A Look Back at My Year in Writing—2015—A Sort of Capitulation

2015 was a tough one. No doubt. I’ll try to recap here the main developments and the things I achieved and didn’t achieve. Next week, we’ll look forward to 2016 and what I’m planning next.  Highsmith


1. I didn’t get a new work published.
This one stings, no doubt. I think two of the stories I wrote this year (“Pacha-Mama” and “Barabanchik”) are both top notch. Unfortunately, the big bad world seems to think otherwise, at least for the time being. That was tough, can’t pretend it wasn’t.

But I view it as a pretty minor setback. I’ve kept writing and feel the writing’s getting better. I’ve also gotten close to getting those works accepted…

2. I got two “good” rejections.
I know this is a weird, but work with me here. When a writer doesn’t get his work accepted he looks for a little, desultory cheer in his rejection letters. And now that I’ve collected over 50 of these, I can speak from experience. Most are stone-cold, not-interested-in-your-stuff standard rejection letters. But then there are those letters like these two (names have been removed to protect the innocent):

Dear Darius Jones,

Thank you so much for submitting to XXXX. We have read your work with interest, and although we are not accepting it, it did come close. We would love to see more work from you, so please feel free to resubmit during our next reading period.

Again, thanks for sending us your work. We hope to read more from you soon.

Signed,

The Editor

That was the first rejection that ever made my day. Getting an invite from an editor to keep submitting is a nice touch. A nice way to say: “Man, you came close. Don’t be discouraged. Keep sending us stuff.” And it was sure nice to get an encouragement after all those rejections. Here’s the next rejection letter:

Dear Darius,

Thank you for sending us “Barabanchik”…

We have decided not to include this piece in an upcoming volume of our anthology. However, since multiple readers review each submission, you may find the following excerpts from their notes useful or interesting…

– This is rather heavy with adult language…I like the narrative style, atmosphere, cultural references, and attention to details. I believe the POV shift…is rather abrupt and deserves a smoother transition. I’m very interested in all three characters, though I was expecting a greater connection to be established between them…I felt it was cut short, and I’m hoping a longer version is in the works!

That bit about getting engaged in the characters and hoping for a longer work I found pleasing. I think the most important thing is to have your reader care about your characters. I also think it’s gratifying to see the reader’s interest in a longer version, since I feel I write better in long form. I ain’t no Chekhov, that’s for sure.

I think I will revisit the works above slightly and keep submitting them this coming year.

3. I finished 3 short stories and made substantial progress on a longer piece.
The three stories I finished were: “The Man with Storms in His Eyes,” “Barabanchik” and “Pacha-Mama.” I have since decided to trunk that first story because I feel it’s not quite up to snuff. The other two pieces have received some good feedback from Beta readers. I’m going to keep submitting those two to editors next year.

I have also made significant progress on my latest piece “SSC.” Which you know,  if you’ve been following my Twitter feed. First: it’s not a novel. So don’t ask me: “How’s the novel going?” I will reveal what it is when the first draft is done, probably in early 2016.

I’m proud of the fact that I kept writing despite rejections. That’s important.

4. I went to one Con.
Although I had planned to go to three. I think that was a bit too ambitious. I made it to RavenCon this year and I’ll be planning my Con schedule for next year in the coming weeks. I think aiming to go to two Cons this time makes more sense. There’s only so much time in a year.

5. I wrote more and blogged less.
I wrote about this last year. I pretty consistently wrote the blog only once every two weeks as planned and this allowed me to write more fiction. I think it’s important that the blog continues and that I keep writing. I’ll have more to say about this one in the coming year.

6. I set a new readership (visitor) record for my blog.
Despite writing less, I broke the readership record for my blog. I guess, like they say, that consistency counts for something on blogs. I think people knowing that you’ll  be there, even if they have to wait two weeks, keeps them coming back for more. I also seem to be enjoying growing interest from UK readers. It’s cool to see readers outside the States getting interested in the blog.

