Category Archives: Business

An End to New Beginnings…

I’ve really enjoyed this month’s Fictorians’ posts on new beginnings. As I am typing this, I am sitting in my newly finished basement, in the new house we built in 2016, and am about to head to the Superstars Writing Seminars. I’m also starting a new novel and looking forward to a new year.

Some of the posts I found the most interesting and helpful were those where the author embarked on a new direction after deciding a previous effort was not working out. Taking motivation from rejection, using a new start to rekindle a love of writing, taking a leap into a new genre… All of them were helpful and entertaining.

I hope our readers found them helpful. It was my deliberate desire to provide new writers, or writers who were dealing with difficulties and lack of motivation some encouragement and ideas.

I’d like to thank all of the Fictorians who posted, and would like to especially thank this month’s guest posters. As far as I’m concerned, you all hit it out of the park.

Now, on to Superstars!

New Beginnings from Old Endings

Whenever I begin a new writing project, I know I’m building on what I’ve learned from previous projects. Having written non-fiction for over two decades, and fiction for a few years now, I’ve come to recognize certain patterns in my writing habits that have been formed—both consciously and unconsciously—by my previous efforts. All my new beginnings follow a long chain of old endings.

In simple terms, it’s the learning process. My articles and book chapters, my short stories and novellas, all contained both successes and failures: things that worked, things that didn’t. Yet each one taught me something that I could take into the next project. The failures, if I’m honest, are the better teachers. That’s where the real learning is done. And the failures don’t need to be epic. Simple mistakes, recognized for what they are, show me what to do differently next time.

For example, my first professional fiction sale (a short story to an anthology), contained a fairly subtle yet significant example of floating viewpoint: “head hopping,” as it’s better known (where the point of view suddenly switches from one character to another without any cue to the reader that it’s happening). In my case, I was too inexperienced at the time to recognize what I had done, and it was subtle enough that the editor himself didn’t notice it until his second or third pass. (It was a scene in a séance, wherein I jumped blithely between the main character, a man trying to contact the dead, to the old woman who was leading him though the ritual.)

When the editor caught it and pointed it out to me, I was sufficiently mortified (another classic newbie move—overreaction!). But I also learned why head hopping was a problem, how it can disrupt the flow and pull the reader out of the story. I have been careful not to make the same mistake again. (Don’t misunderstand: many very good authors head hop through their characters all the time, and do it well. But not me, not then.)

The point: it was a learning experience. One that I wouldn’t have made had I not given that project my very best efforts, and made a sale to a good editor who then helped me improve the story. Because even my best at any given time will have shortcomings. Only by pushing myself will I make mistakes I can really learn from them. These are the good mistakes. The “new mistakes,” I now call them, stealing a line from the Shakira Zootopia song “Try Everything.”

Speaking of stealing, the best illustration I know of the process of making these “new mistakes” comes from one of my favorite books, Steal Like an Artist, by Austin Kleon. I think it speaks for itself:

(Image source: tumblr.austinkleon.com/post/102479069106. Note that Kleon himself stole this from Maureen McHugh!)

It’s a great illustration from a great book. Notice, however, that implicit in the “life of a project” is that we must complete our projects. For fiction writers, this is the equivalent of Heinlein’s second rule of writing: finish what you start. That’s the best way to learn. Even the epic fails, the stillborn ones destined for the scrap heap, teach us something … even if it’s just the extent of our current shortcomings.

But finish. Learn what you can. Then start something new.

Starting a new year is a lot like starting a new story. We can look back on the successes and failures of the ones we’ve finished, figure out what we’ve learned, and then begin a new one with a little more confidence.

Here’s to 2017—may it be full of new beginnings built on old endings.

Steve Ruskin has been a university professor, a mountain bike guide, and a number of things in between. In addition to fiction (most recently the sci-fi novella A Deal with the Devil’s Brokerhe has written for academic and popular audiences in publications ranging from the American Journal of Physics to the Rocky Mountain NewsVisit steveruskin.com.

