For Love And Money on my shelf. Having very little energy doesn't preclude reading; sometimes reading is all I manage to do on days like this. So I started paging through.
It was a good choice of book for today's reading. There's nothing quite like the biography of someone who literally wrote themselves to financial independence to get me excited about writing again. The little voice in my head starts muttering happy things, like "You could totally do this!" and "All you have to do is write!"
"Yes," was my response (poor happy little naive little voice!), "but besides being in this low-energy 'I don't wanna' space, I have that awful tight-muscles-on-the-right-side headache again."
"So go to the gym," said happy little voice. "Go climb some walls. That'll stretch out your back nicely and your headache will go away!"
Happy little voice had the right idea. It was past 5 already, the day was starting to look like over, but darn it, I'd pedal down the street with my climbing shoes and attack some bouldering problems.
Which is about when I remembered the commonplace I'd picked up from Dr. David D. Burns's book Feeling Good: Action comes before motivation, not vice versa. Almost the moment I decided on going to the climbing gym, my energy level rose by about 110%. I was visualizing myself biking down the street, locking up the bike at the gym, putting on my climbing shoes, hanging off of a low wall and contemplating where to put my feet... Imagining the action was itself an action.
I knew this stuff. I always used to say that if I could see myself doing a thing, doing the thing became inevitable. I didn't need to read in a book that getting into motion is how I get energized. But it does seem to slip my mind.
So, one bike ride and three novice-level bouldering problems later, full of energy not only from having exercised but having accomplished some small, do-able things (I finished those three problems! Go me!) I was at my desk with my notebook and able to start writing. Funny how that works.
For my next trick, how about I do that in the morning instead of at dinner time?
Oncoming NaNoWriMo in the Key of A(-ha)
- 0 words (if poetry, lines) long
Because I am that much of a nerd. Or something.
So, earlier this month, I became aware that NaNoWriMo was approaching. And fast. But was I worried? Well...
I figured, what with riding the rails again in late September, I'd have plenty of time to brainstorm my way toward A Plan. Possible plans included a series of interconnected stories among the people who appear in "First Breath," a real concerted effort to rewrite Melissa's Ghost or maybe Like a Bad Penny, or... I dunno. Those were the only Plans coming to mind.
OK, yes, I was worried. But I was just about succeeding at convincing myself otherwise.
And then I was driving home from the airport, having dropped off a visiting friend, and a plot went and hijacked me. A potential plot. A sort of treasure map leading toward a plot, maybe, with plot elements dribbled all over the landscape.
Long drives in traffic require music. To this end, I had my laptop headphone jack connected up to my car stereo via the cassette-tape-with-a-wire doohickey, and my laptop was dutifully playing through four a-ha albums. The first three, plus East of the Sun, West of the Moon. Playing through them all. Repeatedly. (One of these days, my laptop will send a hidden transmission out to some vigilante corner of the net, and I shall be hauled off for sound card abuse. Until that day, my guilty pleasures are MINE ALL MINE and NO ONE WILL TAKE THEM FROM ME.)
And I had that thought I often have when listening to this particular collection of tunes: "Dang, these lyrics have some surreal & evocative corners to them."
And then somewhere in the crossroads between "Early Morning" and "I Dream Myself Alive" I ended up with two characters in my head having an on-again, off-again relationship. One of them happens to be a dimension-hopping assassin. Who may or may not, in actuality, be an angel. It was totally obvious. And each song that came on after that made me go, "Oh, OK, and they meet when one of them picks up the other hitching on a desert highway." Or, "I get it! She's a shape-shifter." Or, "Someone gets killed here. I'm not sure who, but it's not good."
Later, very excited, I told John about this Plan. He gave me a bit of a skeptical look. "Where are you getting this assassin stuff from? Where does that ever come up?" But it does. It's all there. There is an amazing amount of implied violence in a-ha's discography. Also dimension-hopping, if you take literally lines like "I knew this world would break my heart."
All of which eventually gets me pondering the line between "inspired by" and "fan-fiction about." I suppose it's hard to call it fan-fiction when the canon material is so nebulous. You sort of need a defined, consistent worldbuild in the original to have fan-fiction about it. Put another way: I can imagine fan-fiction based on the title track to Rush's 2112. (Imagine, hell. I've written some.) But I have a hard time imagining fanfic about Rush's Presto, because I just can't see an intentional story being told across the course of that album. Writing a story that incorporates themes from each of the songs in order might possibly count as extreme fanwank, but I think it would be more accurate to say that the author used those eleven songs as a very complex writing prompt.
