Rage Against the Dying of the Light

Dylan Thomas’s poem has had resonance with humankind since the day he wrote it. I’m inclined to agree with the sentiment. I’ve written about death before, never better than here, but this last week I lost a beloved uncle, a man who, outside of my immediate family, has had as big an impact on my life as anyone in the world.

He didn’t rage, so much as bargain. On the way to the cold and silent grave, he brushed up against the Reaper more than once, and always was able to persuade that silent sickle-wielder that he should come back later. He was exceptionally persuasive. Until the end, a week ago Sunday, when he sat down in his favorite chair and was himself persuaded to leave us for a while.

I’m a believer, and I believe that we are not of this world originally, nor do we end here, but go on and on. I’m persuaded by very much better men and angelic women that the joys of what we go to will exceed the joys of this place as an inch-thick porterhouse exceeds a cardboard box. It is a thing I believe.

And yet. I like my box.

My Uncle Kumen was able to write his life story before he shuffled off this mortal coil, and I was privileged to edit it, along with my dear cousin Brian. It brought me in contact with Kumen in a way I hadn’t been able to experience before that, and it was a gift to me of such value I can’t express it. We had long chats in his office, on the phone, over email. He was able to touch me and mold me in unmistakable ways. Kumen altered the course of my life.

One of those chats, deep into the evening, ended with him telling me a story (not that there weren’t stories all through, every time, but this time was different). He was in the Army, on maneuvers, and got lost in a field. Across the field was an old, abandoned house, well-preserved, but still in the kind of condition that only those kinds of structures can be in, and he said that he walked into it and felt almost as a physical presence the people that had lived there before. It was evocative, and I could feel a story there. I do stories. I know them. They flock to me like moths to candle. This one fluttered and danced, just out of reach.

I always thought I’d have time to write it while he had time to read it, though it wasn’t really my story to tell. Time wasn’t kind, and I didn’t make the use of it I could have. Now the story is mine to tell after all, and I’ll try to bring the fluttering moth inside and let its wingbeats stir the dust of creation. No matter the result, Kumen will be in it, all through it, because it is his tale, and I just the teller.

It’s not raging against the dying of the light–it’s refusing its death altogether. It is becoming brighter, now that we are undimmed by crude matter and the ungainly molded clay. It is, perhaps, leaving this pale creation, this limited remaking of the luminous threads spun from the wheel in our heads–for nothing comes right in this place, nothing is ever quite what it could be–and rising to a sphere where we speak and all matter obeys, where the creator and the creation are one, and the starstuff dances to whatever tune we whistle.

I could get used to that. One day, like my dear friend Kumen, I will.

Kumen

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Bittersweetness

The very first modern opera was written in about 1400 by a man namOrpheusEurydiceed Peri–an Italian, of course–called Euridice, which you surely know is the name of Orpheus’s girlfriend. You remember the story? Euridice dies and is carried off to the underworld. Orpheus is so despondent that he will not play or sing anything happy, and everything in the world is sad, so the gods allow him to go to the underworld to get her. If she goes with him all the way out to the sunlit lands, she will be restored to life, but the condition is that he cannot look back to see if she really is following him. If he does, she will be lost to him forever.

If you have not read this tale, go, right now, and read it. Spoilers follow.

Still here? Of course she goes with him. Of course he cannot stand not being immediately reunited with her, and looks back, right on the threshold of life, and she fades away. It’s a great story. It’s so great that when, almost two thousand years later, a dramatist was looking for a subject for his new musical form, he chose this story.

The kicker? The second opera ever written (and the earliest one still performed today) was written by a man named Monteverdi, from the same area of Italy, and he called it Orfeo. That’s when you know you have a terrific story, when everyone is copying it.

Why is this story so powerful? I think it’s the bittersweetness. Some people like their lemonade sour, some like it sweet, but I like Brazilian lemonade (which is really limeade), because it’s bittersweet. I like really good dark chocolate (not Hershey’s, don’t get me started). And I like Pay It Forward and La Vita e Bella, though they break my heart.

