Twenty-Two Days

That’s the average response time to short stories submitted to a magazine that publishes fantasy, science fiction and horror. I’ve read three issues so far, and think my short story that won 2nd place in last year’s Writers Digest competition would make a good fit.

We’ll see.

In approximately 22 days.

The worst part about the whole process of submitting articles and short stories is hitting that awful “submit” button (or dropping that proposal or query letter into the mailbox). Once I do, there’s no turning back. No more chances to edit out any mistakes, make any other changes to the plot, grammar, setting, characters . . . nothing. Nada. Zip. Zilch. It’s like sending a child away to school, or discovering it’s time he left the house to create a life of his own. My story is now out of my hands, out of my control. It’s my heart and my mind on display, and I can’t help but think, “Now I get to find out if the editors of this magazine thinks the story is good, or if it’s crap.”

Not submitting it is always easy, because in my dreams, my stories always find a place. They receive nothing but accolades.

But it’s not real, and reality can suck sometimes. I’m like most writers in that I often prefer my fantasies. In my fantasy worlds, I am in control. Submitting stories and articles for others to judge is purposefully relinquishing that control, and my opinions and biases are shown to either be spot on, or completely spot off.

It’s a terrifying thing to step out of my made-up world and take a chance that in reality, everything I created is nothing like I believed and hoped it was.

That said, in case my story is rejected by this magazine, it doesn’t make my story crap. It simply means they didn’t find it a good fit for them. There are other magazines out there, and in fact, I have another in mind (I went back and forth for a few days trying to decide which to try first. It boiled down to response time. The one I submitted to is a bit quicker). Like many others, neither magazine takes simultaneous submissions, so I have to submit it one at a time.

Time will tell.

I’ll keep you apprised.

Kill Language – Kill Freedom

I love watching my son grow up. What parent doesn’t, right? The best part for me is how he develops, especially when it comes to language. When he was still a toddler, I was astounded at how quickly he picked up concepts, and how they all tied to language. For instance, I showed him an apple, and said “This is an apple.” He understood right away what I meant. He also didn’t get confused when I taught him colors. I pointed to a red apple to show him “red,” and he easily grasped the difference between “red” and “apple.” I understood then that language is built into our brains and develops naturally as we grow up.

Language keeps us connected to each other, and helps us learn about the world. Without language, we couldn’t build anything (consider the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11:1-9). Imagine trying to build a house with others without the ability to communicate what needs to be done.

Even math and music are considered languages, and while some believe they can do without math, most everyone needs music.

Mess with language, and we mess with the free exchange of ideas. People no longer understand their world or each other, and we no longer grow as a species.

George Orwell understood this better than most, I think. He expressed his concerns in an essay titled “Politics and the English Language.”

He dug deeper into and expressed it more in his book, “1984,” most specifically with the language he labeled as “Newspeak.”

According to a website dedicated to Orwell:

“The whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought.”

To expand the idea (on the same webpage):

“Newspeak was the official language of Oceania and had been devised to meet the ideological needs of Ingsoc, or English Socialism. In the year 1984 there was not as yet anyone who used Newspeak as his sole means of communication, either in speech or writing. The leading articles in The Times were written in it, but could only be carried out by a specialist. It was expected that Newspeak would have finally superseded Oldspeak (or Standard English) by about the year 2050. Meanwhile it gained ground steadily, all Party members tending to use Newspeak words and grammatical constructions more and more in their everyday speech.”

I ran into this article earlier today:

College Writing Center Declares American Grammar A ‘Racist,’ ‘Unjust Language Structure’

Which in turn led me to University of Washington / Tacoma’s University Writing Program and their Writing Center:

Under “Our Beliefs” of their “Statement on Antiracist and Social Justice Work in the Writing Center” it states:

“The writing center works from several important beliefs that are crucial to helping writers write and succeed in a racist society. The racist conditions of our society are not simply a matter of bias or prejudice that some people hold. In fact, most racism, for instance, is not accomplished through intent. Racism is the normal condition of things. Racism is pervasive. It is in the systems, structures, rules, languages, expectations, and guidelines that make up our classes, school, and society. For example, linguistic and writing research has shown clearly for many decades that there is no inherent “standard” of English. Language is constantly changing. These two facts make it very difficult to justify placing people in hierarchies or restricting opportunities and privileges because of the way people communicate in particular versions of English.”

I’m sure you can see the correlation between Newspeak and what the writing center is espousing.

