Judgment, Rejection, And The Writer

Dame Lili

Dame Lili

I am still thinking about that epublishing post, guys. It might be done next week, if I’m not in the wilds of Novel Revision Deathmarch. This Friday’s writing post is brought to you by Reader A. C., who wrote me last week with the question:

How do you shut off the fear of being judged? I feel like if I was to release my writing to the world I would wake up every night in a cold sweat thinking “Oh my god, people are reading what I wrote and judging me!”

Which is really a very good question. This is the single biggest block to a lot of writers submitting their work. A lot of the anxiety[1] stems from conflating judgment of your work with judgment and rejection of you. The rest comes from that old bugaboo, the Inner Critic.

Get used to it, because this never goes away. One’s method of dealing with it gets refined, but the anxiety over judgment and rejection is a Basic Human Fear, and it does not go away. We are cooperative creatures, and that anxiety over rejection is one component that helps us be cooperative instead of narrowly self-interested to a degree that would jeopardize our survival as a species. (I know this is a laughably simplistic view of a complex social-sciences issue. Bear with me.)

You as a writer will never get used to being rejected. At least, I never have, and no writer I’ve ever spoken to has. There’s always the heart-in-mouth panic when the agent doesn’t return a call, the nail-biting when the editor has the manuscript. Writing is something performed essentially in solitude–even if there are other people in the room, even if you are collaborating, there is still those moments of just you and the words on the page, and that’s IT. You have no measure of whether or not it’s good except your own, initially, and we are taught not to trust our own judgment on this level in a hundred little ways every day. The delayed-gratification aspect of writing–months or even years until something is accepted or sees print–pours fuel on the flames. Workshops and critique groups, well, we all know how I feel about those. Then there are reviews, and fan/hate mail, and that particular brand of hell known as bad Amazon reviews…

I struggle to think of a career that is more perfectly designed to turn a reasonably-adjusted human being into a f!cking neurotic. I really can’t think of one. (Politics doesn’t count; people are neurotics before they go into politics.)

We’ve got this anxiety. It’s not going to go away. So let’s pull an Einstein. Instead of trying to figure out why the speed of light is what it is, Einstein just took it as a constant and went on trying to answer questions around it. We all know the anxiety is there, so let’s talk about what to do about it.

My advice here basically boils down to three simple words.

Do it anyway.

If you want to be a writer, if you want to get published, you can’t afford to sit around wailing or to be crippled by that anxiety. Look, I can tell you the worst thing that’s going to happen. Brace yourself, it’s right here.

The worst thing that can happen is you get rejection slips. Everyone gets rejection slips. It’s a piece of paper with someone’s opinion on it. Big deal. So is the newspaper and a billboard. The opinion may be backed up by something, may not. But in the end it is only a piece of paper.

It is up to you to start a fire with it.

Slight side note: Yes, this piece of paper means you haven’t sold your work. If you’re lucky, it has a piece of personal feedback on it. There are stages to rejection just like everything else, and a personal note on a rejection letter is a step up. But a lot of writers shoot themselves in the foot by not taking those personal notes seriously. If an editor is sending out fifty rejection slips a day (and some do) a personal note is GOLD. It means they took time to go ABOVE AND BEYOND, and to tell you the thing that stopped them taking your story, or offered encouragement because you’re close but not quite there yet. Plenty of new writers don’t understand what a personal rejection note means and they get discouraged. It’s one of the last gates before acceptance.

All right, back on target. Here’s the thing: you have to find a way to make that anxiety a spur to be better. You have to find the way to turn the anxiety around so it’s working FOR you instead of bleeding off energy.

To be absolutely, honestly truthful…my way is sheer stubbornness. You don’t like it? You don’t? Well, I’m gonna show YOU! I’m gonna get so good, I’m gonna work so hard, that I’m gonna be able to laugh in your FACE! Yeah! HOW DO YOU LIKE THEM APPLES? It’s the same reflex that got me through my childhood, high school, boyfriends with quick tempers and quicker fists, and every other setback since. It’s getting knocked to the floor six times…and getting up seven, because you’re too stupid-dumb-stubborn to know when to quit.

