Your Story Submission is Just an Audition

Journey III was listening to an interview of actor David Tennant (Dr. Who, Jessica Jones) the other day and he said something I think we’d all benefit in hearing.

Tennant was recapping his successful acting career and mentioned that he’d had to audition for a part recently, which was something he hadn’t done in a long time. Successful actors often get to skip the audition given their status as a known commodity, so an audition is rarely required. Tennant is a very funny man, and his story harbored no malice or jealousy, but he did mention in passing how an audition is very competitive, and that on this day he was bested by someone else who showed up and did a better job.

This made me think about the process of getting published.

As writers most of us are unknown. We send our little envoy along, our speaking part if you will, in hopes of impressing an editor enough to put our story in their publication. When the story comes back rejected, we feel a wash of negative emotion, from despair to disgust to anger, and believe simultaneously that the editor is a fool and we are delusional to think we’d ever succeed at writing in the first place.

But what if we had to audition? What if we had to physically carry our story in hand, down the littered sidewalk and into narrow alleys, up steep stairs into a crowded room with chairs lining the walls, nowhere to sit, the competition staring into our faces with polite contempt while we wait for our name to be called. During the wait, our resolve diminishes. Fatigue sets in as we study the pages in our hands – our best work. How embarrassing. The room is warm, stuffy, the air disgusting as we breathe in the fear and self-loathing of everyone else, just as they breathe in ours. And finally our name is called, and we step behind the door with the frosted glass window, the loose glass rattling once as the door shuts too loudly behind us. Seated at a table in what amounts to a tiny classroom are three strangers, experts, who are about to listen to us read our story, judge us to our faces, letting us know as we finish that they will be in touch.

At home we are sure others must have done better. In excitable moments we rise in the feeling that maybe, this time, we did it right. We remember how we stumbled in our reading, how we misspoke the line when Clara revealed to her mother that she was contemplating a divorce. How could we have botched such an important moment?

When the call comes, sorry, we’ve chosen a different option. Please contact us again for future opportunities. Spurned, we are outwardly grateful for the opportunity. Will try again soon. Have a lovely day. And then for an hour, we completely give up.

Thank God it isn’t quite like that. Writers are spared the physical confrontation with our judges. Our envoy makes the trip for us, and stands in for our audition beside hundreds of others. Once in a while, we get the part.

Every successful actor is no different from every successful writer. Whether by person or pen they showed up, did their best, walked away for a time to return once more and try again. This is you. Many times you will be bested. But show up for each opportunity, again and again. Get better. One day you will get the part. Each chance is only one audition. Whether you failed or succeeded the time before, remember that it’s the next time that matters most.

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The Role of Time In Success

day of the week clockQuality takes time. I wrote the first draft of my current novel-in-progress over a four month period beginning in January 2013. I am now on a third rewrite and the whole project has been completely revolutionized thanks, in part, to taking my time. The thing that happened over time is that the story really took root in my mind. The response of beta readers gave me a lot to think about, and after sitting on it and letting things evolve, both consciously and subconsciously, a whole new narrative developed – a right and exciting narrative that I’m even more enthused about today.

Will you like the final version? I have no idea. What I do know is that being in a hurry to produce something for the sake of getting it out into the world is a mistake. Haste makes waste, and judging by the slew of underwritten works out there these days we’re swimming in it. Waste, that is.

Of course, bad writing is bad writing, and it’s no sure thing that T x W = Q if the writing is bad all along. What time offers is a chance to let things grow into their proper state. For example, the protagonist of my novel comes across in the earlier drafts as stoic, frightened, lost and, frankly, boring. Really she’s underdeveloped. All of the characters are underdeveloped in the early version because, as with real people, it takes time to get to know someone. Not only that, but it takes time to find the right POV, the right storyline, and the right protagonist. The new version of my protagonist is sarcastic, a little edgy, and more fluid. I hope she’s also more interesting. The point here is that an idea doesn’t come fully loaded with all of the answers. There is much to discover along the way. This is part of the joy of writing. Writing, like life, is a journey. And like life it’s the journey that is the point much more than the destination.

