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Critique Partners? Yes!

Have I mentioned how cool my critique partners are? All my CPs have been happily married for long enough to be mothers of grown children. They’ve raised families and have gone on to start careers as writers.

Lizbeth Selvig is not only a published author with Avon’s Impulse line, but an experienced horsewoman and rider, active with her pony club for many years. Her daughter is a veterinarian and custodian of Liz’s many ‘grand animals’ while her son and daughter in law have given her an actual human grand-daughter.

Nancy is a full teaching professor (who wants to keep her two identities separate, so I’ll say nothing more specific about that.) She’s signed a contract for two of her books – but can’t talk about that either, yet, lest she preempt the publisher’s promotional plans. She continually impresses me with her work ethic and productivity – and her kindness in providing many a ride to our meetings.

Ellen has been learning to fly a small plane! She’s already qualified to fly solo – and her WWII home front romantic-intrigue novels are sure to find an audience when the right publisher comes along.

I am pleased and proud to be in such fine company. Though I don’t feel too shabby, with my multiple publications and multi-faceted artistic background, I feel I’ve got plenty to learn from the varied backgrounds of the others.

My CPs have given me numerous suggestions that make my stories better and my characters more believable – not to mention my grammar and spelling better. Each of them comes from a different perspective and finds different kinds of problems in my work. Nancy writes short and is great at getting to the pith of a story. Liz has worked professionally as an editor and catches every problem in punctuation. Ellen asks questions that get to motivation and character. There’s not a lot of markup when she sends her feedback, but it doesn’t take much from her to get me rethinking everything.

When I neared the halfway point of my WIP, troubled by the unsettling feeling that there was no dynamic tension and the whole thing was winding up too soon, my CPs put their fingers on the problem. My hero was acting as if he took the strange and magical elements of the story at face value, when he’s the sort who would doubt and question everything. As much as he’d want the magic to be true, he’s a cynic. He’d be motivated by concern for the heroine, but would not accept her purported identity without question, and the whole quest could fail if he hangs back too long.

There have been episodes like this with every story. Sometimes I think I should cite them as co-authors, since the stories would not be the same without them, but so far I’m sticking to thanking them every chance I get, and particularly in the acknowledgment sections of each work I have gotten published


You know it don’t come easy

“They had it too easy.” The old pro said to me, regarding former critique partners who found publishers right away, and a certain amount of fame. That was nice to hear at the time. I’d have loved to have had it ‘too easy’ and found some recognition and immediate gratification for my work, but since it took me a lot longer to reach my goal, it was nice to think there was some virtue in this.

I’d written three full-length novels, only one of which I thought worth shopping around – and an agent did, too – but it met with nothing but rejection. After twenty years, I finally started writing again. I wrote another novel, rewrote it, over and again, with feedback from critique partners, polishing my craft until I had something I thought truly worth reading.

I joined MFW, the local chapter of Romance Writers of America, and met dozens of women who told of writing for years, of putting projects on hold while raising children, of writing and rewriting, having work judged through contests, going to conferences to meet agents, dealing with rejection after rejection… And I witnessed many of these women finally meet their goals, connecting at last with publishers who wanted their work, some doing better sales-wise than others, but all happy to have some vindication for their efforts. At least half a dozen of the writers who’d been unpublished when I joined MFW are published authors today – including me. I have two novels, three novellas and a couple collections of short stories out at this point.

To tell you the truth, I’d have been thrilled to sell that long ago novel right off the bat. I’d be doubly thrilled to have earned some money from it. And also true: my later work is something I’m much more proud of than I was of that generic earlier novel.

At that time nobody had heard of cross-over romances with science-fictional and fantasy elements. I had always loved f/sf, and writing a romance that ignored my own proclivity produced something much less than it could have been – a nice story, but lacking the enthusiasm I later brought to the table when writing stories including the magic of fairy godmothers or powerful djinn, superheroes and world-spanning challenges. I brought more of myself to my later work. I brought my sense of magic, my sense of wonder and my passion for big ideas. I brought a new determination and the quiet, persistent power that comes from persevering through setback after setback and picking oneself up from one failure or rejection after another to stay the course.

The characters in my stories benefit (and suffer) from my experience. It’s all well and fine to start out with blithe characters of good heart, but I want them to grow in the course of a story, and having been through the process myself, I can do better with taking them through it.