Malcolm-Reynolds-malcolm-reynolds-26244315-733-1125I’m approaching the end of writing a new novel, called (right now) The Temple of Sand and Steel, and I can see the ending coming, and it sucks. Hard. It’s a dark novel anyway, filled with death and grief and mayhem, betrayal and lies and hopelessness, but through it there is a core of resistance to the dark, a commitment, in spite of all reasons to abandon it, to doing a quality job and retaining honor. I feel like that should be rewarded, and it will be, to some degree, but I also feel like the classic stories of honor and courage have a bitter tang to them, mixed with the sweet. Oedipus. Malcolm Reynolds. Frodo Baggins. Regulus. So someone is going to die, and probably more than one someone.

Maybe it’s just me, but I think the recipe for joy is happiness+pain. I’m not McCoy. I’m Kirk. I need my pain.

Cj

P.S. If you’re one of my beta readers, expect that book to show up in your inbox on Groundhog Day. If you’re not, and you want to read my novels before you have to pay for them, send me an email to chris at iamchrisjones dot com.

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Three Reasons Why It’s Better to Publish Than Not

I published a book today. It’s a collection of fairy tales I got tired of trying to sell to agents/publishers, so I took them in-house and used my local team, and got illustrations from some of the kids I teach, and their friends, and voila! Here it is:

Kindle Cover

It’s good. It won’t win a Pulitzer, or make me rich. But it’s a fun collection of tales, some serious, some not, some quite dark and painful. I think the target market will like it, and if they like it enough, maybe I’ll do another one someday.

Steven Pressfield gets this, but even after I had the book done, proofed, ready, and sitting there, it took me half an hour to press the “accept proof” button and make the book live. I surfed Facebook. I read a blog. I dithered. Resistance rose up and smote me and told me I’d be wasting my time and end up laughed at and ridiculed. But I pressed “accept” anyway, and Heaven help me, I think I did right.

There are three reasons why, in circumstances like mine (I have a novel in front of agents, and I have six more in the editing process, getting ready to go, and four more that will be finished by spring) it is better to publish than not:

  1. You can’t make money if you don’t have something for sale.
  2. You can’t represent yourself as a working writer if your work doesn’t go up where people can buy it.
  3. Courting ridicule by doing something stupid is better than playing it safe.

Yes, it would have been lovely to have been picked up by Penguin House or one of those, but this wasn’t ever writing that had that potential. It was just something I wanted to do. I love fairy tales, and fables, and whimsical writing. I love not having to explain how squirrels can build robots, when they lack opposable thumbs.

If it sells, great. If it doesn’t, I’m still writing 2000 words today, because that’s what I do. I am a working writer, and you can buy my work, here and here.

Today, that’s a win.

 

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Cover Reveal

Having grown tired of trying to find a publisher for my enormous collection of fairy tales/legends/tall tales/whimsical whatnots, I’ve decided to publish them myself. Here’s the cover. If you’re interested in doing some illustrations, I’m just starting to incorporate those and would love more than I have. Click the image and I’ll take you there:

Kindle Cover

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NaNoWriYear: A Post a Year in the Making

Last November, I participated in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) for theNaNoLogo second time. I hit my 50,000 word target, also the second time I’d accomplished that. I went there, and got the t-shirt (I always get the t-shirt, and I always buy it in October, as motivation). May 2014 was the month I decided that I was going to become a serious
writer, and NaNo was just a step on that path. I’d done it before, so I knew I could do it again.

Halfway through the month, though, I realized that in my position, aging and with no real prospects that made a career in writing a likelihood, I needed to do something radical, or the dream of writing for a living was never going to come true. I needed to put a lot of words on the page in a very short period of time. I had to suck hard and fail fast.

Since I was in the process of doing a 50k month, what if I tried to pull off a NaNo every month for a year? I didn’t know if such a thing was possible. The NaNo graveyard is filled with the bodies of those who couldn’t do it for a month, and I was going to try to make a whole year of it? Me, who am one of the laziest people on earth? Who’s hardly ever finished anything in his life? Who’s never written more than 200,000 words in a year before? But I had to try.

I bought an iPad keyboard, made a writing space, built a couple of spreadsheets so I could track my progress, got a couple books of writing prompts, and jumped off the building.

I flew.

As of today, every month since last November, I’ve written 50,000 words.