And so with this. So I spent a great deal of my writing time on the train just listening to those four a-ha albums while writing descriptions for possible scenes in yWriter. The working title is Death in a Dream, because the assassin travels to other worlds by going to sleep in her own and dreaming, and after completing her assignment she ends the dream and causes herself to wake up by killing herself. Maybe it should be Deaths in a Dream, plural, like that.
I'm really, really impatient to get to the actual writing. And that's good. Obsession gets the ideas flowing. But it's also unfortunate, because I intended to have two or three short-shorts out the door by the end of October. It's not too late, but with my mind thoroughly distracted like this, it's going to be difficult to concentrate on revisions.
Poor me. My life, so hard. Heh.
So Practice Detachment Already
Intensity of intention has an inverse relationship with productivity.
To wit: This morning I got up and said to myself, "You've only finished three paid content-writing articles all month! And the third requires a rewrite! And when this month have you done anything substantial, fictionwise? But it's a brand-new day! 24 potential stuff-doing hours remain in August! Do your rewrite, and then spend the rest of the working day doing articles! See how many you can do! I bet you can do a lot!"
Then I did absolutely nothing all day. I read a lot of blog. Blog this, blog that. Answered emails. Read more blog. Walked around downtown. Ate pizza. Ran out of blog to read, so went back and read previous blog after hitting refresh a lot.
Finally, finally, roughly around stupid o'clock PM, I did a quick Denver Metblogs write-up and I completed that one article rewrite.
And that was all.
So at one end of the spectrum is "Eh, whatever. Kick back and relax." At the other end is "OMG panic panic panic GET A MOVE ON!" It's a stress-and-guilt spectrum. It goes from zero to stomach-churning. But it's a weird little spectrum in that it's not a line but a circle. The two ends curve back around and meet up at a single point, and that point is called total lack of productivity.
Somewhere in between is a happy area, a land of the blessed, a sort of Avalon of stress-free motivation where tasks are approached in a Zen-like state of detached intent. It's all, "Yes, I have stuff to do," but it's missing that instinctively self-destructive component of "and any sense of self-esteem I can rightly lay claim to hangs on my doing it!"
I'm not sure I've ever actually been to Avalon. I'll tell you this, though. I'll know it when I see it.
Appreciations, part 3 of 3: Having Writers In Your Corner
Since I've been blogging this week, I've been having doubts. This stuff I say I remember: did it really happen that way? It's more than just "Was the poem on display in first or third grade?" or "Was it tenth grade or twelfth grade when Mr. Day and Ms. Petersen showed me how you submit a story for publication?" Since I've name-checked actual people, I'm half-expecting any of them to show up on Facebook or in my email to tell me, "I don't know what you're talking about. Did you make this up?" I'm very much afraid that I may have done just that.
At some point during the last decade, I was engaging in some of that mild daughter-to-mother-about-husband griping that you hear about in sit-coms and romances. Nothing important, nothing damning, just a half-laughing exasperated kvetch about a silly argument John and I had had that week. At some point, Mom laughed and said, "Niki, hasn't he learned yet that you remember everything?"
Woo uncomfortable. Because, growing up, that wasn't a compliment. It was synonymous with "You sure can hold a grudge, can't you?" When the fact was, I did remember things, hurtful things among them, with a high level of emotional detail and a word-for-word recall. And it would be like living the episode all over again. The only advantage was, the intervening time had allowed me to match words to experience. So I'd describe the memory, explain the way it had hurt, try to get someone who didn't live inside my head to understand.
But was I then, am I now, remembering things correctly? It seems that it's less likely that I have an astonishing memory than that I have a normal, vague, wishy-washy memory alongside a writer's instinct to convert everything into narratives. I tell myself stories about what happened, and the stories take the place of the memory. I'm not sure how much of what I remember is the event, and how much is the cleaned-up, narratively sound story I made up around the event.
I wonder if other writers have this doubt?
The upshot of all this maundering is, I'm not sure exactly when the previous or following events happened, or even quite whether they happened in exactly this way. But this is the story I'm going to tell about them.
Sometime between my sophomore and senior years, Ms. Petersen encouraged me to submit a story I'd written to a local contest. My family will remember this, because I think Mom did a lot of reading it to aunts and uncles over the phone: "Dancers of Land and Sea," a quiet little conversational story that took place in a mental institution between an insufficiently subordinate woman, a psychologically cut-off drowning survivor, and a cynical and skeptical doctor. I didn't know anything about mental institutions outside our high school's recent production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and I had a tendency to get preachy with The Moral Of The Story, but the results seemed to work. The story was apparently pretty decent for my age and lack of experience. It placed second in the contest.
