And Finally, Thanks To Winter

Winter’s about to strike again and I’m excited. It’s almost March and we’re expecting 11 inches along the Wisconsin-Illinois border. The approach of snow and falling temps focuses the mind like few things can. I’m writing this in stages, while panic-buying groceries, because I can’t predict when I’ll be able to leave the house again. But while trapped, I’ll thread various plotlines – currently in my head — into a coherent narrative for a future novel. Here, art often depends on the whims of nature.

If you’re a creative person who lives above the 40th Parallel, you know January through March is a fertile time. After all, going outside is not only unpleasant, it can be dangerous. Your weather app’s warning to hunker down not only keeps you safe, it discourages visitors from interrupting your process. I must use this opportunity. I vow to disable my internet and silence my phone. I’ve consumed plenty of content created by others in recent weeks. Now it’s time to invent something of my own. Lean in, I tell myself, and don’t stop writing until the last pile of snow finally melts.

Hopefully, if you do the same, you’ll have a solid second draft by the time spring arrives. Well done! Now let it rest. It’s impossible to continue because robins are singing (when did they return?), daffodils are blooming, and trees are greening again. The whole earth is stirring with diversion — look a bunny!

See? Who can create when nature demands so much attention?

You might say we’ll be used to these distractions by summer, but you’d be wrong. Almost overnight, people’s clothes get more revealing. Engines rev and roar, and that sun; it rises early and stays up long after dinner. And when it finally gets low, I defy you not to be mesmerized by the sky turning orange, then tomato, then strawberry shake before fading to coal.

No, summer is for editing, a process that’s more craft than art. It’s about weeding words, mowing sentences, shearing off entire paragraphs. You’ve had three months away from your manuscript, so now you can review it with fresh eyes. With careful pruning, it’ll soon resemble a garden maze where your reader enters here, enjoys a laugh there, stumbles into trouble, then gets in even more trouble before ending at a koi pond where they can sit and ponder their journey.

Satisfied with it? Send it to your publisher.

The crisp air of autumn might tempt you to begin your next work, but I wouldn’t. Not yet. Inspiration awaits in apple orchards and bonfires. As the sun sets earlier each day, people begin sharing family lore, including hauntings, and everything is so compelling you realize you’re listening all the time – which is good. This is when you gather all those chronicles and tall tales, bottle them, and let the fermenting begin.

Before you know it, you’re in that period infused with nostalgia: the holidays. The smell of baked cookies and roasting meat sends me back to my grandma’s kitchen, where I stare at a picture of a Black Forest cake and struggle to decipher the recipe. Or was it flourless chocolate with raspberry? When I ask my cousin, he insists the kitchen belonged to my allergic aunt who used karob instead, which may explain my perusing a real dessert book. Nonetheless, competing memories reveal how stories evolve. Steep in these a while longer. And when the New Year begins, and the noise subsides, you’ll know the time for input is over. Go ahead — open that bottle of distilled experience and pour with abandon. Don’t worry about containing spills; there’ll be plenty of time to clean up later. A new wave of creation is underway up north!

If you live further south, where each day is graced with warmth and sunshine, and creativity transcends seasons, I truly envy you. Still, this supports my theory that geography and climate have a greater hold on the imagination than we realize. Whether your locale lets your taps run freely or only when the time is right, make a point of experiencing both. Consider swapping houses with yours truly. This way, I could – without irony — paint seven self-portraits enjoying ice cream outdoors and caption them Monday through Sunday. I wonder what you’d create in a place that’s pleasant for maybe 14 days every year.

Don’t worry, I’m not about to invade your neighborhood. Northern inhabitants like me appreciate how bad weather nourishes our dark side and, frankly, we don’t like being creative all the time. But if you ever get tired of endless sunshine, and yearn for the rhythm of seasons, come up here after the holidays. Barricade yourself against the snow and wind. And if your time up here proves fruitful, be sure to include winter in your acknowledgements. I would understand how un-ironic that is.

