My cousin’s friend’s wife’s stepsister’s brother.

We all know the saying “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” Or the phrase “He slept his way to the top.” Meaning someone bypassed the traditional route of hard work, trial and error and made it – reached a goal the rest of the world has to work to earn.

My father had a saying “If you can’t carry the gear, you’re not ready to dive.”

Scuba diving was a hobby of his, and he was a diving instructor in his spare time. It was his philosophy that if you weren’t strong enough to carry your tanks, weights, and gear on dry land – and if you didn’t have the understanding of how to care for the equipment – then you weren’t ready to go diving. No one was going to carry those tanks for you, either into or out of the water. If you’ve never had the pleasure, let me assure you – those tanks are heavy. This was the 1970’s, they were metal, and if you wanted to go down for any interesting length of time, you had two of them. Then there were the lead weights of your belt, add to that the discomfort of a full-body wetsuit (crucial here in the cold waters).

But once you could manage them – when you were strong enough and knowledgeable enough – you were in for a great dive.

Not long ago, I saw a writer make it to the top. This person had done the writing, and entered the fray of querying agents, suffering the plethora of rejections that is the common plight of our kind. But then, out of the blue for those of us observing, someone came along, picked up this writer’s tanks and gear, and carried them to an agent, and a contract.

While the rest of us stood on the beach, sweating under the weight of our tanks, this writer got a lift. And I can admit, that bothered me. Still does. I’d be willing to bet it bothered more than a few people, but all we could do was offer up the golf-clap of congratulations and keep huffing our own tanks toward the beach.

And that got me thinking about how the dive was going to be that much sweeter for me having to carry my own gear. How finally landing an agent, then a publishing contract, will feel that much more significant knowing I had to do it the hard way. The way 99 percent of us have to go about it. Writing the novels, sweating over the queries, putting in the long hours of agent research, then suffering the rejections until finally, one day, one novel makes it, and pulls me into the ranks of the Traditionally Published.

That’s not to say we don’t get help along the way. Writers are pretty good about helping our kind, offering up suggestions, help, critiques, advice, and a general sense of community. We’re all in this dive together, carrying the same gear toward the same beach. And when one of us makes it to the water, we all cheer, because we know how long that haul was, and how hard the going had been, and we’re thrilled to see members of the group making it – it gives us hope that we, too, will soon be getting wet (or read, if you’re not following my analogy).

Does that mean, if I got a call from my cousin’s friend’s wife’s stepsister’s brother, who was a published author, and he said he could get my manuscript read by his stellar agent – then win me a contract with said agent – that I would refuse?

I’m not stupid.

But would it taste as sweet to win that way? Would I have pride in my efforts, and be able to encourage my fellow writers to keep the faith, keep working hard, keep writing those stellar novels, and one day you’ll make it there too? Could I continue to champion traditional efforts, then admit that I got there riding someone’s coattails?

I know myself too well. I’d be thrilled to make it. I’d be giddy at seeing my novel in print, on the shelves at Barnes & Nobel. But if a hopeful new writer asked my advice – how’d I get where I was . . .

Could you answer that? Could you encourage hopeful writers to work hard, query many, take heart after rejections, and continue to write the good write ? You’ve made it now, but you can’t carry all their gear, even if you wanted to try. You probably wouldn’t refuse if someone came along and offered to help – you’ve been sweating and struggling so long, and that water looks so nice! But would you enjoy the dive as much, knowing you had help your fellow divers didn’t need? Knowing they got there under their own steam?

Of course, my father had another saying, whenever we were out on the boat and he saw a bigger, nicer boat go by. “I wish I had that boat, and he had a feather up his ass. Then we’d both be tickled.”

Man Up

It’s been a busy week, mostly inside of my own head, and thusly why this article comes to you late. I don’t have a great deal to say, but it’s a thorn in my paw, and I’m passing it on. After all, what else is the internet except a great soapbox for anyone who wishes to utter an opinion? What is the internet, but the ultimate backyard-fence-gossip? What is the internet…but I digress.

Or perhaps, gently, I lead into my own point, which is twofold.

