A hard weekend. Unreasonable expectations. A writer’s life.

I love to create. Art and writing. Even at my work, this I enjoy crafting a good report, a clean spreadsheet. I like building things. I love a good story. So it stands to reason that I always wanted to write. Not that I always have, but it’s always been a dream. But except for the lucky few (maybe), it is a difficult, fairly thankless road. My wife thinks I’m crazy to have a hobby that makes me depressed on a regular basis, as rejections come in for stories that I have spent hours, days, months, or even years on (I’m not always the most productive, granted, so my years might be another’s weeks). I crafted a fun story late last year, with a cool world, cool ideas, and cool character (I think). It had a neat twist, and had reasonably good reception at OWW. And it was rejected for the anthology it was written for.

And that hurts.

It was a crazy high profile anthology, for full disclosure, with high profile authors. New York Times best sellers anchoring it. Only a few slots open. I knew, even before the response, that it was unreasonable to believe that the story would make it in. Yet… I kind of did. I think it was a good story. Sigh.

I know the motto you have to submit to get accepted, that 100% of stories that aren’t put into the world never get published, that you should have a rhino thick skin and play the numbers. But getting rejected also throws off my writing confidence and enthusiasm. It can stall me for days, or longer. I got rejected Friday night and haven’t completely shaken off my depression. Granted, a tough day at work didn’t help and I’m feeling a little under the weather, too.

So forgive my whining, my lack of fortitude, my bad weekend. But I think it’s unrealistic to assume that no one has them. Most writers do. It comes with the writing life. I just wish it didn’t.

Tonight I’m doing some art instead. Still creating, but not trying to drum back up that writing confidence. Waiting for that bruise to fade, and the well of confidence to fill back up (warranted or not!) :)

Hope your weekend went better.

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The featured image is a sketch I made for the StoneDragon book, which is slowly plodding along. I actually really like having the art to go along with, even to inspire me as I’m writing. I’d like to do some more coloured pieces, but we’ll see what time allows. This image is Karen Waters, the daughter of a sea god, a god who is losing a battle and hiding from his enemies. Karen will take a foolish but brave action which sets everything in motion…

Swimming in the Shark Tank

 

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Hardly needs to be said, but this cartoon is tongue in cheek, obviously. :)

Other things that I considered as captions:

“I know I haven’t spent much time with you over the last year or so, Darling, but it was very nice of you to leave out my chum-flavoured underpants”

“According to Mr. Howey, the riches will now flow in.” (Please, no disrespect meant for Hugh at all, he’s great, I just thought it would be funny).

“Don’t worry so much. I typed it in Courier New, cut the adverbs, and complimented the agent on her new toe nail polish. What could possibly go wrong?”

Hee hee.

 

The image is ink and black Prismacolor. Part of the image is a bit yellow and grainy, just from photographing it at night. I’ve really got to get a few good lights in the basement for photographing artwork. Oh well. Added to the To Do list! :)

Standing at the Edge

Once, when I was traveling the world and living on an island in Australia, I stood on a great rock, looking down at blue-green water, with a small circle of darkness. The blue-green meant shallow water, and a broken leg, likely, if a jumper landed on it from where I stood. The darkness represented a deep hole, a couple of body lengths deep or more, and maybe my arms’ length in diameter. Deep enough to land in safely, and swim to the surface. It was in the middle of nowhere, so that if you misjudged, you were in trouble. I’d seen several people jump from the rock, land in the darkness, and swim away safely.

I stood on the rock and stared down.

When an author goes from unpublished to (traditionally) published, or non-traditionally best-seller, it is almost like one person to another. They go from the vast pool of unpublished authors, to the perhaps-still-uncertain but undoubtedly recognized professional, with external validation of their path. What I find most fascinating, at least in terms of their writing journey, is what they wrote on writing and publishing BEFORE they crossed the line. How similar to mine were their doubts, methods, and perseverance? What were their honest thoughts and emotions? To what extent am I the same, or different? Is my potential as great or less?

