Ever heard the sailing term “in irons”? It means your sailboat is pointed straight into the wind so that wind can’t fill your sails. The jib and mainsail luff about, and it’s damn-near impossible to get moving again.
Having your writing rejected or criticized can have the same effect. One of my mentees is dealing with that special hell of creative depression right now. My answer is what I would tell any beginning writer dealing with self doubt and rejection. After all, it’s what I tell myself every day:
Get used to it, because it doesn’t matter how good of a writer you become. People will continue to find flaws in everything, and it’s just a matter of deciding what feedback you agree with.
Writing can be a tough craft to get down, and the only thing for it is to keep trying. I’ve lately been analogizing the process to learning Brazilian jiu-jitsu. We recognize there that everyone has certain inherent attributes — youth or weight or athletic ability — that might make them more or less talented. There’s nothing to be done for that. But everyone, no matter how stunted or brilliant, still has it within them to earn a black belt through hard work. All it takes is time on the mat.
So we’ve all been there. Many of us often revisit there. I get rejected all the time, and it frequently leaves me depressed. Rejection sucks every time. But I’m in it for life, no matter the outcome, so I’ll keep trying.
Keep writing what brings you pleasure. Don’t worry about what genres they’re in or whether you’re writing in too many. Just do it until you find your own voice. Categorization will come later.
This is so inspiring:
In a nutshell: James Terlecki, 74 years old, just earned his black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. He started it when he was 61. Thirteen years to a black belt is a normal time range in this martial art.
It’s inspiring because it gives me confidence I’ll get there one day, too. I started shortly before my 40th birthday, and it’s one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done. I’ve often felt it’s been more difficult for me than for others on account of my age.
Malcolm Gladwell famously wrote that it takes 10,000 hours to achieve mastery in something. In the time since his book came out with this claim, he has said this doesn’t necessarily apply to sports, which may rely more on genetics, and psychologists have disputed the figure as being over-inflated. I think it’s safe to say, however, that after that much practice, you’ll have achieved something in the endeavor.
I calculate that since I began BJJ in February 2013, I’ve invested between 400-500 hours in training. Right now, it feels like 10,000 hours until mastery — or at least until a black belt — is about right.
I’ve spent considerably more time in the pursuit of the writing craft. Have I spent 10,000 hours there? Hell, I don’t know; maybe. Am I a master at it? Certainly not, but because it’s my life’s work, I know more than the average bear. Maybe by the time I’m 74, I’ll have something worthy to show for my time. That’ll be 32 years down the road.
The way I figure it, I’ll be 74 one day no matter what (and hopefully still alive), so I might as well go for it.
In the meantime, congratulations to James Terlecki. I think most of us want to be you one day.
Seven years ago I started to seriously focus on building a writing career, and it’s been a long, hard road to this place where I now stand. A lot of good things have happened along the way. My novella Children of No One was nominated for a 2013 Shirley Jackson Award. My new novel Mr. Suicide has been praised by three of the authors I’ve long-admired: Jack Ketchum, Poppy Z. Brite, and Ray Garton. I’ve recently seen my work translated into German.
But none of these successes came easily. I had a lot to learn. (And not all the lessons were about the writing craft itself; many had more to do with how to play well with others — while still preserving my individuality and self-respect.)
So, keeping that in mind, I’ve prepared a list of the top ten things I wish I would have known when I started writing.
Made two choices in the past week — three, if you count my new commitment only to write in sentence fragments.
The first is to sign on as an official mentor in the Horror Writers Association. I’ve been paired with a beginning writer, whom I’ll advise for the next year.
The second is to return to the Borderlands Boot Camp for Writers in 2016 as a student/grunt. The last time I attended as a paying student was 2005. I’ve returned several times since then as a guest “dramatic reader” for Sunday writing exercises.
I’ve been submitting for professional publication now for 25 years. Does that make me qualified to hold forth to my HWA mentee, who is eight years older than me? If yes, then why return to a workshop conference normally populated with writers who’ve only had a few years of professional experience?