One of my first short stories placed in a contest early in my career, one of the first stories I’d ever submitted anywhere – which made it all the harder for me when that first novel met with nothing but rejection. I’d gotten an inflated idea of my abilities, and when it was punctured, I went decades before taking up my pen again in any serious way. I’d taken the failure too much too heart. I started writing again at last because it was something I wanted to do for my own amusement and fulfillment. It wasn’t until I’d established myself in the practice that I made a goal again of bringing my work to publication.

I don’t know in any ultimate sense whether my one-time critique partners really had it too easy at the start of their careers. Life puts us all through trials of one sort or another. Where one aspect of life comes easy, others may come very hard indeed. If one success comes too easy, it makes it all the harder to face rejections later on. If their first publications in fact came too easy, I’ve no doubt that time corrected any issues that may have engendered. And, at this point, I don’t need comfort for having taken a longer road.

One True Love

‘One True Love’ is an interesting concept. So is ‘Destiny.’

The idea of ‘One True Love’ may be self-fulfilling in a way. I don’t believe we’re necessarily limited to one in a lifetime. I have no idea how many pairings may be potentially happy for an individual – but when people experience a true love, they tend to stick with it, and life being short, may not have time for more, so this one becomes ‘The One.’

No doubt many people get together because of proximity and the human need for bonding and warmth and family and intimacy – but not all those bonds are of the same quality. Lots of people marry for convenience, or for the money, or because someone got pregnant, or even for friendship or love that may not be as whole-hearted as the kind romantics distinguish as ‘true.’
Defining terms, when I think of ‘true love’ I think of an innate affinity that goes beyond circumstantial proximity. Person A, being exactly hirself and person B being exactly hirself, experience a particular chemistry that embraces one another in toto (warts and all, body, mind and soul.

More terms. ‘Soul’ is important. I’m using the word to mean something specific but difficult to define.

I have a weird sense of time. Imagine a perspective from which one could ‘see’ an entire lifetime at once.
Question and Answer
I did a very crude and simplistic illustration that gives a rough idea what I mean. We could also imagine this perspective as being like a library in which each life lived is a book including all one’s days in one package you could flip through, revisiting any scene at will. In practice it’s more complicated. We’re writing our books as we go, our lives touch and some shoot off from others and some intertwine.

I use ‘soul’ as the word to denote a person’s identity across time, from birth to death, inter-connected with all the other lives s/he touches.
I think some souls have a special affinity for each other, and Time being the mystery (and wibbly wobbly) it is, I can’t preclude the notion of Destiny. We choose our own paths through life, but having chosen, there’s that potential perspective from which it might have been seen from the beginning.

People may and probably often do choose paths that keep them from meeting or hooking up with someone with whom they may have that special affinity I’m calling true love. But that doesn’t mean the potential isn’t there or isn’t worth finding, or that a soul might desire it and find some satisfaction in reading (or insert alternate media) fantasies of its fulfillment.

Free Idea for Site Developers!

What we need in this culture is the equivalent of a Caring Bridge site for sufferers of poverty. Venting Bridge? Caring Ears?

Seriously. Poverty is in so many ways like a disease: sapping energy, debilitating capacity, preoccupying one’s attention and yet hard to discuss in polite company without feeling awkward or guilty of imposing TMI on an unwilling audience.

At least when a person confides a diagnosis of cancer to friends and family, they don’t have to worry that those friends will feel they are expected to come up with a cure for a disease that expert doctors find baffling. They don’t have to feel they’re being put on the spot in that way.

No, a cure would be welcome of course, but it’s not expected – and often what’s needed most, with both disease and poverty, is a sympathetic ear and the knowledge of being recognized, loved and accepted even in difficult circumstances.

My friends and family may feel that they’ve heard too much about my lack of income, but in fact I keep most of the details to myself.

For instance, when I have to bow out of social events because I lack the funds to participate I don’t generally go on to explain that I’m down to less than $10 in liquid funds and have to conserve my bus fare – so while I might be able to join family at White Castle or McDonald’s, the restaurant they’ve chosen is truly beyond my means. And ‘beyond my means’ is literally, all the money I have would not stretch to cover the expense, not just that it would eat into funds ear-marked for more sensible things like rent and utilities and groceries, let alone more desirable things like a first-run movie I’ve been dying to see. I can and have chosen to spend the last two dollars in my possession on a cup of tea so I could join friends for social events. I would certainly spend my last $5 for a meal at Wendy’s for the sake of seeing a sister passing through town – but when I said I couldn’t afford to join the family for a meal at Applebee’s I was being as literal as one can possibly be.