What led me on this journey (thanks to LK Hunsaker) is this article:

According to the article, some publishers are hiring so-called sensitivity readers “who, for a nominal fee, will scan the book for racist, sexist or otherwise offensive content. These readers give feedback based on self-ascribed areas of expertise such as ‘dealing with terminal illness,’ ‘racial dynamics in Muslim communities within families’ or ‘transgender issues.'”

These statements are of special concern:

“Sensitivity readers have emerged in a climate – fueled in part by social media – in which writers are under increased scrutiny for their portrayals of people from marginalized groups, especially when the author is not a part of that group.”

And:

“It feels like I’m supplying the seeds and the gems and the jewels from our culture, and it creates cultural thievery,” Clayton [a sensitivity reader] said. “Why am I going to give you all of those little things that make my culture so interesting so you can go and use it and you don’t understand it?”

Also known as “cultural appropriation.”

As an aside, for me personally, I don’t care who writes about my culture, as long as they do so accurately. Not every person in a particular culture wants to write about their culture, so why limit themselves, and in the end possibly dooming their culture’s future to oblivion because no one dared, or was allowed to, write about it?

As another aside, the article included this:

“Despite the efforts of groups like We Need Diverse Books, ‘it’s more likely that a publishing house will publish a book about an African-American girl by a white woman versus one written by a black woman like me,’ Clayton says.”

I’m calling bullshit on that. During my own search of agents, I had to cross out quite a few because they are actively seeking so-called marginalized writers such as Ms. Clayton. For which I am not a member.

Most agents care only about the story and the quality of writing. They don’t give a rat’s ass about the writer’s race, gender, etc.

Even those seeking minorities still need a salable story, so although a person’s minority status may get them to the front of the line, he/she still has to deliver. Seems to me, Ms. Clayton is holding herself back, and using her race and gender as an excuse not to try, let alone succeed. Too harsh? Offensive even? Good.

Now back to the original subject.

All of this is political correctness not only run amok, but an attempt to control thought. When you control how language is used – eliminating certain words, or changing the definition of words in order to change peoples’ perception – you can control how a person thinks. When you control how someone thinks, that person loses their freedom to think otherwise. They can no longer think critically, because, in a sense, their words are chosen for them. The number of words – and ideas – they can use are curtailed if not outright eliminated.

If I offend you, or if you offend me, all the better. To quote (where it originated I don’t know): “The solution to offensive free speech is more free speech, not less.”

Writers especially need to protect all words and language – our tools of trade. We can’t allow any type of censorship, because once it grabs hold, we may lose everything.

Truth is most often found in offensive speech, because it forces us to think and respond. Human beings are experts at lying to ourselves, and lying to each other. By attempting to control words and speech, the truth gets lost and liars rule at the expense of everyone else.

Meeting Expectations

Sometimes I wish I could go back in time.

Not necessarily to avoid a certain pain, or to prevent a terrible mistake, however. Those I don’t want to go back for, because those pains and those mistakes molded me into the person I am today. And I like me.

I want to go back to the times when I wrote solely for myself. Then, the only person I risked disappointing was me. I didn’t feel the need to censor myself, and I didn’t have to worry about what others would think, or fear that they would hate me for being me.

Part of me hates the idea of publishing, because I feel I now have to write less for me, and more for others. And how am I supposed to know — while I’m writing — whether or not I meet their expectations? How will I know beforehand if those words I spilled out onto the page have angered, insulted or otherwise broke some rule of writing that will, in the end, push them away?

And yet, it was that “writing for me,” that attracted readers in the first place. I’ve always written better when I write without fear of consequence, when I wrote naked (figuratively speaking).

As a reader, I prefer honesty above all else. Even if I may disagree with what a writer says, if what they say is written with honesty and passion, I’ll never hate them for it. I may get angry, or frustrated, but that can also be a good thing. I like to be challenged, to see things from a different perspective.

I can’t be alone in that.

I don’t want to disregard my readers. Never that, but at the same time, I can’t allow my fear of what readers will think simply because I’m being honest. If I do, all that’s left is to lie.

I can’t do that either.

I’m reading “Writing 21st Century Fiction,” by Donald Maass, and the basic premise is for writers to quit holding back. What readers are looking for these days is no-holds-barred stories. Stories that make a person cringe, cry, infuriate, and want to sleep with the lights on, as well as laugh and go “Awwww.”

