Editor’s Corner 101.37

All Good Things….

There’s a trick to the ‘graceful exit.’ It begins with the vision to recognize when a job, a life stage, or a relationship is over — and let it go. …Ellen Goodman Scribe smallStories, films, lives – all things come to a close. Sometimes neatly, sometimes not. And so, after nine months, I am bringing the Editor’s Corner to what I hope is a neat and graceful end. Over the past thirty-seven weeks, we have covered topic both minute and sweeping, and yet, in the end, I find it fitting to return to the beginning. To our words. I originally wrote the following back in March of this year as a guest piece for Karen Sanderson’s blog. I now amend, update, and present it to you as my parting thoughts. My thanks to Niamh and Plum Tree for this forum, and to all who have traveled with me on this writer’s journey. Enjoy.

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You Are Your Words We humans are creatures of custom. It frames our existence and structures our lives. In the course of my daily custom, once I begin to feel the dream-webs lift from my mind, I brew a fresh pot of tea, play with the kittens, and allow my thoughts to mosey along paths both cosmological and mundane, reasoned and stochastic. The other day, I started thinking about words. Magical, mystical, wickedly creative, oh, the glorious power of words and we who wield them. “In the beginning was the Word…and the Word was God.” This is not just a Judeo-Christian notion. The Popol Vuh – Mayan Book of Creation – speaks of how Sovereign Plumed Serpent (who later became Quetzlcoatl) and Heart of Sky came together at the beginning of time:

“…And then came his [Heart of Sky’s] word, he came to Sovereign Plumed Serpent, here in the blackness, in the early dawn…. they joined their words, their thoughts….And then the earth arose because of them, it was simply their word that brought it forth….”

Quetzlcoatl - Vampire Princess

Quetzlcoatl by Vampire Princess

Now this notion (naturally) draws me down a whimsically syllogistic rabbit hole: The Word is divine; the divine create with words. Writers create with words; writers are divine. Hey, makes sense to me. Ok, we writers may not be divine, but we do cloak ourselves in Creator’s motley as comfortably as jeans and broadcloth. Mind blowing for gods to shape the universe in the round of a word, yet that’s what we do every day. Out of the chaos of random thought, the void of the blank page, we create whole worlds and the beings who live in them. Earthsea, Darkover, Yoknapatawpha County, OZ and East Egg, Wonderland and Wessex – the list of literary terrae nova are legion. Even places we think we know, like Richard Wright’s Chicago or Edith Wharton’s New York, are, in authorial hands, transformed into alien landscapes ripe for exploration.

Wizard of Earthsea - Torture Device

Wizard of Earthsea by Torture Device

And so we string one word after another, counting our hours from phrase to sentence to paragraph to tome. We weave tales of myth and wonder and supernal genesis. For words are creative. With them we name things and by naming them bring them into being. They are active, breathing life into those named things, making them romp and fly and do handsprings through the treetops. They are descriptive, coloring and shaping the world that it might be recognized and marveled at in all its beauty and strangeness. And that is without even touching upon the mind and heart, the emotional power of words. The power that reaches out across our inherent aloneness and makes people feel and think and remember, even change their lives. For words are lash and cradle, warming spark and unholy conflagration. They heal and nurture, wound and kill. Complex stuff. God stuff.

Sue Blackwell book sculpture

Sue Blackwell book sculpture

Which brings me to a story. More memoir than fancy (though there are tangential Dragons); just a little something I thought I’d share. Two years ago, my book, The Dragon Keeper’s Handbook, was making its way into print. In anticipation of this event, my publisher invited me to the Book Expo of America in New York. Sign some ARCs (Advanced Reader Copies), generate book buzz, and spend two days in Gotham with all stripe of book folk – authors, publishers, agents, librarians. Commercialism be damned, for a writer, what could be more delicious? Not to mention the swag! A convention neophyte, I was quite unprepared for the booty laid out like Smaug’s hoard, just there for the taking. From simple promotional bookmarks and house totes, to signed copies of the year’s (hopefully) hottest titles, one was limited only by one’s interests, greed, and in the case of acquiring a major author’s John (or Jane) Hancock, no small amount of stamina. Even though I was hobbling about on a broken leg at the time, I returned home with several bags – now weekly filled with groceries – and a far from shabby passel of books. For all that, my favorite BEA keepsake was from the folks at the American Heritage Dictionary of English Language: a modest white 6” x 4” oval magnet, adorned in black Arial with the deceptively simple gnome: You Are Your Words.

