Tag Archives: adversity

Looking for Progress in a Mirror

It is human nature to compare oneself to others, no matter how unfair that comparison is. I know that I have neither the productivity of Kevin J. Anderson, nor the skill to write the poetic prose of Guy Gavriel Kay, nor the ability to manage massive story lines and milieu like Brandon Sanderson. However, they are all professional writers with many years more experience than I have. Their skills represent goals, markers of achievement that I aspire to. Even looking to my friends who are closer in experience to myself isn’t an apt comparison. We are all different people and very different writers. Ultimately, their skills and successes have no direct impact on my own abilities. They are simply further down the road than I am. I have found that self-comparison is the only reliable and reasonable metric of progress.

As a writer advances through his/her career, growth occurs with every word and work written. I have often heard writers bemoan their old stories, talking about how they would do things differently given the chance. Though, I have written plenty of prose that has made me cringe later, I am more pleased than disgusted by the discovery. My ability to recognize flaws in my old work shows me better than any other metric my own growth as a storyteller.

The original introduction of my first completed novel is a perfect example. Because I largely discovery wrote that book, it took me two full years to complete. Now, I prefer to work in a more focused and deliberate manner, but that initial experience taught me a lot about my own style and craft. Naturally, my skill and tastes grew in that time. My more experienced eyes were able to see that a passage I had thought was filled with compelling characterization and evocative metaphors was little better than navel gazing. I redrafted that particular introduction half a dozen times, and each version was able to leverage my new skills and perspective. By comparing the initial and final drafts, I am able to clearly plot my own growth.

Though there have been times where I have made notes in a manuscript to rewrite or rework a passage during editing, I would not release a story into the wider world until it represented my best work. I have found that it is generally a good assumption that other writers have the same philosophy. What most non-writers have a hard time understanding is that it is almost impossible to track down and eliminate every error in a manuscript, especially since it passes through so many hands during the publishing process.

The way I see it, if I can recognize that some aspect of my old work is garbage, I must have come a long way from the time that I wrote it. Bonus points if I now understand why it is bad and how to fix it. Therefore, my own terrible prose is a marker of my progress as a writer. For me, that’s very motivating. Being a professional writer isn’t a game for those looking for short term benefit. Rather, writers must be continuously growing and learning. After a while, the trajectory of your skill matters more than the absolute value at any particular moment in your career.

Mean Salvation

Every new author’s challenge is to learn to tell a story well and to do so with a passionate heart. There are reams of advice on the internet, in how-to-write books, from writers groups and at conventions, workshops and seminars. Knowing basic plot structure is quick to learn but how does one navigate character depth and writing with a passionate heart?

When I was starting out, I went to my first writers group meeting with a completed 100,000 word novel. Someone offered to read it for me. I was ecstatic. The reader had some valuable insights: 1) don’t let your characters be stupid. It sounds harsh but it wasn’t. Given the incident she was referring to it made perfect sense and it was an easy fix; 2) characters need to be consistent and logical; and 3) you must be mean, even cruel to your characters.

Permission to be mean??? I was both ecstatic and mortified. How could I embrace this? I don’t like conflict. Reading fairy tales as a kid, I was so relieved when the happy endings came – I wanted the conflict to be over so I could relish those sweet but short utopias. Yet, those words of permission filled me with relief – I no longer had to be nice, the peacemaker, making everyone happy somehow through their struggle. I was never so nice to my characters that they were wimpy and the story was without conflict but I hadn’t gone far enough.

Permission to be mean was permission to delve deep into a character’s psyche, to understand their deepest fears, anxieties and painful back story. It was about not feeling guilty because the characters I loved had to experience trouble and pain.

Understanding that it was my responsibility to look into a character’s deepest fears and to throw them into the pits of emotional hell and physical danger made me a better writer. When I now read the how-to books and columns, I understand they are challenging us to search for those emotional pits of hell within ourselves, to be honest enough so we can make our characters sweat through them. For example, this spring I took a one day workshop with Donald Maass based on his book Writing 21st Century Fiction: High Impact Techniques for Exceptional Storytelling. That workshop was like being in therapy. We were asked questions similar to ‘What is the most painful secret you have? Where can you make your character feel what you are feeling right now?’

It’s a mean salvation for a writer – as we dig deeper and challenge our characters and are mean to them emotionally and physically, we are challenging our inner selves and are digging deeper into our own psyches.

The advice I was given when I started out makes sense now – if I dig deep within myself to understand emotional truth, dig deep within my character (my character isn’t me and her emotional truth isn’t necessarily mine), if I dig deep into the emotional realities of life (and they can be cruel), if I let my characters experience what they need, then I will be true (and logical) to my characters and my readers will experience a satisfying emotional journey. The added bonus was that I could now more easily ramp up conflict and tension.

