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.

Character Sketch

Sometimes (many times) I need to draw a character in order to understand her. Particularly if I’m going to spend more than 10k words with this person, it is good to have a visual on her quirks of dress, composure, size… all those fiddly things that I’ll need reference for after an obscenely high word count. Obscene being over 30k because Woah man, novels are cruel to the memory. I am not super great at capturing everything I want (that’s why I write; I have a slightly better net made of words than I do of sketches) but I was really pleased with this character sketch of a girl called Fio in a fantasy story I’ve been working on.

sweet shades, ja.

sweet shades, ja.

I doubt I’ll really need to describe her kickass tutu and cape combo, but messing about on the page until I had it really helped to solidify this person in my mind. Knowing that she could feel totally comfortable in a tutu (i so wish i could…) helped me write her interactions in the opening of the story, opened up the world… yeah all that good stuff. I also drew her mermaid neighbor who lives across the street.

mermaids are terrifying.

mermaids are terrifying.

I already knew the mermaid wore a tie because she is a proper business lady with an entire short story kept at a merciful 3k words, but I sketched her anyway. It was fun. And it is surprisingly hard to find references of women with translucent skin and jellyfish tentacle hair.

Sometimes (not as many times) I make objects from stories. Not only my own, although it’s easier to make the objects I’ve got in my head than the ones I have limited reference for. I know if I don’t keep planted at the desk and continue this story through completion I will end up making those dang glasses Fio’s wearing. The lenses are red. Red lenses, guys. With hand wrought wire frames. I want them.

Sometimes I think the only reason I write is to torture myself with the things I can’t have. Whatever. I’m a go buy a tutu.

Already got a cape.

🙂

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.)

In This Moment

One of the best criticisms I’ve ever received in a rejection letter was that my story began in the wrong place. Short stories do not have the luxury of easing into a story the way novels do. I remember once reading some writing advice in which the advisor was being an asshole and he said “how to begin a story? Start at the beginning and continue on till the end.” I’m sure he thought he was being very clever.

Cleverness has a place, and stupid people put it everywhere.

Anyway, the problem with many improperly timed short stories (including my own) is that the action has already happened. Even years ago, and the story is telling it from far in the future. This can work, but it always begs the question at the outside of the story “why is it being told now?” I’m not talking about the tenses. Tenses are more… decorative. They frame the story, make you feel certain ways. They are mood lighting. The closeness of the action to the date of your story determines how important that action is. Time heals, and it blurs. If you begin your story with the actions far in the past, they hold little interest for your reader in the present.

I’ve encountered many of my own stories in which the problems of the narrative are solved by bringing in the actions close, to a single focal point, and beginning it there. I’m not saying every story needs to start with a plane crash while the main character delivers a baby in the cockpit… actually I think I may have just wrote the opening to Fast&Furious 7 (but I’ll still watch Vin Diesel in anything.) In the story I’m working on now, a war of attrition begins a year and a half before the story begins, and a mother dies only six months after that, but all of that culminates at the start of the story when the two people these actions most affect finally meet on earth. Before, when I couldn’t figure out why I was having problems, the war was some nebulous threat looming out in the future (little impact on the story), and the mother hadn’t been alive for several years (giving all the characters in action time to get used to the idea of an important person not being around, and again, toning down the impact.)

So here’s my advice, sans clever: If the story isn’t working, think about the important Moments in the story. Where are they in relation to the time frame of the short story? Is there a way to bring them closer, make them realer, get away from the blurriness of time? And once you’ve done that, begin. And carry it out until the end.