URYourWords

Every morning since, I rub the sleep from my eyes and focus on this reminder of how I am defined by the words in my life. They are my tools, my paint and canvas, soil and seeds. I shape them, play with them, with luck make them croon like an armadillo and pirouette on the wings of a damselfly. They represent me to the world, my ideas and dreams. Whether tripping across page or tongue, they have consequences, so I must choose them with care. They are my children sent into the world, and I am responsible for them, in all their beauty or ugliness.

I am my words; my words are me. As logophile, whimsical scribe, exacting editor, wielder of words. As a writer. I give you my word. 1219782482yLCfpg

Happy Holidays, my friends. Write well.

The Last Edition of the Editor’s Corner To Go To the Archives Click On the Highlighted “Editor’s Corner”

I will try to respond to messages as I am able. At times it may be in the form of a post or a direct email response. Guests who post, I will forward messages addressed to them. It is up to them how they decide to correspond.   — Shawn MacKENZIE – MacKenzie’s Dragonsnest

Editor’s Corner 101.36

Slouching Towards Authordom – Writer, Know Thyself!

Put down everything that comes into your head and then you’re a writer.

But an author is one who can judge his own stuff’s worth,

without pity, and destroy most of it.

…Colette

Scribe smallI am not going to talk about editing today, not in a usual sense. Today, I want to talk about much more difficult subjects: personal standards and honest self-appraisal.

We live in a world teeming with blogs and tweets, self-published e-books and vanity presses eager to capitalize on the desire for authorial recognition – for seeing one’s name in print.

inUse

When I was a kid, we had the phone book to assuage that overwhelming urge, now it’s the wilds of Cyberia!

Cyberia

This is nothing short of remarkable. In a generation, we writers have entered a technological paradise, in which every person with a computer can not only write, but be read by legions of total strangers. Kudos are just a keystroke away, and beyond that the brass ring of potential discovery. It is when in the midst of more adulation than one gets at Christmas dinner that we must be most unsentimental with our own critical faculties. For, while new Cyberian paradigms let us flirt shamelessly with fame and fortune, they also entice us into slow-dancing with rampant self-indulgence.

(A diary, as Oscar Wilde said, is sensational train reading, but it is still a private thing, not shouted from the rooftops. Personally, I think we could use a little Victorian decorum back in our public lives.)

diary

The fact is, just as not every tablecloth scrawl Picasso did over a bottle of vin ordinaire is fit for the Louvre, not every thought that flits through our heads is fit for print. That doesn’t mean it’s not delightful and worthy in its own way. It might, like this Editor’s Corner, be well suited to a blog, but not rise to the standards of something for which you’re comfortable asking someone to lay out their hard-earned cash.

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And that’s ok. In the 21st century, the idea of a writer living a hermitic existence is passé at best. Unless you’re Stephen King or Thomas Pynchon, you have to be out there, a visible presence on Facebook and blogging, selling yourself as much as your books. And while we all need to have fun or rant or brag about our new kittens, what we put out there, in whatever form, shapes our public persona and – right or wrong – how people think about our work.

Thus, discrimination becomes the hallmark of our existence. Even before we look for an outside editor or an agent, we must look at our work, clear-eyed and with rigorous honesty, not only as to quality but also as to fit. Remember: while there is room for all sorts of expression in this brave new world, just because something can be sold on Kindle, doesn’t necessarily mean it should be. So know your standards and don’t be discouraged. Good work finds its niche; sometimes that niche is free. And that’s ok, too.