It’s not elegant and it’s not pretty, but it gets me through the rejection-anxiety. Other writers use the anxiety in different ways, but always to bring themselves back to the page. The chances of getting something accepted for publication go up astronomically when you actually consistently produce work. They go up even more when you listen to the rejection and keep writing. They go up even more when you listen to the personalized rejection slips and keep writing.

Are you noting the theme here? The only way through this is to put your head down and keep writing. Find the way to put that anxiety in the traces to pull your plow. Otherwise, it will run around inside your head breaking dishes and making a nuisance of itself. Once you get it harnessed, once you figure out your way around it, it works as hard as the demon it is. But now it’s working for you instead of against you.

If there was an easier way, someone would have found it by now. That someone would be mega-rich and wouldn’t tell the secret anyway. So, we have to work with what we have.

And there’s a funny thing about the process of using the anxiety instead of letting it use you. The bravery or stubbornness or what-have-you that you find to get you through it starts cropping up in other areas of your life. Sooner or later it proves useful elsewhere.

If nothing else, that’s a reason to keep writing too.

I can’t give you a magic pill to make the anxiety go away. I can tell you that you’re not alone. And I can tell you something I learned in dance class. It’s easy to be invisible in dance class, because everyone else is so worried about where their hands and feet are, they’re not looking at how big your ass is.

In the end, someone judging you on your writing, or making personal statements about you on the strength (or not) of your writing, is only making a statement about themselves. (And not a nice one.) We’re all afraid of what we write “opening the kimono” and telling people about our fears, showing them the way to hurt us. This is not a reason to stop writing. This is even more of a reason to tell the truth, to find your way around that anxiety, and to shame the Devil, as the saying goes.

Nobody whose opinion you need to be worried about is going to judge you personally, the way you’re afraid of, on your writing. I can’t be any clearer than that. But the anxiety over if someone might is actually a gift. If you can find out how to harness it inside your head and make it work to get you on the page every day, to tell the truth and take your chances, to spit in the eye of Destiny and spin the roulette wheel…

…then, my friends, your success is only a matter of time.

Now go get it.

[1] I am using the word “anxiety” instead of fear because I believe it’s more precise. Fear is a survival mechanism. Anxiety is a social mechanism. I agree with Gavin de Becker that there is a huge difference.

Soothing The Savage Writer

Dame Lili

Dame Lili

No, I’m not having a Cassie Edwards fest over here. I actually had two big blog posts in mind for this week–one about epublishing and another about music. The epub post is going to have to simmer a bit more before it’s ready, so you get the music post. I know, que lastima, right?

What makes this vaguely funny and synchronous is that I just clicked through to Wil Wheaton’s post about music today too. Then, while I was on the treadmill, I thought about it some more. The IPod served up a lot of music from past book soundtracks, which just sealed the deal.

Some days, the universe, I swear she speak to me.

Music is a very integral part of my writing process. I know there must be writers who don’t write to music, but I can’t imagine it. It was always a part of my creative process, from the very first mix tapes (remember cassettes? Jeez, I feel old now.) I recorded off the radio to the advent of ITunes and the idea of “book soundtracks”. Which I would have arrived at sooner or later, but my friend TrashGlam put together a mix CD for smoke back when it was just a collection of pages I printed and bound at Kinkos. It had the the Cardigan’s Erase and Rewind for Rose and Garbage’s Number One Crush for Michael, and if that isn’t a description of their dysfunctional relationship I don’t know WHAT is.

So the “book soundtrack”–a playlist for a certain project–was born. Later I found out other people (like the Selkie) had been doing the same thing for a long time, so I can’t claim to create it. But I can claim to be utterly delighted with the idea and to have stolen it with no remorse, and used it shamelessly.

