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Archive for November, 2014

I have a friend who has an advanced degree in science, but he can’t spell worth a damn. I, on the other hand, am a professional writer who failed introductory calculus. It’s not a stretch to say that the world is made up of a lot of people with varying skills and talents, and that it would be a poorer place without any of us. We need each other. We need each other’s skills.

So why is it that for nearly my whole lifetime, so much time, energy, and money has been spent on that area now known as STEM: Science, Technology, Engineering, Math? Granted that these are very important, but you know how a lot of your STEM geeks got there? By reading. By reading a story someone had written. That’s written, not derived, not programmed, not built.

Literature (and art of all kinds) forms the basis of our culture. From the very beginning of Man, storytelling served to pass the wisdom of the ages from one generation to the next. Long before there were lasers, there were legends. People were writing on tablets long before you had to have a Ph.D. to design one.

So why this emphasis on one over the other? Why do girls have to be pushed toward physics and engineering? And why can’t boys be pushed toward creative writing and literature?

I’d like to introduce my answer to STEM. It’s called BREW: Books, Reading, English, Writing. In a world where most of us (not just scientists) can’t use an apostrophe correctly, should we not be putting as much effort into making sure students can communicate their accomplishments properly as in the accomplishments themselves? And should we not tell them that communication can be an accomplishment in itself?

Yes, there are already those who can do both, Isaac Asimov, for instance. But even Asimov spent less time making discoveries than communicating those discoveries in a way that the common man could comprehend.

So I’m calling on readers and writers and humanities majors everywhere to stand up for their rights. Insist on equal time for books that aren’t full of numbers. Demand that kids who can add and subtract and extract cube roots be able to spell and punctuate–and maybe even tell a story with a beginning, middle, and end. Because if our technology ever gets away from us, and we go back to living in caves and ruined cities–what else will we have?

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If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you might have gotten the impression that I think writing is hard work. That is probably because I think writing is, in fact, hard work. (Although conversely, I think anyone can do it. You may not be able to do it at a professional level, but you can do it. Believe me, most pro’s have trouble believing they can write at a professional level.)

On the other hand, I have recently had an epiphany: Maybe writing isn’t quite so hard as I was lead (or was leading myself) to believe.

See, here’s the thing. Everybody wants to write stories that mean something, that resonate with people, that go beyond the surface enjoyment and say something profound about the human condition. Writers are supposed to cut open their metaphorical veins and writing in their own blood. Unless your writing comes straight from your soul, it isn’t True. And if it isn’t True, it isn’t worth doing.

Well, that’s a hell of a thing. No wonder people think they can’t write. The same people who say it has to be True are the people who say there are all kinds of writing, and none of them is wrong. I guess some are just more “right” than others.

But if you want to stop someone from writing (and I mean anyone, not just newbies or wannabes, neither of which is meant to be pejorative), simply tell him that he has to write Shakespeare or forget it. Tell him, “If it ain’t Hemingway, it ain’t worth writing.” Then see how far that guy gets. I can tell you, from personal experience, that he won’t get far.

I just returned from a mystery con, where I am told (unfortunately I wasn’t in the room) that Sue Grafton said she doesn’t try to include social commentary in her stories; if it finds its way in, great, but she doesn’t go seeking it out. Well, I don’t know about you, but I figure Sue knows how to write a book and pursue a career, and yes, talk about the human condition. Maybe the secret to success (or at least to writing) is to write your story and not worry about whether it’s going to resolve global poverty. Because not only will it probably not do that, if that’s what you set out to do, your story will suck. If you can write it at all.

There are all kinds of stories in the world, great, good, bad; high-handed, high-and-mighty, and highly-overrated. But there’s only one kind of story in you, and that’s your story. The one that you love, the one you want to write. After that there may be another, and another, but they should all be yours. And if your story isn’t Shakespeare, then just remember that Shakespeare wrote for the money. Edgar Allan Poe wrote for the money. And Charles Dickens wrote those hugely long novels because he got paid by the word. None of them thought he was writing for the ages. Sure, we get Christmas off because Dickens wrote “A Christmas Carol” and started a movement, but mostly he wanted to get paid for it.

And there’s nothing wrong with that. So I for one plan to stop worrying about writing stories that will change people’s lives, and worry more about writing stories people will read.

I’m like Shakespeare and Poe and Dickens. I want to get paid, too.

