This is the nexus of creative writing information for those who want to learn how to write in different forms and genres and for those who want to either learn the ins and outs of marketing their own work or publishing the work of others.

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Advice on Writing

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English Usage and Grammar (Know the Rules So You Can Break 'Em To Greater Effect)

Becoming a Published Writer

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I make every attempt to be supportive of all new writers, and whenever I am feeling discouraged about my career (which happens a whole helluva lot more than you think), I try to keep it to myself so as not to leave any dark clouds in my wake.

In short: I don't want anything I say or do to directly or indirectly dishearten a writer who's just gotten started on the long road to publication.

Why? Because I remember how goddamn difficult things were when I was first starting out; the friends I blew off seeing because I needed to finish a story (one for which there was neither a definite market in mind nor an editor who'd solicited the piece waiting for it); the late nights of typing away as much as I could in X-amount of hours because I had a job (or two) to go to and knew that, say, Thursday night/Friday afternoon was the only time I'd have all week to get anything written; the movies I missed, the parties I missed, the meals I missed ... and no one to talk to about it, no other writers to offer advice or support. I was in this alone (which I'd known going in, so don't misinterpret that as a ploy for sympathy).

But as miserable as I was a lot of the time (I had well over 100 rejections before my first professional sale; my only published work until then appearing in magazines that paid in contributor's copies), I dug in and stuck with it because I knew I had the ability and determination to eventually carve out some kind of career.

I became so monomaniacally focused on that career that I not only missed out on seeing friends, movies, and concerts, but I completely missed out on a fourteen-year marriage that I looked up to acknowledge only long enough to realize I'd completely destroyed it, swell human being that I am. Writing is not only a solitary activity, it's one that can wholly isolate you -- both physically and emotionally -- from the world; so much so that isolation might take on the deceptive appearance of being preferable, and you unconsciously (sometimes consciously) do all you can to maintain the status quo.

In three short words: It. Ain't. Easy.

That is why I try to be nice to new writers, I really do.

But there are some brand-new writers out there who make it really. Quite. Difficult.

So that "nice" thing? Not so much anymore. Two reasons.

As I write this, my second heart attack in less than a year is about a month behind me. It wasn't quite as serious as my first one, but the thing is, as far as my recovery goes, this one has really kicked my ass. I get winded from a set of stairs; I walk out to get the mail and by the time I get back, that's pretty much it for the day's physical activities; I don't have the energy half the time to jump to a conclusion; and some days I'm lucky to make it through a light 4-hour shift at my real-world maintenance gig.

And writing? Don't make me laugh. I've got 3 contracted books that are all now several months late in being delivered because I don't right now have the physical strength to work on -- let alone finish -- them.

And it's making me absolutely quite sincerely crazy. I basically have three states of being over any 24-hour period: Exhausted, anxious, or depressed. (Every so often I get a surprising burst of vigor and can add "angry" to that list, but those times have been so few and far between that they seem like lingering wisps from a dimly-remembered dream of more pleasant days.)

This is not, so I am told, conducive to a favorable recovery. And I know it isn't, but I'm damned if I can figure a way out of this. Not being able to write for at least 3 hours a day (my bare-bones minimum) is chipping away at my core.

"Relax," people tell me. "Try not to stress; focus on getting better."

I'm trying; I really am. And I know I'll get through this and be all better and back on track sometime between now and the end of the year. Slow and steady and all that.

But here's the thing: this second one has scared me more than the first. To one degree or another I'm scared most of the time now; every little twinge I feel in my chest causes me to stop in my tracks while reaching into my pocket for the bottle of nitro pills that I have to carry on my person at all times. Even more so than the first one, this second one has hammered home something I've always suspected: I'm not going to live long enough to write all the stories that are in my head. And any time that I lose from here on -- for whatever reason -- is another story of mine that's never going to get written.

And it pisses me off.

Which brings me back to some of the new writers out there; you know, the ones who make it quite difficult for me to keep being nice.

