Monthly Archives: May 2012

What Now?

Rejection lettersSo agents and editors have the notorious slush pile while writers have the drawer or shoe box full of rejections. Actually mine are in a folder; the hard copies, that is. There are plenty more that are archived in my email, and it’s hard to collect the ringing silences that are most rejections today.

My friend Debbie posted on her blog on Monday, “How do you react when you hear ‘no’? Have you heard it yet? Is it time to start accumulating some rejections?” Well, this question seemed very timely for me, so here’s your answer, Debbie.

I first started trying to get my books published when I was nineteen, many years ago now, so I’m pretty familiar with rejections. I had no idea what I was doing, and I made lots of rookie mistakes. I just wanted to get the novel that I’d slaved over for five years out into the world. It’s like launching a ship. You smash that bottle over the prow and let it slide down into the water, hoping and praying that it will float, that it will glide majestically out of the harbor on its maiden voyage.

Let’s just say, my ship sprung a leak. It’s lying on the bottom of the harbor, making a nice home for fish. But that first rejection was like a badge of honor. I was a writer. I had a letter from a publisher that said so. Actually, it said, “Thank you for your submission. We do not feel it is right for us at this time,” but same thing, right?

Now that I’ve been doing this for years, it gets harder and harder to hear ‘no’. I feel like my work is the best it’s ever been, and if that’s not enough, then maybe I’m just not cut out for this business. I know that’s not true, but it’s so easy to believe the lie.

After months (years if you count writing the book) of preparation, I sent Kristin Nelson my first thirty pages. A week ago, I got her reply. Since this is a post about rejections, you’ve probably already guessed she said ‘no’. It wasn’t devastating, but there was that flash of disappointment and descent into self-doubt. This was my best work and she said ‘no’. What now?

Sending your work out into the world is scary, whether it’s to a publisher, an agent, or even just a critique partner. As writers, we wear our hearts on our sleeves. We bare our deepest selves right there on the page. With experience we develop a thick skin, a coat of armor.

It's just a flesh wound

But every rejection, every ‘no’ tries to poke a hole in it. When my first ‘no’ came back, it stung, but I shook it off, saying that wasn’t so bad. But then one ‘no’ becomes ten, and then fifty, and then I realize I’ve exhausted my whole list of possible agents and editors. What now? How long can I keep doing this before my armor is so riddled with holes, it falls apart? When do I give up on my dream and decide to self-publish?

It’s at this point that I have to step back and remember why I write. Yes, my dream is to one day see my name on a book cover. Yes, I want my stories to touch people’s lives and change them for the better. I know I’m not the only one who feels these things, but the world isn’t going to notice if my book never appears on a shelf in Barnes and Noble. I didn’t start writing because I had narcissistic desire to see my name in print or because I had a message to get across. I started writing because I had stories in my head. I kept writing because I realized I loved it. I can’t stop putting words on a page anymore than I can stop reading (it’s been tried, the result was fugly). If someone was to say, “I can see the future, and you will never be published”, would I stop writing? Hell, no.

So I guess that’s my answer. What now? I’ll keep writing. I’ll keep putting words on the page, keep telling my stories if only to myself (and my sisters who never get tired of hearing them). When I’ve exhausted my list of agents and editors, I’ll send out the next book. I’ll keep working, keep making them better. And I’ll keep collecting the rejections. Maybe I’ll make a collage.

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The Handiness in Being Handicapped

For those who don’t know, I live with a disability. I’m used to it, but occasionally I come across something that reminds me of all the things I can’t do, and I have to make a choice not to let it get to me. So I try to find joy in the little things. I try to recognize those moments when I realize I have an advantage. Every now and then there are some things that make all this worthwhile, things that make me smile.

