Writing Retreats, or: Why I Can’t Teach Anyone A Damn Thing About Writing

My most vivid memories of Wizard World are of the times I disagreed with people.

Of course, it wasn’t always a wise choice. On one panel, offering strategies for writer’s block, I quoted an audience member from an earlier discussion: “Drinking and drugs.” (Which was meant as humor, of course, but I think the moderator wished I’d found a different joke.)

But sometimes I learn that my experience is completely different from everyone else’s. And at those times, I feel like I have to point out that conventional wisdom isn’t the same as You Must Do This. Which is exactly what I did when people started talking about writing retreats.

The panel was about launching your creative career, and the topic at hand was what kind of education might be helpful. There are professions, I learned–notably many areas of filmmaking–where it’s not just the degree, but the specific school that can make a difference. For writing, though, the panel immediately gravitated toward talking about MFAs, and then to writing retreats. Panelists discussed how lovely it was to have all those weeks dedicated to writing, meeting people, making contacts.

I didn’t know anything about the people who in the audience, but a lot of them were young. Some of them may even have been in high school. And I tried to imagine myself at 15 or 16, being told the key to becoming a writer was more school–and more debt.

I didn’t get an MFA. (I didn’t even know, until a few years ago, that you could actually get a master’s in creative writing.) I didn’t attend Clarion or Hedgebrook or any of the lovely writing retreats. Had I known about them, I’d have pined for them, but when I was 22 and right out of college, I didn’t have the money. And even if I’d managed to borrow it or get a scholarship, the job I had didn’t accommodate a six week leave of absence.

So what do you do if you’re a writer, and you can’t afford a retreat, and you can’t take time off from your job without losing it? Are you supposed to give up? Are you supposed to stop calling yourself a writer, let it all go?

Yes, that’s meant to sound ridiculous. But that’s the message a lot of people hear when you say things to them like MFA. To be blunt: Writing has a class problem, and it hits from all sides.

Better people than me have written about the income and diversity problem in the publishing industry. It’s not intentional exclusion, but when you have an industry largely based in cities with expensive costs of living, where careers are built on internships, the majority of your professionals are going to be people who come from (relatively) financially privileged backgrounds. I haven’t spoken to a single person in the industry who wouldn’t like to see it more diverse, more universal–they love stories, after all, and more stories are always wonderful–but we’re talking about a business that basically brokers art. Altering the economic structure is neither fast nor easy.

But on the writing side of it…extolling the virtues of master’s degrees and elite retreats is the same problem. Except that on the writing side of it, it’s rubbish, and you can’t even make the economic argument to support it.

You don’t need an MFA to be a writer. You don’t need a writer’s retreat to be a writer. To be a writer, you need a way to record your words, and that’s it.

And please understand, I’m not suggesting an MFA isn’t valuable. I would have loved dedicating years to writing. I’d have loved a writing retreat, spending six weeks with other authors, sharing struggles, learning from them, even if I’d had to live in my car. (And having said that–I wouldn’t have had to. When I graduated from college I was itching for independence, financial and otherwise, but if I’d approached my family they’d have made me a loan. So I’m privileged even in my lack of education, because I had a choice.) I have no doubt that being able to concentrate so thoroughly on writing can provide tremendous benefits, can present incredible opportunities to learn from fellow authors, can help to build your voice with confidence.

If you can afford the time and money for these programs and they speak to you, pursue them. Fling yourself into them with your whole heart, just as you have to do with anything if you’re going to grow as a writer. Work and work and work, and take everything you can from the experience.

But for pity’s sake–if none of that is in your future, don’t stop writing. Because whatever your framework, the only way to grow as a writer is to write.

It’s probably part of my particular brand of neuroatypicality that leads me to analyze my own writing process. I’ve thought about the stages I went through, how I went from telling myself bedtime stories to being able to take a few months to draft a novel. (Finished a first draft yesterday, and boy are my arms tired.) I’ve been writing since I was five years old, but I was closing in on 46 before I figured out how to complete something novel-length, and it was another three years before I finished something I could sell. This makes me wonder if everyone goes through the stages I went through, just much more quickly–maybe too quickly to be able to see the changes. I had the benefit of creeping through the process in slow motion, allowing me to recognize what was happening while I was going through it.

Or maybe that’s bullshit. Maybe my growth was mine, at my pace, in my way, and nothing that’s happened to me will make sense to anyone else. Maybe, if I’d gone to a retreat, I’d have leapfrogged most of the stages I went through and learned much earlier how to regurgitate an entire novel.

But just in case any of this is worth it to anyone else, here are the lessons I’ve learned since the age of five:

It’s more important to gain confidence in your work than it is to be critiqued. One of the most common questions I see on my writing group is “How do I know which critique I should listen to?” Critiques are by nature subjective, and without a solid sense of what your objective is, it’s nearly impossible to make a reasoned assessment about what someone else has told you to change.

To that end, I think it doesn’t hurt to have your first critters be people who aren’t going to give you a lot of negatives: your mom, your friends, a reflexively supportive online group. Because positive feedback makes you want to write, and the more you write, the more you’ll fine-tune your own sense of what you’re accomplishing. Once you can stand up and say with confidence “I want this work to provoke X response” that’s when you hand your manuscript out for more objective critiques.

When push comes to shove, you only get better one way: by writing. A lot. Over and over again. Don’t do anything that’s going to make you want to stop.

Every word you put down has value. Please don’t mistake me here: This doesn’t mean everything you write is going to be brilliant, or even readable. A massive amount of what you write is going to get tossed. Even for long-term published authors, a huge percentage of what gets written down is just plain rubbish.

But it’s rubbish that serves a critical purpose. Sometimes you have to build the scene badly to figure out how to build it well. Sometimes you have to write far into a novel–even all the way–before you can see that the project isn’t worth pursuing. Sometimes you have to write the wrong words before you can unearth the right ones.

