Being green (with youth, with envy)

When I was stressed out about my schoolwork and wanted to take a break this semester, I started re-reading the Neapolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante. When I first read them in 2018, I read them faster than I’d read pretty much any book in the past few years. I couldn’t stop thinking about them. I loved (and still love) the books so much I’m trying to emulate the narrator’s voice in writing exercises in my journal. I recommend them at every possible moment. I evangelize these books so hard.

And I feel like the novels are a cleverly-disguised grab bag of ideas; everyone finds something in there that’s tailor-made for them. Based on the Goodreads reviews, readers grasp the intricacy and complexity of the novels, but they also subtly highlight the defining quality that held the books together for them, whether it’s the strong connection to a place, the intensity of the central female friendship, or the turbulent political atmosphere that’s more explicit in the later books.

For me, what holds the story together is the narrator, Elena Greco, and not just because the books stay in her point of view. I feel that I am Elena, especially during her early adult years. Her relationship with her mother is tense and rife with conflict, but also contains moments of affection. Education is her way of advancing her status, but when she does succeed in that new arena, she is still dragged down by an intense self-doubt. And then, probably the characteristic I felt the closest to most of all: Writing eventually becomes the lens through which she sees the world.

In the novels, Elena Greco publishes her first book after graduating from university, around the age of 22.

For me, I have not yet experienced that kind of success.

Throughout the past few years, I’ve absorbed all kinds of advice on writing and publishing. (I’ve even sometimes dispensed my own, somewhat meager, advice on the former.) And there is a certain kind of combo advice and motivational speech that published authors dispense when asked to give some words to the aspiring: “Never give up.” “I was rejected a hundred times before I published my first piece.” “You never know if the thousandth attempt is going to be the lucky one.” Et cetera. And I feel like I have taken this advice to heart. I have my rejections, and I have even flaunted them in a way (i.e., occasionally in my Instagram story where it will disappear in 24 hours). But it is still hard to take sometimes, especially when so many success stories seem to emphasize youth and vitality.

I am 26 years old now. This coming week, I’ll be turning 27. I’m still laughably, sickeningly young, and yet also worried that the youth card will be revoked soon. Who cares if I publish? I didn’t do it fast enough.

When I was 21, I had my first ever short story accepted by a literary magazine at my university. I was taking an introductory creative writing class while studying abroad in Australia, and the first story I had workshopped was the one I decided to submit, on a bit of a whim, the day before the deadline. A few months later, I ended up getting an acceptance, when I was expecting a rejection.

That early success went to my head in much the same way that Elena’s first invitation to submit a short piece to a magazine unleashed a torrent of daydreaming about writing. I started having grand ideas of submitting somewhere every month, of getting story after story out into the world. But, as you can see from my somewhat paltry publication record (at the time of posting this), that hasn’t been the case.

Here’s what I didn’t take into account in the throes of my immature ambition: I did a lot of writing to get that first story to a good place. I had written three different stories before stumbling on the one I would eventually take to my class for feedback. I edited. A lot. I sat at my desk for hours copying it by hand, making tweaks to it as I went, then spent more time marking it up, then typing it again, tweaking it again. I did this because early in the semester I had the energy for it. My other stories submitted to the class later on didn’t get that same attention. And it’s no wonder they ended up not going anywhere.

Since that first success, I’ve grown a little more realistic about writing and publishing. I’ve stopped seeing my twenties as this benchmark, this window of time when I can launch my career as a writer. And I’ve also become more familiar with the things I personally need to do to get my stories to a good place. Write. Rewrite. Edit. Become intimately familiar with every word of a story. Step back and give it time. All things that writers before me have said.

I revisited the Neapolitan Novels a lot this semester because I had a lot on my plate. I was in a Fiction workshop, a Poetry workshop, and a Science Fiction class that had a workshop component; I co-taught an undergraduate Creative Writing class; and I also took a class on climate change. I have felt euphoria in my writing and intense self-doubt on re-reading it. In those moments of self-doubt, I returned to a book I admired. On my second full read-through of the series, I am finding so much more in it than I had initially.

And this is the only way I know how to ripen from green to a full-flushed color: Reading and re-reading. Becoming familiar with every word of the stories (and people and places and experiences) I love.

Stepping back and giving it time.

Author Toolbox Blog Hop: Duotrope and the resume of failures

I regularly review my resume about once a month, not because I’m always actively looking for a job, but because it’s generally a good idea to keep it updated. My job responsibilities might have changed, or I might have some professional achievement that I want to put on there. And every time I do this review and update, I also think about the things that I want to put on there.

