Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Jump in the Bowl. Take a big dive.









For those of you who don’t remember it, this is a Phillip K. Dick quote, from Ubik. The end of it is "you are all dead, and I’m alive." Keep this in mind, we’ll return to it.

Now, for the point of this post – I’ve been giving you some basic down and dirty tricks with a short story. Nothing Earth shaking and no uh uh. If you don’t know how to write a short story, what I did can’t teach you. All of you know I recommend Dwight Swain’s Technicques of the selling writer so much his books are associated with mine on Amazon. But even good old Swain can’t teach you to write a good short story.

Writing can’t be taught. Writing can, however, be learned. What the heck do I mean? Well, my dears, I have tried to teach people with varying success. Some slap their foreheads after a hint and a promise and go "Oh, so THAT’s it." And some ... well, some can’t find their way out of the labyrinth in their own heads long enough to remove the very minor flaw in their writing that’s keeping them from succeeding.


The three things holding most people back are:
1- The inability to self-examine. Whether you believe you’re wonderful or that you suck, it doesn’t matter. If you believe it so it blocks your ability to learn, or your willingness to try you have to get rid of this.

2 - The inability to understand others. I’m not saying you should write or do what others do, but that you need to know how the people you aim to read you think. Only then will you know how to approach them and how to get them to like what you’re saying. Even if it’s... a little different. You have to do this.

3 - Fear. Raw, unadulterated fear. And don’t come to me and tell me you have fear of success. I think by an large this is a made up fear – made up in your own head, to fool your self, because it sounds good to you. Better than saying "I’m a wussy, who is afraid no one will like me." NO ONE has ever shuddered with fear at the thought of a great big pile of money for doing what you want. No. What you’re afraid of is what I’m afraid of – you’ll publish a book and no one will buy it. You’ll write a story and no one will accept it. You have to overcome this.

My treatments for this are as follows.

1 - forget it. Just forget it. Maybe you’re the second coming of Shakespeare. Or maybe your writing is worse than what would obtain from feeding mescaline to a monkey and giving him a typewriter. It’s immaterial. Both kinds of writers have become immensely successful. So, get out from under the bed – you know who you are – forget this nonsense and work. Just work.

2 - Ah, grasshopper... (And I don’t mean my character from Soul of Fire) this is a deep problem. Not. Look, we’re all locked inside our own heads. One of the beauties of the American book market is that it’s large enough that if your obsession happens to be writing about monkeys, there is a large enough population interested in it to make you a bestseller. However, you do need to be a good enough practical psychologist to NOT do things like trigger people’s ick factor en masse. (Yeah, yeah, I have read Laurel Hamilton. Do try to have a career of some sort and a good agent before you try this, though. Or just the good agent – she says as Kushiel’s Dart comes to mind.) Also, you need to be a good enough practical psychologist to NOT trigger the publishing establishment’s gag factor. Gor would probably be selling (another example of overcoming ick factors) but it died a horrible death by publisher. (And no, I’m not defending the thing. I once almost dated someone who... Never mind.) Other than that... well, the number of things that you’re hot enough for to wish to write about and the number of things people want to read about might only overlap by ten percent. Find those ten percent and work it.

Number 3- oy, number three. The fear will always be with you. That it won’t sell – with every new idea, every new proposal; that it will sell and everyone will hate it; that your mom will read it and hate you; that... You fear because you’re human. I can’t wave a magical wand over you and make you something else. It will never end. I spent the first three years of my published life in sheer jaw-locked terror and jibbering panic. In my mind, I was running in circles, screaming and shouting. In a way the fear is good. No, stop laughing. The fear is what keeps you studying, learning, practicing new skills, working, moving forward. RIDE that fear. Don’t let it ride you.
You want to succeede in writing? Short stories and novels? Read. Analyze. Study. Write. Submit. Repeat.

Will you get rejected? Oh, baby, will you ever. Ninety percent of the times you send that story out you’ll get a rejection. Ten percent of those will be STINGERS. And I mean outright, mind-boggling HURTFUL. That editor will find your greatest insecurity and push THERE. I got one of those two months ago as I was starting to get sick. It made me impossible to deal with for twenty four hours. And then I forgot it. No, look – maybe I’m as bad as chickie editor (she IS) thinks I am. Maybe I’m WORSE. None of which will stop me submitting that book again and perhaps selling it or writing another one which will sell and make her eat her d*mn words. Keep an enemies list, if it helps. NEVER divulge it. In fact, for the love of heaven, always be NICE to those people. But... but... make sure you’ll be big enough they’ll eat their words. WITHOUT salt.

Ride the anger. Don’t let it obscure your vision.

There is no magical wand. There is no easy ladder to success. In fact, most of the time your experience in this field will be of trying to cross a rope bridge while a bunch of people are busily sawin the supports at the other end. ‘S okay. You just have to run faster. You have to keep writing. Submitting. Learning.
But why, you say. Why if it’s so difficult?
Well, dear hearts, of course if you can give it up, if you don’t have stories in your head, if you don’t feel a push from somewhere inside you – if you don’t wish to create life just like real life but better, if you don’t crave to share your dreams, if you don’t want to write WELL so much you can taste it... in other words, if you can quit any time you want to and stay quit for more than a few days... do it. And whistle as you, you’re a free man (or woman.) In fact, wave gracefully at those of us staying behind, still mired in the quicksands of desire.
But if like me you can quit writing and have done it dozens of times – the longest for me was two weeks – then let’s talk cold turkey.

