The Constant Struggle

Like so many creative people, I struggle with depression. I'm one of the fortunate ones in that I received help for the problem early on in my life and have been able to learn the warning signs of when things are bottoming out. That doesn't mean anything's been fixed. You don't fix depression. You learn to cope with it. If it's severe enough, perhaps you take something to mitigate the problem and make your life livable. But you don't ever fix it. I think that's the thing people who've never dealt with depression have trouble understanding. Well that, and you don't have to have a reason to be depressed. No one ever understands that.

And that's what I'm pondering today. I'm feeling down. Why? Because I'm feeling down. There is no why. I'm employed. I'm paid well. I'm happily married. I have cats. My writing career has been on a consistent upward trajectory. The derby season is going splendidly. There is no reason to be down except for the fact that I'm down.

When you're down, you find things to be down about (rather than getting down because of all those things). I should be feeling up. What a great life I have. But I don't. I'm still in the middle of the querying process of my most recent novel. That's always stressful in its own right, but it's oh so worse when you're bottoming out. Each day that goes by without word is one more opportunity for the depressed part of your brain to say, "See, you're a failure." It doesn't matter of those days are fully within the time the agent says they take to respond. It doesn't matter that response was so strong that you skipped stages of the process and went right to full manuscript review. Those are positives, and you don't focus on positives when you're depressed. You focus on every day that's gone by since those requests first came in and today, where nothing has happened. You listen to the demons inside your skull whisper that you're not good enough. You're never going to be good enough. If they liked what you had written, they would have read it by now. They would have answered. You're a failure. No one likes what you write. No one likes you.

That's a pretty shitty thing to say to a person, and you're saying it to yourself. How horrible is that? But it's like a wave. You just have to ride it out until it crests and things fall back to normal. You get through today because, at some point, tomorrow is going to be better. Maybe not tomorrow, but the day after. Or the day after that.

When I was submitting The Triad Society for the third time (meaning the third agent who had contacted me for re-writes), I said if it was rejected, I was going to take some time off from writing publishable stories and focus on fan fiction or something that would be fun without the pressure of submission following. I never did that. I got hooked on Family Jewels and started the process all over again. I remember how hard it was to have TTS read by three different agents on four different occasions only to have it rejected. That's pretty cool, right? People contacted me and said, I like you're story. Let's work on it. I think it's pretty cool, too, and days when I'm not depressed, it makes me happy. Today, well today I focus on the rejection part of it.

When I talk about rejection with my non-writing friends, the response is near-universal. Why would I want to subject myself to rejection? Why don't I just self-publish? I always tell them the same, if the story isn't good enough that I would brave querying, it's not good enough to be self-published. Self-publishing isn't a free pass. If you're taking your writing seriously, your story needs to be the best it can be no matter what path to publication your'e taking.

And it doesn't matter, because you can't escape depression. Feeling down that an agent rejected you? Swap that with your Amazon sales ranking. Only two people bought your book that month and one of them asked for a refund. No one likes you. No one wants to buy your book. No one thinks you're good enough. No one likes you.

See the trend? You don't need a why to feel this way. Depression is the why. All you can do is ride it out. When it passes, take the time to focus on the positive. Remind yourself of your accomplishments. Let the sunshine warm you and know that you're not alone. Keep working. Keep trying. Your day may not be today, but you still have tomorrow.

You Have a Proof, Read the Damn Thing!

Here's a little tradecraft for you. Copyediting and Proofreading are not the same thing. Copyediting often includes proofreading, but it's not its primary goal. It's the icing on the cake that makes your story better. Proofreading does not include copyediting (though occasionally a proofreader will attempt to do so and it usually means a lot of work cleaning up all their bad ideas--but I may be jaded with experiences past ;).

More tradecraft, copyediting costs more than proofreading. In instances where the schedule/budget are tight, you're more likely to see proofreading skipped rather than copyediting even though it's cheaper. Why? Because copyediting is more valuable. It doesn't just fix typos and bad grammar, it fixes holes in your plot, eliminates redundancy and cliche. It makes the story better. And surprisingly, readers are willing to accept a lot of typos if the story is good.

What does that mean? PROOFREAD YOUR SHIT! I hate reading authors talking about how bad their manuscript was when they turned it in. So and So cleaned that mess up and made it readable. Well then put So and So's name on the front cover since you weren't professional enough to make the effort yourself.

