Neil Gaiman on Storytelling

Funny how when we try to elevate our minds, we get sidetracked by our bodies.

The Castro Theater was hot. I dunno if they have air conditioning. Most buildings in San Francisco don’t. The average temperature here is probably 62 degrees so we don’t need it. The theater was sold out and the seats are “old-timey” – not super narrow but not the loungers we’re getting used to in the new places. Meaning, the guy next to me dominated the armrest and his thigh squished against mine. Also, we had to get up half a dozen times to let people into our row.

The Long Now Foundation was true to its name. The 45 minutes we waited for the talk to begin seemed like FOREVER.

I mention this to explain why I wasn’t as receptive to the first half of the event as I might have been if I’d been at a two-top table with a fake LED candle and a Manhattan.

I felt like I was at a sermon. Or a college lecture. No offense to Neil Gaiman because I’ve seen him at a couple of other events (at SXSW) and he was great. Is great. In this case, his slow, practiced lecture voice, the podium, the notes, me thinking I’m-not-sure-where-this-is-going, and the spotlight that illuminated him and left us in the dark…all I could think was, oh yeah, interesting, good point. Fuck, dude, get your thigh off me. Can’t you retract?

My favorite part of the lecture was when Gaiman described what it’s like when you try to relate a dream to a friend or partner. How their eyes glaze over. I won’t try to retell it. Very funny. Also, he made a clever comment about (paper) books being something you can drop and they still work afterwards (vs. Kindle). Made me laugh, but didn’t work with the theme of stories having a life of their own and living 2000 years regardless of medium. I felt like Random House or whoever publishes his paper books stepped into the room.

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Once the conversation with Stewart Brand of the Long Now Foundation started, all was good, though still freaking hot. I’m a huge fan of this format. This is when moments happen that could never happen at any other time. I love listening to smart people converse.

Strange moment though. Brand asked Gaiman if his view of death had changed now that Terry Pratchett died (of Alzheimer’s). I don’t know what his view was “before” but this didn’t seem a very appropriate question to ask in front of 500+ people. You might ask at a weekend getaway with friends after too many drinks and most everyone else has gone to bed. Though Gaiman hit this head on, with anecdotes about Pratchett, his protestation that the only time he’d ever feared death was when he had the only copy of drawings for one of his graphic novels with him on a plane rang false and incredibly true at the same time. He worried that creative output would be lost. I can only assume he’d be just as protective of the creative spark inside his own soul.

I don’t know what you are supposed to say when a guy trying to build a 10,000 year clock asks you what you think about death. Offer a cheery high-five to distant future kin? Being in a hot theater left me thinking about nothing but the next five minutes. I guess I’m not a good candidate for membership in this foundation. : )

Great News!

A couple months ago I got a standard email rejection for one of my short stories, and then I did a double take. It wasn’t a rejection. I had to read it three or four times to be sure. Then I screamed, very softly, because my husband was still asleep, and then ran down and woke him up to tell him.

SOIcoverMy story, “See You Later” will be in the first issue of Shoreline of Infinity – a new science fiction magazine from Scotland (e-pub and PRINT!!).

I waited so long to write about this here because I couldn’t quite believe it was happening. Yes, I had the acceptance letter and a signed contract, but I still wasn’t sure. Today I got an email from the editor with the cover…WITH MY NAME ON IT. In the same block of text as Charles Stross. !!!!!

I wrote before about not feeling like a “real” author, so looking at this is like standing up too fast.

Over the past few years I’ve been to many conferences and author readings and other events and tried to make sense of how words make it onto the pages of professional publications. What I’ve heard, over and over again, is that there is no formula. And no objectively “good” story. One woman, compiling an anthology, found almost no consensus among her ten editors. Each had one or two stories they liked very much (not the same stories by the way), and were lukewarm about the others. Not only do you have the issue of personal taste, an editor might have just published a story with a plucky robot hero and won’t want to publish yours, even if it is great.

There are too many reasons why a perfectly good story doesn’t fit in a particular publication on a certain day. I’ve had to hear that from many people before it really sunk in. The story itself isn’t flawed, it is round and the magazine needs square.

