I’m on a Roll…

I promise to get off my soapbox for the next post, but I’ve been thinking a bit about some of my writing heroes, wondering what they would make of the current publishing landscape. The Jazz Age writers discussed the difficulties of writing as a craft, leaving us lots of wonderful quotes about the virtues of working hard at writing. They didn’t talk as much about what happened after they did the writing, though insecurity was a common topic. So I’m led to believe that for the writers I’ve most admired, publication was not a foregone conclusion. They wrote because they needed to, had to; they wrote because they were writers.

What would Hemingway think of the publishing industry today? Would he stand with the old guard, defending traditional publishing though creating a bestseller often comes at the cost of an artist’s integrity? Would he be pleased to see that writers today have a modicum of control over what they create instead? In my mind, as long as the work is good — and that means that I’m not considering those writing simply to publish; those turning out commercial book after book and following a detailed plan that began with the market and ended with the writing only as an afterthought, or those who are putting out books that were not well formed enough to ever have been published traditionally — as long as the work is good then shouldn’t the writer be pleased to be able to deliver it to an eager readership him (or her) self? Shouldn’t we be happy to cut out the middleman and be able to take control of the fruits of our labors? I ask you – isn’t that what writing is about? The readers?

— Note: I am actually not disparaging those writers who are following a detailed marketing plan, turning out books on a schedule and offering reliable plot lines to an audience who turns to them expecting one thing and getting that one thing reliably. I think that’s a smart business and I’m disinclined to suggest that I might not try it at some point, too. After all, this is meant to be a living and if there is money to be made, I do not think less of those who have figured out how to make it. But that’s another post. Today I’m looking instead at those practicing a craft, an art. And yes, I think writers can do both. —

If traditional publishing offers statistics like these stating that most writers sell fewer than 500 books, I think I’ve chosen correctly. I’m not Stephen King or even Amanda Hocking… but I have had a steady 1 or 2 sales a day since I published my collection. No, it won’t make me rich. But I will tell you that it has made me astoundingly happy. And when the book was free through KDP? More than 1500 downloads. That’s a wider audience than I could have hoped for through traditional means, I believe.

Anyway, this all comes from my frustration at being barred from competing my short story collection in any of the literary awards competitions meant to reward a debut effort by a new writer. My book, bound and edited professionally as it is, full of stories that I beat myself up over for endless nights, is invisible to the lofty literati who control these awards. Until there is an allowance for self-published work to be regarded alongside (or at least judged against) traditionally published work, there will always be a divide between the two sides of publishing. And I believe that it’s this kind of exclusion that leads the more traditional thinkers to look down upon those of us who simply didn’t want to wait to offer our hearts to the world.

Perhaps the work should be allowed to stand on its own? Why not let us new kids try? The worst that can happen is that you find a new voice to applaud. Perhaps you’ll get to shake your heads sadly as you read self-published entrants to these competitions and say to yourselves, “We were right…” Wouldn’t that make you happy? Wouldn’t you feel such joy of vindication? Then you can write scholarly articles for each other about how right you were!

What do you think?

Are You in There?

I read an interesting post this morning by Cristian Mihai, who writes a blog full of good writing-related advice and the occasional quandary. Today he wrote about writers working to separate their work from their true selves, and why that might not always be the best plan.

This is something that resonates with me. I have always wanted to “be a writer”… that was the one thing I’ve ever been sure of. But I hesitated to ever write any of the things that mattered most to me for fear that I would be implicated in my own words, or worse — that I would drag in someone else from my life who didn’t necessarily want to be written about. I’ve come to realize that it is a risk that any writer must accept — that we may expose ourselves, or someone we love, through our work. I cannot write about a life and people that I don’t know. I can only imagine so much. I can only research so much. And I don’t think I’m alone. I would guess that even the most well-researched historical fiction must carry some part of the writer in it. A character, a trait, an experience, maybe. And if not, does the work feel “real”?

I’ve given up trying to keep myself separate. Instead, I’ve begun to embrace characters who have some of my quirks and those who seem to share common histories with me. I think I’ll do a better job writing about these kindred spirits than I would writing about someone who I purposely forced away from me.

That’s not to say that we, as writers, shouldn’t try to write a variety of people — a whole book full of Delanceys wouldn’t be terribly interesting.

What about you? Do you purposefully try to divorce yourself from your characters? Or do you find elements of your own life, loved ones and situations seeping into your stories?

Passion Begets Passion

Writing, I think most writers will agree, is fueled by passion. There is something in me that will not let me NOT write. Not anymore, anyway. The push to write, the organic motivation driven by something beyond me, yet within me, is not new. But the acceptance of that gift, my own willingness to embrace and nurture it is. I’ve been a writer since I was little. I’ve always known that.

What’s weird is that I’ve been something else since I was little too — a dancer. I have been a ballet dancer since I was three years old. From the time I was old enough to have a consciousness of myself, I described myself as a dancer. That was how I knew myself. I’d taken dance classes my whole life, from three to eighteen. I performed with a company, dabbled in the requisite eating disorders and vied for the all-important solos, self-administering the appropriate amount of self-hatred when I did not get them.

I left ballet when I went to college to pursue other activities. Like drinking, for instance. But every couple years I’d take a class, and play with the idea of going back. I dabbled here and there for twenty years, and finally returned to ballet “for real” in September of 2011. I worked hard and got myself strong enough even to return to pointe, though I soon realized that there was little point to this endeavor (no pun intended.) I continue taking two classes a week, which is great for my body, but even better for my mind.