Wheelchairs. Who hasn’t thought it would be fun to tool around in one? You can admit it. Wheelchairs are awesome. And it’s not like you can just rent one. You kind of have to have a legitimate reason for one, otherwise it’s awkward. Zipping around in my small, fast TiLite is pretty fun. It’s the only time I can actually go faster than everyone else in the world. The big open floors at Sam’s Club and Ikea are perfect racing grounds (although, you want to go with an able-bodied hubby or friend because what you make up for in speed, you lose in being able to maneuver those big carts around, yeah, picture it in your mind, and now go ahead and laugh, it’s okay, I promise). And for me, the chair lets me do more for longer than if I was just walking. A few summers ago we went to Yellowstone National Park, which was amazingly accessible. There were boardwalks everywhere so even in the wheelchair I could get up close and see the paint pots and the pools full of cyanobacteria. I’d never have been able to keep up if I was walking.

Parking. That’s the one advantage everyone thinks of. I have a handy-dandy placard in my car that lets me park in those big spots right up close to the stores. Very nice (until they’re all taken and I have to park forever away and walk, but that’s a soap box for another day). What most people don’t realize is that there are several advantages to handicapped parking that those of us with disabilities need. I use all of them at various points. Yes, the location is a big one. If I’m walking then the last thing I want to do before hours of shopping (I hate shopping) is hike a million miles before I even get to the store. But if I’m in my chair then distance is nothing. It becomes an issue of space. Even my little custom-fitted TiLite is too big to get between the cars in the rest of the lot. That’s what those hash marks are for (not grocery carts). Oh, and when I’m in the chair, I’m short. Cars driving through the parking lot can’t see me, so getting a spot up close keeps me from getting run over. Always a good thing.

Airports. There really isn’t anything good about airports, but the wheelchair makes it bearable. Security sees me coming and a special line magically opens just for me. Sure I have to live through a patdown, (chair can’t go through a metal detector) but what’s getting to second base with a complete stranger in latex gloves compared to skipping that hellish line? I’ll take second base, please (even if they don’t buy me dinner first). And sometimes Josh can play up my disability and fanagle us bulkhead seats. Seriously, his height should be considered a disability when we’re flying anyway.

I’m sure there are other advantages. These are the ones that come to mind immediately. Maybe I’ll share them with y’all as I come up with them. Can anyone think of any more? Come on. There are so many crappy things. Let’s revel in the good for once.

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Never the Same

Eugenides is the protagonist of Megan Whalen Turner’s The Queen’s Thief series, and one of my favorite characters to boot. He is our hero, and also a thief. It’s hard to talk about Gen and his disability without spoiling some of the twists in the series, but I’m going to try.

I re-read The Thief at least once a year. It’s an amazing book, but what’s incredible is that the sequel, The Queen of Attolia, is even more amazing. And the next one, The King of Attolia, is even better than that. I think one thing that makes the subsequent books so good is the introduction of a major stumbling block to this character who was so incredibly resourceful and infallible in the first.

At the beginning of the second book, Gen is caught and suffers the traditional punishment for thievery. He loses his right hand. Cue the gasps of horror (I’ll admit horror was my first reaction, too), but Gen’s suffering brings a depth and realism to the series that gives it a place next to Flesh and Spirit by Carol Berg and Nightlife by Rob Thurman. Turner doesn’t spare our delicate feelings.

Throughout The Queen of Attolia, Gen struggles against feeling useless. “What can you steal with one hand?” Attolia asks him. “Nothing,” he says. And he believes that, returning home to wallow in loss and misery. He learns to live with one hand, but the process is slow and he ignores everything else that used to matter to him. Gen tries to cover his pain and bitterness with a joke and a smile but still flinches every time someone mentions his missing hand.

It isn’t until war comes that Gen remembers his greatest tool is his mind, not his hands, and he must be just as clever and cunning as ever in order to steal peace for his country.

This descent into self-pity until some trigger restores a character’s self-respect isn’t a new concept. Most of us with disabilities would recognize the feelings that threaten to swamp Gen. But what I love about Megan Whalen Turner is her subtlety. We’ve already read the first book. We know Gen is awesome and amazing. We had a first person view as he threw everyone for a loop in The Thief (including us) and saved the day. How could the second book have the same kind of zing and pop when we know all that? In The Queen of Attolia, Turner draws us back. She takes us out of Gen’s head and lets us watch as he flounders, showing us he’s not perfect. We still know that he’s amazing, but there is that niggling doubt. How can he pull this off? How can he be better when he seems like he’s less? We get to watch as he figures out he’s still amazing and proves it to us again.