Tradecraft: No matter how hard you try, no matter how hard your editor tries, no matter how hard your copyediting and proofreader try, things will get missed. The more crap you leave in your manuscript for others to find, the more crap that will get missed. You get rid of as much as you possibly can before you turn it over. That way what's missed is minor and doesn't make you look like a writing slob.

I'm reading a book right now with an interesting premise and characters, but the frequency of errors is DRIVING ME NUTS! Complete words (articles or short prepositions) are absent in every other chapter. A) it knocks me out of the story. B) how shitty was your manuscript that you turned over that this many mistakes are present? and/or C) how shitty is your publisher that they didn't hire a quality freelancer that could find ENTIRE WORDS MISSING from a sentence.

*pant, pant, pant, pant* Okay, so the lesson, kiddies, is that a book is your face to the world. You can look like a slob and a slacker, or you can suit up and shine. Don't rely on other people to make your shit shiny. Put in the hard work. They'll think better of you for making their job easier and your readers will think better of you because it looks like you know how to write.

So Much Time and for What?

I'm not one for "How To" books. I can never stick with them. It feels like reading a reference book. The closest I come is to reading Don Maass on Twitter who gives good advice on improving your characters.

So I'm linking to this post by Peter V. Brett not because of the book he's referencing but because of his life experience as a writer. When I first read it, I just shouted, "Yes! This! Exactly this!" While I don't mind trotting out my degrees (one in creative writing and another in playwriting), anyone that knows me knows I think very little of the education I received while pursuing those degrees.

I wrote my first short story in first grade and decided in seventh grade that I wanted to be a novelist, just like one of my favorite teachers, Brother Stephen Chappell. I got to high school and they told me I couldn't take creative writing until my junior or senior year because they found that the underclassmen lacked the maturity to take the writing seriously (despite the fact that I was asking to take the class as an incoming freshman, which I think demonstrates I want to take the damn thing seriously). I got but the one class in high school where the teacher frequently used my work as an example for the rest of the class on how it should be done. Clearly there wasn't anything for me to learn there.

And then I got to college. I had an amazing poetry writers workshop by a Lebanese instructor who proved to be the best writing professor I would have in my entire tenure in higher education. I had a Chinese teacher who announced the first day that writing could not be taught! You simply had to write and you would know how to do it or you would not. I had her repeatedly, which may tell you why I think so little of my creative writing degree. It was just class after class of writing for other students who most likely had the same experiences as me, being the best in their high school classes, but not the same interests. "Writing something other than fantasy" is not good feedback. Nor is "Write something real, not fantasy." Hope you enjoyed seeing Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings movies, motherfucker. They were books first.

Playwriting was better, but marginally so. The classes were smaller, I think, which is what made the difference, but they were still the same format of workshop. I often fantasize about teaching college because writing, to a degree, can most certainly be taught. If you disagree, then why do you read so many blogs where people giving writing advice? That's teaching. More over, a business of writing class would be awesome.

With all these young authors today talking about this teacher or that who had such a huge impact on them and prompted them to achieve their first novel days out of their mothers' wombs, all I can think was, am I only the only one that had a shitty writing education? My best classes were poetry, Chaucer, history of the theatre, and a senior theatre capstone. And it took me 4 1/2 years to get my degrees and I count my valuable writing experiences on four fingers. How disappointing.

But, at least, now I know I'm not alone.

Beware the Gimmicks

Here's how you market your book: You try to build as large a following on Twitter and Blogger as you can while remaining true to yourself. You publish a book. You contact all the people you've become friends with and ask if you can do a guest post on their blog. You post frequently to Twitter about your new book and your guest blogs. Then...the contest! You know someone with "cred." You will leverage that cred to draw people to your blog, exposing them to your new book while they try to use you to get access to this other person.

How do I know this is how you market your book? Because this is how everyone is marketing their book right. Traditionally published or self-published, it doesn't matter. My Twitter feed is awash with hourly posts reminding me to check out one's book/blog/guest post. Multiply this by the number of people I follow (which is small compared to most people) and you can understand how Twitter is becoming less and less fun. It's like that scene in "Demolition Man" where they have a radio station that only plays commercials. I do not go to Twitter just so I can read your commercials all day.

