Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Ink-Stained Lens

A friend of mine was once turned down for personal health insurance.  When she asked why, she was informed that it was because of her profession.

She is a writer, you see. 

When she pressed for further information on the refusal, she was told: "Writers are a high insurance risk. They are prone to alcoholism, drug abuse, and suicide."

I privately suspected that writers are at a higher risk for not paying insurance premiums, but refrained from saying so.  It was more fun to listen to her rant.

Regardless of our insurability shortcomings, it's no secret that we writers are an odd amalgamation of ego and insecurity, hubris and fear. 

A writer can read a two-page, mostly glowing review, and fixate on the one sentence that suggests the reviewer wasn't completely enthralled with every aspect of the project.  This fixation can last for days, leading to binge chocolating, spousal arguments, and planned career changes.  ("Maybe I should just go flip burgers.  No one calls a burger-flipper's third act "shoddy with lazy pacing.")

A writer can also read a short, terse form rejection and feel compelled to respond to the industry professional in question with a lengthy diatribe, posturing like a bantam rooster before a peacock and destroying not only his chances of ever working with that pro, but also ruining potential professional relations with every publishing insider that pro knows.

We writers see the world through an ink-stained lens.
Take, for instance, the movie "Ask the Dust," which is billed as a tragedy. 

In the movie I saw, the eternally delicious Colin Farrell plays a struggling writer with an editor who's an unfailing cheerleader and who sends him a sizeable amount of money as an advance to write his book.  The editor is the only stable relationship sweet, naive Colin has.  His scheming, manipulative, selfish girlfriend only distracts him from his work.  She dies at the end.  So what? He gets a book deal!

In the final scene, he stands at her grave, reading to her excerpts from his recently published book.

Ask any writer, and they'll tell you: this is a feel-good flick, no two ways about it.  Someone believed in a beginning writer.  Someone took a chance on him.  Someone told him he was talented.  And -- most importantly -- he got paid!

Last night, I watched "Serious Moonlight," which I missed when it screened at the Austin Film Festival & have been intending to catch ever since.  

I enjoyed the film far more than I should have, not because I have any intention of duct-taping my husband to the toilet... no, no, but because it is so similar in tone to "Jobe's Pride," a darkly comedic suburban-noir I've written. 

The whole way through the movie, my Inner Writer's Voice kept whispering, "See?! The genre does exist!"

Through my ink-stained lens, that's enough vindication to keep sending out submissions and queries.  And to keep me from submitting that Mc Donald's application for a bit longer.

Through my ink-stained lens I see inspiration and possibilities when the world's windshield shows only unrelenting reality.

The industry calls the stuff we write "spec" and "slush" -- both of which sound vaguely like epithets.    I defy you to name any other legal, legitimate profession that regularly employs words like "unsolicited," "query," and "submission" in its practice.  And yet we keep on.

There is an old joke that goes:

Q:  How does a book get published?

A:  Someone forgets to say "no."

If you need a "yes" in your life right now, here it is:  YES.

Should you keep writing, even though you don't have an agent?  YES

Should you tell people you're a writer, even though you haven't yet been published?  YES

Should you pick yourself up, dust off your manuscript, and submit it to someone else, even though your dream publisher passed on it?  YES

Should you continue working, reading, writing, and revising, struggling with the words and the language in order to get the story out?

YES.  Oh, YES.

To all creatives who are struggling with the should-I-flip-burgers conundrum, I offer my ink-stained lenses.  Feel free to borrow them as long as you need.  And when you're done, pass them on to someone who needs them.  Then, keep on keeping on until someone says "yes."

Monday, July 26, 2010

Walking a While in My World

A week ago, my family attended the Silver Leaf Renaissance Faire in Battle Creek, MI. The day we attended, the temperature was bake-a-biscuit-in-the-sun 100-something, and the humidity was the rough equivalent of God's left armpit.  What better weather to lace oneself into a leather corset and spend the day outside?

I went intending to spend a fun afternoon with my family and friend.  And it was, indeed, a lovely day.  However, since I'm currently working on a novel set in medieval England, I found it impossible not to do research.  Because a writer's brain never turns off.

Now, I know that ren faires are hardly authentic.  I know my family was nowhere near authentically clad.  And at no time did I ever seriously think that I was in the Middle Ages.  But that didn't stop me from finding out stuff about my characters that I might not have known otherwise.

I have been treading ancient roads in my mind for months.  However, after only 10 minutes of immersing myself in the "reality" of my characters' lives, I discovered several things.  Among them:

 *  In the absence of 21st century clothing and technology, dirt and sweat and dust and noise should be much more pervasive in my book than than they currently are.

* Shop keepers have probably not changed in 10 centuries.  Some went to great lengths to sell me stuff I didn't want or need.  Others bent my ear telling personal stories I'd rather not have heard.  Even if my characters inhabit the pages of history -- even if they shop in strange shops and eat odd things -- their interactions with others will likely mirror interpersonal actions of today. 