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisement

Embrace Rejection

The following work is a transcript of the keynote speech for Rock Valley College’s 35th Annual Writing Awards Ceremony, delivered by WNIJ broadcaster and author Dan Klefstad (Shepherd & the Professor).


Congratulations in advance to the writers who will be recognized tonight. I look forward to reading your work and sharing the stage with you at future author events. And to those who don’t receive an award: Take heart, you will be recognized one day. And, one day, you might even get the publishing contract your novel, academic paper, or memoir deserves. But I think we should all prepare ourselves for an industry that is structured to say No to your work.  That’s the default. Your job is to be so brilliant you force publishers and agents to flip the switch when they encounter your words.

I’ve published many times, but I’ve also been rejected hundreds of times. In 2016, I got my first traditional contract for a novel – actually, a fictional memoir — about a woman who’s a veteran, cop, and single mother.  I realized I’d need some reviews, so I sent another round of query letters. The reviews couldn’t have been more varied. They ranged from “Unconventional and refreshing” to – quote — “It read like the ramblings of a crazy woman, and for a short amount of time that’s fine, but not for 267 pages!” Then she added: “Many thanks to the author for providing me a digital copy of this book.”

I am living proof that bad reviews and rejection letters will make you stronger…if you let them. One of the people who inspired me is not a writer, but a freelance I-T worker featured on NPR’s “Invisibilia” podcast. His name is Jason Comley, a 30-something who spiraled into depression and paranoia after his wife left him. She found someone who was taller than he was and wealthier. Comley’s feelings about himself got so bad that he became afraid to leave the house and meet new people. In his words: “I had nowhere to go, and no one to hang out with… so I just broke down and started crying.” Comley realized he was afraid, so he asked himself: afraid of what?

“I’m afraid of rejection,” he realized.

So Comley resolved to get over his fear. He decided to make a game out of rejection, and this is what I recommend you do. He made a point of getting rejected at least once every day by someone. After a while, it felt good to get rejected all the time because, as Comley put it: “I disobeyed fear.”

Disobeyed. Comley really hit on something there. I never thought that fear depended on our obedience. But it does. And it’s not like fear is the criminal justice system – it can’t lock you in prison if you disobey. There’s no enforcement mechanism! And if nobody can prosecute you for disobeying fear… then rejection is an empty threat.

So how does a writer play Comley’s rejection game?  You write something, you submit it to a publisher. Pick a publication you aspire to be in or an agent you want to represent you. Then pick several more. Write, submit – don’t even wait for the replies because those take weeks. Write, submit, and embrace the “No thanks” emails when they start coming in.

And remember: The publishing industry has No as its default. Even after you get a good edit, the gatekeepers who are flooded with manuscripts will try to find a reason to keep you out. Dare them to. Because content is subjective and if they don’t like your work now, they might like it later. Or another publisher might take a chance with you.

It’s worth pausing for a moment and reflecting on all the times publishers got it wrong. They said No to authors who’d go on to be blockbusters. JK Rowling’s Harry Potter pitch was rejected a dozen times. John Grisham’s first novel, A Time to Kill, got 24 rejections. Stephen King rejected himself initially — He threw out the first chapters to, Carrie. Fortunately, his wife fished the crumpled pages out of the garbage and made him finish it, which he did. Then it got thirty rejections. The list goes on and on, so I’m guessing several people here could – eventually – land a major contract or get into a prestigious journal. You just have to keep trying.

Some of you may have been studying the market for the type of writing you do. You have a pretty good idea how your manuscript will fit in, and you can tell an agent or publisher at least three titles that resemble your work. That’s a benefit because publishers would rather repeat someone else’s success than take a chance on something unfamiliar. If you take this route, I hope you make lots of money. There is no shame in playing it safe and cashing a check. It means one day you’ll have the freedom to take a risk, to experiment, to try to advance the craft in the way you think it should go. When you’re ready to do this, that’s the book I’ll read.