For I’ve found that pursuing one long lost passion has ignited and fueled the other passionate pursuit. When I’ve missed ballet for a week or so, I don’t write as well. I can’t say why exactly, because my usual workouts (Crossfit, high intensity circuits or running) don’t seem to have the same effect. It’s ballet that is somehow connected to the core of who I am, and when I’m channeling that, I write more and better.

Have you found a connection like that? I’m interested to hear if other writers have seen one passion fuel their writing in the way that ballet fuels mine.

Flattery Will Get You Everywhere…

Virginia, over at Poeta Officium, was nice enough to invite me to be a guest on her blog, and today is the big day! It’s up!

Take the time to check out her blog, which is always a great source of comfort since she talks a lot about the writing process and the trials of the effort. She’s also had six other great bloggers post their answers to the questions I answer today, and those have been very fun to read as well. Check it out!

I’m All Famous, Yo…

Okay, not even close. But I have been asked to be a guest over at Poeta Officium! For some reason, lovely Virginia, the hostess of that blog, thought I might have something interesting to say. I told her that I was going to answer her three questions while trying to walk the line between sounding like an idiot and an arrogant asshole — in other words, I’m going to do my best to sound normal. Or nice. Or…I don’t know! I’ve never been asked to be a guest blogger before. I’m probably more honored than I should be, and probably more excited than is proper.

So be sure to check out her blog and read about the other guest bloggers she’s chosen while we all wait with bated breath for me to answer the three questions she posed!

Synopses

Writing the dreaded synopsis. and Be Not Afeared. Worth a look.

Though I’ve been procrastinating, this is inevitably in my future. I’m at the point where I am beginning to submit to the agents I met back in January who inquired about reading some or all of my book, In the Shadow’s Grasp. I’ve delayed a long while in submission, going through several major edits since then (luckily, the story I pitched is the one I wanted to end up with and not the one I had in January!) And now I’m thinking that six months is probably long enough and that if I wait much longer the whole point of shortcutting the initial query process may be pointless. One of the agents, I know, has already moved to another agency (luckily with forwarding address.)

Why do I feel like the whole submission process is such a secret? Humility mostly, I guess. The odds of anyone saying, Hey, this is great! I’d like to sign you! are so slim… that while I’m not saying it can’t happen, I doubt it will. And I’m not the type to get my hopes up. So I don’t want to get anyone else’s hopes up either. Or let them believe that I think so much of myself that I’d believe this were a possibility. I’d much rather get my rejections quietly or – perhaps, if Hell really has frozen over – tell them of my success once it’s assured.

So this is all I’ll say about submission. I’m on it. And it’ll be 6-8 weeks before the potential of any kind of response. So if you hear good news from me in August or September, you’ll know. And if you hear no news. You’ll know. Which won’t stop me.

Can We Steal Success?

I’ve been spending a lot of time lately on a critique site where writers can post work, critique work, discuss writing. And it has been very helpful. It’s made me a more critical reader, more conscious of what I’m reading. But I think that for any writer using a tool like this site, there are two things to watch out for… (Actually, I’m sure there are more and I’ll come up with those as I learn more. For now, I’ve realized these two and have thought a lot about them lately.)

1) Not all rules apply to all kinds of writing. Writers don’t like run-on sentences. But I’m reading We the Animals by Justin Torres, which begins with one of the longest run-on sentences I’ve ever seen. And it’s brilliant. And if he’d posted this work for critique on this very useful site I use, he would have been reamed and called sophomoric and inexperienced. After all, everyone knows that run-ons are bad, right? Not right. Not always. Like the adverb rule I railed about before… no rules of writing are hard and fast. But there are probably best practices. I think the danger of a critique site like this is that we get very comfortable building our ideas of what good writing looks like and then have difficulty accepting someone who is breaking those rules, especially if he or she isn’t an already established and esteemed author. It’s fine for Victor Hugo to spend 100 pages in description at the beginning of Les Miserables, but that would be totally ridiculed if attempted by a fledgling writer working on something new. Start in the action, right? The reader’s not going to sit around for 100 pages for you to paint a scene! You’ll never get it published, Hugo, you silly lout. I think that this kind of blanket criticism leads to more and more people writing in a formulaic way that dumbs down language and limits expression. And that leads us to number 2.

2) There are a lot of popular books out there at the moment that are not exactly, um, high art. They are written…but not necessarily well-written. And they’re fun, and a good read, and an enjoyable story. But they are not what “real writers” want to write. I know that because these “real writers” are drinking their coffee, smoking their cigarettes and bemoaning the lack of good writing out there all over the forums at this critique site. They sit back and wallow in their own brilliant and as yet unpublished words and spit venomous threads about the terrible writing getting attention today, about the stupidity of the audience that they themselves have not yet managed to woo. They cry about the failings of the publishing industry, the consumerism of readers, the lack of writers creating “good work” (the same work that they themselves critique on this site and warn about the use of modifiers and run-ons…) I think there is a real danger in this. Should we not be supportive of those who have played the publishing game and won? How does it hurt me to be happy for EL James? Why should I be upset that Charlaine Harris is doing so well? Shouldn’t I take heart that maybe there is a place for my work if theirs has found such receptive readers? I greatly dislike the jealous poison being spewed by would-be great writers about the successes of those who have managed what they have not. Say all you like about JK Rowlings adverb abuse… didn’t we used to celebrate her for bringing literature to a whole generation of kids who we previously believed to be hopelessly illiterate thanks to the advent of computer games and consoles? Isn’t anything that keeps people reading good for all of us?

Just my two cents.