Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Playing up

I recently posed a question to a creative professional I know. I presented to him this comparison, a created work completed in ones mid to late 20s, which was over time revisited and in some ways reimagined, versus the second or third draft of a piece completed years later, early to mid 30s. The ages are arbitrary. What I was getting at is one piece was done without the benefit of the extra years of wisdom and understanding, but it was edited and retooled, whereas the other was less modified but it benefitted the most from all available years of experience.

His first answer was not an answer. He saw what I was getting at, at what I was really trying to investigate, and he said, "some ideas are just better than others." That struck a cord with me, but more on that later. I further clarified that it wasn't about good or bad, it was more about what is more valuable, what should, everything else being equal, be the better work, the one we complete at our most experienced, or the one we complete with the most diligence? Then he said, "the one I work on the most will be the most technically sound," with no hesitation. We talked about the gestation period of ideas, and how they many times benefit from going back and working them over again, holding them upside down and shaking them vigorously.

I have finished the first read through of the number of novels I plan on submitting come November. I intended to start on my sci-fi piece, the oldest one, the one I went back and completely re-wrote, the one on its latest draft. I meant to start there because in the back of my mind, I considered it the weakest. I defaulted to thinking that my newer stories were better, not just because they were newer, but because of what them being newer meant. Like the conversation with  my friend, each of them was standing on the one that came before it, each work below it was a kind of creative soil that it was able to benefit from in growing. But as usual, I did not start on that novel. The novel I finished working through was the middle child. Initially I had intended to send it off to a couple readers, and just wanted to make sure the beginning was as crisp as I could manage. Much like a pencil in a sharpener, I just kept going. A week passed, and I had chucked my strategy out of the nearest window.

Yesterday I finally started on the sci fi offering. It was not what I remembered it to be. Since finishing its latest draft, I've written two other novels, and been mostly satisfied with them both. I suppose my excitement over those dimmed my fascination with the other. I wouldn't say it is a bad story. It has a certain density that fools one into remembering that things that happened earlier in the book happened later, that stretches the summary of "things that happened" over the novel's breadth. I looked around for the person that had stolen my confidence in what was, at worst, a very decent effort. Of course, there was no one about but Time. I began to suspect that absence and fondness don't have as good a marriage as most think. I also wondered at the words, that some ideas are simply better than others, and how to decide who I loved more between my children.

All of that is to say I am working. The novels are getting better, and I strive to make that a truth everyday.

I told that same friend that I was thinking of going back to working on plays. My first effort was terrible, the kind of terrible that makes a person quit and do something else immediately. He confided in me that he had a similar experience, that somewhere among his papers was a play he wrote in undergrad that was maybe the worst thing he had ever done. He interrupted my asking if he would show it to me by saying that I would never see it. The reason I told him that I wanted to go back and work on plays is because I had done such a terrible job. I suppose to some degree I thought I was better than what I produced, but it wasn't so much that I gave up because it was bad, more that I left it alone because I had no idea about how to fix it. Plays I've read recently, bad ones, high school ones, showered me with insight about what not to do, and in so not doing, what to do. The idea that I could improve, or maybe rectify an error, has been persistently consuming. My friend admitted that he almost always took the easy path. His career decision was him playing to his strengths, and he is very successful.

Whereas it feels very often like I am making the difficult choice for the sake of its challenge. But I can't help but think about what we earn when we overcome walls of varying heights and the difference in those rewards. They say you learn more from failure. They say failure proves that you're trying.

I'm still not sure yet if I someday want to be among they, or not.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Gain pain

It's been years since I started this, and I'll be the first admit that I haven't done a good job. I don't write often enough. I don't put in pictures or links, both of which would make me more internet savvy, beyond creating a better looking and more digestible online essay. But I've always committed to this in the spirit that maybe I could help some people by being honest with my own struggles. At least, should anyone ever ask me for advice, that's how I plan on giving it. Don't take this road, or don't open that door. I will, with the best of my talent, tell them what road I took, what door I opened, and how it all looked when the wash came out.

In that spirit: feedback. Once upon a time I submitted 7 of the 11 pages of a short story for a competition. I got called into my mentor's office, where he asked me to look at my submission, and then asked my confused face if I noticed anything wrong. He told me to be careful about that in the future. I went on to get first place in a contest I should've lost outright. Networking. I bring that up because I did almost that exact thing just the other week. A file for submission, the first 10 thousand words of a novel (a separate file), was not the same first 10 thousand words of the latest copy, because I did not update all of my files correctly. I was rejected. There is no guarantee that the result would've been different had they seen the best version of that story, but that doesn't excuse my negligence. This same file was given to a couple readers for feedback, in preparation for this march to November where I will be putting all of my feet forward, and hopefully they'll all be pretty good. All of that is to say, the file had issues apparent enough to me that I had strongly edited it into something else.

"I left out minor problems and grammatical edits because I do narrative design and I think that's more important. If you do further work on this I would like to know. It sounds like a mix of Dragon Age and Witcher which I absolutely love. My criticism was much harsher this go around because I didn't think this was as polished as your last and also because I believe it has potential and flowery praise wouldn't help you one bit.

