Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Vanquishing the Gottamonster and the Nevergudy Nuff

The next person who asks me "So what's wrong? Why haven't you been published?" gets a free smack upside the head. After eighteen years and a lot of writing, my answer is, "It doesn't matter. Stop asking and go away."

What is publication but the act of seeking some stranger's validation that you are a writer?

Pause here. This is not a blog about making fine wine of my sour grapes. I still have a goal to accomplish. This is about refining that goal. You can write in order to be published, or, you can entertain someone with a good story. The difference is subtle, but oh, so important, especially in a world where all you need is a registered domain name and basic computer skills to publicize your work.

Writing can happen in the absence of publication. What a liberating thought! I can write whatever I want, as badly as I want, because you ain't never gonna read it! If it's any good, I'll edit it, change the names to protect the innocent (and/or the guilty), and then I'll let you read it.

So, in the spirit of taking a long, healthy step backwards, I've concocted 10 survival tactics for myself as the unpublished author - and who knows, maybe they'll help you too.

1. Banish the Gottamonster. This animal gorges itself on your guilt. When you're not writing, you've "gotta write." When you're writing, you've "gotta write better than that." Banish "I gotta get published" from your creative vocabulary. You've "gotta" go to the bathroom from time to time. You've "gotta" eat. You've "gotta" sleep eventually. You don't "gotta" get published any more than Rebecca Black's "gotta" make a make a new music video. Publication is a want, not a need.

2. Starve the Nevergudy Nuff. This parasite thrives on your despair and self-doubt, and it will do anything to stay alive, even if it means lying to you. Quickly turn on him and say "It doesn't matter! Go away!" Or, take him to the book store and show him all the other authors who were Nevergudy Nuff and still got published (you know, the ones that have wooden characters, bloated narration, and eye-popping logic errors). He'll choke on his own indignation and pass out. Or, you can befriend him by patting him on the head and saying "there there, it's okay." After all, you're writing for the love of a story, and Being Gudy Nuff doesn't count. He'll be so confused by your self-assurance that he'll fall down and forget what he was doing.

3. Read stuff you loved as a kid. When you were small, you said, "Tell me a story," and that's what authors did. It's so simple, isn't it? Something appealed to you, and something they wrote satisfied. Go back and find out what it was.

4. Remember your priorities. You're not here to tell a "scenery" or an "angst". You're here to tell a story. Everything else should revolve around that. When you edit, it's the same thing: the scenery, the angst, the really-awesome-image-I-just-described - everything that you write must propel the story forward. (Here, an affectionate nod to both Tobin Elliott and Michael Lorenson. I do listen.)

5. Make a muse. There needs to be a story-teller and an audience. Imagine: you're sitting under a shady tree on a riverside rock, late in spring. Facing you is someone who is awestruck by what's happening in your story. Maybe your companion is a child, maybe a young adult, maybe an older person. Maybe they remind you of someone; maybe they're a character from another book you wrote. Whenever you pause, they say, "Really? And then what happens?" Here, I'm going to go against the mainstream and suggest that you simply make up this person. You're a writer, after all - you should be able to create an imaginary friend who may or may not agree with you; they may have a sarcastic streak, but they should always be enthusiastic about what you have to say. If they lose interest in your story, I'll bet you buckets of money the story itself is uninteresting. But if you write for someone real, you may lose your story - and your creativity - if they grow up and move on, leaving you and your stories behind. What would happen to Peter Pan if his Lost Boys grew up? And just look what happened to Puff the Magic Dragon! Real or imagined, you need a muse, because without an audience, a storyteller is nothing but a lonely old booger sitting in the corner talking to himself. (Go on, tired soul, click the link. I'll still be here when you get back.)

6. Surround yourself with readers. Surrounding yourself with published writers is like one used car dealer asking business advice of the car dealership next door. No matter how friendly they are, how supportive they are, how helpful and full of sound advice they are, regardless, other writers are your competition. You will always measure yourself against them. So long as you are unpublished, you will think of yourself as less clever than they are; even when you are published, they'll still be better than you because they've been published longer. Stop that! You're feeding the Gottamonster and the Nevergudy Nuff! Yes, learn from them, yes seek advice from other writers (published or otherwise), but for sanity's sake, for every writer you know, meet three readers, to balance "we want" against "you should." Besides, wouldn't it make sense to hear what the customer wants, before stocking your store? Be aware of what's out there, and learn what it is that draws the reader to them. Hear it directly from the reader.

