Champions and Heroes

Caroyln See has advice for writers on Making a Literary Life. I'm taking it.

Caroyln See has advice for writers on Making a Literary Life. I’m taking it.

Most of us start writing knowing nothing about the writing life; knowing no writers, in places where there are no book-readings of note, and nowadays precious few bookstores to boot.

Of course there’s always Amazon and ebay and ebooks and even libraries, so people have access to books, even if they don’t bump into writers and editors on a daily basis. In school, bored teenagers are deprived of cellphones and computers and often end up reading as a result, to stave off madness induced by boredom. This is one reason YA is a great category to write in.

Of course, if you’re interested in the writing scene, there’s trade press, packed with photographic evidence of the fleshy reality of writers, and there are also conventions, where one can go and see a writer or editor, read their name tags and gape at them. (Nowadays, with twitter and facebook it is possible to literally drown yourself in a writer’s, ‘platform,’ but never mind, just bear with me.)

In the genre, conventions are often dominated by media related  things or a few big name, rock-start type authors, but there are exceptions to the rule. Readercon is one, a convention so lousy with writers that they often outnumber the fans.

If you were anything like me, you didn’t look at trade press, you had only read interviews with a few big name writers, you didn’t do social media from writers, and your knowledge of publishing was based on introductions and forwards in books by writers from long ago

And so you write and send things out and you hope like hell somebody notices you. Somebody likes you. Somebody cares. And you have  no idea what to expect, what you’ll get back, in return.

What strikes you immediately, as you wait for your rejection letters, is that the short fiction thing is a smallish  world. A handful of professional magazines, another handful of respected smaller presses and online markets, and a plethora of start-up ventures that pay Dickensian rates and last an issue or three before folding, often with your unloved story sitting in their inbox…or in their accepted but not yet paid for pile.


My anthology Dystopian Love (a steal at 2.99 ebook, somewhat more as paper) features a few of these kinds of stories. Stories that find a home after a long struggle, only to have that home burn to the ground while they shiver on the doorstep.

Yes. It can be a sad business, the writing thing, for the first few years. Or in my case, decades.

At some point, if you persist, you find an editor who likes your stuff, and buys more than the one thing from you. They buy a few things. And suddenly, you have a relationship with someone else in this endeavor, a business relationship, and this relationship is different in tone from your relationship with fellow struggling writers.

Some writers like to go to conventions and find their heroes and pal around with them, buy them drinks and mine them for anecdotes and advice. You can do that, if you’re that sort of person. Carolyn See, in her book Making a Literary Life suggests that you ought to reach out to fellow writers and I suppose editors and industry people with charming notes, handwritten letters in which you thank writers for the work of theirs you have enjoyed; these thank you perhaps  include a few insightful comments, and perhaps, are answered, and perhaps, lead to rewarding two way relationships, eventually.

You do not ask writers to your read your manuscripts; that’s what editors and agents do. If you’re persistent.

The purpose of these notes, conventions, of meeting your heroes and editors is that writing can be sort of a lonely business, and somehow, for many, coming together to talk about it can be very very satisfying. There can be some bit of useful advice.

Someone might hand you a copy of the scarecrow’s diploma, the lion’s medal, or the tin man’s heart.

Of course, you have to let yourself do this. You have to imagine yourself as someone worth knowing, someone worth talking to. This should be something you can do, of course, if you expect people to read and pay for your writing. Not everyone is like this; some people write well without hand-holding and drinks and anecdotes and farcical metaphorical objects and shun the socializing. They’re great, and they get read, and more power to them, and you, if you’re one of them.

But most of us want to be in this game with some friends, want some comrades in arms, want a champion, or two, on the editorial side.

I have found they will come to you, by and by, if you don’t get ahead of yourself. (See my series of posts on How Not to be a Writer and don’t get ahead of yourself. Seriously.)

In the company of writers you will find yourself discussing openly the most peculiar and intimate things. In the same way a doctor or painter is supposedly immune to the embarrassment of  nudity,  some but not all writers feel immune to embarassment with regards to… pretty much everything.

I’m one of those.

I’ll never forget, a one-off workshop I arranged, back when I first let myself imagine myself as someone worth talking to, a discussion of a story, which featured a slip-stream nerd hero ejaculating dust onto the belly of an earth mother type deflower-er. The dust was a metaphor for the guy’s desiccated soul, or something, but it was quite an image, and we all found ourselves wondering out loud if the guy would actually do this.

Was his knowledge of sex based on porn? What kind of porn existed in his world? Is that something people did who didn’t watch porn? Well it’s a form of birth control now isn’t it? Back and forth we debated, a group of men and women, strangers, of  marriageable age, not a blush in the crowd.

But when you meet your heroes, your editors, your champions, it’s not really a peer thing, it’s something else; there’s a power imbalance; editors spend a fair amount of time crushing the most cherished dreams of very weird people, which if you think about it for more than a second is a rather brave thing to do.

So you will struggle, with your champion, your hero, to be a somewhat less neurotic, needy, aspergery version of yourself, perhaps.

So I met Ms. Williams, the award winning editor  of the award winning magazine at the Brooklyn book fair, and Rob Reed, whose stories in Asimov’s I’ve enjoyed, and a wonderful illustrator named John Allemand, and Emily Hockaday, a magazine staffer who has helped me with my galleys, and I did my best to not act crazy or unappealing, not to talk too much, and to express my joy, my happiness, at becoming a part of the magazine’s history.

Maybe just a four story part; but hopefully more.

Everyone was very nice to me. Ms. Williams radiated a kind of intelligent calm at me. I need more people in my life to do that. My wife needs help.

And I did not ask Ms. Williams about my stories, one of which she has had for perhaps a stastically anomalous number of days.

But who’s counting?

Posted in Making a Writing Life

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