Writing is a non-linear process. You’re not rummaging through a box of Legos and picking out bits to build a house; you’re creating something that only you can create. It’s art, for real, and more often than you’d like you’re going to have to cough up absolute crap to get to the stuff you want.

Finishing is a different skill than writing. Here’s where an MFA might have accelerated my progress. I’m a magpie: I always want to write the shiny thing. And of course I want to write it perfectly, to have it be as beautiful as it is in my head. I spent so much time writing the first chapter or two of something, and then revising it into bland, horrible death.

There’s value in writing partial stories, in scenes and vignettes. As above, it’s all writing. I do it a lot to work through characters (I send them to therapy now and then when I need to get at where they’re coming from). But getting to the end of a story means it has to hold your interest for a long time. Stephen King may be able to write a book in a weekend, but most of us can’t.

For me, that meant learning how to push through without turning back. It’s not a method that works for everyone, but with my skill set, it was NaNoWriMo that gave me the last piece I needed. Being obligated to move forward no matter what my feelings about what came before felt strange–but being able to write THE END was weird and astonishing and wonderful and addictive.

I’ve finished seven drafts now, including my first trunked NaNo novel and the two that got combined into THE COLD BETWEEN. It’s no easier than it was the first time–but now I know, if I focus on the means and not the end, I’ll get where I need to be.

Editing is a different skill than finishing. There are some people who tell me their first drafts are very close to finished quality. I’ll take them at their word, but that’s not true for me. My first drafts are full of trial and error and dangling red herrings and blind alleys and dead chapters and whole scenes that need to be longer.

Once I have a first draft, then I actually have to pay attention to the story.

This is not, as a rule, as much fun as letting your imagination go bananas because you know you can get it in editing. This is the nitpicky stuff, the research and the continuity checking, the purging of those beautiful passages that you love but that are repetitive or bog down your narrative. This is the place where you worry about pacing and structure and making sure each scene has a purpose and a shape.

This is the part where it helps to be a reader. So much of pacing and structure is instinct and personal taste. The more you’ve read of books you love, the easier it’ll be to see when your own work is (and isn’t) flowing the way you want it to flow.

But when push comes to shove? This is the fiddly phyllo dough portion of constructing a book. It’s difficult, it’s often unfun, and it’s very easy to get wrong. And it’s incredibly satisfying when it all comes out the other end.

If you can’t tell the truth, don’t bother. Years ago, when I was in a bad relationship, I stopped writing. I spent every day of that relationship lying to myself, telling myself it wasn’t what it was, convincing myself that it would improve and turn into something positive. I tried, during that time, to write, but nothing would come out. For-real writer’s block, for the first time in my life.

Fiction is nothing less than the absolute unvarnished truth of your heart. If you can’t look into yourself and admit what you find, nothing you write is going to feel authentic. And if you look into yourself and feel you can’t write it down…look at your life. Really. Pretty good chance there’s something there that needs a change.

If you don’t love it, nobody else will, either. Remember that trunked NaNo novel I mentioned? I liked it. A lot. I loved parts of it. (I borrowed bits to create Volhynia for THE COLD BETWEEN.) I wanted to edit it and turn it into a real book. And I worked on it pretty seriously for a couple of months, before I realized I didn’t care enough. Making it what it would need to be was going mean steeping myself in the story day after day for a very long time, and when push came to shove, I didn’t want to do that. I liked the story, and that’s not enough.

We’ve probably all had the experience of reading a favorite author’s latest book and wondering what the hell happened. Some writers seem to just fall off a cliff, going from compelling, irresistible storylines to bland cardboard. I have to think, in cases like that, that they’ve just stopped loving what they write. The craft is still there, the plots still worthwhile, but the writing itself has lost passion, and the reader can feel it.

This theory would hold more water if everyone agreed with me on which authors fell off the cliff, and they don’t. But my point still stands: if you don’t love your work, it’s going to show. And that’s a risk, if you want readers.

Write what you love. It matters.

I’ve always been a writer. And at the same time, I feel I’ll never be a writer. When you’re an artist, it’s hard to separate yourself from a dependence on your audience. But here’s the truth of it: if you write, you’re already an artist. Maybe a beginner, maybe a pro, maybe an MFA, maybe a weekender. Doesn’t matter.

If you write, you’re a writer. If you write, you’re learning. Your path is your path. Don’t give it up just because it doesn’t look like anyone else’s.

I said this, in Philadelphia. I told the audience they didn’t need an MFA. I told them they didn’t need writing workshops. There was a bit of an awkward pause at that, but there’s no rebuttal to it, because it’s the truth. Programs are valuable, and can give some people a real jump-start, and if that’s your dream, find a way. But I couldn’t sit there in front of people looking for answers and tell them they were doomed if they weren’t going after a secondary degree. There’s enough class stratification in publishing; we don’t need it in writing. Every path brings with it different experiences.

As a reader, I want them all.

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Writing Advice and Rule-Breaking

aka Still Not The All-Encompassing Wizard World Philadelphia Post (sorry)

One of the things I’ve always believed is that writing is such a deeply individual process that there’s very little I can teach someone else about craft.

I’m not talking about basics like grammar and vocabulary. I tend to assume writers are either already well-versed in those subjects, or recognize that it’s a learning curve that needs to be climbed if they expect readers to engage. Everyone knows That Guy who self-pubbed their novel, and the first page is full of improper Capitalization and stray, commas and too! many! exclamation! points! and nobody wants to be That Guy. Grammar and vocabulary are learnable skills, and trying to write without them is going to get you the same sorts of results you’d get if you tried to fix your dishwasher with a pipe cleaner and some Post-It notes.

(Do you like the mangled metaphor? I think I’ll choose to say it’s intended to be illustrative.)

So when someone asks a question about a work they’ve completed, I tend to respond with the assumption that it’s already well-written. If someone, for example, asks how much trouble they’re going to have getting representation for their 250,000-word debut novel, I tell them, “It’s not impossible, but it’s a longshot.” Which is, statistically speaking, the truth.

