28 August, 2012

Demotivational Encouragement

"Twenty-four," said Scott Bradfield, and he laughed.  He and Steve Erickson, author of Zeroville among many others, were giving a seminar on short fiction.  Someone had asked how many stories one would normally have to write before creating a publishable one.  "Twenty-four stories."  Steve laughed, too.  "Sorry," said Scott.  "That is actually a saying among some authors, but it's complete bull.  You'll write however much you need to write."

In some ways, just like Karen Blixen's quote ("Write every day, without hope and without despair.") this sums up everything you need to know as an aspirant.  This is how you will learn to write:  through practise.  That's the biggest reason why how-to journals and suchlike are smeg.  I'll add some further words to Scott's, though, "...or you'll give up."

The point is, you're going to need to write a great deal, and this post is about reminding you of the path up the mountain.

For those of you who gaze into that invisible distance and say, "Cool," then good for you.  In fact, I've never met an author who didn't say that, back when they were aspirants.  It's the less obvious reason that professional artists are dreamers.  It doesn't mean letting everything else in your life go.  It just means fighting for this, now (see "To Will and to Be").  Sometimes that does mean letting things go, as we've discussed in previous posts, but it ultimately means deciding how badly you want a thing.

I'll ask a little trust, here.  Take this post to heart.  Feel the hardship ahead and savour it.  Know it will be a long road, that your first novel almost certainly won't get published, that editors will reject your work and you won't know why.  Know that every author in history has faced these exact same difficulties, and they aren't better than you.  They've just been doing this longer.  Know that you'll succeed eventually if you keep hiking. 

I'll end with a long quote from Thomas H. Uzzell's classic, Narrative Technique:  A Practical Course in Literary Psychology, published in 1923 and revised in 1934.

"The average beginner may well expect to write a million words before he will have noticeable facility in style ...

"The more detailed information I get as to the things successful writers actually do (as distinguished from the things that are often written and believed about them) and compare it with the actual deeds of young writers, the more I am convinced that the thing to be envied in the successful writer is not so much his 'genius' or even his 'personality', as it is his willingness to write for the sake of writing in his years of apprenticeship.  The painter spends years at his drawing, the pianist a like amount of time at his scales, but he writer too often thinks he has adopted an art without these laborious preliminaries.  Not so.  You can no more write good stories without playing literary scales than you can execute a Brahms concerto on the piano without your years at the keyboard."

21 August, 2012

Marketability Means Marketing, Part Two: Just Spew It

"Don't waste your talent, boy," said Iain M. Banks.

I reiterate this quote due to its importance. I'll also reiterate, here, the fact that I remember Iain as roughly eight feet tall.

I'm 6'3", in my prime and a mixed martial artist. I'm not exactly tiny or scrawny by sci-fi geek standards, but I remember Iain standing over me like Jabba versus Bilbo. (That would make an awesome comic book.)

Here's another seemingly random fact: I love reading.

People in the industry seem like giants to me, and I find it amusing that it actually gets a physical representation in my memory. You might ask yourself how a hero-worshiping nerd like me could get into the industry, and this would be a very relevant question.

You see, I had written on my own for a long time, comparing my work to only the best, which is always very important, but that's all I did. I'd read Bob Shaw, Ray Bradbury, Guy de Maupassant, and strive to make my stories as good, and since they weren't as good (and still aren't) I didn't submit them anywhere.

Finally, in a fit of despair, I allowed a friend to send two unpublished short stories to one of the biggest agents in the world. "The worst that can happen," I thought, "is she'll not reply, which leaves my inbox looking exactly the same as before." I only had hope in the self-destructive sense, occasionally imagining her wanting me and weeping tears of joy, knowing that what would really happen is I'd be crushed, regardless how often I told myself that it wouldn't matter.

Leslie Gardner got back to me with some advice on how to make my stories better. She didn't mention anything about wanting me for a client. I despaired. I was out with my brother at the time, and we had a long conversation in which he basically told me that I should email her before she'd forget my name. I kept despairing. My gal told me that Leslie obviously did think something of me or else she wouldn't have bothered offering advice. "She didn't think enough to offer more than that," I insisted, "and that's the point."

In a final fit of despair, having nothing to lose, I sent Leslie a fairly long email in which I thanked her for the advice and said I'd kind of, "in the back of my bouncy, aspirant brain," I said, hoped that she'd be my agent.

She got back to me and said, "Sure, I'd love to work with you."

WHAT!?!!?!?!?!!?!??!?!?!?!?!?! I'm now represented by the same gal who represented one of my favourite authors of all time.

The theme of our little story is that we shouldn't let ourselves get so focussed on the mountain top that we forget the path. Good things don't come to those who wait. That's loser talk. Good things come to those who stop waiting and start trying. I was doing it completely wrong. Had I not decided to change my method in a fit of self-destruction, I'd still lack professional prospects. Your author heroes aren't bigger or better than you, and you shouldn't be afraid to attempt joining their ranks. If you're good, they want you there (see Marketability Means Marketing Part One: Don't Agonise). What I learned from all this is exactly what to do, because it's the exact opposite of what I had been doing.