7. Listen to stories around the dinner table. A couple of months ago, over a cup of tea, my Uncle David told me about how he saw a locally well-known homeless man out on the street holding up a picture frame. There was nothing in the frame, except his own head and shoulders. He would stop and look out at the world through the frame. People crossed the street to get away from him, and he would laugh at them. But what makes this story is that my uncle went up to him and asked him about the picture frame. When was the last time you went up to a crazy-looking homeless person and engaged him in a conversation? Do you know anyone who would? Character study, people! This is where story-lings are hatched! Parachute down from your ivory tower and listen.

8. Watch your language. "I need to work on this story." "Another plot hole? Great, more work I have to do." "This needs even more work than I thought." It took a really long time to realize that writing had become "work." Remember, writer: in your world, the words you use become reality. As for me, because writing had become a job, I was therefore working full-time (paid) plus part-time (unpaid), for a sum total of no-time-left-over. Yet all the hoity-toities told me, if I wanted to succeed, I had to approach writing with a solid work ethic - therefore, if I wasn't getting published, I wasn't working hard enough (and boy, was the Gottamonster getting fat). But I didn't need any more work! Especially since it wasn't earning anything and it wasn't doing the dishes. So you know what I say? Stuff it. From now on, what I practice is "regular playtime." I'm going to play with characters and plot and do something totally outrageous and unexpected, and if I need something to shake up the story, maybe I'll even have someone streaking across the field wearing nothing but his hand and a great big grin.

9. Highlight the good stuff. Oh, dear writer, I know thee well. It's editing season somewhere. In one hand, you have a red pen, and you're underlining, scratching, scribbling, even ripping through the paper in your efforts to expunge badness from your writing; in the other hand, you have your aching forehead. For the computer-age author, your pencil case is full of delete buttons, backspaces, and CTRL-A + Delete. Stop that high school stuff right now.

Whatever happened to props for a job well done? Why can't we give ourselves check marks for awesome sentence structure, or smiley faces when the thing we wrote made us laugh? Go out right now, buy a stack of dinosaur stickers and put one somewhere on every page, so that when you go back to delete stuff, you remember what to save. If you're virtual, then use highlight functions, memos, clip art and sound bites of wild applause. (Just remember to remove them again when you're ready to submit.)

10. Validate yourself. What's with this whole "I so want to be published" thing anyhow? How many times have we been told to stop using passive verbs? And don't try to mask your declaration with some "I will be published" hocus pocus - it's still the passive voice. Instead, commit to short, concrete, active thoughts, like "I shall write," and "I am writing!" and "I will send this off to a publishing house/agent/magazine/contest before X-date". It's healthier than waiting around for people to do something to you.

Repeat after me: "Published or not, I am still a writer. As long as I write for the joy of a story, I am still a writer. I need no one else to validate this for me."

Writing is all the proof you need to show that you're a writer, but it's the audience that gives the story purpose, and it's the audience that gives you a reason to write. The final step is getting that story out to the audience - and it's this hope will carry you through the drought of non-publication.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Returning to Sherwood

Weeks have gone by since I’ve written anything; months have gone by since I’ve written anything worth writing about. But it feels as though it’s been years since I’ve written something I enjoyed.

There was a time when I could hardly wait to finish work or school. I felt like I was seeping stories – as if the ideas were springing forth like a sudden and profound nosebleed, and the only way to keep from making a mess was by pinning the words betwixt pen and paper.

Even when the writing was sloppy and the story at its weakest, there was something utterly appealing about the characters. Each time I sat down to write, it was like I was coming home to a private inn, inside my own head. Here, brawling pirates laughed alongside merry-making kings; film-noir detectives played pranks on interstellar explorers; and even the most brooding of soul-sucking vampires could lift his earthenware mug and clack it against that of his neighbour. I may not have been one of them, but I was heartily welcome.

Fiction or no, I was witness to their lives and their loves and their practical jokes.

In some way, I felt obligated to write down their stories before they were gone forever. And I loved it.

But something, somewhere along the line, has changed.

Recently, I’d been reading The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood, by Howard Pyle. Periodically, I’d sigh at the descriptions of the English countryside as it unfolded spring leaves, or mellowed under the summer sun, or crisped in autumn’s frost. I smiled at the hijinks of Little John when he was dressed up as a monk, and I laughed aloud at Robin Hood’s embarrassment when he had the stuffing knocked out of him – a feat witnessed by some of his merriest men, who leaned against their staves and snickered up their sleeves.

