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Writing: Taking it Personally

This could just be called Writing and Ego for any time a writer submits a piece of work to an editor, ego does get involved. We write because of ego, because we think we have something to say, because we think we’re good enough, because we want to be rich or famous. But to write means also to be able to disengage the ego some.

The other night I was talking with someone who has a friend trying to be a writer. Great. Everyone should try to pursue their dreams. But writing, for 99% of us, takes work. A lot of work. It takes honing your craft. It takes knowledge. It takes a certain skill and perception that is ephemeral, that could be called ideas but is also your unique way of stringing them together. It takes perseverance. And yes, it takes luck.

The first part, learning your craft, is where everyone must start and stay to a degree. It is always a judgment call as to when you think your piece is ready. Once it’s been written, reworked, critiqued, rewritten and edited, it is then ready to send out, maybe. But sometimes you must take a leap of faith and submit the story or poem. Every writer can benefit from workshops, classes and writers’ groups. If I could afford to do it more, I’d take more workshops. Until I’m selling my pieces 100% of the time I still have something I can learn. To think otherwise would again be ego. A workshop might just be a new way to work or come up with ideas or just the camaraderie of other writers, because, as any writer knows, writing is a fairly solitary process.

Selling your writing takes the knowledge not just of how to write, but of the submission process. Sometimes people have an idea, their cherished baby, and they write it and then send it out. If you haven’t learned much about writing or even had your story read by knowledgeable people (editors, not friends unless those friends are writers/editors) then you jeopardize your chances at publication. Such basics as grammar can stop an editor from reading an otherwise great story. Editors read so much every day that they have no patience for people who cannot follow basic grammar, spelling and guidelines.

No one can teach a person ideas, but there are workshops that look at how to take those rough ideas and chisel them into the best and most clear idea, compelling, interesting and filled with tension. But the beginning idea must be interesting in and of itself and unique, not done before. There are many stories, even within a genre, that follow certain motifs. Each one that is published must present something new.

Next, and how we get back to the person trying to be a writer, is perseverance. He had sent his work out to a publisher or two and when it was rejected, he took it personally. They (those faceless editors) hate him. Really, the editor or publisher doesn’t know most beginning writers from Adam. The writers too, are faceless. There is rarely anything personal unless you take to insulting the editor in your cover letters.

It may not even be that your story sucks. Here are just a few reasons that an editor/publisher may not have accepted your story/novel, which has nothing particular to do with your work:

  • doesn’t fit their theme
  • they’ve just spent two years publishing books on this topic and the market is glutted
  • budget cuts
  • there are limited slots and even some of the good stories must go
  • you wrote on a topic that the editor personally hates
  • the slushpile has grown so big that there is some wholesale rejecting to get them caught up (not as frequent but it can happen)
  • they’re changing their focus
  • they’re folding (I’ve sold too many pieces to magazines/anthologies, which were then never published because they closed down–I call it the kiss of death)
  • the structure of the magazine/anthology has changed (I sold one story to an anthology which then went to a different publisher and then was halved–although I received a kill-fee the story was never published.)
  • the editor has changed

Those are a few reasons that has nothing whatsoever to do with the writer. Grammar, typos, conflict, tension, characterization, plot, theme, structure and flow have to do with the written piece. Editors also reject on those reasons, if the other reasons haven’t come into play first. Again, this is rarely personal. They don’t know you. They base their thoughts on the manuscript before them.

This is why perseverance is the mainstay for most writers. It is a very tiny percentage of us who can send out our work and sell it on the first go. My ego had to accept that I wasn’t the greatest writer since sliced bread. Otherwise I would sell everything or mostly everything. I’m still a small pea in a big pod. Even the best writers, the award winners, don’t sell some pieces. You and me and most other writers have to keep writing and submitting. If I’d quit after my first year, I would have only sold a couple of poems. I keep going, getting better the more I write (and read), the more workshops I take, the more I discuss my ongoing projects before submitting.

If you want to be a writer, you’ll need to disengage your ego enough to get through the rejections. At one time I could paper my bathroom in acceptances and my house in rejections. Now I might be able to paper a house in acceptances…and several houses in rejections. So it goes. If you take it personally, if you want to be an overnight sensation, if you get overly depressed or angry at a rejection, then you better not be a writer.

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Writing: Shirley Jackson Lottery

Shirley Jackson once wrote a story that gained all sorts of fame, “The Lottery” as well as The Haunting of Hill House and other books.  Well, now there is an actual lottery related to this author and for raising money for the awards, given to stories with a horror, psychological suspense or dark fantasy aspect.  http://www.shirleyjacksonawards.org/  There is about one more week to buy tickets for this.  I’ve bought some, hoping to get a manuscript critique. We always need outside feedback. Details are below.