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In the midst of it all, we balance our at times paralyzing penchant for self-doubt, with an unquestionable need to be realistic about our abilities, creations, and audience. We learn to trust our inner voices, building strength to strength. Then, in our way, we will not have to lament, as Leonardo did, that we “have offended God and mankind because [our] work didn’t reach the quality it should have.”

I will try to respond to messages as I am able. At times it may be in the form of a post or a direct email response. Guests who post, I will forward messages addressed to them. It is up to them how they decide to correspond.   — Shawn MacKENZIE – MacKenzie’s Dragonsnest

Editor’s Corner 101.35

In Remembrance of a Writer Past…

Words. Words. I play with words, hoping that some combination, even a chance combination, will say what I want.
…Doris Lessing

Scribe smallThere come times when events beyond our control interfere with life and cause us to change plans. It is such a time here at the Editor’s Corner, where the stuff of life must take precedence over the stuff of blogs.

Rather than leave the space empty, though, I give you the words of one far wiser than I, an extraordinary author who died this past weekend: Doris Lessing.

Doris Lessing said once, “I’m just a story teller.” ‘Just’ implies a meager endeavor, and yet what higher calling is there? We should all aspire to be ‘just story tellers’ like she. She’s a difficult writer and, by many accounts, was a sometime-difficult woman, but her prose is clear and provocative, and her advice on reading, writing, and living are nuggets as golden as her Notebook.

Doris

Enjoy.

“A public library is the most democratic thing in the world. What can be found there has undone dictators and tyrants: demagogues can persecute writers and tell them what to write as much as they like, but they cannot vanish what has been written in the past, though they try often enough…People who love literature have at least part of their minds immune from indoctrination. If you read, you can learn to think for yourself.”

“There is only one way to read, which is to browse in libraries and bookshops, picking up books that attract you, reading only those, dropping them when they bore you, skipping the parts that drag-and never, never reading anything because you feel you ought, or because it is part of a trend or a movement. Remember that the book which bores you when you are twenty or thirty will open doors for you when you are forty or fifty-and vise versa. Don’t read a book out of its right time for you.”

“A writer falls in love with an idea and gets carried away.”

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“You should write, first of all, to please yourself. You shouldn’t care a damn about anybody else at all. But writing can’t be a way of life – the important part of writing is living. You have to live in such a way that your writing emerges from it.”

“A story is how we construct our experiences.”

“You can only learn to be a better writer by actually writing. I don’t know much about creative writing programs. But they’re not telling the truth if they don’t teach, one, that writing is hard work and, two, that you have to give up a great deal of life, your personal life, to be a writer.”

“In the writing process, the more the story cooks, the better. The brain works for you even when you are at rest. I find dreams particularly useful. I myself think a great deal before I go to sleep and the details sometimes unfold in the dream.”

“That is what learning is. You suddenly understand something you’ve understood all your life, but in a new way.”

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“What’s terrible is to pretend that second-rate is first-rate. To pretend that you don’t need love when you do; or you like your work when you know quite well you’re capable of better.”

I will try to respond to messages as I am able. At times it may be in the form of a post or a direct email response. Guests who post, I will forward messages addressed to them. It is up to them how they decide to correspond.   — Shawn MacKENZIE – MacKenzie’s Dragonsnest

Editor’s Corner 101.34

Brass Tacks in a Box of Paper Clips

Trifles make perfection, and perfection is no trifle.
― Michelangelo Buonarroti

Scribe smallA 14th-century traveler parks his camel on the banks of the Euphrates. The water is wide and easy and teeming with fish. But what sort? Would our traveler use a line or a net – perhaps his bare hands? How would he cook his catch? Does it matter?

The short answer is, “Yes!”

Euphrates

Euphrates

As storytellers, we laud our ability to build worlds whole and breathe life into pen-and-ink characters. We ask our readers to believe at times the most extraordinary things. For this to work, we have to remember that stranger our tales, the more they must be grounded in something familiar.

