Sunday, May 18, 2008

More Lonely than the Maytag repairman?

Last September I attended Dragon*Con in Atlanta, Georgia. Those who know me know I love this particular convention. They draw upwards of 40,000 people each year for the Labor Day weekend gathering. It is a terrific way to feed a science fiction/fantasy appetite. There are tracks celebrating every imaginable fandom including the major movie and tv franchises, Gothic (horror), anime, music and almost anything else. The thing about Dragon*Con is that if you can imagine it, it will be there. I even set my Quickie from Ellora’s Cave, Seeing Me, at the event.

They started a YA track about four or five years ago mostly surrounding the Harry Potter craze. It has now expanded to include a wider variety of YA lit and authors including Holly Black who wrote Tithe and The Spiderwick Chronicles. And it’s something that Black said at the appearance that has me thinking today, many months later. Black said that writing was the loneliest of professions. She talked about how hard it can be to be sitting alone at your desk or in your office and just write. How you can’t meet someone for a break at the water cooler or just stick your head over the cubicle to remember that other people actually exist or get feedback.

As I sat and listened to her I thought how very right she was. Most of us write our stories in isolation or at least in a temporary isolation so we can focus on our characters and hear their voices. She talked about the importance of first readers, people who see your work before any editor does. These are the people who keep you honest. They don’t let you cheat. She encouraged people to find writer’s groups to work with for first readers or for critiques.

I agree with most of Black’s comments that day, but I’ve come to believe I missed her point originally. I have to admit, now, several months after my first book was published, I feel differently. I think writing can be the loneliest profession but that it shouldn’t be and it can’t be if it’s good writing. We cannot create in a vacuum and expect it to connect to a reader, let alone many readers.

Writing my first manuscript over five years ago was a very lonely experience. I didn’t tell anyone I was doing it, not even my SO. I did it one summer as I had all day free every day since I was on summer break from school. I hid what I wrote away and no one saw it until I had completely finished it. And you know what? I wasn’t very good. It actually was rather bad. It was a fanfiction filled with every terrible cliché of the genre. It should probably be burned to save mankind from ever reading such a horrible thing again. But I learned from the experience. I learned that I could do this.

I also ended up finding a community of people among the fanfic group that I still have very close ties with today. Many of them comprise my current workshop group and they will be positively honest about my stuff and tell me when I miss the mark. Having a community is also an empowering experience. Once I “came out” as a writer, it was a relief. When someone said, “What did you do last night?” my answer was no longer, “nothing.” I can proudly say, “Oh, I wrote last night.”

I started thinking about all this today as I wrote the final battle scene for my current WIP. I have no military experience and I have no clue how to go about planning a battle. My step dad is ex Air Force, but this was a land battle and he’s a bit busy lately with my mother being ill. But about couple of weeks ago I was thinking ahead to this scene as I sat at lunch. I realized then I had a military expert sitting next to me at the table. Eddie is the teacher all the kids like. He has an affable personality, he’s quick with a joke, and the kids know he always fair. He is also in the Army Reserve. He’s served in Afghanistan. He comes from a military family. Here was this perfect resource, but to use it I had to reach out and admit that I needed help and why. So I did.

I told Eddie I was writing a battle scene and drew it out for him. He looked at it and gave me detailed descriptions of how he would defend the position my hero needed to defend. I took notes on a napkin, listened intently to the why as well as the what. I couldn’t use all of what he gave me, but I could use the gist of it. Because I’m writing a fantasy, there are some things I don’t need to worry about.

“Then they’ll try to wade across the river,” he advised. I put my hand up and said, “No, they can’t. The river won’t let them.” “Ah,” he said, “it moves too fast here.” “No,” I assured him. “But the river won’t let them cross.” I explained it was magic and he simply nodded and went on. I’m not only “out” as a writer, but as a fantasy writer.

The important thing was, Eddie made me see I had to rethink the way I saw the scene happening. I saw it as a writer sees it. Big show downs and lots of cool speeches and comments from people. Very theatrical. But after listening to Eddie talk, I realized if I wanted anything resembling normalcy I’d have to rethink my vision of the battle. It sucks to learn you can’t use the cool scene in your head, but I’d rather have something remotely believable than something cool.

An hour or so later a second military expert crossed my path. Curtis is the kind of teacher I want to be when I grow up. He’s amazing. He always has a smile on his face and he finds a way to connect to the kids we teach. But Curtis was also in military intelligence during his days of service. So I showed Curtis the plan and asked him how he would attack. He pointed out that the mission would most likely be a suicide mission. I explained the bad guys had escape options that included magic and he blinked… then went on. But he had a point. If there was to be any direct hand to hand between my forces, it would be a suicide mission on behalf of the hunters who attack. There was no way they could survive the assault. Those who made their way into the village would have to die and would have to know they were going to die. But was this mission worth that? Was it something that people would get that zealous about? Curtis made me realize I had to tighten up the plot in that respect.

In addition to getting military advice, over the years I’ve had to seek advice on all manner of topics including more risqué issues. *cough* I also have great first readers. My SO will do proof reads from time to time. My friend Steve has been the primary first reader on my WIP to this point. I just posted the battle chapter with a nasty little cliffhanger for him so soon he’ll be ready to throw things at me. I do have that bit of a reputation, cliffies at the end of chapters.

But the community I belong to doesn’t stop with the writing process. I have also been blessed with a tremendous support system for what comes next. Llewellyn McEllis, one of my favorite writers and one day you will all know her name, has been there for me with constant encouragement. Britannia and Barb also have always had my back. Alison and Maureen have been my tireless cheerleaders. And then there are the froggies. The froggies are a talented group of writers who work with the same editor I have at ECPI. They’ve all been incredibly supportive.
Sometimes writing seems like a lonely profession. But no one can produce quality work in a vacuum. We all need the feedback and the support of others.

4 comments:

Anny Cook said...

Great minds think alike? I also blogged (though not nearly so eloquently as you) about our peers...

Amarinda Jones said...

I don't see writing as lonely. It's a job and you do it and other than the emotions on the page I do not think about who is or isn't with me.

Kelly Kirch said...

They keep you going too. Not just in conversation or as keeping you honest, but their praise is so necessary for a fragile writer's ego. And yes, I realize not all are fragile, but sometimes we need a pat on the back or someone saying, "more please" after a first tidbit.

Nice to know I'm not the only one, Jae.

Sandra Cox said...

Very well said. Good blog, Jae:)