Of course, other people tend to provide more useful responses like “You know, odds are at 250,000 words your manuscript is kind of meandery or repetitive or expositiony, so you may want to do some heavy-duty editing before you try querying it.” Which, to be fair, is much more likely the case, especially if you’re talking to a beginning writer. And it’s good advice in any case: don’t write a 250,000-word novel unless you absolutely must write a 250,000-word novel. And don’t write a non-standard query letter, and don’t write any info-dumps, and show don’t tell, and good God, get rid of those adverbs.

All of that advice is good, and solid. And sometimes it’s absolutely, 100% wrong.

One of the panels I did in Philadelphia was called Writing Compelling Science Fiction. The two gentlemen who put it together have been running it for years, and it’s been quite popular. It covers some basics about spec fic and story structure, and is designed to encourage people still feeling their way toward building and completing their stories. How I ended up on the panel is a bit of a tale, but the runners were gracious and inclusive and marvelous hosts.

And I kind of stepped on their advice at one point, even though, strictly speaking, their advice was good.

Someone in the audience had asked about chapter headings. He referenced Cormac McCarthy’s THE ROAD as an example of a book that did really well but had no traditional chapter breaks. The hosts advised him to absolutely not do that, that no publisher or agent would look at the manuscript without chapter breaks.

I disagreed. I told the person chapter breaks were just a pacing tool, and if the story doesn’t call for them, don’t use them. I suggested they query the book without chapter breaks, and if they found themselves getting rejections on pages they could always add chapter breaks and see if they got a better response. They could then fight the chapter-break fight with their editor once they got an agent and sold it to a publisher.

Now, in fairness, it’s possible the audience member was That Guy, and I just enabled bad habits.

But what if they’re Cormac McCarthy? What if they have something poetic and beautiful and passionate that would be flattened by chapter breaks? How many people have it in them to build something amazing, but take a step back because of an arbitrary Most People Do It This Way rule?

What if that novel really does need to be 250,000 words?

One of the most successful science fiction books in recent years is OLD MAN’S WAR, which I didn’t get a chance to read until recently (after, to be fair, years of my spouse telling me I was missing something I’d love). From a craft perspective, it’s of course written extremely well. The author turns a phrase and knows how to get a reaction from the reader. And past the basics, he writes complex, believable characters, and sets up vivid worlds–pretty much what you’d expect from a best-selling science fiction author.

But narratively? The book breaks a whole bunch of rules. The first two-thirds of it is exposition–fascinating, entertaining exposition (which is possible!), but still. And then there’s the point where you realize this military science fiction novel is actually a pretty traditional romance–once again, beautifully done, but kinda breaks the rules of what one’s supposed to do with a story like this.

I read a book like OLD MAN’S WAR, and I think about all the people told “No, stop writing exposition!” or “You can’t play with genre like that!” and I wonder how many of those people were writing something gorgeous and stopped because they thought they wouldn’t be able to sell it. Is it most of them? Probably not–but if it’s even one, isn’t that too many?

When it comes down to it, as a reader, I want to read something that engages and moves me. Yes, most of the books I’ve loved have traditional narrative structures, but not all of them. Another favorite of mine, SHARDS OF HONOR, is basically four separate stories in a single volume, and it’s a book I reread not just for pleasure, but because I’m fascinated by how, despite the non-traditional pacing, it works perfectly beginning to end.

The other side of this–and that person’s question at the panel really brought it into focus for me–is how much of the writing advice given is geared toward getting the writer published. “Don’t write X genre because it’s over-saturated.” “Don’t write a prologue because too many rookies screw them up.” “Make sure you use traditional chapter breaks.” “Don’t write a chapter longer than Y words.” “Always write first person past/third person limited/etc. for Z genre, because otherwise no one will read it.”

It’s a hard line to draw, because most people who write believe the next logical step is being read, and therefore published. Self-publishing has added another dimension to this, and it’s a double-edged sword: you don’t have to worry about X genre being oversaturated or how many words your chapters have, but you also don’t have to pound your craft into submission before you throw something up for the world to see.

And I’m not convinced, having been on both sides of it, that publishing (of any variety) is the right goal for every story.

I can hear the working writers screaming at me for that, or laughing at me, or thinking I’m horribly naive or privileged. Fair points all. I know some writers who are absolutely writing to market, and loving it, and doing well, and they are no less creative or Artistic™ than the people who scratch at parchment with a feather dipped in ink. Writing is a craft on top of everything else, and if you want to sell to the world, you owe it to your work to make your craft as good as it can possibly be.

But at the same time, writing is an art. It’s self-expression. Everything from fanfic to tie-ins to pulp to and-I-thought-ULYSSES-was-weird stuff is self-expression. Here are my guts, wrapped up in words and plot and characters and (sometimes) chapter breaks.

I’m not sure we nurture good writers by telling them the main goal of writing is to write something they can sell. Maybe the goal of writing shouldn’t be make this publishable but rather hone your ability to make your story read on the page the way it does in your head. Screw sales. Screw publishing. Learn how to use your tools, not just the grammar and vocabulary, but the experiences and perspectives that are unique to you. Take satisfaction in translating that piece of yourself that you want to share in a way that’s as true to yourself as you can make it.

And maybe it never sells. Maybe you show it to your friends and they look at you like you’ve grown a second head. Maybe you never show it to anyone. But if it’s what you wanted it to be…is that enough? Shouldn’t it be enough? Because no writer produces Thing 2 if they never sit down and write Thing 1.

I ran across an essay yesterday (that I won’t link to) talking about how important it is not to tell kids that they shouldn’t be professional writers, that somehow telling them they should keep a day job is discouraging or inhibiting their creativity. Apart from the irresponsible naïveté of that–it’s the same thing. We’re telling developing writers that the only goal should be publishing, when the truth is that even if their eventual goal is publishing, it’s far more important to learn how to build their own stories, whether or not they ever get shared with the world.