7. I started writing my stuff.
This one is unquantifiable. But the unquantifiable stuff is usually the most important. I would say this year I finally capitulated. I came to realize my stuff isn’t really what “they” call speculative fiction. It doesn’t easily fit into fantasy or science fiction. Some of it comes close to “urban fantasy,” but not really…

Also…I’m not really writing “literary” fiction either. It’s not meticulously crafted prose larded with literary-style effects and plots about couples’ mid-life crises in suburban America/New York City. So, it doesn’t really appeal to that crowd either.

To put it simply, it’s a marketer’s nightmare. Its doesn’t fit the “literary” tag and it doesn’t fit the “speculative” tag. It’s still stuff I want to write. the main difference is that this year, I came to peace with that. And really don’t care much. The manuscript—and only the manuscript—has to come first…And second…And third. Otherwise, all  the marketing, blogging, promotion and events don’t mean a thing.

I think you know where I’m going with this. But I’ll get into it a bit further down the road. Suffice to say 2015 was the year when I decided to write my stuff. Damn the consequences.


So, sounds like a pretty “meh” year. Huh? Well, so be it. I think I matured as a writer over the past year and I think the stories are getting better and sharper. I have some ideas where I want to head next year too. But that’s a post for January. I’ll see you then with a new post and new ideas about where I have been and—more importantly—where I’m headed.

See you then.

Have a Happy New Year, Everybody!

Darius

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On Keeping the Day Job

We’ve all got to make a living somehow. Some of us have to write, too. We can’t help it.  It’s a kind of compulsion. It would be great to have all day to create, to edit, to do some social media duties and never have to worry about paying the bills. But if you’re likoffice-spacee me and weren’t born independently wealthy, you’ve got to work.

So what to do? How should you make a living? And how do you square making a living with pursuing your creative avocation? Here’s a few things I’ve learned along the way. Most apply to writing, but they could apply to any creative line of work.


Rethink that Super-High-Stress Career
Maybe becoming a lawyer or a surgeon isn’t the best path for you. If you’re really dedicated to becoming a writer or an artist, you might want to consider putting away that LSAT, MCAT or GMAT test book. There’s nothing wrong with being a lawyer, doctor, etc., but you have to think realistically about work-life balance. Sure, those are fine ways to make a living, but you have to put in a lot of time (measured in years) and money (measured in the $100,000s) to get a career in those fields. And even when you get there, being a top-notch lawyer, doctor, or business manager will probably not give you lots of free time to write.

Sure, there are people who have “shot the moon” in those professions, making a lot of money and cashing out. But this is unlikely and a risky proposition. And it requires incredible self-discipline and a long wait for the payoff.

Consider a Job that Pay the Bills, but Is Flexible
Instead, you might want to consider the middle path. Not a job that’s a dead end or meaningless for you, but something that pays the bill and allows for the max time for other pursuits.

One of my best writing gigs (and realistically, probably a relic of the 90s) was as freelance ad copywriter. It paid well and left me a decent amount of time to write. On those days when I wasn’t writing ads for money, I could have a long breakfast, a couple of cups of coffee and go for a walk along the beach. Around 11 a.m., I’d hunker down and start writing for the day. It was epic.

Or take my friend, Daniel. He’s a neo-natal nurse. It can be stressful, no doubt. But the great thing? It’s three-days on, three days off. You get three solid days to recuperate and write. A nice writing gig.

I’ve heard teaching can also be a great writing gig: lots of time off in the summer and a stable income. A great combo for writing. I always personally thought that being a security guard at a car park or a warehouse down by the docks or some other low-priority target, would be a great gig for a writer. There are other great gigs out there too. Anything that lets you turn off completely, is stable and gives you the flexibility and energy to write is ideal.

Consider a Day Job that Includes Writing (or art, music, etc.)
Also, don’t forget to consider a job that makes use of your talents. If you’re a writer, consider a  writing gig. If you’re artistic, consider something artistic.

For example, Mario Vargas Llosa worked for years as a journalist, before writing his first novel. If you’re someone who’s considered writing fiction seriously, it’s probably because you have some talent at writing to begin with. Why not take advantage of that talent and look for a job in that field?

For years, I’ve made a living off of writing. Not fiction writing, mind you. But writing for companies and clients. If you get some experience you can actually make some decent money at it.

