you’re not gonna die

So some great writers keep stopping by Reddit. This time, Yoon Ha Lee came to discuss his novel Ninefox Gambit (which was excellent and well worth your reading time). The authors who I’ve been asking lately were all later into their careers, and while Yoon has published many short stories, I asked him about his journey to publication. Here’s what he had to say.

I used to have a folder FULL of rejection slips. So yes, I have definitely been there! I know it can get discouraging, but please, keep writing and submitting. Somewhere out there is a reader who wants your story.

For general advice…hmm. I think there are a few big things here. One is perseverance–it’s an emotional skill. Writing is frequently isolating and discouraging, so finding ways to handle that is very important for your long-term sanity. (Personally, I vent to my husband. The stories my husband could tell…) Find other writers: writers who are not yet writing as well as you do, whom you can mentor; writers at your level, for solidarity; writers whom you aspire toward, to be inspired by. Keep pushing your craft. The only way to learn to fly, in writing, is to jump off a lot of cliffs. And the beautiful thing about writing is that when you jump off a cliff in real life, you’re probably gonna die (so PLEASE don’t literally jump off cliffs) but when you take storytelling risks trying new things in writing, you’re not gonna die. The results might be embarrassing, but you’re not gonna die. And you’ll probably learn something new and cool and add techniques to your bag of tricks.

Read–not just the kinds of things you want to write, but read things COMPLETELY DIFFERENT to broaden your horizons. If you want to write epic fantasy, read noir, read baseball match reports, read jewelry catalogues. I promise you that you will learn unexpected things about how to use language that way.

In a way, Yoon answered the question I keep asking. How do you develop toughness and grit? How do you persevere? I like the idea of it as an emotional skill. Perhaps I’ve been treating it too much as something mechanical, like it was something I could learn by repetition. And while I’m sure practice is important, maybe there’s something else to it. Something to ponder, anyway.

2nd draft

Cloudbreakers
59% Complete
53,137 of 90,000 words

I want it five years ago

I spend a lot of time thinking about personal growth. I think it’s important for us to acknowledge that we are imperfect creatures by nature, and that there is always some way or another we can improve ourselves, be it our health, our personality, our habits, whatever. As a writer, I see how slowly improving my writing techniques and output will eventually yield massive gains and indeed that has been my plan for a long time.

But somehow, I think, my thinking about growth has gotten twisted, or maybe always been twisted. As a society, I think we hear a lot of stories about people who made massive changes overnight. They quit smoking cold turkey or took up a health lifestyle or quit their jobs to write or were one day struck by an epiphany and did something. And I think we tend to idolize those people whose willpower, apparently, is simply enough to sit down and make that massive change.

I don’t think most change comes from that method. If it does, maybe it shouldn’t. Sure, if that works for you, but I can’t off hand think of anything I’ve accomplished through that kind of massive change. And yet, if you looked at my planning document(I use and love my Volt Planner, I’m consistently setting goals across multiple areas for massive change. I’ve gotten better about breaking goals down into achievable bites and strategizing methods, but I’m still often trying to pack big changes into a month.

I think one of the reasons I’ve found the jump to parenthood so difficult is that I somehow expected that it would be a milestone and an opportunity. I thought that since everything would be changing, it would be an opportunity to set all the blocks of my life exactly as I wanted them. I’d eat perfectly after KRH, I told myself. I’d get really good at stealing 15 minutes here or 30 minutes there of writing, so that I’d actually write more and more efficiently than before. I’d get to the gym more regularly, something I only started doing a few months before KRH was born. And so on and so forth.

Does it shock you, dear reader, to learn that none of those massive changes worked out? Even though I had broken things down into achievable bites? It turns out that having a baby was more difficult than I expected, in different ways than I expected. So here I am, six months after KRH was born, and much of my change is still unmade. It doesn’t help, I think, that when I set out to make a change, I want it to happen five years ago, and if not then yesterday will have to do.

Now, this realization is a bit funny because I’ve long mentally accepted the idea of continuous growth. But I think I really need to focus on the fundamentals and try and do less of what doesn’t work. So in May I’m going to do that, and I’m going to pick a few narrow areas to try and improve in, rather than filling my list with to-do things. We’ll see what kind of progress I can make.