Oddly, you might say, I credit my newfound passion for the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu martial art with guiding me through this. In BJJ, there’s an unstated distinction between talent and experience. Talent is that thing you bring to the mat: it’s inborn, you have no control over it. You might genetically be a jiu-jiteiro genius, and you might not. But whatever talent you have won’t emerge without experience. Experience is signified through the belt-rank system. White belts are still learning their basic skills. Blue belts have learned the basics. Purple, brown, black, and the legendary red belts have progressively customized those skills to themselves as individual artists.
I now look at the writing craft the same way. I don’t necessarily have more talent than the guy composing his first short story. He might have more. But what I do have is experience. He’s a white or blue belt, and by virtue of how I’ve spent my time, I’m a black belt. That’s what gives a black belt its color, after all: the grime of work.
With this metaphor in mind, I return to the writing craft with a more humble and generous mindset. As an HWA mentor and an informal mentor to some other friends and family members, I understand these writers may have just as much or more talent than I do. But I still have things I can show them. Paradoxically, this means I teach myself; it’s a truism that you don’t learn a skill until you teach it. It’s only at that point that you examine what you do and why you do it that way. I’m also helping others because I have mentors like Thomas Monteleone, who runs the Borderlands Boot Camp. As he’s told me, he has had mentors, too, and now he feels an obligation to give back.
As for returning to the Boot Camp as a paid participant, I equate it to the fun prospect of attending a particularly good black belt seminar hosted by Leo Dalla. This is a chance to study with writers who’ve earned their fourth- and fifth-degree black belts, so to speak, who’ve been around much longer than I have, and who can help me refine my skills. Even people who’ve been at it 25 years have something to learn. And along the way, I’ll benefit from that teaching-to-teach-myself blowback effect mentioned above. I’m doing it because I love the writing craft, and I can think of few weekends more pleasurable than sitting around analyzing plot and character development with like-minded folks.
Why am I doing these things? Because I finally have the right perspective on who I am and where I am.
Now if I can just land that literary agent.
This in from the mail bag:
I was curious to know how you handle your writing schedule. Given you have been prolific with multiple projects I figure you must have a sense of your ‘production’ schedule. Do you try to map out a schedule over weeks/months to have a clear completion date for each project or do you just keep plodding along until ‘it is finished’.
The short answer is I keep plodding along until it’s finished. Deadlines are helpful if I have them. If I know someone is waiting on a product, that’s a great motivator. But I suck at setting artifical deadlines for myself because I know they’re fiction about my fiction; I know I can always reset the deadline.
So I plod along. Astrologically speaking, this fits my personality since I’m an Aries (ram) and an ox. So I hit my head repeatedly against something, stubbornly, endlessly, until it cracks. It used to take me years to finish a novel, and now I’m learning to get it down to six months.
But you see, this is a highly personal answer that fits my personality and skill level. Not everybody is the same. Some people work on multiple projects simultaneously, like bees pollinating several flowers.
Which is the right answer to you? Maybe this is actually . . .
As such, I think you already know how to handle it. The letter continues:
In my work life I manage large building projects that often take many years, so I am not daunted by the long time horizon, but am trying to find a good running pace. Any tips, tricks or tools are appreciated.
My initial reaction is that if you’re already successful in managing large projects in your professional life, then you already have the skills necessary to find time for writing and for setting your own running pace.
Writing is no different from any other endeavor you’ll conquer in life. Sure, it’s magical because it’s both a creative art and a craft, but there’s nothing that really makes it special as a time-management challenge, even if you’re only doing it part time like I am.
What it is not is . . .
Some authors believe their craft is all about suffering. You must ruin your life in order to be good, or so this particular line of bullshit goes. I’ve ranted about this already; I hope you’ll take a moment to read it. In short, writing is like anything else you want to do: you make space for it in your life, and you balance your other baggage with it on life’s seesaw. Don’t neglect your family or health to make it happen. You’ll lose in the long run.
Okay, all that being said, here’s . . .
First, let’s take the writing part out of the equation and just look at this as some great big task to cram into your life. Or, to use a metaphor, it’s two or three awesomely big suitcases to pack into your SUV. Have you ever packed a car for a road trip with kids? What a pain in the ass. Suitcases, diaper bags, baby stroller, portable crib, and yes, the kitchen sink or a form thereof if you want the infant to recline comfortably during a bath.