And she does it again in the third book, pulling us even further back, putting us in the head of a character that doesn’t know Gen at all. We read along, biting our nails and falling off the edges of our seats as Gen proves to Costis who he is and what he’s capable of. Gen has learned to use his disability as an advantage. Yes, he uses that razor edge of his hook as another weapon, but it’s more than that. He manipulates the people around him, he plays up his disability, making everyone believe he’s weak and nonthreatening. They underestimate him. Every time Costis sighed in exasperation, I grinned and squealed (I try not to squeal too often, but a good book does that to me), because I knew there was something else going on. I never knew exactly what, but I trusted Gen. He was awesome and he was going to prove it in a completely new and unexpected way. And I wasn’t disappointed.

Other characters recognize Gen’s superiority despite how hard he tries to hide it. All through the fourth book, A Conspiracy of Kings, Sophos is inspired by Gen. His memories of the thief help him to push on and become a better man. Even Attolia, the woman responsible for cutting off Gen’s hand, is changed by him. She is haunted by what she’s done and by the end of the second book she is a very real, well-rounded character who has learned from her mistakes. I won’t spoil it here, but her journey is one of the most interesting and thought-provoking pieces of this series.

I’ve seen reviews of The Queen of Attolia that have talked about how well-written it is, how amazing the storyline is, but the reviewers still disliked the book because it was just too painful. For Gen, for Attolia, for Eddis. And especially for the one reading it.

I can understand that. When I first read this book, it bothered me. I appreciated it, but it made me uncomfortable. I had a hard time getting past the fact that Gen lost his hand. He was ruined. He would never be the same again.

I was young. I hadn’t had the experiences that make me who I am today. The thought of maiming was repulsive. Hurting or injuring someone permanently was unspeakable. It’s still an uncomfortable thing, but I have a new perspective on it. We’re all changed by our experiences. Sometimes permanently. It’s naïve to think we might skip along through life and come out of the woods in exactly the same shape we left the house in. If you’re like me, those changes aren’t just to thought process or personality.

Now, when I read this book, I don’t think of Gen as ruined. He’s different, he’s changed, and in some ways he’s better. Now, I’m caught up in how he handles and overcomes his own personal hell. I see his strength and the way he adapts. I see that he is disabled but not less.

The change I had to go through to get to this point in understanding was huge. Hopefully the rest of the world can come to see this distinction without sharing all the growing pains. And maybe Gen will help them get there.

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More Than Just Ground

I don’t like setting. I don’t really like reading about it or writing it. Terry Goodkind had those long paragraphs in Wizard’s First Rule that described the trees and the hills and how the light fell just so and… yeah, I skipped all those. In a lot of my first drafts you’re not even sure where a scene takes place because I avoided mentioning it. My characters could be floating in space – or in a lake – but you have no idea because I haven’t described it well enough. Or at all.

As a writer, I realized this is probably something I should get over and learn to do, and since I’m trying to write about writing, I figured I’d detail some of the slow, painful learning I’ve been doing.

Setting is more than just the ground your characters walk on while they’re solving the mystery of the painted chicken. Setting can be a critical reason for character development. Miles Vorkosigan would not have faced the same trials or overcome them the same way if his story had not taken place where it had. It can be an active component of the plot. If your novel takes place on a small island during a hurricane, you bet your characters are going to have to deal with all the problems that come with too little space and too much water.

Even if all you want to do is tell a human story while transporting your readers to a beautiful land similar to – but not exactly like – our world, you can’t get away with dumping lengthy paragraphs of description where nothing happens into a reader’s lap. Those places where the hero pauses in his hike up the mountain to survey the surrounding landscape with it’s carefully researched vegetation and painstakingly lyrical prose about the sunlight and the birds- those are the things I skip. I don’t care how beautiful the language is, I’m bored. And I’m a writer too, so I know how much work went into that paragraph and how much you love the imagery. But what does it matter if the reader never sees those words because they’ve flipped ahead to where the hero actually starts doing something besides sightseeing?