This post is the celebration of that accomplishment. I thought it would be fun to look at some statistics, because they are cool, and maybe they’ll be helpful to someone else trying to ratchet up their level of production.

  • Total words in the twelve months: 616,137. These are almost all words of new fiction. I did not count blog posts, or most of the essays I wrote, the tens of thousands of words of Facebook arguments, letters to friends and family, journal writing, etc. I believe the total writing for the last year is close to a million words, though I have no way to count. I log my fiction numbers every day.
  • Best month: July (60,885)
  • Worst month: April (50,o15)
  • Number of months I cracked 50k before the last day: 2 (June and July)
  • Average words on the first day of the month: 1253
  • Average words on the last day of the month: 2115
  • Novels completed: 4 (only one of them from scratch)
  • Short Stories completed: 18
  • Days with no writing at all: 1   That’s right. One day. And that was intentional; I had a big lead in August, and I was fried, and I tried taking a day where I didn’t write, to see if that helped. It was a disaster, and I never tried it again.
  • Days under 500 words written: 5, including the one day “off”. This includes the 125 words I’m the proudest of, which came in a leaking tent in the middle of a thunderstorm with an iPad battery on 5%. That was in July. I wrote 60,000 words in July.
  • Days under 1000 words written: 22. Sixteen of those are before May. I’ve written 1000 words or more every day since the day off at the end of August. When I started, I considered 500 words to be the bare minimum for a day; now it’s 1000 words.
  • Days over 2000 words written: 85. I had a four-day streak over 2k in July.
  • Days over 3000 words written: 12. I had four in July, and seven months never cracked 3000 on any day.
  • Best day: December 12, 6020. I had only two other days over 4000.
  • Biggest deficit to overcome: 3242 on April 21. April sucked. I have a spreadsheet that tracks my pace-to-complete, kind of like the NaNo website does.
  • Biggest lead over pace: July 27, 10,297 words. July was awesome.
  • Miscellany: There were three months, April, May, and October (this month) where I was behind pace every single day until I caught up on the last day of the month. There was one month, August, where I was ahead every day. My biggest average day was the 12th–thanks to that one day in December–and my smallest average day was the 1st, by almost 200 words. There were only two months where I wrote above pace on the first day. I played from behind almost every month.
  • Average words per hour increased from 1300 in November to over 1700 today. I track this, too.
  • Two of the stories I wrote in this period have been published by someone other than me. One of the novels is currently under request by agents (no offers yet).

And yes, absolutely, I’m going to do it again.

If you’re thinking, “I couldn’t do that, there just isn’t enough time in my day,” you’re possibly right. But you might not be. I have eight children. I run a branch of a mortgage company, teach school five days a week, sing opera (yes, for money) (not very much money), and played the Wizard of Oz in a local stage production. I appeared in a webseries. I traveled. I went camping (see above, 125-word day, in the leaky tent). I did all the holidays you do. I just decided I wouldn’t go to bed without writing my words that day. Honestly, it was that simple. And I never did, not once, all year.

It was very, very hard. February, March, April, I thought for sure I wasn’t going to make it. October has been a slog–I don’t like a thing I’m writing right now. There were dozens of days when I got to 10pm (after getting up at 5:30) and thought, “I still have to write for an hour” and thought I couldn’t make myself do it. Where I was literally falling asleep on my keyboard.

This isn’t to brag; it’s to say, I thought I couldn’t do it, either, and I was wrong. I could do it. I could do it through Christmas. I could write on New Year’s Eve and the Fourth of July. I wrote on a Mac, a PC, an iPad, and my phone. I scratched out 700 words in movie theaters, waiting for the shows to start. I wrote in a tent. In the car on the freeway. In the bathroom (lot of words there) (did I mention the eight children?). Backstage at the play (I wrote a 4600 word short entirely backstage of the Wizard). At conferences. In my classrooms. I wrote in my office, at my dinner table, in every room in my house and my office. About the only place I did not write was at church. Everywhere else, I had the tools with me, and I used them when I found a spare second.

Here’s a piece of advice: don’t wait for the muses to come. They’re shy. Sit down and put your fingers on the keyboard and start typing, even if it’s gibberish. Some days, the muses never come at all, and some days they do, and the truth is, reading back, I can’t tell which words were on which day. But the words are there, either way. Yeah, a lot of them are crap. I doubt I have 400,000 usable words out of the 600k I wrote. But that’s okay, too.