Online “Lottery” to Benefit the Shirley Jackson Awards Takes place from February 9 through February 23, 2009“Lottery” tickets are $1 each and can be purchased from: http://www.shirleyjacksonawards.org/store/

Partial List of Donations to be Awarded

• From Ash-Tree Press: Collections of Sheridan Le Fanu: Mr. Justice Harbottle; The Haunted Baronet; Schalkin the Painter.
• From Laird Barron: A signed/personalized copy of his award winning short story collection, The Imago Sequence (Nightshade), plus an original piece of short fiction, in a separate, unbound manuscript.
• From Elizabeth Bear: Personally inscribed copy of The Chains That You Refuse, an out of print collection of short stories
• From James Blaylock: Signed copy (by James Blaylock and Tim Powers) of The Devils in the Details (Subterranean Press)
• From Douglas Clegg: Signed copy of the Vampyricon trilogy
• From Jeffrey Ford: Keyboard used to write several novels & collections, signed by Jeffrey Ford, to the winner.
• From Neil Gaiman: Keyboard, signed by Neil Gaiman, to the winner.
• From Brian Keene: Signed galley for Scratch, his forthcoming novel
• From Nightshade Books: Limited edition of Tim Lebbon’s Light and other tales of Ruin
• From Stewart O’Nan: Signed copy of unproduced screenplay, POE
• From Paul Riddell: Carnivorous plant terrarium
• From Peter Straub: A reading copy of The Skylark, Part 1, read at ICFA in Orlando 3/2008.
• Tuckerizations by Ekaterina Sedia, Laura Anne Gilman, Nick Mamatas
• Manuscript/Proposal critiques from John Douglas, Alice Turner, Beth Flesicher, Helen Atsma, and Stephen Barbara

“Lottery” Rules

Tickets will be on sale from February 9th through February 23rd, midnight, Eastern Daylight Time. The lottery will be held on February 23rd at midnight. Items will be raffled off individually. Persons may purchase as many tickets per item as desired. For example, a person may purchase ten tickets for the “ITEM” and fifty tickets for “ITEM 2.” Each ticket purchase increases your chances of winning. For example, if you purchase five tickets of the “ITEM 3” and a total of ten tickets for that item have been sold, your odds of winning are 5 out of 10.

For each item, one winner will be chosen using a computerized random number generator. The winning names and prizes will be announced on the Shirley Jackson Awards website. The donating party will mail or deliver the prize to the lucky winner.

All proceeds from the lottery go to support the Shirley Jackson Awards.

Boston, MA (February 2009) – The Shirley Jackson Awards will hold a “lottery” to raise funds for the award. This on-line event takes place from February 9, 2009 through February 23, 2009. Persons buy as many “lottery tickets” as they want in hopes of being selected the winner for any of an array of donated prizes from well-known authors, editors, artists, and agents.

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Writing: A Fable–The Demon

Once upon a time there was a person much like you and me who came upon puberty and began to write feelings and thoughts upon paper. This person loved words and reading and loved to imagine and create things.

Eventually the person decided that maybe it would be good to share these words and ideas with others, to show them the ways of this person’s expression. After all art is part for viewing and part for showing. The first creations were poems but the person found that the words lacked and although thoughts and feelings had been expressed, they didn’t connect with other people.

The person decided to get advice and seek courses so that a common language could be found, while still keeping a unique mixture of words, thoughts and images. There was a need to show others the visions. It was a scary time, for the person did not know what others would think of these fledgling designs. Would the person be pulled down or ridiculed for such pretensions? This new writer had seen one person changed into a demon when other writers and readers had read about the terrible character in his story. Those writers and readers took the skin of that story character and pulled it over the writer of the story. It was very hard for him to shed it and say, I am not that person.

The writer had not yet built up the thickened skin that comes from critiquing and dissection. But the writer went on to write a couple more stories, perhaps four in all. They were all raw constructs, crawling out upon the land with their newborn descriptions. Sometimes they had more limbs than were needed or lacked eyes, such was the new writer’s unformed talent. Two stories were tried in one class and then the writer felt emboldened to move into an acolyte’s workshop, sending off two stories, for no one entered the hallowed halls of the workshop without first being judged on merit.

Some merit must have been discovered, for the writer joined others in the apprenticeship of their craft. After completing the rigorous conditioning the writer learned how much there was still to learn and that it would take a  lifetime to be perfect or become a god of writing. The writer was invited into a small enclave, where mages of imagination met and discussed the secret ways of writing, delving into the mysteries of words and how to make their words more powerful.