2nd draft

Cloudbreakers
56% Complete
50,197 of 90,000 words

Changing everything

So I haven’t been posting my Cloudbreakers status updates lately. It’s not because I’m not working on it, but I have had to pause the rewrite.

I came to a realization a little while ago. One of the three viewpoint characters was wrong. That part of the story follows a group trying to rescue the main character. I wanted a viewpoint inside the group, whose relationships with each other and acceptance of the friend is a major plot point. Each had their reasons to go along with the rescue, but each had different points of impact through the series. By choosing one as a viewpoint character, I was de-emphasizing the others. Worse, none of them had a reason to be a viewpoint character, so their motivations came through rather flat, especially the one I choose.

I’ve been working on this novel since September, and working it over in my brain since I wrote it as a short story back in 2013. Took me this long to realize that the viewpoint problem was right there. Another character accompanies the group, one who’s romantically interested in the main character, and who also manages to betray her. In other words, someone with a whole lot invested in the outcome of the rescue. She also functions as an outsider to the group, being able to comment and observe things. She travels with the group for the whole journey, so she’s in a position to tell the part of the narrative I need to tell. In short, she’s perfect.

Why I didn’t I see this until now? I’m not sure, but I knew from the start that it wasn’t working. I think this is part of the writing process, in which you understand what does work and what doesn’t.  I think a good writer will understand that when they read it, even if they don’t know why it doesn’t work immediately, which is possibly why I felt those scenes weren’t working.

So what do I do about it? That character’s viewpoint is about a third of the book. I’m midway through a rewrite, so this took me back to the start to fix those scenes, which I’m still working on now. I’m confident the result will be a better book, and I’m glad to have this solved on what’s essentially my third draft rather than a much later one, even if it does derail my progress a little bit.

Like scar tissue

So lately some of my favourite writers have been over on Reddit, dispensing advice and answering questions. At the time, I was struggling with confidence, so I asked Kameron Hurley and Brandon Sanderson the same thing, “how do you develop toughness as a writer?” You can read their answers at the respective blog posts, but they said pretty similar things. You can control the process, not the goal of publication, so do what you want to do.

Chuck Wendig is the writer who, for me, most personifies Dad and Writer. I’ve been following his stories about his son bdub for years, now. So naturally, when he appeared like a swarm of bees on Reddit, I asked him the same question. Here’s what he had to say.

Man, I dunno, it’s like scar tissue. You can’t build up scar tissue without submitting yourself to the slings and arrows of it — you gotta take the hits, you gotta be willing to suck, gotta be willing to take the rejections right on the chin and let it rattle your teeth. In terms of pushing past the bullshit of the world, well, I’ll admit, all the Heinous Fuckery going on in the world makes it hard, but you also have to realize that stories matter. Escapist stories matter. Resonant stories matter. All stories matter, so be a part of that. Commit and contribute. Turn off the news. Turn off social media. Commune with the work and tell the world to fuck off for a little while.

Stories matter. Do the work. As with the past advice I’ve been getting, this was important for me when I received it. I’ve been trapped in a bit of a funk for some time, probably since KRH was born. Not only does the world feel like it’s hurtling toward chaos, I’ve struggled both with the fact that I can’t spend as much time pursing my goal of publication as I used to, and with feeling stuck, like my new project has an uncertain future and that I’m not sure how to take it where it needs to be. I’ve been starting to emerge from than funk lately. This is a good reminder that what I’m trying to do matters. Writing is important. My writing is important. I needed that.

Meanwhile, I also asked Wendig about writing as a Dad. His thoughts.

Well, in some ways it’s easy, because being a writer isn’t like being at a 9-to-5 job — I can come in, make breakfast, make lunch, still be a part of his life and then go fuck off to Imagination Unicorn Karate Land for as long as I need to.

