Life is too short for bad books

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It’s pretty rare for me to abandon a book.  Yet, in the past couple weeks, I’ve abandoned three.  I even deleted them from my Kindle!  They were that bad.  So bad.  Painfully bad.  The dialogue was wooden, the plots were eye-rollingly unbelieveble, the descriptions were trite, cliched, hackneyed.  In short, the writing was terrible.  Ugh.  Ugh ugh ugh.

How did I encounter three books in a row that were so bad?  They were “bestsellers” on Amazon.  They had favorable reviews.  How could they be so “nails on a chalkboard” terrible?  Has the quality of literature plummeted?  Were they self-published and had no, or bad, editors?  Or is it that my own taste in fiction has changed?

I read slush for the horror/sci-fi/fantasy magazine Apex. (For those of you who don’t know, slush is the term for the mound of stories that are submitted to a publication.  Apex, like many magazines, has a team that sorts through these stories, rejects most of them, and forwards the very best to the editor-in-chief.)  We get a lot of submissions; I get at least ten stories a week to review, and there are sixteen readers on the slush team.  Apex publishes three stories a month, and those stories, as well as the magazine itself, are frequently nominated for awards, so the bar is very high.  It’s my job to reject every story that isn’t the very best, which means I reject almost everything.  And I reject most stories after reading the first page, often after reading the first paragraph.  If the story doesn’t grab me right off and compel me to keep reading, I stop reading and reject the story.  If the writing isn’t exceptional in that first paragraph or first page, I stop reading and reject the story.

I suspect this has a lot to do with my emerging impatience with “bad” books.  A novel has a lot more leeway than a short story when it comes to compelling the reader to continue reading: a short story should grab you with the first sentence, while a novel can usually be granted a chapter or so.  If it fails that test, or if the writing isn’t exceptional, I have no patience with it. I stop reading.  I reject it.

Maybe I need to stick to well-regarded fiction.  Nominees and winners of awards like the Hugo, the Nebula, the Edgar, and so on.  I definitely need to stop feeling guilty about abandoning books that don’t measure up to my standards.  I used to recommend that writers read good stuff and bad stuff.  I was wrong.  Life is too short for bad books.

Death Be Not Proud

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When I was a senior in high school, one of my classmates died.  Robert and I had never been friends, but we were both part of the “Challenge” program in middle school, a small intimate group that had almost all our classes together.  When we reached high school, we were in many of the same honors classes.  We all knew him as a quiet person, a good student, and an exceptional musician who played piano, trumpet, and, most notably, bagpipes.

Robert hadn’t been entirely well for as long as I’d known him.  In sixth grade he had surgery to remove cysts in his sinuses.  In tenth grade he had a seizure in chemistry class.  The night he died, he was home playing the piano when he had another seizure.  The responding paramedics gave him an injection of something that he reacted badly to; he stopped breathing, and never started again.

We all found out the next morning.  Even though he and I had never been close friends, the news was stunning.  I was numb for the rest of the day, the rest of the week. It was like the color had been sucked out of the world, like all sound was muffled and flat.  I can’t even imagine what it was like for those who were close to him.

Most of the teachers tried to go about business as usual, and the routine was some comfort.  But by AP English, the last class of the day, all of us were weary, and it showed.  Our teacher Mrs. Glancy watched us all file in, silent and stooped with sadness.  I saw a woman sitting in one corner of the classroom, and remembered that Mrs. Glancy was being observed that day by a member of the Golden Apple committee.  She had been nominated for the prestigious award some weeks earlier, and told us someone would be visiting our class.

We all took our seats, the room empty of the usual chatter, and the bell rang into the void.  We all looked toward Mrs. Glancy, expecting what we had gotten all day, a sincere expression of sympathy then a gentle entrance into the day’s lessons.  It was what the observer was expecting as well, so that she could evaluate her teaching ability.

Instead, Mrs. Glancy walked to the podium with a book in hand, and set it down, opening to a marked place.  She paused, glanced up at us, then read aloud John Donne’s poem “Death Be Not Proud.” 

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell;
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

 

When the last words had settled back into silence, she looked up.

“I want you all to take out some paper and a pen.”  The class rustled as we obeyed.  She waited until we were ready, then continued.  “I want you to write.  Write whatever you want, whatever you need.  A poem, a story, a letter, anything.  You’re not going to turn this in.  It’s entirely up to you whether you show this to anyone at all.  Write for you.”

She went to her desk, sat down, took out a piece of paper and a pen for herself, and started writing.