Tomorrow, NaNo starts again. I’ve got the shirt.

See you in a year.

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You Obsess Over Every Word. And You Should.

This post is primarily for my writer friends (God bless them and make their books sell like ice on the 4th of July), but anyone, in any endeavor, will hear a familiar echo, I suspect. For the sports-phobic, hang in there. I think you’ll find the payoff is worth it.

Last month my wife and second son Nicholas and I went to Detroit. My son spent two years there serving the people in the name of Jesus Christ, a lot of it in the downtown area around Crack Alley and other, even less savory places. It was brilliant material for novels, let me tell you, but that’s not what this post is about.

One night we went to see the Tigers play at Comerica Park, the first time I’d been to a major league park since Fenway a few years ago. It’s the first of the new parks I’ve been to, the ones built this century. If you’ve not gone to a game at one of these, people, April will come again. Go. It’s amazing.

Comerica has a theme park INSIDE THE STADIUM. The food options rival downtown eating districts. It’s bright and spacious and seats a ridiculous number of humans in excellent comfort with a terrific view of the downtown city. The Tigers won, coming from four runs down to win late. All in all, we couldn’t have asked for a better experience.

But as I sat there, gazing out over the emerald green of the outfield grass to where it meets the deep brown of the warning track, the wall and the scoreboards and block-sized video screens, and the tens of thousands of screaming fans–even though the Tigers had been eliminated from the playoffs weeks before–I was struck by the contrast between that park and the ones I know much better, back home in Utah.

We have baseball here. Two pro teams in easy driving distance, actually: the Orem Owlz (A ball) and the Salt Lake Bees (AAA). I’ve been to both teams’ games recently. They have lovely ballparks, spacious and well-appointed. Taking in a game there, even with a family as large as mine, is a wonderful (and relatively inexpensive) way to spend a summer evening. But the contrast with Comerica was…unreal. It was, almost literally, impossible to believe.

What made it so is my knowledge about baseball. I know what the quality difference is between A ball and AAA ball, and the difference between AAA and the Show. And it’s not very big.

Consider this: the MLB batting average this season was .258. For those not up on the lingo, that means that in a thousand trips to the plate (purists, shut your mouths) a batter will hit safely 258 times, and make an out 742 times. If you’re thinking that isn’t a very good success rate, you’re right, but keep going.

To hit .300 (three hundred hits and seven hundred outs) is to make oneself an all-star. Only 32 guys did it this season (min 200 PA, purists). To hit .250 is to get benched. That’s a difference of 50 hits per THOUSAND plate appearances. A decent number of at-bats in a season is 500, so that means the difference between an all-star and a borderline player is 25 hits a year.

Twenty-five hits a year.

The major league season runs from the first week in April to the last week of September. Count this with me, now: that’s 27 weeks. So the difference between being an all-star and possibly being sent to AAA is less than one hit a week. It’s a difference so small that if you weren’t keeping careful written track, you wouldn’t be able to see it.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the difference between playing in Comerica Park for a median salary of $1.1 million and playing at Spring Mobile Ballpark in Salt Lake City for $2500/mo, between playing before six million fans a year and 250,000.

If you don’t already see where I’m going with this, let me make it explicit: this isn’t restricted to baseball. The NBA has even starker differences in arenas, crowds, and pay, to say nothing of football, which essentially doesn’t have minor leagues. Either make an NFL team, or don’t play pro ball.

Is it just professional sports? Good heavens no. Music, theater, art, teaching, tech startups, you name the arena, and you see the same kind of division between the very top of the table and everyone else, and very often that’s because of things so small that you and I can’t even see them.

What’s the difference between JK Rowling and Brandon Mull and Shallee McArthur and me? It’s a hit a week. Rowling gets one more hit than Mull. Mull gets one more than McArthur. McArthur gets one more than I do. At best, that is. The pool of people I’m swimming with is vast and contains a large number of people that don’t hit at all. I’ve published the same number of novels as my six-year-old. [Ed. Note: My wife points out to me that he turned seven today. We regret the error.]