The lack of discussion around poverty means that people who have not themselves experienced this sort of constriction of means really do not understand the distinction above – between literal and figurative lack of means. They do not understand the kinds of choices and limitations their poverty-stricken connection may be laboring under. They may take offense that so-and-so did not attend their party or send a gift or attend their child’s play – without any idea that doing any of these things may have presented insurmountable obstacles to the offensive poor person.

Attending events requires transportation which may not be available. Sending gifts requires postage even if one is capable of hand-crafting desirable gift items (I mean actually desirable, even after everyone in the family already has one of Aunt Matilda’s hand-knit thingies). It is a real shame when those obstacles give others the impression that ‘she just doesn’t care to be involved’ or ‘she’s not interested in us, with her glamorous writer’s life-style.’

If poverty were treated more as a debilitating disease, it would be easier to see the effects of the stigma. Nobody says, ‘the cancer would go away if she were trying harder.’

With a Hearing Bridge site for the poverty-stricken, sufferers could make posts on their current status and their efforts toward finding a cure. “Couldn’t afford to list my books on RWA’s new app. Sigh. That might have really helped my career. Sent out an application for a day job I’d really love to get. Wish me luck!”

And loved ones could post notes of encouragement and understanding. That second-cousin might comment, ‘how brave you are; our hopes are with you.’ And best of all, they’d understand why you couldn’t make it to the family gathering or send a present for the new grand-baby. It’s a difficult time for you and you’re doing your best to cope with it and everyone is rooting for you.

I know a great many artists, musicians, writers and performers who live with poverty on a continuing or recurring basis and might find such a site a great benefit in keeping loved ones cognizant of their situations. If you have the coding skills and free time to make such a site a reality, please go for it.

Still Crazy After All These Years

Oh no! I’m late! I feel like the white rabbit with his pocket-watch, rushing from one thing to another, and can only ask myself how I can be so busy and still so short in funds.

The short answer is that I’m busy with much work entailing only delayed rewards, and much on-spec work, like books I can’t sell until they are written, and currently a Kickstarter project for a new card game, Buzz.* Wearing my artist-hat, I put in many hours’ work creating the cards and readying them for print (and a download version), and will only be paid for that time if the Kickstarter succeeds. This is the first time I’ve tried running this sort of fund-raiser and I can tell you it’s raising more anxiety than funds.

The anxiety, like many unpleasant sensations, at least counts as fodder for the writer’s mill. It leads me to examine my underlying feelings: am I even worthy of success? Maybe all I deserve is to eke out my existence like a dog under the table at the feast of love everyone else in the world enjoys. Can I only be successful if enough people like me? Why don’t people like me?

I’m not claiming that these feelings are based on anything realistic – indeed, I’m warmed to the point of getting misty-eyed by how supportive some of my friends have been – that doesn’t mean the anxieties won’t go ahead and creep in, twisting the view to show off all the worst angles.

Why doesn’t everyone like me? Why am I not the sole and central focus of everyone’s lives? Didn’t it used to be that way once? (Obviously a first-born child). Don’t I deserve to be as celebrated as anyone else in the world (more than any Kardassian at least) or anyone who’s accomplished as much as I have? Why can’t all the authors be best-selling authors? (Again, no claims for logic or consistency here.)

Okay, having taken due note of my rich crop of anxieties, like a good writer, I can scramble into a position of some perspective. Hey, look at that: feelings of inferiority and superiority all mixed up together with helplessness, and fear, and longing, and an egocentricity capable of overlooking billions of others who have suffered and struggled, feared and longed throughout human history. Amazing really.

I can’t say gaining some perspective has solved any of my problems, but I do feel better armed to write believably about characters going through any similar circumstance – and hey, when I’m writing it, I can give it the happy ending I can never be sure of for myself.

* Fun for the whole family! Deets here: http://kck.st/1oF3yRs

WisCon considerations

Over the Memorial Day weekend, I attended Wiscon, the world’s leading feminist science fiction convention. The Apex Magazine party on Friday night featured a game called ‘Conversational Roulette’ in which the game master gives each contestant three minutes to tell an impromptu story based on a given theme. When I played, the theme was ‘running away to the circus’ and I confessed my preschool ambition to become a trapeze artist and wear a black sequined leotard, with black lipstick and nail polish (this was in the early 60’s long before Goth anything) and do stunts in midair, high above the crowd. I did not win my round, but got one vote.

