One book counts

Author Tanith Lee passed away earlier this year. It was only then that I realised what an amazing catalogue of work she produced. I have said elsewhere that I still have a copy of her Castle of Dark. It left a profound impression in my young mind when I found it. It was lyrical and mysterious with duelling perspectives that kept me enthralled. And, it was complete in itself.

Sometimes I am curiously incurious. I read the her book, loved it and never found or read another thing by Lee since. This is contrasted to reading all the hard back Asimov novels our library had, everything Douglas Adams wrote, the Little House on the Prairie series,  Magician (and the rest of them) and years before the entire shelves of The Three Investigators my teacher owned.

However, unlike so many books Asimov included, Castle of Dark left a lasting mark on my imagination. Perhaps, it was all I needed at the time.

There are other lone titles I’ve read that I remember more fondly than a slew of books by the same author, such as I Heard the Owl Call My Name and of course, To Kill A Mockingbird. In time, others will come back to me.

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The below is what was posted on Lee’s site at her passing.

Tanith Lee: “Though we come and go, and pass into the shadows, where we leave behind us stories told – on paper, on the wings of butterflies, on the wind, on the hearts of others – there we are remembered, there we work magic and great change – passing on the fire like a torch – forever and forever. Till the sky falls, and all things are flawless and need no words at all.”

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Lessons from rejection

Where I have the most experience as a creative writer is in the submission rejection process. No, no need to get all sympathetic and tut tut. It’s true and it maybe true for a while yet, for a myriad of reasons. On the bright side it indicates I’m still sending stuff out there.

And that’s a good thing.

Anyway, in my previous post I mentioned good and bad submission rejections.

To misquote Tolstoy, all acceptances are happy, but each rejection is its own thing, but can be loosely grouped, as follows.

The Quickie

A quick rejection is ripping off a band-aid. It’s surgical and there’s some wincing, but no deep pain. It speaks to no fuss editors who know immediately what they want and, more importantly, don’t want. They’re not overly helpful, except for my own quest to identify where my writing might fit. Clearly, it’s not with these types, but with this sort of rejection, it’s just a matter of moving on. There’ll be no feedback and probably not even an email if they use Submittable or another online form. Sometimes these rejections are within minutes of a submission, other times a few days.

No, don't tell me, you've shut down the publication and I have to find information about this blindfolded?

No, don’t tell me. You’ve shut down the publication and I have to find information about this blindfolded with the help of doves and a peacock?

The Complicatio 

The complicated submission process begins with an email that is sent to a publication that promises a response within several months. Those months go by and nothing. After a further wait, a tentative email inquiry gets a response about how it was missed entirely or how their initial email response went astray. Either way, there’s some kind of fractured email trail, and a long wait. It’s more annoying if they don’t want you to submit the story elsewhere during this torturous experience that still mostly ends in rejection. Always check the email address, always check your spam folder.

Eternal Silencio

This leads me to the radio silent submissions. You send your piece off, all happy and excited and then…nothing. Forever. There is never a response. Sometimes it’s because the publication is defunct but never let anyone know, by say de-activating their web presence/or disabling their email accounts.

Then some guidelines state publications will never inform you of rejection – only of acceptance – which is fine, I guess. Other times, it’s just that something in their submission app or email went wrong and secondary requests also fail. After this, I tend to think it’s the universe sending me a message and that message is: move on. But please, if you are closing your publication down, or even resting it for a bit, put a notice up.

The Beneficio

The good rejection is one that is delivered with time limits the publisher imposes, and may offer helpful feedback, or even encouragement. Most of all it feels personalised, even it isn’t so very particular.

The best way to identify a good rejection is how you feel upon its arrival. If you feel disappointed but also uplifted, or encouraged to keep writing then that is a good rejection. I have had a few of these, sometimes from competitions, where apparently my work has placed well but just missed out.

The not this,  but

Other good rejections indicate they think I can write but want something different, rather than I what I sent them, which is more than fine. Or they think what I sent was good but will be more appropriate next time.

