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?

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Push or Pull

What kind of writer are you? Someone who needs to be pushed to write? Or someone who would write no matter what, putting themselves out there, pulling themselves up by their bootstraps?
I’ve been both at different stages.
When you need a push to write:
To take the plunge—Maybe you had a teacher who inspired you, or a partner or family member who encouraged you to write. Or maybe you read something that was so amazing you wanted to write too. In any case, someone or something pushed you into the writing world.
To follow through—But writing can be a fickle process. Sometimes we get in funks where we can’t write or lose our confidence in our abilities. That’s when a nudge from a writing friend or taking steps to reinvigorate your creativity helps you keep going when the going gets tough.
To do what’s required—We can all hope we reach the point where contractual obligations and deadlines serve as the push to keep us writing.
When writing pulls you in:

Because you have a story to tell—Often we discover our love of writing because we have a story to tell, something that can only be expressed in words. And by taking that first step, you discover you have even more to say.
Because you’ve found your rhythm—Some days the writing comes easy. Those are good days, and they are earned because you’ve built up momentum in your story. Developing a writing routine can also help by giving your brain a set time when the words can pour forth.

Because you have goals you want to reach—And the only way to reach them is to keep writing. Sometimes that’s the only inspiration you need.
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So at the end of the day, is your writing pulling you or pushing you? var gaJsHost = ((“https:” == document.location.protocol) ? “https://ssl.” : “http://www.”); document.write(unescape(“%3Cscript src='” + gaJsHost + “google-analytics.com/ga.js’ type=’text/javascript’%3E%3C/script%3E”)); try { var pageTracker = _gat._getTracker(“UA-15029142-1”); pageTracker._trackPageview(); } catch(err) {}

What To Do When Writing Gets You Down

Writing is hard. Once you think you have the basics of craft down, you then have to deal with constant rejection, wait times that never get shorter, and the insecurities that pop up at least once a day.

But it’s important to remember that it’s okay if you can’t always put on a happy face day in and day out. Writing is work. There will be not-so-good days. The trick is being able to move past the bad and stay productive.

First, Give Yourself Permission to Feel Awful…

…Then Move On

If you can do this, the rest of this post is superfluous. Seriously though, you knew that writing would be tough when you first started out, and it doesn’t get any easier later on. But something in you had to keep writing anyway. And that spark is essential for dealing with the inevitable bumps in the road. It’s natural to feel disappointment at times; just remember why you started writing in the first place.

Distract Yourself with Something New/Different/Comforting

Break out the chocolate, if you must. Your favorite food or adult beverage—in moderation, please. Watch a movie, take a walk, try something new. These are all good strategies to distract you from whatever’s bothering you (a string of rejections, a story that just won’t work, whatever). Take a break even. Read something in a different genre from what you’re trying to write in. Artist dates are also a great distraction from whatever has you down—and also feed into your creative mindset too.

Analyze Why You’re Upset…

…Then Harness The Emotional Impulse Behind It

This requires distance. It can also force you to confront things about yourself you may not like. After all, things like shame, anger, and jealousy aren’t exactly a barrel of laughs.

Do you feel ashamed after a rough critique of your work? Anger over a rejection you thought was a slam-dunk? Jealousy over the success of another writer? Try to pinpoint why you feel that way.

For me at least, I feel ashamed when someone calls me out on something in a critique that I consciously or unconsciously know is an issue in my story. This tells me I need to listen to my gut, that nagging voice in my head that says you need to fix this.

Anger, I’ve come to realize, is going to be a part of the writing process for me. Maybe you’re wired differently. Each rejection I receive makes me angry in some way, even if I can see a story’s flaws in hindsight. But I try to funnel that anger—that energy—into the next piece I write. The one that will succeed where the last one failed. Just remember that you are writing out of anger, which can require adjustments once you’ve had a chance to cool down.

Jealousy is a tough one, and people more qualified than me have discussed it elsewhere (see Everyone Gets Jealous, Even Published Authors, Pros and Cons to Comparing Yourself to Other Writers, and A Writer’s Antidote for Envy). Just remember that writing is not a competition, even though it can seem that way. If you don’t like what you’ve achieved so far, work to change that—start a new project or use a new strategy to get your work out there. Find a positive way to achieve your definition of success.

