Friday, March 15, 2013

Dealing with Critiques and Rejection

Now some people are probably doing a double-take when they read this opening statement, as it goes against many natural inclinations we as writers and human beings have.

Bear with me:

Critique and rejection are two of the greatest things that can happen to a writer, but they are only good for a writer if the writer themselves can see critiques and rejections for what they are: the chance to learn.

Nobody in the publishing business does it on their own, and nobody becomes a great writer by themselves. Writing fiction, in its most pure essence, is creating something new and beautiful from one's experiences, hopes, dreams, nightmares, as well as our lowest and highest natures. The type of writing a person does on a creative level defines them in all ways--therefore it makes total sense that having a your work critiqued as anything less than *perfect* or having that work rejected by a publisher hurts. To those with the wrong mindset, such a judgment or rejection isn't just about your characters or your story--it's about you as a person.

But, my friends, it is good to be rejected as a writer.

Rejection, especially from a good editor, is more affirming of where you need to go with your writing than it is about how developed you are or aren't as a writer.

Case in point: I am currently working on a story that was entitled Shallow Bay, which has now been reworked into the The Beast of Shallow Bay. This fantasy epic tells the tale of an old pirate named Ngala who sets sail upon The Mirror Sea on the quest for riches and rapine. On the way back from a successful raid, his ship The Lion is mysteriously trapped in the middle of Shallow Bay, with its deserted coast and the brooding jungles beyond the white sand shore. Trapped without fresh food, water, and harangued by the monsters of the deep, Ngala and crew must solve the mystery of their entrapment before it is too late.

This story was rejected five times, each by a SFWA pro-market. And yes, it hurt. I won't lie and say that I am not immune to being told that I was lacking, but when I finally got through that one-hour "moody"-period I always go through, I sat back down and really looked at the comments given to me. Out of all the people who rejected it, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, edited by the talented Scott H. Andrews, gave me the reasons why it was rejected.

First, the fact that I got a personalized rejection that was not a form letter was a big deal to me, because BCS could have just sent me a form letter and that would have been it. Instead, they told me what the problems were with the story.

And they were right on about everything they said.

I went back and found the section where there were pronoun errors, which my critiquers had missed, my first reader had missed, and more importantly, I had missed. In the end, the fault lay squarely upon me. So I sat on it a couple of months, and now I am editing to send back out. I can't send it to Beneath Ceaseless Skies again, but that publication will be one of the big reasons for why it gets picked up when it gets picked up for publication.

What those who are not as savvy to publishing have to understand--a lot of these publishers and magazines don't have a lot of money, so the spots that they can give out in their publications are limited, and believe it or not they do receive a lot of good stories. This forces them to have to look at every single detail and mistake and weigh it against other submissions, a process that is completely out of the hands of those submitting to them. It is part of the learning process of trying to get into this business and produce great fiction.

It is understandable to be angry when your work is rejected, but a real writer can't let that anger stop them from moving on and trying again. It may be an old axiom, but the ones who make it in publishing are the ones who try, try, try, and try again. Rowling was rejected hundreds of times before Harry Potter was published. George R.R. Martin was rejected 45 times before he even sold his first short story.

Don't give up. Toughen that "author's skin", remove yourself from the emotional side of it, and learn how to sit down and pick your work apart so it can become better.

This somewhat segue-ways into the area of critiques. Critiques aren't rejections, but in some cases they can feel as damaging to a writer as if they were actual rejections. This fact is compounded by the reality that quality critiques are hard to receive because depending on who you are working with the people around you may not have a good grasp of your genre or they may be starting out on their journey as a writer and really don't know a lot about writing fiction.

Sometimes it is hard to know which critiques are good for your work and which ones are might not apply. However, we can pay some attention to what makes a good critiquer over a good critique. Here are the seven aspects I look for in a good critiquer.

What Makes A Good Critiquer

1. A good critiquer is reader who reads your work critically and makes constructive suggestions to make the piece better while at the same time respecting the fact that it is your work.

2. A good critiquer does not try to rewrite or redefine your work to suit their tastes, as it is your work and not theirs.

3. A good critiquer comes prepared to critique.

4. A good critiquer remains professional and treats what they are doing as a job. Remember, the goal is to get your work ready to be published, and publishing is a business.