The real trouble as an author is figuring out whether or not the story is “perfectly good” and just hasn’t found the right spot, or is not that great and needs work–because the standard rejection gives absolutely no clues.

People told me this writing thing was hard, but I misunderstood why. I thought it was hard to write the book. Hard to carve out the time and then hard to stop when I was in the groove but *people* wanted to do things like eat dinner with me. I thought it was hard to edit. To slash passages I really liked. To decipher what my smart beta readers mean when they say something is too long or too short or confusing. They point out a problem and there are a hundred ways to fix it.

The really hard part is sending a piece out into the ether and hearing nothing. No praise, no derisive laughter, no whisper of someone reading aloud in bed, no crinkle of paper as a printout is balled up and tossed into the recycling bin. Everyone has a different place they need their thick skin and this is where I’m building up mine. Facing a sea of apathy and being willing to dive into it to find the handful of readers who will read my story and be glad they did.

I’m not sure why I focused so much on rejection when I’m feeling so very happy and buoyed by this acceptance. It is really great that my story fit with this editor and this publication.

Thank you so much Shoreline of Infinity for making this happen!

It’s Complicated

Borderlands Books (San Francisco’s science fiction bookstore) is closing at the end of March, ostensibly due to the increased cost of doing business in San Francisco.

Though they specifically cited the recently-passed law increasing the minimum wage, from what they say they have barely been breaking even for years. All the major chain bookstores left San Francisco years ago. Used bookstores seem to be doing okay, from what I can tell in passing.

My first reactions were anger, sadness, and then–action mode! I would figure out a way to fix this. They could move. Valencia Street is turning into a fancy shopping mall. Ditch that space and move to a cheaper spot. Sell memberships! I’d join! $50 per year with exclusive monthly events. Partner with a delivery service and offer same-day book delivery. Sell e-books in the store. I texted back and forth with friends. We were on fire with ideas. We would save the store!

Then I remembered something. I don’t really want any more paper books. Paper used to be the best way to store data, and now it isn’t. Unless the books are special–autographed or amazing Taschen art books or sentimental paperbacks from my childhood–they don’t need to be physical. After a brief adjustment period, I quickly saw the advantage of e-readers. I mean, my god, anyone who has ever tried to read Game of Thrones-length books in bed will understand. Anyone who had to choose between books and clothes when packing for vacation. Anyone who’s ever moved! Books are so heavy! I’ve cut my collection by half every time.

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My bookshelf used to be an idealized representation of my mind. In the same way I’d put on makeup or a pair of big, black boots, my bookshelf was a showy way of defining who I was. Look how smart I am! Look how eclectic! Nonfiction! Poetry! Travel! Fat books, skinny books. I think you can actually gauge the rise in my self-confidence by which books I removed from my exhibit. First to go were my textbooks. I was never going to reread those. Then “important” books I’d read but secretly hated. Then books I’d intended to read but never did (still struggling to get rid of those). I’m getting down to signed books and sentimental books and books I borrowed from a friend and forgot to return…even so I’ve got to admit that 95% of my books have remained untouched since my last move 10 years ago.

I don’t even want the books I write to be on paper, other than a few fun copies as mementos for friends and family or the as-yet-nonexistent devoted fans. Those I can print on demand. It doesn’t make any sense to print thousands of hard copies and send them on planes and trucks to bookstores, where people drive cars to go buy them. Such a waste of resources, so many middlemen. I can send you The Perfect Specimen right now, instantly, and it is identical to my copy.

I’m sad the Borderlands store is closing, however after much soul-searching, I do believe the owner made the right decision. Technology changes the way we get media into our brains. San Franciscans still love “books” and reading and stories and storytelling and authors. In fact I’ve never seen the city so interested in the written and spoken word.

I hope that “Borderlands” as a caretaker of the soul of science fiction can find a way to exist without a permanent physical space. One of my favorite Borderlands moments took place at a Litquake event at Z space in 2013–Alan Beatts in conversation with amazing author Jean Christophe Valtat.

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Read about that evening here: https://mlukemcdonell.wordpress.com/2013/10/11/the-future-that-never-was/

Hopefully we find a way to keep this community alive in this new era.