But here’s a few tricks:

a) write early in the morning, before Tiny Human awakens b) forgive yourself and the kid — it doesn’t really start to get easier until they’re 2-3 years old c) it’ll get much easier when they go to school, too d) carve out little pockets of writing time whenever you can

In some ways, it’s a little tough to keep in mind that things won’t get easier. KRH is just 5 months old. 2-3 years old seems like a long way away, and if my wife and I have more children, as is the plan, then it just starts the plan all over again. That feeds into my fears that I’m missing my window, so to speak. But Wendig reminds me that it can be done, (even if I don’t have a magical writing shed). That’s the sort of thing I’m focusing on going forward.

2nd draft

Cloudbreakers
42% Complete
37,836 of 90,000 words

Getting close to something amazing

Last year, through perseverance, I caught the attention of an agent with the publisher of some of my favourite authors. He rejected two queries from me, but he suggested I rewrite one, Legacy of the Destroyer, and trim about 20,000 words from a 120,000 draft. That would leave me a leaner, meaner, fighting book.

I’d just finished rewriting a different book, so launching into another serious rewrite wasn’t actually what I wanted to be doing. On the other hand, I recognised that he was likely right and that I could probably trim the book significantly. That was a project that took me almost up until KRH was born (that was my self-imposed deadline.) I fired it off to said agent, and waited.

Waiting, I’m told, is a major part of writing and publishing. I consider myself fairly patient, which is a good thing. I only recently received a reply. The agent in question told me that my sample pages zipped alone, that my voice was “solid,” and he liked the premise. However, he had to decline because it was similar to an existing client’s project, because it didn’t speak to him, and because although my writing was good, there was nothing that spoke to him in terms of it being something only I could write.

I don’t like to talk much about interactions with agents, because it feels unprofessional. Also, I firmly believe in being cautious about what’s repeated out of a private email conversation. Still, I wanted to talk about this.

Anyone who’s queried probably knows that an agent has to love your work in order to offer representation. There are a lot of good books out there, but good isn’t enough for publication. It needs to be great, and it needs to speak to the agent in question. Still, the agent signed off by telling me he thought I was close to “something amazing.”

I find this somewhere between encouraging and discouraging. I happen to think both the books I’m currently querying are hecking great (or else I wouldn’t be querying them). But I nurse the fear that they’re not amazing. Unfortunately, the results of my querying so far is that agents agree. So I do find it discouraging that, after all this work, the best I can do is pretty good.

On the other hand, I have received some insincere praise in response to queries, and I don’t believe this was that at all. So if this agent things I’m close to something amazing, then maybe I am. I’m not sure how to get there yet, but I can work toward that as a goal. I will get there. I don’t intend to stop until I do.

Four lessons from When Words Collide

For the fourth year in a row, I came away from When Words Collide feeling fired up and ready to go, so this weeks blog post comes early. A lot of things went right, I met a lot of great people, and I learned a lot. There are a few key lessons I want to remember going forward, so here they are.

1. Nobody has all the answers. 

This is a really key point. Nobody knows everything, and if they think they do, then you probably shouldn’t listen to them. During his two-hour talk on the writing process, Brandon Sanderson shared tips about things he wishes he’d known he started writing. First on the list? “Know when to ignore the person telling you what to do.”

This is a point that Brandon really illustrated well. There is no one true path to anything, no carefully guarded secret that will bring you success. A conference like WWC is all about sharing experiences, and there was a real wealth to draw on. I heard Robert J. Sawyer talk about his 7 netbooks, heard Jodi McIsaac speak about her impressive marketing methods, and enjoyed Hayden Trenholm, Ian Alexander Martin, Adrianne Kerr and Robert Runte’s perspectives on querying. None of them have The Answer, but having heard their opinions, I can decide my own path.

2. It’s hard to put yourself out there. Do it anyway.

No, really. We’re not writers because we’re social butterflies, but to get what you want, you’ve got to talk to people. You’ve got to get out and do it. I spoke with agents, editors, and above all, lots and lots of other writers, and every time I did, I learned something, even if it was just about my fellows.

It’s more than that, though. If you want to be published, eventually, you’re going to need to seek feedback on your work. Try a blue pencil session, or submit to a slush pile panel. This isn’t a thing that came naturally to me, but after pitching for three years in a row, I was only nervous for a few hours leading up to the pitch, instead of spending the weekend terrified of five minutes on the Sunday. You will learn to be more comfortable and to do more, and you don’t have to leap in and do it all at once.