For those here who don’t care about the existing market and who insist on being original… you’re after my own heart. You’re the writer other writers will love – and maybe even give you a couch to sleep on when your meal ticket dumps you. One day, and it may take a really long time, enough of the reading public will catch up to you. They’ll like how you test the limits of their expectations – even their patience. They’ll appreciate how you helped them see the world differently. But for many years, all those risks you’re taking with form, character, and plot will be poison to publishers. And when you do finally publish, the reviewers will savage you.

Embrace their attacks. Any professional reviewer who takes the time to bash you in public has at least taken the time to read your work. You got under their skin and they will remember you.

(lean in) Send them another book. Let them shoot you full of arrows again. Someday, long after, they’ll encounter you at a writer conference or online chatroom, and they’ll see you survived them. You kept writing – despite their criticism – and managed to find an audience and build on it. They couldn’t keep you down. They will respect that.

A moment ago, I said “You managed to find an audience and build on it.” This is inevitable for any writer, or any artist, who has talent and keeps working to improve. Malcolm Gladwell writes about the theory that it takes 10-thousand hours to become a master of your craft. He explores this in his book Outlier. In one chapter, he calculates all the hours the Beatles rehearsed privately and played publicly before their landmark album Meet the Beatles came out in 1964. Ten thousand hours. In another chapter, Gladwell calculates all the hours Bill Gates wrote computer code – starting in high school — before co-founding Microsoft in 1975. Ten thousand hours.  I think it’s safe for you to expect a similar time investment. The Beatles were in their early 20s when they hit it big. Bill Gates was the same age.

How old are you?  Take a moment and think how many hours you have been writing and re-writing in class or on your own time. You might be closer to 10K than you realize.

At some point in your efforts to get published, you’ll walk into a bit of luck. I’m a big believer that people who strive make their own luck. The agents and publishers who have the power to keep you in obscurity just can’t help themselves when they see someone struggling to get their manuscript through the door. In my case, a handful of agents offered advice – They took precious moments from their day to write me an email saying why my manuscript wasn’t working for them and offered suggestions for improving it. If this happens to you, treat that advice like gold. Thank them, revise again, and then re-submit.

Speaking of submissions… Industry insiders will tell you they don’t like it when you submit to every publisher who handles science fiction or horror or literary criticism. They do have a point when they say “Hey, we invested valuable time reading your submission and then you went with this other publisher (or agent).” My thoughts on this are simple and direct: They have all the power. You are at a disadvantage. You need to do what’s best for your manuscript, so I recommend you don’t become too concerned when they complain about investing a little time in you. THAT’S THEIR JOB. Now, you can play fair and say in your query letter that you’re submitting to everyone and that you’ll inform them when you get an offer. Do this but know you don’t owe them anything more.

Let’s fast forward a few years. You have a brilliant manuscript and got a professional edit. You finally found a publisher who believes in your book or article and signed the contract. Congratulations — Welcome to the world of literary promotion!

You might know that each author must be the chief marketer of their work. Even large publishers with marketing staff can only do so much. Most publishers will give you resources and advice, but they don’t have the staff to sell your book. So how do you pick up their slack and start selling?

You can spend a lot of money paying for marketing services and, believe me, there are a lot of people out there who offer various packages and rates – and none of them can offer you any metrics on how successful their services are. Let’s be clear: marketing is an art not a science. With this in mind, I’ll tell you what I’ve learned through my own experience, and that begins with this: Never pay for promotion.

I’ve never paid a penny. But I have spent many more hours marketing my writing than actually writing. I still don’t know how I feel about that, and I cannot point to any metrics saying my marketing efforts are paying off. But I feel like I’m moving the ball forward and that’s got to mean something. I’m still in the game. I’m… here… after all, so I must be doing something right. So what did I do?

I looked up book bloggers. These are readers, just like you and me, except they maintain blogs containing their reviews plus other cute features like “First Line Friday” or “Short Story Sunday” or “Monday Memoir.” Each one has a TBR or “to be read” stack that’s a mile high and I wanted to see if they’d move my book up. So I pitched them with the following line: “Looking for extra content for your blog? How about an email Q & A?”  And a surprising number of bloggers jumped on this. They sent me a list of questions, I answered within a day or two, and – Voila – there’s my interview on their blog, plus my photo and a link to the Amazon “buy page” for my book.