I'm not talking about folks like my buddy Mike Laimo, people who've published a dozen or so short stories or maybe one or two books, no; writers like Mike, Geoff Cooper, Kealan-Patrick Burke, and Mehitobel Wilson (to name but a few of those who will still be cranking out the Good Stuff while I'm being digested by worms) have more than proven they've got what it takes to go the distance: I'm talking about those writers who have maybe two, three, or four published stories under their belts and publicly (read: mostly on discussion boards) whine about how "hard" it is to keep making sales.

All of you, say it with me: "Well, duh."

Allow me to share a handful of recent examples. We'll begin with my friend Norbert. You remember Norbert, don't you? The literary construct I parade forth whenever I don't want to specifically name someone so as to spare them what would otherwise be dreadful public humiliation. Yes, Norbert. Again.

As you may or may not know, Tom and Elizabeth Monteleone over at Borderlands Press are currently reading for their Borderlands 6 anthology. I have been lucky to have had stories appear in the last 2 volumes of this prestigious series. I say "prestigious" because the Borderlands series is one of the hardest markets to crack, and for one simple reason: the Monteleones will not settle for something that is simply "good". There are plenty of markets out there that will accept the simply good stuff (lucky for me); Tom and Elizabeth want stuff that is going to knock their socks off, that's going to leave them stunned, that's going to haunt them during the day as well as into the night. You want to get into Borderlands? Who the hell doesn't? For me, I've found that if I take something that I think is absolutely, hands-down my best possible work and fix it, make it better, make it leaner, smarter, richer, deeper, darker…they'll still ask for a revision before saying "yea" or "nay".

To paraphrase something I said earlier: They. Ain't. Easy. To. Please.

Back to Norbert. He showed me a story that he thought might be worth submitting to the Monteleones. I read it over a couple of times, and while it seemed to me that it had the makings of a solid story, something about it wasn't quite there yet. It was good, but that's all it was. Not thinking at all of Borderlands, I sat down with Norbert and dissected the story on an almost line-by-line basis (I'm a fiend when it comes to this sort of thing), and as we discussed possible changes, Norbert began verbally reshaping the story into something that was smarter, richer, deeper, and darker than what he'd originally shown me. By the time we were done dissecting and rebuilding the piece, he had the spine of something that was, to my mind, original, subtle, and chilling. Norbert was, in fact, quite excited about the prospect of revising the story and sending it off to Tom and Elizabeth; and I had a good feeling about it, as well: it seemed to me that -- if he revised it as he said he would -- he had something that was a possible Borderlands contender.

I never saw the revision, so I don't know what he did or did not do; what I do know is that Tom and Elizabeth sent it back with one of the most detailed rejections I've ever read. I'm talking about the kind of rejection I used to dream about receiving: one that pointed out both the strengths and weaknesses of the piece while being complimentary of the overall writing (if not the narrative structure) and ending with sincere words of encouragement.

I got a call from Norbert after he received this rejection. Here are the high points of that conversation:

  1. Norbert was angry that they had rejected a story that he thought was one of his best pieces;

  2. He railed about how "hard" it was to get published, how it seemed like you had to "know somebody" or "have an in" to get something seriously considered (what remained unspoken but heavily implied was that Tom and Elizabeth had never given his story serious consideration, so I guess the detailed rejection was just a clever smokescreen on their part); and,

  3. He tried to put some of the blame for the rejection on my shoulders. "You've sold to them before, so I figured you had some idea of what they were looking for!"

If I could have crawled through the phone line, I would have throttled him senseless.

Keeping the above in mind, let's go to the next example: about a month ago, HWA's president, Joe Nassise, popped by a few select discussion boards to announce that the governing body of HWA had just revised the membership requirements for Affiliate members. Now, it used to be that anyone could join as an Affiliate, regardless of whether or not they had published anything; all that was required was a "... demonstrated intention to become a professional writer." The new requirements -- of which that "demonstrated intention" is still a part -- stipulate that to join HWA as an Affiliate member, you have to meet certain minimum sales requirements -- reasonable requirements that are a whole helluva lot easier to meet than those for Active status.

