PROCESS, CRITIQUES, LOVE LETTERS AND CHINGS
About fifteen months ago I started writing my second novel. I had just sent my first book to a publisher, and I knew that if I just sat around the house waiting for an answer I would go absolutely insane. And, while I had pretty well-developed ideas for a sequel to that first book, I felt it would be silly to start working on them until and unless it sold. So I started something new instead.
It turns out that I made the right move there, because the first book still hasn’t sold. After waiting for ages, I got a very warm rejection and an invitation to submit something else. So I sent it to another publisher, and after a few months I got pretty much the same response. Since then the book has been sitting on my shelf, waiting for me to get off my ass and send it out again. I will, eventually. We’ll come back to that later, as I always say.
In any case, I don’t think any of the time I spent on that first book was wasted, because it taught me a lot about how to write a book. Having finished it, I knew how to make my second book much, much better, with no missteps and no time wasted on unproductive ideas. I figured I could finish the next one in about a year. It’s not the first time I’ve been completely wrong about something.
And because of that book, I now have a good working relationship with an assistant editor at one of the publishers that rejected it. She worked overtime trying to find that book a home with her people, and she has reviewed the first few chapters of the new one and given me some criticism on it. This has helped me immensely. The catch is, her critique was devastating - the gist of it was “this book has a chance at being very, very good, if you rewrite it from start to finish, but as it is now we wouldn’t touch it with a ten-foot pole.”
As you might expect, that took the wind out of my sails for a bit. I had known the book wasn’t ready yet, but I had never dreamed it was that bad. She was telling me I had the core of a great book on my hands, but I had to change everything from character names and dialogue to plot structure and the actual focus of the story. Right around that time, it was getting incredibly hard to find time to write, and I was having roughly one percent success with my story submissions. My wife, who has put up with a lot of shit from me, was rapidly losing her patience with the whole writer thing, we were dead broke and my daughter was going through a terrible, terrible phase of ferociously uncivilized behaviour. So I let the novel founder, along with most of the dreams I had of ever Being A Writer. I think I kept on writing things for E2, but that was about the extent of it.
I had, at that time, six or seven short stories floating across editors’ desks. There are writers who send out that many stories in a single day’s mailing, but for me it was a lot. Surely, I thought, one or two of those stories had to be good enough to publish. One by one they floated back to me again and again. The worst part was when they would gang up on me - one time I got two rejections in one day, and another one the next day, making me feel a little bit like Private Ryan’s mother. So I stopped sending them out.
I sent them to E2 instead. I still thought these stories were some good, even if there wasn’t an editor in the world who agreed with me. A little formatting, whatever deranged pipelinks popped into my head, and I would put a note in my submission file - “Posted to E2. Case closed.” And then, of course, I would settle in to watch them score, hoping beyond hope that they wouldn’t bomb.
Let’s talk about that for a minute. There are a few people out there who will tell you art doesn’t need an audience. That art is the means and the end and the alpha and omega, that writers shouldn’t need to seek approval. That it matters not whether the story touches anybody, because the important thing is the writer’s own need to write. If you believe these people, a real artist should submit and forget again and again, pulling out masterpiece after glorious masterpiece of pure creativity with no regard for what anybody else thinks. A lofty philosophy, no doubt, and one that makes anyone with lesser goals feel insignificant and unworthy. I always suspect that that’s exactly what it’s meant to do, but maybe I’m just too cynical. Anyway, it doesn’t work for the rest of us.
The rest of us, the mortal ones, want audiences. We spend a thousand nights jamming, having great fun sometimes but living for the day when we actually play a gig and see people pogoing to our music. We fill our own houses with oils, loving every piece, but we value our friends’ appreciative comments more than all the money we spent on paint and canvas. We chortle with glee while writing a particularly juicy twist ending - but if nobody gets through the story to read the ending, misery festers within us. We write because we have to - but we submit, over and over again, because we want to touch people.
Ego? Part of it is ego, no doubt. Artists are all egotistical bastards at heart. We believe that our precious works are good enough, important enough that other people should have to look at them and say Ahh. We believe, against all evidence, that we have the plot twist nobody else ever thought of - that we have the vocabulary and the ninja style to say it right for once - that if all else fails, our experiences, our emotions, our enlightened spirits are so astoundingly fucking unique that our version will be better than any that came before it. And we want to get paid for it, no less. If that isn’t ego, I don’t know what is.
