Apologies, Deadlines, and (Finally) Some Progress

One of the purposes of this blog, at least from my perspective here, is helping me to both own and reflect on my process. Naturally, part of that process is dealing with mistakes, as you’ve seen if you’ve been reading along for even a few posts.

The one I’ll be talking about today is what we could call a problem of time-frame if we’re being diplomatic—or, if we’re not, we can call it issues of pride, overconfidence, and newbie stupidity. Take your pick: it all works out about the same.

A post or two back I mentioned that, until Oath of Blood, I’d never before endeavored to take a long work all the way through the process of editing and revisions. So when I went into the matter, I only had a vague idea of how long it would take.

Consequently, I set out some deadlines for myself and, thinking it would be a healthy motivator, made those public and even hinged a couple of local launch events on them. The first of those was supposed to happen tonight.

Unfortunately, as you can probably gather, that’s not going to be happening.

I sent out messages to that effect to everyone who’d indicated they were either interested in coming or would be coming to those events. Still, I’m feeling like a heel today (and rightly so) for having set those expectations and then failed them.

We could just chalk it up to a honest error or to “the process” or whatever, but I think that’s a cop-out. Instead, I think it’s more an issue of ignorance and pride, mixed with a hefty side of overconfidence.

Consequently, today’s post is an examination of that, an apology to everyone who had indicated they had an interest in those canceled events, and an update on where things stand right now.

The first thing that bears saying is that this is, without a doubt, my fault. I’m not going to blame fate or depression or the numinous process of revisions or anything like that. This is me. I set a deadline for myself, believed with utter honestly that I would meet that deadline, and fell flat on my face.

Now, granted, if I’d gone into my revisions with the knowledge base I have now, I might have been able to finish according to the timeline I set. But the fact remains that I did not. I only had a vague understanding of how the process would affect my ideal internal timeline, and I fumbled this one.

The second thing is that, because it’s my error, I owe anyone who intended to go to those events my unconditional apologies.  I set an expectation and failed to make good on it. I have quite possibly screwed up folks’ plans, cost them an evening off from work, or just plain let them down.

Although I sent out messages to such people letting them know what had happened, I still worry that some of them are going to show up at the predetermined venues, wait around on me a bit, and go home disappointed and angry. If they do, well, I’d say that’s their right.

For anybody to whom that applies, contact me. I will do my level best to make it right for you. 

Third, this is a lesson I intend to take fully to heart. It doesn’t undo any problems the current confusion may cause, but it has taught me a great deal about my own time needs, about setting expectations, and about the “public face” of this whole affair.

Initially, I think I had some erroneous belief to the effect of, If you set a deadline, things will fall into place. That is, of course, some bullshit. Deadlines are good, but they’re not magic. They’re also not helpful if they don’t take the actual time-frame of the process into account.

Which is, to be clear, something I should have known. But here we are, all the same.

And speaking of where we are, I do have some substantial updates for you.

This weekend I’m wrapping up final adjustments to the first act of the story (about the initial 25% of the text). As of now, I am on schedule to send the manuscript back to the editor in early August, as we appear to have broken whatever hold my structuring confusion had on me.

What this means is that while I am, yes, behind my initial schedule, things are moving again, and in a way that inclines itself to both improvement and relatively rapid completion. I say relatively rapid because things like this don’t happen overnight—but in the larger scheme of things, coming out of a three-month rut makes wrapping things up inside a month seem like FTL travel.

Naturally, when I’ve made the last keystroke, the manuscript is going back to the editor, and her schedule is such that she takes about a month. So provided my ability to meet this new deadline, I’m looking at knowing what last tweaks will need to be made by early September. With those adjustments made, we’ll be able to begin the layout process shortly thereafter.

But first things first.

And, again, my apologies.

In Which I Battle Writer’s Fatigue

I knew when I set out to tackle Oath of Blood that it would be a whole new experience, most notably because it would be my first finished novel-length work. Though I’d written a handful of (mostly awful) short stories and had been banging out longer yarns of varying degrees of awfulness off and on since junior high school, I’d never fully finished a novel.

Oh, I’d written novels before. I wrote one maybe a decade ago during a period of substantial downtime and threw it out in a fit of disgust shortly thereafter. Later I penned a duology: two Sword & Sorcery yarns, each about 55,000 words, that are currently sitting on my hard drive and in my cloud storage.

After a fashion, they’re done in that they start, have something approaching a substantive middle, and they end. But they’re also both deeply flawed and will need a thorough rewrite that they may, honestly, not be worth. I’ve also got about 80% of Bannerman of Mercury in a typescript in a box and the rest of it neatly synopsized. But it, too, has its issues, and it’s going to need a lot of love.

So, as I said: I’d written plenty, but I’d never finished one.

Still, at first glance that didn’t seem like a big deal. After all, I had a plan: I’d get advice. I’d hire an editor. And then, using the knowledge gained from such interactions, I’d fix any problems, shine up the text, and be ready to rock and roll. I had this thing figured out. But there was one thing I left out of the equation: the soul crushing fatigue that sets in toward the end of a long project.