Shallee has published one (and you should buy it, because it’s very, very good). Brandon has published twenty, which is far too few, sir, and JK has published some indeterminate number because we probably still don’t know all her pen names, but just one of those, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, has sold seventeen quadrillion copies over three galaxies (actually, 450 million for the series, so far. Those numbers are pretty close, from where I’m standing).

JK has an island of gold. I have three jobs. She isn’t that much better than I am, but that doesn’t matter. She is at least one hit better, and a little better on the page is a lot better in the wallet.

And that, my friends, is why we agonize over every single word of our pitch when we enter #pitchslam and #pitmad and #NoQS and #SFFpit and all the hundred others. Winning one of those contests means we get an invitation to camp in the spring, where good coaches can see us and help us and we get to work with people that are for sure going to be playing pro ball this summer. Most of us will then fail to make the roster and we’ll be back with my six-year-old. But some of us will stick. Some, a few of us, will make it to every-day player in the minors. And one in a hundred thousand will make the Show.

This isn’t to be depressing–all of us know these numbers and believe, like every high school player, that we will beat the odds–it’s meant to be precisely the opposite. All the work we do on our craft, every sharpened metaphor and deleted adverb, every corrected comma splice and fresh image, gives us just one more at-bat. One more chance to get the one hit we need to stay in the game. Working like we do on just a 35-word pitch and the first paperback page isn’t insane. It’s precisely what we must do. The difference is just. one. hit.

Keep showing up. Put the time in. Keep writing. Do the conferences. Do the work. Because the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow is really there, and it’s really worth it, even if for just one day, to walk out onto the field of dreams and have 40,000 fans come to their feet to see if you can get that one hit that means victory.

You will never get too old to make it. You will never blow out your arm. You can keep trying forever.

So why wouldn’t you?

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I’m Ashamed of How Good This Feels

I won something. By all the holy saints and blessed martyrs, I WON SOMETHING.

Nightmare on Query Street (#NoQS), a Twitter-generated pitch contest in which a few hundred desperate writers post their query letters and the first 250 words of their novels, issued their invitations today to 40 novelists to compete in an agent round (where the pitches are made to agents directly, without having to wade through slush).

They issued an invitation to me.

What that means is that I will have the chance to have Cheating Death reviewed, critiqued, and probably sneered at (it’s okay, it needs work) by the lovely and talented Rena Olsen (please join me in buying The Girl Before when it comes out next year), before having the novel put before the agents at the end of the month.

The overwhelming likelihood is that nothing will come of this but more work and ultimate rejection. However, there is the bare chance that an agent will like the pitch, and request to read the whole thing, and then decide that the novel is great and they want to sell it to a publisher. Even then, the overwhelming likelihood is that no publisher will bite, and the novel will go nowhere.

But today, even though I know I will not be prom queen, I have a date to the dance, and that’s enough. I’m embarrassed at how good this feels. All my defenses run one way, against rejection, an emotional Maginot Line defending my heart, turning every disappointment into another chance to work just a bit harder.

But this…what do I do when I win?

Yeah, Mom, I know. Work harder anyway.

NoQS

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Once More with Feeling: the State of Publishing

I’m currently reading The B-Side, by Ben Yagoda, about the death of Tin Pan Alley and the American Song. I’ve learned a great deal from this book, some of it (of course) about music, but a lot of it about publishing.

The B-SideFor instance, in the very early 20th century, almost all money made in the music industry was made by selling sheet music. People had no recording equipment, no way of reproducing what they heard at the vaudeville show other than to play it themselves. This dictated that sheet music be sold, and that most people learn to play a little piano, and (interestingly to me) that the music itself be quite simple, especially in the left hand. Otherwise, how could people play it?

Then the radio and the phonograph exploded onto the American scene, and sales of sheet music cratered. But the new media thrived, and different fortunes were made. This time the length of the song was dictated, because the phonograph record was only so long. Some of the great hits we all know are actually a good deal longer in their original than we believe, because we only know the chorus to the song. The verse (they were not writing in verse-verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus yet) was cut for time considerations. Thus songs like “God Bless America”, “Night and Day”, and “Over the Rainbow” you can occasionally hear in their entirety, but almost none of us know the verses. We never heard them. I didn’t know “God Bless America” had a verse until 9/11, when it became the national anthem of remembrance.