* * * UPDATE * * *

Well, great news! Borderlands found a way to stay open another year and it involves, rather amusingly, selling memberships not books!

From their newsletter:

“Starting immediately we will be offering paid sponsorships of the store.  Each sponsorship will cost $100 for the year and will need to be renewed every year.  If we get 300 sponsors before March 31st, we will stay open for the remainder of 2015.

The Plan

Our goal is to gather enough paid sponsors to cover the projected short-fall in income that will be the result of the minimum wage increase in San Francisco.  At the beginning of next year we will again solicit sponsors.  If next year we again reach our goal by March 31st, we will remain open through 2016.  This process will continue each year until we close, either because of a lack of sponsorship or for other reasons.

We are still considering benefits we can offer our sponsors but, at this point, a preliminary list is:

  • Reserved seating at author events
  • The ability to rent the cafe and / or bookstore outside of normal operating hours for private events at our cost (which is roughly $25 to $100 per hour)
  • Invitations to a quarterly gathering at the cafe where you can socialize with other sponsors, members of Borderlands’ staff and occasional special guests
  • Access to preview sales of rare and collectable books whenever we make a large acquisition
  • The opportunity to purchase occasional items produced by us for sponsors and not offered to the general public (such as limited Ripley prints, chapbooks, and so forth)
  • A selection of unique apparel and accessories showing your status as a sponsor and not available to the general public
  • Invitations to sponsor-only events, like small gatherings with authors, exclusive writing workshops, and more

So, they took my idea! Ha – it seems it was everyone’s idea. The book store survives, but not by selling books, but community.

Note to self

I went to the San Francisco Writer’s Workshop again tonight. I went last Tuesday. It was my first time at a critique group. I’ve been hesitant to do something like this for fear it would cut into my writing time, but the truth is that from 7-9 p.m. on a Tuesday night I’d likely be eating a burrito and watching Parks and Rec. So really, no downside.

I don’t know many writers in my “normal” life, so I felt like a bear cub that had been raised by a human family and is now being reintroduced back into the wild. I looked at the people surrounding me in the chair circle and thought, ah…real live writers. Do I look like you? Do I smell right? Will you accept me into the pack or maul me?

Everyone was very well-behaved and I felt very comfortable. Many others were there for the first or second time. Writing skills vary wildly, but everyone’s work was treated with respect. I’m not sure whether or not the short critiques will help me improve my work, but I spent tonight trying to be a better listener and to organize my thoughts. Why should I expect to get a good critique if I can’t give one? It’s really tough to hear a piece for the first time and then offer comments immediately. What frustrated me the most was being unable to articulate why I liked a piece. God, I knew some poor author agonized over a short story and all I could say was, “That was great!” Useless, totally useless. I’ve got to get better at this.

Afterwards, about half the group went out for drinks. I only got to chat with a few people (the bar was noisy) but I realized, wow, we have a lot in common, and also…wow…there are aspects of writing that are very seductive. Drug-like.

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I’ve done many different creative things in my life (painting, drawing, photography) so I’m familiar with the magic that happens when everything is flowing and things are going right and you’ve tapped into something beyond yourself. I’ve felt that in writing, but I’ve also had the “building a bookshelf” feeling. I’ve got this wood and this saw and these screws and I’ve got to put it all together and it has to function.

Now that I’m meeting other writing “addicts,” I realized the dangers of this vocation. How tempting it is to talk about writing and read about writing and take another webinar and write a little bit of this and that and never finish anything because that isn’t the fun part. I’m not saying anyone I chatted with was in this situation, I just saw the light in everyone’s eyes and thought how hard it is to move this from indulgent hobby to a profession.

Yeah I get the irony, I’m writing about writing now, and I go to conferences and author readings, but this blog is exists so I DON’T go on and on about all this at a party or when I meet you for lunch. Because, note to self, talking about writing isn’t that interesting. I’ll get the fuel I need for my new profession by listening.

 

Agent Search Begins…Now

I just emailed my first query letter to an agent. I’m excited but bracing myself for the inevitable string of rejections.