Don’t Forget To Celebrate What You’ve Accomplished So Far

It’s so easy to get tunnel vision and forget where you came from. You know, back when you couldn’t write your way out of a scene? Don’t forget to take time to look back at what you’ve accomplished. Writing is one of those fields where visible successes (like story sales and book deals) are few and far between.

So you need to unearth those smaller, less visible successes—the ones that demonstrate how seriously you take your writing and how it’s impacted others. Things like joining a crit group, a compliment from a writing colleague, a blog post that made an impact, a completed story draft. These are not insignificant successes, and they should be acknowledged as such. I had the illustration for my story in the Memory Eater anthology framed and hung in my office, not only because it’s the first of my stories to receive its own illustration, but also because it’s a constant reminder of what I’m working for.

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So if you are feeling down, I hope you’ve found some strategies to feel better about your writing. What’s helped you beat the blues? var gaJsHost = ((“https:” == document.location.protocol) ? “https://ssl.” : “http://www.”); document.write(unescape(“%3Cscript src='” + gaJsHost + “google-analytics.com/ga.js’ type=’text/javascript’%3E%3C/script%3E”)); try { var pageTracker = _gat._getTracker(“UA-15029142-1”); pageTracker._trackPageview(); } catch(err) {}

Asking For More

What struck me most about my Taos Toolbox experience, I think, was how straightforward the lectures were. That’s not to say I didn’t learn more in-depth tricks or benefit from discussing different story elements over an intense two weeks—I did and it helped crystallize a lot of concepts for me.

But I do think you reach a certain point with craft, where there’s really nothing more to say. You either know it and use it, or you don’t. We all know we need that balance between character, plot, and emotion. And we have scenes and grammar to fashion our stories. But at a certain point, it simply comes down to doing.

At Taos, I learned that I’m doing many right things in my writing, at a high level. I also learned that I need to be doing more of it. At the individual story level and across stories. As I was told in my consultation at the end of the workshop (paraphrasing), “You can write. You need to stretch yourself and see what hits.” In other words, I know the basics, even beyond, and it’s time to stop being precious about my individual projects and start producing.

Wait, you want more from me?

As guest Daniel Abraham told us, “Publishing is a casino,” and you never hit the jackpot if you aren’t showing up everyday plugging quarters into the slots.

Time for the big girl pants.

That’s a scary thought. I feel a little like Dorothy in that I’ve realized I’ve been able to write all along. But if that were true, I’d like to think I’d be a bit further along in my writing journey. So there must be something else I’m missing, some missing piece of the puzzle.

I do think part of it comes back to output. I’m not a fast writer. I like to stew over my stories ideas and get lost in the different worlds. I’ve gotten faster at writing in the last year and a half, and I’ve been pushing myself to get there, but still other writers can write three short stories in the time it takes me to write one.

I also don’t move onto new projects quickly enough. I like to tinker, I like to figure out how to make my stories the best they can be, and sometimes that means I’m holding onto a sinking ship expecting to be rescued when really I should have taken that life raft and be onto something new. But if I don’t care about my work, how can I expect editors/agents/readers to?

Kristine Kathryn Rusch had a recent post on “Perfection” — it’s worth a full read, but I want to focus on something she said:

Keep writing, keep learning, keep improving. But for god’s sake, don’t look backwards. Those books are done.

How do you know when a manuscript is done? That’s trickier. I think you should trust the process, fix the nits, and move to the next book. Writing is a subconscious art, not a conscious one. You heard your first story before you could speak, so your subconscious knows a lot more about writing than your conscious brain ever will.

Trust that.

Many writers don’t believe what I just wrote, and that’s fine. You need to define it for yourself. Set a limit on revisions, set a limit on drafts, set a time limit. (My book must be done in August, no matter what.) Then release your book on the unsuspecting public.

The book will never be perfect.

And that’s another hard thing for me. I want to write a perfect story. I want each of my stories to be perfect. And I work hard to revise them, chasing after some nebulous concept of perfection, when maybe I should be sending them out and moving on to the next story.

Of course, an exception to Rusch’s position is Andrew Porter, who wrote “Looking Back” for the latest Glimmer Train bulletin. An extensive revision of one of his older stories has gone onto being his most successful, wining him the Pushcart. He says:

I think most writers have a tendency to discount their early work, especially those pieces that were written when they were first starting out, when they were just figuring out how to write a short story in the first place.

