C h a z z W r i t e s . c o m

Write and publish with love and fury.

Books as Milestones of Life

I just started reading Quantum Night by Robert J. Sawyer, one of my top three favorite Canadian writers of science fiction. In the Acknowledgments, he mentions that he hadn’t published anything for three years due to the loss of his younger brother to cancer. That sad note got me thinking about my life’s milestones for reading and writing. Reading is an escape and a reward for me. Sometimes it’s a job. Through it all, I associate certain books with my development as a person. I wonder if you feel the same.

Farmer Boy, by Laura Ingalls Wilder, made me grateful not to be born earlier in history. I didn’t think I could do better than the Hardy Boys Series as a kid. Later, Ian Fleming fed macho dreams of becoming a killer spy. Growing up in rural Nova Scotia, I couldn’t wait to escape to big cities. Books and movies fueled my teenage dreams of doing something different, of being someone different. I wanted a life that offered more choices and I was sure that, somehow, the life of a writer would make that dream come true.

A boy trained by Martians in Stranger in a Strange Land taught me more about theme than any dry book report at school. That book also taught me that fiction can reach beyond being merely entertaining. Stranger in a Strange Land is about how to view the world through clear, innocent eyes. 

Hanging out in Spider Robinson’s Callahan’s Crosstime Saloon taught me science fiction doesn’t have to take itself too seriously. I met Spider a few times when we both lived in Halifax. Nice guy. He is his fiction. He tells fun, optimistic and humane tales. (Callahan’s Law: “Shared pain is lessened; shared joy, increased — thus do we refute entropy.”) Optimism isn’t quite my thing but I do try to hit hopeful notes or else, what’s the point? Even my apocalyptic stories have a lot of jokes.

In my first year of university, I enrolled in a survey course about the philosophies of history. It was like a year devoted to Wikipedia, speeding from the Bible and Gilgamesh to Dante to interpreting the art of the Renaissance and well beyond. I learned a lot. The experience also gave me a humbling inkling of how much I didn’t know.

I read a lot of American authors in university. Holed up in my dorm, I had so much time to read. I wish I had that kind of time now. Norman Mailer’s Tough Guys Don’t Dance, Mickey Spillane’s I, the Jury and Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood made me think I could write killer thrillers one day. (I did and do.)

At 20, The Way of the Peaceful Warrior felt like a revelation. Seven years later, it would feel trite. I couldn’t sense the magic anymore. I’d like to go back to enjoy Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint and Goodbye, Columbus. However, it’s a rare book that I read twice with the same level of enjoyment. You can only read Fight Club once for the first time.

At 22, I moved to Toronto. I stayed with a friend for my first month in the city. I should have devoted all my time to the job and apartment hunt. All I wanted to do was read The Stand and It. And then everything else by Stephen King.

Reading Bright Lights, Big City, Ransom and Story of My Life, I wanted Jay McInerney’s career. American Psycho made me think Bret Easton Ellis’s fame would be fun, or at least interesting. Working for a publisher, I sold American Psycho to bookstores when it came out. (Oh, the arguments we had about freedom of expression. Some of those dainty cocktail parties came close to devolving into a melee.)

Though I’d trained in journalism, my education about writing novels began with William Goldman. I was on the 28th floor of my apartment building on a summer night. I thought I was safely in the dénouement. Goldman ambushed me with a killer last line. I threw that book across the room as I shouted, “He got me again!” You know Goldman wrote The Princess Bride and many famous movies. Please read his novels. He’s the most underrated American novelist still living.

Working at Harlequin, I read a lot of manuscripts, both vetting and proofreading them. One romance about three lottery winners stands out in my mind as a really great story. Honestly, I’ve pretty much forgotten the rest of that year and a half of romances and men’s adventure novels except for this one awful line: “She bounced ideas like balls off the walls of her mind.”

Unhappy and angry at a rude co-worker, I began writing a short story. It was pretty much a silly revenge fantasy. A quarter of the way through I tore it up and threw it away. I didn’t want to be that guy. I gave up on all writing for years. Depressed and frustrated, I didn’t dream of becoming Jay McInerney anymore. At 28, it was too late to be a Boy Wonder. I told myself it was all too late. Find something else to obsess over, Rob. I still had no idea I would write thirty books by the age of 53.