Anyway, one by one the innovations lost their luster, and new ones supplanted them. Every time, music survived, and grew, and developed. If a songwriter didn’t change, or a bandleader, or a singer, then she starved.

But there were always those that changed. Big band died after WWII, and sweet ballads and “bop” took over, but the songwriters that made a name for themselves moved to theater, to the movies and the stage. The key then, as always, was writing well, and writing a lot.

At the bedside of her dying father, Carolyn Leigh penned the lyrics to a tune written by carolyn-leighJohnny Richards, a young unknown who couldn’t sell his jazz arrangements. That song became “Young at Heart”, but it didn’t go anywhere until an over-the-hill singer, fresh from the death of his career at Columbia Records, was looking for something to sing for Capitol Records, a small label needing a breakout hit. The singer was Frank Sinatra. The Capitol sessions are some of the great music ever recorded.

You can’t predict this stuff. But you can’t get it to happen for you without being in the place where it comes together, and that means you have to show up and do the work. Leigh went on to write the lyrics for Kismet and Peter Pan, but she spent a long time slogging before that happened.

Here’s Carolyn Leigh in a letter to a young girl looking for advice about how to get into songwriting:

If you have a legitimate talent, have studied and read a great deal and were willing to go on studying and reading for the rest of your life, are financially able to support yourself for at least three to five years, and can in general, cheerfully be able to give up…in short, your whole life–why then pack and take the first plane to New York. But be prepared to find that all these conditions fulfilled do not necessarily mean success for you. There is an intangible: luck. Without it all you do is to no avail. I have had overwhelmingly large quantities of that intangible. I cannot guarantee you will, but I wish it to you with all my heart.

As they say these days: THIS ^^^^^^^

Most of us writers do not have to give up everything in our lives to make a career out of this, but I can say that if the number of people that have eight children is small, the number of people with eight children who write for a living is a tiny fraction of that. Kids are expensive. I’m very fortunate to have been able to make a living doing something on the livable side of soul-crushing for the last twenty years. The attempt to move into writing as a main source of income has only just begun, and maybe it will fail, but it has to be tried.

The modern era makes that possible. As hard as it is to break into the game–I’m a modest failure so far–it could be far harder. The rules are the same as they were in 1910, and 1935, and 1947, for singers and songwriters. Study, work, improve. Keep working. And one day, maybe you’ll get lucky.

Here’s hoping.

But more than that, you can see the revolutions coming, and try things that might work. I wrote over the last couple weeks about not being able to get the kind of feedback on my writing that would give me a better chance to improve, because the contests where that kind of feedback was happening, I’m not winning. Okay, well, there are other ways to go about it.

Once, a songwriter would take a song to the Brill Building (publishing’s equivalent is the New York literary agencies), start at the top of the stairs and work down, hoping that someone would open the door, listen to the song, and agree to publish it (that is, find someone to perform and record it. And once, if that didn’t happen, you were out of luck. But then songwriters started going directly to recording artists, getting their music recorded directly, and flogging it to deejays. More than one hit was made that way.

What’s the publishing equivalent? Patreon, for one. Inkshares. Or more aggressively, Wattpad and its ilk. There are ways. It takes creative thinking, and violent action. And yes, absolutely, luck. But if you have one chance in twenty, as, for instance, PitchWars, don’t you want to take twenty shots?

I do, anyway. I might miss them all. But I’m here anyway, so why not fire all of my guns at once and explode into space?

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More on Losing

I’m singing the blues today. There’s redemptive stuff at the end, if you can’t handle that. TL;DR: Losing sucks, for some substantive reasons. It’s worth being sad about. But there are often other ways to get what you wanted to get from winning.

I lose, and I do it a lot, so I feel I’m fairly well qualified to write about losing, what it means, and specifically why it sucks so bad.

For those just getting here, I lost my ninth consecutive writing contest on Tuesday night. This one was the biggest of all the social media writer contests, called #PitchWars. I was not selected as one of the 125 winners of the contest. I’ve lost it before. I daresay there’s a fair chance I’ll lose it again. That isn’t the problem.