3. Writing and publishing are always changing.

Be prepared for things to change, because they do. The market will change. The tools will change. Change, change. And not just Amazon-Hatchette big-time events. Trends will come and go, too. Last year, everyone I spoke to couldn’t stop telling me about trilogies. Pitch a trilogy, everyone said. This year, I heard in half a dozen places that the market is saturated with trilogies, and that single books are better. Should you let that change what you write? Probably not. Chasing trends means you’ll be left in the dust. But it should affect what you propose, and to who.

Maybe that’s why conferences like this are so important. By next year, things will be different. You can’t follow the day-to-day events, but if you’re writing for a market, you’d better know what’s going on in that market.

4. Don’t stop writing

Here’s a golden rule, one that I heard reiterated a dozen times. Keep writing. Brandon Sanderson told a very enraptured crowd about his writing schedule, in which he rises late in the day, writes, spends time with his family and children, and then writes more once it gets late. Even at a conference, he gets in some words, describing himself not as a fast writer, but as a consistent writer. Robert J. Sawyer has seven netbooks that he keeps in difference places so he always has access to them, so he can always keep writing. Jodi McIsaac’s top marketing tip was to keep writing, because new books sell old books. It’s easy to get caught up in the business and the networking and everything, but at the end of the day, it’s all about the writing.

A final note

My short story Aurel Stonegate received honourable mention in the Robyn Herrington Memorial Short Story Contest, and was published in In Places Between 2014. I was lucky enough to attend the judging panel with the other winning authors, and I want to congratulate them all on their wonderful work. Also, thanks to Calgary’s Imaginative Fiction Writers Association, Calgary Crime Writers, the Alberta Romance Writers’ Association and the Alexandra Writers’ Society for hosting the contest, to the administrators, and to the judges. The end result is wonderful. 

Seven reasons not to write novels, and why we should anyway

Spanish novelist Javier Marias has seven reasons not to write  novels. I highly recommend a read of them, because although they are a bit cynical, I can’t help but detect a bit of cheekiness to them. For brevity’s sake, here they are.

  1. There are too many novels and too many people writing them.
  2. Because anyone, whatever his or her profession, can write a novel, it is an activity that lacks merit and mystery.
  3. Writing a novel won’t make you rich.
  4. The novel is no guarantee of fame.
  5. The novel does not bring immortality, largely because immortality barely exists any more.
  6. Writing novels does not flatter the ego, even momentarily.
  7. Isolation, a fear of the blank page, the vast amount of alcohol a writer consumes, and so on.

Perhaps this is more than seven reasons, and perhaps there’s more than a bit of tongue in cheek there. But this leads Marias to one reason he can see for to write novels. From the article.

“Writing novels allows the novelist to spend much of his time in a fictional world, which is really the only or at least the most bearable place to be. This means that he can live in the realm of what might have been and never was, and therefore in the land of what is still possible, of what will always be about to happen, what has not yet been dismissed as having happened already or because everyone knows it will never happen.”

There’s a bit of temptation to get to up in arms whenever a published writer tells unpublished writers not to write. It smacks a bit of gatekeeping. But Marias is right in that if publication, fame and profit is the goal of writing, then the vast majority of writers will be disappointed. But there are a lot of writers who grind away at our works, odds be damned. Do we hope to defy the trends?

I’ve ruminated in the past about readership as a goal of writing. But I’m not sure that really gets at what this is about. We all write for different reasons, but as tongue in cheek as Marias may be, it’s easy to look at his list and feel a bit discouraged.

So I wrote my own damn list. Why I should write novels. It’s below.

  1. I enjoy the feeling of having written. Sometimes, I even enjoy writing.
  2. For me, writing is a social activity, and I hugely value the friends I’ve met through it, not to mention my fiancé.
  3. Because I’ve got so many stories that need telling.
  4. Taking something that exists only in your brain and making it real and tangible is a real joy.
  5. I love the feeling of knowing someone has enjoyed reading something I’ve written.
  6. Because while I know my writing has improved, I know it can get a lot better, and getting there is exiting.
  7. I’m certain that if I work long enough and hard enough, lots of people will enjoy my novels.