Because it could be less. It is rare for anyone to know their own limitations. Instead, there is a slow drip of reality in this world that eventually brings harsh visibility to the limits of reasonable expectations*. And I don’t say that out of arrogance. When I was a kid, I tried really hard to sing. Not once did I ever get positive reinforcement from an unbiased outsider. Reluctantly, I came to accept my limits in that field. Having some respect for an unblemished forehead, I stopped banging it against that particular wall.

With writing (and even more with art), it’s been different. I’ve always had kernels of success, and some especially enthusiastic responses to my art. Writing is a longer and less visible endeavour, but I’ve had some positive reinforcement there, too.

With novels, the work to produce them is a year or more. I’m getting close to finishing Black Diamonds, sending it out into the world. I’m standing at the top of that rock, staring down at the darkness, knowing that if I miss it’s going to hurt. A lot. But knowing that if I don’t jump, it will be cowardice. I need to know.

In Australia, I took a single step forward and jumped, my thoughts cold and clear as ice. I hit the water and sank down. Into the dark well. I won.

Soon I’ll hit the send button  on Black Diamonds. I’m standing on the cliff again, feeling fear creep up. I hope the manuscript does well. If it misses, it will hurt, I know. Hopefully not too much. But either way, I’ll send it out. And the next one too. Because positive feedback, even if minor, continues to come. The opening chapter of Black Diamonds recently got a five star critique on OWW. I haven’t hit the wall yet.

And if I hit that black well at last, sinking into the cool water of success, it will be worth it…

I hope. At the very least, it’ll hurt a lot less. :)

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  • I don’t mean for this to be a discouraging post for those have doubts either. Writing is a calling for many, and I don’t want anyone to stop on account of me. Reinforced by the fact that writing is a craft, so no-one should judge their potential by their early awkward efforts. Same as you wouldn’t judge your hockey playing ability the first time you stepped on the ice. And even beyond that, if you like writing, why would you even want to stop? There are a plethora of pool halls filled with people who have no intention of being the next Minnesota Fats. But I thought it might be worthwhile to share how I view my own journey, my doubts and aspirations, for those who might be traveling it with me. And even more if I have some success and someone is curious about what my thoughts were before I crossed that line…

The image here was a quick whip-up for the post. About a half an hour’s work, still wet when I photo’d it, watercolor washes (blurred slightly on the computer) and charcoal. 

Professional riders don’t ride fat ponies (or ‘Premise’)

My Lovely Wife rides. So I know more than I should about the giant endlessly-plotting creatures called horses. Have I mentioned I don’t ride? :)

But I know one thing. Unless you have more money than JK Rowling, and are willing to spend it on a fat sugar-cube-crazy lump called ‘Princess’, you won’t see too many professional riders on out-of-shape ponies. Why not? Cause they want to win. They have to win to get paid. And the best rider in the world isn’t going to get Princess over that ribbon-fluttering* red-and-white-striped 6-foot-high jump.

The same is true in writing. You can be the best writer in the world, and if you want to write a plot about a boy who gets rained in on a weekend and watches an Elmo marathon while his Mom bakes cookies—well, that’s no bestseller, my friend**. No goal, no plot, no stakes. Nope, nope, nope.

Interestingly, in my experience, writing a good premise is also a skill, and tied to your instinctive understanding of plot. I read a bunch of plot books and did a lot of writing, and found that my pitch paragraphs—essentially the book’s premise—got better soon after, almost instinctively. I started answering some writing blog challenges to throw out interesting pitches and began to get notice for them, almost all at once, as if something had clicked. Kind of like when a baseball or golf swing turns from something stiff and over-thought into a natural flowing action. The latter approach sends the ball a lot further, trust me, although you need some practice and awkward swings to get to that point.