It might be difficult to believe, but sometimes a considered, kindly and appreciative rejection can work (almost but not quite) as much wonder to soothe the soul of a writer as an acceptance.

Yeah, we've heard that all submissions were of a very high quality song before dude and it does make us tired.

Yeah, heard that ‘all submissions were of a very high quality, but’ song before dude and it makes me tired.

Via Negativa

The bad rejection is one by rote. It is probably worse than no response. I understand why formulaic emails are issued. They are often sent all at once to groups of writers because editors and readers are under time and cost pressures. Publications and competitions are flooded with stories and queries and begging letters. Yet, somehow the phrase that indicates everyone’s submission was of a high calibre is dispiriting. It’s essentially meaningless, because at least one person’s work was better and it’s worse when it’s sometimes difficult to tell why.

La Devastatio 

However, the very worst rejection is the public announcement of the winner or successful submission, timed to correspond with a launch gig or party that was never mentioned and you find this out later, even as you still wait at home for any kind of notification at all.

When the email of your rejection comes, perhaps a couple of days after this aforementioned celebration, whatever it’s tone, this missive just feels like the universe is grinding your face in the post-party detritus of someone else’s success. I respectfully say to these institutions, publications and competitions, please let authors know of the sequence of events regarding announcements so we can prepare.

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Before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain

When I have doubts about what I’m doing, which can happen, say after a bad submission rejection (there are good and bad ones) I stand alone on the shore of the wide world, like Keats once did, and think about chucking it in, in much the same way he didn’t. Maybe I could get an easier past time. Perhaps one that doesn’t have people saying no or meh to what I’m doing.

Hey ho.

Social media is handy for these moments. There are plenty of writers who can empathise with the down times as well as celebrate the publication joy. There’s nary a creative person out there who has never experienced self-doubt or rejection.

Tahlea was super impressed with Jarryd's way with words, but his stories lacked that special something that she, as a publisher was looking for.

Tahlea was rarely amused by Jarryd’s way with words. His stories lacked that special something she, as a publisher of gum-shoe detective novels, was looking for.

I have been writing for more than 10 years and there has been progress. I can see what can be improved, or can be different in writing. But this is fraught. The big lesson is to never re/write things for others. Just don’t. But it’s an easy trap to fall into.

This happened in class once. We’d each of us had written short stories, properly fleshed out and complete in themselves. We offered our thoughts on them. Then came the last student. He handed us his short story. But it wasn’t a story, it was a scaffold to hand a story from, because what he wanted to say was in his head and not on the page. Sort of. We had a go at delivering feed back, while I found myself compelled to fill in the gaps he’d left. But this was cheating. If I’d continued he could’ve used what I’d written for his work. We all stopped when another student launched into a speech. Sadly, I don’t have it verbatim, but he explained that writing was not about what you plan. He said it more eloquently than I can relate now, years later, but those of us who had completed a story felt vindicated, those of us tempted to write for those who didn’t stopped, and that one student got a lesson he didn’t expect. He meant well, he’d tried, but my colleague’s argument made it clear what he was doing was akin to taking something from us he didn’t deserve, because we had done the work and he hadn’t. We were writers and this sad class mate wasn’t.

This is what I want to say to people in writing groups (online or IRL) who want ideas, or someone else to come up with names or to otherwise fill in the blanks: this is your work. If you’re writing your story it’s your job not to leave gaps. That is what writing is about. Sure, if you’re stuck  maybe get some advice, but other people can’t write your story. Once they do, it isn’t your story.

Asking others for help with names is odd. Names are personal, and if you’re inventing a character, then surely you should be responsible for one of the most personal things about them? The same goes for a people or a world or a place. There’s magic in names, and symbolism, it should come from the author, somehow.

For those who say they ‘aspire’ to write is you can aspire to anything and never do squat about it. Plenty of people aspire. It means nothing. If you want to write, show up. Make time. Plus, you can only get feedback on work if you do some.

