January 21, 2021

The Lesson of Flashdance

Oh, hey everyone. What’s new with you? Anything cool going on?

I’ve had this idea on the backburner for… well, a few years now, but now that I’ve got a handle on it, I’d like to talk to you about one of the most important creative-arts films of the 1980s.

You read the title, so I’m pretty sure you can guess where I’m going with this.

Quick sum up, for those of you who’ve never seen Flashdance. Alex is an eighteen-year-old welder who dreams of being a professional dancer and makes side money as a… what would we call it? Exotic dancer? A non-nude provocative dancer. She’s got a friend who wants to be a professional ice skater and another one who wants to be a comedian. Alex also has a boyfriend who’s twice her age and also her boss at the steel mill, and there’s a lot to unpack there.

Actually, there’s so much to unpack in that relationship  it’s what a lot of reviews will focus on. That and, weirdly enough, how unrealistic it is someone could be a professional welder at eighteen in a union town. Probably the same people who complain about how lightsabers work and about how the military sets look in zombie movies.

Getting off topic. Sorry. Anyway…

In my opinion, those issues distract from the actual story, which—if you think about it—is a much more ‘90s story about a trio of young, aspiring performers all looking to break into their chosen fields. We’ve seen a few versions of that, yes? If we look at Flashdance in that light, what’s the story about?

Well, we have our trio of aspiring artistic friends. Alex gets a chance to audition for an exclusive dance conservatory and gets nervous and leaves without auditioning. Her friend enters an ice skating competition and fails (kinda horribly). Her other friend gets a chance to do his comedy routine at an open night mic and bombs (also horribly), but then he decides to move to LA where there are more comedy clubs to try performing at. Meanwhile, Alex’s boyfriend gets her another chance to audition for the conservatory and… she comes up with another excuse to not audition.

Seeing the pattern here? One of these things is not like the other. In this trio of aspiring artists, the other two are failing, but it’s only because they’re actually trying. Alex is the one who won’t take any risks. She’d rather stay in her safe, small pond where she’s a superstar rather than find out she’s not good enough to go higher. That’s her story—working up the courage to try. Because until she does that, nothing else changes. She stays where she is.

This happens to a lot of us in the arts. We get nervous about if we’re good enough and talk ourselves out of doing more. We can’t get rejected—we can’t fail—if we never put ourselves out there, right? Heck, there are even some folks who’ll twist failure into some sort of victory. “Yeah, I got rejected, but that just proves my writing’s too good for the homogenized publishing industry!”

As I’ve mentioned before, though, rejection’s just part of the process. Failure is how we learn and sharpen our craft. And we can’t fail if we never try to do more, to push ourselves higher. So if I’ve never failed… maybe it means I’ve just been playing it safe and not doing enough. Maybe it means, on some level, I stopped.

Y’see, Timmy, we need to push ourselves. We need to keep at it. Even when we get rejected. Even when someone says our chosen genre sucks. Even when they say our writing sucks. Like any art, the only way to improve is to keep doing it. To keep challenging ourselves again and again and again.

Ray Bradbury once said the only way you fail is if you stop writing. Which is the short form of this. So yes, I could’ve called this “the lesson of Bradbury,” but half of you wouldn’t’ve paid attention.

Next time, I’d like to talk about why you rarely see a good writer.

Until then, go write.

August 30, 2018 / 4 Comments

If I’m Being Honest With Myself…

            Okay, look… there’s a good chance this post will piss you off.
            Two things I ask you to keep in mind, going in.
            First is that this comes from a place of kindness.  If you’re reading this, I want you to succeed.  All of you.  Well, okay, not him, but the rest of you, absolutely.  So I’m saying these things because… well, they need to be said.  And you need to hear them.
            Some of you really need to hear them.
            Second is that everything I’m going to be talking about is something I’ve personally experienced.  Not that I’ve seen another writer doing it—I’ve done it.  I’ve believed it.  I’ve been the person needing that smack in the face.
            And I learned from it.  And got better because of it.
            Writing’s tough.  It’s hard work.  I know this, because I’ve been doing it for a living for over a decade now.  When someone tells me how easy and wonderful and fun writing is, I’m often tempted to point out…
            Well, look.  There was a point when I thought writing was easy and fun.  It was back when I wasn’t taking it seriously.
            My writing ability started making huge leaps when I was finally able to admit a few things to myself.  I think that’s true of most people in most fields—if we can’t be honest about where we are, it’s hard to improve.
            That being said…

My first attempts at writing will suck—This sounds harsh, yeah, but… well…  Too often when we’re starting out, we just can’t get past the idea that something we wrote isn’t good.  I know I couldn’t.  My work was typed.  It was a full page long!  My mom liked it!  Of course it deserved to sell.  It deserved awards!  International awards!