Have I blogged about this before? It feels familiar. Maybe because I've told this story a lot to friends, face to face, fossilizing the memory in layers of tidy narrative. This time around I want to emphasize something specific: I would never have entered the contest without my teacher making me aware of it--and without her telling me, "This story you wrote? You should enter it. It's good." I was a headstrong, independent, stubborn bull of a girl with an ego that could have floated a hot air balloon--but its amazing how far that wouldn't have gotten me just on its own. I needed someone in my corner pushing me out into the center of the ring.
The contest awards were to be given out at the New Orleans Science Fiction and Fantasy Festival. Does anyone remember the NOSF3? Google reassures me that about two people mention it. I wouldn't know; I didn't know the first thing about conventions, didn't go to one until 2002. If I'd had my way that night, I wouldn't have gone at all. I hated getting dressed up, I mean in dresses, and I hated the goddamned pretentious ritual of formal occasions. And I was going to have to put up with all that and keep my elbows off the table and not drink out my soup bowl or use my fingers to pinch the last unwieldy bits on my plate against my fork. But Mom wouldn't let me get out of it. (For which, my sincere thanks.) Off we went to the French Quarter and the convention hotel.
The award banquet was as uncomfortable as I'd expected, of course. The table was cluttered, there was no good place for my legs to go, my feet didn't touch the floor so I couldn't support myself in a relaxed posture, and I was afraid of breaking one of the million incomprehensible rules that made the difference between "good manners" and "I can't believe how badly you embarrassed me tonight!" Nothing really changes; the last bit is no longer a factor, but the rest? Why must there be so many things at every place setting?
But then came the various awards. And then came the award for my contest: something like the NOSF3 Young Writers Award, something like that. And then it was time for me to walk toward the front of the room and accept my certificate from the smiling lady holding out her hand to shake mine.
I was learning a lot about the mechanics of the writing and publishing industry. But I knew nothing yet about the people in it. I knew which authors I liked to read, of course, but of publishers and editors and the sorts of people who go to professional conventions I was very very ignorant. I was shaking hands with Ellen Datlow, then editor of Omni Magazine. I don't think I'd heard either name before in my life.
"You should submit something to Omni," she told me. "Thank you," I said. I went back to my table.
And dang if I didn't take her at her word. A real editor, someone who puts stories in magazines that people actually read, had told me to submit! Hot damn! I wasted no time. I acquired a copy of Omni's submission guidelines. I followed them to the letter. I agonized over a cover letter mentioning our brief meeting at NOSF3 and her kind invitation to submit. I mailed off my contest-winning story!
And, very soon after that, I had my very first rejection letter--and my very first real-life lesson in the importance of researching your market. As you know (Bob), Omni published science fiction. "Dancers" was very much urban fantasy.
Oops. But "Oops" notwithstanding, I had a goal now. And not just a goal, but a set-your-heart-on-it, pursue-it-through-the-years goal. I had failed this time, but just wait. One day... one day... But then Omni Magazine folded, and I still hadn't been published in it. But that was OK, because a few years after that there was SciFiction. And one day... one day... And SciFiction closed its doors too, but still I had this goal. And the intervening years had convinced me it was an important goal: One day, I would sell a story to Ellen Datlow.
Which is the punchline that this series of blog posts has been leading up to: One day is today.
That professional sale of my story "First Breath" I mentioned a few months ago? I get to blab about the details now, because the table of contents (TOC) has been announced and everything. My story will appear in Ellen Datlow's forthcoming anthology Blood and Other Cravings, to be published by Tor in, so the estimate goes, the fall of 2011.
*blink* *blink* Wow. That means that, in addition to being in a Datlow anthology, I'm going to be published by Tor. Wow. *blink*
Maybe if I say it enough times it'll seem ordinary.
But a really important thing here is--I would never have submitted the story if I didn't, again, have a writer in my corner pushing me forward. I've been attending a bimonthly writing class in Denver for about 6 years. Local writer Melanie Tem--I'd say "horror writer," but that would be woefully incomplete; The Deceiver is far too complex a family drama to be simply called horror; and have you read her and Steve's The Man on the Ceiling?--anyway, Melanie hosts a writing group that I've been going to since running into one of her students at World Horror 2004. It's a pretty basic class. Sometimes we critique a manuscript, sometimes we bring in shorter pieces to read aloud, and sometimes we read aloud very short pieces written right there in class. Sometimes we just talk shop.