Okay; the HWA private members-only discussion board -- which is often unjustly characterized as being filled with nothing but name-calling, sniping, finger-pointing, flaming, back-biting, bitching, complaining, vitriol, wrath, anger, and general overall grumpiness and discourtesy -- reacted thusly: with calm, courteous, professional discussion, and like support.

But the wave of outright ire, rage, and indignation it sparked on other boards ... wow. I've rarely seen a subject get so ugly so fast. And the majority of this ugliness (you're way ahead of me, aren't you?) was propagated by new writers who, while they might have a handful of published stories on their bibliography, did not under these new membership requirements have enough credits to join as Affiliates.

I'll spare you the endlessly unpleasant specifics and jump right to the punchline, simply and eloquently expressed in 3 short, to-the-point paragraphs by Angela Hawkes-Craig, who was gracious enough to grant me permission to reprint her comments here:

"The tightening up of Affiliate membership requirements, in my opinion, is an excellent step in the correct direction. I, for one, am sick and tired of inarticulate postings by people writing such things as: 'I wrote this here book. It's real big. I want to write books for a living. Give me your agent's name and tell him I'm a real good writer.'

"Anyone joining HWA should already possess the basic knowledge of the publishing process; they shouldn't have to get on the boards and ask what a cover letter is, or what simultaneous submissions are....this should be known to any professional writer.

"The problem up until now has been that the organization is full of Buffy fans who want to be writers but want it handed to them on some sort of silver platter by other writers and editors. With the requirements now in force, we will weed out the fans and wannabes and start attracting writers who are serious about their craft."

Simple, direct, and to the point.

Which brings us back to the Norberts of this world. This time, for the clincher, we turn to a member of the opposite sex, who I'll call Norbette. (Bear in mind that Norbert and Norbette each have maybe a half-dozen published stories to their credit right now.)

Norbette's tale of woe is almost exactly the same as Norbert's: she showed me a story, I helped her dissect it so she could see where she was less adept than she needed to be, she talked through her revision ideas with me, went off, wrote the story, sent it into the Monteleones (again, I never saw the revised piece), and was rejected with an equally detailed response. Norbette confronted me face to face with her anger and whines, which were exactly the same as Norbert's. When she was done, I tried offering a few words of comfort.

"Rejection is part of the game, it's not personal," I told her. "Everybody's got to pay their dues".

She then said -- as Norbert had -- "Maybe I should just quit."

To which I replied, "You need to chalk this up to gaining needed experience and move on to the next story and the next market."

And she came back at me with this one: "That's easy for you to say, you never get rejected anymore; you've got people waiting on stuff from you."

And here, my friends, is where I got so angry that I actually wound up in the ER again when the nitro did nothing to quell the not-at-all-fun chest pains that soon followed.

I crumpled up her printed e-mail rejection from the Monteleones and dropped it in her lap while saying something along the lines of the following (which started as slightly more than a whisper and ended somewhere in the middle range of the Richter Scale):

"First of all, yes, I do still get rejected; secondly, that line of people waiting for stuff from me isn't nearly as long as you seem to think it is -- hence my working a maintenance job 4 to 5 nights a week; and lastly, how fucking dare you sit there and try to make me feel as if I should apologize to you because I'm now seeing some of the success I've worked my ass off for! I've been doing this for seventeen goddamn years! I've thrown away more rejection slips than you've yet to write enough stories to begin to collect, and I will not be made to feel guilty because I stuck with it and have now earned enough of a reputation that editors know they can expect a quality piece of work when they see my name on the by-line! I've earned the right to sometimes be able to get into print easier than someone who's just barely gotten their feet wet!"