When I was a kid, I sucked at basketball. I remember my mother telling a coach of mine, who was calling to get info on me prior to practice, that I would hustle and play defense as well as I could. That sounded to me like “he sucks, and don’t expect anything,” so I determined that I would never hear her say that again.

I went out, picked up a ball, and wore through that one and two more in the next twelve months shooting on our garage hoop, a thousand shots a day. The hoop was only 8’6″, and the backboard was warped. It didn’t matter. The next season I averaged 16 points a game and the season after that I led the league. I kept shooting until I didn’t suck any more.

Now I’m trying to build a career as a writer. Many of the same rules apply. Put the work in. Go to conferences, talk with other writers. Submit and be prepared to lose. Got all that. I’ve written over 520,000 words of new fiction this year, well over a million in the last three. Seven novels. Thirty-nine short stories. I enter contests in plenty. I chat with writers and go to their conferences. I keep writing.

But here’s the biggest difference: I suspect, but cannot prove, that I’m getting better as a writer. It is possible that I’m not improving. This is possible because I can’t see the hoop.

In practicing basketball, the feedback was immediate and specific. I shot, I missed. Therefore shoot again, a little differently. Even if you never get good form (I didn’t–my coach always said I had a K-Mart jump shot), you’ll learn to score. If your shooting percentage goes up over time, you’re getting better. Having the visible goal and relating the action to the achievement of it is how you learn.

With writing, I don’t have that. Almost no beginner does. I haven’t had a novel edited by someone who was better at that kind of thing than I am. I don’t have critique partners, not really. I certainly don’t have one that is a published author, or an editor for one. #PitchWars allows the winners to have that experience, to take two months of shots and see, every shot, whether it went in. The losers, however, don’t get that. It’s a prize valuable enough to suffer for. We, the 1500 losers, suffered for it, but we didn’t get it.

That’s the hardest thing about writing. Putting words on the page is hard, but honestly, hundreds of thousands of people do that. Some of them get better by doing so, by reading, by studying books, etc. What gets people to really improve, though, is direct specific feedback from a knowledgeable coach. Losing a contest gets you neither of those things. Well, okay, it does give you one kind of feedback: you aren’t good enough. That’s only so helpful. It’s like practicing basketball with no vision of the hoop, and no other information about how you’re doing until the end of the game. Then they’ll tell you if you won or lost. That’s it.

I daresay most basketball players wouldn’t be even close to as good as they are if this is how they practiced the game.

Most of the advice being given the “unchosen” from #PitchWars is a variation on two themes: one, that PitchWars isn’t the only path to publication; and two, that we shouldn’t be discouraged, but just keep going, and we’ll get there.

The first is absolutely true. If you entered PitchWars as a means of getting published, and you didn’t win, you’ll just have to go about it the old fashioned way, or one of the alternative methods, if that’s a major life goal for you. Almost no authors got agents through PitchWars. It doesn’t have to be done that way.

But the second is–at best–only kind of true. It might, in fact, be false altogether. We can’t know. Maybe we should be discouraged, because maybe we’re not very good. NOTE: by “not very good” I mean “as compared to those who are published”, which is a small fraction of the people who seriously attempt to get published, which is itself an infinitesimal fraction of the people who write. Most PitchWarriors are better than all but a handful of serious writers. That, sadly, isn’t enough to get successfully published these days. END NOTE

Maybe we should keep going, and maybe if we do we’ll get there, but maybe we shouldn’t keep going, because we don’t know where we’re going wrong. Some of us entered PitchWars for that precise purpose, to have a chance to work long and hard with a published writer who had been through the editing process and knew how to take us through it as well. Not getting that is a double loss: we don’t get the win, and we don’t get the prize, which would help us win later.

And that’s nine hundred depressing words, so let’s end with a couple hundred resolute ones. Knowing that I’m not good enough to win this contest does tell me something useful, and that is that I should bend significant effort to get better. If I can’t work with a published author, I can work with people that are at least way better than most: other PitchWarriors. Most of us lost. Most of us are hungry. We can probably help each other.