A Change of Perspective, And A Change of Course

When I first started writing it was back in the “good old days”. By that I mean it was about twenty years ago when the only paths to publishing was 1) to get an agent that could get you a good contract with one of the big boys in New York or 2) self-publish through a vanity press (at exorbitant prices) and accept all the shame that went with it.

(Seriously, it was just like this. Except without the nudity…and the rotten fruit.)

Thanks to the indie publishing pioneers that hasn’t been the case for some time but it was hard for me to rid the stigma from my mind. I know. You’d think that the second word of an easier and more profitable path came my way I’d be all over it. Not so. Working at a bookstore for so long pretty much…I hate to use the word indoctrinated but that’s pretty much what it was. When I first started working there I was told by multiple people that self-published books were poorly written books; no self respecting author would ever go that route…etc. Hearing that for a decade, including the first years of the indie-publishing movement, made it impossible for me to see it any other way. It wasn’t until I met and befriended some indie authors, and heard them talk about their successes and struggles that I finally saw how the industry had changed.

Those of you who paid attention to the title have probably figured out that this was my change of perspective. So what was my change of course? Four years ago I was still dead set on getting an agent. Now? I have no intention of querying a single one. Why? Because I’m self-publishing my first novel through the company that I will found. Yeah, that’s quite the 180 but I feel good about it. I feel that this is the right path; and thanks to my indie friends, I have a really good idea of what I need to do. Despite the stress I’m as calm and composed as Cersei before she dropped the smock and walked the walk. Granted that means that at some point I’ll be cold and shaking, wondering “why did I ever think this was a good idea” and that’s okay. It’s all going to be great!

First steps

Beginnings are a mix of excitement and fear for me. The beginning of something is the point where all the options are open and all the possibilities still on the table. New book, new house, new job. Whatever the ‘new’ thing is, that first moment is filled with options. Then you start making choices, and with each choice you set yourself down a path. Doors open, doors close. The wide open space becomes more linear.

As they say, watch that first step- -it’s a doozy.

I find myself at several of those first steps as we enter 2017, each of them filled with that same mixture I described above. For starters, I am having my work professionally edited for the first time. I am about three years into writing and have submitted a few short stories to magazines but this is the first time I have let a professional see my novel length work. We’re two weeks into the manuscript being in his hands and he hasn’t sent me that email I always imagine at 3am – you know the one that says “Dave, you really shouldn’t be doing this.” When the sun’s up I know that email is not coming, but 3am is a different story.

Never having been through this before, it will be opening a world of new possibilities when I double click that attachment and open up his edits. I’m sure my ego will take a few hits during the process, but I’m also sure there’s opportunity there for me to become a much better writer. Within a few weeks I’ll have his edits back and I will be starting another new beginning: my first real novel revision.

In the interim, I’m standing at another first step: the start of a new story. I need to keep working as there is no value in me twiddling my thumbs while waiting for those edits to come back. Thus I’m starting my prep work on a new novel in a new world, thinking about all those blank spaces and faces that will take shape in the weeks to come. That’s always a very fun part of the process for me.

The most important threshold I’m crossing though is one of intent. Prior to this year, the focus of my work was primarily about building my skills as a writer. I chose projects more for the growth opportunities they afforded than any publishing potential they might have. I was looking for exercises and challenges, ways that I could find my voice and build my writer’s muscles. In short, I’ve been working out.

This year is about putting those muscles to work. My primary goal for the next twelve months is to be working on stories that I intend to publish in some way. I also now will be choosing my projects based on how likely they are to achieve that goal for me. For example, the more traditional fantasy novel might get the nod over that more experimental novella I’ve been tinkering with. I still won’t work on anything that doesn’t excite me but as I have an embarrassment of riches where story ideas are concerned, it’s now important I choose the ones that are the best use of my time.

What have I learned from this reflection of beginnings? I suppose that they are the thresholds we cross that unlock the opportunities for us in the future. You have to start with that blank page or first day of the new project if you are ever to reach the end, when all the choices have been made and questions have been answered.

Then you begin again.

See you next time!