Sunday, June 28, 2015

Let's talk about rejection, baby

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So this happened:

I recently wrote a flash fiction piece I was pretty darn happy with, and submitted it to several publications. I got two responses back. The first said my story had been rejected because my protagonist’s mental state and behaviors were completely unrealistic, that nobody would ever react the way my protagonist had reacted. The second also rejected the piece because they weren’t accepting fiction pieces, but said that my story felt very true to life, and was highly relatable.  

Confused? Understandable. But don’t be. 

This anecdote illustrates two important truths I’ve learned about rejection: much of the time it has nothing to do with you or your piece, and most of the time it’s based on highly subjective opinions. 

A reader’s reaction to a piece is subjective. The first rejection felt my piece was unrealistic. The second felt it was relatable and true to life. Who was right? They both were. For the first reader, the piece didn’t work. For the second reader, it did. We’ve all read stories that we loved and our dear friend hated, or vice versa. There are different styles and tastes out there, and that’s wonderful! So why, when we get a rejection, does our mind tell us that our piece must be bad, rather than just not right for that particular publication? 

Which brings me to that second truth: so much of this is about fit and timing. Even if a publication loves your piece, it may not be the right fit for them for other reasons. Maybe they’ve just published five pieces about mindfulness meditation; if so, yours could be a masterpiece of perfection, but that ship has sailed. Maybe they’ve met their quota of short stories and only have room for flash pieces this month. Maybe the reader has been throwing up after eating the wrong street meat and didn’t have the capacity to appreciate your masterfully realistic descriptions of the thanksgiving dinner preparations in your story. You just never know. 

I like to think about it this way. When you go into a restaurant, you have room for one meal. You look at the menu, and  you pick something, then you eat it. That doesn’t mean everything else on the menu was unacceptably bad and the chefs that prepared those dishes should go out back and shoot themselves. It just means at that moment in time, chicken parm was what you wanted. Same thing with publications. They can’t publish everything, so they have to take what works best for them at that moment. That doesn’t necessarily mean the pieces they turn down are worthless. 

Absolutely no piece of writing, no matter how perfect and amazing, can possibly be a good match for every publication out there. I think that bears paraphrasing: the most exceptional piece of writing created on this earth will get rejected somewhere. Lots of somewheres, in fact.

Of course, this doesn’t mean you should just ignore the feedback you get. In the time between the first and second response above, I took a careful look at my character’s motivations and choices. I looked at my reasons for writing the story the way I did (I have expertise related to the theme of that piece), and I decided I believed in the story as it was. In other cases, I’ve made changes based on feedback I’ve received. In fact, if your piece has been rejected numerous times, you should get a new pair of eyes to look it over and be open to making changes. How do you know when to take that advice and when to leave it? Well, that’s a blog post for another time (although you can find a really good discussion of this in Jordan Rosenfeld’s book A Writer’s Guide To Persistence, see my full review here). For now I’ll just say that I try to be honest with myself and listen for advice that strikes a chord in me. If nothing sounds right after I’ve considered it with an open mind, I will choose to keep my original vision. Never make a change just because someone suggests it, always stay true to your vision for the piece. 

But what it does mean is you should never tell yourself that rejection = failure, and you should never quit. The great Wayne Gretsky once said this: 100% of shots not taken don’t go in. To put it another way, if you don’t submit the piece, you’re guaranteed it won’t get accepted. The odds are better the moment you submit; the probability of acceptance can only go up. And no hockey player expects every shot they take to go in the net; they know plenty are gonna miss and they’re gonna have to keep taking more shots. Writing is no different. 

One member of our writing group (thank you, Julia) reminds us often that rejection is a sign you’re putting yourself out there, that you’re being a writer! So many people never work up the courage to do that, and instead let their fear of rejection stop them from trying to achieve their dreams. If you're getting rejected, it's because you're overcoming those fears.

So submit. Get rejected. Revise the piece if you think it will help. Submit again. And wear that rejection as a badge of honor that only the working writer can claim. 

Oh, by the way. That piece that got those conflicting rejections? It was accepted the next time I submitted it. And in the meantime it taught me a lesson I'll hold near to my heart through a lot of future rejections.

Keep submitting, my friends.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Need writing ideas? Try some family genealogy

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Do you ever run out of ideas for stories or for people to populate those stories? I have a sure-fire way to stoke the fires of your creativity: genealogy.

I know of what I speak here. My first novel was born from my amateur genealogy research, and I have a second book from that material waiting in the wings. And yes, I am talking about fiction, not non-fiction.