That’s why I’m all in on @megangrimit and her #CPMatch Twitter party, coming up September 12. This is for anyone–you don’t have to be a loser to participate–who wants to find a quality critique partner and at least increase the odds that you’ll get the advice you need to get better. It’s not quite seeing the hoop yourself, but it’s at least someone shouting “good” or “nope” when you shoot. I’ll be looking for a couple of hotshot new writers, the nastier and hungrier the better. I want to work on my own stuff, and I want to do work for others. I want to be so good I can’t be ignored, and I’m looking for someone sadistic enough to force me to get there. Never having published a novel, I’m not the best you could get as a partner, but no one will work harder to help you than I will.

If that sounds like you, I hope to see you in a couple weeks. Or, heck, why wait. I’m at @cjlehi and chris@iamchrisjones.com. Come find me.

P.S. One reason to enter PitchWars is the chance that you’ll get feedback even if you lose, which I did, courtesy of Hayley (H.N.) Stone. She’s a gem. I also made friends with Kellye Garrett, among a few dozen others, which is a gift that keeps on giving. It is, at the very least, a helluva consolation prize.

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Losing: Yes, It is the End of the World

Wednesday, I’m going to lose another contest, one that I really, seriously care about.

Over the weekend, I lost six. In one night. Actually, I lost them when I wrote my stories (and novel chapters) not well enough to be winners, but I didn’t find out about it until Saturday. That’s when the winners were announced. Eighteen of them. I wasn’t one of the eighteen.

I won’t be one of the one hundred twenty-five that win this contest, either. There were hopeful signs early, but they did not mature. I’m confident now that Wednesday will bring another day of nothing, so I’m writing this in an attempt to make sense of it, and to get down on paper what the significance is.

What losing is not:

  • A message from the universe that I’m not a valuable human being.
  • A definitive judgment on the quality of my work.
  • An erasure of that general way forward toward the things I want.
  • Winning.

What losing is:

  • An indication that I’m not as good as I need to be.
  • A message from the universe that this is possibly not the way I should be going.
  • A subjective judgment on the quality of my work. Subjectively, it isn’t good enough.
  • An erasure of the specific way forward toward the thing I want. It’s the death of Plan A, at least, and possibly Plans M through X, depending on where I am.
  • The End of the World.

No, really, it is. I keep hearing (and those of who believe they are going to win are the loudest about it) that losing isn’t the end of the world, it’s not the death of anything, and we shouldn’t read anything into the fact that we are not Chosen.

This is false. Every word of that is false. There was a world in which we were winners, in which I was a winner, in which that specific victory led to someone not-genetically-tied-to-me reading and appreciating and being moved by something I created–and paying me for it–which is roughly the greatest thing that can exist. That world is dead. Losing is the end of that world. This world, the one in which we are not as successful as we wanted to be, absolutely continues. Personally, I don’t like this one as well as I imagine I’d like the other one. But that one is dead. Not to be sad about that is incomprehensible to me.

There are other worlds. Every minute of every day, we create new possibilities, new ideas, new worlds and universes we might inhabit. In this world, we may ultimately end up MORE successful than we would have been in the other one. That happens all the time, where the fantasy we create in our head is excelled by the reality we make with our sweat and blood. It’s happened to me more times than I can count.

I still weep for that other world. I still feel the death of it. I felt it half a dozen times this weekend, and I’m already getting out the sackcloth for this one.

No, I won’t read this series of defeats as “there is no universe in which I win”, but strictly from a mathematics standpoint, the truth is that there might not be. For most of us in this contest, the statistics tell me, that is the truth. Most of us never will. For some, that world will end on Wednesday, the one where they aren’t winners. No matter what the jolly chatter says, that’s a big deal. Everyone that entered the contest would give a great deal–did give a great deal–to kill this world dead, that that one might live.

I agree that it is dangerous to read too much into a single contest (or even into a whole series of them). I wish to point out that there’s another danger: that of reading too little. Losing means something. If it didn’t, why would we try so hard to win?

There will be a next time (the world doesn’t exist where I don’t enter other contests). This won’t be the last time I lose, either. There have been wins, too, so there is no world in which I never win anything. It’s a comfort–cold and small in weeks like this, but a comfort nonetheless.

UPDATE: I was right. I didn’t win.

 

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