Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Invisibility of Progress

Improvements in writing ability are often hard to detect. So much of what is “good” is contextual—dictated by a particular project, the audience you’re writing for, or even market trends.

I’ve talked before about How Do You Know if you are ready for publication. Although it’s related, that’s not exactly what I want to talk about today.

Instead I want to focus on all the invisible things writers do in the hopes of bettering their craft, expanding their professional network, and positioning themselves for success to the best of their ability.

Image courtesy of Penywise of Morgue Files

Objective measures of success in this field are pretty self-explanatory. You’re either published or you're not (however you choose to define it). When you’re “not” published, chances are you’re doing a bunch of things other than writing in the hopes they will pay off in some small way in the future.

For example, I haven’t sold any short stories since last fall. If you are looking at my output objectively—well, there isn’t any by that definition. Instead, so much of what I’m doing these days is invisible. And I’m still trying to figure out what that means.

These invisible activities include:

Reading slush for Masque Books – Beyond occasional mentions here on the blog, it’s something I do to strengthen my ability to evaluate projects, diagnose writing problems, and gain insights into the editorial process. I won’t be able to learn these things overnight—this requires a commitment of months if not years to see the benefit from this type of activity.

Joining an invitation-only critique group – The meetings are intense and panic-inducing. I’m learning tons, making good connections, but as with any critique group, feedback is only as good as the projects I bring to them. Workshopping novels (and short stories to a lesser extent) can be a long process outside of development time.

Submitting to higher-tier markets – I have three in rotation right now that I truly believe in. And I’ve been aiming high. My sales last year gave me the confidence to target higher-tier markets. Personal rejections? Check. Second-round bumps? Check. Agonizing ‘You just missed the cut’ notices? Oh yeah. And the worst part is, all this means longer response times.

When non-writers ask me about my writing these days, it’s hard to explain how all these invisible activities fill up my time and contribute to my work. But they do mean something. They are valuable. They just go largely unseen because they don’t conform to objective measures of success.

I just have to believe they’ll add up to something that cannot be ignored one day.

What aspect of your writing life is invisible?

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Interview with Catherine Schaff-Stump

Today I’d like to introduce you to Catherine Schaff-Stump, one of my fellow writers from the Taos Toolbox workshop I attended last summer.

 Catherine is a fantastic speculative fiction writer who tends to write for younger ages. She interviewed every member of our workshop class (which you can find here) and now it’s time to return the favor.
1.     When did you know you wanted to be a writer? 

My older brother is an artist, so I knew that couldn’t be my thing, because then I would be a copy cat. One year, he painted a beautiful bird on a block of wood for my mother for mother’s day, and I whipped out a small (and somewhat maudlin, I’m pretty sure!) poem which he calligraphied underneath the bird. My mother gave me a great deal of praise, and that’s when I knew that this was something unique that I could do. So I began to write stories.
2.     How would you describe your writing? 

I do two kinds of things: kind of a madcap middle grade kind of thing (like in Hulk Hercules) and kind of a darker, gothic kind of thing. I’m a Gemini, right? There’s a fundamental dichotomy in my character.
3.     How much research do you do for your work? 

A LOT. I’m a former graduate student, so I’m not proud. I like to research and try to get things closer to what they might be like. Even when I’m making something up, I like to do some real world research as a basis for beginning.
4.     What are you working on right now? 

I have finally begun the first of five books about a family of demon binders, so right now I’m writing about two fairly quixotic sisters and their struggle for power and romance. There is at least one nice guy in the book. Awful things will happen to everyone. Somehow I find that satisfying. :P
5.     How did you come to apply for Taos Toolbox? 

I’d been to Viable Paradise, and that gave me some faith in my ability to make it in the writing game, but I thought I need to push myself further than that to make it professionally. I’d been engaging in writer education—reading a lot, going to a couple of seminars, and attending writer education sessions at cons. Many of my friends had been to Taos, and thought it would be a good next step for me. So, I applied, and the rest is history.
6.     What advice would you give to someone attending their first writing workshop? 

Get used to criticism. Listen and be gracious. Realize that someone else’s opinion may have insight for you, but you must also trust your instincts. Try to treat your critique group as a team, and you may have a great group of friends later. Lend a hand. Give good crit.  And remember, if you’re just there for someone to tell you that your writing is great, you’re in the wrong place, and you’ve wasted a whole lot of money. Be ready to learn.
7.     What is your writing goal for 10 years down the line? 

In ten years, 2023, I will be (da-dum!) 58.  My hope would be to be retired from my full time job as a college professor. I would like to then be a full-time writer living on my retirement income in Florida. It would be awesome if I even had published one or two novels already.  I would still be half of one of the greatest romances of the 20th/21st century. This sounds pretty idyllic.
8.     Many of your projects have series potential. Why do you think that is? 

