The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Friday, April 19, 2013

The Writing "Machine" part four: Put your stories in the mail

Now this is a piece of advice most specific to unpublished writers, but can be generalized to any phase of your career.   It combines advice from Robert Heinlein and Ray Bradbury: Write a story a week or every other week. Finish What you write. Put it in the mail, keep it in the mail until it sells.

 Don’t re-write except to editorial request.

(And by the way, yes, I suggest that you start with short stories.  Sell five-ten of them before you try a novel.   Otherwise, it's like trying to run a marathon before you've practiced jogging around the block. And no, I don't care if your ideas come out novel-size.   Ideas don't have length.  Expressions of ideas have length.))

This pattern, subsumed in the pattern of the “Machine” is designed to get you off the dime and working.   If you define “writer’s block” as ANYTHING that disrupts the process of creation and publication, it is clear that some people “block” themselves by not beginning, while others “block” by not finishing.   Still others by not submitting once they’ve finished, or letting a rejection slip discourage them.  ANYTHING that interrupts the flow of ideas to rough draft to final draft to submission to publication is a “block” and you need to root out every obstacle, and work on the technical, emotional, psychological, commercial and other aspects of your chosen trade.
It’s really a matter of doing the chunks of work until you feel the flow.  Or flowing until you can identify the component pieces.  Either approach works.

One of the biggest confrontations is risking rejection, the big “no.”  But if you don’t understand that it’s a numbers game, that there is some unknown ratio of “no’s” to “yesses”,  you must learn the lesson.    Every salesman knows he has to knock on X doors to get one sale, on average.  He just focuses down and handles the rejection.

The same ratios exist in life in so many arenas: asking for dates, hitting a ball, breaking a bad habit…and on and on.  

The problem is that every goal that can actually change your life is accompanied by both excitement and fear.   The demons in your head are looking for any opportunity to convince you there is no point in trying, that the risks are too large.

In my own case, early in life I  knew that discouragement would devil me, and could sabotage my chances of a career.   There was so little external reinforcement for my goals that the demons in my head had enough allies to fill a football stadium.  So I set a number: 100 stories.  I would write, finish, and submit 100 stories, and if necessary have them ALL circulating between magazine editors at the same time, before I even STARTED asking whether or not I could “make it.”   100 stories.  That was 2-4 years of clear space, in which I could tell the nasty voices in my head to shut the #$%% up.

Two-four years to learn to deal with rejection, fear, sloth, all the negative chorus.  That gave me the room to have fun with it.  Every time a story got rejected, it was just another step closer to my goal of 100.    One of Tananarive’s teachers said that “a real writer papers his office with rejection slips.” 

Yes!   I was a real writer!

I just wasn’t an AUTHOR yet.   But I knew I would be.  Come hell or high water, I was.  Why?  Welll…

Let me tell you a little story.  When I was in college, I took a creative writing course from a very nice lady named N.  She doted on a guy named R. in the class who wrote exquisitely polished little gems about guys who seek the meaning of life by riding their motorcycles to places other people had never gone.  Beautiful stuff, much better than mine.  In contrast, I was writing stories about big amoebas that devour towns in Montana.  Oh, well.

She lavished praise on this fellow, deservedly.   Me, she called “the king of slick”, and I doubt it was intended as a compliment.  Everyone looked at R. and expected him to be a literary success.
That was all right.  I knew something they didn’t.   I had watched him when, on rare occasions, his work was criticized.  He lost it.  Couldn’t handle it.   He was defensive and complaining and attacking.  Sheer fear.

I sat back and hid my smile.  Friends, it was like noticing that someone pulls their right earlobe before they bluff in poker.  Or drop their shoulder just before they throw a cross.   Or a girl dropping her eyes south of the border on your second date.

Oh, yeah, it’s like THAT, is it..?

He wasn’t going to make it, and I was.  I knew it.  Because for all his literary polish, he didn’t have the emotional strength, the knowledge of his own center, to withstand rejection.  So long as N. Praised him, R. was fine (and I later found out she was…umm…”praising” him rather thoroughly, off-campus. If you know what I mean.)  But he had a false ego shell, and any hint of criticism cracked it.

That meant that eventually it would crumble, and when it did he’d have to start building his way up all over again.

And even though I was behind him in technique, I was ahead of him in terms of actual self-knowledge.  And in the real world, that’s what makes the difference.     I knew I’d make it, and he wouldn’t.

And…I was right.  Nice guy, great technical skills, but he didn’t know himself.   He thought his attitude and skills would sustain him, and was dodging and twisting to keep from taking the very hits that might have informed him of the true structure of the world, and therefore genuine knowledge of self.

The only way to get that is to actually place yourself in the arena.  Submit the stories.  Take the hits.  Ask the girls for dates.  Take chances.  Get knocked down.  Learn to stand up again.  There is just no other way I know.

Write.  Finish what you write.  Put it in the mail.   Keep it there until it sells.

Do the work, damn it!

Write with passion!

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