Mean salvation – that’s the best way I can describe that first advice. We all live it, we write it and in our hearts, we know it. My favorite books make me live through those dark, awkward and painful moments with a character and in the end I embrace their journey although not all endings are sweet. Their catharsis is my catharsis. Their pain is my pain. Their salvation is my salvation.

It’s not like the song lyrics “you’ve got to be cruel to be kind” it’s that we’ve got to be cruel to be real, to dig down deep and face what makes us and our characters emotionally real. It’s mean salvation.

Time is Taken, Never Given

I work insane hours. I will often spend as many as thirty to forty hours at a time on the job. One hundred or more hour weeks are the norm, not the exception. Don’t pity me. I knew what I was getting into when I took this position. In fact when I was recruited for this opportunity, I chose it over four others for the challenge it brought me. My recruiter was honest with me, and to this day, I believe that I went into that choice with my eyes open. I knew that I was committing to a lifestyle, not just a job. Even still, my work leaves me with precious little time for my two life goals.

First, I want to be an amazing father.

Next, I want to be a professional writer.

That’s it. If all that is written on my tombstone is, “He was a damn good father and writer,” well, then it would all have been worth it.

One of the major challenges of my life is making time. I gave up on finding it years ago. I’ve come to realize, that no one will ever make me a good father, or a professional writer. If I’m going to have the time for either of those things, I need to take it. Because of that struggle, what free time I do have is precious. The greatest gift I can give my loved ones is a small piece of the time that I carved out for myself.

There are a thousand things that demand my attention. Sometimes, it is easy to let all the noise of the world overwhelm my two life goals.  My job, along with everyone else’s work, exists to further its own existence. We all come to work to make money for the company, and in turn, take some of those earnings back home with us. My job will never make me a professional writer.  That’s not what we do. Achieving that ambition will never help the company’s bottom line. Because of this, my work will never give me time to write. If I’m going to have that time, I must seize it.

No one will ever give you time. No matter how much my significant other, my friends or my family love me and want me to succeed, they will never be able to give me the time I need to write. Because they love me, they want to spend time with me. Truth is, I want to spend time with them too. But at some point, I need to write. The very best my loved ones can do is give me space. That gift is a gift of love. What I do with that space is up to me. Do I take a nap? Do I catch up on my reading or those television shows I have been neglecting? Do I stare into the depths of my navel and think about writing?

Or do I work? Do I take that gift of love, that gift of space, and use it to make something?

In the end, one piece of advice that I can pass on from my own struggles is this: seize your dreams. No one will seize them for you. Even if they were so inclined, in so doing, they would be rendered meaningless. It is in the struggle that accomplishment translates into meaning.

Relax, and Dial Back the Desperation

SOTRA guest post by Travis Heermann.

Writers are some of the most desperate people on this planet.

We pour our poor, tender subconscious out into an endless void, where most of the time nothing comes back to us but endless rejection. Except for Mom, who loves our stuff. The writer’s life is a long, lonely road through a thunderstorm, the aloof gaze of a bazillion passing headlights washing over you in the pouring rain as you drag your luggage behind you, which contains your most precious things–your dreams, your stories, your underwear. And all you want is someone to notice you, pull over and give you a ride, someone besides your mom, someone in the industry who’ll drive you to that cocktail party where the real authors hang out. Many of us walk this road for years, and it breeds a kind of desperation akin only to that experienced by would-be starlets bound for Hollywood, suicidal painters, and musicians living in their van.

On the advice of several people, I attended my first World Science Fiction Convention in 2008 to stick out my thumb and hope for a ride.

I was there with singular purpose: meet editors and pitch my next novel. But the hard part was, I knew practically no one there. There was an acquaintance I had from back home, a fellow writer, and he was literally the only person I knew. As most writers are introverts for whom assertiveness and social intricacies are secondary skills–that’s why we write, for frak’s sake–this kind of situation is a like a death-trap designed by our arch-nemesis.

I could not help but walk around just agog, thinking “Oh, my god! There’s Favorite Writer X.” Such people were thick on the ground, writers I had been reading for years. If Heinlein (were still alive) and Bradbury had been there, I would have collapsed into a puddle of nerveless protean goo.

When one is walking around an event like this, a world of incredible conversations spin about us. It is not uncommon to see four or five established, A-list authors just sitting around chatting. The newbie can only imagine what spectacular deals and secret insider news they must be discussing, what great mind-blowing works they’re forging next, and then one is stabbed by that dagger of silent desperation to be in that circle. And then one stands there, perhaps twenty feet away from the august gathering, mooning like a stalker, until finally sighing and shuffling off, all but drowning in the soul-crushing certainty that one will be an utter nobody forever.

