Wednesday, December 16, 2009

BEING Alien




When I first started writing, I KNEW that all the editors at every house were laughing at my submissions. Perhaps this is normal. Or perhaps it has to do with my being foreign-raised, knowing I was foreign-raised. No, not in the normal way. I wasn’t raised with English speaking parents, or even one of them.




I first learned English in the classroom at the age of fourteen. It wasn’t even my second language, which was French, but my third. And if I hadn’t fallen in love with it within six months – due in part to an excellent teacher – and started reading in English in my spare time, with a dictionary by my side, when I first came to the states, as an exchange student, I’d have spoken at best broken English, like my colleagues did. And four years later, I’d still have been fairly lost. Not only was my English skewed – I knew how to say "ontological doubt" but had no idea how to say "faucet" for instance – from being learned exclusively in the classroom, but my mental picture was skewed too.



Mostly you make up an image of your homeland by growing up in it. Oh, yes, into the pot DO go the books you read, but also a million other things that mark you as a native of your generation. Things you’re not even aware of. Things of which I’m only marginally aware, because at some time they felt odd – though not anymore



When you come in mid-movie, as it were, you have to make up what went before. Years ago, in a writers newsgroup I belong to, half a dozen of us who were born scattered throughout the world, talked about this. It took me YEARS not to feel like at any moment, someone would tap my shoulder in the grocery store; while out driving; in the park and say "You don’t belong here, get out." No, this wasn’t a fear of a police state. It was just a sense that I "didn’t belong", that I stuck out, that in the "normal narrative" of history, I had no right being here. That I was, in fact, the character who rebelled and refused to follow the plot outline. Most of these women still felt that way. Most of them, too, like I did at one time, shuddered at the thought of writing an American childhood. What if you got it wrong? The majority of your readers would KNOW.



Do I still feel that way? No. I’ve watched the kids go through school here. I’ve read a ton of biographies. In the beginning (I’m not a visual person, so this was odd) I watched A LOT of TV. Not soaps because I have my limits, just... news and sitcoms, and documentaries. I heard people make references to their growing up. People about my age. And the substratum of knowledge accumulated.



I’ve learned to swim in it. And I’ve lived in the US longer than I lived in Portugal (by about two years.) I haven’t memorized the music, but I can sight-read, and hum the difficult parts.
The tell though is that I can write a childhood in the twenties almost or as convincingly as a childhood now.



Other than that, except for the dastardly accent, I can pass. You could talk to me for hours and not know. And if you know I’m hearing impaired even the accent won’t tip you off. And a lot of my readers are shocked to find I have an accent.




So what am I saying here? I’m saying that wherever you come from, if you work at it, you can do it. I’m also saying that – remember I’m the woman trying to improve on your fears – that no matter how silly this idea of being a writer sounds, you can do it.



Of course, the industry seems to be crumbling – It’s a gift. If I’d stuck to teaching, my original profession, kids would probably be learning via implant. If I’d taken that scholarhsip in computer science, we’d be using slide rules, like in Heinlein novels (and then too, every profession seems to be crumbling as it is hit by the blunt edge of fast change. I found this out talking to my dentist.) But that doesn’t matter. If editors truly don’t gather around my manuscripts to laugh at them, it should be much easier for any of you. If I can make it here, you can make it anywhere.



So, lay down on that comfy couch. Speak up. Your mother already told me everything... No, seriously. Tell me your fears. What do you think happens when your article/story/novel hits the editors’ offices? What paralyzes you? – for years I dreaded cons for fear of offending anyone. I’m sort of over that now, but do you fear it? What about this process do you dread? I tell you right now, it’s probably unfounded. Let’s talk about it.

22 comments:

C Kelsey said...

The thing that pretty much halts me in my tracks is the editing. It seems like I edit a story and fix a bunch of errors, think it's pretty good, then come back later to re-read it and find even more errors. And it never stops! I think Microsoft Word spawns errors on purpose for me.

matapam said...

Okay, I have no idea what happens to a short story. I suspect it's even worse than what happens to a novel submission (me).

So I'll guess.

It sits.

Finally someone _has_ to read it. In theory, in much less time than a novel sub gets. Two paragraphs and off goes the rejection.

My main worry is that because I don't regularly read short stories, I'm writing things that have been done to death, over and over.

Sort of like those Fantasy writers who think they have to wipe out all but one member of some remote tribe in the first chapter, so as to motivate said survivor into fighting the Great Evil. I think they're the main reason no one wants to read slush.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Kelsey.