I volunteered "First Breath" for the group to review, and, as you may remember, my heart was in my teeth about it. I mean, it has sexy stuffs in it! But another student had brought in a piece the time before that had an actual complete sex scene in it, so screw fear, let's do this. And as it turned out the comments around the table were overwhelmingly positive, and the negatives were overwhelmingly helpful, and everything was overwhelmingly awesome. Peer critique went like peer critique should.
Then, about a week later, Melanie emailed me. Ellen Datlow was putting out the call for submissions to a closed anthology, she said, and Melanie, who'd been invited to submit, had also been given the go-ahead to pass the invite along to me. (Apparently she'd said something like, "So I have this student, I have no idea why she isn't published yet, who just turned in this amazing story..." This is me, blushing and stammering: *blush*) The anthology would have to do with vampires, but not your ordinary vampires, and Melanie thought my story would be a perfect fit. "But they're not vampires, not really..." Yeah, but they kinda sorta were, right? Just not blood-suckers. Which the submission guideline specifically wanted them not to be. So. Perfect, right?
Right. Apparently so. I received an acceptance-conditional-upon-revision on May 2, and within a few days I was signing and mailing back a contract. How weird to think that last time I mailed an envelope to this address, I was out by the outgoing mailbox with my purple fountain pen waiting for the post officer to show up so I could beg him to give me the envelope back momentarily so I could scribble VAMPIRISM on the outside like I'd totally forgotten to the day before. Insecurity then, totally incredulity now. Wow.
I cannot begin to tell you--well, I can begin, but "begin" is about all I can do--what Melanie's support means to me. This wasn't the first invite-only anthology she got me permission to submit to. When she emailed me about this one, I thanked her profusely: "I feel honored that you keep sending opportunities like this my way." To which she replied, matter-of-factly, "I'm on a mission to get you published." Support like that, you can't count on getting it. You can only thank the powers that be for the blessing of having it.
I feel sort of like I've written those two pages of writer's acknowledgments you get at the beginning of novels, which is a little silly when the piece I've sold is under 3,000 words long. But this sale feels like a huge landmark in my personal path as a writer. It isn't the goal, certainly not a final destination, but it's a goal I've had close to my heart since that night at a downtown New Orleans hotel. I think goals are like playing connect-the-dots, really. Or climbing a rock face. You only ever aim for the next dot, the next hold, because until you get to the next one, you can't really work on the one after that. But then you do, and so you can. So you go on.
But before going on, this set of holds is a good place to pause, rest my arms, and think about some of the people (and there are ever so many more!) without whose support I'd have never gotten this far up the mountain.
I love you all.
Appreciations, part 2 of 3: Teachers Who Are Also Writers
In addition to being given absolute permission to follow that star, a budding writer needs support that maybe their parents, if they're not writers themselves, can't give: concrete knowledge about the path leading to that star. Also knowledge about avoiding things unhelpful to the journey. Knowledge that enables, and knowledge that inoculates.
These days, though I've never submitted a book for publication but once (unsuccessfully) nor attempted to attract the interest of an agent, I feel fairly confident I can avoid the scammy pitfalls that many writers fall prey to when they first begin seeking publication. And if you get me on my soapbox I can talk about the hallmarks of publishing scams and bad agents until the cows have not only come home but have also been tucked into bed. I devoutly hope some of my soapbox time has helped prevent a friend from falling into the 7-year clutches of Publish America or the black hole that is the Barbara Bauer Literary Agency.
I learned a lot of what I know in that regard from the good writers and editors in the AbsoluteWrite.com Forum community. That's where I heard "Yog's Law: Money flows toward the writer," i.e. don't pay to be published; the proper relationship of writer to publisher is as a vendor, not as a customer. That's where I learned that reputable publishers consider readers their customers, that reputable agents only get paid when you do, that fee-bearing contests are generally less useful than the for-free, year-round "contest" you enter every time you submit a story to a paying market, that an advance against royalties is the publisher's estimate of how much your book will sell. That a reputable publisher or agent generally doesn't surf the internet in search of more manuscripts, since they get plenty mailed to them without asking. That if a publisher or agent tells you they'll give you "the chance you deserve," that their competition is "afraid of them" because they're going to single-handedly "revolutionize the industry," you should turn your back and run--not walk--as far away from them as quickly as you can.