Now, the first answer I always receive is "that's what lists are for," which is technically correct but misses the point. It's not about whether or not I want to read about your self-published opus with the conflicted hero who has to go on a killing spree to find himself. It's that in your effort to reach everyone, you're drowning those you already reached. Overexposure is worse than underexposure, I think. Overexposure turns off people that might have otherwise given you a try, and does so with finality. Underexposure allows for a trickle down later. (And really the goal is to hit the sweet spot where you're exposing yourself without prefixes.)

And then there's the contest. Oh there are so many contests, most of which smack of nothing more than a cheap gimmick. First there are the unethical contests (rate me on Goodreads for a chance to win!). Then there are the hassles (follow my blog for two points and tweet about my contest for one point..!). Then there are the false promises (my agent will read a random person's manuscript--oh wait, she's too busy). There are two simple rules to contests: 1) The participant needs to be the winner not you. 2) The participant needs to actually win something. If people participate in your contest and you can't deliver on your promises, it's not an unfortunate mistake. It's fraud. You defrauded people. Maybe not intentionally, but you established conditions and reneged on your promises. At best that makes you a liar and at worst it makes you a politician.

What does this all boil down to? With the flood gates of self-publishing open, there are a metric shit ton of people peddling their literary wares and most of them are trying the same things to get your attention. Simply shouting louder than everyone else in the room (metaphorically speaking) is not the way to win that contest. It may be hard work, but find some new way to get people's attention or you may find yourself losing the attention of those you've already won. And if you are starting to say, "But I don't have the time..." shut up. This is publishing not play school. If you can't make the time to do anything more than spamming Twitter you need to go find yourself a new hobby. I hear thumb twiddling is fun.

Damn You Robbie Coltrane!

Aside from the theme song, I don't think there's a line I identify more with the Harry Potter franchise than Robbie Coltrane as Hagrid saying "You're a wizard, Harry!" It was used in so much promotional content. I heard it over and over again. And it's a great line. I tells a new audience to a new franchise what the story is about. This kid over here? He's a wizard and he didn't know it. Let's go have some hijinx!

Perfect. So what's the problem? Well, the kid who doesn't think he's special discovers he's extra special! is a pretty established trope in children's fiction. Hell, it's pretty frequent in adult fantasy/sci fi as well. Big things in little packages and all that. Oh no, I'm crippled! or No one likes me! or whatever and then bam, I have magic powers that more than compensates for any shortcoming I previously had (often erasing that shortcoming in the same stroke).

As with all my other writing, I am


of these kinds of things. They're not bad, not necessarily. They can still be awesome if the writing is awesome, but we've seen it SO many times. You're a wizard, Harry!

So here I am writing my first middle grade fantasy, and I make sure I have a completely mundane main character. His name is Mirza. He works in the stables as a groom. You know what? I'll go one better. He's a runt. He's small for his size, has trouble handling the horses, and the other grooms don't like him. (This should have been my first warning because now I've given him a deficiency to overcome.)

This was the character that was going to save the shahzadi. He did not have magical powers or any kind of special skills. He wasn't a thief. He wasn't a fighter. He knew how to raise cats to be good mousers and he got beat on by his father and the other grooms, so he was tough but psychologically scarred. And that little guy was going to have to do great things!

...but as I started writing, a whole sub-plot with Mirza's mother surfaced that I had not even thought of. My original plan was Introduction > Inciting Incident > Action > Resolution > The End. Somehow > Character Development snuck in there and all these things happen that I had never planned to have happen and a character says, "You're a wizard."



That's the sound of a 20-car pile-up on the highway after someone dropped Robbie Coltrane right in the middle of traffic. Mirza can't be a wizard! Everyone's expecting him to be a wizard! Just knowing it's a middle grade fantasy, there's a high probability that the kind is going to end up having some kind of magical powers. He's supposed to be different. He's mundane. He's the everyboy character! If every boy was short and beaten by his dad.

The problem? The story's better for it. The sub-plot is an awesome one and has directly affected the climax. He's a better character and I'm trying my damndest not to fall into that bottomless pit of cliche. I will have either walked the tightrope or just don't realize I'm already falling.

So here's my question to you. Is it possible in a MG/YA novel to have your character be a wizard and to actually call him a wizard? Or has Harry Potter ruined that for the next decade? Do I need to call him something else? Sorcerer, magician, magus, djinn, or what not?