Editing can grow to fill the time available. At some time you have to stop.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Sarah,

Really enjoyed your post. You say you always felt like someone was going to walk up behind you and say, you don't fit in.

I feel that way about life. I spent my childhood watching all the other children, trying to work out why they did the things they did. Even though they spoke English, it was like they operated on an alien system of values.

I still have patches of feeling like that, like there's this whole conspiracy where other people know what's going on and I don't.

So, when I send a manuscript off, I know intellectually, that it will just sit there until a stressed editor gets around to reading it, but emotionally, I see them picking it up and saying, she still doesn't get it.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Matapam,

Do you have slush overload?

It is probably a technical term in publishing. 'Save me', the intern cries, 'if I read another slush manuscript I'll go stark raving mad.'

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Chris,

STOP now. Let me tell you about the first story I sold. Three times. And which also was an honorable mention in year's best (94. wow) Okay -- I wrote it and sent it out, and no one wanted it, and everytime it came back, I found more stuff to edit. Until I had it "perfect" and still no one bought it. So one day I brought out that "perfect" story and read it. I was lifeless. So I went and read the first one... and it rang with life. I discarded the perfect version, sent out the "unedited" one. And lo and behold, Thirst sold. Four times.
Chances are you're overeditting. Almost all the stories I sold had at least one spelling mistake. THAT's not the important part. Now, if the story has glaring ones, and everywhere, that's one thing -- though some authors sell even so. BUT some errors won't prevent you selling. STOP worrying about the words. Concentrate on plot and character. To make me happy -- that's your goal in life, right? -- read both swain books. Also Self Editting for Fiction Writers by Renni Brown and David King. Then try again. But remember, what has to be perfect is NOT the wording, but the story telling. Don't believe me? Read the first three Laurell Hamiltons. The French is not really French, the spelling... the grammar... the characters that change heights and hair color. Doesn't matter. Still sold.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Matapam,

THey have slush readers. I've made it through slush and so can you. The thing is, in most mags, you'd no longer go into general slush. You have one pro sale. This is a much smaller field and possibly fewer dead tribesmen.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Rowena,
On stopping editing. Give your inner editor a name. Then teach him some manners. Mine is Fred. He's small, has a clipboard, glasses and speaks in a nasal whine. I've performed all manners of indignity upon Fred when he breaks out of his dungeon at an inappropriate time. Mostly, I like to gag him and dangle him by one foot over an alligator pit while I write.
Little do the alligators know he's indigestible!

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Rowena,
Natch, I also felt like a stranger in Portugal. I'm convinced PTerry was talking about writing when he describes his witches as the ones who stand aside and watch, and have the first sight and the second thoughts. I enjoyed a bried popularity when I -- well, 's truth -- invented role playing games and got the whole school playing them in third and fourth grade. Robin Hood, mostly. But in the bigger middle school no one wanted what I was selling. It took till late highschool and boys before I was sought after again -- for entirely different reasons (G)

OTOH when I moved here, for the first few years it was different. I felt that my inner works were not only different but radically different. Different enough people would turn on me if they knew. It was stupid, of course, and a minor form of paranoia, but everyone in that writers' list who'd been born abroad reported that.

RJ_CruzeJr said...

Y'know Sarah, you make a very good point about over-editing; it's the tiny imperfections that make a story unique -- kinda like a diamond.

Reminds me of an anecdote about when they were filming The Manchurian Candidate (the original with Frank Sinatra): in one of the climactic scenes with Sinatra and co-star Lawrence Harvey, they discovered after the first take (which was just an excellent take) that the camera was out of focus. So, they re-focused and re-shot. Unfortunately, Frank Sinatra was the kind of actor who usually did his best work on his first take, and this time proved no exception. So, after repeated takes just didn't measure up, they decided to sneak the unfocused take in and hope nobody noticed.

Well, when the movie was released, people did notice -- and they raved about how brilliant director John Frankenheimer was for perfectly capturing the out of focus perspective of Lawrence Harvey's emotionally-shattered character. And it worked because the storytelling was so well done that a technical flaw actually added to the film.

Amanda Green said...

What do I fear? Well, you have already hit one -- that they will laugh and laugh and laugh when they read my submission. Not because it's that good, but because they think it is that bad. I can see a youtube video poking fun at it and it being sent around in an email to all the editors and agents as one of those "OMG, can you believe this?" sort of things.