But it’s not all ego. Part of it, I think, is the very nature of art. Art is a dialogue. It’s communication. Paintings were meant to be seen. Stories were meant to be read. The artistic process doesn’t end with the last brush stroke. It isn’t complete until somebody sees the piece, interprets it, absorbs something from it. We know this in our hearts, and we strive to bring every piece to the point where it will truly touch people. I can pipelink all day long, but if I never find out that someone out there noticed the pipelinks, got the message, took something away from my story, I feel like an abject failure.
It’s not the points. When I talk about waiting to see if a story scores, I’m not talking about points. Points are nice, but they aren’t - forgive me - the point. The point is the comments. I want to know how you felt when you read the piece. I want to hear your interpretation. Failing that, I want to at least know that you did read it, and that it made enough of an impact that you felt it worthy of some kind of a response. Anything but silence. Did it creep you out? Did it make you think? Did it make you sputter Coke all over your monitor? Good. Mission accomplished. I live for that. Did you hate it? That sucks. What exactly made you hate it?
Can we get back to the subject, please? You sidetrack like a motherfucker on hardcore drugs. Get on with it.
Okay. I sent my stories to E2, along with a bunch of factual writeups and movie reviews. They did all right. You get your downvotes, you get your chings, once in a while somebody pipes up and tells you they liked something. It was enough to keep me going. I no longer really believed that I would ever get anywhere with my writing, but from time to time I still looked at Ralan’s listings to see if there was anything of interest. I kept buying the SFWA Bulletin, mostly for Resnick and Maltzberg’s debates on the business of writing SF. And I kept thinking of story ideas. Every time I heard some wacky anecdote or encountered a weird character - and believe me, when you work with lobstermen this happens so regularly that the normal guys start to seem like the real weirdos - I’d file it away in my head and wait for it to intersect with another story concept. I didn’t write much new stuff, but things were cooking.
And E2 kept me going. One little note at a time, people on E2 kept giving me the feeling that maybe, someday, if I could afford to keep writing, I could actually get somewhere as a writer.
And then I found a story that wouldn’t let go of me. It was yet another story about a lobsterman, of course. Most of those hadn’t worked out, but this one wanted desperately to make itself happen. It was about a guy who married a mermaid, and a drifter who was the lobstering version of Bradbury’s Mr. Dark. It was about me, as all stories are. And just like the song about the lady who swallowed the ocean, it wanted out. Lobster season was ending with a whimper, and I had plenty of time to waste. I had itchy fingers and a suspicion that this story was better than just about anything else I had written. Finally, I went down to the coffee shop and wrote the bugger out.
While I was doing that, I found another one. And another. And I figured if I was going to be writing all these stories, I might as well have one last go at getting my old stuff published. I had posted most of my rejected stories on E2, so the high-end story markets were closed to them, but I could still submit them to reprint markets. I sent out all of the stories to amateur webzines, what Ralan calls “4theLove” markets. And every one of them got accepted. With glowing commentary.
Three of my reprint stories were accepted in July. My wife and I couldn’t believe it. In early August, one of the earlier ones I hadn’t yet given up on was accepted. I was four for four. And another zine was telling me sorry for the delay, your story (which I had submitted seven months ago) is on the shortlist for next issue. This was in a zine that was actually going to pay me. I felt like I had won a Nebula. A week or so later they sent me another e-mail: story accepted. Another virtual Nebula.
Some people will tell you this is nothing to get excited about. These are the same people who told you art doesn’t need an audience. They were full of shit then, and they’re still full of it. Your first few story sales, even if they pay you ten dollars a story through PayPal, are like your first few times skydiving, or entering combat, or having sex. They are awakenings. Something changes inside you. You shut your eyes a guy who likes to write stories and collects rejections like baseball cards, and you open them a writer. A real, live, djinn-ewe-ein writer that other people pay to write stories. It’s like breaking out of your cocoon after all those weeks spent chewing on leaves and looking up at the sky, and suddenly discovering that you can touch it.
Looking around E2, I suspect that a great many of us are on this trail through the wilderness. Some of us are so far ahead that the rest of us poor mortals can only look at their footprints and try to figure out what kind of shoes they’re wearing that make them so damn fast. Some of us have just stepped onto the trail. Some of us are running, and some of us are walking. But we’re moving.