Oath, as will be known to those who’ve followed its progress from the start, is edging toward its one-year anniversary as a work in progress. I first had the rough beginnings of the idea in July of 2012, and in August I drafted the initial plan for a 3-part arc. In September I started writingOath (then with another working title), the first volume, in earnest, and right at the New Year I finished the first novel-length rough draft of the thing.

At that point I sent it to some beta readers and an editor, and I had a few weeks off. That was beneficial for me, as I’d just lost my cat of a dozen years. As sappy as it might sound to those of you who aren’t animal lovers, it was a blow to me, and I needed some time to adjust to the loss.

But after that time was up, I got down to the dirty business of revisions. I worked doggedly through the rest of the winter and the early spring, went another editorial round—and realized I had a critical rewrite on my hands.

That was in April, and we’re into July now. With the exception of the short stints when the manuscript has been with betas or an editor, and excepting a 4-day vacation in May, I’ve been staring at it every day straight for fully 10 months, usually from 4-8 hours a day or more, depending on the constraints of my schedule at my day job.

Much of that time has been spent revising. Rewriting. Re-revising. Re-rewriting.

And—to be honest? I’m exhausted.

But I’ve also got a fair distance still to go before I’m done.

And that is the most disheartening feeling in the world.

For those who have written professionally a long time and who are acquainted with the game, I’m sure this comes as no shock. I don’t have any illusions that my situation is special, unless it’s just that I’m especially unskilled at the game. But it is a new experience for me all the same.

I’d thought, going into it, that elements of the process would in some ways resemble writing my graduate thesis. That document was submitted and accepted at around 30,000 words. It took me about 6 months to write, and anyone who knew me during that time knows what a mind-melting process it was. Many coffee mugs were hurled at the wall in frustration. I passed countless days shut up in the office in a disconnected haze, and I probably would never have emerged except that I had to go to campus to work.

But all that paid off in that, in the end, I was confident about the text, confident about what I had to say, ready to walk into my defense and slug it out and graduate. Which is how it came to pass, though it was more just nervous sweating in a suit than any kind of combat. There were no obstacles left at that point. I had, I discovered, slain all the monsters along the way, and mostly it was a nice chat and a thumbs-up—and then some of us went out to lunch and drank beer and that was that.

So inasmuch as I’d been through the crucible that way, I felt I had at least something of a grip on what we might call the industrial side of the writing process: get in, get to work, get through, get it done. Do that, and work like a dog, and the payoff follows inevitably—at least that was the idea. But somehow that hasn’t really transferred. Or, if it has, I haven’t felt it yet.

And again, if you’ve been playing the fiction game for a long time, this probably all sounds normal—that or I’m outing myself as a real hack.

In any case, right now I’m at that low point where, every time I look at the page, my blood pressure skyrockets (and not just because of all the chain-smoking). I stare at the text and I’m overwhelmed with how horrid it all is, and how I’m a piece-of-shit writer, and how I should have just kept on daydreaming instead of embarking on this hare-brained quest—and all this when the plot has never been more solid and the pacing has never been more on-target.

That’s why I know this thing is an illusion.

Granted, my fears about the quality of the text are sound, at least in their way.  I’m a hopeless perfectionist, and I’d like very much to be instantly awesome and up for whatever indie types can win instead of Hugos or Nebulas. And, of course, while I’m better than I was at 13 (thank the gods), I’m not there. And I want to be, not for the bauble or prize, but for the achievement it represents.

Still, at the end of the day, the whole “my work is a boiling cesspool of suck” thing is a phantasm, and I’ve danced with it before. It showed up at the end of my thesis. It’s showed up at all points in my life when it was time to cinch up the old war-girdle and fight on. At times, I’ve come apart and quit. At others, as with the thesis, I’ve pushed through and succeeded.

So I know I’m fighting ghosts. But the thing about ghosts is that they’re hard to beat—at least in conventional ways. At this point the only way I know is to push on in spite of them. But that is, naturally, easier said than done. It cultivates a certain exhaustion that drags at the soul, imparts a sense of things that says, “You will never be done. You will endure this doubt forever.”

That, too, is normal as I understand it. We’re never wholly done with anything, and what looks acceptable now might be a far cry from what would be acceptable ten years from now. Or, as it’s been the case with Oath, even six months out.

The real question, then, appears to be not When is it perfect?, but rather When is it good enough?

In the mainstream market, where one does the dance of agents and publishers and editors and such, there’s a way to know: it’s good enough when They say it is. When They accept it and pay you for it. In many ways, that’s like my graduate work. It was ready when my committee chair said it was ready, and that fact was confirmed when I got to graduate.