It was the exact right thing to do, for all of us, and the exact right lesson to teach that day: that poetry has the power to speak to us wherever we are, and that writing is a tool that is not only available but vital to everyone.  Ironically, it also scuttled her chances of winning the Golden Apple that year, a lesson in and of itself, that doing the right thing doesn’t always win awards.

I wrote a letter to Robert that day, but I don’t remember what it said.  It wasn’t any timeless masterpiece, and I’ve long since thrown it away.  The point wasn’t the product.  The point was the process.

Gettin’ my Irish on

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When I lived in Chicago, there were two science fiction conventions I would attend yearly: WindyCon in mid November and CapriCon in February (often falling on Valentine’s Day, which, depending on who you ask, can be a plus!)  For those of you who have never been to a fan convention, they are typically a merry mix of die-hard aficionados, industry professionals, industry professionals who are die-hard aficionados, and die-hard aficionados who want to be industry professionals.  They feature events such as film screenings, art contests, a masquerade for people to show off their costumes and compete for awards, and panels on various topics, where panelists talk and debate and take questions from the audience.

One panel I attended was on how writers sustain motivation to write.  The writers on the panel all had different perspectives and tactics, and the ensuing discussion was very interesting and informative.  But the moment that sticks in my memory was a question from the audience: an aspiring writer asked how to keep writing when life is being difficult.  In his case, his father had recently passed away after a long and painful illness, and all this man could do was stare at a blank computer screen.

One of the panelists answered immediately.  He told us about how he lost his own father, watching him slowly kill himself with alcohol.  How painful it was, seeing that happen to someone he loved, being powerless to stop it.  How he survived, as a writer and as a person, is he wrote it down.  All of it.  And that was his advice to this aspiring writer: write it all down.  Don’t try to push all that pain and fear and doubt away, turn it into words and pour it out onto the page.  Don’t worry about trying to shape it into something that will be seen by anybody but you.  Just write.

We all have our demons, our own pain and fear and doubt, and for those of us who are writers, this advice is very important.  My first instinct is to push the darkness away, ignore it, try to write something else, but that’s not doing right by myself or my writing.  Writing is therapy in that way, a vital tool for understanding, facing, and dealing with difficult situations, and I recommend it to everyone, even people who would not otherwise think of themselves as writers. 

For people who are writers, though, powerful emotion is vital for powerful fiction.  Even if the situations we write about are not autobiographical, the emotion often is, and that is what makes our stories real.  There’s a saying that if there are no tears in the writer, there are no tears in the reader.  This is true of all emotion.  If you want your reader to feel grief, fear, elation, ardour, you must first feel it yourself.

My husband calls this “getting your Irish on.”  The Irish are rightfully known for their amazing poetry (my favorite poet, by far, is Yeats, and I often reread his poem “The Circus Animals’ Desertion” when I need a refresher on beauty of language and conciseness of expression) but it stems from a history of suffering.  Their words grip our hearts because life gripped their hearts first.

So allow yourself to feel sorrow or joy, to the very depths of your being.  Then get your Irish on.

NaNoWriMo Day 4

1 pm CST

Word count: 7904

I’m typically a “pantser” and not a “planner.”  That is, I don’t outline, I don’t lay out the story ahead of time, I just go and let the story reveal itself.  “Write to find out,” as Paul McComas would say.  But this time, I’m finding my brain is excitedly giving me information about how this will go, what each scene will be, and even how the thing will end.  I’ve been taking copious notes as I’ve been writing.  I won’t hold myself strictly to these plans, but it is interesting, even nice, to have them.

The McComas Method

[First, a note!  Next Friday is November 1st, and we all know what that means: NaNoWriMo!  Regular blog service (daily picture prompts, Friday Writers’ Corner) will be on hiatus for the month.  I will, however, be posting daily word counts and a sentence or two about how things are going, and how close I am to chucking my computer at the wall in a fit of frustration and despair.  So stay tuned!]

I have been writing since I could hold a pencil and form sentences.  My current dedication to the craft, however, started in the summer of 2006.

When we moved the year before to Evanston, IL so my husband could go to grad school at Northwestern, I had intended to get serious about my writing.  Sadly, that quickly stagnated.  By the next summer, my son was almost two, I was unhappily  working at a funeral home as a family services counselor, and I was pregnant with our daughter.  I had to do something different.

Luckily, that’s when I learned about Northwestern’s “Mini Courses.”  They’re six week, once a week, open to the community and (very importantly) inexpensive classes taught at the University’s Norris Center.  The classes offered range from Spanish to ballroom dance to beginner’s pool.  And they had a fiction writing class.

Perfect.

