When Mentors Go Bad: Writing Advice Red Flags

This clematis I planted late last summer has been early to bloom this spring. Such a lovely new visitor to the garden!

Our topic this week at the SFF Seven is Paying it Forward: How We Serve as Mentors for Tomorrow’s New Writers. There’s lots of ways to do this, and I look forward to hearing what others of the SFF 7 say they do, but I want to come at this a little sideways by giving a warning about what is NOT helpful.

How to Write a Mainstream Success – or Not

Double Book Cover Thunder on the Battlefield

Have to throw out one more plug for the Thunder on the Battlefield: Sword & Sorcery volumes! Sister Whore Marcella has a story in Sword and I have one in Sorcery. Marcella did an amusing post on Friday comparing us to Donny and Marie Osmond. The two-volume anthology was edited by former Whore James R. Tuck and is available in digital as below. Print editions should follow soon.

Thunder on the Battlefield: Sword Kindle version Nook version
Thunder on the Battlefield: Sorcery Kindle version Nook version 

Otherwise, I’m over at Word Whores today, giving some examples of mainstream successes in literature and the choices the authors faced to gain that level of success.

Why Hard Work Is Important

003Jackson is experimenting with gravity these days. And, yes, he *can* walk up walls.

Last week’s post on Why Hard Work Is Not Equal to Success started some interesting conversations, both on the blog and elsewhere. Amy Remus, who has a great book review blog at SoManyReads.com, made an interesting comment about talking to her son about his athletic ambitions. She says “if you miss out on the journey because you are worried only about the results, it won’t matter how hard you work.”

I think this is very smart.

And I love the example of athletic prowess, because it’s an excellent demonstration of how hard work does not always result in reaching our goals. It doesn’t matter how hard I practice, I will never be a professional basketball player. Even if wasn’t too old now, I’ve always been too short. And even if I wasn’t height-challenged, I am woefully coordination-poor. Let’s say, though, that I had developed a burning desire to be a pro basketball player as a child and poured my heart, soul and body into developing the necessary skills. I could maybe have overcome my complete lack of natural athletic ability. But I never would have had the talent that other players do. Not that talent is everything. In an intensely competitive business, however, an edge like talent can make all the difference.

So, would my hard work have been wasted?

After spending my youth diligently shooting baskets, running drills and honing my body to the most finely tuned athletic machine it could be (this imaginary montage of Jeffe-in-training is SO amusing if you happen to know me), when I ultimately watched the talented stars waltz past me into their coveted few pro-player careers, would I stomp my foot and wish that time back?

No no no.

Because doing the work is worth it.

In our goal-oriented culture, this is something that we tend to miss. We get so focused on the outcome that we forget, as Amy pointed out, that we forget to enjoy the journey.

This is true of all pursuits in life, but particularly of the difficult ones, I think. There’s virtue in attempting those things that are not easy for us.

I know it might be odd to bring up virtue, because it’s not a quality that’s much discussed outside of religious circles these days. Worse, it’s often confused with chastity, especially for females with the implication that their sole value lies in sexual exclusivity. In truth, “virtue” is a Latin concept that means, at its core, moral excellence, right action and thinking, essential worth.

It’s a concept that gets at what kind of person we want to be. And virtue comes through diligent effort.

A naturally thin person exerts no effort in staying thin. But for someone who has a tendency to be heavy, staying thin requires discipline and determination. Exercising those qualities makes us better people. In some ways, talent can be a trap. So can serendipity. I often think of the rock star analogy – the young band who hits it big and burns out fast. They never built the character to handle success. They never had to build discipline and determination, so when they need it, the well is empty.

In the writing world, to focus on my specific paradigm, it’s easy to become focused on the markers of success: book sales, reviews, ratings, bestseller lists. It’s easy to forget why many of us  begin writing to begin with – out of love of books. We all start as readers (or should, is my strongly held belief) and that love of reading propels some of us to turn it around and create our own stories.

But writing, like all creative and challenging pursuits, requires diligent effort. That’s part of what makes it worthwhile – what it requires of us to do it. Sometimes the stories come easy. Sometimes they don’t. Sitting down to do the work? Always takes discipline and determination.

The path to virtue.

Why Hard Work Is Not Equal to Success

005I had a request for a Jackson pic. Apparently photos of ME doing Interesting Writer Things is ever so yawn. No – you all love Jackson.

I suppose I can’t blame you.

He is full of the charisma and cutie charm.