The stereo sees more use than the television in our house (especially since we put the television out in the garage for long periods of time, and almost forget it’s there). Music on laptops account for even more time. I often leave Pandora.com open in a window while I’m working, and the Selkie and I are always discovering new or new-to-us artists and rifling them for plot bunnies and turns of phrase.

So with that in mind, I thought I’d share a few songs. No, not in a torrent-and-get-sued type of way–I just thought that fans would like to know a couple songs where you can hear my characters clear as day.

For example, at the very end of Tomoyasu Hotei’s Katana Groove you can hear Lucas Villalobos laughing. In the beginning of Rob Zombie’s living dead girl you can hear Eve (What are you thinking?) and Dante (The same thing you are…) before all hell breaks loose and the last fight of To Hell And Back commences. (Warning: Rob Zombie is not for those who are easily offended. You’ve been warned.) Sarah McLachlan’s Fallen is Dante’s song, while Mandalay’s This Life is the song I played over and over while writing Japhrimel’s Fall for Dante.

Sometimes characters will have their own particular themes. Christophe from the upcoming Strange Angels always shows up when I play Herman’s Hermits, especially I’m Into Something Good. (It’s creepy when you consider he’s a 70-year-old on the inside.) And then his love song for the heroine is You’re Sixteen. Creeptastic, no? While Graves gets Guster’s One Man Wrecking Machine. Which says so much about the two characters, doesn’t it?

And then there’s Jill Kismet. The clearing-the-hellbreed-holes scenes in Night Shift were set to the Cure’s Wrong Number, possibly the weirdest song I’ve ever set a fight sequence to. Saul, of course, gets Cusco’s Montezuma, and Jill’s love song for him is the beautiful Black Is The Color, sung by the Corrs. And Perry? He gets the Cure’s Lullaby. (Kismet gets a lot of Cure. Don’t ask me why.)

As for Steelflower, the opening scenes of Kaia coming into Hain on a ship is always set to Delerium’s Terra Firma, the Lara Croft mix. A lot of Delerium goes on my soundtracks. Darik gets various selections from the Bulgarian Women’s Choir. Redfist, of course, gets Two Hornpipes and Celtic Woman’s version of the Ashoken Farewell.

Oddly, a lot of Nikolai’s (from Selene) themes are from the Bulgarian Women’s Choir too. (The two characters are more closely intertwined than I like to admit.) Selene herself gets Mono’s Silicone, and Everything But The Girl’s Before Today.

You get the idea. Music falls in my lap when I’m thinking of characters, and I’ll go on mad jags of finding music on my hard drive (the ITunes store and the local Everyday Music now own my soul, thank you very much) and then the magic happens. Characters start talking, taking on likes and dislikes of their own, and before I know it a book has a playlist and I know what happens. It’s awesome when it works right.

So, how about you? Do you listen to music while you write? Do you use it for characters or just as background noise? I’m also curious to hear from fans–are there certain songs you associate with certain characters or books?

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to go play some Charlie Feathers. For some reason the half-vampire private eye in the current short story just loves rockabilly…

Wordcount, Or, Exactly How Arbitrary IS That Goal?

Dame Lili

Dame Lili

A writer’s life is made up of largely arbitrary goals. As in, I will submit ___ stories, to ___ presses, and I will give myself ___ months to finish that novel. The goals that come from outside–the publisher’s deadline, or the revisions deadline, and so on so forth, might as well be arbitrary, but you the writer ARE consulted about them and expected to speak up about your needs so you can turn in a quality product.

Setting goals, revising them, and living with them is what every successful professional writer does. Setting your own schedule may sound like an awesomely sweet deal…until you actually start doing it. All of a sudden the responsibility for it rests nowhere but with you. Some people can ignore that and procrastinate all day. Others can’t, and it becomes something to flog oneself with in the absence of productive work. Most of us fall somewhere in between on that continuum, or alternate.

