Friday, April 25, 2014

How Do You Measure Success?

Have you done what you set out to do? No, really. Have you?

If what you set out to do was to top the NYT bestseller list for six months, chances are, you've failed. If it was to have your brilliant work optioned AND green-lighted for a major motion picture, well... Short-listed for the Pulitzer? No? Please step out of the arena.

Bob Dylan once wrote, "She knows there's no success like failure, and that failure's no success at all."

In each case above, with a few rare exceptions, the goal, the expectation, almost guarantees failure. So back up, friend.

If you're a writer, didn't you set out to write? Didn't you begin by learning basics of the craft? Did you do that? Sure you did. Can you write a decent sentence? Build a character arc? A story arc? Did you get all that under your belt? Uh huh. That's a success.

Did you actually complete the short story you started? Success.

Did you revise it and hone it and make it better? Yay for you. Yes. Another success.

Did you show it to someone other than your mother/wife/husband/dog? A crit partner? A beta reader? Yeah, now you're humming along. That's brave. That's success.

Did you write another? Major success. It's probably better than the last one, too, isn't it? Check.

Did you set out to write a novel and actually begin it? Did you outline the whole thing? Or grab what felt like a good idea and jump off the cliff with it? Doesn't matter how you began, only that you did begin. Did you? That's huge.

What's even more huge? Finding your way all the way down the road you set in front of yourself. Getting to the end. It never happens without detours, unexpected twists, roadblocks, delays, traffic jams, and, thankfully, stretches of sweet, clear speeding along. But did you get to the end? High five. Champagne.

Of course, since you're a writer, you know it isn't finished. It needs revision, editing, and that will, no doubt, require several passes. But you did it, didn't you? It may not be perfect. I don't think any artist ever believes her work is perfect. Perfect is for the gods. But did you expose it to other eyes, consider critiques, and revise? And revise again, until it felt good to you? And then get brave enough to let it go?

Every day we have successes, but instead of enjoying them and wallowing a moment in the warm light of gratification, we look ahead at bigger things, often things we may never attain, other people's ideas of success, ridiculous expectations, and we miss the fact that we are doing something we love, bit by bit, line by line, character by character, story by story.

Are you a writer, and are you writing? Are you doing something that (when you're not gnashing teeth) makes you happy, deep inside? Do you know what courage that takes and how fortunate you are to be creating worlds and people to fill them?

Sure, it would feel great to have your novel optioned. Land a three-book deal. The Pullitzer. Hell, why not the Nobel? But, on the slight off-chance that those don't happen...

Look at what you have done, what you have accomplished. What you are accomplishing every day. Every well-crafted paragraph, chapter, story.

I'd call all those successes. Wouldn't you?

So lift a glass! Celebrate all your successes.

Of course, I may be crazy, but isn't that part of the job description?

(Originally written for a Speculative Fiction blog on AgentQueryConnect, revised.)

Friday, April 11, 2014

My Garden, My Muse

So, the past couple weeks have been a time of cogitation and clean-up. Time to prepare for the new. New season of growth. New book to write. Hello, Muses?

I'd planned to clean up the back yard, hoping the tree trimmers, who should have come two weeks ago, might have, by now, hacked down the dead secondary trunk of a huge Norway spruce. No such luck.   

So, instead of working in back, I decided to jump into a nasty but necessary job in the front yard. I have a few shrub roses which, if allowed, would grow far too huge for the bed they occupy. They're lovely and decked with wicked thorns.

Now, when I have thinking to do on a project, especially defining characters and outlining plot, I find the garden a great place to do that. If I sit indoors at the computer, I find I'm spending more time thinking about what I should be thinking about. That is, running the hamster wheel. Getting nowhere. But with the intention in mind, if I occupy myself with a manual task, my mind is busy with that and can allow the below-the-surface flow to happen. It's when I don't think about it that, often, the best thinking happens.

What do I mean? Well, those three thorny beauties are sited on a slope, making for unstable footing. Their canes had grown long, thickly entwined, and I tackled them without the bother of walking all the way back to the garage for my gloves.

So, I'm cutting back, hauling out branches, clipping them for the trash barrel, stacking them, pushing them down. I'm sure my blaspheming could be heard next door (it's okay, my neighbors are cool) as those branches lacerated my hands, while the possible antagonist(s) simmered.

I don't know. Maybe it was the satisfaction of taming the bobcats. Seeing the bushes trimmed down and my hands scratched and bleeding. But something popped about that antagonist.

By taking my mind off it, I'd allowed my mind to work on it, on its own.

Not to say who the apparent antagonist will be. What changed for me, what I realized, was that I'd been looking at it from the wrong place. Since this will follow from the book already done, which is a science-fantasy, the real bad guys are . . . well I can't really give that away, now can I? But I'll say that they use and manipulate the apparent bad guys. The active, if not actual, antagonist(s).

So, instead of my wondering which characters should go rogue, I realized that I should let the real bad guys decide. I'm sure they'd be far more ruthless than I would want to be. They might go after someone I like too much to turn evil. Bad for the character. Better for the story.

With the intention in my mind but not in my focus, doing a job I'd not planned to do, which left me scratched and bleeding, something gelled.

Somewhere, I think it was the Book of Runes, I read that one should not be the farmer who goes into his fields and pulls on the crops to make them grow faster. Just keep doing the work.

The intention is there. If it's pulled on constantly, it's not going to grow faster. Sort of like browbeating the muses. It seems the more I demand, the more they remain silent, or wait for my silence to speak.

It was by letting it go that it came around. I can hardly wait to see who those bad guys choose. I already have a good idea.

I'd love to hear how you court the Muses without browbeating them into silence. Making chocolate chip cookies? Steam-of-consiousness writing? Gardening seems to work with mine. How about yours?