"Too many metaphors/similes/comparisons. These were used almost as a crutch for your writing. A metaphor can really push your work when done well, but too many can ruin your writing. Comparisons ran rampant to the point of being confusing...

"I really liked the characters and their backstories. Each are interesting, but the way they were delivered needs work because I couldn't finish this story."

Versus

"It looks like you're headed into good, solid fantasy territory - the pre-Renaissance European parallels the market seems to expect. You're doing a good job setting up your co-protagonists in parallel. I already like them both...

"Your prose still has those lovely turns and embellishments I've envied all these years. That's pleasant to see again... the world seems a little thin to me, though. A bit dreamlike. Like dreams, it's occasionally missing sensory elements. Smells, temperatures, defining cultural elements, emphases on local crops or herds of the stamps on places of local personalities... it could just be me and my love of description, which I know many people hate...

"But for all that, I'm damned curious about the history that led to the situation you've set up, and how the magic words, and how it goes bad. I'm definitely engaged."

And versus isn't even the right word, not really. I think the larger point is that any creative type is bound to get a lot of feedback, and the most important bit is how one responds to it. Honestly, it took me a day to process the first one, and I was immediately ecstatic to receive the second. But the fact of the matter is I have way more rejections than acceptances, and it would be foolish to think that they're all wrong, and I'm all right. The truth is probably I didn't prepare as well as I could have, in regards to researching who I submitted to and what they were looking for, and that at least a couple of the places didn't give my work the diligent perusing it deserved. The fact very well could be that the feedback I dislike the most is the kind I need most to absorb. Advice I've been given over the years rolls between listening to all of it, and taking in none of it. Grain of salt, I think is the common wisdom. Through it all, whatever I end up revealing reflects on me, so no matter who it displeases, or confuses, it will still bear the likeness of my spirit, so I should be satisfied, if no one else is.

It's a troublesome recipe. I guess, the short version is, for whoever might be listening, getting better is probably supposed to hurt.
 

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Be-foresight

I took an email journey the other day, looking for a name to put with a face, and realized that all of the accounts I still use only go back to 2012. In every case, when I got to the beginning, I peered into the mists for awhile, trying to use my memory where there existed no physical record. The strange juxtaposition was between knowing I had history, memories, correspondences, but there was no way for me to verify any of it. Like it never happened.

For instance, in November of 2006 my mentor took me to the local, yearly writer's conference. Graduation was coming, and I had finally settled on what would be stamped on my degree. I had taken every creative writing class, every writing class of any kind, my alma mater had to offer. He was the one who told me I could do it for a living. He was the one who told me I had talent. He was also the one who told me that if I did anything else with my life, I would make more money. What he said at the conference was something to the effect of "go, look around, ask questions."

Eleven years later, I think I get it. Networking is important. Part of the deal is doing the work, the research, the notes, the drafts, the sketches, the pages and pages and pages and pages. Another part of the deal is telling people that you are doing the work. Every now and then I tell my friends. Even rarer, some of them will even ask. Writer friends, whom I try to support because I know how much I need it, but with very little beyond encouragement. One of the last people I told referenced me to someone else, who directed me to yet another website about things I felt I already knew. Scrolling down though, I found some posts with the heading "How I Found My Agent." These I clicked on. These, I thought, would finally contain some useful information. I read about the rejections. I read about the waiting. I read about the frustration. Then I read about how the person was recommended by someone else, who was given the name of a specific agent that the other person knew. It wasn't magic. It didn't even sound like hard work.

So when he said to go and look and ask questions, that is exactly what he meant. I can't be sure, but I know I did a lot of looking. I certainly went. But I passed through that conference like a ghost, speaking to no one, and being spoken to by no one. The following summer I was offered a prestigious opportunity where I workshopped with professional authors at a retreat on a distant college campus. I took one picture, I memorized no names. I left with a phone number, which I used once or twice, but otherwise the only thing I took from it was more repetitions from different mentors. Thinking back now, the conference was the result of networking. I wouldn't have known it existed otherwise, much less could've attended. My mentor bought my ticket, and drove me there. The same for the writer retreat. Someone, somewhere, was looking out for me.

And the drop of knowledge didn't fall into the well of my understanding until ten years later.

So, the novel is complete. After the third draft read-through, it is a serviceable 76,000 words or thereabouts. I am taken to using "finished, not perfect" and am waiting on feedback to see if there are other things that could still be done to make it just a little better. Because I found out (because someone told me) that a publisher is opening its doors to submission for the month of November. I have three novels completed, so the current plan is to submit all three. November is also the month of the writers conference, the one with industry professionals, publishers, and agents. I don't speak much with the man who took me over a decade ago. We exchange texts on his birthday, and he tells me to write something. Much like that relationship, I am also not the same person. I do make some of the same mistakes. But I am so much more durable in regards to rejection, and I have developed a certain measure of confidence in my eventual success. I have no proof, but it is as real to me as the memory of something I deeply regret.