            Seriously, there was soooooo much writing before my “first novel.”  There was Lizard Men from the Center of the Earth (two different versions).  A trope-filled sci-fi novel.  Some Boba Fett and Doctor Who fan fic.  A fantasy novel  fuelled by a sudden influx of hormones during my teen years (enough said about that).  The Werewolf Detective of Newbury Street, The Trinity, The Suffering Map, about half of a novel called Mouth.

            And then…Ex-Heroes. 
            It’s just against human nature to spend hours on something and then tell yourself you just wasted a bunch of time.  Why would I write something I couldn’t sell?  Obviously I wouldn’t, so my latest project must deserve a six-figure advance.
            The problem here is the learning curve.  None of us like to be the inexperienced rookie, but the fact is it’s where everyone starts.  Surgeons, chefs, pilots, astronomers, mechanics… and writers.  Oh, there are a few gifted amateurs out there, yeah—very, very few—but the vast majority of us have to work at something to get good at it.  And we can’t improve until we accept that we need improvement.
My first draft is going to suck—There was a point where I’d fret over my first draft.  I’d spend hours laboring over individual words, each sentence, every paragraph.  I’d get halfway down the page and then go back to try to fix things.  It meant my productivity was slowed to a crawl because I kept worrying about what had happened in my story instead of what was going to happen.
            The freeing moment was when I realized my first draft was always going to suck.  Always.  And that’s okay.  Everyone’s first draft sucks.  Everybody has to go back and rework stuff.  It’s the nature of the beast. 
            With those expectations gone, it became much easier for me to finish a first draft, which is essential if I ever wanted to get to a second draft.  And a third draft.  And maybe even a sale.
            No, needing another draft doesn’t make me a lesser writer in any way.  Every single professional writer I know (and I know a lot of them at this point) does a second draft.  And usually a third and fourth.
My writing needs editing.  Lots of editing—As I mentioned, I’ve been doing this for a while.  Surely by now I’ve hit the point where my stuff rolls onto the page (or screen) pretty much ready to go, yes?  I mean, at this point I must qualify as a good writer and I don’t need to obsess so much over those beginner-things, right?

            Alas, no.  Like I just said, my first draft is going to need work.  We all make the easy first choice now and then.  Things slip past us.  We misjudge how some things are going to be read. I’m fortunate to have a circle of friends and a really good editor at my publisher who all call me out when I make these mistakes or just take the easy route when I’m capable of doing something better.