First:

Just the other day, I happened to be in a store — I forget which one now, one of those great box-dump stores like Wal-Mart, or Target, or something — and I made the mistake of asking the kid whether or not the expensive piece of plastic video-game-playing-gadgetry that I was stupidly purchasing was capable of receiving an SD memory card. It’s a common enough question. As it happens, I already knew that it took SD, MMC, and had a Multi-card reader, not to mention plenty of USB ports and BlueTooth. I know this because I used to sell this stuff and I always took a great deal of pride in knowing all that I could about it. The kid stumblingly looked at the box and failed to see a big orange sticker of any sort that might help him out by saying “HELLO, I HAVE AN SD CARD SLOT!”

He tried to read the specs on the side of the box. You could see his lips moving. He tried to explain to me that some models came with it, some didn’t (I knew that too). And as he stumblingly, like, explained, you know, that some, or whatever, of them, kind of, they came with, the, you know, the slot, for the, for the card?? I realized something that, of course, I already knew from all my previous years in retail:

We are forgetting how to communicate.

Not just reading. Nossir. We hear all the moaning and wringing-of-hands from authors and publishers and professors of all walks about how “people are forgetting how to read! Nobody reads anymore! Doom!” and we nod sympathetically. Personally, I have always been gently doubtful, gently suspicious, because years back I read a book called How To Lie With Statistics, and I have yet to find a blanket statement like “99% of people can’t read anymore,” which can’t be happily disproved just by thinking like that little book.

Reading is a seperate thing, and I’ll come back to that in my second part. Let me go on.

Read the rest of this entry »

Eureka!

bulb.jpgIdeas. We all get them, sometimes so many of them, we only have time to follow up with a small percentage. That is, ideas for novels or short stories. They come right out of the blue, sneak in during a song, flash into our heads while we’re watching a movie or seeing a clip on the nightly news.

It makes no sense to try and explain this to folks who don’t write – when someone asks you where you got the idea for such a wild novel, or how you came up with the intricate plot you’ve just written – if you told them the entire world you created came to you when you picked up a funny looking pebble on the beach . . . chances are they’re gonna just nod and back up a step.

If I were to tell you that the concept for Ether came to me when I had a dream about an entire Who concert, then woke to the radio playing Who Are You and I realized the long, detailed dream had taken place in the span of a split second, you’d understand. You’d get how, in a convoluted and wild manner, I could come up with an entire new world – a fantastical scenario involving doors that lead to strange places, and a special key that can take you from here to there – a world with wooden ships that navigate the skies, swamps with carnivorous trees, and a fungus that grows in a maze of tunnels that – if inhaled – can make you forget even your own name . . . If I told you all of that and more came to me the moment I realized my dream-state had begun and concluded in an instant, you’d nod in complete understanding. Because this happens to you, too.

You’re pulling weeds in the garden, and suddenly see the entire plot of a murder mystery.

Or sipping coffee and people-watching, when instantly you can see espionage taking place all around you, and only you know where the microfilm is hidden!

You might be out walking the dog, and when you bend over to clean up Fluffy’s deposit, you’re shown the answer to that pressing plot issue that’s been nagging you for days.

Or a calm, quiet day at the beach turns into a mystical land where dragons rule and humans are slaves. That pile of seaweed you accidentally stepped in becomes the cure to the plague you unleashed on society, that the hero has to discover. The barge passing by is a cargo ship flying through space. You’re drifting off to sleep, then whammo! You see an entire novel spread out before you, and you have to get up right then and take notes.  Or you wake from a dream, remembering only a snippet and the deep urge to build a world around it.

It’s not so much these things we see that give that sudden insight. Well, not always. I think more often than not, it’s the fact that we weren’t trying at the time. We were just going about our day, letting the mind wander where minds are wont to go, when we find our creative brain – the writerly part that is neither left nor right – finds a toy and wants to play.

I’m not saying writer’s are special people, who see the world differently than non-writers do. But . . . writers are special people, and we see things differently than non-writers do!

While our thoughts are busy with one thing, our minds are conjuring. And being writers, we have a bent toward creating new worlds – telling stories – so our minds wander in that direction. Whereas your Aunt Betty, who knits, is probably sipping that coffee and thinking she could have made that sweater for a third of the price that cheap tart paid. Your brother Tom, who races remote controlled cars as a hobby, sees that barge and wonders if he should buy an RC boat this summer, for when he takes the kids up to the lake.