Writing, for me, has always been equal parts escapism, therapy, and entertainment. That some of my stories have made it out to the world is marvelous…but it’s a different thing than the writing itself. I’ll always write. If I hadn’t sold a book, I’d still always write. I love the craft of it, the satisfaction of re-reading something and recognizing that it really does work the way I want it to. I love writing and writing and realizing only after I’m finished what it was I needed to say.

That’s the sort of thing I’d like to see nurtured in writers still working on their craft (and we’re all, no matter how experienced, still working on our craft). Yes, there are rules–not just of grammar–that should be broken rarely, or not at all. Yes, there are types of stories that are more likely to be published for money than others. Yes, you should pay attention to that, if publishing is your goal.

But don’t ever forget that writing is an art, and at some point you’re going to have to ignore everybody’s well-intentioned advice, and write your own heart. And remember that the act of creation has a value all its own.

Writing Gender

“How do you go about writing a character that’s a different gender than yourself?”

That was a question I got at a panel at Wizard World Philadelphia, and it caught me completely off-guard.

This isn’t because it wasn’t a question I could answer, or even an issue I haven’t thought about. This was entirely because the question was addressed to me. I had spent the entire weekend on panels with Real Writers[tm] (I know, but you know what I mean), and Real Comic Artists and Real Movie People. It’s fortunate that I tend to go into performance mode when I speak in pubic, because I was suffering a serious bout of impostor syndrome all weekend.

And when I heard this question, my first thought was But I don’t do that.

I do, of course. I have a large cast, and while half my characters are female, the other half aren’t. I suspect the person was interested in hearing my approach to writing men. But I don’t actually have an approach to writing men. Sometimes a character is male, and it’s just another thing about them, and I don’t really think about it.

Which also isn’t entirely true, but I’ll get to that later.

In front of an audience, though, I had to come up with something. So I told people about a character in a book that’s not out yet. I told people about Dallas. And the combination of nerves, time, and my tendency to stammer, I explained myself…poorly.

Dallas shows up in the prologue of BREACH OF CONTAINMENT. Dallas is a parts scavenger, an astute businessperson, frequently sarcastic, a loyal friend, an introvert, something of a loner, a bloody good cook, and agender. Initially they were only going to show up in the prologue and Elena’s first scene on the moon of Yakutsk, but as I was twining the subplot through the story, it became obvious I needed another POV character. Fortunately, there was Dallas, fully realized and whispering in my head. (That’s how Çelik ended up with a POV in REMNANTS; at first he was just Elena’s irritating ex-captain, but he wouldn’t shut up.)

So Dallas pulls my subplot through the second two-thirds of the book, and I don’t write about their gender, because in the culture of my universe it’s not a notable characteristic. So it was odd for me to talk about the character from the perspective of gender, because I feel like I didn’t write them from the perspective of gender.

Except I did, of course, because one does.

Generally, when we write about gender, we’re not writing about gender at all, but the social structures and expectations around gender. It’s interesting, writing futuristic science fiction, thinking about what sorts of stereotyping and cultural pressures will be present in the future; but of course, since our readers are reading today, whatever we come up with has germinated from present-day assumptions. I use these assumptions all the time to hint at a character’s biases, at their blind spots, at their sexuality. I do it on purpose, sometimes to reinforce expectations, and often to subvert them.

The subtleties of Dallas were less straightforward. What I said to the Comic Con audience was this: that as I was editing, I read through the text once envisioning Dallas as male, and then again envisioning them as female. And I did indeed do that, but it’s just one small piece of what happened, and I feel like as stated it glosses over a lot of issues and potentially sounds like I’m casting agender people only in relation to those who adhere to a male/female binary.

Which wasn’t the intent of the editing exercise. The intent of the editing exercise was to deal with my own unconscious biases.

One thing that happens when you publish a book is that you can’t go back and change it. There are things I’d change in both my published books if I could go back to them. There are things I’d change in the one I just turned in yesterday. Perspectives evolve; the issues and ideas I want to write about grow and change.

I have always, from the beginning, wanted to write an egalitarian society, at least with regard to gender and sexuality. This wasn’t out of a desire to make a point. It was out of exhaustion. The world today is pretty awful in a lot of ways, and I write to escape. In my imaginary world, nobody thinks much about your gender or your sexuality (unless they’re romantically interested in you, in which case it becomes genuinely relevant, and even then no harm no foul). People care about what you do, not about the body in which you go around doing it.

And I found, writing this society, that I have my own weird, unjustifiable, lurking biases. Some of them I could catch while I was writing, and some of them I missed. I’m getting better, but I still trip sometimes. How could I not? I’m a rat in the same maze as everyone else. I try to see and learn and listen, but it’s a process, and I’m unlikely to ever purge all my blind spots. Elena, Jessica, Greg, and Ted are all coded female/male in ways I intended and ways I didn’t.

It’s the unintentional coding I wanted to avoid with Dallas, and that’s why I did the editing the way I did. I didn’t want the character to read as binary when they’re not.

And I’m sure, on some level, I still failed. There will be a lot of readers who assign Dallas one way or the other. We’re trained, we humans, to sort things, and our culture strongly reinforces the idea of two genders, never the twain shall meet. I didn’t write Dallas as an agender character; I wrote them as a character who is, among other things, agender.

Which is a cheat, really. But like I said: I write to escape. Beyond that, there’s a realism aspect to it. Just as the future isn’t going to be White Men In Space, neither is it going to be Gender Binaries In Space. Humans are already marvelously diverse and variegated now; in my posited future, where differences are accepted as usual, people of all sorts will be visible everywhere, and there’s not going to be much discussion of it.

This is how I write about politics: by not writing about politics.

In any case: I felt I’d given the question short shrift (apart from the bit where I pretty much dismissed the idea that writing men as a woman was anything like a stretch), and I wanted to clarify. It is something I’ve thought about, but it isn’t something I had prepared myself to discuss. I’m not a marginalized person writing a marginalized character; I’m an author who’s created a culture that has utopian aspects, and one of those aspects makes agender people as conventional as anything else.