Because I want to write for a particular market, I’m trying to write stories that will meet their expectations. But what if my biases — and expectations — of that market are wrong, and they want to see the kind of writing I’m longing to write, but afraid to?

I go back to Jesus and his stories. He told stories that convicted and angered as well as inspired and comforted. He didn’t hold back, and if I am to live how he lived (which is what he asks of all of us), I can’t afford to. Not if I want my stories to make a real difference.

The Dreaded “What Ifs”

During the awards gala last night, a certain realization hit me.

What if . . .

The agent I pitched to not only wants to see my first three chapters, but asks for the full manuscript, and terror of all terrors, agrees to represent me.

You’d think I’d be excited. After all, isn’t this one step closer to what I’ve been pursuing since I wrote my first novel back in 2001?

The problem with dreaming is it never take into consideration the work involved to not only make the dream come true, but what happens after.

In this case, while I wrote (and wrote. And wrote) the only expectations I had to meet were my own. Once an agent decides to represent me, I not only have to meet her expectations, but the expectations of whichever publisher decides to buy my manuscript, and my readers.

What if . . .

I fail to meet those expectations? And it’s not only the quality of the story, but the quality of the writing, and everything I can (and need) to do to promote my book.

What if . . .

I have no more books in me left to write, or I can’t write them in a timely manner?

And those are the big what ifs. There are many minor ones too, such as what if I don’t get along with my editors, and/or my agent and I have irreconcilable differences.

Do I really want to take those chances? Am I unwilling to take the chance that any or all of those things happen?

How important is fulfilling my dream?

Is it even about me?

Or is it about my stories, and not me at all?

Truth is, I don’t have a choice. When I set my “fleece before the Lord” about pursuing publication in 2010, he told me under no uncertain terms that I should. This is what he wants from me (and for me). To fear moving forward means I don’t trust him enough to know that he’s got this. I’m not saying that all of the above won’t happen. It all still could. All that means is I would have to work harder, trust more, and at worst, start over. That’s not going to kill me, and it won’t kill my dream — at least not if I don’t let it.

No Control And A Smidgeon of Faith

Dang. I haven’t written an entry in almost a month? Where did the time go?

I’d like to say I’ve been busy. I suppose in many ways I have, but I’ve also wasted a lot of time, too.

Mostly I haven’t written an entry, because my mind has been focused on polishing three manuscripts, and preparing “one-sheets” (basically a back-cover blurb of a manuscript with an author’s bio and other information). To my surprise, I’m done with them all. Not that I expected not to finish, but that I would finish with more than a week to spare before I head to the ACFW conference in Nashville. As good as I am at procrastinating, I shouldn’t be done this early. Now I don’t know what to do with myself.

I know what I should do: Write a few short stories and see if there are magazines that will take them. That’ll take research, and a lot of reading. Not a bad way to spend my time versus getting all anxious for the conference.

I have an appointment with a publisher and a literary agent to pitch my novels to. On the one hand, I’m hopeful, but on the other, I’m not. I’ve pitched before with no results, so if history is my guide, my chances of making a positive impression are low. I’m trying to convince myself that I’m going for the comradery of other writers — struggling in many of the same ways I am — and to attend classes to learn more about writing, marketing, etc. Plus I get to spend five days in an upscale hotel built next to the Country Music Hall of Fame (not a huge fan of country music, but I’ll still find it interesting if I have the time to see it). If I gain interest in my novels, all the better. I’ve gone to other conferences with the hope of a sale as my main reason of going, and ended up a few tears short of devastation. I’m not going to do that to myself again.

The last time I went to a conference (back in 2010), I wrote an entry at the end of every day to keep everyone updated, and so I won’t forget. I am, after all, getting a bit up there in age. I don’t remember things as well as I used to. I may do the same again.

My biggest worry is taking the plane. It’s not that I fear flying. I actually enjoy it (although I hate going through security), but my biggest pet-peeve is being late. For anything. Few things get me angry, but being late is near the top of the list. I am placing my trust in an airline and two planes to get me to the conference on time (I am going a day early, just in case, but one still never knows). I don’t like having to relinquish control like that. But I either fly, or drive cross-country for two days one way by myself. My flight is also with Delta, and in case you don’t know, they had severe flight issues last week that resulted in hundreds of delays and cancellations. That it’ll happen again next week worries me some.

Then again!