Be mindful when letting time work on you. While there is merit in setting your work aside and ‘forgetting’ about it for a while, the real value in giving things time is in thinking and thinking about where the story is and where it needs to go. Returning to my work-in-progress, I knew that I didn’t have the story I wanted. I had an ok story, and I was very tempted, even encouraged to let it fly. What I did instead was give up. I worked on some other things, finished them, and even began a new novel in line with the first. For a little while I didn’t plan to go back to that book. But through encouragement and a little brow-beating I did return. I admit as well that in my absence from the book I thought about it. And as I began to inch closer to returning I started to reimagine how the story should be told. I applied myself to understanding the story I had versus the story I wanted, and began to see how I could tell the version that was in my gut rather than the underdeveloped one that first came out. The time factor yielded this new thing, much closer to my original intent for the story. Weeks of sleep and fatigue, despair and elation, boredom, distraction, and myriad other things resulted in a new paradigm for the old novel.

It will take more time to see what the final outcome is, but I’m ready now to carry on and finish a book the right way. There’s no time frame for when it will be ready. It could be six months or another year. What I’m happy to report at this juncture is that we’re underway again, and with a much better product thanks in large part to taking the time it needed for the real story to reveal itself.

 

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Fish Tales and Other Stories

fish 4I once knew a boy who was swallowed by a fish.

I was in the wasteland of my tween years, every day like every other day, blended into semi-eternal summer months where the terror of school was a distant nightmare waiting at the entrance of a long, dark tunnel called winter. I was an experienced outdoorsman, having learned to fish and shoot and camp as a toddler. I needed no help baiting a hook or landing my own catch on the banks of any river or stream. So confidant a fisherman was I that I usually only baited my hook once at camp before spending up to half an hour teasing the pools and currents with only that first worm until snagging and landing one of the silvery mountain trout I so often fished for in my youth.

My family and I were deep in the middle of a summer camping trip somewhere in the Sawtooth Mountains of southern Idaho, parked beside an ambiguous river whose banks varied in width by narrow inches and broad feet, the same for its depths, and it was shocking for us all earlier in the weekend to chance upon an occasional spawning salmon or two in the narrow lanes of the waterway, their great scarlet bodies slithering up stream – yards of fish so gigantic in the narrow river they seemed to be mythological. The sight of the creatures created in me a fisherman’s lust so strong that I planned to spend the next day casting my line at any wild thing that would take the bait.

It was late morning as I prepared to set off alone, down river from camp, to try a new hole I had found the evening before. I stood under a shady pine and baited my hook with one half of an earthworm before heading for the water.

The pathway to the fishing spot tailed along the water’s edge over smooth stones that made the footing uneven. To add to the challenge there were branches everywhere, cloying mountain brush that I had to navigate through and around while trying to avoid catching my line. When I finally arrived at my destination I squatted low at the edge of a wide and shallow spot on the river where a small, black waterfall dropped into a deeper pool. I steadied my baited hook over the water, then swung it like pendulum several times, releasing the bail so the line fell at the top of the fall, and watched as the patch of fleshy worm disappeared into the current, my line swirling into the deep.

It didn’t take long before I felt the strong tug of success, and in victory I yanked my pole skyward in an attempt to set the hook. Instead of the familiar resistance of the fierce weight and struggle of a fish on the other end, my hook came flying up out of the water, and immediately sailed weightlessly through the air until momentum spun it repeatedly around the tip of my pole, tangling it into an almost hopeless mess. That clever fish had stolen the worm and left the hook.

I had been bested before and though somewhat frustrated I made the delicate journey back to camp, retrieved another dying worm half from the bait box, and returned many minutes later to try again. I swung the line, dropped the bait, and watched it fall satisfactorily into place. In moments I felt another strong tug, which I answered with a setting motion, and again my hook flew gleaming and bare up out of the water to wrap itself without further ceremony around the tip of my fishing pole.

I felt a granite cloud of anger in my gut, and I scowled. Once again I returned to camp, baited the hook with a fresh worm, and made the treacherous journey back to the magical spot. I was determined to catch that fish, more determined than I had ever been before about catching any fish. Deftly I sent the line flying into the fall, and expertly I set the bail. The line jumped, the hook flew out of the water, and once again it danced around the tip of my pole.