Because my brain keeps asking what if.  For example, the first Klarion character started as a support character in another story, and he told me about his family. And then I said, what were your parents like, and then your grandparents? And where did the curse come from?  And what do all the cosmological forces get out of all of this? And…on and on. Just the other day, someone asked me a question about Carlo’s granddad as I was sharing the book, and I thought crap. More what if.
I’ve never been a writer who’s lacked material. I’ve always lacked time.
9.     What do you think is an important quality writers need to have if they are going to succeed in this field? 

Just one? Persistence. Through the good times and the bad. Through the rejections and the apathy of sometimes not wanting to write. Through the silent periods of agents and editors. Slog on, little writer, slog on. The only way out is through.
I would also recommend a thick skin; the recognition that you will sometimes be saddened and depressed by constant rejection, and that’s okay; and a great support group of friends and family that believe in your writing when you are not equipped to do so.
Remember, it’s not you. It’s not them. It’s the right story in the right hands at the right time. Keep writing until that happens.
10.  Where can readers find more of your work?

I am mostly in print these days. My middle-grade novel Hulk Hercules: Professional Wrestler is available widely on line. You can find two of my short stories, Turtle of the Earth and Mark Twain’s Daughter in Cucurbital 2 and 3 respectively, and those are available through Paper Golem press. If you’re very lucky, you might find a copy of the electronic Needles and Bones which contains Sister Night, Sister Moon from Drollerie Press, although that is now out of “print.”

Happy Writing!

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The Fragility of the Everyday

Last Friday, a regular collapsed in the coffee shop I frequent a couple of times a week.

He sat at his table with his newspaper like usual, and I sat where I normally do if I can—an armchair by the wall tucked out of the way. I had a section of my latest novel project printed out, and I was furiously scribbling away in the margins. It was going to be a good writing day, I could feel it.

That’s when the man collapsed out of his chair and onto the floor. Not an I’ve-fallen-and-can’t-get-up fall, but something worse.

The shop went eerily silent for a second, then I sprung to my feet along with some of the other customers. More seconds burned by as we hovered in a circle around the man in a what-do-we-do stupor. But he wasn’t moving, and he wasn’t conscious.

I tried to use mental telepathy on the barista behind the counter. What should we do? What happens next? Why isn’t anyone calling 911? The barista has the presence of mind to take a sandwich off the grill before getting the manager. For some reason, this impressed me.

If felt like an eternity—though again, it was just seconds—when a strong voice announced: “Everyone, stay calm. I’m a paramedic. If could have a volunteer pair of hands?”

Turns out an off-duty paramedic decided to come to the coffee shop that day, thank goodness. Two people who weren’t me snapped to attention and helped him get the old man into a sitting position to evaluate his condition.

Meanwhile I was shaking. I gathered up my printouts that were scattered all over the floor and collapsed back in my seat. I am no stranger to sickbeds. I’ve had more than my share of death and dying, but still my palms were sweaty and my heart raced as the paramedic and his volunteers tried to get the man to respond to his questions.

It was touch and go for ten minutes. Ten minutes of me thinking this man is going to die here, in this coffee shop, and I will never be able to work here again. Even as these thoughts went through me, I was sickened that that’s all I cared about. Better than thinking about the last time I was in a hospital with a loved one. But still. This was someone I “knew,” someone linked to the fabric of my daily life.

Thankfully, the man came out of it—there was talk it was a stroke, a “cardiac event,” or even a bad reaction to his medicine, but they didn’t know for sure. An ambulance came along with a team of paramedics who were on the clock, and they bundled the man onto a gurney and took him to the ER.

All told, about an hour-long saga where I and the other customers were trapped in the coffee shop as the man was seen to. I just sat there and stared down blindly at my printouts, feeling guilty and scared and upset all for a stranger. Needless to say, I didn't write that day.

He wasn’t there when I went to the coffee shop on Tuesday, and I didn’t ask the baristas if they knew anything. 

I just hope the next time I go, he’ll be there, at his table with his paper, and I’ll be in my chair, with my printouts, and all will be right in the world.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Feedback, But When?

Feedback is an essential part of the creative process. Well, at least mine! How else will you know if your intentions match up with the reception of your work? Today, I’ll talk about the different stages of a project where it might be appropriate to solicit feedback.

In-Progress Feedback

In one of my writing groups, the work I share is almost always a work-in-progress. It’s literate, but it’s usually a snippet from a novel or a short story that still needs some fleshing out. In this case, I’m actively looking to my other group members for assistance in how to flesh the story out, what I’ve overlooked, and ultimately whether I’m on the right track or not. Just realize not every writing group is geared to workshopping this kind of early stage writing. 