I wound up liking the class so much that I took it again in the fall semester, the winter semester, the spring semester, and the next summer.  I was writing.  I was getting better.  And I had an awesome teacher.  That class wound up being the beginning of a writerly relationship that would last my entire time in Evanston and continues today.  Paul McComas became a mentor and a friend, and the single biggest influence on my writing to date.  If you’ve read my book Haunted (and if you haven’t, what are you waiting for?!) you’ve doubtless noticed that I thank him profusely in the acknowledgements.    He edited Haunted, and we collaborated on the piece “This Too Too Solid Flesh” that was published in his book of genre short stories Unforgettable.

Part of what makes Paul such an effective teacher is that he’s managed to distill his views on what makes good fiction into simple, understandable principles.  He insists that new mini course students must attend the first class of the semester, because that’s when he explains his method.  I took that course five times, and each time the first class was exactly the same, to the point where it was almost like an in-joke.  He’d explain the Plausible Surprise, and Specificity Lends Authenticity, and the Tightrope of Disclosure, and I’d sit there, nodding with a knowing smile.  Everyone else was hearing it for the first time.  I had not only heard it before, I had seen it in action.  I had seen my own work improve when workshopped with those principles in mind.

I’ve thought about teaching writing sometime in the future.  If I do, I’m going to dig out my notebooks from Paul’s class, because the first thing I’ll want to teach my students is the McComas Method.

Dear reader, what teacher has most inspired your writing?

The Submission Paradox

I’ve been spending a lot of time lately going through book blog listings, identifying bloggers that might be interested in reading and reviewing Haunted, and sending those bloggers requests via email.  It’s a relatively slow process, and I’ve been focusing on sending two requests a day.  I’ve gotten a lot of yeses, which is great and encouraging.  There’s a lot of people I haven’t heard from, however.  That’s fine, of course, and part of the process.  A writer’s life is full of rejection, often rejection by silence, and that’s something you have to learn to live with.  If you can’t stand the heat, step away from the computer.

The thing about rejection, though, is that the best way of working through it and getting to acceptance is to put yourself out there a lot.  Being rejected by the only place you send your story to is devastating.  Being rejected by one of the ten places you send your story to is…well, still devastating, but not nearly as much, and the chances that one of those ten will accept that story is greater than the chance that the one in one will accept it.  You only need one person to say yes, and that makes that string of “no” worth it.

Marketing a book seems to be very similar (I’m still hiking up the marketing learning curve, so this is observation, not experience).  For instance, consider this article on contacting Amazon reviewers.  The author says that “if you spend two or three days contacting about 300 potential Amazon reviewers, you can expect to receive about 40 to 50 responses, and wind up with perhaps 35 reviews, a quite satisfactory result.” 

Think about that for a moment.  300 potential Amazon reviewers.  When I mentioned this to my husband, an astrophysicist who does math for fun, he worked out the numbers.  If I spent ten hours nonstop, sending an email every five minutes, I would send out 120 requests.  The quote above blithely says that two or three days would do it.  This is clearly poppycock (thank you, Elementary, for that one).  A nonstop ten hour day is not something to be sneezed at, and you’d still need three days to do it.  And that’s just sending out emails.  What that estimation does not take into account is identifying which reviewers would actually be appropriate for your book!

Doing research on your market is important.  When magazine editors talk about what submitting authors should do before sending in their work, they almost always say that they should read a couple back issues to get an idea of what sorts of thing the magazine publishes.  This is good advice on its face, but it’s the other extreme to the 300 reviewers advice.  Yes, knowing your market is important.  Sending a story that is clearly inappropriate for a certain publication is just going to annoy a submissions editor and net you a meaningless rejection.  But expecting writers to have the time to read a couple issues of every publication they submit to is, again, poppycock.  Writers need to paper their walls with rejection slips, and they can’t do that if they’re spending all their time reading the issues of magazines that will probably reject them anyway.  And how would they have the time to write?

So, researching your market in-depth and perfectly tailoring each submission is not a good use of your time.  Yet, on the other extreme, spamming editors (or reviewers) is also a bad use of your time and effort, because you’re going to get a lot of meaningless rejection.  And annoy a lot of people.  And possibly incur some sort of penalty, at least on Amazon.  Clearly the key is to aim for the middle ground.  Check out a publication’s website, read their submission guidelines, skim the latest issue. (And for god’s sake, make sure you know who the current editor is, and spell their name correctly.  Don’t be lazy.)  And when marketing, check out a reviewer’s profile, see what they’ve reviewed in the past. 

Simply put, going all in on quantity, or all in on quality, are both folly.  Find a balance.