I raged under my breath. I could feel the hot seizure of fury creep over me like a rapidly rising sun, a heat so consuming it was sinful. And as the heat rose my mind turned inward, to the dark center found in every man. I was so mad at the fish, the river, the worm, at everything in all of creation that I turned my anger explosively toward heaven – I got angry at God Almighty Himself. Back up river I turned, every step and stumble a curse. I mumbled under my breath, uttering swears I had only heard on television. I began to chastise God. “Stupid fish . . .” I said. “Might as well have stayed home . . .” I muttered. “All Your fault . . .” and then, as I broke from the brush, my fury at its crazed peak, seeing red everywhere, I glanced skyward and said loudly, “You might as well throw me in the river!” Instantly I pivoted, my arms flying into the air, my fishing pole sailing to the left, back toward the cursed fish as I stumbled forward and fell, spread eagle, only a moment to cry out in terrible desperation for my mother before landing with a great wet splash in the unrelenting river.

I had the bizarre sensation of floating, arms and legs still spread, like a big, pale water bug on the surface of the water. My voice went hoarse, and I kept calling out, “mom, mom, mom” but it was a gruff, chest deep croak, not even loud enough to carry over the gentle trickling sound of the river, and I imagined floating there for the rest of my life, unable to drown, unable to get out, my suggestion taken wholly to heart by Great God Almighty and His accomplice, the Devilfish of that smooth dark pool at the base of a glistening waterfall.

But my cry in the air had made its way up river. Through the forest my mother came wending, the look of fear on her young face, and there she found me, drifting in a foot of water like a paralyzed floaty thing. She scurried to the river’s edge and helped me stand. She held my arm as, sobbing, I retrieved my fishing pole from the below the water’s surface.

Back at camp I lay trembling in the tent, naked and terrified and ashamed, stunned by God’s audacity. I shivered on the floor of the tent, wrapped in a bath towel, with no dignity remaining.

“He almost drowned,” my mother said.

“Probably he didn’t,” my father said, and looked in on me with a soft humor in his eyes. “You all right, tiger?” he asked. I supposed I was even though I wasn’t sure. I spent the rest of the weekend close to camp, and God and I did not talk for the rest of the trip.

I never did catch that fish. Never returned to that spot again. I wouldn’t call it “the one that got away” because I doubt that Devilfish was half as big as it was clever. It swallowed me, though, or part of me. My pride most likely. But I got a story in exchange, and one I’ll never forget. For a writer there’s no better catch than that.

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Lucky Versus Good and the Simple Secret to Success

shadow fixLefty Gomez is credited with saying “I’d rather be lucky than good.” When it comes to success as an artist that sentiment may be even more true than it is in baseball. The secret to success as an artist lies within this idea, a secret that isn’t as mysterious and elusive as it first seems.

Every new project an artist undertakes is approached with the same general drive, inspiration and intent as the one before. When the idea comes to us we go for it with the goal of making the best product we know how. When the work is finished and we are happy enough with it, we send it out into the world and there it is judged, loved, hated, and then eventually becomes replaced by the next thing in a cycle that goes on and on forever. Except that sometimes a thing we do sticks, and the resultant stick makes us stand out, perhaps for the rest of our lives.

Naturally we would like everything we do to have this lasting effect, but it doesn’t and we can’t force it to happen no matter how hard we try. What we must do instead is create the best content we can while also creating as much of it as we can. The secret to success is more often quantity combined with quality. With quantity comes a sort of luck. The odds are that with enough effort something will stand out and get you noticed. Often it takes example after example of a certain style before people “get it,” but once that happens years of toil can come to fruition almost over night.

Not that we rely solely on luck. While it may be better to be lucky than good, the artist must still be good at what they do. A whole library of garbage will always be garbage. But a substantial collection of quality work, and a little luck that some of it gets noticed and celebrated, is the most likely scenario for success for today’s creative person.

So often it seems that a young prodigy comes out of nowhere with a single piece of fiction that suddenly takes off and makes them the new hot thing. To believe that some people wake up one day and pen a single story, as though having an innate store of perfect stories in their minds, one to write following another, is a great illusion in the world. No creative person that I am aware of ever created quality work without practice. For every first fiction there are dozens of stories that never made the cut, usually never made the light of day.

The secret is to work fast and work often. Let the stories inside you come together and slip out of you like tears and gasps and great big laughs. There is nothing gained by trying to create one perfect piece. The goal of perfection is deceptive – to assume that perfection can be achieved and should be the goal is to restrict the pathway to success with the briars of a lie. Simply create, prolifically, and let the results of your work lead the way to whatever success may come. None of us are only as good as one thing we do – we are the sum of all of our parts.