Why try to get an agent? I’ve attended several “First time authors reveal all” panels at Litquake, and heard stories of successes and failures, both with and without agents. Self-publishing The Perfect Specimen has given me a glimpse into the publishing world and even the pathetic attempts I’ve made to market the book have cut into my writing and editing time. I haven’t written anything new in months. Plus, I believe in the value of an expert. An agent can market my book better and faster than I can, and now that I’ve tried to do this myself I’m not going to begrudge them their commission.

Even if I don’t find an agent, everything I did in preparation for this needed to be done. I created a two-page synopsis of my 140k word novel. That was tough, but I found a technique that worked for me. First, I did a synopsis of each chapter. Then, using only those as source material, I created a ten-page synopsis. From that, I got down to two pages.

Though I’m annoyed that I have to paint my intricate artwork in such broad strokes, I realize I can do the same thing to other books I’ve read with no qualms. “Bookstore employee solves centuries-old mystery with the help of modern technology.” (Mr. Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore), so I need to get over thinking my work is too precious for the same treatment.

Also, I finally created a decent query letter. It helped when I imagined it being read by a voice actor. “In a world…” It has to be big, dramatic, and easy to grasp. I’ve got only a couple of paragraphs to tempt an agent into reading my synopsis, and that has to interest them in the first five pages of the book.

Here is the frustrating part. I really like my book. It is as good as anything you’d grab off the shelf of your local bookstore, but agents and publishers are drowning in a sea of creativity. I’m doing little more than throwing another bucket of water at them…but hey…we both have a job to do and I’m doing mine to the best of my ability and I have to trust that they are as well.

Why the photo of the 280z? This was my dream car when I was in high school. It was a vehicle, a way to transport myself and my friends. Now, I’ve found a much better way to transport people. : ) (I know, groan!)

 

The Last Word

The hardest thing about writing here is staying honest–especially given that I like writing fiction. It is more than tempting to try to force real life into a plot and make myself a more noble character.

I went to the Zyzzyva 100th issue party/fundraiser last night. Zyzzyva is a literary journal…

“Every issue is a vibrant mix of established talents and new voices, providing an elegantly curated overview of contemporary arts and letters with a distinctly San Francisco perspective.”

I haven’t read this journal often, but I appreciate what they do and I’m always up for a party.

I felt completely out of place. I knew no one but saw familiar “famous” faces. Daniel Handler, Po Bronson, Michael Krasny, as well as some people that spoke at either LitQuake or the San Francisco Writer’s Conference.

The food and liquor were crammed into a small alcove in front, making for a swirling miasma of humanity that I wasn’t feeling ready to dive into. The two-piece band was very good, but very loud considering the relatively small size of the room. I spent the first half hour standing awkwardly in one place and then another. I looked at all the exhibits (the event was held at the California Historical Society) but now that I’ve starting watching Parks and Recreation, the amateurish paintings made me feel like I I’d been transported to Pawnee city hall.

PARKS AND RECREATION -- Pictured: -- NBC Photo: Paul Drinkwater

Mural from Pawnee City Hall in Parks & Rec

Things improved once the speaking portion of the evening began. Michael Krasny was the MC and he really has a great voice. Erika Recordon, a recent contributor to Zyzzyva, read a short story. Po Bronson talked about being rejected by Zyzzva, the joy of finally being accepted, then the ambivalence of discovering they only wanted to publish an excerpt. Robert Hass read a poem.

Zyzzyva1

Daniel Handler (who was also rejected by Zyzzyva) hosted a great game show, “Are you smarter than the editors of Zyzzyva?” I was worried it would be super intellectual literary questions. It started that way, then changed to a true or false game–which was hysterical. Totally silly questions, true or false according to Handler. “Meat is really delicious but immoral.” “If you are allergic to wheat, you should tell everyone.” I’m paraphrasing but you get it. It was really cute. I saw Handler last year at LitQuake and I’m now thoroughly convinced he is a really clever guy and I admire his ease in front of a crowd.