Here, the writer in innocence brought a story from that time before the workshop, when only a few stories had been painstakingly born. A  few stories were still wriggling infants, not yet shaped into gods or monsters. The other word magicians looked upon the work and saw where the incantations would not evoke the right responses.

However, there was one who looked upon the work and said, You have taken my words. The writer was confused because their stories were very different, and professed to having written the piece before even knowing the other wordsmith existed. Yet the other wordsmith proclaimed that the writer should be careful where one took their ideas from for people weaving had become sacred in the wordsmith’s story and the writer had used creatures weaving. The writer had written the story before meeting the enclave or reading the other’s story but suspicions were laid, of black arts used to gleaned the weaving idea.

The venerated wordsmith left the secret enclave since the other word magicians would not oust the new writer.  However the wordsmith was part of another group that gave displays of their skills in hopes that rich people would notice their wordfame and remember their names. From that group, the wordsmith pulled out the demon skin and waved it about, then threw it toward the new writer.

Although the new writer ducked, seeing some dark cloud descending, the demon skin stuck to the writer’s flesh. Not everyone believed the wordsmith’s words but the stigma remained on the new writer. Like a scarlet letter, others would wonder what it meant and really, could that new writer be trusted? Surely there must be some truth to the wordsmith’s allegations. And the writer, whether innocent or not, would always now stand out as “that one.”

The writer, who was just a person, did not understand. The brand did indeed burn though the demon skin was invisible and the new writer felt like everyone else. The other group never allowed the new writer in, stating that the wordsmith’s words and opinion were powerful. All other writers in the region could join but not the one new writer. The group was not rich nor powerful except in exclusion but that exclusion had done the job.

The writer, now a partial demon, had been wounded by these actions. Having always been a champion of copyright and protecting the artist’s right, and having enough ego as any artist, the writer believed in creating unique worlds, not copying someone else’s. But it was as if the one scouring agent, rare and expensive, that could clean the partial demon from the writer’s flesh and soul, was kept hidden away.

Though some wordsmiths supported the writer-demon in private, no one stood up to the wordsmith who had thrown the demon skin. The person who was a writer, who wasn’t a demon but had some of the skin of a demon would never be free of that taint. Ostracized for a crime not committed, that  person’s soul was marked with the knowledge that people saw the person as false.

The demon-writer could always feel the skin, no matter how small the patch and spent the rest of the long years of writing, trying to do what was right, trying to champion the arts or at least not go against any enclave. In one short burst the demon-writer tried to retaliate in long festering hurt, and barred the writer from one reading. But it was not the demon-writer’s true way. No matter what happened this writer who was really just a person felt different and felt that the other wordsmiths always saw it that way, and that the rift in the writers’ enclaves would never be healed. Just like those early days of trying to share words and thoughts, the demon-writer found that people didn’t see things the same way.

But it would not be the end of the demon-writer’s travails for others held skins and waited.

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Novel Writing Workshop

Tomorrow (today) we go over the last of nine novels, which means three chapters and the outline. The writing is of a pretty good caliber in all of these and all of them need work. Kij is amazingly astute and finding what’s not working and at defining structure.

There has been quite a range in the ideas from humorous space opera to medieval fantasy to alternate histories. I hadn’t worked on the novel for ten years and knew I had huge expository lumps. But I was getting mired. I had to build a complete world, including geography, races, culture, religion and rulers. No small feat and it’s still evolving. I was told to get rid of the first two chapters and simplify the information. I also had to drop the meddling gods back.

The more I thought about it, the more relieved I was. I have so much information to impart and I was getting mired. After we went for BBQ (where the food was okay and the waiting staff terrible) at the Vermont, I think, we went back to the dorms. Most nights people sit around and talk and write, to varying degrees. There’s a quiet room if you don’t want to be bothered by the chatter. I was working on my outline and chatting with Eric Warren from the short fiction workshop.

He had sat in one day on our workshop and had read the two novel bits so he could see how the process went. It’s not round table like Clarion and is a more gentle, more brainstorming style which I quite like and find useful, not to mention you learn from the other people’s novels too. We ended up discussing my novel and it was really useful. Eric gave me a very cool idea for the second novel and I got to bounce my changes off of him.

What this outline has given me that the first didn’t is a jumping point to a second novel. I had only thought in the vague terms of “there will be one” before this. Kij has made me cut down to three viewpoint characters. Because of the races and plot, I can’t really go to fewer. But this leaves room for different character viewpoints in the second novel. One rule was that two of the three problems must be solved by the end of the novel. I’ve done this (at least in the outline), and leaving one unsolved problem leaves room for that problem to flow into the next novel and for joining them.