I didn’t say it’d be easy. It can be dull and even painful, especially when exciting things are happening elsewhere in nice weather.

But that’s why I think of Keats too, rejected by critics and readers, poor, and unable to marry, dying painfully and eventually far from home, yet still dedicating everything in himself to poetry. He had every excuse and more to give up and go back to being an apothecary.  He probably would have died early anyway, but then the world would have been so much poorer:

If he didn’t give up why should I?

When I have fears that I may cease to be
   Before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain,
Before high-pilèd books, in charactery,
   Hold like rich garners the full ripened grain.
When I behold, upon the night’s starred face,
   Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
And think that I may never live to trace
   Their shadows with the magic hand of chance;
And when I feel, fair creature of an hour,
   That I shall never look upon thee more,
Never have relish in the faery power
   Of unreflecting love—then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
Till love and fame to nothingness do sink.

So if you are a writer…like Keats, like me, like so many out there…

…Get the tools you need.

Sit down.

Write.

Nature may inspire your writing, but Cinnamon was taking it too far. Her psych never convinced her the trees didn't talk back.

Jessie thought hanging around nature was enough to be an author. She never realised she had to leave the trees alone, and write. 

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It’s all in the name

It’s no secret writers make up names; for their characters, for their stories and for themselves. Females have taken to disguising their authorship since at least Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell started getting their poetry published.

The other day a writer revealed she didn’t (really) read books by female writers and disguised her name as she was writing for a youth audience, primarily for boys.

At first I was disappointed and angry.

However, I understand. There is research that says men will read books by men and most women will read books by anyone. There are also surveys by VIDA and the Stella Prize about how books by men, or books featuring male protagonists get most of the reviews, most of the prizes and most of the sales. Thus, I can’t blame this one anonymous author for wanting to get her books read by meeting market expectation.

In the midst of the rejection cycle I too have contemplated using my initials.

Yet, I want things to change.

I think this means we should stop pretending to be JK or even EL or the Bell’s and be ourselves with our full names (when not being read in blind submission processes), for starters.

Then we must start putting characters first. If Hermione is the most interesting character with the best narrative arc and complex back-story, then perhaps there is an argument she should be the main character?

If the movie market can evolve (Pitch Perfect II made more money than Fury Road) the book trade and writing can too. Women should not be embarrassed about wanting to read (or see) or write stories that reflect or speak to some aspect of their experience.

Women are half the world’s population, so it’s not unfair they should populate bookshelves as authors and stories as characters. Then, if we look at male characters and plots and if nothing much depends on a character being a man, perhaps it’s worth exploring the story with a female main character. The world will not fall apart. It absolutely will not.

This is part of the motivation behind my novella about Enheduanna of Ur. She was the first author in the world recognised as such by name. She was the first and most important author of the Akkadian-Sumerian culture thousands of years ago. She managed to influence religious practice through her role as priestess and as a poet, while maintaining her political clout. Enheduanna’s works were imitated across the world’s first empire and her direct literary influence lasted at least 500 years.

Take that Homer, we have never seen your likeness but we have an image of the first author who predates you. Enheduanna!

Take that Homer! We have never seen your likeness but we have an image of the first author – who pre-dates you: Enheduanna.

Enheduanna has been called the Shakespeare of Sumerian literature but that underplays her. Shakespeare never redesigned an entire religious philosophy and practice using plays and never invented literary forms. If anything, Shakespeare (with his sonnets to his Inanna-sounding Dark Lady) demonstrated he was an Elizabethan Enheduanna-rian.

Even so, if, with all her fame and achievements, Enheduanna’s name disappeared completely under the desert sands and from the records, and still remains relatively unknown even now, then what of the rest of us?

And what of those who further disguise their identities with cryptic pseudonyms and double initials? We will flare (if we are lucky) and fade out, and there will be no cuneiform tablets inscribed with our achievements to be dug up in 4000 years time.