Let me give you a quick example. During my research, I found out I have several female ancestors who came over from France to Quebec in the 1600s, as what are now called ‘Filles du Roi’, or 'King's Daughters'; these were women of good family and standing who journeyed alone across the sea to marry strangers, the men building up New France settlements. I’d never heard of these women before, and did some reading on them. But I had hundreds of questions about my particular ancestors: Why had they made this choice? How did their lives turn out? I could tell from the records who they married and how many children they had, but were they happy? Did they find love? Were they prosperous? So many answers I'd never know.  

So I wrote my own answers. And stories were born.

Maybe you think your family won’t have anybody interesting in it. One of the maxims experienced family genealogists tell you when you start out is to be ready—you’re going to find some crazy stuff. And they’re right; I’ve never heard of anybody who gets more than a couple generations back without some juicy tidbits.  

But let’s pretend that you just have generations and generations of ‘boring’ family. They lived in the same village, same profession, had their families and lived unremarkable lives. That itself could easily be turned into an interesting story, say, the dynamics of several generations on the same farm; some people probably wanted to get away, some people probably wanted to stay. What would cause a family for so many generations to NOT change? And what did the family look like in 1600 vs. 1800? 

Basically, think of the records you find as writing prompts; even an old box of family photos with people you don't know can do it. Can you look at a census record with a family’s information and come up with an interesting story around it? You probably won't be able to stop your brain from going wild, and even more so if you start fleshing it out with more context. 

So how do you get started? 

If you really want to build up your family tree for reasons other than just story inspiration, I’d suggest using something like as your starting point. The site is easy to use, has a huge network of genealogists and trees, and a stunning array of databases (no, I’m not affiliated in anyway, I just love them). Of course, they do charge for that service, depending on how much you want/need to access. For software, I use Family Tree Maker, and I love it (this is paid software).  

There are also free resources where you can make an excellent start, especially if you just want to give it a try and see how it goes:

My Heritage will allow you to search and build your tree on their site for free up to a certain number of people; if you want more, you pay. But if you’re a writer just looking to see what inspiration you can find, this is a good way to get your feetsies wet. They also have free family tree software you can download. And, they have a pretty decent section that will introduce you to genealogy and get you on your way. 

Another excellent free resource is This site is completely free, and they have an extensive database. There are two important things to know about Family Search, however. The first is, it’s not as user-friendly as Ancestry or My Heritage, although they do provide help. The second has to do with why the site exists. Family Search is run by the LDS Church (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, also known as the Mormon Church). They believe that the family of LDS members can be posthumously baptized in the church, and must be to get into heaven; because of this, family history research is an extremely important priority for them. When you create an account with them and/or build a family tree on their site, they can collect this information and use it for genealogical and Church purposes (you can see their privacy policy here). I don’t mean to argue this is a bad thing or a good thing, that’s a choice for each individual to make. I just believe I have a responsibility to let you know this if I'm suggesting the site to you. I personally am not a member of the Mormon Church, and am not endorsing it on that level. 

Maybe you don’t want to know more about your own family—that can be a scary thing, and I get that. If so, you can always take a random trip through census records or other archives, and see what pops out at you—interesting names, strange family set-ups, odd professions. A great, free way to do that is at the National Archives; you can find the census page by clicking here, but there are other resources there as well.

One thing that both genealogists and writers have in common is the need to do a lot of contextual research, so it won’t frighten you when I tell you that you’ll probably find yourself googling all sorts of information about times, places, professions, and more. That alone can generate countless ideas! I’ve discovered professions I never knew existed on old census records, found inspiration in the look of church documents from the 1600s, and had ideas jump out when I saw how the topology of places changed with time. 

So the next time you’re in a creative slump, try plugging some family names into the search engine, and even google, and see what you come up with. I promise you that before long your writer’s imagination will be off and running along lines you’ve never considered. 

Happy hunting!


Sunday, June 7, 2015

My favorite writing podcasts

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Whenever I'm dealing with life tasks that require a lot of my hands and only a little bit of my brain, I love to listen to podcasts. I have a range of favorite types, but as it turns out, quite a few of them are writing podcasts. They keep me focused on craft, updated on the ever-changing industry (well, as much as anything can, I suppose), and they inspire me when my motivation is flagging. In case you're looking for any of those things, here are my favorites:

Helping Writers Become Authors

Host: K.M. Weiland, author of Structuring Your Novel: Essential Keys for Writing an Outstanding Story, Outlining Your Novel: Map Your Way to Success, Conquering Writer's Block and Summoning Inspiration, Jane Eyre: Writer's Digest Annotated Classics, Dreamlander.