Keep working.

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When the Engine Stalls, Row!

no parking2A long time ago I had friend who owned an old white Subaru hatchback, a four-cylinder hunk of engineering marvel with bald tires and an engine as gutless as Punxsutawney Phil upon seeing his shadow six weeks too soon for an early spring. In the (mostly) flat lands of the Bay Area it was a splendid junker for getting to places not so far away. For longer road trips, such as the one I often made to see my parents in the California Sierras, it was less ideally suited.

A few days before we made the trip, my friend alleged that there was a misfire in the number three cylinder. When it began to act up, he said, all he had to do was unplug the cylinder wire from the offending cylinder and continue on. I thought little of it.

The day we left for the hills it was beautifully sunny. A perfect road trip day. We flew out of the Bay (on all four cylinders) and began the gradual ascent up I-80 toward the distant ridges of northeastern California. The trip was going well. We forgot about any cylinder issues and allowed the road to open before us with the promise of the journey to come.

For those unfamiliar with the I-80 corridor, it’s a long black ribbon of generally hot, flat roadway through a good deal of agricultural valley before lifting into the dry, grassy foothills around places like Auburn, Colfax, and Grass Valley. But once you begin the climb, it is an unrelenting elevation gain that does not peak until cresting at seven thousand feet at Donner Pass (known for the infamous Donner Party) somewhere near the border town of Truckee. We were barely on the pouty lower lip of the Auburn climb when my travel companion decided to stop and check the Subaru’s mighty little engine. Naturally it seemed to him that the number three was acting up. He pulled the wire and off we went.

The special thing about this time of living, two boys, barely twenty, is that we knew nothing about life, about the struggle to survive, or to accomplish things that only become important later. In our naiveté everything was an adventure, a challenge we had already succumbed to but did so without expectation that we would have ever been able to succeed. We were not defeated by spite, we were defeated by blissful ignorance. Life is the greatest pastime when we are young. Things are mostly funny.

When the dogged and belabored engine showed no gusto for climbing the gradual hills outside of Auburn the moment became temporarily embarrassing. Every other car on the road was flying past us. I doubt we were going over thirty mph. Imagine what a wiser adult might think in such a position. Am I going to make it? Am I going to cause an accident? Am I going to get stuck on the pass like the Donners of yore? But with the pedal floored and the car gasping to make the climb we did the only thing we could do. We rolled down our windows and pretended to row.

Other drivers laughed as the passed by. We rowed with all of our might and laughed and waved, making friends with dozens of others for brief moments as they hurtled past, probably grateful they were not in our predicament, but perhaps appreciating that we weren’t worried, that in fact we were going to be all right in the end because we had spirit, and we had enthusiasm, and we were creative . . .

This is what the writing life can be like. Often in the beginning we are running on fewer cylinders, with an engine that seems somehow too tired or is otherwise deficient. More often than not we worry about making the climb, about reaching the destination. We worry about dying on the hill.

But if we roll down the windows and row, if we laugh and wave, come to terms with the process and enjoy that we are living through this journey, we will arrive no worse for wear. At the end of the journey we will have a story to tell.

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Outline Your Book Or Suffer In Revision Hell

25777_366224582299_4542941_nI’m about to do it again.

I don’t know why anyone would bother writing a book-length manuscript when they could write and potentially publish a dozen short stories with the same or less effort. Short stories are quick, and act as evidence that one has the capacity for writing fiction in the first place. If a short story is the single-focused brainchild of a few weeks dedicated work, a book is a commitment to raising the child to adulthood. Yet here I am, about to write my fourth book.

What am I thinking?

I’ll tell you what I’m thinking – I don’t know – except that this story, this book-long tale of my imagination, will not let me focus on anything else. The first book in the series (which may never see the light the of day), has turned out to be backstory. I’m not exactly thrilled that things turned out this way, but these things happen, and at least with the back-story out of the way the real story can now be told.

T.E. Lawrence reminds us that “(a)ll the revision in the world will not save a bad first draft: for the architecture of the thing comes, or fails to come, in the first conception, and revision only affects the detail and ornament, alas!” So with all due respect to Anne Lamott we must consider the risks of a poor drafting in the first place. Following that, one must realize that all the work done on a piece of writing may end up being little more than practice, or perhaps the fleshing out of backstory so that the real story can be told. This realization may occur after more than a year working on a project, and the conclusion can be upsetting. As with any catastrophe it may take some time to come to terms with the aftermath. When I wrote about a million words a few years back I concluded that, upon reaching the million word benchmark, one should write a million more. There are a number of ways to do this. One of them is through revision of a very poor first draft, just be sure to understand the perils of this approach.