I want to have more publications to list, I want to add more soft and hard skills related to writing, I want more relevant experience to show how my professional life has developed and changed. And when I think about the things I want on my resume, I think about the work that I need to put in behind the scenes to get there.

Alongside the resume I regularly update, I have another document that gets a similar treatment that’s almost like my resume’s shadow. It’s my resume of failures, and it’s a concept I came across a few years ago from scientist Melanie Stefan, Ph.D1. The title is pretty self-explanatory: This is a document of my rejections, not just from literary magazines, but from other things like colleges, fellowships, and other things I’ve applied for and didn’t get. There’s the saying—”You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take”—and this document shows me all of the shots I did take.

In general, it’s a good idea to keep track of submissions and the final decisions, if only for purely practical reasons. You want to make sure you’re not submitting multiple times to journals that don’t take multiple submissions, or making sure you’re not breaking guidelines around simultaneous submissions. For data and tracking like that, I rely on Duotrope2. Duotrope is a database of projects, publications, and even literary agents for writers and artists to submit work to. The site has a number of tools to track your writing and can also calculate stats like acceptance rate and turnaround time. A $5 monthly fee lets you create an account and access all of the resources available. To me, it’s worth it just to be able to keep track of submissions, though the calculations are also extremely useful.

However, although Duotrope is a powerful tool to help me keep track of my submissions, I still have this resume of failures. Because like my normal resume, I feel galvanized to try and add to it. It motivates me to take more shots, because even if I fail, those attempts still have a place to go. I turn a failure into a success, and that helps me continue writing and submitting.

What about you? Would you consider building a resume of failures? What helps you stay motivated in pursuing writing?


This post was written as part of the #AuthorToolboxBlogHop organized by the human dynamo, Raimey Gallant. Every month, authors at all stages of their career blog about specific resources/learning opportunities for fellow writers. To continue hopping through other great blogs in the monthly #AuthorToolboxBlogHop, click here.

Header image from Pixabay.

Notes

[1] A CV of failures, Melanie Stefan, Ph.D., Naturejobs.com

[2] Duotrope.com — from the site: “Duotrope is an established, award-winning resource for writers and artists. We help you save time finding publishers or agents for your work, so you can focus on creating. “

Author Toolbox Blog Hop: The limits of being an introvert

This past week, from March 14th to through the 18th, I attended session 1 of the 2018 Northern California Writers’ Retreat. I learned so much during those five days, and the experience was incredibly rewarding.

But I am (still) very jetlagged as of writing this blog post, so the full rundown of the retreat will have to be saved for later.

What I do want to talk about is the limits of being an introvert when it comes to building a writing career.

According to a personality test I took a few years ago (that still rings true today), I am an extreme introvert. So one of the many reasons why fiction writing has always appealed to me as a full-time job was this idea that I could find a way to work while being allowed a certain amount of solitude. I have this perception of writers, and creative types in general, as working in relative secret until the work is ready to be revealed. I believed that writers could dedicate themselves to their craft, and recognition (and money) would naturally follow as long as the quality of the work was there.

There is a small amount of truth to this; certainly, if your work isn’t good (or at the very least, effective), then it won’t launch you anywhere. But what often goes unreported is the kind of work that goes into getting that publishing deal and selling your books—the work of putting yourself out there.

I’m not just talking about marketing your book. That’s a separate discussion for a different blog post. Nor do I mean having an online presence so that readers can find you. That’s part of it, but isn’t enough. There are many, intermediate steps from writing a book to publishing it that require writers to regularly interact with other people, whether they’re fellow writers, potential readers, editors, or agents. For example, going to conferences to attend panels, pitch fests, and meet-and-greets can go a long way in making connections with decision-makers in the publishing industry. As an extreme introvert, just the thought of these events terrify me, even though I understand how crucial these interactions are.

This isn’t to say that introverts must become extroverts in order to succeed as career writers, nor am I saying that all introverts will fail to get a publishing deal. After all, the introverted writer stereotype persists. But I must recognize that my extreme introversion will come up against its limits as I advance my writing career.

The internet and social media have, of course, changed how much this is true. There are Twitter pitch events that have resulted in book deals, and self-publishing in general has become more lucrative, especially with the rise of e-books, crowdfunding, and other monetization strategies. But I do think that there is no real substitute for making connections. The definition of being there “in person” may change as technology does, but there will still be some requirement to be there as much as possible.