It was the easiest thing I could do with my time, and now I have bloggers who are curious about me and my work. And it only takes one if they’re part of a network, so I recommend you focus on these. Many bloggers have agreements with other bloggers where they share posts on their websites, and then post the links on Twitter, Facebook and other social media. Let me give you an example:

Two years ago, Love Books Group reviewed four of my vampire stories that will be included in my next book. This Scottish blog gave me a good review, included a photo of me, and links to my other work available on Amazon. That’s not remarkable. Here’s what is:

18 UK-based bloggers shared it on their sites and tweeted it. Each member of this network averages 15,000 Twitter followers, and they’re also active on Facebook, Pinterest and Instagram.

15,000 x 18 equals… I don’t care what the number is, THAT is a network that’s too important to ignore.

It includes blogs like Chat About Books, Keeper of Pages, Linda’s Book Blog, Between the Lines, Bits About Books, and Swirl & Thread. Each of them got to know me after I pitched an interview. Then I pitched my first vampire story “The Caretaker” and three of them gave enthusiastic reviews.

In my experience, when one of them likes you, you’re in. It’s not necessary for them to like everything you write. The blogger at Swirl & Thread, for example, doesn’t like vampires. Keeper of Pages loved my story “The Caretaker” but was not happy with my novel Shepherd & the Professor.  This experience taught me something about what works and what doesn’t with certain readers.

That’s how I got free publicity and laid the groundwork for sales of my forthcoming novel. If you write creative fiction, I recommend you get in this network or something similar. If you’re an academic writer, find a journal that gets quoted in popular media. And in both cases, be sure to let your local media know about the attention you’re getting — because reporters tend to chase the same stories and, depending on what else is going on in the news, you might be the story for one day.

It seems ridiculous to have to say this, because you’re all polite people, but being nice makes all the difference. Sadly, not everyone gets this, and I feel sorry for the writer who responds angrily to a bad review. The bloggers I know consider an attack on one an attack on all, and they will shut out any author who insults them.

When I saw this on Twitter, it resembled an excommunication. I felt certain the offending author’s writing would never again see the light of day, and he would die frozen and alone knowing it was his own damned fault. Which, of course, it was.

It doesn’t need to end this way. Don’t like that two-star rating? Suck it up and say “Sorry it wasn’t your cup of tea,” and thank them for their time. If the reviewer had a specific complaint, consider that when you write your next book or article. Then pitch them again.

It’s worth noting that amateur bloggers devote enormous amounts of time reading books and maintaining their sites. Ever wonder why? The ones I know don’t get paid for reviews, although they make a little money from selling ad space. They do it because they love books so much that they need to share their feelings about them — even to total strangers. They also enjoy getting to know authors. They really want to shout your name from the rooftops. All you have to do is give them a reason to do so.

Another way to promote your writing is through podcasts. Authors writing on any subject can reach new audiences by producing their own podcasts or getting invited on better-known ones. Any podcast that allows you to read an excerpt and talk about your work is worth investigating. A very well produced one lives on the Rockford Writers Guild website. Their “Guildy Pleasures” podcast features two Pushcart-prize winners, plus excellent emerging authors. I was the first guest, reading five of my vampire stories. Podcasts are great for authors because they’re sharable on social media, and you can track metrics like “full listens.” But the audience is getting more and more sophisticated so there’s less tolerance for schlocky production than, say, a decade ago. If you get invited to a podcast, make sure you do your part and rehearse the excerpt you want to read, and make sure you know exactly how you’ll answer basic interview questions like “What inspired you to write this book or article?” Nobody wants to listen to meandering answers, and nobody wants to hear an author stumble their way through a reading.

The same applies to bookstore or radio appearances. I can’t tell you how many times I attended events where an author showed up and it was clear they weren’t prepared. Or they stood, chin down, quietly reading their words without any emotion or emphasis. Remember: You have one chance to make a good impression on your audience – so knock ‘em dead.