At the end of it, I didn’t want to leave. I wanted to lose myself in the clean and scented Sherwood Forest, but the door was closed and we were bid adieu. And even though I can pick this book up again at leisure, I believed the author when he advised his beloved reader that, the book being finished, we were now obliged to part ways and leave Sherwood behind us. My heart broke when the story was done.

More than anything else, to me this is a story of good people and less-good people – because even the Sheriff of Nottingham and the greedy Bishop of Hereford have a sense of humour – and it’s about kindness and cleverness. It’s about goodness.

Once upon a time, when I wrote, I could hide in the rafters of a cottar’s hut in fictional Allua and breathe in the scents of roasted breadnuts. I could taste the spindlefruit pie, the one garnished with gentlewhite leaves. I could even sample some of the cold and crystal-clean fa’ood cider while screaming urchins ran amok around the table, much to their parents’ mixed delight and chagrin. I could step outside, blinking against the crimson glare of an evening sun as it splayed its dusty rays between the barred shadows of green and black trees. I could watch yellow-white grain bow in scalloped waves as a mild summer breeze combed through the rows with invisible fingers, and I could freely fill my lungs with the savoury air.

And as I wrote one fresh page after another, I snickered at the pranks between king and knight, and laughed at the good-natured squabbling between unlikely friends. I cheered when my harassed champion rose to his feet with growing power and righteous indignation. And I wept when I overheard the lullabies as mighty heroes sang their dying children to sleep.

There was a time when they were as real to me as anyone in this world. This world exuded light, sound, smell and touch; characters interacted as dynamically and loudly in my head as shoppers in a real-world mall on Boxing Day.

There was a time when I cared about my characters, and about my readers. I would use one to broadcast a sense of life and goodness to the other. I would follow in Pyle’s footsteps, and make a new Robin Hood. And in the pursuit of the goodness in fictional characters, I found it in real life.

But there seems to be a wide and subtle interlude between Then and Now; Then, life and writing were one and the same; Now, my writing holds no delight. Then, to stop writing was like holding my breath; Now, it feels like an empty and pointless labour.

And it isn’t just writing, either. It’s like something in me has died, sometime between Then and Now – something delicate, precious and fleeting. This half-remembered thing once cared, and was aware, and sought to soothe the pain of others with spontaneous joy and bold adventure.

This morning, perhaps inspired by Howard Pyle’s lyrical prose, I thought, “I have become as soft as a dull broadsword, useful to none but as a bludgeon.”

Without knowing it, I think Pyle reached out and grabbed all of us – those of us adults who were paying attention, at least – and told us why we wept and sighed at the thought of Sherwood Forest. It’s because we’ve grown up, and the world has changed us.

Throughout the story, right up to the very last chapters, Robin Hood was a man full of kindness and good humour. He had killed and repented, it’s true; but despite his guilt (or because of it), he had become a gentle man, passionately in love with his world and his freedom in it; and his esprit-de-vie was infectious. He shamed the greedy without stripping them of their dignity; the good, he set free. His was the laugh of an utterly carefree, but caring, man, and despite his ever-ready weapons and skills, his hand was always stretched forth to help, to heal or to thwart, whichever was needed at the time.

Until the end.

“Now, had Robin Hood been as peaceful as of old, everything might have ended in smoke, as other such ventures had always done before; but he had fought for years under King Richard, and was changed from what he used to be.” – Howard Pyle.

He’d had the wise-child beaten out of him in the Crusades – or, more likely, under the weight of another man’s authority. He had succumbed to reality. This parenthetical thought – that our Robin Hood was no more that was what made me cry. Can you imagine our brash swashbuckler trudging into battle with broadsword and blood-soaked helm, with ragged, smelly and loud common soldiers at his side? Can you imagine him, slashing and hacking and murdering for the hollow glory of another man?

Robin Hood came home a changed man, and it broke his heart to know he no longer fit in Sherwood Forest. Killing had come easily, and many men – friends and foes both – died because of it.

Yet, for us, this doesn’t have to be the end. So long as we live, the story goes on.

What has fallen dormant can come alive again; what has faded can be painted afresh; and while we may have left Sherwood Forest, we need only retrace our steps back to the Greenwood Tree, blow the bugle three times and live there again, free and alive.

I need only to find the way back.