Small confession time: I used to swear by just the timer, and thought it was a bit silly to use wordcount as a goal. That was back before I had actual deadlines; it was in the phase of my writing life where I was just looking to produce, nothing more. (You may or may not be amused to know I refer to it as “my throat-clearing phase”.)

A kitchen timer is great for the throat-clearing phase and beyond. I know I’ve mentioned it before, but here are the things that a cheap kitchen timer can do for your writing. (I bought four of this kind, for various uses around the house. I also love these little timers from Ikea, but they don’t seem to sell them online. Quelle disastre!)

*A timer focuses your attention. In our time-conscious culture, a ticking timer cuts away a lot of distraction and engages a reflexive focusing of attention.
*A timer sends a signal to others. In other words, I am serious about this. I can’t count the number of times I’ve said, “When that timer rings I’m all yours for a little while. Until then, leave me be. (This works for husbands, children, friends–unless someone is throwing up, bleeding, or dying, the timer rules.)
*A timer makes it easier to be consistent. Ten or fifteen minutes a day, consistently, will do more for your writing than long stretches of neglect and weekend-warrior spells of however many hours. The name of this game is consistency.
*A timer forces you to prioritize. Your day is not so busy you cannot spend fifteen minutes writing. That fifteen can turn into twenty or thirty once you’re in the groove and have actually sat down and taken the trouble to put your hands on the keyboard. Having the actual, physical timer sitting there has guilt-tripped me into writing many a time.

Professional (or would-be professional) writers are working against a vast cultural current that says writing is “easy” and “less important, a luxury” because it is creative work. And somehow a lot of Speshul Snowflakes hear the “creative” and completely disregard the “work” part of the equation. How many times has someone said to me, “I always thought someday when got time I’d write a novel…”

I am always tempted to reply, “Yeah, what do you do? You’re a dentist/brain surgeon/IT whiz? I’ve always thought that someday when I had time, I’d come into your office and do fillings/neurosurgery/IT. Because, you know, it’s the same fucking thing, right? Can’t be too hard if you’re doing it.”

I haven’t said it yet, but by God, am I ever tempted. This is work, people. Getting paid for it is work too.

And now that I have by-Goshen professional deadlines and a fair handle on my creative process, I find I’ve shifted away from the timer and toward wordcount as my arbitrary goal of choice.

Wordcount is tricky. My usual goal is no less than a thousand words a day, but typically I run between two and four K. That, to me, is a good day’s work. I have the regular six to eight K days during the end of a novel phase when things are coming together, and once in a blue moon a memorable 10K day will come along and run through me like bad moonshine[1]. Those days are nice because I’m so completely sunk in the story it never feels like work while I’m doing it, but they’re not so nice because it destroys my brain until I fall into bed and think, gee, I really should have eaten today…and I should have gone to the loo, too. And taken a shower.

I’ve had the 200 word days, and the 500 word days. Those suck like gigantic sucking things, but they usually occur because of crisis in other parts of my life–ill children, hospital visits, things like that. On those days the timer comes out and it’s usually all I can do to sit still long enough to get SOME wordage out.

There are people who have issues with the wordcount goal. A lot of them will ask, How do you know the words are any good?

My reply to that is, that’s not my job. That’s the Muse’s job. My job is to show up and write. Worrying about whether or not it’s good enough in the just-write-zero-draft stage is like shooting yourself in the kneecap to prepare for a marathon. The point is to get the words OUT so you can have something to trim and tweak. Books can be fixed. A blank page, however, is still a blank page at the end of the day. After the throat-clearing phase, you have to just put your head down and work through stuff. Getting better will come with consistent practice, just like playing a musical instrument.

Consistent practice will not turn you into a Perlman or a Gaiman. But it will make you a better writer and astronomically up your chances of getting published, which in turn ups your chances of making a living at this thing.