Dallas is just Dallas, the character who showed up to save my plot.

Are You Sure? (Y/N)

Dear Fellow Writers Who Have Yet To Publish,

Don’t do it.

Love,
Liz

…Wait. You need more than that? Oh. Okay.

Dear Fellow Writers Who Have Yet To Publish,

If you love writing and value your sanity, don’t do it.

Love, and really, I mean it,
Liz

I can hear you from here, you know. “Well, of course she’d say that. She’s done it. This is just sour grapes or some competitive bullshit because she knows my book is better than hers.”

Dearest fellow writer, I hope your book is better than mine. I hope it’s Shakespeare or Melville or Butler or Rowling or Gay or whatever massively-selling author you idolize. I hope you are brilliant and productive and creative and beautiful, and that publishing brings you massive success and recognition and love from strangers all over the world.

Spoiler alert: It probably won’t. Even if your book is better than mine. Even if it is better than Shakespeare and Melville and Butler and Rowling and Gay.

And even if it does bring you massive success and recognition and love from strangers, it’s not going to feel the way you think it will.

We are storytellers, you and I. It’s a strong desire, and a motivating one. (It has to be motivating, because damn, finishing a book is hard.) We are storytellers in part because we’ve had stories told to us. We’ve read, some of us more widely than others. We’ve had that window into another world, another mind, another framework. That window has changed us and taught us who we are, and who we want to be.

Maybe we started with Goodnight Moon. Maybe nothing spoke to us until we had to read Clarissa for that college 18th century lit class we only took because nothing else fit into our schedule. Maybe it started when we were 35 and waiting at the airport and the only thing on the racks was Stephen King’s It.

We love being told stories. And you and I, fellow writers, decide, at some point, that we want to tell stories of our own. For all the stories that have made us feel less alone–maybe you and I think that perhaps if we write down our own stories, we can give that feeling to someone else.

We tell stories out of love.

Dearest fellow writers, I tell you this as someone who has been making up stories for 47 years, since before I could write, since before I knew what an adverb was (or why I should use as few as possible): Write and write and write and write. Tell all your stories. Pour all your love into your work. Share it with your friends. Have beautiful bound copies made (there are some places that do very nice low-volume binding work these days) and give them as holiday gifts.

But if you love to write, don’t publish.

There are lovely aspects to it, of course. Beautiful covers. Your name in print. The feeling of seeing your words neatly typeset, like all of the stories you’ve read all your life. The feeling that now you’re one of them. You’re one of the storytellers, the ones that tell stories to strangers, just as you were once a stranger who picked up a book. You belong.

Except you don’t.

Perhaps it’s different for you. Perhaps you’re the sort of person who can walk into a room full of strangers completely relaxed, feeling entirely at home, able to blend in a way that makes other people gravitate toward you, assuming that of course you belong there, even if they don’t know you. Perhaps your name and your cover and your words for sale at your favorite retailer is enough.

And right now, you’re certain it will be. I sure was. I knew exactly how all this was going to feel, how all this was going to go. I was prepared for the inevitable bad reviews, the sales that didn’t go quite where I wanted them to. So many authors I love have had bad reviews, have taken years to build proper sales (if they ever did). Belonging doesn’t mean there are no downsides. The downsides are part of belonging, because they hit everyone.

Dearest fellow writers. I was not prepared. I was not.

There are bad reviews. There are always bad reviews. I don’t read them. (I don’t generally read the good ones, either, although my spouse sometimes emails them to me, and some of my readers are genuinely lovely people, I have to say.) But it’s not the bad reviews that will get you. It’s the conversation. It’s the people at that party you’ve just walked into, the ones you think will welcome you. Fellow storytellers, and fellow consumers of stories. We are all one. We Are The World. We all belong, right?

People will talk about you. And it will not always be nice. People you like will say genuinely awful things. Because being published doesn’t mean you join the party. It means you become a topic of conversation for the partygoers. They are, of course, welcome to say whatever they choose; but they will say it as if you are not there.

Because you’re not.

This is the bit that I know you’re not going to get when I explain it, but it’s not you that’s joining the party. It’s not you that’s dealing with belonging or not belonging. It’s your story. That thing you wrote out of love, that you tortured yourself over, that you polished and perfected and fought with editors over, that you finally found a way to offer to the world. It’s all of your heart and parts of yourself you never knew you had.

And to the rest of the world, it’s just another story. And it does not matter a bit how much the story matters to you.

It’s often true that when authors get successful, personalities emerge. There are a number of personalities right now in the SFF world. Most of them I like. Some of them, not so much. But there’s one thing I notice, even about the ones who are successful to a degree I will never, ever see: They don’t frequent those places where they are discussed. They interact with people in their own spaces, on their own terms. And in all of those other places? They’re discussed as if they’re not there, just like the rest of us.

Sometimes, of course, you hear things that make you say “Huh?” My favorite was bashing into a “review” of my book in a random comments thread, in which the reader had been unhappy with my characters. “People who should know better behaving badly.” I remember thinking, “Do you even know people?” And then I started wondering if maybe software, where I spent most of my adulthood, was just full of weirdos. (It’s a valid reaction to the book, of course. If you don’t like my people, you’re not going to like the story. But goodness.)

That one wasn’t upsetting, really. What was upsetting was that shortly afterward I had to stop reading those random comment threads. Because other people would say things. And they were not always polite, and they were not always about the work. These were people I respected, whose recommendations I had taken. Some of them I had even interacted with. The brutality of the tossed-off remarks was startling. Some of this is just the nature of the internet (and before anyone tells me to toughen up: I’ve been on the net since 1988, and I know from toxic flame wars, children). But it’s a bit like road rage: at a real party, nobody would say those things to your face, even if they were thinking them. And reading that from someone you respect…it does change the way you see them.

And if I’d been a raving Shakespeare/Melville/Butler/Rowling/Gay success, maybe I wouldn’t have cared.