At conventions like World Con and World Fantasy, the two principal cons for professional networking, the air is redolent with the scent of Desperate Newbie Writer, an aroma unique and distinguishable from Unshowered Fan or Get-Me-The-Frak-Out-Of-This-Rubber-Costume-I’ve-Been-Wearing-In-95-Degree-Heat-For-Six-Hours. Many of these desperate newbie writers–and having been one for many years allows me to spot them in a crowd–brim with the same purpose as I had. Meet that editor. Meet that agent. Meet that publisher. Why? To break in! To enlist the aid, or at least snare the momentary attention, of one of those revered, overworked gatekeepers.

Given the speed at which publishing works, and the infrequency and cost of conventions like these, the newbie’s mistake is thinking that anything is going happen within the lifespan of a Galapagos tortoise. Yes, lightning does strike, but would you really want to expect your career to be built on one lightning strike? Ain’t gonna happen, get over it.

But here’s what does happen.

At that first World Con, my friend from back home introduced me to some people, who introduced me to others. I met a few other people who were further down the path that I was. In the five years since, as I attended other cons like World Fantasy, and this year for the first time, Dragon Con, those initial acquaintances have become friends and mentors, and as my social network has grown, so has the potential for professional development. Let us not fail to mention that the respect and camaraderie of one’s peers feels pretty good to a writer’s soul worn ragged by screaming into the echoless void. I should also not fail to mention that I have built up my publishing history with a few more novels and some short stories.

At about this time, I had also launched an Author Interview Series for my blog, which I had conceived as a way to not only build traffic, but also to network with writers I admired. So I had a secondary purpose: to secure contacts for interviewees. Most authors are hungry for exposure, so I found most of the people I spoke to receptive to an interview. I came home with an armload of interviews, and months’ worth of blog content. And because I had asked questions that were not run-of-the-mill fan questions, questions that attempted to get at the heart of how one became a career author, which is what truly interested me anyway, they remembered me. The Author Interview Series became a form of networking.

Here’s the disheartening truth: you will never be part of that circle you so desperately wanted to join, not even if you do break in and build a fabulous career. Because those circles are made up mostly of friends who have known each other for years, and often came up through the weeds from Newbie Land together.

Now here’s the encouraging truth: if you keep at it, if you write, if you sell, if you persist, you will eventually be part of your own circle of long-time friends sitting around at cons, talking shop, bitching, gossiping, all the things that professionals do at professional events.

And you know what? Trusting that this will happen is enormously liberating; it removes all that pressure, assuages all that desperation, blunts the edges of that longing to be “one of the pros.”

So here’s what you need to create your own circles of professional friends, acquaintances, and contacts.

  1. Basic social skills. Most people, especially other writers, recognize that writers are themselves eccentric folk, so they’ll likely forgive a rookie gaff or two. But the better you are with people, the more confident you are with yourself and your work (and oh, isn’t this the tricky one!), the faster your network of acquaintances will grow. If you’re going to World Fantasy, imagine a four-day cocktail party, and prepare yourself for it. Study social dynamics if you have to.
  2. Street Cred. That’s right. You have to write, and keep writing. Eventually, you will pick up some sales. People will start to notice. People will remember you from conventions (hopefully positively), and it will get easier and easier.
  3. Patience. We all know how long it takes to build a real writing career. If you’re in this demanding overnight success, quit now. Go away. You’re deluded. I used to envision Harlan Ellison and Ray Bradbury toiling away at the typewriter, struggling but getting by on the money they made from their short stories. I saw an interview with Ray Bradbury wherein he described how it him about seven years to make any kind of appreciable income from his fiction writing efforts after he sold his first story. Along the course of your career, there will be likely a few big leaps, but mostly it consists of thousands of meandering baby steps.

Now, there are still a lot of people who are further down the path than me. They always will be. But I can also look back and see that there are many, many people behind. Some will give up and turn back. Some will get lost in the Swamp of Despair, or take a wrong turn into the Valley of Evil Counselors. I have come a long way since that first World Con. I can go to major conventions now, guaranteed to know people there. My circle of professional friends and contacts continues to expand.

So relax. Take heart. Your network will grow like a tree that has taken root, and fruit will eventually start to appear on some of the branches.

Guest Writer Bio:
Travis HeermannFreelance writer, novelist, award-winning screenwriter, poker player, poet, biker, roustabout, Travis Heermann is a graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop and the author of the Ronin Trilogy, The Wild Boys, and Rogues of the Black Fury, plus short fiction pieces in anthologies and magazines such as Weird Tales, Historical Lovecraft, and Shivers VII. As a freelance writer, he has produced a metric ton of role-playing game work both in print and online, including Legend of Five Rings, d20 System, and the MMORPG, EVE Online. He enjoys cycling, martial arts, torturing young minds with otherworldly ideas, and zombies. He has three long-cherished dreams: a produced screenplay, a NYT best-seller, and a seat in the World Series of Poker.