I hope I made a good impression with you. One day when my career has stalled, and you’re headlining a publishing or academic conference, I might want to hitch my wagon to your rising star. In the meantime, I’ll do what I can to help your career. If you think it may help to drop my name, feel free to do so.

I gave you A LOT of things to remember tonight. The short version is: write your very best work, get a professional edit, get 100 agents to reject you, pay nothing for promotion, be nice, and rehearse.

Thank you for inviting me. And remember me when you’re famous!

The Disjunction Between Fame & Creativity In Art

Our social structural theory of fame departs from prior work on fame which argues that fame is driven by creativity. (Banerjee & Ingram)

§.00 Fame and creativity have a instinctive association. It is thought that, for artists, as a general rule, the more creative they are, the more famous they will be. Evidence, however, does not bare this preconception out.

§.01 In the lengthy, richly detailed 2018 paper, Fame as an Illusion of Creativity: Evidence from the Pioneers of Abstract Art, researchers Banerjee & Ingram delve into the correlation between fame (large scale public attention) and creativity by studying the social networks of 90 artists from Europe and the US during the 20th Century (1910-1925) whose work radically departed from the norms of representational art of the time. The researchers used two measures for creativity: an expert measure of an artist’s creativity and a computational measure of an artist’s novelty. They found that the social networks of the artists in question played a significantly larger role than their creativity (as measured by the two metrics listed above) and no statistical linkage for positive correlation between creativity and fame.

Surprisingly given previous theory, we do not find statistical support for a positive
relationship between an artist’s creativity and fame. (Banerjee & Ingram, Fame as an Illusion of Creativity, p.6)

§.02 Rather than creativity, Banerjee and Ingram find that identity is the crucial determining factor for domain-transcendent success.

-our evidence reveals identity as the link between peer network and fame. (Banerjee & Ingram, p. 6)

§.03 Identity here being, not simply one’s self-conception, but one’s public image (whether authentic or inauthentic).

In effect, the outsider identity of such [aforementioned artistic] producers might contribute to others’ perception of them as rebels who are authentically creative. Audiences may reject or embrace such a challenging creative identity, but it is more likely to garner attention. (Banerjee & Ingram, p. 11)

§.04 In summation, networking and identity (branding) are more important to fame in the arts than creativity. In conclusion, it is important to note that personal fame is extremely tenuous; consider how many past social media stars are now completely forgotten. This need not be so for an artist’s works, which can endure long after their creator has passed into eternal slumber. For this reason, it is unwise for any serious artist whose goal is the upward development of his or her craft to chiefly prize fame, for in doing so, one will have, of necessity, deprioritized one’s art—when the muse is eschewed for the socialite, the fires of creation abate.


Sources

  1. Annaliese Griffin. (2019) For Artists Fame Is More About Social Networks Than Creativity. Quartzy. Available at: https://qz.com/quartzy/1564122/for-artists-fame-is-more-about-social-networks-than-creativity/
  2. Casey Lesser. (2019) Artists Become Famous Through Their Friends, Not The Originality of their Work. Artsy. Available at: https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-artists-famous-friends-originality-work
  3. Mark B. Turner & Gilles Fauconnier. (1999) A Mechanism of Creativity. Poetics Today, Vol. 20, No. 3, pp. 397-418, Fall 1999. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1416435
  4. Mitali Banerjee & Paul Ingram. (2018) Fame as an Illusion of Creativity: Evidence from the Pioneers of Abstract Art. HEC Paris Research Paper No. SPE-2018-1305; Columbia Business School Research Paper No. 18-74. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3258318 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3258318

Sex, Violence, Death, Toil: A Brief Primer On Fiction Writing, Prt. 1

I like what I do. Some writers have said in print that they hated writing and it was just a chore and a burden. I certainly don’t feel that way about it. Sometimes it’s difficult. You know, you always have this image of the perfect thing which you can never achieve, but which you never stop trying to achieve. But I think … that’s your signpost and your guide. You’ll never get there, but without it you won’t get anywhere.