I write fantasy. I dance around dragons and unicorns, kitsune and mystical yeti crabs. I explore unknown planets and long-forgotten civilizations. Nothing pleases me more than when people say they believe my Dragons are real, when they can imagine walking through Dragon Country and being surprised and delighted by the scaly habitants. While some of this comes from my personal conviction about Dragons, that alone would fall flat if not backed up by plausible science, history, and cultural anthropology.

River time

In other words, even our most imaginative fictions – especially our most imaginative fictions – must have an intimate relationship with facts. And establishing that relationship demands research.

This is not always easy. Even in the Internet age, when libraries and museums from every corner of the world are literally at our fingertips, getting details about time and place, costume and manner, spot on can be harder than one might think. Right now, I have been pulling my hair trying to solve the question of that 14th-century angler. As an editor of crossword puzzles, I pride myself on being able to research anything, but this has been giving me fits.

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True, I can always go generic. A nice fish grilled over an open fire whets the appetite regardless of species. And, for a while, I was so discouraged about the lack of available information, I seriously thought about going that route. Then, this afternoon (Monday afternoon), I had one of those marvelous “Eureka!” moments that elicited an audible sigh of relief from my near-tonsured pate.

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In the midst of lists of species names (in Latin, of course), cultural and environmental histories, and free-association googling, I came across a wonderful story about the sacred carp of the Euphrates, a barbel fish not only revered but also known to grant wishes! I had discovered an indigenous fish both tasty and full of fanciful possibilities. For my purposes it was perfect.

As helpful as this was to me, carp or bluegill, the point I am trying to make in my round about way, is that you don’t have polar bears chasing Robert Falcon Scott across the Ross Ice Shelf or have your heroine catch a train from Kings Cross to St. Ives. Eros – Anteros, to some – looks down on Piccadilly Circus,

eros

and, as Bohemian as Montmartre is, it’s actually on the Right Bank of the Seine, not the Left. (The stepped hills are a dead giveaway.)

Terrace-of-a-Cafe-on-Montmartre-(La-Guinguette)

Little things in a story’s bigger picture, but the sort of things which give veracity, especially when dealing with actual places, events, and/or people. And veracity makes people believe. The last thing you want is to ruin the spell of your story by a nagging error of fact. It would be as bad as if a Rolex flashed from Chuck Heston’s wrist as he chased Stephen Boyd around the hippodrome.

BEN HUR

So, put in the time, do the research, and double check Wikipedia with an independent source. In the end, even if you have such a superfluity of information that you bury most of it in your personal notes, it will still infuse your prose. It will still matter.

Dissection

I will try to respond to messages as I am able. At times it may be in the form of a post or a direct email response. Guests who post, I will forward messages addressed to them. It is up to them how they decide to correspond.   — Shawn MacKENZIE – MacKenzie’s Dragonsnest

Editor’s Corner 101.33

But What Happens?

Story is honorable and trustworthy;
plot is shifty, and best kept under house arrest.
― Stephen King

Dragon ScribeLast week my writers’ group happened to coincide with Halloween, and whether it was the holiday or the fact that it was unseasonably warm and pouring, our little intrepid band was remarkably light on pages. OK, truthfully, they were nonexistent. Hey, shit happens, right? So we spent a couple of hours talking – always a pleasure with intelligent, creative people – about politics, films, and, of course, the books on our respective nightstands and kindles. I’d just finished reading an extraordinary collection of short stories, “The Witch and Other Stories,” by one of my favorite writers, Anton Chekhov.

chekhov

One of my fellows asked, “What are they about?”

A proper question – the sort of thing we writers have to answer every time we craft a query/cover letter or get button-holed in a conference elevator – but one which often gives me fits. More and more, we seem to live in a literal and literary worlds where something has to happen every page, paragraph, even line. Stillness, reflection, these are strains we seldom allow our turn-pagers. (You can imagine my delight when Alice Munro got the Nobel this year – a testament to the power of stillness.)