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There is a lot about writing that is not peaches-and-cream. There, I said it. Writing is not only difficult, because it all comes from inside you, and there are no rules, and nobody can really tell you when you’re doing it right (but boy, can they tell when you’re doing it wrong), but it’s frustrating. It’s frustrating to try to write a story when the ideas won’t come, or the words won’t materialize, or you have the ideas and the words but you just don’t have the time. It’s frustrating to wait–wait for that last draft to cool on your windowsill, or for your beta readers to get back to you, or for an editor to answer your submission. (Murphy’s Law of Submissions says the editorial staff will take an extended vacation the day after you submit your story.) And it’s the Most Frustrating of All when you have finally written a story that even you are satisfied with, and your reading group (which includes Real Writers) tells you this is one time you’ve nailed it–and you can’t sell the darn thing at a discount with a bonus goodie bag.

Self-serving example: in 2010, I published a story, “Grinpa,” in Daily Science Fiction. Diabolical Plots listed it as one of the top 10 stories DSF published that year, which, considering DSF publishes about 250 stories a year, is pretty good. So you would think, as I did, that when the time came, I could sell “Grinpa” as a reprint and make a little extra cash.

And you (and I) would be wrong.

And that’s the frustrating part about it. Even if you write the world’s greatest story, it has to persuade an editor (and usually a slush reader before that). And editors have particular tastes. They have specific needs, in terms of tone, length, subject matter. More than once I have had a story rejected because it was just too similar to something the editor had just bought, or run in a recent issue. How many times an editor has liked a story but sent back because it was the wrong length, or too “niche,” is impossible to know. Sometimes they tell you; usually they don’t.

And it can make you crazy, especially if you really like the story. But in the end, there’s nothing to be done. Nothing, of course, but hope the next editor will have the right space available. And will like your story. And didn’t run a similar story by Robert Clarke Asimov the month before.

Yeah, writing is frustrating. But at the same time, new markets open up all the time. These days, you often have to debate whether to sub a story to a market that pays 3 cents a word, or wait a few months to see if a new pro-rate market opens up (which they seem to do regularly). And every new editor is a chance to hit that lottery number, with a story that has the right opening, and the right tone, and maybe even pays decent money. And if he’s not, there’s always another down the line.

One of my favorite stories received 35 rejections over two decades before it sold. But it sold, and for good money. Was the end result worth the frustration of all those rejections? No. But did it feel good to know I had weathered all that frustration and never gave up?

Oh, yeah.

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I’m pleased to report that “Dead Guy Walking,” first published on the Web in 2003 (yes, there was an Internet in 2003), will soon be available on MedusPod, an exciting new podcast. “Dead Guy Walking” is a magically-realistic short about Bobby, who may or may not have just died in an accident, and the new viewpoint it gives him on his life, his job, his marriage, and his dog.

And–“Commitment,” about a man who meets the archangel Gabriel on a park bench, originally published in Age of Certainty, is now available at QuarterReads.

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Difficult as it may be to believe, it is possible that there are those who read this blog who do not follow me on Twitter. @brianlowewriter. For those folks, and for the many who have been clamoring (in their heads, at least), for a compilation of my insightful and witty tweets, I offer the following compendium, including, as a bonus, one future tweet seen here for the first time. You’re welcome.

“So many authors, so few writers.”

“If you can write five tweets a day, you can write two stories a month. Why are you still reading this?”

“When you write a telegram, you’re charged for every word. Your short stories should be like telegrams.”

“Don’t worry about any draft but the last one. No one sees the cake until the frosting is on.”

“Picturing an acceptance is worth a thousand words of rejection.”

“Checking the spelling in your manuscript is pointless if you don’t check the spelling in your e-mail addresses.”

“The last thing you should do before submitting is cut your final draft by ten percent. Then spell-check. Again.”

“If you can’t write what you know, write what you know to be true.”

“Submitting a story without reading the guidelines is like applying to be a towel boy at the YWCA.”

And making its world debut:

“A good writer can make you weep with a thousand words, but a bad writer can bore you with a hundred.”

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  1. You can sit around for hours waiting for something to happen.
  2. Just when you’re settled into the rhythm of your book, someone interrupts you.
  3. You’re surrounded by strangers drinking coffee.
  4. If you jump up and run around that room shrieking, “That’s it! I know who killed the countess!” someone will notice.
  5. You’re not getting paid nearly enough.
  6. Even if you knock off early, you can still call it a full day and no one will dispute you.
  7. It’s a lot easier to do what you want to be doing if no one calls your name.
  8. No matter how many instructions you get, nobody can really tell you how the job is done.
  9. There are at least 11 people who can tell you why your notion of the plot is all wrong.
  10. You may get the job done in one day, or it could take weeks in which you don’t speak to your family.

And one way jury duty is different from writing: An editor can’t put you in jail if you miss a deadline.

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