K.M. Weiland uses her experience as a fiction author and an author mentor to give tight, focused craft advice to writers. She covers all aspects of writing craft (e.g., story structure, character development) and touches on the business of writing (e.g. querying agents). Each podcast is a lesson of sorts, well-structed beforehand and then delivered to the listener. While the podcasts are short, she runs them in series as needed to cover larger topics; for example, she did a 15-part series on how to write an effective character arc that went through the inception of the character, each major structural point, etc. I find this format easier to digest than an all-at-once hour long podcast, because the information she gives is dense. She also has recurring topics like ‘Most common writing mistakes’. The style is approachable, and she has a gift for explaining things clearly. 

Length: approx 5-10 minutes
Free-flowing vs. Structured: 4 (pretty darn structured)
Focus: Craft of writing
Features: K.M. Weiland sharing her knowledge & experience
What's unique here: Short, tight, well-organized craft advice
Recent topics: A reactive protagonist doesn’t have to be a passive protagonist; five Necessary factors for weighty fiction; how the perfect midpoint moves your protagonist from reaction to action; Is your prologue destroying your story’s subtext?

I Should Be Writing

Host: Mur Lafferty, author of Heaven (The Afterlife Series), Ghost Train To New Orleans (The Shambling Guides Series), The Shambling Guide to New York City, Playing For Keeps.

The main focus on this podcast is the craft of writing, but often includes information on the writing business, as well. The feel is informal; Mur is a master of making you feel like she's talking with you rather than at you. Originally conceived as a for-writers-trying-to-make-it-by-a-writer-trying-to-make-it, Mur has since built a writing career, and tries to help you build yours. She shares her experience via down-to-earth opinions, advice, and interviews with industry colleagues.  

Length: Varies widely
Free-flowing vs. Structured (0-5): 2-3 (fairly informal)
Focus: Writing craft, some business
Features: Host shares her thoughts, knowledge, experience. Sometimes has interviews/panel.
What makes this unique: An experienced podcaster with an excellent rapport, plus a wide range of industry contacts and experience.
Recent topics: Interview with John Chu, royalties, copyright issues, writers struggling with depression, resistance and the book The War of Art. 

Ditch Diggers

Hosts: Mur Laffertyauthor of Heaven (The Afterlife Series)Ghost Train To New Orleans (The Shambling Guides Series)The Shambling Guide to New York CityPlaying For Keeps.
& Matt Wallace, author of Slingers (Slingers Saga Vol. 1) , The Detective (Galactic Football League)

This is the most you’ll ever laugh while listening to something that makes you want to suck on the muzzle of a Mauser. Mur and Matt (and their guests) are unapologetically truthful about writing as a job; it’s not easy, and they make sure you’re clear about that. Depressing? More like realistic and cautionary. If you’re the sort of person to be put off by the reality that writing for a living is hard, writing may not be for you in the first place and this podcast will save you some time. For the rest, the podcast shares advice from people who’ve carved a path for themselves in the industry, and that advice will save you time and heartache. So pretty much either way, this podcast will save you time; and, it will have you laughing yourself silly along the way. Warning: contents are also unapologetically explicit.     

Length: approx. 1 hour
Free-flowing vs. Structured: 1 (almost completely informal, and highly entertaining because of it)
Focus: Business/industry of writing
Features: Mur & Matt chatting/ranting. Sometimes guests/drunken revelry.
What makes this unique: Extremely honest, uncensored, and potentially offensive. But funnier than Morgan Freeman in his wrapping room. 
Recent topics: when it's NOT OKAY to suck, getting paid via crowdfunding, whether conventions are useful, when it's time to quit. 

The Writing University Podcast

Coming to you from The Writing University, a group of several programs that includes The University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop, this podcast features taped lectures by famous authors and other professionals, on topics that run the gamut across the craft and business of writing. If you’ve ever been to a seminar/lecture series at a university, that’s what you’re getting here; if you like that format, you’ll love this, and if you don’t, give it a shot anyway because there’s some excellent information here. 

The podcast is uploaded in true binge fashion—apparently approximately 10-20 episodes are put up in June and July every year; I’m not sure if this is because that’s when the lecture series occurs or because that’s when they have time to load it; regardless, they’re due for more any moment now, and in the meantime have extensive archives. The website also features live feeds to other events associated with the program.

Length: approx. 1 hour
Free-flowing vs. Structured: 5 (Very formal)
Focus: Blended across craft and business
Features: Lectures by authors
What's unique here: You're taking a seminar from a series of famous industry professionals without the tuition or classwork. 
Recent topics: Elizabeth Robinson: ‘You can start a press/publication’; Kelly Dwyer: ‘Better Talky Talky: The art and craft of strong dialogue’; Sarah Saffian: ‘The politics of writing about loved ones.’