So, what's the opposite of living in your own head? Getting out into the world.

What's the opposite of not showing your work to anyone? Showing it to everyone!

What's the opposite of being timid? Being brave. I was always being brave in the financial sense and in that I was willing to sacrifice anything. But what's the opposite of living in your own head? What's the opposite of living within what you tell yourself? Telling others, so send your work out there for others to read.

All you can do is the best you can, so write your stories and let the world decide.

11 August, 2012

Readers and Characters

"The reader follows the character, not the story," said Scott Bradfield.

This was scrawled in red ink at the top of my title page.  I had a billion questions and I was nervous of bombarding the man as he probably had a novel to write.  The problem was, the statement doesn't make any sense until you already understand it--the key problem with all good writing advice.

Fortunately, elaboration on such statements is what this blog is all about.

Let's break the statement down into its component elements.  We all know what "the reader" is, so let's move onto "follows"--a question of what the reader does.  We take an idea and we offer it, and this moves forward to a conclusion, right?  Talk about deceptively simple!  But keep it in mind as you learn, too.  It's something we'll return to further down the road.  You'll notice that stories swiftly inform the reader of the premise and carry that forwards.

But for our purposes here, let's stick to our premise.  Originally I'd thought Scott was just telling me that the "character" is what the reader thought he (for the purpose of brevity, I'll just say "he" instead of "s/he" and so forth--hope I don't offend anyone) was following in the grand illusion of a story.  Looking back, I can already see the basic principle that held me from the truth:  a story is not an illusion.  Quite the opposite, a story attempts to paint truth from simplicity.

The reader is moved by character, not idea, is what Scott was saying.  The reader is trying to follow a thread of emotion, a connection with the story's events, and that connection is far beyond the story's plot, character, setting or anything else.  (Three weeks from now I'll post one called "Follow the What!?" which will be of help on this point.)  "Don't break things into component parts," Scott could have just as easily said.  "Stop thinking in terms of trying to force something down the reader's neck and just let the reader experience."

Scott wasn't even saying that the reader follows human beings.  A good story can even lack human beings altogether, but since the reader is a human being, emotion and effect will always be derived from the reader's human connection to all of your story's elements.  This means that, in effect, Scott was telling me that everything in a story is a character--everything from the setting to the actual characters, and thus everything should exist in relation to each other, because it is those relationships that the reader follows.  They won't care what happens in your story until they have some reason to connect with it, and generating that connection is what you should focus on in producing your work. 

The point?  Art is human.  Everyone from Dan Brown to Van Gogh understands/understood this.  Next time you read a story, try to see how everything relates to the reader.  This sounds self evident, but it's really quite a helpful exercise and within it lies mastery of the craft.  I'm not a master yet, but that's only because my story elements don't relate to the reader as strongly as the great masters managed.

(See "Follow the What!?" in three weeks to understand what is meant by "story elements".)

03 August, 2012

"Write Every Day" Part Two, "Without Hope and Without Despair"

"Write a little every day, without hope and without despair," wrote Karen Blixen.

I still think the amendment mentioned two posts ago is important, so let's quickly qualify:  ("...a little...," wrote Karen Blixen)--smeg that.  Write all you want.  Ms Blixen was just using those words to make the process sound gentle and easy, and it's a great quote.  I and a vast community of authors owe her respect and a debt of gratitude. 

The thing is, it isn't gentle or easy.  You might have a job, a family, an abusive partner, a heroin addiction, whatever.  You might want the dream so much that it hurts to think about what you could have, should have been.  Maybe you're just afraid of trying and failing.

For the people who let other obligations (or drug addictions) get in the way, the answer is simple:  don't.  If you're serious, why are you letting other things get in your way?  I'm not saying it's easy.  Starting is the hardest part, but fortunately your answer remains simple:  start.

For the rest of you, it's complex.  Wanting something badly enough to get off your duff and start is Step One.  If you truly put your all into the fight, then you just might even make it, but it won't be an easy road.  There will be times you fail, times you succeed, and both of them can lead to hurt, and hurt slows you down.

When Scott Bradfield first quoted Karen Blixen to me, I didn't agree.  It's important, I still believe, to let yourself be emotional when trying to be creative.   Emotion fuels creativity, deepens your connection with others (the perceiver as well as those who inspire you) which is vital for any art, and it's part of writing with your whole self.  

I took years to understand what Karen Blixen meant by those final words:  the wrong kind of hope only leads to despair.   It is destructive emotionally and counterproductive professionally to place all your self-worth on every story you finish or submit to a magazine.  It's far better to channel that  energy.  Wanting something badly enough to cry tears of joy every time you make a step towards your goal is great, but hope must be channelled into those steps, and what was despair becomes only a sense of responsibility, a reminder to truly strive your hardest.  

This is a tough spiritual exercise, but like most good writing advice, it boils down into a simple principle:  work with heart and mind.  Beginning is the hardest part.  Have you already begun?  Good.  Keep working and don't let anything, including yourself, get in your way.