The same thing goes for artists: consider working as a graphic artist at an ad agency or company. Or for a musician: consider being a session musician or teaching. There might be a way to make a living at what you love to do though you’ve never considered it.

When to Make the Jump
Of course, there may come a time when you decide to ditch your real job. A time when you feel you’re close to success or have already achieved it. It’s hard to say when the right time will come.

But, for a writer, it’s probably when you’ve got the contract for your first novel signed, if not later than that. After all, it’s your life here and it seems to be getting harder and harder for writers to make it these days…which brings us to our last point.

Don’t Forget: Jobs Can Give You Great Material
Sure, it would be great to move to Europe, get bankrolled by your parents and write the great novel we’re all waiting for. Though it’s usually glossed over, that’s what Hemingway did when he wrote The Sun Also Rises. I can’t not support this. Hey, man, if you find a sustainable way to bankroll your creativity (parents, lovers, a sponsor) I’m all for it. You just have to make sure that it’s sustainable or that you have an escape plan for when the funding dries up.

But don’t forget one important point: you need something to write about. Some of the greatest books ever written came from experience out there working. Would Melville have written Moby Dick if he had stayed at home in Nantucket? Would Dashiell Hammett have written The Maltese Falcon if he had only read stories about detectives? Would Chekhov ever have been able to capture the despondent ennui of provincial Russia if he hadn’t been a village doctor in the same? If Ken Kesey hadn’t worked at a mental hospital, would he ever have written the brilliant One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest?

Conversely, would Lovecraft have kept writing longer if he had a sustainable career outside of writing? And would Hemingway have written a broader, more interesting set of novels, if he had not struck the jackpot in his mid-20s?

Of course, we’ll never know. But  it’s something to think about while you’re slaving away at that day job. Just remember: keep going.

Until next time,

Darius


What else could it be for the musical conclusion today than “God Bless the Child” by Billie Holiday?

Mama may have, Papa may have
But God bless the child that’s got his own
That’s got his own

Sing it, Girl.

The Craft: Rules for Writing, Rule #1: Get Black on White

[This is part of a continuing series on the art of writing fiction.]

Well, here it is, my first rule for writing. (I will be posting new rules at the original post, “Rules for Writing.”). It’s, by far, the most important rule.

There’s good news and bad news about this rule. First the good news: it’s the simplest rule. The bad news is that it’s also the hardest rule to follow.

Before the reveal, I want to tell the story behind it. It’s apocryphal, as far as I can tell. I can’t remember where I first heard it, but I never forgot it. In a quick search on Wikiquote, I wasn’t able to track it to the man credited with it: Guy de Maupassant.

The story goes that there was a young French writer, back in the 1800s, who wanted to learn the secret of writing. He was especially intrigued by Maupassant’s short stories and felt they were a pinnacle of the craft of writing. So this young writer left his home in a  small village in the south of France and went all the way to Paris, to track down the famous writer and learn his secret.

Finally, one day the writer found Maupassant in a busy Parisian café. He made clear his need to become a famous writer and asked Maupassant how it was that he wrote such well-crafted stories. Not wanting to quickly and easily reveal such a secret, Maupassant asked the writer to come back the next week and that he would answer his question then. He promised to reveal the single most important rule he knew for writing great fiction. But he warned the young writer that he might not like the answer. The young writer wasn’t deterred, he had not come all the way to turn back now, he wanted to know the magic formula Maupassant used to construct such perfect stories.

So, the day came. Maupassant graciously met up with the young, unknown writer, ready to enlighten him. I imagine their talk going something like this:

YOUNG WRITER: So, what is it? What’s the secret to great writing, Guy?

MAUPASSANT: Well, I don’t think you’ll like the answer.

YOUNG WRITER: I don’t care. I want to know. I need to know.

MAUPASSANT: Ok, then.

YOUNG WRITER [eagerly]: Well?

MAUPASSANT: Get black on white.

YOUNG WRITER [incredulously]: What?

MAUPASSANT: Get black on white. Put pen to blank page. Write. Again and again. Don’t stop…Get black on white.

YOUNG WRITER [in an insulted tone]: That’s it!?