I went back to school. My reading diet was non-fiction, entirely medical. Anatomy suggested to me there might be a god. Pathology told me there had to be a devil, too. I learned a lot but read nothing for pleasure. Coming out the other end of that training felt like coming off a starvation diet. I got back to reading voraciously. I started writing again, too. I did some freelance work writing magazine articles, columns, and speeches. I also submitted short stories to contests and won a few. (Several of those stories wound up in one of my first self-publishing efforts, Murders Among Dead Trees.)

A long trip across Canada made me appreciate fiction in audiobook form. I’ve read Stephen King’s On Writing once but I’ve listened to it twice. I wouldn’t have enjoyed A Song of Ice and Fire if I hadn’t stuck it in my head via audio. (Too much heraldry for me to slog through on the page. However, the audio performance is truly a master class in voice acting. Audio was my way in when the printed word felt like work.)

I got something out of the books I didn’t like, too. The pace of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale was too slow for me but I loved Oryx & Crake. I don’t write off authors simply because they wrote one book that wasn’t for me. I love Kurt Vonnegut’s work and the man so much I made him a character in Wallflower, my time travel novel.

I’ve read almost everything Vonnegut wrote but I couldn’t get into Galapagos. Sometimes you’ll see pissy proclamations that promise, “I’ll never read anything by this writer again!” Okay, but that suggests that might be a reader who wants the same book over and over again. (If you want to go deeper on this, I recommend the latest Cracked podcast about fandom, both positive and toxic. It’s a great and funny episode.)

I make time for reading because I love it. As a writer, reading is part of my job, too. The joy of good fiction is that it makes a movie in my head. One Christmas when I was very young, I received Chitty Chitty Bang Bang by Ian Fleming. As a snowstorm raged, I crawled into bed with that book and a tall canister of Smarties. I ate the candy and read about an inventor, his children, and their magical car. I felt warm and safe and transported reading that book. Every time I read or write, I’m trying to get back to that same feeling, that retreat from a raging world.

Our world often feels broken and rageful now. It’s a relief to step back into fiction and get shelter from the storm. My teenage dream came true, by the way. I’m writing full-time. With a few adjustments and compromises, I’m pretty close to being the person I meant to be.

And now I offer shelter.

~ Robert Chazz Chute just released a new apocalyptic trilogy called AFTER Life. Check out all his books at AllThatChazz.com.

 

Filed under: Books, My fiction, publishing, robert chazz chute, Science Fiction, Writers, writing, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The Writer Rejection Scam

Stephen King signature.

Image via Wikipedia

Sometimes I hear writers take pride in the number of rejections in their file cabinets. The idea is that they compete with writer friends to pile up the rejection slips. The person with the most number of rejections by a certain date…er…”wins.” Riiiight. I don’t know how this myth got started but it’s a popular one.

It’s not that this is a totally useless strategy (and I’ll review the advantages in a moment) but first, let’s burst the rejection scam bubble:

If you are writing fast without second drafts or third or umpteenth drafts in order to pump up your submission rate, you’re losing. More rejection slips? That’s no measure of how close you are to publication. If that were true, the worst writers in the world submitting the most illiterate crap across the planet are all just on the cusp of bestsellerdom.

If you get a lot of rejection slips that don’t actually include personal notes on how the writing didn’t work for the reviewer, you’re losing.

It’s also very hard to get any personal notes on your work, by the way. Many agents and editors don’t believe in detailing the reasons for rejection. There are so many variables to evaluate writing that are idiosyncratic and peculiar to the editor, it doesn’t profit you to hear they rejected you for subjective reasons.

Neither does it profit them to take the time to give you a heads up that you were a near miss. Many editors have so many submissions on their desk that they really don’t want to encourage more people to resubmit. The mailbox will be full tomorrow regardless and your persistence is expected without free coaching and hand holding. (And just because you submitted a manuscript, no editor owes you free manuscript evaluations, feedback or reasons for rejection.)

If you’re clearing an alley of bad guys, use the twelve gauge with the .00 load. With manuscript submission, however, scatter shot is less effective than picking and aiming at your targets.

Submit everywhere without careful thought on how to target your market? Then you’re losing. It’s time you’re losing primarily, though the loss of confidence and self-esteem can’t be glossed over. It takes a lot of ego to put yourself out there, so choose carefully how you put yourself out there. Artists need all the narcissistic hope and unreasonable aspirations of a lottery player.

If you’re submitting everywhere in the slim hope that an agent or editor will take the time to take you under their wing, build you a nest and show you where you went wrong with your flightless novel, you’re losing. When dealing with mass submissions, editors and agents get impatient with bad writing, or even writing that isn’t bad but doesn’t suit them. I’ve seen it personally. Behind closed doors there’s even a lot of laughter at published writers’ work that’s bound for publication. (Oh, yeah, that’s right! I said it! I’ve seen it and endured it!)

