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.

How (Not) to Write a Mainstream Success

1_4 freezing fog 4We get these freezing fogs in Santa Fe that turn the desert into a fairyland of ice crystals. Just extraordinary to see.

 As every reader delights in, I received several books for Christmas – along with gift cards for even More Books. Two that I specifically asked for (via my wishlist) were Tina Fey’s Bossypants and Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects. On Christmas Eve, my aunt, who wasn’t with us, IM’d my mom to ask if I’d received the Kindle book she’d sent. My mom said she didn’t know, but that she’d gotten me a paper copy of Sharp Objects for my stocking, that my aunt had better not have gotten the same book and what was it? My aunt said “Bossypants!” and my mom was all offended that her sister called her that. My mom didn’t figure out until Christmas morning that this was not a sisterly insult, accurate though it may be, but the title of the Kindle book, which I did, indeed, receive.

Hysterical, I think.

That said, I really enjoyed Bossypants. I admire Tina Fey so much. In fact, I should put her on that list of people interviewers always ask for about which living people I’d like to have dinner with. Right now I’m picturing Tina Fey, Amanda Palmer and Neil Gaiman at my table.

Too bad they’ll make me look like a blithering idiot.

At any rate, Tina Fey is a sharp, witty and insightful writer. They book is more a collection of essays that all bring insight into how she developed the career she has today. I think people in any field, male or female would be interested, but she has so much to offer females in creative professions – regardless of the medium – that I’d almost call it a must read.

I plan to be quoting various tidbits from it in the future.

But the part that really stood out for me at this moment, that I typed into messenger for one of my writing buddies as soon as I got home, was about her show 30 Rock.

Now, I love 30 Rock. You all know I don’t watch much TV, but I’ve watched as much of 30 Rock as I can (via Netflix). Like Tina, it’s funny, sharp, insightful and full of sly jokes. I would call it one of the best shows on TV, except that I’m so not an arbiter of such things. At any rate, she said this about it:

We weren’t trying to make a low-rated critical darling that snarled in the face of conventionality. We were trying to make Home Improvement and we did it wrong. You know those scientists who were developing a blood-pressure medicine and they accidentally invented Viagra? We were trying to make Viagra and we ended up with blood-pressure medicine. No matter how many times we tried to course-correct the show to make it more accessible – slow the dialogue down, tell fewer stories per episode, stop putting people in blackface – the show would end up careening off the rails again. In my limited experience, shows are like children. You can teach them manners and dress them in little sailor suits, but in the end, they’re going to be who they’re going to be.

And wow – did that hit home for me, as a writer.

It did for my writing buddy too. She and I even had a mission going for a while called “Project Mainstream,” where we each tried to develop a really mainstream, conventional idea for a book, that would be, well, Home Improvement. Project Mainstream did not go well. She’s doing better than I am, however. But we realized several things about ourselves in this effort.

1. She and I make the worst possible coaches for each other in this. We both take stories careening off the rails. Every. Damn. Time.

2. I’m miserable at trying to do this, because every time she’d point out that some plot element wasn’t mainstream, I’d start snarling in the face of conventionality.

3. In our heart of hearts, neither of us *really* wants this. We couldn’t bear dressing our kids in little sailor suits and we don’t fundamentally give a flip about manners. Before long, we were stripped down with them in the mud puddle, making castles.

When I sent her this snippet from Bossypants, her immediate response was, “But isn’t 30 Rock a really successful show?” Which is an interesting point, too. I would certainly have said so. In the world of television though, the ratings barely get them by. She says they had 5 million viewers in the first season. At its height, Friends was getting 25 million viewers per episode.

This is a whole ‘nother kettle of fish from the writing world, no doubt. For contrast, Twilight has sold 100 million copies, all told – equivalent to four episodes of Friends. Hunger Games had an initial print run of 200,000 copies and has sold in the neighborhood of 800,000 copies now. In ten years, Neil Gaiman’s American Gods has sold 1 million copies in 22 languages worldwide.

See what I mean?

I’ve heard the unofficial number of 15,000 copies sold to be considered a successful book in NYC.

It all calls up the question of what we consider to be a successful effort. Tina Fey set out to make Home Improvement. With Project Mainstream, my writing buddy and I were shooting for something similar. Maybe not Twilight, but Hunger Games would be nice. Hell, we’d be delighted with much less.

But in our heart of hearts? It’s castles in the mud that make us the happiest.

Why Me?

David had a classmate, Marjorie, who died of cancer this last winter.

I never got to meet her. Not for any particular reason. At first we just weren’t in the same place at the same time. Then her tumors came back and she finally withdrew from the acupuncture college. Because I wasn’t a friend, I didn’t go visit her when everyone went to say good-bye. It just didn’t seem right.

But I felt like I knew her, because David liked her so much and often related to me the things they talked about.

One thing that stuck with me – she told David that she finally had to get over the idea that she was a bad or negative person because she developed the cancer, because it ultimately defeated her. See, when you’re in the natural healing world, there are strong ideas that your mental attitude governs your health. Negativity or bad emotions promote chronic disease states is the thinking. Positive thinking creates health and healing.

All of this success stuff comes from similar philosophies. “I create my own success.” Your life becomes what you envision it to be. Anything can be yours if you simply envision it, be positive and make it happen.

The flip side, of course, is that if you don’t get what you want, it’s because you failed. Failed to envision enough, be positive enough, what have you.

Like with Marjorie. She failed to cure her own cancer. But she ultimately decided to refuse to accept that as a personal failure.

She lived ten years past her initial diagnosis of terminal cancer. She enjoyed her life and continued to follow her passions. Part of that meant coming to terms with not seeing herself as a bad person because she got sick. How she dealt with the disease truly showed her strength of character. And she died surrounded by friends and loved ones, both animal and human.

This is what I was trying to get at on Friday. I’m not sure I did a very good job.

(Either that or everyone was out enjoying their summer weekend, which is all to the good.)

I absolutely believe we have a hand in our own successes. But I think there’s danger in believing we can control fate. It would be nice, sure. Tempting to try. Ultimately, though, the universe goes where it goes and takes us with it. Sometimes beautiful summer days fill our weekends. Sometimes tornadoes hit. The weather falls equally on the good people and the bad people, the positive thinkers and the bitter, angry ones.

The differences show in how we handle it.

We love to tell stories about grace under pressure. The heroics, large and small, that shine when disaster hits. We rarely talk about how well someone handles success.

My favorite religious studies professor, David Hadas, who I quote often, pointed out to me that, when tragedies occur, we look up to whatever gods we follow and ask “why me?” Rarely, he said, does anyone look at some amazing bounty they’ve received and ask the gods, “why me?”

It’s easy to believe that, when our efforts are rewarded with success, it’s because we are so wonderful and deserving. But that’s as much of a trap as believing that we deserve cancer. Or tornadoes.

The true test is how we handle it.