Best critiquers at this stage: Critical thinkers, other writers.

Developmental Feedback

I’d call this feedback on anything that’s been drafted and fleshed out, but hasn’t fully cured in a version you are confident in submitting somewhere. In other words, you’ve gotten to the end, but the ride is still a bit bumpy (not in a good way). Here, I’m looking for macro-level adjustments (micro is good too) that I can make so the story can gel into a finalized draft. At this stage, I want people who understand the big picture but also the aspects of craft that will help me realize it all on the page. 

Best critiquers at this stage: Other writers, particularly those writing in your genre.

Polished Feedback

This is feedback on a polished draft that you think is the best it can be. You know, all those checklists when you’re trying to decide if you’re ready to submit or not? If your answer is yes, it’s still a good idea to get another person (or persons!) to take a look. You might burn a few weeks only to get your readers’ blessing to send it out, but it’s better to know you are sending out your best work than being surprised by some issue that was overlooked at other stages. And when you only have one shot with agents, you want everything to be as good as it can be. 

Best critiquers at this stage: Readers of your genre, other writers.

Public Reception

So let’s say your story/novel/what-have-you got published. Yay! At this stage, there’s still a couple metrics you can use to see how your work is received and ways to use its reception and apply it to your next story. Obviously things like sales figures are important. But so are reviews. I’m not talking about the reviews your mom/critique partner/best friend wrote. I’m talking about the reviews written by strangers who have no personal investment in you or your story.

Seth Godin says the worst feedback is indifference. Some stories and novels get published, and just as quickly vanish into the ether. Now some of this can be attributed to poor marketing and positioning, and sometimes a story just doesn’t have the impact it should. And sometimes, you are lucky enough to get reviews that help you to understand what worked and what didn’t in your story. Elizabeth Spann Craig talks about this in Handling Reviews from Mystery Writing is Murder. Give yourself time for the sting to wear off, but even bad reviews can be instructive (so long as it's not coming from someone with an ax to grind).

One of my published stories was not received in the manner I had hoped for, and I learned a lot from seeing those reviews of my work. It forced me to analyze my assumptions in writing that particular story as well as my assumptions in who the story's audience was, and so on. Despite the short-term disappointment in that story’s reception, that was a hugely valuable experience, and one that will shape my work to come.


So obviously, you need feedback, and at what point you solicit it and from whom will be dependent on your writerly network and your own needs and comfort level with the critique process.

Personally, I try to get feedback at each stage of a project, if possible. In my goal to write faster, I’ve found that In-Progress Feedback is extremely helpful for heading off mistakes in a story that would need significant retooling if they were found much later in the process. However, for that to be successful, I think you need to be:

1)     very used to critique and,
2)     very clear in your own head with what you’re trying to achieve with your work.

Especially because rogue comments can easily affect the trajectory of a story and your confidence in it at the early stage of a project. It should also be said that if you’re sharing early work, you are sharing it with writers who:

1)     you trust
2)     understand that it’s an early draft, and
3)     can provide constructive criticism (not all critiquers are alike in this)

Your mileage may vary, of course. But I’ve found this work for me.

Happy writing (and critiquing)!

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

How is it May Already?

Seems like I was just getting used to typing “2013” and now I have to mentally remind myself it is already May. As in four months have expired since the start of the year, and I’m in a constant state of playing catch-up.

And the hell of it is, there are things coming up in my life that will make that even more difficult for me.

Make no mistake, I want to be that person who is always unruffled by change with a plan for every contingency. But the last year or so, I’ve found it harder to keep my writing life from affecting (or is it infecting) the rest of my life.

I used to aim to do something writing-related every day, whether that was actually writing or engaging in pre-writing activities like reading and researching, or more platform-building stuff like this blog post. And that was great.

But now the workload feels heavier. I’ve talked before about my critique responsibilities increasing (becoming a slush reader, joining a new writing group), and I’m still convinced critiquing is one of the best ways to improve your craft. However, I’d say my writing output has also increased, which puts even more demands on my time.

Last month I finished up a novel draft. I realized I had written it over the course of six months. That’s a huge productivity jump for me. It’s not fully polished since I’m currently scrambling to get it in shape for my trusted readers, but still, that’s a lot of words for me, on top of revisions, short story drafts, and all the other writing “stuff” that creeps up on you.

And I know this is only a fraction of what more successful writers face. It can only get busier for me. I’m not sure how I feel about that. But if we could go back to January again, I’d be all over that.

How are things going for you? Have you been surviving 2013?
Happy writing!
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