You ask him what made him think to buy an RC boat, as you watch him sail that baby around the pond, and he’ll tell you “Went to the beach, saw some boats, and got a hankerin’.”

He asks you what made you think to write a story set five hundred years in the future, where America has been reduced to walled off cities where the civilized live, and the land in-between is populated by criminals and those kept off the grid – and you tell him it came to you when you had to step over the baby gate keeping the puppy from peeing on the living room carpet – just see which of you is handed that last beer.

I don’t think it’s elitist to say writers think differently. I can’t knit, and I don’t have remote controlled toys. I can’t program computers, or sew a quilt.  But I do get ideas from some of the strangest places, at the oddest of times.

Know what I mean?

Shut Up and Drive

I have been reading blogs and online journals since late 2001, when I discovered Neil Gaiman’s and delighted in it. The world of blogs slowly expanded until we reach present day, when everybody and their grandmother has a blog in which they can vent their spleens in long — or short — incoherent — or lucid — posts through which we learn about their entire lives. I admit that personal blogs very rarely ever had, or have, much of a draw on me, simply because there is no forward motion and I find nothing which sustains my interest. I read writer’s blogs, like Neil Gaimans (and damn few others) because not only are the life matters told in an interesting and engaging fashion, but we also learn about writing, hear about traveling the world, and have the occasional insights and bits of wisdom.

Despite being aware of blogs, reading blogs, enjoying blogs, I myself did not particularly begin blogging until February of 2007, when Carrie and I launched CarrPeeDiem. It mostly wallowed, I still didn’t particularly blog. It wasn’t until later in the year that I did anything particular with it. And the reason I didn’t particularly have a burning interest in blogging was, again, writer’s blogs.

I am deeply embarrassed by the vast majority of writers on various levels,  and although the embarrassment eases the further up in the ranks I get (Neil Gaiman does not embarrass me at all), it is particularly the unpublished ranks of writers, or the freshly-published, who really make me want to turn up my collar and go gracefully into the night. They are legion, the unpublished writers with something to say to the world, and they can so often be categorized: the maudlin wallowers; the agonizers; the cheery, empty-headed; the bitter, nasty (let’s be honest here: they are odoriferous fucks) so many of whom have entirely wrapped themselves up in the cocoon of being on the internet and declaring themselves writers as surely as someone might declare themselves a psychic on their MySpace page, but with as little tangible evidence to back up the claim. I could talk on and on about what a terrific plumber I am, but unless I can tell you something intelligent about plumbing and fix your toilet, then I’m not much of a plumber, am I?

In short, I didn’t want to become one of them. I wanted to talk about writing, because it is my love and I enjoy writing, reading about writing (and writers) and discussing writing. Anyone who speaks with me on the phone about stories knows that what happens as I get excited is that I talkfasterandfasteruntilIamnearlyimpossibletounderstand because I just love writing. It’s terrific. But I couldn’t justify starting a blog to discuss writing because, even if I said something wise and good and useful, I am still anchored into the ranks of the unpublished (or barley published) author who goes on and on about how to write, what to write, what’s chic in writing, what’s out, what’s the auctorial equivalent of wearing white after Labor Day, and on, and on, like the worst Old Ladies’ Club you can imagine, sitting around and tut-tutting about the stupidest stuff imaginable.

Eventually, I started a blog, because I wanted to, and I started blogging regularly, because I had previously enjoyed writing a weekly column for a magazine and, when that ended, I wanted a similar outlet and used my blog for that purpose, and I still do. Sometimes about writing, sometimes not. Mostly, I decided that if I get lumped into the category with the wandering fool writer, then that is someone else’s decision, and not mine.

But that’s not the point, so much, as the rest of the writers I described above are. Listen: these are not writers, and you should temper what you listen to based on what they’ve written, based on what they have any right to know. There is the old phrase which says “Those who can’t, teach,” and as we all know, it’s a dodgy phrase, except when it’s spot-on accurate. It applies wonderfully to writers. How many times have we seen some kid who hasn’t written a single word of lucid fiction in months because he’s run out of cartoons to inspire him, but here he is on a blog, explaining to the world the best possible way to write. If I had a penny for everything that I “can” and “cannot” do in my writing, then I’d have enough pennies to maybe not buy a steak dinner, but I could sure as hell buy some burgers. Give me another week or two, I’ll be up to the steak.