Sometimes, re-affirming why we do what we do is a useful exercise. If you decide to write your own list (and it need not be seven points long) then please share them in the comments below. Happy writing!

The Value of Heroic Effort, and writing as a career

I’ve had this article from David Farland sitting in my inbox for a few months. In it, he argues that “slow and steady” is for losers, and that only heroic effort is going to get you anywhere in the world of writing. Slow progress may get you further than you were, but you’ll never produce much at that rate. Indeed, if you follow a lot of writers on twitter or elsewhere, they’ll tell you that the only way to make a go at it is to write, write, write, and write more. Heroic effort.

There’s an interesting counter-argument here, and it comes from Robert Runte, the editor at Five Rivers publishing. He’s responding to one of Chuck Wendig’s posts, found here, about making a living as a writer. And Robert’s response is basically that, if you want to make a good living as a writer, you can’t. He offers some interesting anecdotes about the number of SF writers actually making a living off their work in Canada, an admittedly smaller market, but the number is very small.

Feeling discouraged yet? According to Dave Farland, you can’t get anywhere without heroic effort, and according to Robert Runte, even if you put in that kind of effort, you’re probably not going to be able to live off it. Of course, there are Stephen Kings and JK Rowlings, but their level of success is one in millions or billions. There are writers who do make a decent living off writing, but not a rich living, and quite often, as Robert notes, they supplement by teaching or speaking.

Robert’s suggestion is simple. Unhinge writing from financial success. If you write a good book, it will have an audience. Will that audience make you rich? Probably not. But that’s OK. After all, do you write because you want to make a buck, or do you write because you want to write? There are easier ways to make a buck.

We all want the lifestyle where we can write all the time, unencumbered by day jobs and other responsibilities, preferably when doing so is going to let you take vacations in Mexico and pay your mortgage. And there are no shortage of authors and other gurus for whom this has become in itself a business, the business of making money off other writers through books, speaking, and classes, whether it’s about how to write, or how self-publishing is going to make us all rich. And they’re not wrong. Self publishing has given a lot of people a vehicle to monetize their works in a way that didn’t exist before. Of course, only a few people are going to get rich this way, or even make a living without a second income, be it from a job or a working spouse.

That same self-publishing revolution, though, means it’s easy for anyone to be a writer, though. Anyone can write something and make it available for reading. Maybe Robert is right, and we should disconnect our expectations of financial success from writing. Maybe the joy of writing should be in being read. That isn’t to say that writers ought not to be compensated for their work, because they should. But are you writing because you want people to read your work, or because you think you’ve got the next Harry Potter or Fifty Shades of Grey and it’s going to make you rich?

Me, I’m writing because I love writing. And if I just so happen to turn a profit, well, then that’s OK as well. Of course, I want to be the kind of writer who turns out 5 books a year, and I want people to read those books, and buy them. That’s going to take heroic effort. And that’s fine. But I’m not the sort of person who’s going to quit writing if my first book isn’t a financial success, or my second, or even my tenth. I write because I love to write. Getting paid is a goal, but not the end game.

Five steps to stop being discouraged about writing

So let’s say you’re feeling discouraged about writing. I have been, in the last little while. There’s a lot of reasons you can feel this way. Maybe you got a submission rejected. Maybe you got some negative feedback on something you were pleased with. Maybe you looked at just how far you have to go, while lots of other writers are cranking out books and getting deals and making sales. There are lots of reasons you can end up this way, and really, if you wrote a novel for National Novel Writing Month and you’re now staring at the colossal task of turning it into something good, you might well be feeling like this.

Here are some steps. I hope that once you’ve read them, you’ll feel a little less discouraged.

1. Know that everybody feels discouraged

Novels or stories or poems don’t spring fully formed from the forehead. Writing, editing, rewriting, all of this takes a lot of time and effort as you not just write your material, but learn the art of writing itself. I talk a lot about the 10 000 hour rule, the idea that to master a skill, it’s going to take that many hours of practice. That shouldn’t read like a minimum to success, because maybe your goal isn’t mastery. Maybe it’s just to finish a book or some other project. But nobody achieves their goal with 0 hours spent, and probably not at 50 hours or 100 hours either. So at some point or another, everyone is going to be staring down that path with a whole lot of work left to do, saying to themselves “This feels like too much. I can’t do this.” So you’re not alone.