Stephen R. Covey in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People suggests a great strategy for this problem. Put the biggest things in the car first. I still do this, literally, when I pack the car. That means the pack & play and then the stroller. Now that that’s out of the way, you pack all the smaller stuff around it that can fit into the gaps.
Do this in the reverse order and it won’t work. Load the car with all the tiny blankets and food stuffs and toys, and you’ll find you can’t fit in the baby stroller. Try it.
If you’re not a parent, try this experiment instead: get a flower vase and a collection of large- and small-sized rocks. Put the small rocks in first and then try to fit in the large rocks. It won’t work. Now try putting in the large rocks and then packing in the small rocks around them. Suddenly you can fit everything into the vase.
The moral of this story: put first things first. If there’s something like writing or learning a musical instrument or practicing a sport that is important to you, but which you know is gonna be a huge, long-term thing to accomplish, put it into your schedule before cramming in the other stuff. For me, that means I do my writing composition early in the day, when I’m fresh-minded and caffeinated. Then I answer emails and run errands and do all the hundred irritating administrative tasks of life later in the day.
Okay, so you’ve identified that big old metaphorical baby stroller to cram into the car, or that big ole metaphorical rock to cram into the flower vase, and you’ve committed to putting that sucker in before all the smaller stuff. Let’s talk about the composition of that hunk of time as it applies to the writing craft.
In my opinion, professional writers should divide their time equally into thirds. Only one-third of that time is spent in composition (which includes rough drafting or editing). Shocking, eh? Why only one-third? Because there are two other tasks that are equally important.
Besides throwing down ink, you better be reading. As Stephen King put it, “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have time to write.” Why is this so important? Because we’re lovers of the medium. We got into this game because we’re in love with the craft, the texture of words, the images that flow from language, the structure of plot and character development, and truths about the human condition that are waiting for us to learn and taste through the magic of story telling. We love stories. But like any love affair, the relationship must be nurtured regularly. Always find things to appreciate and love about your spouse, or the marriage falls apart.
As writers, we also read for practical reasons. We read to teach ourselves about writing, and it’s a neverending process. The greatest thing I learned while reading the first Game of Thrones novel by George R.R. Martin was how to write a multiple-viewpoint novel containing tons of characters without losing the reader. As a reader, I’ve noticed that if I can’t get deep enough into a character’s emotional viewpoint and perspective, then I become lost and bored. Martin avoided that by sticking with one POV character per chapter and by signposting the POV with a chapter subhead. And these weren’t pansy-ass two-page chapters, either. I’m talking significant, 5000-word chapters at least. I applied that technique in my own writing, and it really saved my ass.
Another reason to read is market awareness. If I told you I’m writing an innovative, original novel about a Transylvanian vampire, you’d laugh me out of the room. You gotta know something about your market to sell it, and most importantly, you gotta enjoy your market to write it effectively. You think I could pull off a regency romance novel? Hell, no. But an urban fantasy? Yessssss . . .
The final task is — you guessed it — the business. Or, the bidness, as I call it. This is all the rest of the mysterious shit you can learn from reading Writer’s Digest and going to conferences.
You have two primary tasks in the bidness.
The first is marketing your shit to industry professionals (like literary agents and publishers). There’s a remarkable uniformity of advice among people who own brains, as far as I can see. You join writers organizations. You go to conferences. You format your manuscripts the right way. You don’t act like a dick.
The second is marketing your shit to readers. You set up a website. You be nice to book stores. You interact with people. In short, you don’t act like a dick.
Stuff like that. There’s more to the bidness, and you’ll spend years cracking this particular rubric. But it’s where you learn the hows and whats of the profession. It sets you apart as a craftsman rather than a hobbyist.
Everything’s done in balance. So, let’s say you have three spare hours a day for this writing thang. (Yeah, right. Three whole hours.) Just for the sake of argument.
Spend one hour composing. Spend one reading. Spend one working on your query letter, or whatever.
Or maybe doing all three tasks in one day doesn’t work for you. Maybe you gotta rotate through the three tasks every three days. That would work.