Listen, let’s cut the crap: only writing is about writing. You must write, you must write something you care about, and that’s pretty much the end of it. Do it to the best of your ability. I don’t care what you write, as long as it matters, and I don’t care what you are trying to do and say with your work, so long as chief among your focuses is producing a piece of work which is readable to someone else and which is enjoyable to be read. A dense book, written to be dense for the sole purpose of being dense, is as worthless as a blank ream of paper. May as well have left the pages blank for someone else to work on, or to use as a doorstop, because it’s a waste of time. It’s like a strange fashion design which is not particularly wearable, but is designed only to be designed. The common is looked down upon. That’s garbage, no matter what field you are working in, but particularly in writing. It says more about the fool critic who criticize Stephen King’s success, not on the merits of his ability as a writer, but because he appeals to the common masses. As if this is some sort of dirty crime, down there with fancying sheep . This says that the critics are arrogant, small-minded fools and they are a waste of time.

It is exactly the same thing with wannabe writers offering advice and opinions and conceits across the surface of the internet, writing their lengthy truths about writing and  telling you what is good and what is bad. And if they are doing so without actually writing themselves, that furthers the worthlessness of the advice. It is literary masturbation, simple as that: it is the simple and cheap addiction to the thrill of feeling like A Big Author, it is the joy and love of Having Written or Being About To Write, and it has nothing of the thrill of writing, and of having someone read what has been put down, which are the most important things, next to which everything else is secondary.

A method to take — in all forms, but we are discussing internetted writing advice here — is to assume that every bit of it which is offered to you by an unpublished author is utter self-serving bullshit, until it has proven itself otherwise. I can advise you on plumbing, but ’till I fix your toilet, don’t assume my advice is worth the oxygen it took to get it out.

And don’t worry about writing advice anyway, unless you think that you may need it, and in that case, assume that whatever key you need to unlock the problem already exists inside your own head. You aren’t looking for advice, you are looking for a new vantage point to look at the problem which will allow your own mind to offer up a solution. Writing advice offers that, writing conceits (the literary masturbation I mentioned; the Old Ladies’ Club tut-tutting) are a waste of your time, and if you find yourself getting sucked up in ’em, then get out fast. Like quicksand, it doesn’t seem particularly dangerous at first, until you suddenly discover that you cannot move, or breathe, or do anything but sink faster.

Above all, just write. Just find something you care about, something that sparks off a usable emotion, and then go with it. Write it. Make it matter to you, and make it matter to a reader, and then don’t worry about what the Old Ladies’ Club thinks of it until maybe after you’re cashing your paycheck and selling another piece of work. That’s the important bit that comes after writing: selling. Don’t give it away for free. Sell it.  There is the phrase “Information must be free!” which is debatable, and Harlan Ellison wisely points out that there is a difference between information (the world is round) and created stories (the world is hollow, and I have touched the sky), and that stories should not be free. They should be absolutely paid for.

Remember that bit too. Write. Care. Sell. Assume all the rest is extremely shaky until it proves itself to be otherwise.

If you need me, I’ll be scrabbling in the beanfield, me and my stories next to the plumber and his copper.

Use it, or Lose it

I have Blade: Trinity on DVD. Not because I’m a fan of vampire movies, or the Blade series, but because of Ryan Reynolds in a beard and muscles 😀  However, there’s a segment in that movie wherein the girl – Jessica Biel’s character, has just discovered all of her friends have been brutally murdered. She’s falling apart, emotionally, and Wesley Tax-Evasion Snipes as Blade tells her to “Use it!”

Obviously he means channel that emotion into something useful, rather than something paralyzing.

Either that, or she was sitting on a box of tissues and he meant for her to use them. I dunno.

But over the past few, well weeks really, I’ve been having more than the usual ups and downs we writers have — mostly due to everything BUT writing — and the other day I realized how I was allowing those emotions affect my writing. Not in a good way, mind you, but I noticed I was taking an issue with my bedroom light not working – my window springing a leak during a rainy Saturday morning at 5:00 a.m. – the potential ID theft issue I’m dealing with – and rolling them into this feeling of doubt and insecurity regarding my writing.