But indie is a different game. It’s in many ways only up to me to know when that moment is, and I’m a hard person to please when it comes to my own work. I always see what it could be, if only this—if only that. And I start to think that maybe that’s what’s dragged out the revisions process so long. That hard part is knowing which of those whispers is the writer’s instinct and which of them is the specter of treadmilling perfectionism. Which one is the ally? Which is the enemy?

As of just now, I don’t have an answer, but I’m tired enough to be ready to find one.

Panic & Whiskey: The Agony of the Rewrite

A curious thing happened on the way to the final draft of Oath of Blood. Back at the start of May, when I got the most recent set of markups back from my editor, she and I had a long conversation in which we identified a handful of problematic elements that, love them or hate them, were causing some difficulty with the plot. That’s not altogether unheard of—pretty common, actually, as I understand it—so I took the news in stride and set out looking for solutions.

Some things were easy fixes: something wasn’t clear, or my wording could be leaned up, or an extra bit of exposition was needed. Others took a little more surgery to clean up. And then there were the problem children: darlings that I needed to consider killing, scenes that turned out not to hold up under closer editorial scrutiny. They would require a good bit more work and time. But I had expected as much, so I accepted this, rolled up my sleeves, and got to work.

But as I said—a curious thing happened.

Just a little past halfway through May, I found that I was getting nowhere when wrestling with these bigger issues. I tore them down to the frame, re-sequenced them, even wholly rewrote some of them from the ground up, but nothing worked. I was still left with a sense that something waswrong with the narrative, though I couldn’t put a finger on what. It didn’t click in certain spots. The building tension jerked, shuddered, and stumbled in places. It was like an engine that rattles just enough to tell you something’s not right.

Sometime during the third week of May, instinct kicked in. My gut told me there were darlings hiding out in the narrative, sabotaging the plot. Pretty, pretty darlings. Darlings that had to die. So I went on a hunt, and I came out of my little safari with an incredible assortment of scenes, minor characters, and even two major linchpin events that defined the second half of the book. And every last one of them didn’t need to be there. Every last one of them, without exception, was dead weight.

So those pretty darlings died.

And at first I thought to myself, Hey, I’m in the clear now. The darlings have been addressed. The narrative should bob back to the surface all clean and clear. But—it didn’t. Something was still wrong. I prodded and poked and nudged the story line to see if I could discern the nature of the problem, but all I got was that vague sense of wrongness. And instead of being diminished in the absence of the darlings, it was stronger, louder, more demanding of my attention. It was as though the darlings had only been masking the problem’s true intensity.

Panic set in as a terrible truth hit me like a ton of bricks: there was something critically, fundamentally flawed in my narrative. Oath of Blood was broken—and I had no idea how to fix it. I didn’t even know what was wrong with it to begin with. My first instinct was to repair the problem by cutting. I had excised the darlings this way—so why not the larger problems? But as I considered the scope of what might have to go, I began to doubt my instincts. In that moment of book-saving doubt, I emailed my editor: Help me!

Which she did—and with considerable grace and aplomb, I might add. We got on the phone, and, after assessing the nature of the problem, she told me two things:

  1. You can fix this.
  2. You can’t fix it in the midst of a booze-and-cigarettes fueled panic. Take the weekend off.

Of course, she was right, so in spite of my twitching, half-mad desire to defeat the problem through sheer force of will, I did as I was told, and I spent the next two days on my sofa watching Netflix and playing video games.

Some fixes came to me after that, like bubbles slowly rising to the surface of still water, but the overall problem remained unsolved. So I sat and thought for most of a week, did some pay work, read some books I’d been putting off. And it chanced to occur to me that what might be wrong with Oath wasn’t so much content as it was structure. A light bulb came on then. If it was structural, I realized, it was something I could hack—provided I knew what the structure was supposed to be—which I thought I knew.

But it seemed I didn’t. Yes, I’d taken some very expensive classes at college and grad school, and I knew Freytag’s Pyramid and all of that, and I’d studied Lester Dent’s formula and pretty much thought I had my brain around that. I had read plenty in the genre, too, and I knew a good story when I read one. And I thought I had applied all that knowledge to Oath. But—clearly not. The problem, as it turned out, was me. My knowledge—or, better put, my lack of it—was preventing me from seeing the flaws in the narrative.

It was about this time that I recalled a conversation with Jeff Doten, my cover artist, in which he had mentioned the story structure advice on Storyfix.com. At the time, I’d not paid too much attention to the links and to Jeff’s glowing praise for the techniques the site advocates. I was smart, see, and that meant I could figure this out myself without help from anyone else, so help me Crom.

But that, of course, defies the cardinal rule of indie: You can’t do it all yourself.

So I spooned myself up a big plate of crow and finally hit the website Jeff had so assiduously recommended. Perhaps not surprisingly, my world was immediately turned on its head. In just a few short blog posts, the author over at Storyfix, Larry Brooks, pegged my problem, and it was a whopper: improper story structure, most likely caused by the way in which Oath of Blood was originally drafted.