I would caution you, though, to consider that your composition time will be the most efficient if you can do it every day. There’s a beneficial effect in your subconscious that will accumulate from the act of touching your story every day. You’ll dream about it. You’ll think about it while exercising and doing the dishes. It will become part of your day, like brushing your teeth.
Remember this guy?
Yeah. That’s you.
I’ve had some interesting conversations with people about the art of writing queries to literary agents, so I thought I’d summarize what I’ve learned. Not that I’m an expert since I haven’t landed an agent yet. But the contemporary advice at Query Shark and the “Query Letter Hell” sub-board of Absolute Write Water Cooler have been invaluable to me so far.
A query letter, which is a solicitation to a literary agent asking them to read your manuscript, is typically structured as follows:
As far as I can tell, the only main difference between a query, which is written, and a pitch, which is delivered orally in person, is that the housekeeping details come first. Maybe this was just a convention of this specific pitch program, but I was expected to start off with all those details and give the person a chance to write them down before I launched into my mini-synopsis. Oh, and by God, have your in-person sales pitch memorized. But I ranted about that in the last blog post.
Your mileage my vary, of course. I hope this helps writers who are entering the game. And if you have any thoughts or contrary advice, please post them in the comments below. I love talking shop.
My wife’s cell phone buzzed the arrival of a text message from her mother. I normally don’t invade Deena’s privacy by reading her messages, but it was the middle of the night, and if I didn’t stop it, the damn thing would buzz, loudly, once every minute until someone tapped VIEW.
“How was Matt’s adventure?” Deena’s mom asked, referring to the New York Pitch Conference, the incredible four-day writer’s event I’d just returned from.
“Wonderful,” I texted back. “I’ve been awake since 230, though. — Matt” I quickly followed that up with, “Sorry. Deena’s phone buzzed, and I was sitting here.”
“Why can’t you sleep? Plots and plans for next project running in mind?”
“Yes. Very happy. Boys are also sick as shit. Shit everywhere.”
My three- and five-year-old boys had diarrhea. It was inside the toilet. It was outside the toilet. It was in their jammies. On their beds. The tub. My face.
What I didn’t tell her about was the wonderful author I met there who made his bones in Christian category fiction. He sets aside ten hours every week to personally answer every fan letter. He told me that when his wife (who was sitting right there) became too sick to walk, he spent months carrying her where she needed to go. To the bathroom, up the stairs, wherever. He was glad to do it. That’s his understanding of true love, he told me.
He has seven kids, and I have two. I kind of want to be like him. We share that deep love for our children. Fortunately for me, it’s that love which powers the primary character arc of the fantasy novel I took to the New York Pitch Conference to sell. It’s about a man who travels across a parallel America, where human sacrifice is the norm, searching for his missing four-year-old son.
Fortunate, I say, because when a story comes along that fires on all cylinders, you feel it. The acquisitions editors who hear your sales presentation feel it, too. They’re not dummies.
I pitched the motherfucker out of that novel.
But a successful pitch is only a foot in the door. Now the writing has to stand on its own legs. My hopes have been cruelly crushed before. It’s all part of the business.
My hat is off to Michael Neff of Algonkian Writer Conferences for putting this together. He’s been organizing this quarterly event for ten years, and he knows his shit. I could go on and on, name-dropping for you, about the publishing gods I met. Suffice to say that somehow, magically, Michael has cultivated an unmatched network of top-tier professionals. I have been submitting for publication for twenty-five years, folks, so you can trust I am not bullshitting when I say these things.
Back to the pitch. If there’s one piece of advice I’d like to pass on to other writers, it’s as follows.
You. Must. Memorize. Your. Pitch.
This should be self-evident, but apparently it’s not. A pitch session is a five-minute — sometimes less — in-person sales presentation. It’s to a literary agent or acquisitions editor who has — and I am not exaggerating — nine thousand other competing solicitations waiting in his or her inbox. A successful agent might read more than 120,000 queries from writers annually and take on only a single new client.