Uncle Vanya

Uncle Vanya

I thought for a moment and gleefully – must be my Russian blood – couldn’t come up with an answer. Chekhov and plot have always had a tangential relationship. His plays – The Cherry Orchard, Uncle Vanya, The Seagull – are two-hour explorations of life, love, and survival. Disarmingly simple.

The good doctor’s stories are the same, even more so. People come together, move apart, and in between, they survive as best they can. What happens? Life.

In our high-octane world that demands action every five minutes, is that enough? Absolutely.

Macbeth - the whole plot in a handful of witchy lines.

Macbeth – the whole plot in a handful of witchy lines.

Of course some will say that low-action stories are best left to “literary” fiction. And, from a publishing perspective there is some truth to that. After all, a mystery is about solving a crime; a romance is about winning and losing love, and most fantasy books these days are 600 pages of swords, sorcery, and noble quests.

Every agent or publisher will insist you have to be able to sell your story, to distill the plot into 50 words or less. Better yet, into one sentence. But what does that really convey? Moby-Dick is about a guy obsessed with killing the whale that cost him his leg. Right?

moby_dick_book_sculpture_by_wetcanvas-d5v6yll

We all need ‘plot’ but in the end, it is just the skeleton of the work – the connect-the-dots image begging for lines to give it form. In the end it is not the ‘what’ of a telling, it is the ‘how.’ It is not the distance of the journey, it is the people you meet along the way. It is the words.

“Remember,” Ray Bradbury wisely wrote, “Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations. Plot is observed after the fact rather than before. It cannot precede action. It is the chart that remains when an action is through. That is all Plot ever should be. It is human desire let run, running, and reaching a goal. It cannot be mechanical. It can only be dynamic. So, stand aside, forget targets, let the characters, your fingers, body, blood, and heart do.”

badger-footprints

 

I will try to respond to messages as I am able. At times it may be in the form of a post or a direct email response. Guests who post, I will forward messages addressed to them. It is up to them how they decide to correspond.   — Shawn MacKENZIE – MacKenzie’s Dragonsnest

Editor’s Corner 101.32

Swarms of Fears and Monsters

Fear tastes like a rusty knife and do not let her into your house.
…John Cheever

Scribe smallHalloween lurks in the shadows and the Great Pumpkin is prepping for his rounds. When better to wander through the mare’s nest of monstrous fears that haunt us writers at every stroke of the pen.

There are so many hindrances – both mystical and mundane – to our process, yet a handful rise to the surface like apples waiting to be bobbed. They tangle together, crossing my mind in no particular order, so I offer them, simply, as the spirit moves.

Fear - Luckywolf 13

Fear – Luckywolf 13

Anideophobia – the fear of being bereft of ideas. What if the well has run dry and there is no rain in sight? This hits me every Monday as I ponder where to go with the week’s Editor’s Corner. Today, for example, I was all set to discuss writers’ groups, but then I discovered I’d done that already. Panic! What to do? Of course, elementally, every story has already been told; that’s just a given. And often with such blinding brilliance that there seems little point in even trying anew. Life, death, love, loss – what else is there? But if we think about it, it’s not the “what,” it’s the “how.” After all, Shakespeare had nary an original plot to his name, relying on Boccaccio and Plutarch, recent history and ancient legend. Thankfully, that didn’t stop him.

no ideas

If you fear you’ve run out of ideas, go for a walk or sit in a café (or look at the calendar); be around other people, watch and listen to them. Glean a passing interaction or a snippet of conversation (eavesdropping has its place in a writer’s life). Then remember that you have your own voice – your own “how” to telling. From such kernels all sorts of tales can grow, and you will be never run out of ideas.

Fear Vacansopapurosophobia – fear of the blank page. There it is, all crisp and clean, just staring at us, laughing, taunting us to fill it with scintillating prose. For how can we hope to match the existential power of the pristine page? Each word changes the void, shapes it to our will, but are they worthy? And if they’re not, can we go back or have we destroyed the unsullied surface beyond repair? Round and round we go, until the very thought of starting feels as profane as pissing on virgin snow. Best put it off for another day, right?