I sat nearby when the game master started another round with a new set of three players and the theme ‘the most formative movie of your life.’ The winner of the round cited ‘The Princess Bride’ but dissed Princess Buttercup for not doing anything to rescue herself. (Isn’t it hard enough just being the Most Beautiful Woman in the World?)

A travesty that he should win (sorry, Nolan) – but the mention and my later conversation with Nolan Belk on the subject, got me to thinking about why I like that movie so much and what it has in common with some of my other favorite movies, shows and stories. For instance, ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer,’ and the Rocky & Bullwinkle Show, and even Jane Austen’s works.

Princess stands out for great dialog that reveals a great cast of characters, each one, from heroes to villains to bit players, drawn with a loving eye to their unique, relatable human foibles.

Whedon’s BTVS strikes me as having that same virtue of great dialog deftly revealing great, relatable characters. Whedon and Goldman both create characters I care about, people who I want to accompany on their journeys.

Just as importantly, both shows are written with a sense of humor that tells me the writer is not taking himself or the material too seriously.

Saturday night I attended a banquet and awards ceremony for the Science Fiction Research Association, which brings critical and serious literary attention the genre of F/SF – and I’m all for it. The genre is my first love when it comes to reading material, from fairy tales to hard scientific extrapolations based on the expanding frontier of human knowledge. I love stories that help me to look at the world, humanity and the whole universe beyond us from new perspectives. I’m pleased to see my favorite genre grow in literary merit in the eyes of a broader readership…

At the same time, I’m concerned about losing some of the pleasure I find in that genre. I’m afraid the quest for serious literary standing will lead to the pitfall of stories that take themselves too seriously, that lose their sense of humor and the ability to make a little bit of fun at themselves along the way.

I was somewhat reassured that one of the award winning papers of the evening was in praise of ‘Buckaroo Banzai.’ Clearly a movie I must now see.

Grist for the Mill

My new dentist is a fast-worker compared to my old one. I used to get my dental care at the University of Minnesota’s school of dentistry. They did good work: every step was overseen and double-checked by a teacher. But every step was overseen and double-checked by a teacher and that took some time. My new dentist gets three times the work done in a fraction of the time. This adds up to a huge reduction in my stress. As well the less time with sharp, noisy instruments in my mouth, the happier I am. I still lie in place with my hands clasped tightly together across my midriff and softly croon show tunes*to myself until the ordeal is over, but it’s over all the sooner.

 All this is by way of explaining why I am now sitting in the lobby waiting area of the dental offices, with half an hour’s wait before I need to head out for the bus stop. There’s no bench at the stop and I do have one here, and a nice view out glass-walled sliding doors onto a parking area beneath a lovely sky of robin’s egg blue swathed in milky streaks of cloud. There’s sunshine on the pavement and parked cars. There are finally buds emerging on the bare limbs of the few trees before me – small enough to be fruit trees. I can imagine them in flower by the time I return for my next appointment in a week. Clumps of dried dead grasses surround them now. Perhaps there will be green blades, maybe flowers by then.

 Despite the fair appearance of the day, the temperatures are still in the forties to low cifties and there’s a strong cold breeze. Hence my preference for waiting in a sheltered area rather than out in the sunshine. Still, the sun is good to see and the budding tre3es and greening grass. And maybe I need a little time to adjust to a world no longer cloaked and caked and layered with ice and snow.

 It’s a whole new world now. The rules are different. It may be a bit too cool yet, but it won’t kill me to go too long without a coat. I can still trip over my own feet, but I don’t have to worry they’ll slip out from under me. It all makes the world seem a much friendlier place. Winter will come again, but that’s long ages away. I can begin to look forward to swimming outdoors under an open sky, to walking out casually, without having to don layers upon layers of protective clothing. Living in Minnesota in the winter strikes me as good training for those who might contemplate colonizing an alien planet.

 What does any of this have to do with writing? What doesn’t have to with writing? Every experience, every sight and sensation and observation on life is fodder for the writer’s pen. While many, if not most things will be irrelevant to the story or subject at hand, anything and everything is part of the whole tapestry of life from which we build. Dismiss nothing as worthless.

 * or x-mas carols, for which I apologize to my dentist and assistant, given how they are subjected to repetitive repetitions of a limited repertoire of same via their sound system during the holiday season, and having endured that, they now deserve the rest of their year free of the stale aural fare.)