Note to self: don't allow characters to become two-dimensional drones that are defined only by their jobs and the role they must play within my story.  Breathe realistic life into them at every opportunity.

*  When two knights joust, the combined weight of 2 horses, men & armor is over 2 1/2 tons.  You can literally feel the ground shake as they run at each other. 

Furthermore, the actual match takes very little time at all.  Two horses rushing at each other at a gallop closes the gap between them much faster than you'd think.

*  Hand-to-hand combat involves a lot of grunting. Plus, metal hitting metal is really loud.

* A lack of sound amplification means the crowd has to be very quiet in order to hear what an announcer or performer has to say.  Missed words are quickly whispered to those standing behind one.  Much is lost in the translation.

*  Humanity does not change.  Lovers quarrel, babies cry, kids whine, old folks grumble.  Some crave the limelight; others shun it.  Some go for laughs; some for applause.  Some think quickly on their feet; others work to keep up.  Some people readily stop and listen to a trio of singers, enjoy the music, and throw the musicians a token of their appreciation.  Others dicker and dither trying to retain every cent they started with.  If I want to make my foreign world and time accessible to my readers, I must remember to make my reader as much a part of it as possible.

I returned home energized -- filled with ways to make my story more compelling.

Whatever you are writing, I encourage you to find a way to become a minor character for an hour or a day.  See the world through a fringe player's eyes.  Take notes as if you were traveling in a foreign country.  Then incorporate your new insight into your story.  And watch your writing come alive!

Monday, July 05, 2010

Operation Book Drop

or, Here Begins #OpBookDrop

On Sunday, July 4, 2010, thanks to @JohnTagliaferro, inspiration struck when he posted this tweet:

A #paperback of 'Suki I: The Story of #Suki by John Tagliaferro is in the #romance #CrystalCity #Starbucks w/fireplace

Now, this could mean several things. As I write this, I honestly don’t know if:

A. He saw a copy of his book in the lending bookshelf of a Starbucks, was thrilled about it, and had to share. (Heavens knows everytime I see a book of mine in print in Real Life and in someone’s possession, I want to do a happy dance on the spot. Sometimes I do. But I always check for, you know, cops, mental health professionals, and animal control officers first…)

B. He unintentionally left a copy of his book behind and was lamenting its loss. As in, “Hey, tweeps, if you find This Book in This Place – it’s mine!”

C. All the hashtags form a complicated code that makes sense on one level, but on another one means “Place $1M in unmarked $10 in the paper cardboard tubes in the center of a Bounty 8-pack and leave the package under the left first-row aisle seat at the midnight screening of Eclipse” to those few in the know.


D. He intentionally left the book there, spreading a little sunshine and trolling for new readers.

Regardless of his intention, it’s “D” that wows me. “D” flipped the Wouldn’t-That-Be-Cool switch. Which leads me to propose:

Operation Book Drop

I envision this as a simple way for writers to garner new readers. It doesn’t matter whether you’re self- or traditionally published. It doesn’t take much time. And it could be kind of fun. Here’s how it works:

1. Get a copy of your book. And a Sharpie.

2. Autograph the book. Then, inside the front cover, add these words:

Read me! When you’re done, please leave me someplace where another reader can find me. If you’re on Twitter, please leave a note on #OpBookDrop about how & where we met. Enjoy the read! Have a great day.

Or something to that effect.

(Optional): Include your Twitter name, if you wish.

3. Leave the book in a public place.

4. Tweet about it. Include the book’s title, link, & drop point. Also include the hashtag #OpBookDrop.

You never know what could happen. At the very least, someone will pick up the book & (probably) read it! What do you have to lose? One copy of your book. And – let’s face it – you already know the story by heart. Isn’t it time someone else got to read the words?

What do you think about #OpBookDrop? Comment below and let me know.

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Recovering from Rejection

Few truisms exist in writing. For every writer who swears by an outline, there is one who swears at them. For every writer who needed an agent to make it big, there is one who did just fine without one.

But some universals do exist.

One is: A Writer Writes. (This has a huge “duh!” factor, but you’d be surprised how many people talk about writing or fantasize about it without actually doing it. This doesn’t make them writers any more than fantasizing about being married helps one find Mr. Right.)

Another is: A Writer Reads. (Also known as “continuing education.” Writers who don’t read start to think that they’re all that and a bag of chips. From there, it’s a short and slippery slope before they realize that the bag is nearly empty and the remaining crumbs are stale.)

And one is: Every Writer Will Experience Rejection.

“Thank you for your submission. Unfortunately, at this time, we must pass on your material. It is in no way a reflection of your writing. We wish you the best of luck in your search for an agent / publisher / meaning in life.”

This is the one that many – OK, most -- writers have difficulty accepting.