The outline gets turned in next week and taken through the process. I think it is stronger and kind of exciting. I also wrote up story arcs for each of the four characters, which definitely helps in plotting the outlines. I hope to have most of the outline done by tomorrow.

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Writing: Clarion Daze

I’m soon to embark on the second major writing workshop of my career. I attended Clarion West in Seattle lo, these many years ago. Clarion was a six-week workshop with a different instructor per week: five authors, one editor. I still think it was a stellar cast of instructors that year: Ed Bryant, Octavia Butler, Connie Willis, Ursula Le Guin, Tappan King and Samuel Delaney.

There were 21 of us attending from all over the US and three from Vancouver, BC. You arrived with a story written, ready to critique. Each day we would critique three people, then go back to the dorms and write and read stories for the next day. We were supposed to produce a story a week for critiquing.

Ages ranged from fresh out of high school to a couple of people in their forties. People came with all levels of ability though all of us had made the selection process. I knew I had a lot to learn and if we were all standing on a ladder, I was beneath most of the other people. But in the process of that six-week course I climbed a long way up the ladder. There were those above me who climbed maybe only a few inches. There were those who didn’t move at all.

Connie Willis gave us humor, Ed Bryant gave us horror. Tappan gave the realities of publishing and Chip talked about the novel format. Octavia and Ursula were a wealth of insight and information. Of course they all taught the process of writing and story structure as well. I think I was the second most prolific person and did write a story a week, if not more. I also got by on four hours of sleep a night for six weeks and felt like I was close to having spontaneous out of body experiences. I can say that things became jittery and I was drinking Pepsi regularly and I don’t really drink pop.

We did let some of our stress out with a massive water fight that soaked the dorm, with a few people like Gordon Van Gelder being tossed in the shower. After that (or maybe it was the culmination) we had everything from water pistols and weenies to Uzis, and would skulk down the street with a water weapons, laying in wait for our unsuspecting classmates. We curtailed the street attacks when someone pointed out that the police might not take kindly to people lurking about with what looked like weapons.

The slug became our mascot, specifically the banana slug. Somehow it was mentioned in class the first week, and Seattle is prolific with them as is much of the West Coast. I believe we read that there was a slug race going on in one of the nearby cities. We bought some rubber slugs and would leave them outside people’s doors. Then Octavia Butler, in our second week, mentioned how she was phobic of slugs and once had one in her bathroom. By the third week Ursula, who lives in Portland, cemented the image though I can’t remember what she said. So we had Cyril the cyber slug and eventually when I did up T-shirts to commemorate our workshop, it was Cyril, with pierced antennae, mirrorshades, a mohawk and riveted body parts that graced the shirts. Somewhere, I still have one.

The reason some people didn’t write much was that they came to the workshop knowing they could write well. When twenty people critique your story it can be pretty deflating and sometimes ego crushing. There were times when the critique would consists of six or more people saying the same thing, which became irritating. We had meetings so that people would just say ditto if they had nothing new to say. There was one fellow who really only wrote one story the whole workshop and would name drop constantly. That was not his most annoying trait. He had the habit of not reading someone’s story and then sitting halfway around from who was being critiqued (we’d know the night before). Listening to everyone else’s critiques, he would then cobble his critique together. It soon became obvious to us and though we had a meeting where we didn’t address him directly we tried to make sure he knew that we could tell which people didn’t read the stories. He also decided to come to my room one night and give his personal opinion of my writing.

Each weekend there would be a party (coupled with the Clarion reading series) at a host’s house. Some hosts were authors like Greg and Elizabeth Bear and we got to probe their minds in an informal way. Many of us were so burned out after the workshop that I think some people never wrote again. I slept for about a month.

Our year seemed to birth more editors than anything else. Kij Johnson worked for Dark Horse comics and Tor at one point, Gordon Van Gelder worked for St. Martins before taking over F&SF. Michael Stearns still works for Harcourt I believe, in New York now. Kathleen Alcala edited for a publication in Seattle and wrote magic realism. I freelanced copy edited for years and still do, as well as currently editing for Aberrant Dreams (and soon to help with poetry editing for Chizine). I’m not sure where some of the others went or what they did but few published novels came out of our year. To date, I think Kij is the most successful there. Others sold poetry and short fiction. Kij and I recently googled Dean Shomshak, who we knew as the revenant guy (because of his one zombie story) and it seems he became quite successful in writing game books and articles. Kathryn Drennan wrote shows and series in Hollywood.

Did Clarion help my writing? Yes. Did it help it enough? I don’t know. Would I do it again? I don’t know but here I am getting ready for a shorter two-week workshop. There is something about being immersed in a group of your peeps and doing nothing but eating, drinking and spewing writing. If nothing else, you usually come out of it with more ideas and a better path through your story.

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