The more a writer knows about how the industry works, the better choices they can make and the less likely they are to be wooed by incompetents and frauds. But that knowledge needs a home prepared for it in the writer's mind.
For that, I have a couple more teachers to thank.
I continued on at Metairie Park Country Day (with the exception of 5th grade, about which long story), and eventually I got to my sophomore year in high school. That year I had the opportunity to give up a free period (free periods! oooh!) and instead take a one-on-one writing elective in the brand-spanking-new computer lab.
(This is also when I started using WordPerfect 5.1. The computer lab was full of Macs, and my parents had a PC running Windows 3.1. MS Works was no more compatible with, well, anything then than it is now. My brother's after-school tutor lent me the 5.25" floppies to illicitly install WP51, and the rest is history.)
Our English department boasted not one but two published authors: Betsy Petersen and Chet Day. Under them (making it more of a two-to-one class than a one-on-one), I had a designated daily class period in which nothing was expected of me but the sound of typing. If I finished a piece, I could of course turn the draft in for them to read and comment on.
What a boon that was for a young writer! I believe I've gushed about this before: Designated writing time doesn't only give a writer time to ply her craft; it also gives her explicit permission to take time to write. You see the difference? That elective didn't just say, "It's important enough to spend an hour every day doing it." It said, "You are allowed to consider writing this important." This is exceedingly vital permission to give a beginning writer. Oftentimes we don't get it at all. It's much more the case that we hear, "Are you busy? Oh, just writing, huh? In that case, you can spare some time to watch my kids/chop some vegetables/run an errand for me..."
But I got told, "Writing is important. If you want to make it your life, then give it space in your life every day." And having learned that, I've strived to surrounded myself with people who respect that. It's a good thing.
So that was awesome. Then, in senior year, we did it again, but this time with a fellow classmate. (Hi, Chip!). Throughout the year the two of us read each other's work and critiqued it under Mr. Day's and Ms. Petersen's guidance. And that was even more awesome.
And at some point during that year (or the sophomore one, I'm not sure), I asked our teachers, "So... how does one go about getting a story published?"
I remember Mr. Day's answer like it was this morning. "Well, first, do you think you're ready for your story to get rejected?"
"If I'm not," said I, "I had better be."
And so I learned about preparing a manuscript for professional submission, about researching a market's content and guidelines, about form rejections and personal rejections. I learned how to navigate the library's copy of The Writer's Market. But, more importantly, I learned how to think about rejection letters. I learned that submitting a manuscript may feel like baring your soul to an uncaring world which will spit in your face, but that in reality it's just attempting to sell a product. And I made my very first professional submission and I got my very first rejection letter. (About this, more later.)
I'm not going to claim that I magically bypassed that whole "taking it personally" thing that we writers do when we get rejected. I'm still there. No matter how much I go, "Ah, another rejection letter. Time to submit elsewhere!" I've still got that voice in my head going "But... but... but don't they love me?" Like acrophobia while rock climbing, I doubt that voice will ever go away.
But I learned from the beginning that I would feel that way, and that the goal was to keep submitting anyway. And to be a professional about it. And also to not make a jackass of myself by letting that awful rejected feeling dictate how I react.
Instinctual fear of heights? Climb anyway; you're safe. Instinctual fear of rejection? Keep writing and keep submitting. The fear never gets smaller. But the task of moving forward despite the fear gets easier, and that makes the fear seem smaller.
Another thing I learned: Reasonable expectations. A rejection letter means either the story hasn't found the right editor or the story simply isn't ready. It doesn't mean the publishing industry is broken or unprepared for the shining spectacle of my golden words. Knowing that is key to being a professional, to improving the writer's craft, to avoiding the scammers who prey on rejection disillusionment, and to allowing an editor to help improve the story even more after your story gets... *gulp* ...accepted.
This is getting long, and the punchline I'm trying to get to is still a ways off. So here's one of those "To be continued" endings Mrs. Waters would remember from way back when, and we'll finish up tomorrow.
Appreciations, part 1 of 3: Parents and Teachers
Hello, blog I'm supposed to be updating daily but instead have been hitting maybe twice a month! For the record, I'm a little embarrassed at the high percentage of Examiner posts in my Uber-RSS. It's like, I used to write fiction, but now I'm totally selling out on SEO content writing for cents on the click. *hangs head in shame*
But I've been having these writing-related thoughts recently. Some of them go like this: "Damn, I should be writing. Why have I not written today?" But some of them are more interesting, and they don't fit well under the "Boulder Writing Examiner" rubric. So. Lucky thing I have this personal blog, right?