Back in 2010 I set a “fleece before the Lord,” which means I asked for a specific sign for a specific question I needed an answer to. My son was two at the time, and I was really happy and content with my life. I was writing little with the exception of my blog, and I was okay with that.

I started to wonder if God wanted me to pursue publishing my books, or if I should continue to live my life as it was, writing only as a hobby.

At that time, I had just purchased an annual membership to ACFW, and I received an email describing their Genesis Contest. Contestants submit the first fifteen pages of their manuscript along with a short synopsis. It then goes through a few rounds, and winners are revealed at the annual conference.

I told God that I would submit my novel, and that if I made the finals, I would know he wanted me to continue. As most of you know, I not only made the finals, but I won in my chosen category.

Do I think God is leading me to this conference? Perhaps, but perhaps not. Even so, whatever happens, I need to trust that God is in control. If there are issues with my flights, so be it. If not, even better. Worse case, I’ll have to cancel everything, and hopefully get some of my money back after paying all my late cancellation fees.

10,000 Ways

One of my favorite quotes is by Thomas Edison when he talked about creating a light bulb:

I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.

With my first rejection letter out of the way, I can now say I know one way that won’t work.

But I am impatient. Always have been.

I buy a lot of books — too many of which I haven’t read — on subjects ranging from basic economics to warfare.

They collect dust, because for some reason I keep thinking that the mere presence of a book on my shelf means I can learn the subject, as if I can absorb it through osmosis. It’s a sad realization that I don’t necessarily want to learn new things; I want to know them without having to work to get there.

Unfortunately for me, to find an agent who’ll hopefully find me a publisher requires not only patience, but a lot of studying and research. I have to study each prospective agent carefully to see if they will not only be a good fit for representing my book, but also a good fit for me personally. I will, after all, be working with said agent — for years if everything goes right.

I must be like Thomas Edison, and continue to write, to pursue, and figure just the right combination for success, even if it means learning 10,000 ways how not to do it.

To quoth Mr. Edison again:

Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time.

God willing, it won’t take me literally 10,000 tries. I’ll settle for 12. Okay maybe 20. 50?

A Pile of Goo

I described in a previous entry about how a writer’s success or failure depends on the subjective opinions of others. When writers decide to go the route of traditional publishers, they are placing all their hopes — to start — with a single person, whether it be an agent or editor. When that particular agent/editor says, “Thanks but no thanks,” the writer can’t help but feel heartbroken.

Turns out I didn’t have to wait eight weeks after all. The rejection letter is as follows:

Hi,

Thank you for your submission.

Unfortunately, I did not connect with the submitted material enough to consider your project for representation.

I am grateful that you have afforded me this opportunity to find out about you and your project, and wish you the best of success with your current and future creative work. This business is highly subjective; many people whose work I haven’t connected with have gone onto critical and commercial success. So, keep after it.

I wish I had the time to respond to everyone with constructive criticism, but it would be overwhelming, hence this form response. However, there are three pieces of writing advice that I preach to everyone (from which I receive no monetary gain or benefit):

 

It’s hard not to focus on this part and ignore the rest: “I did not connect with the submitted material.”

My story sucks. It’s boring. It’s poorly written. I wasted my time and his. I should give up, because if I don’t, I’ll keep running into disappointment, and embarrass myself.

My brain is telling my heart not to believe it, and to shove those tears back into those ducts. Instead of focusing on the first part, my brain is trying to twist my eyeballs toward the second part about how everything is subjective, and one agent’s opinion is just that. Not everyone is going to like everything. I’ve read plenty of very successful books I didn’t like. And I’ve read obscure books that made me wonder why they weren’t more successful. Nor am I alone in this journey. Plenty of successful authors had to go through a lot of rejection letters before finally receiving an acceptance.

Sounds reasonable, doesn’t it? Yeah, well, my heart isn’t willing to be reasonable. It wants to wriggle on the floor in a pile of goo for a while.

 

Too Late Now

Whenever I submit a story or proposal to a potential publisher, I don’t look at it again.

The temptation is there, believe me, enough to make me break out into a sweat. It ain’t pretty that sweat, nor is the resulting odor wafting from my over-reactive pores. My poor family.

Did I spell the agent/publisher’s name correctly?

Did I remember to include all he/she asked for?

Are there glaring grammatical/spelling errors that I missed?

I refrain from verifying one way or another, because if I made all those mistakes above, it’s too late now. And why make myself cry and gnash my teeth over something I can’t fix anyway?