So, which writer do you think is going to be seem more credible, authoritative, professional, sincere, and skilled: the one who sits there, reading from his laptop screen without making eye contact, or the one who can deliver a dramatic monologue consisting of, essentially, the short-story version of his novel? But hey, don’t take my word for it. Thomas F. Monteleone, bestselling novelist, my friend and mentor, backs me up on this. He’s the Padrone, and he has like thirty years’ more street cred than I do.
That being said, there were a few writers who did sit there, reading off their laptops, who nevertheless received the coveted blessing, which is, “Yes, I would like to read your manuscript.” That is a testament to the power of that person’s writing, that he/she would still receive that nod despite his/her best efforts to the contrary. The rest of us mere mortals, however, need every edge we can get. And that means being the most persuasive salesman possible. I want you to buy my vacuum cleaner, goddammit, so that means I will not have to glance at the instruction manual when you ask a question. That vacuum cleaner can suck the chrome off the space shuttle, so you should have absolute confidence in me when I say you won’t waste your time by giving it a test pass across your carpet.
“But no, Matt,” my fellow writers told me. “My pitch has undergone such massive rewrites since I came here that I need to have my laptop with me. I couldn’t possibly memorize every new version.”
Bullshit. Have you ever seen an actor read from his script in the middle of a movie you’ve gone to watch? Of course not. You think that actor may have had to memorize a whole new set of lines on the same day that scene was shot — maybe even minutes before the director yelled, “Action”? Yes. I’ve seen it happen.
“But Matt, writers are introverts. I don’t have your acting skills.”
Then you better learn. What, you think I’m an extrovert? I got news for you. On the inside, I’m an introvert, too. I am so fucking drained right now, as I write this, from interacting with people, that I’m gonna need jumper cables surgically attached to my heart. But I have learned over the years how to act like I’m an extrovert. I have learned public speaking, and yes, I’ve done some theatrical and movie acting. And those skills have saved my ass, both professionally and personally.
You can do it. You are a writer, but you are also your own best ally. If you don’t one hundred percent believe in yourself and your product, then no one else will do it for you.
At five a.m., Owen woke up with diarrhea, again. He was thereafter hungry and thirsty, so we sat at the kitchen table and ate an early breakfast. Actually, he ate. I drank coffee and listened to my haggard skin drip off my skull.
“I’m tired,” I said.
“Did they have trees in New York?”
Somehow, that led into a conversation about death. It always does around here. We discussed how cats die, and people die, but kites don’t die. When the wind ripped apart his kite last week, we threw it away. Owen wanted to bury his kite, but I said no, you don’t bury kites.
I told him, matter of factly, that I’m going to die one day. And for the first time in my life, I was all right with that. I realized that, regardless of what comes from this pitch conference, every word I have left to write happens between now and the day I die. Until I come back as a ghost, of course. So I might as well do it, no matter if I succeed or fail. Or, as the Padrone puts it, I’m just gonna lay my balls on the table and pass out hammers.
With that, I finally relaxed enough to sleep.
Here are some pictures from my trip. Click any thumbnail to enlarge:
This month, I polished a manuscript for a new fantasy novel and sent it off to three beta readers I trust.
While they’re reading it, I’ve been writing the marketing materials I’ll need to interest a literary agent, starting with the dreaded query letter. A query letter is a one-page solicitation to send to literary agents to entice them to read the manuscript and hopefully then to offer representation. It’s taken me a week to figure out how to write it the right way, and I’m still not sure if it’s getting close. An ongoing writer’s workshop, on a message board at the Absolute Write Water Cooler website, has been extremely helpful. The 2015 edition of Writers Market has outdated advice and is next to worthless.
Today, I started in on the extended synopsis. A synopsis may or may not be requested by an agent, depending on the submission guidelines. The current advice is to have two forms ready: a long synopsis and a short synopsis. The short synopsis should be 1,000-2,000 words long. My novel is 102,000 words long. I’m two-thirds of the way through my manuscript and already have 3,000 words. I’m guessing this one will be the “long” synopsis. Once I’m done, I’ll do the surgery to shorten it to the shorter form.
Oh, joy. Not.