But I suppose my ultimate point to you, dear fellow writer, is that with all of the success that may be awaiting you, you’re not wandering into the party you think you’re wandering into. You’re wandering into some gazebo on the side, maybe full of gold and champagne, maybe full of warm fruit punch and bad lighting. You can watch the party. You can wonder if they’re talking about you, and maybe they are, and maybe every word is lovely. But you are never going to be a part of that. You are a storyteller now, and you’re cut off in a way that you weren’t before you opened your heart and let your stories into the world.

It can be very, very hard to write in that gazebo. Because you can’t go to the party and take your stories back. You can’t stop all those people, the ones you thought would let you in, from talking about you however they will. It’s too late now that you’ve published, and you’ll know it’s happening, and you cannot do anything at all about it. You cannot ever go back to the party, you cannot ever untell your stories.

You cannot ever have those dreams again, the ones where you belong.

And now you know, when you write a story, what’s going to happen to it. You know what people will say about it, and about you. You’ve lost that purity of impulse, the story that grows inside you so big and so complete that it has to come out, that joy of writing for that one person who will just Get It. You know now that you may not find them. That they may not exist. You’re not painting on a neutral canvas anymore, and even if you’re writing only for yourself, you can’t unknow that.

I suppose I’ll get used to it. REMNANTS OF TRUST was finished before THE COLD BETWEEN was published, so it lives in innocence. BREACH OF CONTAINMENT was written in a constant state of anxiety and consciousness of dismal failure. But I wrote it anyway. It’s still being whacked with the editing stick (and I will admit, dear fellow writer, that I adore having an editor, and I highly recommend that part of the experience), but I wrote it and finished it and it ends where I want it to, so there’s that, at least.

But it is a different experience. And I can’t go back. And I’m not the sort of person who’s good at doing the hypothetical “What if I could go back and talk to my younger self?” thing. No matter what I said to that woman back in 2013, when I first started querying, she wouldn’t listen.

You won’t either, dear fellow writer. But I can warn you. What makes you write now, what feeds you, those evergreen dreams of sharing your stories…it’s not going to be like that afterward. No matter what your success, no matter what your failure, it’s not going to be what you think it will be.

You may think it’ll be better. You may be right. Maybe this is just me, just the sort of person I am, just my own particular sensitivities. Maybe it’s just how I write and exist in the world, and everybody else is wondering what the hell is wrong with me.

But I will ask you, dear fellow writer, to think long and hard about publishing before you pull the trigger.

Are you sure?

Are you?

Listening to Critiques

(What? A non-political post?

Why, yes. Because despite the chaos surrounding us all, writing is still my job, and I still love doing it, and today I’m going to write about it.)

Like most writers, I’ve got an uneasy relationship with critiques.

As a writer, you understand, when you’re writing with publication in mind, that other people are going to read it. (That’s the point, after all.) And you know they’ll have thoughts about it. And in this day and age, when it’s easy for them to share those thoughts, you know that people are going to say stuff publicly about your work. Back when I thought I’d self-publish the book that later became THE COLD BETWEEN, I sent it off to betas and said “Be as honest as you can, because people are going to eviscerate me on Amazon either way.”

Oh, naive me.

Critiques are a different thing than reviews. Reviews are written by readers for readers; even negative reviews can be informative. (I’ve bought a lot of books based on the content of negative reviews.) Critiques, on the other hand, are a way for you, the writer, to discover potential weak points in your manuscript, allowing you to correct them before letting your baby bird fly.

A lot of us get critiques not from professional critics (such as editors), but from family, friends, or fellow writers. For those critiques, there tends to be a common denominator: most readers want to identify a problem by telling you how to fix it. Which sounds reasonable, doesn’t it? It’s the way any reader thinks about a part of a story that’s not working for them: tell it to me this way instead. (Writers in particular are fond of doing this.)

The trouble is, for the very reason any book with a critical mass of readers will get some negative reviews, you’re likely to get contradictory advice from your critics. And if you try to make every change suggested, you’re going to end up with a Frankenbook made up of a germ of your original story and a bunch of unfamiliar things that other people wrote.

The only way to get anything useful out of a critique is to figure out the underlying issue.

This isn’t always easy. If someone writes you a critique and says “You need to make a joke here,” it’s not clear if they’ve been disturbed by pacing, tone, or lack of character development.

And this is the hard bit. Because you, as an artist, must sit down with this piece of your work and allow for the possibility that there is actually something wrong there.

It’s easy to say “That’s silly. This isn’t the time for a joke. [Critic] doesn’t know what they’re talking about” and dismiss the whole thing. But every reader’s experience is a true one. Your critic may not have articulated their issue in a helpful way, but they have given you valuable feedback on their reading of your story. And it’s worth your time to take seriously the very real possibility that they’ve pinpointed something that needs improvement.

This is something that takes a lot of practice–or at least it did for me. I was probably in my mid-20s before I could hear a critique of a piece I loved and not have the knee-jerk response of “Hmph. What do they know?” I gave a short to a friend of mine once, and after a few paragraphs he said the beginning was slow. I told him to trust me, and he finished the piece, and said that he loved it–but his initial response was just as valid as his final one. Moreover, he was right: the beginning of the story was filler, and my ego got in the way of my seeing that. My reader may have loved it in the end, but he properly identified a major flaw.

fixable flaw. That’s the other thing to remember: your non-professional critics are not taking random potshots at your baby bird (unless they are jerks, in which case: new critics). Unless they’re pointing out something systemic about the plot, they’re showing you something you can change to make your work better and stronger. They’re doing you a favor.

But it doesn’t always feel that way, does it?

I have, on occasion, chosen not to make corrections based on critiques. I think a long, long time before I do this. I can only think of four major bits of feedback where I chose to hold my ground, and I’ve had a lot of critiques at this point. But all four times, I spent a lot of time working to understand what the reader was saying, what they might have been responding to, what the cost to the story would be to make a correction that would work for that particular reader. I chose with my eyes open. I still don’t think, in any of those situations, that I was wrong–or at least, I don’t think the story would have been better told with those changes.