Which is to say I wrote it by the seat of my pants with only a vague sense of where I started and where I wanted the story to end, and that the story had suffered for it ever since.

I didn’t want to believe that what I was seeing in Oath was the product of my own bad planning (non-planning, really), but there it was, plain as day, and once I’d seen it, I couldn’t un-see it. And most pointedly, my eyes lit on this one particular line:

If you use your drafts as exploratory vehicles for that purpose—a process some organic writers claim is the only way they can discover their stories—then you condemn them to a major rewrite.

I about fell out of my chair. This was me—for the third time now. Rewriting, replanning, reimagining the story in a blind attempt to make the pieces fit the way they’re supposed to. And after I’d read a little more, I began to see why this sort of thing condemns a story to the agony of the rewrite.

In short, there’s about only one effective base structure for all commercial fiction. One right answer to how the pieces fit together, how the action builds, what it builds toward, and where those things turn and shift. Trying to randomly hit that target without knowing where it is and what it looks like is a mathematical improbability of significant magnitude. In short, you’d have to be damned lucky.

And since clearly I hadn’t been lucky drafting Oath, I made up my mind to learn what I could about the structure Brooks advocates and see why my stuff wasn’t clicking. If I had a plan, I figured, I could work toward a solution.

It turns out to have been the smartest four days I have spent in the revisions process yet.

From the very start I began to see the problems. I understood why a good chunk of the mid-story fell flat, why the pacing toward the conclusion was jerky, why the ending didn’t satisfy. The knots and tangles presented themselves to be unsnarled. They stood out in astounding clarity where they had been hazy and numinous only days before.

Of course, this didn’t fix the problem. It only identified it. But as I began to carefully apply Brooks’ principles to what I currently had on paper, I began to understand specific needs. This part needs to establish deeper stakes for the reader. That section needs to show retreat rather than advance relative to the goal. This part should demonstrate the growing power of the antagonistic force.

And so on.

Viewed in that light, I saw why the current draft plagued me, and as I considered the gap between where scenes were and where they needed to be, solutions began to arise. A good many I sifted, bounced off of friends, and eventually threw out, but others stuck. They stuck gloriously, and this afternoon, just ahead of lunchtime, I slid the last of the major fixes into my outline.

All in all, I’ve got small tweaks to make in almost every chapter and somewhere around 5000 new words to write, scattered throughout the manuscript. It sounds like a lot—and it is, in its way—but it’s far less than I expected to have to do in terms of total volume.

Best and most phenomenally of all, though, the solutions really did arise that quickly. I started working with the Storyfix model on Monday. I’m sitting here at dinnertime on Thursday knowing that I have a sure deal to address the trouble that’s been afflicting Oath since its first draft.

And while I don’t expect that the actual process of the revision will be all gumdrops and roses—or that it will come as quickly as the outline level issues did—it’s much more approachable than it was back in May when I didn’t even know what kinds of answers I was looking for. That’s huge.

I’m not telling you to go out there, don your acolyte robes, and join the cult of Storyfix. Just—no. I don’t play that game. But I will say that the guy makes some very valid points, and I have no reason to doubt him. At least not after four days with his material fixed a problem that’s been dogging me since the start of spring (and maybe longer, considering how all my previous projects in bygone years stalled out about halfway in).

Rather, I’d say that whatever your source for it, you should learn story structure. Know it and understand it so that, whatever you write and however you write it (outline or organic), you know what your pacing and direction should look like from the start.

If I take no other lessons from my revisions to Oath than that, I firmly believe I will be a far better writer going into future projects. After all, when I consider now how different and simpler drafting Oath would have been if I’d known the structure model I’m now familiar with, I go half-mad. Months of aimless wandering could have been saved, never mind the sanity and the tab at the liquor store.

When I hit the next project, be it the ground-up rewrite of Bannerman of Mercury or the first draft of Oath of Blood’s sequel, this structure model is the first thing that will happen. Until all the pieces fit tightly, not a keystroke will be laid out on draft one, and there will be no rushing and blundering to plow through the words for the sake of “progress.”

I’m already imagining the panic and whiskey that will save me.

The Folly of Waiting on Destiny

When I’m up to my neck in work, as I am now with revisions for Oath of Blood, I find myself apt to lapse into fits of introspective nostalgia. Today it’s fond childhood memories of watching Sword & Sorcery movies on VHS and on late-night cable. It’s also memories of going to the used bookstore and finding the stacks of paperbacks that, thanks to the Sword & Sorcery boom that had come and gone in the ‘70s and ‘80s, fully opened up my interest in that genre.

For me, there’s little that can come close to the sense of unbridled excitement and wonder that came with discovering such things. Many pizzas were slain, many Mountain Dews quaffed, many a night spent till the wee hours of the morning engaged in the glorious ritual. I look back upon few things with as much fondness as I have for those times.

It of course followed, after so much viewing and reading, that I wanted to create my own worlds. And so I wrote. Since there were writers who made a living doing that kind of thing (or at least who had done it, back before people generally got tired of barbarians in fur diapers), it also stood to reason that I might have a chance at a career as well if I worked hard.