– Cormac McCarthy, Jun. 1, 2008

Fiction writing is often perceived, and subsequently spoken of, as if it were some magical art, some eldritch and impenetrable ability of numinous convocation which arrives and departs from the conscious mind like a furious blast of ball-lightening (which, interestingly enough, are theorized to be responsible for the numerous cases of real spontaneous combustion throughout history). Whilst reaching towards (and ultimately grasping) the numinous should be the end goal of all of the higher forms of fiction, it is a mistake to view the craft as solely the providence of arcane geniuses, as a venture which can only be undertook at the precise moment of inspiration.

Inspiration is all fine and dandy but it is wholly insufficient in and of itself to create a substantial work of art. A work of fiction which is nothing but inspirationally driven is one which is wholly impulsively driven; it is much the same as a grand and beautifully crafted ship without its rudder! It might well inspire a kind of awe but it won’t be able to move an inch and will invariably capsize in the coming storm, lost to all and every man beneath the thunderous swell of bio-hum. There is also the problem of time in relation to a work of fiction; whilst it is never wise to make haste when writing a novel or short story for the sake of speed itself there must also be reasonable timetables set forth for the writer if he or she is ever to finish the project upon which they are so arduously plying their talents. It is a highly romanticized conception of the writer as a powerfully minded yet tragically underappreciated soul which ultimately leads to nothing but stagnation. If you aren’t a genius or a consistent partaker in Ginsbergesque ritualism then it is highly unlikely that bold and evocative inspiration sufficient to carry the entirety of setting, plot, characters and theme will oft strike; this is, in no wise, a bad thing!

Contrary to the romanticized American conception of the fiction writer, he treats his work in much the same fashion as might a lumberjack or gas station clerk. He gets up early, takes notes, watches his time, writers consistently (preferably daily) and passionately and has a distinct objective in mind whilst he is doing so. That is, if he wishes to be a successful writer in the total sense of the term, meaning, successful both financially and, far more importantly, artistically. It is here I would offer some mild advice to those amongst you who aspire to write fiction in any wise (hopefully without being too boorish in so doing).

  • Purchase or borrow a note book or journal (I much prefer leather-bound journals for their superior aesthetic appeal and durability) and take notes whilst you are away from your computer (unless, that is, you still do the work on a typewriter!). This helps not only flesh out already established ideas, but also preserves new ideas that might otherwise perish in the bottomless marsh of forgetfulness
  • Don’t read whilst you write. Meaning: do not take up another work of fiction whilst you are engaging in your own work. The reason for this is simple; originality. Whilst one should most certainly shun originality for its own sake there is a tendency for the “voice” and style of more powerful and skilled writers to overtake the minds (and thus the page) of those, less versed in the craft. It is extremely important for the avid writer to read and read widely and deeply, but not at the same time he plies his trade as this threatens the authenticity of the piece.
  • Concentrate upon the theme of the story before everything else. A story, no matter how exciting the action, plot or characters will ultimately be nothing more than a mere confection of the intellect without philosophical grounding; without ideas which one wishes to build upon, expound, communicate and spread.
  • Don’t overly fret over grammar and instead focus on authenticity within the framework of the world which you are creating. That is to say, if you are writing a sentence and find it pleasing and perfectly suited to describing some situation crucial to the plot then do not there deviate to grammatical puritanism. After all, any true blunders you do make will be fixed by the editor upon the completion of the manuscript.
  • Most importantly, actually practice writing. Set a schedule and stick to it. The simplest, but hardest of “skills” for a writer to master (I include myself in this criticism!)

Now that we have that out of the way we shall turn our attention to the actual structure of a story and what it is that makes certain stories standout, that is, what makes them good. To speak not at all about any particular theme, a truly great work of art will always deal with three things: sex, violence and death. It is my opinion that any work of art which deals not at all with this omnipresent trio of human universals is not worthy of one’s time or, indeed, of really being called a work of art at all.

[to be continued in prt.2]