MAUPASSANT: I knew you wouldn’t like it.

YOUNG WRITER [outraged]: It’s infantile! Obvious!

MAUPASSANT: But it works. Just try it.

By  now, you’re probably feeling as cheated as I did when I heard the story. But you know what? Guy’s right.

Take Chekhov as an example. I’ve read his early stuff, his middle stuff, his late stuff. In all, he wrote 588 stories! 588! Do you think his stories improved as time went by? “Joy” is downright bad, “The Student” is  good and “The Steppe” is epic.

If you do nothing else, if you follow no other writing rule, get black on white day-after-day, month-after-month, year-after-year. It’s as hard, and as simple, as that. That is why it’s rule Number #1.

1. Get Black on White.

[I will continue the Writing rules in later posts categorized under “The Craft,” so  stay tuned.]

The Craft: Rules for Writing

[This is part of a continuing series on the art of writing fiction.]

[SPOILER ALERT: This post contains spoilers for the Chekhov story, “Lady with the Lap Dog.” ]

I’ve been hesitating on writing this post for a while. I think two things were holding me back.

What Would Ray Say?

First, I guess I didn’t want to give away the farm. All that hard work, writing, thinking, finally coming up with these rules…And then just letting them go out into the world. But part of the idea of this blog is to share and make other writers out there better.

There was something else, something bigger, gnawing at me.

I think it’s just that it’s awfully damn pretentious for a writer who has only self-published two pieces to offer anyone rules for writing. Stephen King, Ray Bradbury, sure. But me? Come on!

So, I thought I might post these as “Writing Suggestions” or “Ideas that Worked for Me,” but that would have been lame and possibly even more pretentious. And they are my rules for writing in the sense that they work for me. So in the end, I’ve decided to share them under the original title. Let me explain.

Posting these rules and writing this blog has been a great learning process for me. It’s forced me to think about what makes my writing good and where it falls short. In posting these “rules” I hope to clarify my own thinking and learn more about the writing process myself. I might even add some new rules as we go. Along the way, I hope you readers and writers also find them useful.

So, here’s what I’m going to do.

Today, I’m posting rules 1 through 5. I will expand the list in this post over time, so you may want to bookmark this page. Each new “Rule for Writing” will link to a new post where I discuss that rule at length. I will start with a post next week on Rule 1.


My top writing rules are:

1. Get Black on White.

2. NO CRITIC.

3. The Elvis Principle.

4. Dedicated Time.

5. Stick to What Works.

More rules to be POSTED HERE.


I want to end this post with one BIG exception: Rules are made for breaking. As Prince said: “Make the rules and break them all cause you are the best.”

Prince makes it hard to find his videos. But look for “Cream” and you’ll see what I meant to link to.

But seriously, sometimes this can be used to great effect. Take the biggest writing rule of all time: “Show, Don’t Tell.” It’s a great, simple rule, though everybody seems to have a different interpretation of what it means. And whether it’s the right thing to do in the first place. But here’s an example of a great writer, Chekhov, in one of his best stories, suddenly “telling” it all instead of “showing.” It comes at the end of “Lady with the Dog.”

He had two lives: one, open, seen and known by all who cared to know, full of relative truth and of relative falsehood, exactly like the lives of his friends and acquaintances; and another life running its course in secret. And through some strange, perhaps accidental, conjunction of circumstances, everything that was essential, of interest and of value to him, everything in which he was sincere and did not deceive himself, everything that made the kernel of his life, was hidden from other people; and all that was false in him, the sheath in which he hid himself to conceal the truth—such, for instance, as his work in the bank, his discussions at the club, his ‘lower race,’ his presence with his wife at anniversary festivities—all that was open.

It’s had a sublime effect on me when I first read it and it comes at just the right moment. But it’s all “tell.” Every last bit of it. It seems that, in art, all rules are made for breaking.

That being said, if you’re just starting out, stick to the rules.


In a continuing sub-series, I’m mentioning each time viewers from a new country visit the blog. This week we have:

– Serbia.

Welcome to the blog!

The Craft: What New Writers Should Read

[This is part of a continuing series on the art of writing fiction.]