Another objection I hear to wordcount is that whatever count you set yourself (perhaps in response to a published author giving advice?) may be unreachable and hence, will actually stop people from writing. This is heard a lot from Speshul Snowflakes who desperately want to avoid the act of consistent writing and practical advice leading from or to such an act.

Look, if 1K doesn’t work for you, 500 might. 250 might. Setting the goal high for the day and not getting there is okay. Not writing at all is not. Life happens, and nobody understands that better than the self-employed professional. Setting goals is an art–breaking a big goal (getting published) into smaller, manageable goals (developing a writing schedule, sticking to it, producing chapters, producing a manuscript, learning grammar and usage and applying it to said manuscript, submitting over and over again, working on new manuscript…get the picture?) and setting daily goals is part of that art. You want a goal big enough to spur you on to make some progress, but small enough that you don’t throw up your hands in despair after beating your head on a brick wall. Like any skill (and goal-setting is a life skill), practice is key, and consistent practice makes you better.

I have to be honest here. (Big surprise, I know.) All the well-adjusted professional writers who have good careers that I personally know set themselves goals, and I don’t know of a single one who doesn’t use wordcount as a metric. They may use other metrics, but wordcount is a professional’s goal. It’s easily measurable, gives you an idea of where you are in a short story/longer work, and functions as a great measurement during the zero draft stage. (Revisions are something else. Heh. Aren’t they, though. Snort.)

The last objection I hear frequently to wordcount is that if you have to rip up a couple scenes by the roots and lose wordcount, you might get so discouraged you don’t go back to the story. This relates to the “what if the words are the wrong ones” above, and it relates more closely to the “what if I’m just blocked and I’m trying too hard and I damage something by sticking to my wordcount?”

And I have to say, oh, please. If you’re going to get “discouraged” enough to stop when you have to rip a couple scenes out and you lose a few thousand words, writing is so not the career for you. If you’re going to use “blocked” as an excuse, writing is probably not the career for you. I do not believe in writer’s block.

There are times when I get turned around, and false starts, and having to rip out parts of stories and jam other parts in and ARGH is just something that happens. Every career has bad patches and tasks one would rather not do. That is why this is work, and if you are willing to put up with those tasks and do them in a reasonable fashion your chances of getting paid to do this work increases exponentially.

I would much rather the words pour out smoothly, in a stream of genius that doesn’t need editing or revision and that editors will beat a path to my door to make me huge offers on. And while I’m dreaming, I’d really like a pony and a rich lover who lives only to buy me presents, too.

But it’s here on the ground with rent to pay and deadlines to meet that a writer lives. Wordcount and timers are tools that can help you meet those deadlines, whether they’re self-set or set by an outside force. Like any tools, they have their uses and they can cut if used improperly. But with elementary precautions and reasonable goals set, they can also make your work easier.

And making a job a little easier is sometimes the difference between making a living…and not.

Over and out.

[1] As in, runs through you quick and leaves you with a pain. Thank you, Dorothy Allison.

Three Things I Wish New Writers Knew

Dame Lili

Dame Lili

Well, it’s Friday again. I don’t have a lot of time today–a short story came back with revisions I’ve got to eyeball and the new Watcher novel is heating up. So, I’m going to give you three things I wish new writers knew.

When I say “new writer” I don’t necessarily mean teenager/young person. I mean someone new to writing every day, someone just starting out. John Scalzi did his 10 Things Teenage Writers Should Know, which I by and large agree with. (And I won’t lie, I always get a slight sense of gratification reading where he says one should write every day.) But the “new” writer is not necessarily, well, young.

I am not sure whether it’s better to come to writing while you’re young and you think you know everything, or when you’re older and you’ve had the sh!t kicked out of you a few times and you think you know How Life Works, which is just about the same mental reflex. (Though vastly more useful.) There’s something to be said for pure exuberant youth, and there’s something to be said for the calluses of experience on the bum of maturity. (Or something.) But whether you’re young or old, there’s things I think every new writer could benefit from.