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After the speaking portion ended, I wandered again, feeling like a Jane Austin character taking one more turn around the room. I’m no good in these situations. I saw the first reader, Erika Recordon, standing by herself, so I went over to congratulate her on a good story and great job reading it. While we were chatting, Daniel Handler came over to say hi to her, and we all three chatted for a couple of minutes. Was I thrilled? Yes. I was. Why? Because, really, as far as my “author” personality goes, these people would find me totally uninteresting. I’ve got zero to offer them. They are better writers than I am, they’ve been published, they are part of a writing community that I’m gazing at from outside a closed window.

Frankly, it made me sad. As any of you writers out there will know, the last thing I need is to feel MORE humble. I wondered if I’d ever be up there reading to an audience.

As we were chatting, one of them asked what I did. I said I was a writer, but “still in the being rejected phase.” Daniele Handler replied, “We are all still in the being rejected phase.” That made me feel much better–really. Gave me some perspective.

I left the evening with a resolution. I’m going to submit a story to Zyzzyva. They will reject it. Then, I’ll have something in common with Daniel Handler and Po Bronson. : )

Doing the Numbers

I went to the Litquake panel, “First Time Authors Reveal All,” last year, but it was worth going again. Five new authors, five different stories.

In the past, I would go to panels and conferences expecting to learn “the answer.” How to get an agent, how to get published…I approached this whole writing thing like I was making a loaf of bread and left frustrated when I didn’t get the recipe.

Finally, though, I’m getting it. Not the recipe, but that there isn’t one! Yeah, I know I’ve said this before but this time I get it AND I’m okay with it. I was actually relieved to hear the five authors tell widely different stories of how their first books made it out into the world.

What they all agreed on was the perseverance and persistence are crucial, even more important than talent according to one writer! I don’t totally agree but I do understand. I have some amazingly talented friends whose creative works will remain in a drawer because they don’t have the energy/confidence/motivation/discipline/etc. to take the next step.

I sympathize! Not too long ago I had one of those weeks of feeling totally overwhelmed and angry. This is bullshit! I thought. I’m a writer. I’m supposed to create a fictional world in my mind, translate that onto paper and then I’m done! I’m not an editor, marketer, PR person, social media coordinator, and on and on. This is nuts!

Once I pulled my head out of my ass and looked around, I realized anyone trying to start their own business is scrambling and trying to deal with these same issues. A chef loves to cook, but becoming a caterer means hiring and firing people, doing accounting, managing supplies, advertising, networking, and all the same web/social media stuff I’ve got to deal with. It would be lovely to hire someone to take care of everything, but when we are starting out, the budget for all this is zero.

For me the key is to take the time I need. Slow and steady. My novel is one thing, the business of selling it is another, and I’m taking the advice of experts seriously. I’m making a plan. I’m not following any one guru’s “how to” list, but rather picking elements from many that I believe I can do, and acknowledging that I might not do them well at first. Can I make a website? Yes. Will it be the best site ever? Probably not. Can I tweet? Sure. Will anyone follow me? No, but that’s okay. Can I blog? A bit. Will anyone read it? Nah. Right now the reason I have any views in my stats is because I check on it from the ipad downstairs. Can I network? Not really, but I’ll show up with a drink in my hand and see what happens. Can I make business cards and promo postcards? Technically, yes, I’m a graphic designer, but oh my god, you should hear writer me and designer me going at it. “That doesn’t look sci fi enough.” “I hate cliche sci fi imagery! Wadda ya want, a starfield?” “Well, kind of. I like space and planets and all that, and there are lots of references to stars in the book.” “Sorry, we aren’t going that route. Consider your audience. You want smart readers who read all kinds of different things. A black cover with a spaceship will totally turn those people off.” “I know, but a sunny daytime scene doesn’t feel menacing enough.” “There are drones everywhere! It’s the juxtaposition of the drones with the seemingly idyllic city.” “Fine. We can always redo it later.”

Next step: create a mailing list. I’m a little nervous because my first email will be my first “push” to the outside world. Recruiting friends to read was a bit pushy, but we’re a tight-knit group and we help each other out. I expect that I’ll get about a 30% “unsubscribe” rate…though it might be higher. Ah well! This is a business as well as a creative endeavor and I need to be a professional.

I am a professional, and I’m going to do this!