Every writer starts as a reader. You read something good, then something great and one day you think to yourself, “Maybe I can do this?”

For me the gateway, that first great work, was The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoyevsky. I was in high school, sophomore year and I got hold of the junior/senior reading list. The list had Crime and Punishment, The Idiot and the Possessed on the list, but it was The Brothers Karamazov that really grabbed my eye.

It was the first book to grab me and never let go. It was especially the famous chapter, “The Grand Inquisitor” that blew me away. I can’t say that was the moment I decided to be a writer (that came a bit later), but there was something special, I would even say, sacramental, about that moment. I can’t recall ever being so moved by a work of art—a book, song, painting or game—it literally changed  me and my worldview. It was a huge step down the writer’s path.

Of course, a lot has happened since then. I’ve been to Russia to visit the old master’s grave at the Tikhvin Cemetery in St. Petersburg.

I’ve even become a writer myself. And my estimation of Fyodor has changed. Chekhov is my favorite Russian writer right now with Gogol a close second.

As an emerging writer, my reading habits have changed too. I tend to read things like author’s letters and biographies that I never used to read. Whenever I get discouraged I dip into one of them and I’m reminded that my plight is not unique. That writers through the ages have all suffered from the same maladies: getting  published, not having enough money, the constant distractions, the sudden dry spells. Even trolls are not exclusively an Internet-era phenomena. Ever since critics have been around some of them just can’t stop at criticizing the work, but can’t help but get in a few jabs at the person behind the work too. Sad to say, it’s always been part of the gig.

So, for those writers just starting out, here’s what I recommend reading to keep you motivated, focused and learning.

1. The Paris Review interviews with authors.

If you read nothing else on this list, read the Paris Review interviews. I found these by chance during a visit to a used bookstore (they can be found in book form as well). I thumbed through the first volume and ended up walking out with the rest at a reduced price.

They were so valuable to read because they showed me that while all writers are similar, they have quite different habits. What works for one writer won’t work for the next. For example, Hemingway wrote standing up. If I had to do that, my writing would be total crap. But, hey, it worked for Ernest.

The PR interviewers asked lots of great personal questions about the author’s schedule and work habits. This is great because it drives home the point that you just have to find what works for you and stick with it. Some writers had to write in the morning, some had to at night. Some had to write in quiet and solitude, some had to write at a café or bar. Some liked to write detailed outlines of the plot before starting, some liked to just get a basic scene (E.M. Forster) and then build a whole novel from it.

The bottom line: find what works for you and stick with it.

2. Your favorite author’s first work.

Sure, you’ve read Moby Dick, but have you read Typee?

Selection bias distorts lots of things. For a writer, one of the most pernicious is reading authors’ best works only or predominantly. You think Melville, and you think Moby Dick. You think Shakespeare, and there’s Hamlet. You think Cormac McCarthy, there’s Blood Meridian.

But what about Typee? Or The Two Gentlemen of Verona? Or, God forbid, The Orchard Keeper????

The point is: if you’re a starting writer it’s HIGHLY unlikely you’ll produce a Moby Dick, Hamlet or Blood Meridian on your first time out. Melville didn’t, McCarthy didn’t, Shakespeare didn’t. And they all had/have loads of talent. So don’t compare yourself to those works. Rather, start reading your favorite writers’ first works and you’ll start to see they were just humans and that their writing has flaws.

This is exactly what I did with my hero, Dostoyevsky. I read Poor Folk. And guess what? Even as a Dostoyevsky Diehard, I had to admit it was just “OK.” Reading that book got me to thinking seriously for the first time, “Hey, maybe somebody like me could write.”

3. Your favorite author’s letters.

In turns out in the olden days, some twenty years ago, there were no blogs. Heck, there was hardly an Internet. The next best thing, the blogs of their day, were personal letters. They were revelatory, personal and mercifully short. They’re still a great way to get insight into the inner thoughts of writers.

That’s why I’ve recently starting reading author’s letters. Again, pick your favorite writers and try to track down their collected letters. Two great collections from my favorites are selections from Chekhov’s letters and Steinbeck’s letters.