One way to avoid writing a poor first draft, and thus having to revise permanently, is to write an outline. An outline does a number of things: it introduces the sequence of events for ease of drafting chapters; it introduces characters and helps identify the proper protagonist; it may inform appropriate point-of-view. By outlining the entire story one knows the end toward which one is writing, how the story impacts the protagonist, approximately how long the story will be, weaknesses in the plot; and is a useful tool for writing the all important synopsis which, whether self-publishing or soliciting agents and editors, is a useful exercise.

An outline takes pressure off of the revision process because it reduces or eliminates errors that can otherwise be made in blind drafting. By knowing where the story is going from the outset the writer is better informed of the story and less likely to create tangents which may end up being cut wholesale in the latter revision process. So while making an outline may seem an unnecessary drag to getting on with the writing, consider it akin to reading the rules before playing a new game. The enjoyment of the activity is greatly enhanced by understanding what you are doing from the outset.

 

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The Update Blog: Just where have I been lately?

reflection

I have to admit, it isn’t always easy keeping up with a blog. It’s not like I’ve been gone a lot (I was gone a little) or that my life had a major change (well, it sort of did) or that I was in the hospital.

I have been around, but . . .

What has kept me from keeping to a regular blog schedule? I blame it on Twitter. In this sea of information that we are all floating in, with the many platforms flooding our lives with information of all sorts, it’s more important than ever to try and say things that really matter. After all it seems everyone is saying something, so why should I be adding one more roaring thought to the information highway unless I think it’s worth being said? Carry that idea one step further and consider what one can (and cannot) do with Twitter. Rather than write four to eight hundred words every day I can write one hundred forty characters and be done. Off it goes, the best bit of wisdom I can muster in the smallest moment, and if it’s worth a damn then someone might notice.

At the risk of sounding jaded by overload I acknowledge that the blog is still a viable source of information. In fact, according to a recent article I read on social media, it seems the longer an article is the more likely it is to be shared. It seems the pain of reading a long essay is so masochistically intense that we all want to share it with those we love.  It makes me wonder whether everyone is really reading, and preferring, longer articles. I am suspicious. The imp on my shoulder tells me some of you are hoping your friends will read the behemoth and then tell you what it was about when you ask for their opinion. It’s a form of cheating on the exam, I suppose, but we humans are prone to taking shortcuts when we think we can get away with it. Still, Twitter has a lot of appeal and it’s where I’ve been spending a lot of my time . . .

One shortcut we cannot take is in reading the tome of a book I am attempting to read. As with eating an elephant (and truly that task might be far easier in the long run, though ultimately not as enjoyable) I am consuming David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. The book is elephantine if you don’t already know, full of pages and pages. These pages contain characters, plots, subplots, lots of big words, looping inter-connectivity, and footnotes aplenty. I don’t know that I will honestly finish it, but it isn’t a bad read.  It’s just so hard to physically hold onto for very long.

I have been on a DFW binge lately. I recently read Every Love Story is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace and a book of interviews of him as well. I do this – I become infatuated with a writer every so often and I binge on everything I can get. This is one of the things I have been doing with my time rather than writing blogs. If you like Wallace’s writing, or even if you don’t, his life story is complexly entertaining and tragically sad. I do recommend it.

As it appears we are in the update portion of this blog entry I suppose I should mention that I have a short story coming out in January. I haven’t said much about it yet because January seems like a long, long way off. I’ll make a bigger deal about it in, like, December when things appear almost impossible to fall through.

And, finally, I have been revising the current novel in hopes of getting it to an editor this summer. It’s coming along fine – thank you for asking!

Meanwhile, my writer friends elsewhere are enjoying some successes of their own. J.S. Collyer is debuting her novel Zero this August, and David Michael Williams had his story “Going Viral” honorably mentioned in L. Ron Hubbard’s Writers of the Future contest.

So stuff is happening. I hope everyone will keep sifting through the avalanche, keep reading. There is a lot to wade through but once in a while we find what we’re looking for and happiness happens.

See you out there.

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