Oh, I also fear the pointy toe of your boots connecting with a certain part of my anatomy for having the above fear. ;-p

I also have to fight the fear that my short story or novel isn't good enough and needs to be edited "just one more time".

Okay, going back to the mad Russians to finish them up, hopefully, before the New Year.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

RJ,
Yeah on the imperfections. Also, the thing is if you're a perfectionist and overdue it, you pack too much information per sentence -- as it were. So that you end up with stuff that gives you the idea of "Take notes, there will be a test afterwards." I know whence I speak (ruefully.)

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Amanda,
Okay, being afraid they'll laugh at your stuff is akin to being afraid everyone is taking note of everything you do at cons. I won't use the word ridiculous because it might not get it across, instead I'll laugh myself silly.
Look, they're busy, they're overwhelmed. Laughing at you would take time and you'd need to be a special kind of bad. How special?
Let's just say the one story we laughed at when we were editing a magazine made the world's worst book (those of you whom I've introduced to it know what it is. The other ones... give thanks on bended knee.) look like a flawless piece of storytelling. I mean it was beyond suckingly bad while still retaining coherent sentences (which most bad stuff doesn't) so that the end result was like a parallel dimmension populated entirely by crazy people and cartoon characters. You couldn't write anything like that anymore than you can paint the cistine chapel. It is my considered opinion it takes years of training and a perverse taste to be THAT bad. No sane or semi-sane person could achieve it.
Because it's you, and you won't believe me, let's just say the story was entitled "Pretty x-color Planet" and read like one of those colored jokes from the seventies you know "the little purple man got up in his purple house, etc." which ends with "And the green nurse was ordered off hte purple operating room because she wasn't in the joke."

Chris McMahon said...

My writing fears revolve around the same things as my worse nightmares - where I keep making the right decisions but everything keeps getting worse and spiraling out of control - and I am usually increasingly isolated.

I guess I fear I will keep doing 'the right things' - writing, editing, sending out, trying new projects, putting in the hours - but that the end goal of being a successful published author will always slip away. I keep banging away, but the Universe seems to be completely silence on teh issue. I guess I fear being an old man who looks back on a wasted life from atop a pile of waste paper. Cheery, huh?

Kate said...

Oh my. Scary stuff indeed.

For me it's that "they" will figure out I'm only pretending to be normal and come after me again. I hide it in all sorts of ways until I feel "safe" in a particular group - the "Kate" people get depends on the group and what I'm trying to be, but it's very rare that I actually relax and let myself be - mostly because when I do I have this unfortunate tendency of scaring the living crap out of people. Stuffed if I know why.

matapam said...

Chris, consider the alternative. An old man, wondering why he never wrote that book.

Chris McMahon said...

Ah, matapam. Good point.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Chris,
I had the same fear. I only started taking writing seriously after I nearly died of pneumonia at 33. And that was why. Because while lying there, fairly sure it was time to check out, I realized all my worlds would die with me. As is, even if I'm never big, maybe I'll inspire someone else and in that way my worlds will go on.

author said...

My biggest fear - and it's nearly paralyzing me right now - is that I'm so way off the mark that I'm not publishable. I read advice to writers such as "make it zing". Does mine zing? I haven't a clue. The NYT best-selling author who wrote that has books out I won't even read because they're unbearably dark. If his works zing, I'm SOL. I much prefer something more lighthearted like your Euclid's post...which I found, somehow, through his website just yesterday. I'm headed to the library to check out what you have that's published. Maybe it will give me the courage to go on.
Anyway, thank you for sharing your humor - and yourself - with others. I appreciate that.

Karen said...

That wasn't supposed to have been from "Author". Sorry 'bout that.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Karen,
If that was directed at me, you need to look for Sarah D'Almeida and Elise Hyatt as well. (I'm the woman of a half dozen names.)

As for your fear of never being published, my understanding is that if you keep trying and improving, you will. I know, I know. I too doubted it when I heard it... But it works.

OTOH if you are... er... unusual, like I seem to be (even my urban fantasy isn't dark, the first hardcover cover not withstanding. Or it's dark in a completely different way from everything else) and if most "literary" bestsellers bore you to tears, you'll find yourself having to do your own promo and find fans one by one like Juan valdez, because the publishing establishment will have no idea what to do with you. They'll buy you then go "who reads this?" "uh... uh... uh." :)

As for Euclid... He's a special cat, he is. I need to post about the cat wars for tentistan, again, soon. They've been very active.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...
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