Rejection is neither a recurring nightmare nor a beloved friend. Instead, rejection is like the ugly crone at a family reunion: inescapable and cruel, but lacking real teeth, so unable to do lasting damage.

Every writer responds to rejection differently. I have, however, noticed certain trends. These fall into three general categories. I encourage you to scan the list below and see if one or more describes you.

How is this useful? Well…

The next time you experience rejection, perhaps it will help to know that there are others just like you out there, going through the same thing, and reacting in the same way. You. Are not. Alone.

Option 1. Fortify Oneself With Food Before Rejoining the Fray

For some reason, oatmeal and soy milk are not equipped to help one handle rejection well.

When a “No, we don’t want your pathetic excuse for a screenplay / article / short story / poem / title. No one does. Perhaps you should consider a career serving fries at McDonald’s” bomb lands in one’s in-box, it is often best defused with copious amounts of Comfort Food. Capital C. Capital F.

My drug of choice is Little Debbie NuttyBars. Or Heath Bars. Or half a sheet cake. Or a bag of rippled potato chips. With coffee. Lots and lots of coffee.

Those empty calories not only pack on the pounds so the slings and arrows of outrageous rejection no longer sting so badly, but they also provide the fortitude to keep on writing. Or they trigger a diabetic coma. Either way, one moves on.

From @RhondaLane ”Give myself overnight to mourn, cuss, stomp, OD on chocolate. Next morning, back to work.”

@amandabonilla advises “After you're done crying and eating pints of ice cream... (It’s like she’s been watching me through a webcam!) pick yourself off the floor and KEEP WRITING! :)

Option 2: Blast! This Lottery Ticket Isn’t a Winner. I Must Buy Another.

If one publisher / agent / editor does not give you the answer you seek (i.e. “Yes! We love it! You are brilliant! We must sign a multi-manuscript contract with you as soon as humanly possible!”), persevere in the knowledge that sooner or later someone has to win the lottery. But you can’t win if you don’t play.

Words of wisdom from @SimonKewin: “Have several submissions out there at once. Then it isn't the end of everything if one is rejected.”

From @CathrynGrant: “I tell myself it's a numbers game. The more I submit, the greater the odds. Yes, this does really help. So many different tastes in reading, & part of publishing is finding those with whom your words connect. At least it does for me. I work in a very analytical day job, so maybe that sets my brain on a different track.”

And from @Neil_ODonnell: “I take rejection as part of the game. Not everyone will like my writing -- just like I think some best sellers are poorly written.”

Option 3: Pretend It Doesn’t Matter. Take Out Frustrations On the World. Regroup. Try Again.

Sometimes, no matter how much we tell ourselves that the opinions of others don’t matter, our subconscious rears its ugly head and forces us to confront the fact that this is A LIE.

Super special thanks to the unflinchingly honest @_MorganIves for this insight. “I pick a fight with my husband. That can get pretty theatrical. I redirect my frustration into something completely unrelated. He left his socks out? Armageddon!

When asked to expound on Sock-Mageddon, she said:

"Here's an average rejection timeline for me:

7:00 AM - Check email, find rejection. Thoughts: "That's okay! I can totally deal with this! Moving on!"

7:10 AM - Eat breakfast. Thoughts: "No, really, I got this! I can totally deal!"

7:15 AM - Still eating breakfast. Thoughts: "What was wrong with it? Why didn't they like it?"

7:20 AM - Wash breakfast dishes. Thoughts: "What's wrong with me? Why don't they like me?"

7:30 AM - Start laundry. Thoughts: "Socks! Everywhere! Agh! How hard is it to put them in the basket?!"

7:35 AM - Stomp down to find husband. Rant about socks. He sits in stunned silence. Thoughts: "Ahhhhhh!!!!"

7:45 AM - Storm out the door to work. Thoughts: "&^%$ socks, *$@#! husband, !^%@$# agent/magazine/publisher!!"

5:30 PM - Slump home from work. Thoughts: "&^%^$@%^$! sigh"

5:45 PM - Curse about work. Husband hugs me from behind and asks, "What's really bothering you?" Dissolve into tears, share all self doubts and trauma. Husband shores up shaky confidence with assurances and compliments. Husband promises to pick up socks. Husband smiles when I laugh through tears.

6:22 PM - Grab new determination. Send to next market. Thoughts: "This, this is the one, I know it!"

Pretty much, it's always the same. I get a rejection, convince myself it is no big deal despite the blow to my ego, pretend I'm not worried, then blow up about little things all day. Finally, a husband or friend reassures me and gives me the pat on the back I need, and then I'm good to go. I'm so codependent ;)"

So there you have it: Three ways to deal with rejection. [Notice that NONE of them involved writing and sending snarky nasty attack letters to the one who rejected you. That is NOT on the accepted list of How Things Are Done.]

What works best for you? Is it on the list, or do you have another way of coping? Comment below and let the world know!