Yesterday I sent off my query letter. Last night at about 3am I woke up in a sweat and heart pounding, terrified I had misspelled the agent’s name. I know I didn’t, because I triple-checked it before sending it off. At least I think I didn’t. I hope I didn’t . . .

The only issue I have now (aside from night terrors) is when to expect a response. Nowhere on the agent’s website did I see a time-frame. I’ll give him about eight weeks, though. If I don’t hear anything back then, I’ll pursue another agent (is it me, or does that sound too much like stalking?).

Schmooze and Charm

Am I charming?

It’s a question I never before asked myself. I don’t recall if anyone’s ever accused me of it, either. Perhaps in my teenage years I tried to charm people, because who doesn’t want to be loved and accepted by his/her peers?

Now that I’m older, and I care quite a bit less about what people think of me; charming others is not even the tiniest of my many goals in life. Sure, I want love and respect – who doesn’t? What I’m willing to do to get it is the question. Truth is, not much. I simply don’t have the desire or the energy to schmooze people

ASIDE: Isn’t “schmooze” a great word? It goes great with – and can even replace – charming, because the simple definition of schmooze is “To talk with someone in a friendly way, often in order to get some advantage for yourself” (Per Merriam-Webster).

People are selfish, and I’m no exception. Too often, when someone describes another as “charming,” it’s not always a compliment. The term implies an almost dishonesty, that the charmer is only in it for him/herself – to gain something in return.

Unless the person wants to be charmed, or schmoozed.

Now why would anyone want that – to purposely be “taken advantage of”?

Feeling a bit overwhelmed with writing query letters, I purchased a book called “Rock Your Query,” by Cathy Yardley. It’s a short read at only 61 pages (Nook Book), but that’s its strength. The author’s advice was succinct, and as such took away all the mystery of what a query letter should contain, and what to avoid.

The second chapter focused on the opening paragraph. She suggests that it needs to focus specifically why the writer chose that particular agent. In other words, don’t be afraid to schmooze a bit. Be charming.

The agent in question, after all, wants to be schmoozed. Not to be taken advantage of, per se. The end result is a partnership between writer and agent where they both get paid from the profits of the published book(s).

So now I have to ask if I can be charming. Can I schmooze prospective agents enough to pique their interest?

I don’t know. And perhaps that’s even the wrong question to ask.

If I gained any wisdom from reading “On Writing,” by Stephen King it’s his advice to never lie to readers. They can always tell.

The same holds true with everything I write. All I can do while writing a query letter is to be as honest as I am with my fiction and whatever else I write. Everything else will simply have to take care of itself, because no matter how much I can schmooze (or not) someone, I can’t force them to do what I want. They will either be intrigued enough to ask for more, or they won’t.

I’m reminded of a line in the movie “Trading Places,” where Eddie Murphy’s character said (paraphrased), “What do they want from me, Coleman?”

“Just be yourself, sir. No matter what happens, they can’t take that away from you.”

Charming or not, all I can do is be me, because that’s what I’m best at anyway.

At the Precipice

I hate heights, and I know when it all started.

I think it was either pre-school or kindergarten, and the class went on a field trip. We went to a park, and at one point dug for tiny seashells near the bank of a river. The bank was very steep (and to my childlike brain had to be hundreds of feet high, but was likely no more than ten). While I stood looking down at the river below, another child pushed me. Not hard enough to make me fall, but certainly enough to scare me.

I’ve been afraid of high places ever since. What’s weird is I don’t mind flying and even took a hot air balloon ride once. Good luck getting me up a ladder, though.

With all my novels mostly complete, it’s now time to dive into seeking agents. I already found a few that look promising, so all I need to do now is write my query letter,  and synopsis. I don’t look forward to either, but it’s gots to be done.

The main part is how do you boil down a 100k book down to three pages, seven at the most (depending upon the agent’s guidelines)? Most understand that synopses don’t need to be perfect, as long as they know what happens from beginning to end.

The query letter I find most intimidating, because, like the cliché says, “You have only one chance to make a good impression.”

I want it to be interesting, and even engaging, but professional. Informative, but not boring or dry.

I stand at the precipice where I must dive into the dark below, not knowing if my efforts will succeed or fail.

Part of me wants to start another book so I can avoid finding someone willing to represent my finished novels.

Because dreaming is easy. Making it come true with no guarantee of success is hard, and downright terrifying.

Much like my fear of heights. If I want to fly and not merely imagine what flying is like, I must jump off that cliff.