As a result, I don’t actually want to give any kind of formula, although they exist out there. But USUALLY a good pitch or premise will include:

  • A big or original idea, or twist on an old idea. This can be in almost any aspect, but something has to feel fresh.
  • A character, with some brief description. Who faces a problem. And reasonable motivation why it matters to them.
  • A goal and consequence for failure, the more exceptionally dire the better.
  • (and credit to Ilona Andrews, author of the incredible Kate Daniels series, for this additional point) Some kind of grounding in setting or time frame. In other words, you need to be able to tease out whether the story is medieval sword and sworcery, contemporary setting urban fantasy, or spaceship riding science fiction.
  • All of the above should be meshed up in one or two well written paragraphs.

I hesitate to do this, but I’m going to show you the pitch paragraph for my most recent WIP (I also posted this on Ilona’s blog, in a reasonably similar format, and received a pretty positive reception from her and her readers):

In a sprawling and drought-scarred Empire, a paranoid Emperor hunts enemies real and imagined, sending metal-twisting assassins through the night sky. Sixteen-year-old Julian Black and his icy and brilliant brother Devlin have vowed revenge for the death of their mother. First, though, they must win entry into the Broken Mountain, training ground of assassins and Stone Soldiers, to steal the secrets of the Four Facets of magic. No man might know more than one, on pain of horrible death. But the brothers will risk just that to bring the Emperor down.

Separated from his brother, surrounded by danger, Julian finds himself torn between the scarred and beautiful Silvenna, assassin-in-training, and his brother—who may not have told Julian entirely everything about the plan.

It’s a bit longer than a paragraph, but I think that what matters most is overall impact, not any rule on length or structure. It has to be well-written.

I will dwell on this point more later as well, but I’d also suggest reading it aloud in an empty room, normal volume, to see if it flows. This will also help you catch typos, even when your eyes have glazed over from over-editing.

But back to the starting point, how do you know if you’ve got a premise with punch? The answer? Ask people. Almost anybody, they just need to be readers, not writers. I asked my critique group. But instead of just asking for insight on one pitch, I sent them a bunch (seven or eight if I remember), and asked them which ones they liked. My wonderful writing partners liked some, not others, but interestingly both  agreed on only one: Black Diamonds.

It was a one hour investment, gathering random ideas, brainstorming pitches, and sending a quick email. And why did I do it?

Because the novel before this, I didn’t, and universally I lost agents at the pitch/ query stage. I wrote the novel and then tried to write the pitch, and had absolutely no idea how to put the former in a concise and appealing package to suit the latter. But I sent it out anyway, and got a resounding chorus of crickets and rejections.

Trust me, starting with a good pitch is much much easier.

As an aside, I still like the previous book, and want to revamp the pitch  (now that I’ve hit a better place in that skill set, as mentioned above) and re-work the plot (I leveled up there too). That novel will likely be self-published, given its previous agent experience, but that could be a fun exercise for me as well. If I can think of a good pitch, I might add it in this post, or another one. See what the readers  think. :)

Because it might save me a boat load of work, to know if the pitch isn’t working first. That vastly increases your chances of commercial success.

Because when you’re coming to that ribbon-covered fence, you’re better off riding a muscle-bound fire-breather named Thor than a sweet little ankle-rubber named Princess. J. K. Rowling or not. :)

So best of luck with your pitches! Let me know how they go.

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* Why do I mention fluttering ribbons? For the uninitiated, horses hate fluttery things. It’s because they’re prey animals and think that random things will jump out and eat them. Or so they’ll have you believe. I personally think they just like to buck people off, and laugh about it in the stables after…

** I fully realize that I’m challenging every writer that reads this post to try and prove me wrong, the way I’ve set out a concrete example of a bad plot premise. I read somewhere that Jim Butcher wrote a book after a similar challenge in a writing panel (not the Dresden Files, fyi). Urban myth? Who knows. In any event, if you do take up my challenge, feel free to send me your completed manuscript when done (minimum 60,000 words, don’t waste my time otherwise!) and I’ll acknowledge you in a footnote to the post. I also reserve the right to make incredible fun of you for doing it, but you know, you win some, you lose some. :)

The image for this post is an old one as well, and appropriate only for the fact that it had a horse in it. But it had a horse in it, so we were off to the races. (no pun intended). :)