Which is all well and good—unless you screw it up like I did.

At some point I formed an image in my head of how things would go. The details were vague, as details in the plans of teenagers are wont to be, but essentially I would write awesomeness, find a publisher for it, and then commence a sexy adventure in which I spent the rest of my life immersed in both taking in and creating only what I wanted, homework and day jobs be damned.

Unrealistic expectations? Sure. But it was at least some kind of goal to shoot for and generally a more articulate statement of future intent than saying, “I guess I’ll go to college because that’s what you do.”

But somewhere, things stalled out. Maybe it was because I couldn’t fathom the distance between theory and execution, or because I was secretly afraid of failure, or because I went on to college because—hey, college: it’s what you do. Anyhow, the point is that while I envisioned this great writing adventure unfolding, it always remained just that: a vision.

Not a reality. Not even a plan-in-progress. Just a messy daydream that never got off the ground.

So why did I fail, for all my interest in the matter, to take the plunge? I’ve spent a long while pondering this, and in the end I feel I can really only attribute it to a simple and crippling error: I bought into the myth of the so-called writer’s destiny.

It’s an insidious little thing we may all encounter from time to time. Someone who adores our work (or maybe adores it because they adore us) slathers on the praise, tells us how good we are. They tell us we’re born to write and that we’re surely destined to be famous. And if someone else is not there to both dish out a reality check and to guide us, we may start to believe it. To feel it.

And that right there was the cardinal sin of teenage me.

Because I believed it was my immutable destiny to someday become a “real” writer (whatever that is), I felt I didn’t need to strike out on my own and slug it out, improving my skills and finding my niche. If I waited long enough, someone would recognize my genius and then swoop down and brain me with confirmation of the fact, opening up the pathway to greatness.

Except—they didn’t.

The years rolled on. Nothing happened. Hell, for most of them I didn’t even write. I was waiting, I told myself. It wasn’t my time yet. And when my patience with this was finally exhausted, I was no further along the path than I’d been at sixteen or seventeen. I had spent more than a dozen years waiting for the as-yet-unseen Writing Gods to bless me off and give me the sign, and in the meantime, I had done—absolutely nothing.

It came to me that if I’d been writing as hard as I’d been wishing all those years, I’d be phenomenally better. Probably published at least. Maybe even enjoying a little bit of that success I liked to imagine was fated to fall into my lap.

But I wasn’t. I was in a shit job and up to my eyes in crushing student debt. I felt like my life was an utter waste. And I realized in that moment that there is no such thing as a writer’s destiny. It’s a lie we tell ourselves when we don’t want to admit that the road is hard, the journey long.

If I could go back in time and beat one piece of sense into my own adolescent skull, it would be that there is no such thing as a born writer, a destined writer, an inevitable writer. There are stubborn ones, and hardworking ones, and—yes—occasionally lucky ones. But even the luckiest writers have a foundation to stand on, and you don’t get that hanging out, waiting for the action to come to you.

I still kick myself for those squandered years. I think of the enthusiasm that I had for the task as a kid, and then I think of all the years I sat with my thumbs in dark, damp places waiting for—I don’t even know what. I think of my current work, and I feel like there’s a million miles between the energy of then and the dogged persistence of now. I think, too, of what I wouldn’t give to bridge that gap. To have that spark back. To assail the page with youthful exuberance.

But those dozen years are an irredeemable loss. They are gone. Ash and dust on the wind.

And bearing that in mind, I say this to anyone who’s at that same crossroads that confronted me:

Don’t buy into the myth of waiting on your destiny. Avoid it at all costs. If you spend your time waiting for the holy heralds to come, you will wait forever. The road lies open, but you have to set out for yourself. No one will take your hand and coax you. No one will make it easy.

If you want to be a writer, sit your ass down and write. Write like hell and don’t stop.

Everything—everything—else is just set dressing.

Thoughts on “Respectable” Work

This week marked the tenth anniversary of my graduation from the University of Texas. Like all anniversaries, this one has provided me with the opportunity to reflect upon choices I have made, how they have influenced my life, and what value I have extracted from them.

In the main, such discussions, which I have had with everyone from my husband (while walking through the grocery store) to writers from other continents (via the internet) have centered around one clear idea: others’ expectations versus individual dreams and goals. Though I often want to imagine that I am the only one who’s been thus scrutinized, it turns out that there are quite a few folks who struggle with the age old battle of pressure—whether from family, friends, or society in general—to do something “respectable” rather than what truly moves them.

So today, because I owe you a blog post, my loyal horde, and because it’s important, I give you some thoughts on just that.

“When are you going to get a real job?”

“You can’t be serious. I mean, what are you going to do with your degree?”

“That’s nice, but what do you really plan to do with the rest of your life?”

“You know, nobody really makes it writing. Why not be a teacher or maybe an insurance agent?”

