Good-bye Anne McCaffrey

Then, as the simple words of interment were spoken, as the atmosphere planes dipped in tribute over the open grave, Helva found voice for her lonely farewell.

Softly, barely audible at first, the strains of the ancient song of evening and requiem swelled to the final poignant measure until the black space itself echoed back the sound of the song the ship sang.

The Ship Who Sang
Anne McCaff

She passed away yesterday, after 85 good years of firing our hearts, minds and imaginations. Sometimes I wonder if anyone realizes how many of us writing fantasy and science fiction with chunks of sex and romance trace our inspiration back to Anne McCaffrey. In some ways I think we’re all still trying to write F’lar and Lessa’s story. Or Helva and Niall’s. Or Sara and Harlan’s.

I’ve blogged about McCaffrey and how much her books meant to me before, so I won’t wax on here.

Yesterday evening, when the news hit and Twitter and Tor posted an In Memoriam shortly thereafter, the entire Tor website crashed from the load. (You can see it now.) As Kev, pointed out, it’s the modern equivalent of turning crowds away from the memorial service. I just love that one of the venerable ladies of SFF and, yes, romance, created such a technological ripple.

All the dragons are lifting their heads to sky and singing the song of mourning today.

Messages in the Wind

The Buddhists have this idea that every person you encounter has a message for you. If you learn to listen, the theory is, you’ll know what path to follow in life.

I think there’s some truth in this.

I also think the people who thought this up lived in a much smaller society where they met only a few hundred people in their entire lives. That’s about two minutes  on Twitter. Do I think every person on Twitter has a message for me that will illuminate my life’s path?

Oh no no no.

That actually sounds more like a Jim Carey movie than the road to enlightenment.

So , the point is, you have to be discerning and know which messages to listen to. The crazy guy preaching on the subway? Probably not. Your well-meaning senior colleague offering advice on keeping your job “in this economy?” Hmm. The family member throwing the word “selfish” at you because you’re not doing what they want you to? Uh, definitely not.

As with many aspects of life, it comes down to considering the source.

The other day one of my writing buddies wrote a post about taking critique. She mentioned a scene that five of her six readers/critique partners loved and one hated. Because she didn’t want a sixth of her potential readers turned off, she made revisions. I wasn’t sure how I felt about this. Except that I thought I probably would not have made the revision, had it been me.

Now, I’m not saying I think she was wrong to do it. There may be a deeper level to this in that the comments of the “hater” resonated with her and that’s what really drove her to make the change. Very likely she trusted the source.

Trusting the source becomes key. When your best friend gently takes your hand and tells you that the lipstick you’re wearing makes you look like a plague victim, if you trust her, you know she’s looking out for you and not cutting you down. When a stranger comes up to and offers a piece of information that answers the question you’ve been asking in your head, trusting that is an act of faith in the world.

I think that’s what the Buddhists were getting at.

Refining Goals and Getting Out of the Boiling Water

I had this friend a while back who was going through a difficult divorce.

Not that they aren’t all difficult.

This particular divorce, however, was complicated by massive amounts of debt, an unemployed soon-to-be-ex-husband and the necessity of taking on more debt to free herself of the situation. The upshot was, she took a second job. Because she already had a full-time, career-path day job, the second one had to be at night. So, she would work at the day job until 4, go home and sleep a few hours, go to the night job at 11, work until 7 in the morning and go to the day job.

Right: grueling schedule.

But, she only had to do it for a while. The night job at the hospital paid very well and her debt melted away. When she finally finished paying everything off, she went shopping. I know, because I went with her and she bought all new furniture. A gift to herself.

And now you can quit the second job and get some sleep again, I said.

No. She had more things she wanted the money for. She couldn’t give up the second income just yet. Just a little while longer.

After a while, she became so accustomed to this grueling schedule that she no longer notices the sleep deprivation. Right – the frog in the boiling water analogy.

To this day, she still does the night job a couple times a week

Yesterday, Angela James wrote on the Carina blog about the dangers of becoming obsessed with our jobs. She talks about overworking and taking time to relax, too.

Her post came at an interesting time for me because the other day, I mentioned to one of my CPs that I wanted to be full-time writer girl. She asked if it really would make that much difference for me, because I rarely seem to exceed about 2,500 words/day, even if I have all day to write. Glumly, I acknowledged that she was correct.

Then I realized, what it would mean is I’d no longer be working two jobs. I’ve been doing really long days for so many years now, that I’d kind of forgotten all the ways I’ve tightened my daily schedule to make this work. Even something as sleeping an hour later and going to the gym I like better but would add 1/2 hour to the time allotted for exercise would make a difference.

Several people commented on Angela’s post that her quip about having a goal of writing a book a month made them choke. It scared me, too.

It helps to adjust my goal, that I want to be a full-time writer, not necessarily to write more, though that would be nice, but to better enjoy my life.

Make it so!

Being Smart

Part of the cliffside at Bandelier, the cliff dwellings I talked about yesterday.

It occurs to me that a place that’s great for carving out caves also boast it’s fair share of cracks and holes.

A few years back, I was offered the opportunity to sign with a literary agency. Kinda sorta. The agent emailed me, enthused about my manuscript and set up a time to talk on the phone. She missed that appointment and set up second time. We talked then, but things were crazy for her and she couldn’t talk long. She liked the book, but wanted me to revise. The pacing needed work, she said, and a few other things. She’d send me detailed notes on it. If I fixed those things, she had the perfect editor in mind.

