Friday, March 15, 2013

Dealing with Critiques and Rejection

One of the best things that can happen to a writer is getting their worked critiqued by a group of their creative peers, and it is even better to be REJECTED by a publisher. Now, some people are probably doing a double-take, but you read correctly:

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: a chance to learn.

Nobody in this business does it on their own, and nobody becomes a great writer by themselves. Writing, in its pure essence, is creating something new and beautiful from one's experiences, hopes, dreams, nightmares, and lowest and highest natures. Writing is also a very personal thing, when a person takes their ideas, passions, and the things they love and put them down in a word document which captures their innate sense of excitement. The type of writing a person does on a creative note defines them in all ways. Therefore it makes total sense that having a your work critiqued as being less-than perfect or being rejected by a publisher hurts. To those with the wrong mindset, the judgment or rejection isn't just about your characters or your story--it's about you.

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 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, and it 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 mysterious trapped in the middle of Shallow Bay, with its deserted coast and dangerous jungles on its white sand shore. Trapped without fresh food, water, and harangued by the monsters of the deep, Ngala and his son Eyos 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 "screw them"-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 very nice and probably very talented Scott H. Andrews, gave me the reasons why it was rejected. First off, 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 one and that be it. Instead, they told me what the problems there were with that story; there were many pronoun errors, and the beginning took too long to actually get to what the plot was about.

They were right on about everything they said. I went back and found a section where there were a LOT of 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 shaping it up 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, IF it gets picked up. The pronoun issues are fixed, and the beginning starts right where the action begins.

Readers out there 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 very few, and believe it or not, they get a lot of good stories. This forces them to have to look at every single detail and mistake and weigh it against other submissions, and sometimes you lose. It isn't because you're a bad writer; it may just be you made one mistake and someone else didn't. And that's good in a away. It is part of the learning process of trying to get into this business. There is a time to be angry, but you can't let that anger stop you from moving on and trying again. It may be an old axiom, but the ones who make it 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. I am lucky to say that I am having two stories published in 2013, which is a lot more than others in some cases, and some of that may be based on sheer luck alone. Seriously, I was really lucky.

You just can't give up. You need to toughen that skin, remove yourself from the emotional pain, and really sit down and learn to pick your work apart so it can become BETTER. This somewhat segue-ways into the area of critiques, which is the primary function of a group I became the head organizer of in January of 2013, Charlotte Writers.

Now, critiques aren't rejections, but in some cases they can be just as damaging to a writer who does not have the proper mindset. Quality critiques can be tough because depending on who you are working with, the people around you may not have a good grasp of your genre or they are just starting out on their journey as a writer and really don't know a lot about fiction writing, which in my opinion (and my opinion only) is very different from creative writing. So it becomes hard to know which critiques are good for your work and which ones are might not apply. However, before we can continue with this train of thought, some attention should be paid to 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 a good writer, meaning that they are constantly trying to improve their own skills, whether as a writer, editor, or reader.

With that out of the way, not all critiques are equal in value, so therefore it becomes the job of the person being critiqued to unpack all of the opinions they are given and decide which ones are of the most value. This takes a lot of time working in dedicated critique groups, building an honest report with its members, and that sometimes means swallowing your ego and really taking the time to listen to what other people are saying. It is the same method to deal with rejections, but the difference is that you can't go in with the sting already in place. Good critiquers help and never try to hurt.

You, the writer out there who is just like me trying to get your foot in the door of the industry, can do this if you are willing to do what is needed to get it done. Sometimes that means you will have to hear "no" until you heard the word "yes." But we can do it. I believe in me and I believe in you--let's get to work.

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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.

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Stay safe!