Thursday, May 23, 2013

Alone or Lonely - A Tough Call

I’m an extrovert.  I love being around people.  I adore human interaction.  I’m as happy to throw a party as I am to attend one.  That is how I am, and how I’ve always been, and there isn’t much I can do to change it.

I’m also a writer, and writing is a solitary and somewhat lonely profession.  It involves long hours spent by myself, wrapped up in something that only exists in my own mind.  I love being a writer, and I crave the quiet hours necessary for the creative process, but sometimes I just really want to talk to someone else and get out of my own world for a few minutes.
Enter social media – my gateway to contact with other living breathing humans that can be achieved without leaving my desk.  Facebook, Twitter, and even good old fashioned email are wonderful tools for me to use as a writer, but also as a person who needs to occasionally hear from someone who is not a character living inside of my head.  

Recently I attended my first writers’ conference, Pennwriters 2013.  It was a great experience.  I learned a great deal and made a lot of new friends.  But even better for me, it gave me the chance to be around people while still working at my craft.  That contact energized me.  It made me feel happy and excited and almost a little giddy.  I’d missed being around people in a work related setting.  I hadn’t experienced that in a long time.
But as I looked around at the others in attendance, I realized that not everyone was experiencing the same euphoria as me.  Many people were walking around with pained expressions on their faces, like this entire situation made them feel uncomfortable.  Some people looked sullen and miserable.  Others looked like they might want to curl up in fetal position with their hands covering their ears to block out the noise. 

They were the introverts.  I could spot them a mile away.
Writing is a great profession for introverts.  Conferences almost cause them physical pain.  The human interaction and socialization that energizes me drains them.  By the end of the conference, some of them were literally running out the door to escape.  It wasn’t because the conference wasn’t a valuable and useful experience for them – they learned as much as I did.  But it was much harder for them than it was for me, and I appreciate the personal and emotional sacrifices they made in order to attend. 

Introvert or extrovert, it doesn’t really matter.  We all do what we must to succeed as writers (or as accountants, or as artists, or as whatever).  I wish I could say I had a magical formula that would help introverts enjoy a writers’ conference, but I don’t.  Nor do I have anything that makes it easier for an extrovert to sit in front of a computer all day.  You simply do what you have to do to produce the best writing you possibly can.
But if anyone has a magical formula that would help me avoid wasting time on Facebook, please pass it on.  I need it. 

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Judging Books and Covers

I attended my first writers’ conference today, Pennwriters 2013, and I was pleasantly surprised.  I met some wonderful people (not a Negative Nellie in the bunch), had a great time, and learned a few things, too.  But one of the most important lessons I learned had nothing to do with what was being taught in the classroom.  It was about judging people, and having preconceptions as well as misconceptions.

I took a class on creating a website today.  It is something that overwhelms me, but it is something I will have to do.  Having a web presence and being actively involved in social media is not an optional activity for writers in today’s market, it is mandatory.  I have conquered Facebook, Twitter, and even blogging (well, sort of), but the idea of creating a website still fills me with fear. 

Before the lesson began, the instructor asked us to introduce ourselves.  I hadn’t really noticed it before, but I suddenly realized that most of the people attending were older than me.  In fact, they were much older than me.  The oldest person in the class proudly told us she was ninety years old.

Now I have a ninety two year old grandmother who I love to death, but she probably thinks a website is something a spider might design.  I couldn’t imagine her sitting in this class.  I wondered what this ninety year old lady was doing here, and I tried to guess what sort of writing she did.  I was fairly certain it had to be some sort of memoir writing, probably for her grandchildren.  I was dead wrong.

“I write about French history.  I wrote a book on 17th century French history that was published, and I’m currently working on a book on the 19th century in France, which was a very volatile period,” she said.

I was suddenly glad I had forgotten to mention in my own introduction that my first book was about a cheerleader from outer space. 

Another elegant older lady introduced herself, and I decided to try the fun “Guess Her Genre” game again.  I decided she must write non-fiction, most probably something about local history.

I was wrong again.  She was an artist working on a graphic novel.  Suddenly I realized a terrible truth.  These old people were much cooler than me. 

I had experienced some trepidation about taking this class.  Lately I have felt more than a bit overwhelmed by how much I have to learn.  But when I saw that ninety year old woman embracing this new information with curiosity and an eager desire to learn, I was ashamed.  I’m half her age and I have teenagers who can help me.  It is time to stop making excuses. 

We all had something to learn in that class, and we all had something to contribute.  I came away with more confidence and some practical and useful advice about creating a website.  I also learned something a great deal more valuable. 

Each of those writers in that room had a story to tell, and each of those stories was equally important and unique.  Today I remembered something I thought I’d learned a long time ago, which is not to judge a book by its cover.  Unless you take the time to open that book up and have a really good look, you won’t ever know what treasures lie inside.


Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Negative Nellies

In every profession, they exist, especially the arts.  They are the nay sayers.  The doom and gloomers.  The miserable masses.  They are the people who tell the young musician he’ll never make it.  They tell the talented artist she should study something “practical.”  They tell the acting student to get ready to wait tables.
Among writers, however, these Nellies seem to be even more certain of your impending failure.  They are so certain, in fact, that if you aren’t very careful (and extremely confident), you might start to believe it, too.
Writing is a very personal experience.  You are baring your heart, showing a part of yourself to the world that may not be the nicest, kindest or best part.  You have to be brave to be able to do that, but it can also make you feel very vulnerable.
I was invited to join a writers’ group once, and I was very excited about it.  I had barely begun to write at this point.  In fact, I had just submitted my first short story to a magazine.  After reading a great deal, I’d learned that agents and publishers were inclined to look more closely at your work if you had a publishing history of some kind.  My credits of creating a few advertisements for Japanese architectural magazines when I lived in Japan a very long time ago were not exactly the kind of history that interested them.
I went to the meeting, which was held at one of my favorite places, Barnes and Noble.  I saw it as a good sign.  With my notebook in hand, I was nervous, but hopeful.  I had so much to learn, and I was certain the people at this writers’ group would be a great resource for me, a support group.  I was wrong.
The writers sat around a table, eying me with suspicion.  They were not what I expected, although I didn’t think I had expectations.  With one or two exceptions, it looked like an aging hippie convention.  It was a group of women with long grey hair, slovenly clothing, bare feet shoved into flip flops and miserable expressions on their faces (which were completely devoid of any make-up, by the way).  None of that mattered to me, but I immediately came to the conclusion that these people did not look like professionals, and they certainly did not look successful.
I decided not to judge.  Writing is a solitary business, and I myself spend a great deal of time in yoga pants with a shawl wrapped around my shoulders and no make-up on my face.  In fact, that is what I look like at this very moment.  But I am at home.  Alone.  Dressing well and appropriately is not caving to society.  It is presenting yourself as a serious and professional person.  Dressing like a slob in public does not make you a better writer.
But I digress.  When they asked me introduce myself, I did.  I told them I had just submitted my first short story and the name of the magazine.  All of them began to shake their heads, almost simultaneously.
“You’ll never get published in that magazine.  It is impossible to break in.  You won’t even hear back from them,” said one of the women.
Then it began.  The attack of the Negative Nellies.  They talked, and talked, and talked about how many times they had been rejected (hundreds).  They said getting published was impossible.  They spoke quite personally of their own heartbreak and frustration.  I felt bad for them, but when I began to feel their negativity creep under my skin, I had to distance myself.  Their failures were not mine.
There were a few success stories in the group.  One lady had been published in a magazine that shared shocking stories sold under the premise they were true.  She hadn’t been paid yet for her work, and said the magazine was famous for not paying their contributors.  Another woman, the huge celebrity of the group, had an agent and had published an e-book.  The hippie woman with a giant pink kitten emblazoned on her t-shirt sitting next to me explained that it was erotica.  It made me feel a little depressed.  These women had worked and slaved for years, and yet the only thing any of them had really achieved was a smut book.  It was sad.
I left Barnes and Noble dragging my feet.  Even the smell of the Starbucks wafting through the store was not enough to make me happy.  I kept hearing their words in my head.  You’ll never get published.  You’ll never get published.  When I saw the rows and rows of published books on the shelves, I straightened my spine and told that voice in my head to shut up.  I didn’t know anything about these women.  They might be lazy.  They might be incompetent.  They might lack talent.  And I told myself again, their failures were not mine.
I went home more determined than ever, even if it was just to prove them wrong.  And the next day, when I opened my mailbox, I had a reply to my short story submission.  It was a handwritten note from one of editors of the magazine.  She told me she liked the story, but it was too long.  She asked me to cut down the word count and resubmit it.  It was a short little note, but it made all the difference in the world. 
I did exactly as she said, and we sent the story back and forth over the course of a few months.  Finally, she felt it was ready to present it to her boss, and her boss would decide if it would be published or not.  Her boss declined, but it really didn’t matter.  I had crossed some sort of personal hurdle.  Just that one editor believing in my story was enough.
Eventually I sent in seven more short stories to different magazines and contests.  Two were published.  Two received Honorable Mentions.  Another hurdle crossed.  I never went back to that writers' group.  Once was more than enough.
Don’t listen to the Negative Nellies in your life.  It doesn’t matter if you are a writer or a painter or a candlestick maker – do what you love, and do it to the best of your ability.  With enough hard work, skill, and a bit of luck, things might just work out for you.
I saw one of the Nellies from the writers’ group the other day.  She asked me how the writing was going, and I told her.  I’d signed with a fabulous agent.  My first book was on submission.  Everything was going well.
She shook her head.  “That really doesn't mean anything.  I have to warn you, it is very hard to get published.”
At that moment, I realized I was almost completely immune to Negative Nellies.  I’d built a sort of coat of armor around myself to guard against their jealousy, spite, and even their nasty, negative vibes.  I wasn’t angry with her.  I pitied her. 
She smiled and offered me one last piece of advice as I turned to go.  I heard it very clearly, as well as the sound of desperation in her voice.  "Don't get your hopes up."
I smiled right back at her and said, “Too late.  They already are.”