If we can’t last, then we can surely add to a wave of change. At least then we can say we have tried to better the lot for the next generation of writers who may be encouraged to drop their name, or have to make a statement about how they pose for dust jacket photo shoots.

In the end, if pre-Victorian traditions invented to let women ‘get away with writing’ continue, unchallenged, what really has changed at all for authors?

This is why I will write under my name. No matter how much I want to be published,  I promise to always be me (and fade and go into the west when it’s my time).

I pledge never to resort to using my initials.

Come on dudes, don't resort to violence over who wrote what, just accept it was Enheduanna first. K?

Come on literary canon dudes, don’t resort to violence over who wrote what, just accept it was Enheduanna first. K?

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Writing words is a numbers game

I’ve mentioned previously that I keep a database of publications and my writing, to show me when and where I’ve sent what stories (and the odd poem) and how long I’ve waited to hear back (sometimes forever). Apart from occasional lapses in data entry (almost) everything I’ve sent out over the past five years is there. It shows my fluctuating publication rate is at 42% at the moment (ooh – 42). On the glass half full side of things that means close to half of everything I’ve written and then sent out has been published!

I’m not too caught up on the numbers though. Specific numbers are not my thing, as some of my friends and high school teachers know. Yet, broadly speaking, writing is about the willingness to let other people see your writing, and if they don’t like, to still persist in being willing to let more people see it and keeping a record of all this. Eventually, one of those people out of X number will like something.

Before a database, reaching the answer X for any writing would meaning passing light through this machine and interpreting the patterns it made.

Before my database, reaching the answer X for any writing question meant passing light through this machine and interpreting the patterns made. Then napping. 

There is plenty, however, that the raw number doesn’t tell you.

  • Like how many times I’ve sent the same story out.
  • Or how many revisions I’ve completed as a result of X number of rejections.
Look, generally I think triquarter hats are splendid but I'm just taking a moment to be sad about yet another journal rejection.

Look, I think triquarter hats are cool, but I just need a moment to be sad about a journal rejection. I’ll be back to swooning tomorrow. 

  • It doesn’t show how much time a completed story has sat in a file waiting for when I feel prepared to send it out to somewhere that it matches.
  • It doesn’t reveal how many stories spend time as half completed ideas, or mere sketches of a thing that could be a thing one day.

Some stories take years before they find their final form, as one short piece did recently. I had it for ages after I had a title and idea, perhaps for a larger work. When I finally remembered it as a possibility for a project, I spent a few hours actually writing, and everything fell into place. It was a flash fiction complete in itself. I finished it, edited it a bit, came back to it the next day and sent it out to where I thought it met requirements. Done.

  • My database doesn’t explain the cost of competitions and the time considering risks/benefits and the opportunity cost of submitting.

Because while a story is over there waiting to be judged it could be over here being rejected (or accepted). How am I to choose!

  • The database can’t demonstrate the time spent and agony endured though reformatting the exact same story for each and every single opportunity, every single time.

Every guideline for every competition and publication is different, some read blind, some don’t care, some use the US formatting protocol, some stipulate file types. All I know it is a relief when they use Submittable, that’s for sure. And I reject any publication that wants me to send an MS in the post.

  • This very handy database never factors in the time spent quietly searching for or stumbling over publications or opportunities that could match something I’ve written. At least now there is Twitter and Facebook as well as The Victorian Writer magazine.

Most of my recent rejections come down to: they have seen similar recently or I’ve picked poorly and my story and their journal is not the great match I thought it was. And that second one is entirely on me.

  • My database doesn’t calculate financial cost.

Most publications want writers to understand what they want so if they charge for their journals, then you must buy one or subscribe. Sometimes it’s worth it, other times, maybe not so much. Occasionally, a publication will have a bunch of free stuff to read to demonstrate what they’re after, or really detailed guidelines. Sometimes publications have a (nominal) reading cost – although if you wait to submit during a free reading period that can help. Yet nominal this and that adds up.  Then there’s the cost of competitions and each writer must calculate the chances vs the cost and the prize.  And don’t let me go on about the exchange rate. That five-pound entry for the UK is a lot more for an Australian at the moment.