In some cases, we’re probably right to discount those early efforts. I know, for me, there’s a certain cringe factor involved. Sometimes simply remembering the basic premise of one of those early stories is enough to make me shake my head and vow never to look back. Still, I’ve recently begun to wonder whether my own tendency to always look forward—to always believe that my best work lies before me, that the fiction I wrote five years ago isn’t nearly as good as the fiction I’m writing today—doesn’t prevent me from recognizing the potential value in some of those old unpublished stories that are just sitting there on my hard drive or collecting dust in a folder.

So writers should always be moving on to the next project, except when they shouldn’t. Hmm.

So what makes the difference? Fellow Toolboxer Catherine Scaff-Stump may have stumbled upon the answer in her post-workshop post on Technique versus Vision (also worth a full read). In it, she talks about how workshops can teach technique, but they can’t teach vision, and how the critique process can muddy the two.

I’m going to work my ass off regarding technique. And…so what if my vision is different? Different can be the next thing. If I find myself doubting my technique, I should. I can fix that. If I find myself doubting my vision, that’s the end of the story. That’s the death knoll for my writing, right there.

So maybe it’s not about writing lots just to write lots or revising things to death because you can’t bear to send something out less than perfect. Maybe it’s about finding your vision and finding ways to bring that vision to life. And if your older stories have solid vision, it’s about updating them craft-wise as your skills as a writer develop. That’s not stepping back; that’s bringing them to life.

I like to think I have vision with my stories. Now it’s just about making them come to life.

I guess no one ever said this whole writing thing was easy.

Happy writing!
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Taos Toolbox Postmortem

I came. I survived. My head hurts.

I’m still processing much of my Taos Toolbox experience, but I’m feeling inspired, if overwhelmed, by all the information and feedback that was crammed into fourteen days as well as all the new writer comrades I made.

Every workday, we met in the common room at 10am for a morning lecture by Nancy Kress. That was followed by critiques of people’s work, which usually straddled lunchtime. Then there was an afternoon lecture by Walter Jon Williams. The rest of the day was reserved for critiquing, assignments, and drafting a new story for Week 2.

Critiques followed the Milford model, where the authors must remain silent as the rest of the writers take turns sharing their thoughts on the story. It was an intense process but ultimately very helpful as I start to contemplate revisions for the projects I shared at the workshop.

We also had a frank and informative guest lecture by Daniel Abraham on what it takes to have a successful career in SF/F. Hint: Multiple brands (ie, writing in different genres with associated pennames) to hedge against the quirks of the marketplace.

Weekends, I took every opportunity to hike in the Taos Ski Valley during the day and at night I drank my share of New Mexico made Gruet Blanc de Noirs champagne and discussed the writing life with my fellow participants. After all, this workshop was a celebration of sorts—rewarding how far I’ve come and acknowledging future opportunities, so long as I’m in a position to capitalize on them.

For some participants, this was not their first workshop, but there were others like me who had no preconceived ideas what this experience would be like. Though there was a range of experience levels, everyone was dead serious about perfecting their craft and learning what it takes to be a professional writer. And I’m proud my fellow attendees will be my publishing peers to come!

For more insights into the Taos Toolbox experience, check out fellow Toolboxer Catherine Schaff-Stump’s evolving collection of interviews and links of participant experiences.

Finally here are some tidbits I gleaned from the lectures over the last two weeks, which are hopefully as helpful to you as I found them:

  • Sometimes it’s more important to be interesting than clear when writing SF/F 
  • You can almost always cut “locomotion” writing that gets your characters two and from the real scenes 
  • Exposition works so long as you’ve earned it 
  • If scene(s) don’t build towards the explosion at the end of an act or the book’s finale, cut them 
  • The end of a sentence, paragraph, section, chapter, book is the power position 
  • If you get stuck, ask yourself what else can go wrong 
  • Attach emotions to observations
  •  A writer’s only job is to set reader’s expectations and then meet them 
  • Readers shouldn’t be worrying about what is happening in your story—they should be worried about what happens next.

Happy writing! var gaJsHost = ((“https:” == document.location.protocol) ? “https://ssl.” : “http://www.”); document.write(unescape(“%3Cscript src='” + gaJsHost + “google-analytics.com/ga.js’ type=’text/javascript’%3E%3C/script%3E”)); try { var pageTracker = _gat._getTracker(“UA-15029142-1”); pageTracker._trackPageview(); } catch(err) {}