If it’s feedback you’re after, alpha readers, beta readers, hired editors, writing and critique groups will get you more feedback than can be fit on a tiny rejection slip. Plus, you’ll be getting much more careful evaluation.

People going through a slush pile aren’t there to help the writer. They are there to evaluate whether your manuscript is a good bet for a business deal that suits their purposes and interests.

Much is made of Stephen King‘s pile of rejection slips. I think too much has been made of the rejection slips impaled on that spike in King’s attic. It’s not that some magic kicks in once you hit a special number of slips. It is, instead, what the rejection slips symbolize: sweat equity and time invested in improving craft. I’m not suggesting you submit fewer manuscripts per se. I’m saying, offer your work wisely.

A higher number of rejection slips is not an achievement to be celebrated any more than failing to complete every race you enter makes you a better runner. It might make you a noble aspirant. Or maybe you’re too bull-headed to train properly and learn. Either possibility has validity.

It was all the writing and reading King did while the slips piled up that mattered

It was the feedback he got from a newspaper editor that mattered

That editor sat down with King and went over a story about a high school basketball game. He showed King how to tighten his writing. A little mark up, some rearranging and red pen work et voilà!: The magic of editing improved the writer’s craft. (If you haven’t read Stephen King’s On Writing yet…well, just go do that and thank me later.) 

What are the advantages of piling up rejection slips? If you need to compete with a friend to get you to write, I don’t see anything wrong with that. Everybody needs some gentle  motivation (or a kick in the bum) sometimes. (Okay, maybe you don’t ever need a writing crutch, but that makes you an inhuman freak, Trollope!)

If you get personal feedback and encouragement from editors and agents, that’s a good sign you’re on the right track. If you just get a note or two though, that doesn’t constitute a trend you should necessarily heed. Editors and agents have their own agendas that may reflect very little on your writing and you’ll never know what’s in their minds.

Don’t rush to produce writing at the expense of quality. As Truman Capote said of Jack Kerouac‘s On the Road, “That’s not writing. That’s typing!”  (Granted, Capote could be a bitch and lots of people like On the Road.)

Still, getting a big pile of rejection slips is not the end game. Writing extensively (and well), reading broadly (and well) and getting righteous feedback will get you where you want to go.

Yes, I know: Rejection is part of the process. But neither should rejection be fetishized and assumed useful. Some lucky few writers are a hit right out of the gate. Are they still bad writers because they haven’t “paid their dues” and “jumped through hoops”?

That thick skin some say you’re supposed to develop through rejection would be used more effectively if you  got a manuscript evaluation or joined a critique group. (And thick skin is another thing that’s overrated and fetishized. Thick skin helps you take writing advice, yes. But when the reviews come in and someone writes something nasty in a comment about your book —your baby!—on Amazon, veteran author or newbie, you’ll be just as pissed.

Now, how do you target your submissions to likely editors and agents? 

Well, that’s a post for another day. Another day that will come soon.

Stay tuned. 

Filed under: Books, manuscript evaluation, publishing, Writers, writing tips, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

On Truman Capote Love and A-Team Hate

Truman Capote once said of Jack Kerouac’s On The Road, “That’s not writing! That’s typing!” Yeah, he was a real bitch sometimes. However:

1. I admire In Cold Blood very much,

2. found his biography tragic yet inspiring,

3. loved both the Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Toby Young movies

4. and yearn for the good old days when a flamboyantly gay and genuinely wild character could be high on a nationally syndicated talk show and make Dick Cavett squirm.  

They don’t build literary figures like Truman Capote anymore.

BONUS:

As Hannibal said, “I love it when a plan comes together.”* **

*If you catch the old reference, your childhood was wasted, too.

**If you catch the new reference, you’ve recently wasted a couple of hours at the movie theater.

Filed under: Writers, , ,

Winner of Writer's Digest's 2014 Honorable Mention in Self-published Ebook Awards in Genre

The first 81 lessons to get your Buffy on

More lessons to help you survive Armageddon

"You will laugh your ass off!" ~ Maxwell Cynn, author of Cybergrrl

Available now!

Fast-paced terror, new threats, more twists.

An autistic boy versus our world in free fall

Suspense to melt your face and play with your brain.

Action like a Guy Ritchie film. Funny like Woody Allen when he was funny.

Jesus: Sexier and even more addicted to love.

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