On both of these projects, my mood is somewhere between having a good time and wanting to stab my eyes out with chopsticks. “It’s just a writing exercise!” I tell myself. “I looooove writing, yes I do!” And then I give the ole cylinder of the gun another spin and dry-click it against my head.
Oh, and get this. Some agents might even request a market analysis. That means having intelligent responses ready for questions about target audiences and comparable titles by other writers. This, after all the writing advice that says, “Don’t worry about what genre it is or where it fits into the spectrum. Just write the thing.”
Spin. Click. Spin. Click.
I’d be interested to hear about other writers’ experiences.
As my family and friends know, three art forms consume my life. The first, the main subject of this website, is writing. The second, which I’ve practiced on and off since age 6, is the piano, particularly classical music performance. And since age 22, it’s been martial arts, on and off.
“On and off” is the key phrase here. It’s so damn hard to keep one’s life balanced, especially when there are all-consuming responsibilities like working a job and raising a family. (And washing the dishes. Some nights, it takes me a half hour. I’ve learned to wear rubber gloves.)
Lately, I’ve discovered — or rediscovered — a truism about getting better at anything. It’s so trite that it’s laughable. But it’s also comforting to learn, once again, that practice makes perfect.
This month, with both my children finally in school, I started practicing the piano again regularly after a nearly 20-year hiatus. Oh, it’s not like I ever gave it up completely. I’ve always held onto my Steinway studio upgright and religiously had it tuned every six months. And I’ve occasionally played music gigs and performed at parties. But not since college have I made a commitment to sit down every day to do something as mundane as practice scales or patiently learn the subtleties of a Mozart sonata.
Mozart’s piano sonata in G major (K. 189h) has been my project lately. Like many of his compositions, it’s a deceptively simple suite of three movements that rarely layers on more than two voices. My edition, edited by Richard Epstein in 1918, makes sparing use of the pedal and allows Mozart’s charm and elegance to shine through.
If only the composer were here to play it. I have an unsubtle set of knobby fingers with hair on the knuckles. It’s hard not to imagine him sitting in my living room, wincing and shaking his head at my attempts to give voice to his creation.
Almost every weekday morning for the past month, I’ve practiced for a half hour before work. I usually do it after working out, which means that, even if I’ve showered and changed clothes, I’m sweating and kind of looking like Mike Myers’s Fat Bastard as I sit there (shirtless, to cool off), dripping onto my piano bench.
I start with scales and arpeggios, all the major and minor keys from C to F. On alternate days, I try to do F up to B. While a piano minor, I was required to practice both hands in parallel (up and down the keyboard together) and in opposition (hands moving in opposite directions). I haven’t recovered the oppositional skills yet, let alone recovered all the scales. I’m thinking if I chop my ring fingers off, I’ll be able to perfect B-flat minor.
This morning, a funny thing happened. After a month of working on the G major sonata, I returned to the first movement of the F major sonata (K. 300k). That’s the first sonata I ever learned with my old teacher Christopher Johnston, when I started with him in the seventh grade. It’s a fun piece with dark colors and sforzando chords that stomp on you when you least expect them.
I’ve had years to learn bad habits with that one. It’s so much fun to play that I usually slop through the piece, not correcting my errors. (Hell, who has time to rework a fingering when you only have five minutes to play before a toddler walks up and wants to bang the keys?) But this morning, it suddenly sounded different. Better. I wasn’t sure why; it wasn’t like I’d been practicing it. It took a few minutes of talking to myself to figure it out. (I often talk to myself. You wouldn’t want to watch me write.)
The first difference was that I played the piece slower. It gave me time to pay attention to where my sausages landed. And that meant I was being more precise. Mozart music is, if nothing else, precision-driven. I was also more concerned with my phrases and with the crispness of my rests. Whereas before I’d always relied on the sustain pedal to smooth over my lousy transitions, this morning I thought what the hell and tried playing it with almost no pedal at all.
In short, I was using all the same habits I’d used over the past month to learn the other sonata. And the result was it sounded at least twice as better.
Practice. It makes all the difference. I’m noticing similar results in my jiu-jitsu and with my fiction writing.
Now the only riddle to solve is how to keep my perspiration from discoloring the wood.