Very poetic, you mixed about five metaphors in that last bit. Now get back to the story. Jesus Christ, you waste words.
Well, what happened in the end was I was doing all this writing and actually getting stuff published, and amongst other things people were asking me to write my bio, and I was all “bio? What bio? I’m just this guy, I don’t have a bio. I don’t do third person except in the catbox. No way.” And they were all No, we need a bio. Every one of our writers has a bio, you gotta have one too. So I sat up late at nights, writing little blurbs about the wonder that is DejaMorgana, and it was all pretty much “never amounted to nothin, but great things are a’comin” and I thought if I’m going to talk shit like that I might as well go all the way, and added “He is currently working on his second novel, a sort of steampunk Lost World fantasy for young adults, while his first book looks for a home.” Hedging my bets, see? Not promising anything, but sneakily telling them all to look for me on the shelves at Borders sometime soon.
But I figured I could get away with that, because I believed it in my heart and I still believe it. I know I can make it work. After I wrapped up my mermaid story, and sent it off to another top-level magazine, I pulled up all the files for my book and stared at them for days. I read the manuscript, a couple of different drafts of it. I read my outline, my notes on the work in progress, my editor’s comments on it and my comments on my editor’s comments. And finally, for the first time since I started writing the book, I took a couple of steps away and killed my darlings. Point blank, back of the head.
Two comments - the characters’ names were too difficult to distinguish, and the story wasn’t focussed enough on the main character. I couldn’t fix them. There was no way. I altered my hero’s best friend’s name to make it sound less like his mentor’s name. Now it didn’t sound authentic. I did it again, and it sounded just plain corny. I let it slide and got to work on the focus. There was a big problem with the best friend, he sort of vanished offstage for two-thirds of the book and suddenly reappeared in the climax. That’s one of your “focus” problems right there. I tried everything I could to give him a more significant role in the middle act, but it was just bad, bad, bad. This kid was killing me, up to the moment when I drew my gun and took aim.
Not enough focus? Names too similar? Right then, do we really need the hero’s best friend? No, I didn’t think so. BANG! In an instant, my young hero became lonelier and sadder - and there was one less guy to help him out in the book’s climax. Finally the hero was starting to look like an actual hero, the guy that my book was really about. First rule of writing, according to Faulkner or Goldman or some other fucking William who knew exactly what he was talking about - KYD. Kill your darlings. Don’t forget it again, all right?
So what other darlings did I have in this story? Subplots. I had subplots coming out of every orifice. Kill them, kill them all! Bang - there goes the bit about the leader of the scientific expedition secretly being a spy. Now he had no hidden gadgets to help them vanquish the villains in the end, and he wasn’t competing with my kid for the title of hero. Focus!
The mentor had to go, too. I didn’t actually kill him - every kid needs a mentor in an adventure story - but he had to be cut down to size. You can’t have Obi-Wan blowing up the Death Star. That’s Luke’s job. So I took out the scene where the mentor and the kid discovered the dinosaur nest together. I took out the parts where the dinosaurs were the tribe’s totem. (How could I have been so damn stupid?) Now nobody knew anything about the dinosaurs except for my hero. Bang!
Now that all the various mentors and father figures had been so savagely emasculated, they were too weak to fight off the warring tribes. They were captured, and their flying machines confiscated. The kid had to rescue them. Just like that, we were back to the coming-of-age story that had always been the core of my novel. And because of all the red-ink slaughtering I had been doing, the most important of all my subplots suddenly made sense.
Explaining that one requires that I actually tell you about the plot of the book. We’ll do that tomorrow. Do you mind if I get back to actually writing the book?
Oh, yeah. One more thing before I go. Thank you, everybody. You know who you are. If you ever chinged one of my stories or fiction-related writeups, if you ever sent me a note about how much you liked a story, if you ever answered one of my stupid questions about Latin names for dinosaurs or critiqued something in my scratchpad, if you ever bolstered my horrific writer’s ego with a “DejaMorgana++” in the catbox or sent me a book or a box of cookies or in any other way made me feel like one of the cool kids, part of this book belongs to you. Even if it doesn’t get published, thank you. Because, sooner or later, one of them will. I know this because E2 made me keep trying.
E2 plus plus. Never doubt it.