5. A critiquer never talks poorly of other writers or refuses to critique based on their opinion of other's skills. A critiquer is there to learn and to help others learn the Craft of Writing, and should come into a critique session with a positive and helpful attitude.

6. A good critiquer is constantly trying to improve their own skills as a writer, editor, and reader.

It goes without saying that not all critiques are equal in value, so therefore it is the job of the person being critiqued to unpack all of the opinions they are given and decide which ones provide the most value for getting their work toward publication. This takes a lot of time working in dedicated critique groups, building an honest rapport with its members, which sometimes means swallowing your ego and taking the time to listen to what your peers are saying.

In closing I would like to add one final reminder: sometimes hearing a "no" in publishing is the first step to hearing a "yes" that lets you into the industry. Try, try, and try again, my friends, and one day that "yes" will come.

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Friday, March 8, 2013

Starting from Behind: A Journey Into The Mind of a Nobody

A few weeks ago I was very happy to receive news that my Sword and Sorcery short story, Paper Demons, had been accepted into Thunder on the Battlefield by Seventh Star Press, and from what I have been told, it will be available in the latter part of June 2013. This is more than just awesome news, because while I am ecstatic about selling two stories within a year of Dragon*Con, it also brought home the idea that I might be able to make it in this very tough, very demoralizing business.

As I was thinking on this, the idea of writing a blog post on how the publishing world looks from the perspective of a wannabe entered my mind. Yes--I still think of myself as a wannabe, even though I once had a novel contract with a small press and I have now sold two short stories to a pair of great anthologies--but at the same time, I think having that mindset is good thing, especially in an industry that is currently struggling to find itself. Truth be told, I want to always think that I am a wannabe, as it makes me hungry to make myself into a bonafide writer and author.

When I first started writing at 19, I knew absolutely nothing outside of my local Borders when it came to the publishing world, even though those magazines were sitting on the racks at the front of the store. My world since the time I was 11 was the world of the reader, where I dived into every epic and heroic fantasy novel I could get my hands on. My writing was rudimentary at best (and in some fashion, still is), but I had this passion for the genre that transcended love. In some of the most beautiful and inconceivable ways, fantasy fed my soul at a time when it was empty of love, happiness, and the need to find truth.

A lot of that changed when I sold my first novel, The Night, to a small publisher in North Carolina that was just starting up. While that business was no big deal, neither was I, so it was an entrance into a world that I knew absolutely nothing about. I was put together with highly-critical readers, a great editor, and was introduced to Sam Montgomery-Blinn, who is the founder and editor of Bull Spec, a fantastic magazine for science-fiction and fantasy. Sam opened my eyes up to the world beyond the bookstore, to the magazines, the organizations, the conventions and the events. Beforehand I truly knew nothing and Sam helped usher me in. I was able to meet people like Richard Dansky from Red Storm Studios and James Maxey, the illustrious author of the Bitterwood Trilogy, who were both frank and honest about tell me that if I wanted to succeed at writing fantasy that I really needed to find a critique group, work hard on my craft, and since that I can thankfully say I have come a long way. Not all the way, but enough that there has been some very good progress.

But as wonderful as the world of Sci-Fi and Fantasy is, it is so big, so competitive, and so crowded, all of which are three things that each have their own pluses and minuses. It is quite clear to a new writer that they are competing for fewer and fewer precious spots in magazines and publications every year, and that there is definitely a hierarchy that favors a branded name more than their actual output (which is true of many markets), and above all things, quality was in the eye of very few beholders. Fantasy publishing, specifically, walks the line between being massively popular and being looked down upon by literary society as not being "real literature" (how would they know?), and that while it generates a lot of money, it doesn't either. Worse than that, when you really peel back the layers of the industry, you start to realize that even if you have a great book, success isn't determined on greatness, but on public perception and the ability to market oneself, something that the majority of people are either very uncomfortable doing or aren't willing to do in the first place. Added to this, the memories of a lot of the fan base is somewhat short-term, and getting into this business can seem very daunting. And if you think all this is bad, wait until you have to deal with a contract that offers little return in the beginning.