I’ve heard all of these before. Every one of them, in some form or another, has been directed at me regarding the (apparently) controversial and public topic of my pursuit of writing as a career goal. Yet they’re not unique to me, and they aren’t unique to writing, either.

What they are, however, is full of shit.

When someone says to me, “Say, Lisa, now that you have that Master’s degree, when are you going to…y’know…go get a real job?” they’re telling me that I embarrass them. I have this damn fool graduate degree that I haven’t used and that cost me too much money, and that’s nice to them—they can brag about it. But the fact that I do whatever work presents itself in the meantime to pay the bills while I focus on my writing rather than chasing an unfulfilling career elsewhere means they can’t use me in conversation the way they want. They’d feel better if I would just go do—whatever—as long as it wouldn’t make them uncomfortable.

But these are the same people who have never supported me in anything I’ve done that wasn’t staid, conventional, and time-testedly boring. I have told them, both in so many words and in nicer ways, to go fuck themselves. They have spluttered and flushed and let the rage they want to spew bulge in their eyes, and I have invited them to kiss my ass.

This has been profoundly liberating, because they are people, not gods, and while they may make much noise, they cannot hurl down the thunder. The worst they can do is remove themselves from my life, and even then, considering how they act—what is the loss in that?

I say all this because I dedicated a dozen years to making people happy. I did as I was expected to do, and I reaped the rewards of debt, misery, and a loss of sense of self.

If you are committed to what you are doing, be it writing, art, or anything else that moves you, do not fall into the trap of craving the acceptance of others. The cup will never be full, no matter how much blood you let into it, and you may rest assured that the hungry imps of disapproval will bleed you dry. Turn the cup over, walk away, be the master of your own fate.

Should you yet feel the sting of those poisonous little doubts that they have introduced regarding whether your goal can be important even when half the world thinks it’s not “real” or “respectable,” consider this example:

One of my favorite writers, Robert E. Howard, often faced this scrutiny. He lived and worked in a tiny Texas oil and ranching town (which really has got no bigger in the intervening decades) in the 1920s and 1930s, and most folks gave him a hard time because he wasn’t doing “honest” work. But  it’s said Howard made more selling his stories to the pulps than the town bank president’s salary, and in the heart of the Great Depression he was able to buy a car with cash money. Still, people harassed him for not doing “real” jobs or “respectable” work.

He tried many. If my memory serves, he worked for a soda fountain, for a department store, for a laundry service, even. He went to business college on his father’s insistence. But Howard persisted at writing, and he broke in—and stayed writing for the rest of his life. And though he died too soon at 30 by his own hand, in the years he did write, he created some of the most memorable characters Fantasy, and specifically Sword & Sorcery, has ever known, Conan the Barbarian among them.

I don’t think Howard ever really knew the impact he had on others, but there are countless writers who owe their inspiration to him and claim him as the fountainhead of their lineage. He had a real and lasting impact, and though many might have faulted him for his chosen vocation, he rose above them.

Maybe none of us will become a modern-day Robert E. Howard, but we can follow his example and rise above those who condemn our efforts. You can be the master of your fate, the captain of your soul.

Do so. And should anyone give you the least bit of a hard time, tell them to go to hell.

Of Deserts and Dead Sea-Bottoms

I am one of those people who finds meaning in ritual. Not necessarily a spiritual or religious kind of ritual—though those can certainly have their merits—but the word at the root sense of its meaning: the repetition of meaningful action. I find these sorts of things, when purposefully done, to have a refreshing and grounding effect on the psyche. They help to clarify things that have become clouded, to clear out the cobwebs that slowly and surely accrete in the corners of our lives.

One of the great mental cleansing rituals to which I subscribe is the vacation, and within the context of vacation, if I am to be traveling, the passing of the long hours with audiobooks. It should come as no surprise, then, that when my husband and I set out this past week for the deserts of West Texas in what was part research trip, part escape from the drudgery of daily life, we passed the time in just that way. Nor should it come as any shock that, being the sort of person I am (and, thankfully, the sort of person he is) we filled those hours with the adventures of Edgar Rice Burroughs‘ first hero, the peerless John Carter of Mars.

That, too, is a bit of a ritual—at least for me. I tend to associate the deserts of the Southwest with Barsoom, and any time I point myself in that direction, I am inclined to touch base with the part of me that finds so much significance in those stories. But I am (of course) getting ahead of myself. As befits the subject, there’s a long story that will make sense of why and how and when all that began for me—and why it still matters today, especially as concerns my own writing life.

Most fans of Edgar Rice Burroughs, and of his Barsoom books in particular, seem to have had the good fortune of discovering them when young. I’ve been told of those fans who, like Carl Sagan, spent ardent night-time hours as youths imploring the night sky to whisk them away to that Mars that should have been, and whose childhoods and spirits were colored by the romanticism and heroics of the tales.