            As I mentioned above, part of this is the ability to accept these notes and criticisms.  I’m not saying they’re all going to be right (and I’ve been given a few really idiotic notes over the years), but if my default position is that any criticism is wrong then my work is never going to improve past the first draft. 
            Which, as I mentioned above, sucks.
My writing needs cuts—Sticking to the theme, if I believe my writing is perfect, it stands to reason all of it is perfect.  It’s not 90% perfect with those two odd blocks that should be cut.  When I first started to edit, one of my big problems was that everythingneeded to be there.  It was all part of the story.  Each subplot, every action detail and character moment, all of the clever references and in-jokes.
            The Suffering Map was where I first started to realize things needed to be cut.  I’d overwritten—which is fine in a first draft as long as I can admit it in later drafts.  I had too many characters, too much detail, subplots that had grown too big, character arcs that became too complex.  It took a while, but I made huge cuts to the book.  It had to be done.  Heck, I just cut a whole subplot from the book I’m editing right now.  About 2500 words gone, snip-snip, in about five minutes.
            And the book it better for it.
My writing is going to be rejected –Know what I’ve got that most of you reading this will never have?  Rejection letters.  Paper letters that were mailed to me by editors.  I’ve got dozens of them.  Heck, I’ve probably got a dozen from Marvel Comics alone.  And since then I’ve got them from magazines, big publishers, journals, magazines, ezines…
            But when that first rejection from Marvel came… I was crushed.  Devastated.  How could they not like my story?  It was a full page!  I included a colored pencil rendering of what the cover should look like.  Did I mention it was typed?!
            It took me weeks—whole weeks, plural—to work up my courage to try again, and then they shot that one down, too.
            Granted, I was eleven, and those stories were awful.  I mean… really awful.
            Rejection is part of the process.  I still get rejections today.  I expect I’ll be getting then for the foreseeable future.
            Which is a good time to mention…
Rejection does not automatically mean my writing is bad—Getting that email is tough, like a punch to the gut.  It’s easy to let it get under the skin and fester.  Self-doubt feeds on rejections, so it’s important to think of it as “still looking for the right home.”
            Like I said, I’m still getting rejections today, even with the fairly solid list of credits and accolades after my name.  Editors and publishers are people too, and nothing is going to appeal to everyone.  Getting rejected became a lot easier for me when I realized it didn’t show up on my permanent record and it wasn’t a personal attack  It was just a person who didn’t connect with that particular story for some reason.
            Now, there’s a flipside worth mentioning here…
Rejection also doesn’t automatically mean my writing is good—There’s a lot of memes and recurring stories and a few general mindsets that push the idea that if my work gets rejected by an agent or editor it mustbe good, because all those people are idiots.  And it can be a comforting thought.
            It’s also kinda close to conspiracy-theory reasoning, if you think about it.
            Going right back to the beginning of this little rant, there’s a decent chance my work just isn’t good.  No big deal.  Like I said, I had dozens and dozens of rejections before I started to get some sales.
            But if I refuse to back away from the idea that it might be me—if I take dozens of rejections as proof the system is stupid rather than admit the possibility my manuscript wasn’t ready to go out—then I’m never going to improve.
            If I can admit these things to myself, it can only make me a better, stronger writer.  It’s not a flaw or a weakness.  In fact, if I look at the above statements and immediately think “Well, yeah, but none of that applies to me…” it’s probably a good sign I’m in denial about some things.
            And that’s not going to help me get anywhere.
            Speaking of getting anywhere, if you’re in the Atlantaarea I’m at Dragon Con this weekend.  Come find me and we can talk about books and writing and is Clark Gregg coming back to Agents of SHIELD or what?
            Next time, I’d like to put a few things in context.
            Until then, go write.
June 23, 2016 / 3 Comments