I've been thinking about what it means to have known since age 6 that I wanted to be a writer when I grew up. Age 6 can be a pretty blissful time, but it's not ideal if you want people to actually take your hopes and dreams seriously. I have memories of being asked, repeatedly, by aunts and uncles and friends of my parents, "What's your favorite dinosaur, Niki?" not because anyone was interested in the answer, but because it was so cute that a kid in first grade could reliably pronounce a 5-syllable word. (That word, for the record, was "Archeopteryx.") I remember being very aware of this well-meaning but patronizing behavior on the part of the grown-ups around me, of being treated like a well-trained pet who could do a trick. Being six doesn't mean being oblivious.
(I think a lot of grown-ups musn't actually remember what it was like to be six. Or sixteen, for that matter.)
Anyway, I remember being mildly irritated every time I got the question, because I knew that the interest implied by the asking of the question was in fact a lie. A mild lie, but a lie nonetheless. But I answered, because I wanted someone to actually share my enthusiasm for the giant feathered ancestor-of-birds I was naming, and maybe this time this grown-up wasn't asking under false pretenses. Also, at that age, praise from grown-ups is nice, even if it comes in pathetic dribs and drabs and for all the wrong reasons such that it also leaves you feeling a little squicked.
Which is not to say that I was traumatized for life by these interactions. Just that I remember them quite well. Grown-ups ask small children questions, small children think it means the adult is actually interested in what they have to say, small children discover grown-ups' questions were actually a formalized construction of "Dance, monkey, dance." Age six is a terrible time to expect anyone to take you seriously.
So what I want to express my appreciation for is this: Parents who did take me seriously. The archeopteryx thing might have been an unfortunate example of the "dance, monkey, dance" phenomenon, but when they asked me, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" and I said, "A writer," they listened.
Actually, my first answer to that question was, "An artist." I was always scribbling, doodling, drawing things--unicorns, mostly--and I enjoyed it so much I figured I'd keep on doing it. I'd eventually have paintings on display in museums and galleries. I'd get hired to illustrate picture books and paint novel covers.
And my parents' response to this was to present me with sketch notebooks, canvases, acrylics, cray-pas, charcoals. Painting lessons. This was not all at or before age six, of course; as long as I evinced interest in using these tools, they supplied me with them.
But age six was the approximate time when I discovered writing.
At Metairie Park Country Day, elementary school--or "Lower School" as it's called there, which I understand is not the typical terminology--is divided into a series of homerooms. Kindergarten, first, and second grades are in the six classrooms that comprise the first floor of the Atrium. Upstairs are four homerooms of third and fourth graders, and four more of fifth and sixth graders. That, at least, was the arrangement when I was passing through, roughly between 1981 and 1988. During my first three years there, I was in Mrs. Waters's homeroom, room 6.
At the beginning of first grade, Mrs. Waters walked the six or seven of us around the room to show us the new privileges and responsibilities we'd get now that we'd graduated out of kindergarten. We'd have actual class times, math and vocabulary and so on, each in different areas of the big homeroom. We'd have actual homework. (Actual homework! Like the big kids had! Wow!) And over here, on the desk positioned between two class areas and near the play-with-blocks area, was a cardboard stand with hanging files in it, and each of us had a hanging file with our name on it, and in our file was a spiral notebook.
In this spiral notebook, each of us was expected to write one page per day.
"Write what?" Anything we wanted.
I approached this daily task grudgingly at first. What was I supposed to write about? The sky is blue and I had instant oatmeal for breakfast. Maple and brown sugar flavor. I wish it wasn't so hot out. Tonight we are going to a movie.
But somewhere during that first semester I began to use the introductory phrase Once upon a time. After which, Story happened. I started writing fiction. Wish-fulfillment stories about the kid I had a crush on. Fantastic stories about my imaginary friends. Moralistic tales about a horse foal who turned into a unicorn overnight and got shunned by the other barnyard animals until he ran away from home, and then they all missed him and wanted him to come back. Weird dream-like tales about getting taken to the land of the unicorns where they eat rainbows and sleep half-submerged in hot springs. (Unicorns were rather a theme.)
Suddenly, a single page stopped being enough room to write in. I started ending my daily pages with "To be continued." I heard Mrs. Waters tell my mom, once, at one of the periodic parent-teacher meetings, "She's writing these multi-part serials now. I have to wait until the next day to find out what happens next."
