Art Against Fear

It takes a lot of courage to write. I’m not big-upping myself, I know that if you are reading this, you probably write.

(All my friends are artists, even the ones who don’t acknowledge that part of themselves. You are courageous, and I love you.)

It takes even more courage to present that work to scrutiny, to ask someone who owes you nothing, if they would please like to buy your work and promote it with their name attached. My courage usually fails here. Query letters are a social game, with indiscernible rules, where a win grants you a few more seconds to pitch your work, and a fail is mark on your name. “This one does not belong with us.”

Or, that’s how it seems, when you are all alone, reading every book in your writing-instruction library and wondering how anyone has ever liked their own work enough to write “Dear Editor…”

I am becoming more courageous. That has not come from the years writing alone. (That had its own uses, which may be a post for another day.) It’s because I’ve met people in the industry. I’ve seen so much kindness from fellow authors, and editors, and agents. And I know that every one of those people are in the industry because they love stories and they want to make stories happen.

I sent out a couple really big stories recently, and I am not worried about them. If they sell, I will be thrilled. If they don’t, I will send them on to someone else. I won’t have offended anyone for sending a story they don’t want. I won’t have made some great social blunder that will keep me out of print forever.

Nobody seeks failure in their inbox. And if you’ve found an editor who does, you didn’t want to work with that person, anyway.

 

Also, if you know some magic, use it! Fear tells stories. Its favorite story is the one about all the possible disastrous futures that could result from your actions. But stories are my magic, and I’m really good at upsetting the narrative. I once put on skull face paint to set up a poetry reading over the phone. Fear didn’t know what to do with the shear absurdity of my actions, and the phone call went exceptionally well. Not every magic needs skullface, but allow yourself the tools you need to overcome fear. Sometimes just a favorite pair of sunglasses will alter your perspective enough to send that query letter.

 

In other news, I’ve been reading some brilliant stories while not updating this blog. Here’s a few recent favorites:

Robo-Liopleurodon! by Darcie Little Badger is about the futility of being a scientist when the world has stopped listening to scientists, and the piratic ways to fight back!  (And just keep reading through the rest of Robot Dinosaur Fiction after you are done because it’s seriously great.)

After Midnight at the ZapStop by Matthew Claxton is absolutely delightful, and I love how dang mundane this incredible science fiction world is to the poor guy working the counter at the only 24 hour 3D bio-printer shop in town.  The way all the pieces come together in the end is super satisfying, too.

The Last Banquet of Temporal Confections by Tina Connolly is a total magic trick.  A despot slowly savors another delicious meal while the protagonist relives the years in which he rose to power, and the ways she failed to resist.  Also, there are magic pastries that allow you to relive specific memories, and I want to eat (almost) every single one of them.

Because

I do not know of a cure for writer’s block, nor for bad advice. Both must be worked through. Fortunately for the story that got into Mulberry Fork Review, I wanted so badly to finish the damn thing that I took on both at the same time. Yes, in my mind, I am some kind of X-Man. Like Kurt Wagner.
(I’ve been reading early 90’s Excalibur… it’s great.)

Flitting images of swashbuckling olympics aside, I know that I started the story Lawrence and the Last Days of Knowing at least five times. I don’t even want to think of how many titles I ran through, but I can say that the very first draft was labeled “Story to refute that magazine writer that pissed you off.” First drafts have the least helpful titles. A few of the false starts were to correct the point of view, then to correct it again, and then “was I sure, I think maybe third person really was the best…” but the real problem was not in POV, but in myself. I wasn’t up to the task that I built in my head. I was attempting to convince myself that one writer could have Metalocalypse volumes of fame while still keeping the story’s feet in reality, and I made the idiotic move of having a main character who didn’t buy it.

I realized after growling at Gatsby(long, unrelated story) that I’d written a Nick Carraway. I really dislike Nicks. Nicks are author filters, used to step back and pretend that you aren’t a part of all the things you wrote. And I understand why Nicks exist. It is flipping horrifying to own all the things that spin out of your head, but the story couldn’t work with a filter. I wrote my main character as the most fervent fan of the absurd idea that the premise hanged upon, and drew the strength of the story through his mad love.

And I still couldn’t finish. Writing’s a bitch, yeah? I got over the block, but I had no roads to the end. Because I was scared. I had this fairy tale about writing and I wanted it to be perfect (oops) because it started to become this manifesto… and all the little sound-bites of writing advice that I’ve gained over the years started to come loose and show themselves like beans when you stir the chili after it’s been simmering a few hours. Hah, my head’s full of chili. Anyway, one of those oldest bits of advice, everyone’s heard it, “show don’t tell” would yell at me when I was in my groove, and my groove would stutter and stop.

Maybe it’s because I’ve never really understood the difference between showing and telling, maybe it’s because words are have always been a telling device in my head, maybe it’s because I’m still unsure which is right and which is left and they both look like “L’s” dammit, I know that trick already, but somehow along the years the word “because” became intrinsically linked with the idea of “telling.”

And then I read The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. And Milan Kundera (bless him) told me what his characters did, and then, right after that, I got a “because.” This caused this thought, or this action, or this feeling, and I was suddenly past the interface, no longer reading the words on the page, but understanding where and why these people were.

So I went back to the manuscript, I opened that one hundredth draft, and I attacked everyone in that story (all 3 characters!) with “Because.” I found a groove. My 100th first draft was full of cause, it had an end, and then, Then! I could finally begin to edit.

Never trust sound-bite advice. There’s too much space outside a simple phrase for all sorts of fears to nest and grow until you’re suddenly afraid of the only thing you really need. Be fearless, and read Kundera!

Lawrence in the Last Days of Knowing is over at Mulberry Fork Review right now, along with many beautiful stories (I especially loved Revlon Red by Patti White, which is one of the prettiest stories about a family I’ve ever read.)