Me? I was not so lucky. There were no dedicated science fiction fans to speak of in my family before I blundered into the genre, and I did not discover Barsoom—or Burroughs at all, for that matter—until I was an adult. Yet I daresay that the discovery, late though it might have been, was nevertheless timely and profound. To it I attribute a great many things, not least of which is the fact that this very blog which you have so graciously deigned to read even exists at all.

Ten years ago, give or take some days, I had finally found my way to the end of my undergraduate degree at the University of Texas. The details thereof do not really bear belaboring here, but suffice it to say that at the end of four years I was no more sure of what I wanted of my life than when I began. I had some vague sense, but like many things the young do and think, it was mostly ill-informed and not well thought out by any stretch of the imagination.

This did not occur to me at the time, however, so as soon as I had wrapped up the pomp and stupidity of graduation, I packed my car with what would fit, dispensed with what would not, and headed out from Austin to the deserts of southwestern New Mexico, where I had family living at the time. The reasons for which I ended up in that part of the country were, as I said, not well considered. To make a very complicated story both short and (mostly) digestible, the whole thing was a magnificent failure, and the winter of 2003 found me at last broke, dejected, and utterly disillusioned with my life.

One thing of which I had an abundance at the time was time itself, and to fill those empty hours I often did what I had always been inclined to do: read. Into my hands thus chanced a copy of A Princess of Mars. The cover painting by Michael Whelan had intrigued me, and as the book was both short and cheap, I figured it could do me no harm. So it became mine, and I sat myself down at the breakfast table one morning with a cup of coffee to see whether it had been money well spent.

The world promptly receded.

By the time I shut the covers and returned to myself, the sun had swung across the sky and lodged in the western hills. My coffee was cold, my breakfast long since forgotten. But I did not care. There, in the roiling heart of my dejected, self-pitying misery I had found something truly wonderful, something which had swept away the blackness of my mood and restored a bright fire to my breast that had been missing for many months. I passed that evening in wistful adoration of the night sky, and when I retired, it was to dreams of deserts and of dead sea-bottoms where one without Terrestrial purpose might find something of meaning in spite of the ways of this world.

Thereafter I sought what other of Carter’s adventures I could find. Regarding audiobooks, it was on a long desert drive shortly thereafter that I discovered cassette copies of A Princess of Mars and The Gods of Mars languishing in a truck stop on the clearance shelf. Until the tapes themselves wore out, they were a considerable part of my driving experience in that part of the world.

In the end, I returned to Texas to try my hand at other things, and though there were dark times in plenty, and though nearly everything for that decade since I left the University of Texas has been a failure, a false start, or at least less than I had hoped for, I have always found a curious kind of balm in Barsoom and in the travails of John Carter.

My training as a scholar tells me I should regard the texts dubiously. At a century old, Princess is fraught with things to make many modern readers flinch—issues of race and class and sex, for instance, and hints of other attitudes that now seem as hopelessly anachronistic as the setting itself: a dying Mars crawling with canals and dotted with the crumbling ruins of a bygone age of splendor.

Yet I cannot bring myself to consign Carter or Burroughs or Barsoom to the trash heap of literary ignominy, though all the very expensive parchments on my wall may resound with the displeasure of those towered spaces where they were earned. No—there is more to such stories, at least for me, than any problems they might present a modern scholar reading them through the fractured kaleidoscope of a modern critical lens.

Simple nostalgia? Perhaps, for these stories even now certainly still possess the power to make me grin like the fool I was when I found them. Yet also perhaps not entirely nostalgia. Though I have the eyes to see problems where problems exist, and while I can acknowledge them when and where I find them, the good far outweighs the questionable even now. The stories remain meaningful for me, and I can still cheer for Carter afresh each time I read.

I have other favorite writers, too, let there be no doubt: I love the dark, barbaric splendor of Robert E. Howard, and I keep frequent company with my favorite of C.L. Moore’s dark visions and Leigh Brackett’s hard-bitten anti-heroes. I have even been known to read a story or two on rare occasion that contains not a single sword fight or exchange of blaster-fire.

It is Burroughs, though, whom I credit with keeping the home fires of heroism lit for me across the stormy decade since I found him. In Barsoom especially I still find reason to believe that there are, as a matter of fact, things worth fighting for, goals worth pursuing at all costs, people worth challenging a very world to find. Though the whole fabric of my universe can go (and often has gone) utterly to hell, I still find refuge in those dead sea-bottoms and what they promise.

They are a tonic for the soul.

So it is that when I find my spirit needs refreshing, it is to Barsoom I return. And so it was that when the husband and I packed the car and swung the compass to the west on this most recent trip, we took Barsoom with us. The effect, at least for me, was as I had hoped. As the miles of highway rolled beneath us and green gave way to red and brown and ocher, I felt that old heroic impulse stir.

I will never be a John Carter; that much is certain. It is also clear to me that I will never be an Edgar Rice Burroughs. Even if I should achieve any degree of success, I will stand merely as a supplicant in that long shadow for however long I may live and write. Yet because of both I can still find it in me to believe in what I might be—and to challenge the world to that end.