But the light didn't really go on until we were all given a holiday poem-writing assignment--Easter, I think it was--and the next day I walked into the classroom to see my poem on display. (Was this age six, really, or am I remembering 3rd grade now?) My poem, written in wide-tip marker on the huge lined cardstock pages taller than we were. Wow. Apparently I didn't just enjoy writing; I was writing things that someone else enjoyed reading.
I think that, whether it was the Easter poem in first grade or the get-well-soon poem to a classmate in third, whichever it was, that was when my answer changed.
"What do you want to be when you grow up?"
And my parents never said, "But what will you do to earn money?" And they didn't just say, "That's nice," and then tell their friends how cute it was that Niki thought she wanted to be a writer. No. Instead, Mom brought me home a Fisher-Price typewriter. It had a red plastic body and white plastic keys, and it looked like a toy but it was perfectly functional. I soon learned to put two pages in at once to protect the platen, how to insert the pages so they came out even and not crooked, and not to touch the ribbon if I didn't want to get ink all over my fingers. I didn't learn to touch-type, not yet, but I got pretty comfortable hunting and pecking my way through more stories about unicorns, classmates I liked, pop stars I adored, and more unicorns. I caught Mom reading some of them aloud on the phone to relatives. It made me embarrassed--and proud.
So that's my first appreciation: Parents who took my writing seriously even before I know it could be taken seriously, and teachers who encouraged me to discover exactly how seriously I wanted to take it. You have to enjoy writing for its own sake, I think, to make writing your life, but sometimes it takes a reader's overt act of positive feedback to make you realize you can be a writer.
I didn't realize how fortunate I was back then. A lot of kids did get told, "It's nice to dream, dear, but... what will you do for a real job?" or, heavens forfend, "Erm, well, try not to show off. Boys don't like girls who are smarter than them." I got told, instead, "A writer, huh? Great! Here's some tools and here are classes and by the way did you write today?" I was lucky. Heck, I was lucky, and had no idea how lucky, just to have a simple, unremarkable childhood in a functional family with loving parents, a roof over our heads, and food regularly on the table. It's scary how many kids don't get even that, growing up. To have that and to have unquestioning parental support for whatever answer I gave to the question "What do you want to be when you grow up?" Breathtaking.
Which makes it sort of silly to complain the archeopteryx thing, doesn't it? And I'm not. I'm not complaining. I'm just remembering it, and remembering how I felt about it. There were lots of things I said at six, or at sixteen, that didn't get taken seriously, which often left me frustrated. But "I'm going to be a writer when I grow up" was not one of them.
You know Barbara Sher's Wishcraft? How she encourages you to answer honestly questions like, "Were you treated as though you had a unique kind of genius that was loved and respected?" and "Were you told that you could do and be anything you wanted—and that you’d be loved and admired no matter what it was?" By page 20 or so I was in tears of gratitude, because my answer to most of the questions in chapter 2 was Yes.
I often wish I could meet my biological parents and tell them, "The people who adopted little infant me? Awesome people. You made a good choice. I have no idea what would have happened if you'd chosen otherwise, but given what you did choose, everything worked out great." Because it did. Everything that really mattered did.
A Real-Life Glitch In the Matrix
- 853 words (if poetry, lines) long
You remember the scene, right? A black cat crosses the red carpet in the hallway, hisses, then continues on its way--only to vanish two steps later and reappear five steps behind. With a brief digital blur, it reenacts its most recent past. The protagonist is startled. So are we. "A glitch in the Matrix," we are told. A memory hitch, a redraw jitter, a fault revealing the computerized nature of the fictional world.
Meanwhile, in the "real" world, the Matrix glitches again. John and I are in Chicago, visiting the Field Museum. In the Africa exhibit there stands an elephant tusk from a royal altar in Benin, a spiraling story carved into its six or seven foot length: the Oba would have commissioned this work to commemorate his father's reign. As a work of literature, it grabs our attention, because (the informative plaque tells us) there is no single translation. The iconography is properly interpreted as overlapping layers of story. Like a sedimentary rock, each narrative strata resembles the one beneath it but differs here and there in key ways, sometimes subtle, sometimes overt.
At the time, we understand this to mean that a single reading contains these multifaceted interpretations. That the tusk always contains in its deliberately broad-reaching icons several related stories, each considered true, each accessible in the carving, from the point of view of a member of the court in a given generation. Researching it now, I think maybe I misunderstood; articles such as Barbara W. Blackmun's "From Trader to Priest in Two Hundred Years" (Art Journal; June 1, 1988) seem to imply that the layers of varying interpretation were not designed from the beginning but rather accreted over the years. The ambiguous nature of the icons and the prioritizing of "cherished values" over "linear, factual recording of past events" allowed successive generations to seamlessly reinvent the story, changing the past to better suit the values of the present. Nevertheless, at the time, John and I were both enchanted by the idea of multiple narratives coexisting upon the same "page." Both of us wanted to tuck the paradigm under our arms, spirit it home, and infuse it into our respective relationships with storytelling.