I never heard from her again.

Now, I would have been pleased to revise, given something more than the vague ideas she flung out on the phone. But, the agency was very new, she was even newer, seemed kind of flakey and I could see that the agency had only ever sold to one editor at one publishing house and that particular editor had already rejected the manuscript. Now, it’s possible that could have been overcome with revision, but I never even got to have that conversation with this gal. I had a bad feeling about it all, so when she didn’t send me the promised notes, I never pursued it. Not long after that, she left the agency.

At that time I was pretty new to the fiction-publishing world. But I have been out in the business world long enough to have a pretty good idea of professional behavior. I don’t know about all of you, but my day job company makes sure we understand our business model. We have to know the requirements of our contracts and the ins and outs like conflict of interest and quality assurance. I know that if somebody tells me a deal is predicated on me making some changes based on notes they’ll send that they never do, then it was never a good deal to begin with.

This is common sense.

When we sign with our agents, we place a tremendous level of trust in that relationship. We trust that they will act in our best interests. However, much as in marriage, hopefully you place that trust based on good information in the first place and then you remember that trust doesn’t mean having your brains sucked out of your ears.

The thing to remember is that, while an agency should be acting in their authors’ best interests, they have their own interests at heart, too. Hopefully those two things coincide. Sometimes, though, a brilliant plan for short-term gain is not the best strategy for an author’s long-term career. Guess which part each player here might care about most?

Even if you have an agent, authors, there  is still no one who will care about your career more than you do.

Be smart.

Dreck and Melodrama

A photo of me at Bandelier National Monument this last weekend. The cliff dwellings are particularly fun to see, since you can climb up into them.

It’s interesting to sit in these caves and imagine being the person who lived and loved there. The life expectancy of the Ancient Peublo People (we are not to say “Anasazi” anymore, for those who know that term, because it’s not PC. Who knew??) who lived in this canyon was an average of 35 years. Being a good ten years older than that gave me a bit of pause.

We have such a luxury of time in our lives today.

Yesterday I posted about becoming a better writer and Ann Patchett’s analogy of cleaning the pipes. A corollary to this way of thinking, that only occurred to me later in the day, is that those early works just may never be any good. Those “searing works of unendurable melodrama” that we have to clear out of our systems may have to stay in the sludge heap of hazardous waste. Some stuff is so toxic, or just plain irredeemable, that it can’ t be purified, even by dint of repeated revisions.

I’ve worked with wastewater treatment plants – believe me, I know.

Not everything makes it into the effluent. A whole lot of stuff has to be picked out and discarded.

None of us really wants to face this possibility, that the novel we slaved over might, well, stink. Because we devoted so much time to it we believe on a fundamental level that the time invested automatically gives the thing value. It does, but not in the readers-are-going-to-gobble-this-up way. Instead it might be in the Okay-good-thing-that’s-out-of-my-system way. Sometimes the value is all in learning to be able t set something aside.

We hate this because it’s tempting to view the time as wasted. If we can’t sell the product, then we squandered the effort. This kind of thinking is never accurate. Knowing what not to do can be more informative than accidentally hitting gold.

And as for time? We have such a bounty of it.

Washing the Pipes

This is the basket I put together for the LERA Enchanted Words conference last Saturday. Seemed like it was quite the hit.

Overall the conference was a great day. I loved hanging with my writing buddies and debating craft questions. Everyone went away excited and inspired, which was great to see.

Yeah, there’s a bit of a “but” in there.

I confess I have a bit of an issue with people who purport to teach how to write a bestseller. If a person is so certain of the “bestseller formula,” then I’d think they’d put their energy into writing that, instead of telling other people how to do it. There’s quite a few folk out there these days, saying they teach writers through workshops, master classes and retreats how to make the magic happen. They charge a fair amount of money for this, too.

Frankly? It feels predatory to me.

I mean, it’s great for writers to come away from a seminar like this feeling fired up, creative, inspired and ready to work. But, in the end, I truly believe that you can take all the classes you like and nothing replaces the act of writing. Writing a whole lot. Over and over until you find your own voice and rhythm.

Ann Patchett says (remember I said I’d have more quotes from her):

Art stands on the shoulders of craft, which means that to get to the art, you must master the craft. If you want to write, practice writing. Practice it for hours a day, not to come up with a story you can publish, but because you long to learn how to write well, because there is something that you alone can say. Write the story, earn from it, put it away, write another story. Think of a sink pipe filled with sticky sediment: The only way to get clean water is to force a small ocean through the tap. Most of us are full up with bad stories, boring stories, self-indulgent stories, searing works of unendurable melodrama. We must get all of them out of our system in order to find the good stories that may or may not exist in the fresh water underneath.

She continues with with pointed question:

Does this sound like a lot of work without any guarantee of success? Well, yes, but it also calls into question our definition of success. Playing the cello, we’re more likely to realize that the pleasure is the practice, the ability to create this beautiful sound – not to do it as well as Yo-Yo Ma, but still, to touch the hem of the gown that is art itself.

The people who want your money will chant NYT at you and tell you that’s success. Fair enough if you want that. Hell, I want that, too. But, despite what these teachers promise, there is no magic formula. If there was, they’d be using it themselves.

Back to washing out my pipes!