This much is enough for me.

On My “Becoming” a Writer

One thing I find myself asked on at least a semi-regular basis is how I came to be a writer. Now, it should be borne in mind that, for the most part, this question is asked most often by people with a genuine interest in taking up writing themselves, and I in no way intend to knock them for that.

However, it’s also asked by other people who mean it in a different way. In those cases, this seemingly innocent inquiry amounts to code for “Who said you could be a writer? Who made you into one, and what were their credentials?”

Which, in and of itself, doesn’t seem so bad at first. But dig at the meaning a bit deeper, and the warts start to show. If only somebody other than yourself has the power to “make” you a writer, that strips every ounce of power and self-determination you have and gives it to someone else.

It means that every moment you spend writing up to that magic moment, you’re nothing better than a wannabe. A hack. A fake.  But the truth is nobody can “make” you a writer. No title, no contract, no expensive degree has the power to make you something you already are.

Yet lots of people chase that blessing from on high as though they aren’t allowed to put their hands to the keys without it. And this kind of thinking can have a profound effect on the mind. I know this because, for a great meany years, I let it rule me.

When I was younger, I blasted away at the keys—typewriter and computer—with abandon. I thought of nothing but creating the most interesting, entertaining stories I could. Granted, those yarns were often flawed, but they were mine, and I was firm in my faith that they had value because they were fun.

Then, somewhere along the way, I lost that. I’m still not sure when, but sometime between 18 and 25 I got it in my head that I wouldn’t be a “real” writer till I made a major sale. So I diligently sent out my stuff. And I waited. Rejections came, boilerplate-grim and unfeeling, and I despaired, as young people do. Then came the bright idea that if I was having trouble, it was because I didn’t know how to write, and a creative writing degree would help fix that.

Then I got to campus.

If you said I probably should have done my research before, you’d be right. But again: the young are seldom afflicted with a excess of horse sense. I presumed that, in the eyes of a professional writer, all writing was more or less created equal. Of course, I was wrong.

I write genre. It’s a fundamental element of who I am. So when I was told to my face that my new institution didn’t “do genre” because it was—whole cloth—inferior writing, I was furious. In a broad sweep, the thing that moved the blood in my veins was condemned by an Ivory Tower dilettante whose approval I thought I craved.

But I bit down on my anger and carried on because I wanted so desperately to be real, even if that meant abandoning my projects for stories full of urban ascetics pondering the grimness of postmodern life through the lens of coffee, irony, and other pseudo-intellectual hoop tricks.

Classmates submitted stories that had all the forward momentum of a glacier and the wit of an ambling goldfish—and received high praise and higher grades. I shook my head. Somehow—this!—was better than what I had to say simply because it wanted for sword fights and starships.

Now, I won’t claim that everything that came from my mind was good during that period. An astounding quantity of it was pure shit. But I will advance that it was no more or less shit than the stuff to which I was subjected in class—excepting that one pesky detail: it was genre.

In the end, I did not finish the writing degree. I switched to literature and eventually, after a handful of other false starts, got an MA in Rhetoric.

To this day I despise any story that smacks of navel-gazing, of intellectualism, of mordant self-absorption. It provokes a visceral reaction, direct from my animal mind, and it will always be a reminder of the sanctimonious stench of tea and tweed jackets and sure silver whiskers.

But here, as they say, is the strange part.

In the midst of all this hell, when I was neck-deep in grad school for reasons unknown even to me, I received an email from a complete stranger named Jeff. He had read the first chapters of my abortive Sword and Planet novel Bannerman of Mercury, which I had posted up on a blog and, in the haze of graduate work, forgotten.

For reasons still unknown to me, he liked it, and he invited me to participate in an anthology.

Immediately, I was torn: on the one hand, here was proof that my stuff had value. On the other, that devilish voice in the back of my head sipped its tea and whispered lies: It’s all fake. It won’t make you real. Only I can make you real.

But I was tired of that niggling little voice, and for once my stubbornness was well-placed. I wrote the story anyway, jamming it in between papers and exams and work. I barely remember writing it, but when the book came out, it got some very pleasant treatment along with the rest of the stories.

I was astounded. I was chagrined. I did a lot of thinking fueled by cheap bourbon.

I’d gone back to school to be a better writer, yet I’d written no more than 15,000 words of fiction in the years since—half of which was the story for Jeff—all because I’d bought the notion that an oligarch in a tower determined the worth of my writing. I’d let that seep into my bones and rot the marrow inside. I’d come away from all that expense and all that anguish believing I couldn’t write.

And yet—and yet—

Somewhere out there was a small group of readers who enjoyed my words. They enjoyed them not because they were carefully vetted by a major publisher or lauded by critics or even good. They liked them because they were fun. In all the hell, I’d forgotten: that was the point.

It always had been.

And so here we are.