Help

No, no, no. No! It is the emptiness which terrifies. Break the silence of the page! Forge ahead – put anything down, even nonsense – and the monster is sent packing.

Personally, I thank the computer for helping me over this fear. Light and pixels you can wipe away with a keystroke are less intimidating than actual physical paper marked with physical ink. (It also appeals to the Scot in me who frets over pennies and waste.)

Atelophophobia – fear of imperfection. What if our words are not the right words, or if, among a hundred diamonds, we let slip a simple chunk of coal. It could happen – it does happen. Always. On a certain level, we all strive for perfection, to write that flawless piece of prose or poetry. A lofty goal, perhaps, but totally unrealistic. Even brilliant ideas and well-honed craft all backed by a battalion of editors and proofreaders, there simply is no such thing as the perfect story. You make yourself crazy trying to achieve the impossible.

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According to legend, the great artists of antiquity would put a deliberate flaw in each of their creations, lest they invoke the jealousy of the Gods. It might not be noticeable to the casual eye, but it’s there nonetheless. (Arachne forgot this bit of wisdom and it got her into a real web of trouble!) So don’t let the idea of perfection paralyze. A little coal does not necessarily spoil the luster of our gems; it can, make them dazzle the more brightly.

Atychiphobia/Epitychiphobia – the twin fears of success and failure. What if I can’t do it, what if I can? Beginning, middle, end, these fears raise their grisly heads at will along our writer’s progress, and just when we’ve conquered them for one book, they rise up again like necromantic hordes for the next. They stop us from starting, from finishing, from sending our literary children out into the world.

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Worrying we’re not good enough – that one’s easy. While anyone can write, getting published is another matter entirely. The competition is fierce, rejects outweighing acceptances thousands to one. True, for better and worse, e-books and self-publishing open up new avenues and encouragements. But what happens if we put our e-book out there and no one buys it – or, worse yet, no one reads it even when we give it away? Such potential scenarios feed our fears of rejection. As thick skinned as we think ourselves, failure or the prospect of failure, can be devastating. It becomes particularly thorny as the rejection letters from agents and publishers start to pile up. We tinker and rewrite and send our MS out again – and again – and again. But, if we’re not careful, zombie fears can keep coming back until we toss our work into a draw and take that correspondence course in accounting we were holding in reserve.

DoubtFear

Don’t.

Fight through. Write, heed critiques, write better, persevere. And remember that the rules of publishing are often not directly related to the quality of writing. If you doubt this, just meander through your local bookstore for an afternoon. Publishing is a business, and timing, trends, and luck, have a lot to do with catching a publisher’s eye.

As for epitychiphobia, or the fear of success, this is trickier. It afflicts some of us, but not all, speaking to the individual states of our individual egos. True, laboring in isolation for years writing the next “Satanic Verses” or “Interview with a Vampire,” only to have fame, fortune, even opprobrium come one’s way, can give the most extroverted narcissist pause. Then of course, there is the follow up, which, if not as good will only show what an absolute fraud one is! A nasty cycle.

Fear of success -Stephanie McMillan

Fear of success -Stephanie McMillan

For most of us, I say go for it. Be bold and brave and embrace whatever good fortune lands in your lap. It is a rare gift not to be shunned.

As ghouls and goblins roam the world and fears become manifest, remember that the ones that stop us writing are “what ifs” at best. “What if” is a pedant’s sport that distracts and mires us in inertia with its Medusa stare. This Halloween, don’t let the “what ifs” win.

We must not look at goblin men,
We must not buy their fruits:
Who knows upon what soil they fed
Their hungry thirsty roots?
…Christina Rossetti

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Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen.
Don’t be afraid.

… Frederick Buechner

I will try to respond to messages as I am able. At times it may be in the form of a post or a direct email response. Guests who post, I will forward messages addressed to them. It is up to them how they decide to correspond.   — Shawn MacKENZIE – MacKenzie’s Dragonsnest