2. There’s nothing to stop you from quitting except you

If everyone reaches the point of discouragement, then clearly there are those who made it through those feelings. So how did they do it? They didn’t let themselves quit. Maybe you have someone in your life who keeps you encouraged, and if so, that’s great. But if you just stopped working one day, nobody can’t make you pick up the pen and force you to keep at it. Only you can do that. So ultimately, you have to recognize that if you have goals, the only way to achieve them is to pursue them. That may seem pretty basic, but if you’re feeling discouraged, you may need the reminder.

3. Get to the root of the problem

You’re probably still feeling discouraged. That’s why there are five steps. Why are you feeling this way? This is a big deal, because if you don’t know why, you probably won’t stop. So think back. Was there a certain event? What got you started? Something has shaken your confidence or destroyed your determination. Or maybe you never had it in the first place. If so, why not? Figure it out.

4.  Remind yourself why you want to write

Why is it that you want to do this crazy thing of putting fingers to keyboard or pen to paper? Do you have stories to share? Do you want to inspire emotion and feelings? There’s probably a reason, so reminder yourself of what it is. In my experience, one of the best ways to do this is to go back to a book or author you love. Something that inspired you to do what you do. Don’t be afraid to crack open your favourite book and immerse yourself. Experience those feelings again, and let them guide you back to your goals.

5. Start with something easy

So maybe you’re feeling a bit better. You know why you’re feeling discouraged. You understand that everyone feels this way, and that you’re the only one who can push yourself out of it. And you remember the goal that got you fired up to do this in the first place. That’s well and good, but are you really over being discouraged? The problem, whatever it is, hasn’t changed.

You need to get back to work. Start with something easy. If you’re banging your head against a novel, take a break and write a short story. If you’re stuck on a scene, move on and write another. If you’re feeling discouraged because you have so much more work to do, start by doing a little bit every day. It’s okay to ease back into things, get your confidence back, and start feeling good about it all again. Don’t use this as an excuse to abandon your project or get distracted, but sometimes a break from what’s giving you problems is important. Don’t be afraid to take one.

Six reasons not to get discouraged if you’re behind in your first week of NaNoWriMo

So here we are. NaNoWriMo has begun. If you’re shooting for 50k words, you need to have about 6600 by the end of today.

Have you got all those words? A quick glance at my writing buddies seems to indicate a lot of people don’t. But don’t get discouraged. Don’t quit! All is not yet lost. Here’s why.

1. There’s still all of November left. Right now, that’s 27 days. Even if you haven’t written a thing yet, that’s just 1852 words a day to win. That’s a little more than 1667, but not by much.

2. If you haven’t done any planning, starting can often be the hardest part. But as you write and develop your plot, it should get easiest as you learn about your setting and characters.

3. You’ll build the habit as you write. The first day, getting in your words can be a giant slog, especially if you’re starting from zero. But you can do it, and if you make an effort to write a little bit more every day, you can soon catch up, and even keep going.

4. Have you been to meet-ups yet? Connected with your local chapter, or with your genre on the forum? If not, it’s a good way to kick-start your writing. The company of other writers helps. Don’t be afraid to get in touch with them!

5. You’re not that far behind! In my local chapter, we have an event called Marathon, where we meet and write for 8 hours. People quite often manage 10 000 words on that day, with a lot of socializing. Not everyone writes that fast, but the point is that you can write a lot of words in one day. One good day, maybe on a weekend, and you’re caught up.

6. Still more words than you had before. If you’re doing NaNoWriMo, then your goal must be to write. And even if you’ve only got 400 words, or 4000 words, that’s still more words than you had when November started. November is a crummy month to write a novel in. There are exams, Thanksgiving (if you live in the US), Christmas is coming, etc, etc. So maybe 50000 words is unrealistic. So what? Write anyway, and if you don’t reach that goal, it isn’t as if you “lose” NaNoWriMo. NaNoWriMo is as much about setting goals and deadlines as it is about word count. So don’t feel like you’ve failed if you’re behind, and keep writing!