Normally at the beginning of the year I have a pretty good idea of what my career goals will be. This year my goal was to survive the Anthology Workshop at the end of February, hopefully selling a story in the process. The rest of the year I’d figure out later. I know that sounds like I’m throwing fruit on a canvas and hoping that the outcome is something other than a sticky mess. But when you’re juggling the pears of a day job, the oranges of an intense writing workshop, and the sour apples of a dying pet, hail Mary throws are about all you can do.
So, did I make a masterpiece? Perhaps. Out of the five stories I wrote for the workshop, three sold. Nothing to sniff at for sure but instead of finishing my second novel I spent the next six months hurling more and more fruit. Starfruit and persimmon, blueberries and cherries, all were thrown at the canvas. I didn’t need more fruit but it was hard to say no when the opportunities arose. I mean, how often does one get offered the persimmon of an invite only anthology? Even if it doesn’t hit the canvas it would be wrong to pass up the chance to make the throw.
And miss I did. But a few of those persimmons are still in the air so maybe one will land. I hope all of them will hit but the longer they’re in transit, the more I wonder. This isn’t a slow-motion montage and the canvas hasn’t been pushed back fifty feet so it should have connected by now. Right?
Given that I accomplished my initial goal, I can definitely count this year a success — though I certainly don’t have any desire to repeat the clean up. I haven’t decided if I’ll stay the course in the new year (you know, to improve my aim) or to set a new goal. Perhaps adding a laser sight to the act. Who knows. Whatever I decide, at least I know I can make one hell of a fruit salad.
Few things push my happy button faster than reading a story in an Asian inspired setting, especially when it’s done well. Conversely, there are few things that can earn my wrath faster than a misrepresentation of everything my ancestors lived. Let’s start with an example of the good.
The Emperor’s Soul by Brandon Sanderson is beautiful story. If you haven’t read it than you need to put it at the top of your reading list. It’s about a forger that has to forge a new soul for the emperor in order to evade execution.
One of the central ideas in The Emperor’s Soul is that anything less than perfection is unacceptable. In the protagonist’s line of work, it’s a necessity. However that very same trait is one that is considered a fault in western cultures but prized in eastern cultures.
Another necessity of the protagonist’s profession is that in order to forge it, she has to know every aspect of it — everything that made it what it is today. It’s an ideal that Sun Tzu talks about in The Art of War. Popularly the concept is referred to as “know your enemy.” I don’t know if Brandon borrowed the notion from Sun Tzu. I do know that he does a fantastic job showing the varied nuances and complications such a study brings.
On the other end of the spectrum is a manuscript that will not be named. A friend asked me to read it and I never made it past the first chapter. In fact it took all of my willpower not to throw my laptop across the room. This story made the same mistake that I’ve seen in a lot of movies. They grab hold of the cool elements — Samurai swords, martial arts, ninjas, etc — and throw the rest out the window.
The problem with that is the history, philosophy, sociology, and traditions are so intertwined and influential on the cool elements that you can’t separate the two and do it justice. A Samurai sword is nothing more than an overgrown letter opener without the training, and dedication of Kendo. The man wielding the sword is nothing more than an armed criminal without the code of Bushido.
(Note: This particular manuscript is not the best example of the anonymous author’s work. That’s why I’m not revealing the book’s name or theirs.)
Is it hard to understand a culture that is not your own? It can be. Though I feel the end result makes it worth the effort. For me, it’s not just about getting the details right to show the inspiring society the respect it deserves. We’re in a time when the industry is very aware that we need fiction with more diversity; and we truly do. But what we need more than that is well executed diverse fiction that helps the reader understand the world we live in and cultivates respect.
When I was in college I thought I would make dinner for my family. It wasn’t anything fancy — just a pizza and I used Bisquick for the crust — but since Mom worked long hours and my siblings had sports practices that ran late I figured they’d love it anyway.
As it turned out Bisquick was (and still is) my culinary kryptonite. The pizza crust could have doubled for a paving stone. I followed the instructions to the letter and I didn’t over cook it. As far as I can tell it should have turned out perfectly. For that matter, nothing else I’ve made since with the product has turned out either. It’s still edible and the flavor is spot on. It’s just too crunchy for the experience to be enjoyable (and potentially detrimental to dental work).
Now I’m afraid to touch that defiant yellow box.
I have a similar fear concerning my writing. Not that the story won’t turn out right. Practice, study, and good editing will take care of that. No, my fear is that no matter how hard I try my writing will be mediocre.
Now I do realize that mediocre is a relative term. For some it might be the absence of awards and accolades. For others it might be that they can’t afford to quit the day job. I define it as being as unsuccessful as a writer as I am with Bisquick. That no matter how hard I study and fine-tune my craft my literary contributions will amount to a glutinous hocky puck that will be laughed about for years.
I want to be better than that and unfortunately only time will tell. There’s no way to safeguard against it. I simply have to practice, hone, and cross my fingers that this time it works.
Back in high school I worked at Burger King. Since I was one of the few who could calculate the amount of change due without using a calculator, I was put on drive thru duty. A lot. So there wasn’t anything out of the ordinary when I took up my cramped post two days before halloween.
Two cars pulled up to the menu board and I dutifully took their orders. When the first car pulled up to the window I noticed that the passenger was dressed as a rabbit. He wasn’t wearing a pair of ears and glue on whiskers. It was a full body suit. I thought it unusual that they would be going to a costume party on a Thursday afternoon but whatever. It was close enough to Halloween.
I took their money, they took their food, and they drove away. The second car pulled up. Both the driver and passenger were dressed in red plaid hunting gear.
Before I could say hello the driver leaned forward and said “Be vewy, vewy quiet. We’re hunting wabbits!”
I couldn’t speak for a full minute. I was laughing too hard. If I tried to put this scene in a book it wouldn’t work. It’s so contrived. But dang! It was funny!