You can waffle and piddle and play at being a writer. You can write two short stories a year – which given the statistical probabilities would be hard to SELL let alone make a career on. You can CALL yourself a writer. (You can also call yourself a little teakettle. It won’t make you whistle.)

Or you can – even more counterproductive – write stories and novels and never send them out or even burn them (you know who you are) so you can never be rejected... or accepted.
Is that what you want? Seriously. Whether you believe in an after life and a divine mission or not – it varies. I have my moments – you KNOW life is a fatal condition. You’ve been dying from the moment you were born. There will inevitably be that final moment.

Now, maybe you’re lucky and you’ll get hit by a well-aimed meteorite and will never know what’s coming. But there is more than even chance you’ll KNOW it’s your last minute. As you lie there, do you really think the main regret in your mind will be "Dang! I should have burned more manuscripts?" (Well, maybe some. Heinlein should have burned For Us The Living and I’d burn the first novel I ever wrote if I knew which friend passed it to which acquaintance of his passed it to... you get the point.)

Do I get discouraged? Yeah, often. Even bionic women get the blues. And sometimes, out here in the trenches, the mud gets really deep and I have trouble walking.

So I have some sayings I use as crutches. The two most important ones are on my board
"If you just walk on thin ice; you might as well dance."

"Success is how high you bounce, when you hit the bottom" General George S. Patton.
There’s another one, from a Leonard Cohen song, which should be on the board to remind me no one expects my work to be perfect: "There is a crack in everything; it’s how the light comes in."
Do you have any tricks or ways of encouraging yourself? Do you think you need some? Can you imagine some ways around your fears? There YOUR fears. We each must kill our own monsters and see that they're dead.

Come on – Jump in the bowl. Take a big dive. You are all dead. I am alive. (And the water is fine!)

12 comments:

matapam said...

:: Whimper :: Okay, I've got two shorts ready to send out, have the requirements for two mags . . . oh, wait, with any luck I'll be out of stamps!

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

umph. (taps foot!) Then aims at Matapam's derriere...

Amanda Green said...

My problem is short stories really aren't my strong suit. Yes, I know. I have to work on them. I have a couple I have to see where else to send them. There are another two that need edits and then they can go out. Now I need to sit butt in chair and finish the three that have been sitting on my HD. Sarah, put away the boot. I promise, I'm working on them today.

C Kelsey said...

I can write shorts, I just have no idea where to find places to send them to when there done. Assuming that the story is even interesting enough to an editor, where would you send something like the Knight story? Let alone the aliens with no pants...

Amanda Green said...

Chris, check out Ralan.com.

Anonymous said...

I've noticed a pattern in my attitude toward my shorts.

1. I write it and love it. I think it's one of the best I've ever written. Or that it's just too cool for any editor to pass up.

2. The major markets pass it up. I think "Okay, them's the majors, it'll sell down the line."

3. It doesn't sell halfway down the line. I think "Okay, maybe it's not the wonderchild story I thought it was, but it's still a sellable story."

4. I'm down to the "pay" markets (just don't pay much). I think "Okay, it must really suck, but I'm still not willing to let a completely non-paying market have it." It sits in my computer.

5. I think "Okay, I've got all these stories that I love in my computer. I guess I'll go write another one."

I've currently got 8 stories out and several more that need to be sent out after such rejections within the last few weeks.

Being rejected doesn't really bother me unless I had high hopes on a particular market. What bothers me is that nothing is selling right now. I'm into no sales this year with 50+ rejections. Overwhelming numbers do get to me, but I try to hike up my mucking boots and wade on. I think to myself that statistically, I can't NOT sell anything again. If I had the magic number as to how many it would take to break the bad streak, it would be much easier. None of us ever knows what that magic number is, so we have to write and submit until we hit that number. Hopefully, the numbers get smaller in between sales.

Linda Davis

matapam said...

Okay, okay, you can stop kicking. Both mailed. :: Whimper :: Where's my blankie?

Kate said...

When I do submit shorts (rarely, since I prefer to write the damn things than to edit and try to sell them) I do the "okay, let's see how long the rejection takes" game. First shot is usually F&SF for the quick turnaround. Heck, you can have a snail mail response back there within a week if you live in a major city.

Basically, I go all anal about getting the package right, then send it off looking forward to another rejection for the collection.

Unfortunately, it's bloody difficult to do that for novels, when you've got several months of work instead of a few weeks.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Linda, sweetie,

NEVER let the rejections tell you the worth of the story. EVER. Look, my one short story that was rejected everywhere -- thirst -- sold when the right market opened AND -- with me a total unknown and the market very new -- got a year's best mention. PLEASE do not take rejections for measures of worth. Statistically, none of us should sell.
However, bad streaks usually break in eighty rejections. Don't know why. Just passing it along.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Amanda,
I know where you're coming from. The thing is, where the market is now, short stories can give you a leg up and out of the slush pile. Sorry. I had to do it. You can too.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Chris,

Go to Ralan. Never send to pays in shared royalties. Other than that, try. And never reject yourself. Some of the weirdest things I wrote were the first sold.

Did anyone here hear me read my "juvenalia" (in my case defined as written under thirty and drunk) at Worldcon last year? I MUST make a recording of me reading that... :-P It's called "The problems of xenobiology and I have a soft (and brown, and probably rotten) spot for it.

Kate said...

Sarah,

Your "juvenalia" was hilarious. There were people in that audience in severe danger of peeing themselves. That soft spot is well-deserved.