I'm trying to tell  you I'm going to write anyway, no matter the time or money. Ok!

Dude, I’m only trying to get you to understand I’m going to write anyway, no matter the time or money. K?

 

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Holding Patterns

Everything ebbs and flows. Interests wax and wane. Seasons change. Things are shaken up and settle down again for each of us in our brittle, safe, enclosed snow dome worlds.

While I wasn’t blogging for a while earlier this year, I poured my spare time  and energy into drawing. It was a way to not think about a bunch of stuff I didn’t want to think about. And mostly it worked. I drew meaningless patterns to lose myself in them, and as they spread I began to direct them more, to strive to make what I drew beautiful.

And when I thought I had enough confidence I set myself a project.

First there was learning. Then practice. Then the idea.

First there was the learning in class. Then practice on paper. Then the idea.

The project was to use Zentangle to decorate an MDF box. It took a while.

  • I relearned that mistakes are just a part of the process.
Started out using every pattern I'd learned and ended up with a fish.

Started out using every pattern I’d learned and I made a fish looking thing. I panicked.

  • I remembered the process is as important as the outcome.
The fish disappeared, but it wasn't right, yet.

The fish disappeared, but it wasn’t right, yet. Neither was the focus. #fuzzygram

  • I relearned the naive beauty in patterns and repetition. This is doodling people, not rocket surgery.
Some bits were more effective than others.

Some bits were less effective than others.

  • I learned that the tools must fit the medium being worked on. Drawing on MDF was not like drawing on paper or card stock. Different pens yielded better results under different pressures.
  • The right pen and right pressure yielded more intense colours.
  • I learned the more intense the colour, the better.
As I did more, less became more.  It told me what to do.

As I did more, less became more. 

  • I learned that not everything must possess symmetry.
  • I learned bigger and bolder was better. Otherwise everything disappeared or looked messy.
  • I learned the drawing must fit the space.
  • Tiny timid patterns got lost in the vast expanse of the work.
Zentangle in 3D was an opportunity to see and do things differently.

Zentangle in 3D was an opportunity to navigate challenges differently.

  • I learned a narrow palette is as effective as all the colours of the rainbow.
  • I learned to enjoy the highlights and shading in the lowlights, for perspective.
  • A lot of the time it felt like meditation, which was the original point of Zentangle.
Effectiveness was  measured in how it worked up close and from afar.

Effectiveness was measured in how it worked up close and from afar.

  • After so long writing stories, I relearned art and beauty can possess utility.
  • Attempted art has ruined the MDF; however, as it’s still a box, I can put stuff in it.
When it was done, it wasn't what I had imagined.

When it was done, it wasn’t what I had imagined. That’s ok. 

  • The more I did the more I learned what worked. I turned to repeating the same shapes, and filling the spaces between with smaller patterns for greater areas.
  • I learned darkness is a useful contrast.
  • Zentangle means learning that things don’t need to be difficult to be art, or to be beautiful.
Drawing, like life and all art, is about recognising the light and the shadow.

Drawing, like life and all art, is about recognising the usefulness of the light and the shadow.

  • I learned not to be afraid of mistakes. It was a cheap MDF box after all.
  • It might not be the most beautiful thing ever, or perfect, but I finished.
  • That’s a lot of stuff I learned or remembered while decorating a box.
  • I forgot about the stuff I didn’t want to think about.
  • Learning wasn’t even the point. The point was doing something. And I did. Anything I learned was a bonus.

I recommend learning about Zentangle. It’s an official thing, with a website and even teachers, and a whole heap of inspiration can be found on Pinterest. It all adds up to look formidable, but if you can somehow hold a pen and pencil and draw lines, then line, by line, it’s entirely doable.

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Dealing new illusions?