It’s very soothing to see these greats as they grapple with serious setbacks and revel in little victories. Take Steinbeck on self-doubt:

I have been filled with a curious cloying despair. I haven’t heard a word from any of my manuscripts for over three months. It is nerve-wracking. I would welcome rejections far more than this appalling silence.

My new novel slumbers. I doubt myself. This is a very critical time…

– To George Albee, spring 1931.

As a writer, you’re never alone. There is a great community past and present that faced the same problems you face every day. But somehow they persisted and overcame. The letters they left us are a great reminder of that.


Alright, that’s my reading advice. It should give you quite a bit of homework to do. Good luck and we’ll see you again soon. Until then…

Keep reading, keep writing,

DJ

The Craft: Are You Experienced?

Today, I’m writing the first in a series of themed postings for my blog. I’m calling the series, “The Craft.” This series will continue intermittently, will be posted when I feel like it and will include musings on the craft of fiction writing. I hope you find them useful.

The first subject I want to take up is experience. After writing a novel and a short story and seeing them to completion (a total of 62,100 words), I like to think of myself of as an experienced writer. But the truth is I have a long, long way to go. At least, if an introduction to Chekhov’s short stories is any guide.

In the 588 pieces of fiction Chekhov wrote between 1880 and  1902, he ranged more widely than any Russian writer before him.

I’ve been a fan of Chekhov ever since I read his Lady with the Lap Dog in Russian inside a slim, green collected-works volume my landlord had in his Moscow flat. (I ended up ‘liberating’ the last volume with ‘Lady’ in it from the flat and I don’t think the landlord ever missed it.)

Despite the fact that his stories are often plot-less or plot-light (like life itself), I think they are rightly regarded as a pinnacle of realist fiction. Just pick up one of his stories and you’re sucked into his world, the world of 19th-century provincial Russia. It has the details of gesture, clothes, speech all correlated to the right person according to their age, gender, profession and class. It has a narrator that is so hidden he might as well not exist. It’s  up to the reader to make all the judgments and interpretations. He uses metaphors, simile and flowery language minimally, but when he does, it strikes home, leaving a lasting image in your mind’s eye. Often, he uses weather to set or suggest a mood: a blizzard, a rain storm, or oppressive heat catching travellers on the road and throwing them together out of necessity.

Most importantly, there’s that famous tone. That subtle light touch, imbuing everything, the characters, the animals, the landscape with a despondent, hopeless ennui. Some have called it elegiac. But there is a Russian word, that some say is untranslatable, that captures it perfectly: тоска.

File:Anton P Chekhov.jpg

But don’t think for a minute that all this came to him cheaply or easily, without a price. It reflects a lifetime of close observation, note taking and hard work. As a country doctor he wandered the provinces gathering characters, anecdotes and situations that would later populate his stories. And topped he it off with years of writing stories on deadline to a strict word count for obscure magazines as the introduction to the stories says:

The St. Petersburg journal ‘Fragments‘ [‘Осколки’] immediately became the most popular publication when it was founded in 1881. Like other such journals, it was full of cartoons, corny jokes, amusing little stories, and vignettes of contemporary life…This was the arena in which Chekhov learnt his craft as a writer.

400PX-~1

It’s so easy to remember the great Chekhov stories: The Lady with the Lap Dog, Gooseberries, The Steppe, The Student (Chekhov’s personal favorite). But it’s those other 584 stories that made him great. The years he spent honing his craft writing for Fragments and other pulp humor magazines, before switching to light vignettes with a humorous touch, to his final mature, dramatic stories and plays that have entered the canons of Western and Russian literature.

That’s something I’m reminding myself as I slog through the process of writing short stories and getting them rejected by magazines (4 rejections so far for my best sci fi story yet). And as I’m writing novels for Kindle and Nook were the audience is numbered in the hundreds, not thousands. But I figure with my 2 pieces as compared to Chekhov’s 588, I still have a long, long way to go.

As ACDC said, “It’s a long way to the top, if you wanna rock and roll.” It’s an illusion to think writers (or musicians) have ever had it any differently.


[This is a ‘business’ postscript: Technorati Code is 4JDCSY3YUS5P. Now, Technorati can find and index this blog.]