Yet even in all of this doom and gloom, I see real hope from this side of the abyss, the chasm between me and my dream. John Hartness has a really good saying: "You have to fall before you can fly." I don't know if he took it from someone else. I am looking at the very real challenge before me and realize there is nothing to be scared of. And you shouldn't be scared either.

I know I will develop into a competent and even great writer if I work hard everyday to get better at both the craft and at storytelling. You can too.

I know I will be rejected many times, and I have been already. Don't look at them as failures, look at them as showing you what you can improve on. It is okay to read through the rejection the first time and go "you stupid motherfucker" and be angry. Get the sting out of your system. But when that sting is gone, go back and look at it again with a very critical eye. Chances are you will see where you went wrong.

The honest truth is that the industry is very tough to get into, but if you want it, you scratch and claw to get in, stay in, and then fight for the top of the heap. You do this by making friends with the fans, with other writers, and generally realizing that there is no end to the journey. Good writers write forever, and the more you right, the better your chances. Sometimes that means climbing down one side of the abyss and finding the bottom and then climbing up the other side to reach the promise land. One good thing to realize is that though it is very competitive, most writers are thrilled to see other writers succeed, and those who aren't usually develop a rather unsavory reputation.

I will be successful in this industry. You will do it if you want it bad enough. Have no fear, learn to love, live to fight for that dream. Don't believe that it is possible, know that it will be done.

If you like what you read here, please click the "G+1" on the upper-right of the site, or follow me on Twitter @JayRequard. Stay safe and get after that word count.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

I Love Beer

Sorry this is so late! I just got out of the car here in Baltimore, Maryland, and the last few days have really just been a blur of one road trip to another. Just some quick news: there will not be a newsletter this month, and instead we will have two author interviews! Hopefully those will be up in the next few weeks, as I have some really amazing guests in March and the coolest guest in the world in April!

This is a very different edition of "I Love...", because in a sense it has nothing to do with writing, but on the other it does. This article is focused on the grandest elixir, a divine mixture of good water, grain, yeast, and sometimes some hops (but not too much!)

My friends, today I would like to talk to you about my love of Beer.

I like my beer like I like my women: dark and full-bodied

Let me be clear: If your goal for the week involves drinking to get drunk, then you are failing to indulge yourself in one of mankind's greatest achievements. Drunkenness cannot replace appreciation, but appreciation that may result in drunkenness is a wholly different animal. Also allow me to assure readers out there that beer is not my only libation of love, but single-malt scotch whiskey is a very very close second.

Beer to me is one of the keystones of human culture, a concoction that sits on the same shelf as storytelling. There are five things that span all human cultures: War, Love, Storytelling, Religion, and Drink. We all have something like that in our specific societies. Arabs have their coffee, Scots have whiskey, Germans have beer, and Africans have their honey-wine. Beer is the representation of all good things within the human soul, but like all things, it must be drank in moderation, because sometimes too much soul is too much soul.

This is going to be a short article, because A) beer is in the eye of the beholder, and B) I can't describe to you the taste of my favorite beers. But, I like beers darker and more spiced, usually around 7-9.5% ABV, and I am huge supporter of the craft beer movement. No Budweiser, no Coors, no Miller, and it is getting to the point of no on New Belgium.

So you are probably asking:

JAY, what does BEER have to do with writing?

Well, my friends and family, you have to think of beer as a story: Beer has everything that a good story has: an attractive visual, a pleasurable beginning, a powerful tasty middle, and a ending aftertaste that makes the reader want to come back for more. Beer can be looked at as a story of the people who brew it, the people who drink it, and the people who have it while they are writing. I often drink a beer while I am writing, because it keeps me focused on a certain aspect on my story. It is also a combination of a place, time, and environment-- what does this sound like? A beer is a setting.

Everything in life has the ability to teach you something about storytelling. Beer is life fermented into a beautiful liquid that captures the very essence of life, and life is what we need to put into our stories.

This love of beer has also caused me to look at other things in life in terms of how I might tell a story, and when one starts to think this way, it orients the writer to see the world in a way that only adds to their greater creative processes.

Or it is just a beer.

You can follow me on Twitter @JayRequard or if you like what you just read, you can press the "G+1" button at the top right of the page

Stay safe!