I tend toward the other side of the scale. I dislike reading description so much that I avoid writing it altogether. I’ll tell you that my characters are sitting in a room or traveling through a forest and that’s as much as you’re going to get because I’d rather concentrate on why she’s glaring daggers at him or the ninja that’s about to jump out at them and ruin everyone’s day. Readers have enough imagination that they can come up with the setting by themselves, right? Wrong. It’s your story. They want to hear and see and smell what you want them to hear and see and smell. So my approach doesn’t work either.

Well, then what’s a struggling writer to do? I sat in on one of Donald Maass’s workshops two weeks ago at the Pikes Peak Writers Conference, and he said to throw out traditional description. What? Really? Yup. No one reads it anyway. Well, some people do. But most admit to skipping it.

A story is told from a specific character’s point of view (well, usually, there is also omniscient POV, but that’s not what I’m talking about). Sometimes there are forays into another character’s POV, but every story needs a protagonist. Since the story is already being told from the protagonist’s POV with their voice, then the setting should be as well. Show the reader where they are through a character’s eyes. Let their upbringing and emotions color the description.

In another workshop, the presenter gave us an exercise: Describe a building from the POV of a girl who just lost her boyfriend in a car accident, without mentioning the girl, the boyfriend, or the accident. This was my attempt:

Black stains crept up the cracked brick walls, and windows stared back like accusing eyes that knew all the secrets of the world. Water streamed from the sky and down the glass, making it seem like the building itself was crying.

The next exercise was to take that same building, same weather conditions, and describe it from the POV of a boy in love, without mentioning the boy or his emotional state.

Water poured down the brick facade, running through the cracks and over the black stains as if washing away the building’s dark past, cleansing its iniquities and raising it to new life.

 Now, I could have written it:

 The rain pinged off the dirty windows and ran down through the cracks in the brick, over the black stains.

Can you see the difference? The first two are colored with the emotions of the characters, what they’ve experienced, how they’re feeling in that moment. Instead of getting a boring line about the building – which could be really important, but how would we know because we skipped it – we get a closer look at the character and what’s important to them.

If you’re writing about a disabled character, this could be especially useful. Instead of giving the reader a lecture about how your girl in a wheelchair is supposed to feel, show them by including details only someone who has to navigate in a wheelchair would notice. The sidewalk is tilted so she feels she has to lean way over to keep her chair from falling over. There isn’t enough room for her to get from one side of the room to the other. People’s toes are in the way (toes and bookbags, I’m always running into toes and bookbags).

In this last exercise, we were supposed to take a character from our current work in progress and stick them on a horse ranch a half-hour away from the nearest store. Merry is from a fantastical world similar to Victorian England, so I had to wrap my mind around it first, but here’s what I came up with.

Manure. Did they really expect me to roll through manure? They knew I steered with my hands, right? “Do you have any wipes?” I asked.

“Nope.”

“Well then we have to get wipes. I’m not going any further without wipes.”

“Nearest store’s half an hour away.” He eyed me. “Just use your jeans. Nothing wrong with them.”

You may not get a great picture of time of day or what exactly it looks like from this little bit, but you certainly know how she feels about the place. You know she’s probably in a wheelchair and which specific detail she’s worried about. And as a bonus you can see some of what the secondary character is feeling from the dialogue.

It’s not easy. I have lots of places to go back and rewrite or add description from a character’s POV, but in the end, your story will be much richer and your reader will have a better idea of who your characters are and what they care about.

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Bookworm Blues

Today you can find me over at Bookworm Blues talking about disabilities in science fiction and fantasy. This series Sarah is hosting is an amazing opportunity to promote the idea of disabled fantasy heroes and help people understand those of us with disabilities better. Robert Jackson Bennett opened the discussion yesterday and Carol Berg will be weighing in on Thursday, and I’m really looking forward to seeing what the rest of the month holds. Take a minute to check it out. You won’t be disappointed.

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