Like most museums, the Field Museum strives to be interactive. Some of its exhibits include hands-on demonstrations. Some are labeled with pop-up books instead of plaques. "How many languages are spoken on the African continent? Lift this page to find out!" Tools from our childhood classrooms, prompting us to respond as children ready to learn. In this spirit, a three-ring binder was affixed to one of the shelves bordering the exhibit case. "Flip through the pages to see different possible stories this tusk could be telling."
So I did.
But each page was identical to the first.
Only one story was being told. Repeatedly. With word-for-word accuracy.
In fiction, I do weird. I love to read it, I strive to write it. And I'm in the habit of believing it. When I think I'm seeing oddness in the world around me, like everyone else I insert a logical explanation: "Administrative glitch. Or maybe it's supposed to be 10 copies of the same thing. Whatever." But before I get there, the weirdness gets there first.
"A glitch in the Matrix. The world is throwing duplicates, like a computer running too many processes. When I look up, I'll see a line of duplicate carved tusks in identical glass cases stretching off as far as the eye can see."
For just a moment, I know this to be true. Then the logical explanation cuts in and restores order to my world. Safe, predictable, comforting order. Boring order.
So two months later I start writing the story in which the weirdness usurps the boring. And the weirdness, as it turns out, has layers of weird lurking underneath, weird strata imperfectly mimicking even weirder strata.
This should be fun.
Just Enough Success to Learn the WRONG Lessons
I'm still under orders to keep mum concerning the details regarding my recent sale of "First Breath," unless by some chance said orders have been rescinded without my knowledge. Playing it safe, I assume that not. But apparently it's never too early for a success to turn me into a stupidly immobile writer-wannabe hack. I shouldn't be surprised; it takes so very little to do that. Besides, we all know how success itself can turn around and cause writer's block. I should have seen this coming.
Now, first off, I feel pretty weird referring to the sale as "success." A success, yes. A very important success, very true. A landmark I've wanted to reach since, oh, age 14. But, nevertheless, a single short story sale cannot be considered Success With A Capital "S" Or A Definitive Article, not when the long-term goal is to be able to support myself and my family by making stuff up and writing it down.
This is why I keep saying, "Time to write the next thing!" Which is... a lot of pressure, oddly.
Because here's the thing: I keep catching myself trying to write not simply the next thing, but the next thing that this editor will buy. Instead of simply looking for another idea I can turn into a story, I've been searching for the idea. You know the one. The one that will turn itself into a story by dint of yanking the hapless author out of bed and plunking her down in front of the typewriter with an inviolable command to Write! and Write now! and Not To Stop Until It Is Finished!
If that's what I've been doing, it's no wonder I'm not getting past "I don't know what to write" these days. Because that idea? That idea is a myth. It is a fantastic creature. It is--
Well, wait. That's wrong. I know it's wrong, you know it's wrong, every writer who ever had an idea haul them to their daily work by the scruff of the neck or had fictional characters insist they take dictation knows that it's wrong to say that such an idea is mere myth. It exists, all right. Really and truly--but only insofar as, given a working writer's full attention, every idea is that idea. It's the difference between "There are no such things as unicorns" and "Of course unicorns exist, duh. Here's a picture of a narwhal."
(For the record, I absolutely believe unicorns exist. Unconditionally.)
There are a lot of wrong lessons to learn from having sold a story. Among them are "Write something else JUST LIKE IT!" and "Save your energy for writing stories that obsess you, like that one did!" It's all well and good to make your ideas compete for your attention and only work on the one that succeeds in grabbing it. But to wait, sit there with your pen or keyboard motionless, until the right idea appears? No.
Any lesson that takes the writer out of the driver's seat is the wrong one.
A better lesson is, "See what you did there? Take the next idea you have, and do it again." Do what again? "Give it your attention. Feed it to your right brain. Dream on it. Spend time typing about it." Take an active role, and turn the next idea into that idea.
Which will turn around and hijack you.
Enjoy the ride.
(...I'm not sure I'm OK with that metaphor, really. Perhaps tomorrow I'll have a better one. Sleep tight, kids.)