This is what some people thought about TV in 1976. I quote it because it speaks to me today and I suspect it may to others.

You’re television incarnate…Indifferent to suffering; insensitive to joy. All of life is reduced to the common rubble of banality. War, murder, death are all the same…And the daily business of life is a corrupt comedy. You even shatter the sensations of time and space into split seconds and instant replays. The Network, 1976.

I”l just leave that thought there, for a moment, while TV continues to evolve.

Anyway, new versions of old stories is a thing older than Shakespeare. Buster Keaton was doing remakes before talkies in Hollywood. Ghostbusters (now with women), Bad Idea Theme Park with Jurassic World, Point Break Redux, the list will go on. However, no one much has tackled any kind of media story, new or remade, for a while.

There was The (Un) Social Network, but that was more a college coming of business age, douchey entitled youth with rowing montages drama rather than a film about the media. I guess there was Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom, but wasn’t that a fantasy about ‘ethical reporting’? I can’t really comment as I didn’t see it, although I  noticed it occasionally enraged the internets. As I noted in a post about Sherlock, that too dealt with media a bit, but through the focus of the take on Conan Doyle’s detective.

The flip side of remakes is making over history, and there has been an appetite for this with Mad Men and Halt and Catch Fire and in Australia Love Child and The Secret River. The negative is that the recent fictionalised stuff about Julian Assange tanked. Maybe that’s more because people are divided about him being a supervillian or freedom of information fighter or both, or that his story hasn’t finished or perhaps that he and his situation is even weirder than TV or film can make show. Also why go see a film about Assange when he makes his own music videos?

What would be interesting to attempt, is a near recent history/remake or update to the 1976 film Network with English-Australian Peter Finch. People get their news differently now, although there are still old-ish men yelling at us from televisions, they are just more likely to be comedians, while there are more platforms, weird global business empires with their shady deals, citizen journalists, crowd funding, pay walls, outsourcing, listicles, and breaking bad Buzzfeed news. Then there is the tech, slave factories and rare earth mines in fragile eco-systems for smart phones, hacking and security all to attend too.

Ye Olde Political Satirical Sketch, the basis of Satirical Sketch Comedy.

Ye Olde Political Satirical Sketch: analogue version of a Viral Satirical Sketch Comedy YouTube Video.

There is the digital divide, disruption, and cryptocurrency,  peer-to-peer lending and shadow banking all involved in and around media. And I haven’t even got to the political stuff: the TPP, and how in Australia journalist can report on something they didn’t know was deemed an operational security matter and for doing that they go to jail. Peter Greste, who was actually jailed for this very crime job in Egypt, is not impressed when he got home to freedom in Australia. These are the same politicians who are talking about ‘those viral things‘ in the Australian parliament. Truly, watch that last link, as it says everything about the level of debate.

Anyway, the below is one of the greatest rants  ever filmed and because some days it seems the news of the world is one endless cycle of the same, on repeat. Since about 1976.

I mean, aren’t we still, mad as hell? Course,  these days we get the anger for a minute or two and fumble to find something to direct it at, perhaps digitally signing a petition. Then the anger and the wrongs of the world are filed away as we are overwhelmed by the next wave of stuff invading our devices, reinforcing the idea we remain the powerless minions we always were, too weak to ‘meddle’, like some do, with those ‘primal forces of nature’ and the ‘immutable by-laws of business’.

Still, the more things change, the more things stay the same. I don’t know what it all means, but one day there will be a new or remade dramedy about it. We’ll download it into silicon chips implanted into our eyeballs for direct viewing as we blink between news and lifestyle feeds or something.

Arthur Jensen: There are no nations. There are no peoples. There are no Russians. There are no Arabs. There are no third worlds. There is no West. There is only one holistic system of systems, one vast…interwoven, interacting, multivariate, multinational dominion of dollars. Petro-dollars, electro-dollars, multi-dollars…It is the international system of currency which determines the totality of life on this planet. That is the natural order of things today. Network, 1976. 

 

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