Release week for Ruby is drawing to a close for me, which feels good. It makes no real sense, but setting a book free into the world can be very draining. I still struggle with understanding this phenomenon. All the real work is done – the drafting, the revising, the developmental edits, the line edits, the copy edits.

On Wednesday, in fact, I got the copy edits for Rogue’s Possession and turned them around in about an hour, they were so minimal. Then my editor sent me the final version, which means the book is officially in the can. I love that feeling – one of the rare moments of total completion on a writing project. It’s now more or less set in stone. You all might be amused, especially knowing me, that the copy editor tagged a sentence in which my intrepid heroine remarks “I could use a good drunk.” The copy editor thought maybe I meant to say “drink.”

Oh no no no.

But isn’t she cute?

She also did a great job, catching an instance of someone “peeing at [my heroine’s] face” instead of peering. Something both my editor and I missed. I should really send her chocolate for saving me from that.

Anyway, by release day, the book has been DONE for months. For example, we finalized Rogue’s Possession on May 15 and it will release on October 7. That’s five months of sitting. It might hit Net Galley for reviewers to read six weeks before that, but still. By release day, even most of my promo stuff is done, because most everyone wants it a week or two in advance at least.

So, really, all my effort is responding to congratulations. This does not sound hard, right?

But somehow it is.

I sometimes imagine a big bubble of myself goes with each book as it launches, like a balloon to carry it through the skies on its journey.

This would be a scarier image if I wasn’t (pretty) sure I replenish that again. Though it occurs to me from time to time that one day I could be this fragile old lady, nothing more than skin over bones and that, with my last book, I’ll send it off and expire while the final piece of myself goes with it.

Is that morbid?

I find it kind of joyful, actually. I should be so lucky to go that way.

At any rate, all this makes me think about the relationship between what is difficult and what has worth to other people. I’m sure many of you are aware of the Author Behaving Badly kerfuffle earlier this week, where a writer posted to a blog lamenting how her painstakingly crafted urban fantasy trilogy that she self-published had not done well and the book she wrote in two months – which she referred to as smut and trash and a sell-out to feed the reader machine – had done astonishingly well.

Yeah – there are so many things wrong with her attitude. If you want to read a really excellent post in response, check out Lauren Dane’s blog post on it.

What I want to respond to is the fallacy where she equates hard work to worth. She refers to the books that took years as art and the one that took two months as trash. Readers embraced the latter, so she questioned their taste and judgement. But I think she’s made a fundamental error in assuming that, just because she worked hard on something, that smart people will know to value it more.

I suspect we develop this idea early in life, from our schools and our families.

“If you work hard, you’ll do well in life.”

“If you study hard for that exam, you’ll pass.”

“If you train hard for the marathon, you’ll make it to the finish line.”

I find myself slipping back into this thinking from time to time, though I’ve repeatedly discovered that it Simply Is Not True. Lots of people work hard and do not do well in life. Other people dance through life and seem to be showered with blessings. You know both kinds of people, right? We also know people who work hard and do well along with people who don’t work hard and don’t do well. Whatever you might believe affects the “doing well” part, it’s not a direct relationship to how hard they work.

I’ve studied my little brains out for exams that I failed and aced ones I blew off. I recall in high school, I took the Advanced Placement (AP) exams for English and Biology on consecutive days, in that order. I prepared for days for the AP English test, certain I could get a good score and thus opt out of Freshman English in college. By the time I finished, I was so tired I barely glanced at my Biology notes. I scored 5’s on both – the highest score.

In grad school, I had a friend who was working on a project with Olympic athletes, studying the phenomenon of over-training. The upshot was, sometimes if you train hard, you’ll perform worse. You might not cross the finish line at all.

Hard work does not equal success.

We might like it to be true, because then we could guarantee success. But it’s not.

There it is.

We simply cannot control the outcome like that. We can’t control what other people find valuable. In the recent housing crisis, over and over I heard people insisting their houses were “worth” X amount of money. No, your house is worth what someone else is willing to pay for it.

Some books write easier than others. I don’t really understand why. Some come out like shooting stars. Others are like pulling teeth every step of the way. Is my experience writing them any indicator of how well they’ll be received?

Nope.

The process just is what it is. Some things that seem like they shouldn’t take much out of me – like days of answering congratulatory tweets and comments about my new release – can be exhausting. Other things, like writing twice as many words in a day as usual, can be invigorating.

It’s a mystery, really.