A Writer’s Journey

Hosts: Sara Whitford, author of Smuggler’s Gambit, Captured on the Caribbean (coming fall 2015)
& Terrance Zepke, author of Terrance Talks Travel: A Pocket Guide for Adventure Travel, A Ghost Hunter's Guide to the Most Haunted Hotels & Inns in America, Spookiest Battlefields: Discover America's Most Haunted Battlefields, Lowcountry Voodoo: A Beginner's Guide to Tales, Spells, and Boo Hags

Gets down to the nitty-gritty about the craft and business of writing. The co-hosts have a warm, welcoming rapport (and I admit this is enhanced for me by the charming southern accents). They’re well organized and their interviews are very thoughtful and conversational—they guide the guests just enough to allow them to do their thing effectively. Tons of good information here from both the hosts and the interviews. 

Length: 30-45ish minutes
Free-flowing vs. Structured: 4 (fairly structured)
Focus: Business side of writing
Features: Discussion between the cohosts, sometimes with interviews. 
What's unique here: Excellent, conversational interviews, good rapport between the hosts while maintaining excellent focus.
Recent topics: Five steps to getting an agent, Tax deductions for writers, Independent book publishing options, Sydney Strand’s transition from traditional to Indie to Hybrid writer

The Creative Penn

Host: Joanna Penn, author of How to Market a Book, Business For Authors, Public Speaking For Authors, Career Change, Stone of Fire (Arkane Book 1)

Joanna Penn is a fiction author, as well as the author of several non-fiction books designed to help writers be successful in the business of writing. So as you’d expect, she talks about both the craft and business of writing, and does it in a lovely English accent (yes, I love any accent that isn't mine. It's a thing I have. Don't judge me.). She's very personable, and she covers a variety of media, not just books.  

Length: approx. 1 hour
Free-flowing vs. Structured: 3
Focus: Mixture of craft and business
Features: Host discusses a topic and then interviews a guest. 
What's unique here: International perspective and information across media. 
Recent topics: Virtual reality for writers, publishing and gaming with Rob Morgan; Writing horror and making a fulltime living from your writing with Michaelbrent Collings; All your editing questions answered with Jen Blood.

Write For Your Life

Hosts: Donna Sorensen, poet, copywriter, author of Dream Country; Iain Broome, author of A is for Angelica.

This is a cozy podcast, the sort that makes you feel like you’re sitting in a room with a couple of friends chatting. The two co-hosts are both writers, and cover a mix of aspects of the craft of writing and the writing industry with humor, knowledge, and self-deprecation, all in awesome English accents (Yeah yeah I know, me and accents, that's just how I roll). One thing this podcast does a bit more than others is tackle current issues in the writing world; a recent example is the ‘Clean Reader’ app that allows people to bleep out offensive words from their ebooks. 

The podcast is currently on a brief hiatus for childbirth (Donna’s) and book-birth (Iain’s), but will be back soon; take a listen to the archives while you wait, and keep your ear open for my favorite moment in each episode—Donna’s xylophone announcement of ‘Listener’s questions!’

Length: approx. 1 hour
Free-flowing vs. Structured: 3
Focus: Mixture of craft and business
Features: The two co-hosts discuss general topics of interest, and current events in the writing world.  
What's unique here: International focus, and coverage of current events
Recent topics: Removing the pressure to publish, live periscoping and the Clean Reader app, falling e-reader sales

Writing Excuses

Hosts: Brandon Sanderson, author of The Way of Kings, The Mistborn Trilogy, Words of Radiance, FirefightMary Robinette Kowal, author of Shades of Milk and Honey, Of Noble Family, Valour and Vanity
Dan Wells, author of I Am Not a Serial Killer, Partials, Next Of KinHoward Tayler, author of Extraordinary Zoology (Tales From The Monsternomicon Series), Schlock Mercenary: The Tub of Happiness,  Schlock Mercenary: The Blackness Between, Space Eldritch.  

This podcast manages to cover a wide range of topics on writing craft and business (focus on craft), give you an exercise/challenge each episode, and do a quick ‘book of the week’ review, all in 15 minutes while not feeling rushed. Their tag-line gives you a clue to the tone: “Fifteen minutes long because you’re in a hurry, and we’re not that smart!”, but the thing is, they are smart. They have good advice, and they give easy-to-understand examples of what they say; as a teacher myself, I appreciate those who take the time to teach/communicate well. They do, in an efficient, entertaining manner. One example: in a recent episode, they talked about how to avoid info-dump world building, and they gave a series of examples from how to do it poorly to how to do it very well. 

Length: approx. 15 minutes 
Free-flowing vs. Structured: 3
Focus: Craft, with some business
Features: The panel of four discusses a topic, discusses how to do it well, and usually gives a suggested exercise for putting the topic into action. 
What's unique here: Panel that works well together, book review & weekly exercise.
Recent topics: Beginnings, ideas, Hugo awards, writing for fun. 

Happy listening!