This is the thing about critiques: you have to be receptive, and you have to recognize that your readers’ experiences are valid. But you need to have enough of a sense of your own story, of the way you’re using prose, of the precise response you’re going for, to decide when to listen and when to ignore. And if you’re going to ignore, you’ve got to have enough self-awareness to know why you’re doing it. If you’re ignoring because you get where they’re coming from and you’ve decided it’s okay with you that they’re uncomfortable–even if it means you’ve lost them as a reader–you’re probably coming from the right place. But if you’re inclined to ignore feedback because your feelings are hurt and you want to shrug off everything that critic has said, you probably owe it to your story to take a break, step back, and consider the possibility that your critic has hit on something important.

Past a certain point, quality of writing is a subjective assessment. Not every story is going to work for every reader. With critiques, you’ve got to learn how to be both objective and subjective: objective enough to really listen to what your critics are telling you, and subjective enough to know when to ignore them.

It’s very possible no writer has ever hit the balance quite right.

In Which: There is rambling

“Be present on social media, Liz. It’s good for the book.”

<checks date of last blog entry>

Oops.

One of the casualties of writing to deadline is that recreational writing – and the exhortations of people insisting that blogging is an important marketing tool don’t make my personal blog any less recreational – gets shoved way, way down the priority list. It’s an absolute truth that writing a book is hard, but I’m starting to think that editing a book is even harder, and I’m not done with this one yet. And as always, I won’t be able to keep it in the rock tumbler as long as I’d like to. Are there writers who don’t pick up the bound versions of their books and flip through and find a million things they’d change?

Speaking of which, I do worry about the second book. I love it unreservedly. One loves one’s children. But it’s a different animal in a lot of ways from the first book. In my mind, it’s a logical progression of the story, but based on some of the things readers have enjoyed in the first book…hmm. I’ve had some nice early reviews, which reassures me that at least it was in the rock tumbler long enough to make it readable. And it is the book I wanted and needed to write. But whether it’ll find a real-world audience? We shall see.

I still love staring at the cover. Which is a weird thing to say, I suppose; it seems vain, but I’m not the one who drew it, so I guess it’s OK? I think about the third book’s cover, which is, of course, not even a gleam in the milkman’s eye at this point. But I am really looking forward to it.

I’ve delivered a draft of the third book. There will be changes, of course; but unless someone says “What are you, nuts? You can’t do that!” the story itself is more or less baked. I don’t know what it’s about yet. It’s a strange phenomenon, but when I write a book, I don’t know what it’s about until I’ve been done with it for a while. THE COLD BETWEEN is about belonging. REMNANTS OF TRUST is about revenge. This one? I can’t reduce it to a single word, not yet. Connection, maybe. Or community. (Doesn’t sound very space-opera-y, does it?)

Humanity. Maybe that’s it. Which sounds pompous, but really, humanity is such a small, personal thing. We’re human on our bad days and our good days, and when we say the wrong thing, and when we do the right one. It’s the one thing every one of us has in common. It’s probably a cliché to suggest that the world would be a better place if we all remembered that, but I also think it’s probably true.

There have been other things going on in my life besides the time-devouring act of completing a novel. But there’s a point at which you stop writing about your kids online, and I think I’ve hit it. She’s old enough to have veto power over what I do and don’t expose about her life, small and large. So I’ll only say two things: 1) All is well; and 2) Parenting is sometimes paralyzing. All those people who tell you it’s hard? They mean it. And it’s hard in ways that – no matter what you read or how you prepare – are going to kick your ass and make you question your entire existence.

There’s some parenting stuff in Book 3. How could there not be?

Somewhere in August – the 21st, I think – I hit the first anniversary of being without a day job. That I didn’t note the occasion, or even really think about it until after the fact, suggests that I’ve adjusted. Mostly that’s true. I’ve got a routine, of sorts, that more or less works for me, and I’ve weathered what I hope are the worst of the alone-all-day-weirdness changes. (We’ll see about that. I’m almost certainly out of practice dealing with people I don’t know, and next week I get to go to NYCC and…deal with people I don’t know. If I’m weird, PIDK – well, thank you for being part of my learning curve.)

When I think back on how all of it happened…it was clearly the right decision (and I say this well aware that I’m privileged as hell to have been able to make the choice). And I do have feelings about the endgame at that last job, which are probably best left unsaid. There’s also some reformed smoker stuff going on about the software industry in general, and some thoughts about the big STEM push in schools – but that’s a different blog post, and possibly also best left unsaid.

October, so far, looks like it might be fairly restful. There’s a little promotion I’m doing for REMNANTS OF TRUST, but so far nothing huge. And then there’s November, during which I will again do NaNoWriMo, and end up with 50,000 words of…something. I have a few scenes in my head, and the odd complication, but so far that’s all. Generally, when I start writing, I have an end point in mind. This time…well. Can’t say much without spilling Book 3 spoilers. 🙂 But suffice to say, I have a good place to start.

Someone asked me a few weeks ago if I might write about different characters someday. I might, at some point. But I’ve lived with these characters for so long. They inhabit my head and put their feet up on my coffee table and drink the last of the hot chocolate and generally hang around making pests of themselves. They are not finished with me yet, and so I am not finished with them. That’s OK with me. Like I said, one loves one’s children. All of them.

 

 

 

 

Dispelling a Couple of Myths

Regardless of my newbieness, it turns out there’s one thing I do know about the publishing business, and it’s this: sometimes conventional wisdom is bullshit. I hear assertions from people that are downright startling, mostly because I’m a living counterexample. I’d hate to have people reluctant to push their baby novels out of the nest because they’re concerned about things that aren’t true.

So here’s a pair of things people sometimes say you need to worry about that you totally don’t need to worry about.

Myth #1: You need an MFA to publish fiction.

News flash: I do not have an MFA.