Not one issue there had anything to do with my abilities, or lack thereof, as a writer. And yet I was letting that depression/frustration channel into thoughts that I was never going to publish – that I wasn’t a good writer – that I was wasting my time even imagining sending out queries and penning new novels. I was taking emotion unrelated to the subject at hand, and letting it paralyze that very subject.

What does my window leaking have to do with this new novel? What could my bad light fixture and the thought of standing on the bed with my arms over my head one more weekend sweating and cursing electrical wiring have to do with my ability to tell a story? Nothing. Not one damn thing. And while they say actors use their emotions to deliver a great performance, and writers can use life experience to add depth to their writing – there are certain emotions that benefit us, and ones that stop us cold.

Joy, satisfaction, contentment – even anger and determination can fuel our writing. But frustration, depression, sorrow and despair can have the opposite effect. You’re feeling down, you pick up the pen – and all you can do is stare at the blank page, or blinking cursor. You can’t shove those thoughts out, so instead of the bills that are piling up, you assume you’re feeling down because you truly are inadequate as a writer. Instead of dwelling on that dent you put in your husband’s bumper, you figure you must feel this way because Pete’s writing more words than you.

So the trick, naturally, is to find a way to take those emotions – those bad days we all have now and again – and turn them into something productive. Something that aids our writing, rather than cripples it. I find my non-fiction, letters to TPTB, stuff like that, are most eloquent, most powerful, when I’m fueled with Righteous Anger. Not that fuming, hand-shaking anger, but the type wherein you know you’re right, you know your rights, and by God no one’s going to walk over YOU like that!

Ahem

So how do you take those destructive emotions and turn them into helpful tools that aid your writing, rather than stall it? How do you move from that latest rejection letter to feelings of “I’ll show you!” that push you to write a bigger, better novel?

Do you have a trick for dealing with unhealthy emotions that get in the way of your writing – can you identify them, recognize them for what they are and what they aren’t, and set them aside when necessary?

I found this site, for those who might need helpful tips of their own.

How To Channel Negative Emotions

Hands + Pen =

So, we’re nearly at the halfway mark of the Penman Shipwreck, aren’t we? It’s been a mostly off-the-radar contest (for which I apologize), but it’s been a busy one. I don’t know about my fellow competitors, but I know I’ve gotten a fair bit done. And of course, I’m winning, but they’re putting in a jolly good show, those two, ha ha!

And I thunked to myself, I thought, “Self, why not show off some handwriting samples? Why not? We touched on this briefly earlier, before the contest, why not have fun?

So why not? Let’s see how those authors who get paid for this stuff handwrite.

Read the rest of this entry »

Numb3rs

One banana, two banana, three banana, four. Four bananas make a bunch, and so do many more.

“Many people hear voices when no one is there. Some of them are called mad and are shut up in rooms where they stare at the walls all day. Others are called writers and they do pretty much the same thing.”
(Meg Chittenden)

Back in the day, when I was writing novels and sharing them with the world, I admit I was having a blast. Writing was fun then, and part of the reason why – I realized – was the fact that word count meant nothing to me. Literally nothing. And why would it? I wasn’t trying to get published, I was just writing novels, putting them on the internet, and writing more novels. My readers didn’t care what the word count was, since they weren’t shelling out anything other than time to read them. No $5.95 for a paperback that seems too thin, or $24.95 for a hardback you’re sure to finish in one sitting.

I never even looked at the word count function in Word, and frankly, until I began thinking perhaps I’d like to be a published author, I didn’t even realize it was there.

Lately I’ve become almost obsessed with it. The last few novels I’ve written were done with a constant checking of the word count feature. I’d type out a few pages, check the count. Type a few more, check it again. I don’t mean just during competitions, where word count determines the winner. No, I mean all the time. Then, after checking the word count, my mind would start up with such ridiculous notions as: Oh, God, I think my plot is nearly halfway through, and it’s only at 24k – what the hell am I gonna do? I need filler. I need to stretch this. Lemme see. . .

Then I’d begin to project. I’d pull out a calculator, and figure out how many more pages were needed to reach a goal of, say, 90k. My attempts to break it down like that were designed to calm me down, and stave off the panic of running out of story before running out of required words.

Read the rest of this entry »