Rejected by Inspector #12

            If I can shamelessly namedrop a bit,  I heard a great Richard Matheson quote from Jonathan Maberry a while back, which I will now paraphrase as such.
            Writingis the art of telling stories.  Publishingis the business of selling as many copies of that art as possible.
            If you break it down, this collection of rants is probably 98% about writing, maybe 2% about publishing.  This week, if I may, I’d like to step away from the straight writing stuff that I normally do and touch on an issue more on the publishing side of things.
            Nobody here likes getting rejected. Not for an apartment, not for a job, not for a date. Definitely not for our writing.  But that’s life. Rejection happens all the time, even to the folks who get considered professionals.  I had a short story rejected from an anthology last year.  I’ve been trying to pitch a book trilogy to my editor for two years now, and he’s just not interested. Heck, my agent’s not even that interested in it.  These things happen.
            I bring this up because there’s a meme, or sometimes an article, that floats around a lot, presenting a bunch of facts that go something like this… 
            “Famous writer X showed their manuscript Y to twenty-three editors before someone bought it.  Not only that, bestselling novel Y2 by famous writer X2 was rejected by forty-two editors. Can you imagine that? Forty-two people passed on Y2?  Ha ha ha, how many of them are kicking themselves now?”
            This list can be ten or fifteen authors/books long, and I see it get used a lot to show how A) I shouldn’t give up hope just because of all my rejections, B) editors don’t know anything, C) the publishing industry is a dinosaur that’s going to die out any day now, just wait and see, or D) all of the above.
            So, at first glance, this list can seem like a really awesome thing. It makes me feel more positive about rejection.  It makes me feel more positive about that stupid editor’s decision.  It validates my feelings about big publishing and their ongoing habit of ignoring my letters.  And this is good, right?
            Thing is, there’s three problems here.  And I think they cause more issues than all this positive affirmation solves.  Y’see, Timmy, this list isn’t as clear-cut as it seems…
            First problem is the false parallel that often gets drawn because of this list.  Carrie was rejected many times and my early book– The Suffering Map –was rejected many times.  Therefore, logically, my book must be just as good (and just as worthy of being published) as Stephen King’s breakout hit.
            We can all see the flaw there, right?  Just because an editor rejected a good book doesn’t mean all the books they reject are good. Some of them—let’s be honest—some of them are not good.  Some of them are bad.  We can all probably name one or two folks who aren’t as good at writing as they think they are.  And they can probably name two or three folks, too.
            I can freely admit, I’ve had books rejected by agents.  And they deserved to be rejected.  They were awful.  Honestly, in retrospect, I’m kind of ashamed I submitted one of them. 
            The next problem, to be blunt, is that writers don’t always send stories where they’re supposed to go.  Sometimes we get overeager or don’t do all the research we should.  If I’d sent Ex-Heroes to Harlequin, of course they would’ve rejected it. So would the Black Library (a very specific niche press), Razorbill (a young adult press), or Lonely Planet (a travel book publisher).  Getting rejected from these places would be completely understandable, but would it really say anything about the quality of my writing?  Or that editor’s ability to recognize good writing?
            So should I consider those when I say that my book’s been rejected half a dozen times?
            Heck, a while back I spoke with a woman online as she lamented that her story had been rejected four times.  Ignoring the fact that four times is nothing, it turned out she’d submitted to four radically different markets.  She’d tried marketing it as young adult, sci-fi, fantasy, and as a horror novel.  Which really meant she’d been rejected once.  Once as a young adult story, once as a sci-fi story, and so on.
            Is that worth calling it quits over?
            Also, there are some writers out there who… well, who can’t take a hint.  They’re the literary equivalent of the guy who thinks if he keeps asking Phoebe out every Friday night, eventually she’ll break down and say yes. When an editor rejects a manuscript… that’s it.  Unless they specifically ask to see it again, I shouldn’t try to sneak it back in their pile six months later. No, not even if I explain that I tweaked three of the chapters. My goal is to convince them I’m a professional, and that’s not how professionals work.  But some people do it anyway, often the folks who tend to do “carpet bomb” submissions of twenty or thirty editors at a time.
            If Phoebe rejects my advances twenty times, is that twenty rejections?  Or is it just one (and I’m really bad at taking a hint)?
            So rejection numbers don’t necessarily tell a complete story.
            Finally, this list implies a really big misconception, something a lot of beginners (or willfully uninformed folks) don’t get.  When they hear that bestselling author Wakko Warner was rejected thirty times, they make the assumption that Wakko sent out the exact same book with the exact same query letter thirty times.  Thirty editors all saw the same book that got published, letter for letter, and every one of them passed on it.
            As someone who’s made those rounds, I’d be willing to bet some serious cash that’s not true.
            After a given number of rejections, a good writer’s going to take note that something isn’t working.  It might be a low number, just two or three.  It might be as high as a dozen.  But only a really deluded person is going to keep doing the exact same thing again and again and expect the results are going to radically change.

          Personally, I’d rewrite my cover letter after every fourth or fifth rejection.  Sometimes it would be to update it with a new sale or credit.  Other times I’d come up with a cleaner, slicker way to get a point across.  All too often, it was to fix the typo that had slipped past three revisions and didn’t get noticed until after I sent things out.   Whatever made me do it, it was rare for more than a handful of editors to get the exact same letter from me.  And  different people interpret those letters different ways

            Not only that, if I was lucky enough to get any sort of feedback… I listened to it.  I didn’t always follow it word for word, but if the people who were in the position to buy my stories offered suggestions, I considered them.  The Suffering Mapwent through a pretty decent revision halfway through my submissions, and then another one right after I attended the SDSU Writers’ Conference. 
            Out of its dozen or so submissions, I’d guess at least three different versions of it went out under three or four different cover letters.
            So, with all of this in mind…  is it that amazing a particular book was rejected forty-two times? 
            It seems kind of, well, normal, doesn’t it?
            It’s always fantastic to look back at the people who inspired us and how they got their start.  If I want to walk that same path, though, I need to look at that start without any blinders or preconceptions. Which is going to make the path look a lot tougher.
            But it’ll also make it easier to follow.
            Next time…
            I don’t know. Between the ranty blog and the Writers Coffeehouse, it feels like I’ve been going on and on about so many things, it all feels a bit repetitive to me.  Is there an appropriate writing topic anybody’d like to hear me babble on about?
            If not… I’ll put something together…
            Until then, go write.