I don’t have a masters degree of any kind. I have two college degrees, one in math, and one in what was called interactive media design, which was basically graphic design for people who wanted to pick up a little HTML. (As I already knew HTML, that degree was much easier than the math degree.)

In fact, it’s only in recent years that I realized you could get a masters degree in creative writing. Based on the people I knew in college (back in dinosaur times), MFAs were mainly for art history majors. As paintings bored the daylights out of me, it never once entered my mind that acquiring an MFA was a thing I might actually enjoy doing.

I know better now, in a couple of ways. For one thing, as part of my media design degree, I took an art history course, and it was great fun. I learned more about religious history studying art than I ever did in actual history courses. (TL;DR: Humans don’t change. It’s both fascinating and horrifying.) One of the only textbooks I saved from that degree is my big fat gorgeous coffee-table art history book.

For another thing…wait, you can get an MFA in writing? I would probably have sold several chunks of my soul for that in my 20s, although I was also feeling some pretty strong pressure to get a job and have a Real Life. Given how well that went at the time…the MFA wouldn’t have been an awful idea. And I could have studied creative writing.

On the other hand, my college English courses were an exercise in frustration. I did well enough – I was able to churn out 5 pages on almost anything in just a few hours, which made the coursework pretty easy – but I never could shake the idea that literary criticism was just a bunch of people arguing about their opinions using big words. I was welcome to hate The Great Gatsby, as long as I could explain why. I could write about why I never wanted to read Faulkner again, as long as I argued it against the rich background of his life. It seemed like one long exercise in how to make smart people acknowledge that you’re allowed to disagree with them.

Am I doing a huge disservice to the field of literary criticism? Almost certainly. Then again, sometimes the damn curtains are just blue.

So yeah, I probably wouldn’t have been a great MFA candidate anyway, despite the theoretical coolness of the idea. I would have dragged my lazy brain through an MFA the same way I dragged it through college: reluctantly, with lower grades than I was capable of earning, and this nagging sense that I was wasting a spot that would have been better spent on someone with more enthusiasm.

I’m actually very glad I never heard the “you need to have an MFA, or at least a spot at Clarion” myth about getting published before I actually queried. I’d have never tried. The Book as it was at the time would have ended up self-published, and…well, really, I suspect I’d have been perfectly happy. But it would have been a different book, and a different series, and I’d have had a different career (if you can call four months of having a book in print a career).

But my long-winded point is this: No, you do not need an MFA. No, you do not need to be a graduate of an elite writing program. Yes, those things are marvelous, and if you want to do them and have the motivation and the wherewithal, then do them. It is never, ever a bad idea to study something that brings you joy, nor is it a bad thing to cultivate friends and professional contacts who understand the struggle you’re going through. But don’t go into it thinking If I don’t do this I will never, ever get published. Because that’s flat-out false, and no, it’s not just me.

Myth #2: You need to know someone to get an agent.

So, I don’t know anybody.

I’m a (now former) software engineer. I hung out with tech people for twenty-five years before I queried for an agent. What I knew about publishing (which, as I’ve since discovered, was close to eff-all) I had gleaned from reading posts on writing forums. And I didn’t even apply all of that knowledge.

Somewhere flying around I saw an agent say they acquired a little more than half of their clients through cold queries, and I was shocked it was that low. I had no idea that there was any other way to do it. I was stuck on (apparently) outdated conventional wisdom that said “Write a book, find agents who rep that type of book, and query them.” There was nothing about friends of friends or publishing contacts or you are doomed if you don’t know someone who lives in New York City.

I wrote a book. I had some friends read it. I made some changes. I wrote a query letter. I had some friends beat it with a stick. I made some changes to that, and I sent it out. It wasn’t the world’s fastest process, but this month will mark three years since I first spoke with my now-agent on the phone, and I have a book out.

(Let me tell you: In this business, three years is nothing. After the quarter-to-quarter life of writing software, this is mind-boggling to me.)

In those three years, I’ve met writers who have had more than one agent, or who have acquired agents by being recommended by other writers. So clearly it happens, and my ignorance of that side of the process doesn’t make it unreal. It may even help to know someone, but if I had to guess (didn’t I say I wouldn’t speculate? Oh, well) I’d say the only thing it helps with is if you have trouble writing effective query letters. Past that hurdle, you either have a book that particular agent believes they can sell, or you don’t. Same as the slightly-more-than-half of us who contact agents via cold queries.

(If you do have trouble writing effective query letters, go find Query Shark and read from start to finish. Then find a forum like Absolute Write and have your query critiqued by merciless strangers. It is worth it.)

My path to publication was no more or less conventional than anyone else’s. I don’t think any two writers have the same story. I wrote for more than 40 years before I took the time to figure out how to focus enough to actually complete a novel. On the other side of it, our local Barnes and Noble once had a signing for a book written by a 14-year-old girl. We all bash at it in different ways.

And we all get discouraged so easily. That’s just about the only commonality I’ve ever found among writers: we’re all one critique, one rejection, one bad review away from hanging it up and never venturing outside the safe bubble of keep your nose out of my notebook again.

Not to get all serious here, but there are classist implications to these two myths as well. I would have had the option to get an MFA. (I could do it now, economically at least; whether or not I could get accepted at a program is a different issue.) And I did, as it happened, have a cousin who was a published author. I knew people. I had money.

Not everybody knows people. Not everybody can afford a college degree, never mind an MFA. (And I don’t mean only financially; there’s a time investment there as well, and time is a luxury.)

How many stories do we lose? How many people just give up when they hear Oh, you need to have an MFA or nobody will talk to you at all? I see it on forums all the time: people discouraged because they don’t have the right background or the right contacts. And the people on the forums are the ones who still hold out a glimmer of hope, who are posting I know I’ll never get anywhere because I don’t know anyone in the business because they’re hoping someone will respond and tell them it’s bullshit.

For them, and for the ones who aren’t even hopeful enough to be pessimistic on a message board: it is bullshit. All of that stuff you think is going to keep anyone from taking you seriously is bullshit. Ignore it, and write the story anyway.