24 February, 2013

Yay! I'm just like Damon Knight!

We both did something stupid.

In his book, Creating Short Fiction, Damon Knight says, "I remember how hungry I was to write anything that would get published."  Knight goes on to say that he forgot, for a time, to write things he truly cared about.

Now, when I could write a structured story, I knew it.  In the past, I'd told myself many times.  I'd convinced myself and whined when things got rejected.  Every artist goes through this phase.  But honestly, when you understand dramatic structure, and you can see what the stories on the bookshelf are doing scene by scene, you truly will know when your stories look the same.

Then I went through my most annoying, frustrating malaise of all time.  This was right after I got my agent.  I was so eagre to produce anything that could get published, I lost sight of how to produce something good.

I got a bunch of frustrating rejections.  I knew my stories were well written.  The top markets rejected them and I wanted to know why.  When I say top market, I literally mean the places that publish award-winning stuff on a regular basis, so I wasn't upset, but I was curious.

The almost top markets, the ones that pay the same rates but don't get submissions from my mentors, gave me personal feedback.  They usually don't bother.  They get thousands of submissions per month and only about twenty of those get serous consideration.  "This is very well written," they always said.  "But the drama lags in the middle."  Or, "I'm just not sure it's got enough punch."  Or, "The idea just wasn't interesting enough for me."

That really pissed me off.  I always used to be complimented on my ideas.  Even when my stories were trash, I have never met a professional author or editor who didn't like the ideas.  And if I didn't like them, even better than the other published authors', I'd write different ideas.

Did I just plain suck?

Yes.  I did, at that point in my life, actually suck.  Leslie (my agent) told me I was rushing.  "You don't understand," I wanted to say.  "I'm fast!"

I was doing two things wrong.  I was trying to impress Leslie by showing her that I can write three short stories a week and still have time for chess club, my rock band, martial arts and Skyrim addiction.  Also, I was desperate.  I knew I was right on the cusp of something I'd longed for my whole life.  I'd finally found the pistol and I shot before I aimed.

Knight once said to a Clarion student, "You need to learn to sit at the keyboard and open a vein."

When I look at my three a week, desperately churned out stories (there are like 20 of them) they are well written.  They are also mostly piffle.  I can only find among them three ideas that I really like, and none that I truly love.  The story that caught Leslie's interest, I should add, wasn't all that well written by my present standard, but I did truly love the idea.  It was something I'd been trying to write about since I was a teenager.

That said, another interesting thing happened.  I sent the well written piffle to lesser markets.  Pro markets were telling me I was a good writer.  Semi-pro told me I wasn't.  Token payment markets went "Ack!  This doesn't begin with dialogue!"  Some of the most famous stories in history begin with artful exposition.

(Note:  By "artful", I mean it's exposition in motion, which is to say action is happening around it--MOST of the time.  In the works of John Steinbeck, Rudyard Kipling, Edgar Allen Poe and many others, the exposition is often pure, right in your face with no action what so ever, setting the stage for the action to follow.  It's a legitimate technique.)

So the more I went down the ladder, the less people liked my work.  It seems paradoxical, but it's telling.

Now, let's not talk about the token markets.  If you're interested in writing, your journey will not end there, and anywhere that has such stringent rules about openings is not a healthy place from which to learn.  That attitude means they do not understand what a story needs.  As for semi-pro and pro, take notes.  There is something you're not doing, and even if a rejection is cruel (the guy from Pseudopod is vicious) you can use the information.  I had thought my stories were just not quite tweaked enough for a pro market.  The semi-pro rejections were confusing and they hurt, but in the end they taught me the most.  They don't normally publish really well written stuff.  Otherwise they'd be pro.  They also don't publish piffle.  Otherwise they wouldn't exist.  I implore you, write the ideas you love.  It isn't writer's block if you have to sit and ponder for a few days.  Pondering is different from playing Skyrim.  It's still an honest day's work.


Bryan James said...

I agree with this most completely. I think there has to be a passion that resonates with the reader.

Wm. Luke Everest said...

Yeah. I think it comes out in the quality of imagination more than the idea itself, by which I mean the quality of what you DO with the idea. Imagine a story of a man walking down a street, then imagine if you truly love that man, that street, and all it means to him. One could be a story, the other is just a man walking down a street :)