* Accept that your stuff is going to suck. Everyone’s stuff sucks when they first start out no matter how old they are. Just because you’re verbally fast or fluent doesn’t mean you’ll be fast and fluent on the page; you will not be automatically fresh and iconoclastic when you’re young any more than you will be automatically experienced as an old hack when you’re older. Every writer starts out sucking. It’s our gods-given gift.

With young folk starting out writing, I see a lot of, “I’m new and SPECIAL and you just don’t understand!” With older writers, I see a lot of “How hard can this be? I’ve been a success at other things!” Both are…well, not true. New does not equal better, I understand because I was new and speshul once too. And there is a special circle of professional hell reserved for people who think this job is so easy you can just sit down and squeeze out a novel like squeezing a pimple. It is not simple. This is a complex task, and like any complex task, IT TAKES TIME TO MASTER.

When you’re just starting out learning any complex skill set, you’re going to suck. Relax and take the suck for what it is–a gift. That’s right, it’s a bloody gift. Once you accept that your work will suck at first, you have automatically created the necessary precondition for it getting better. If you refuse to accept that new writing, zero drafts, etc., are going to be an unholy mess, there is no reason for you to think about ways to make anything better and the work will remain in stasis…as an unholy mess. That’s not good if you want to make a living at writing, or even if you want to get published consistently.

* Common sense and business sense are your best friends. They are also surprisingly similar. Yog’s Law and basic common and business sense will help you have a career instead of a boondoggle. With a plethora of author’s weblogs, publisher’s weblogs, and several other sites available to the public online, as well as the Writer’s Market and places like Preditors & Editors, basic business/common sense about writing has never been so accessible. You can learn from other people’s mistakes all over the Internet–and not just about writing either. I can tell you several fandom and internet wanks have made me very wary, providing amusement as well as the lesson of “Jesus Christ, I don’t ever want to be in that position…”

Treat writing like a job with professional consequences and perks, and you will be in demand among editors. Given a choice between a prima donna with incandescent prose and an easy-to-work-with professional with a solid product that is not so incandescent, editors will largely choose the professional even if the story is less of a heartbreaking work of staggering genius. Editors are people too, and they like dealing with reasonable people instead of flakes and fruits. Be reasonable, professional, and consistent, and thou shalt reap the rewards tenfold.

I have to note here that the proportion of new writers on the young and old sides of the spectrum who violate this rule is roughly the same. X amount of new young writers implode/never get published because it’s not about the writing, for them–it’s about some kind of weird, twisted emotional jolt or need in another area of their life. X amount of new old writers do the same thing. You learn to spot them a mile away at conventions or critique group meetings.

Don’t be them.

* Read, read, read. I am amazed by new writers who confide in me that they “don’t read” but they expect to produce a readable work. Omnivorous reading provides grist for your artistic mill and a thousand little tiny lessons you just can’t get any other way. Lessons about pacing, voice, word choice, structure, what works and what doesn’t on the page. Reading gives you a range of fine gradations to your basic tools of grammar and structure.

Reading a lot will initially set you on fire with trying to write in someone else’s voice. Books that affect you strongly will have an effect on your own writing. This is a phase every new writer goes through, and there is only one cure: writing and reading more. Get it out of your system before you start submitting. Your editors will thank you, and when they do, that is a good sign.

Don’t worry about your work always sounding like someone else’s. Sooner (if you keep writing on a consistent schedule) or later (if you lay about and don’t write as much) you will discover your own voice naturally, and things you read will no longer affect it as much. The period of imitation is necessary and natural for developing your own creative style. Don’t try to avoid it, and don’t get stuck in it. Just recognize it as a normal phase and enjoy it while it lasts. And when it goes, enjoy finding your own voice.

I could go on and on, but I’ve got actual work to do today. No rest for the weary and wicked, eh? Still, I love this job. I wouldn’t want to do anything else.

Peace out.