To which she replied -- after her ears stopped ringing and the windows stopped their rattling: "I knew it wasn't going to be easy; I just didn't think it would be this hard. Maybe I should quit."

That's when the chest pains really kicked in, so I never got the chance to make a reply; I will do so now.

Maybe you should quit. Maybe you don't have what it takes to make a career as a writer. Maybe you're one of those "writers" who are like the main character from David Morrell's terrific story "The Typewriter", a "writer" who realizes that he "... liked to talk about it and be called a writer, but the pain of work did not appeal to him."

Okay, here's where it all starts coming together (finally):

There is no easy road to quick publication; there are no "ins"; it doesn't matter a damn "who you know"; no one is going to hand this to you on a silver platter; and so what if you've been at it for only 1 or 2 years and have yet to make a sale to Borderlands or Cemetery Dance or see one of your three published stories recommended for a Stoker? It doesn't mean there's some grand conspiracy out there whose sole focus is to make sure that you and you alone never see success in your career.

It. Ain't. Easy. It's not supposed to be. This is something to which you must wholeheartedly dedicate your life or you don't stand a chance. And if you're so used to getting everything right now, if you've so bought in to the fast-food/TiVo/iTunes/LiveJournal/On-Demand/instant results/instant reaction/instant access/instant gratification mentality that you sincerely believe you have the incontrovertible right to see your work immediately in print without having to take the time, effort, and patience to work toward building a reputation and career, if you're feeling frustrated and angry because you haven't seen this instant success and think you ought to maybe quit ... then quit.

Fer chrissakes, quit. Please. There are already enough of us out there competing for a limited number of magazine, anthology, and book slots. You'd be doing us a big favor, because the time that editors would otherwise waste on reading your stuff could be spent getting closer to reading our stuff, stuff that, odds favor, is infinitely better than yours because instead of spending our time on every discussion board we can find bitching and complaining about how *sniff-sniff* hard it is to get into and stay in print, we're busy actually writing and revising and re-revising in an effort to make our work as good as it can possibly be so that the Monteleones can tell us to revise it one more time.

So, yes, please, do quit and spare the rest of us your endless whining about how hard this business is.

And if you're one of the Norberts or Norbettes of this world who don't quit after the first 10 or 15 rejections, I offer the following piece of advice:

Grow a fucking spine -- and an extra layer or two of skin while you're at it. And do not waste a moment of your or anyone else's time publicly grousing about how hard this is, because the time you piss away doing that could be better spent working on your books and stories. Take my word on this next because I am speaking from recent and on-going experience: there may very well come a time when you'll find yourself unable to write as much as you'd like to (if you can do it at all), and you will deeply regret every second of precious writing time that you wasted on grumbling and complaining and self-indulgent self-pity.

Six days. It has taken me six days to write this. A month ago, before the second heart attack, I would have cranked out this sucker in a few hours -- yes, I've worked on other things during these six days, but have been physically unable to devote more than an hour at a time to any of them. Trust me, it's a great big puddle of suck.

But will I close this without offering advice to those Norberts and Norbettes who are determined to continue their campaign of complaining? Absolutely not; like I said at the beginning: I make every attempt to be supportive of all new writers. So here's my advice for all of you young curmudgeons out there:

Form your own organization, one that anybody can join without regard to experience, skill, or commitment; call it the NWWA: The New Whining Writers' Association. Get together on your discussion boards and talk about how arrogant, unfair, and elitist HWA and other professional writers' organizations are because they've got the nerve to demand that potential members actually meet certain standards. I'm sure the discussion threads will be lively ... if not particularly well-informed, articulate, or intelligent.

Maybe the rest of us will pop in from time to time on our days off to talk about our latest book deal or how we've sold yet another story to Cemetery Dance or Borderlands.

If this has offended you, if it's pissed you off, if you think I'm being unfair, then get off your ass, write as well as you can, and prove me wrong.

Just don't give yourself a heart attack in the process ....

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