(Sidebar: This discussion about “being there” connects to the limits of accessibility for comes to writers with a physical disability. I recognize that I am privileged in the sense that I can physically access the places where these writing events and networking take place, but there are plenty of extremely talented writers who do not. If being present and participating is essential in order to grow a writing career, how can we make sure that these spaces are accessible to everyone?)

I am still trying to figure out what I can do to be more comfortable in these interactions, but I wanted to share some final thoughts, based on my experience at the Northern California Writers’ Retreat:

  • It’s easier to interact if it’s about writing. I may not be able to speak like a normal human being in casual conversation (I die from secondhand embarrassment at my past self making small talk), but when it comes to talking about writing, the conversation is easier. It’s still awkward if I find that I haven’t read the same books or have common texts with the people I’m talking to, but it’s easier to talk about writing and storytelling than anything else.
  • I may not always have something to add to a conversation, but I can always react to what others are saying and ask questions. The participation portions of my grades throughout college were always dismal, so it gives me a lot of anxiety to think that I have to participate in everything all the time. But 1) I am not being graded, and 2) I can always listen closely and actively to what others are saying, and sometimes that is enough.
  • I don’t have to think about many of these things right now. Whether it’s agonizing over a pitch or attending conferences to make connections, I don’t have to think about them right now. Why? Because I have to write my damn manuscript.

What do you think? Are you an introvert or an extrovert? And how do you think these things will help or hinder you in your publishing career?


This post was written as part of the #AuthorToolboxBlogHop organized by the human dynamo, Raimey Gallant. Every month, authors at all stages of their career blog about specific resources/learning opportunities for fellow writers. To continue hopping through other great blogs in the monthly #AuthorToolboxBlogHop, click here.

Header image from Pixabay.

Author Toolbox Blog Hop: On youth and inexperience

There’s a particular piece of writing advice that got under my skin early on in my writing ‘career’:

Write what you know.

I have gone through stages of agreeing and disagreeing with this statement, but ultimately, the spirit of this tenet wins out. After all, readers will only read your book, will fall in love with your book, if there is an element of truth in it. Not necessarily Truth with a capital T, but truth in the sense that what you’ve written is convincing enough to pull them in and keep them in your book. And to be convincing you have to, in a sense, write what you know.

My early stories were all directly lifted from or in response to things that were going in my life. I wasn’t very creative; my main characters were author avatars, and the people around me and their actions served as inspiration for secondary characters and rough subplots.

I quickly became bored with writing these stories. Though I am of the belief that every experience, from the mundane to the singular, holds the potential for inspiring a new story, there are only so many stories you can write about making banana pancakes before your mind craves something new.

As a young and aspiring author, I’ve had a hard time accepting the idea that I should write what I know since, honestly, I don’t know much. After all, I’m only twenty-five. And I’m impatient. I don’t want to wait around until I have enough Life Experience Points in order to start writing, but neither do I want to burn myself out trying to gather up experiences like they’re Easter eggs and I have to find all of them before they start to rot and reek to high Heaven.

In my experience, an Easter egg hunt has never been fun. And an Easter egg hunt is not writing.

Instead, a much more useful piece of writing advice came when I took a Creative Writing class while studying abroad in Sydney during my junior year of college. The writer Nakkiah Lui visited our class, and during her talk she gave us a variation on the theme:

Write what scares you.

If you’ve written drama but have never written comedy, write comedy. If you’ve written romance but have never written horror, write horror. It even goes into different forms: if you’ve never written poetry, write poetry; if you’ve never written a play, write a play.

In addition to giving you more writing practice (something every writer needs), writing what scares you also allows you to expand your horizons, allows you to gain life experience even if you’ve never experienced these events yourself. By putting your best effort to produce good writing in areas outside of your expertise, you’ll gain Life Experience Points and get better at writing.

There are a million more ways I could break down the advice to write what scares you, but I’ll end this way:

As a young writer, I feel strange talking about writing and giving advice, even on this blog, an ostensibly personal space in a public arena. But in my limited experience, a healthy amount of fear is a good indication that I’m going in the direction of something worthwhile. It might not result in a publication, or even in a story that I can show to anyone while I’m alive, but it results in something, that will lead to something else, that will lead to something else, that will lead to something I can be proud of. But I never would have gotten there if I didn’t go in the direction of my fears.

So what’s a writing fear you’ve been working on conquering lately? Let me know in the comments!


This post was written as part of the #AuthorToolboxBlogHop organized by the human dynamo, Raimey Gallant. Every month, authors at all stages of their career blog about specific resources/learning opportunities for fellow writers. To continue hopping through other great blogs in the monthly #AuthorToolboxBlogHop, click here.