I belong to a number of Facebook groups related to writing. In some of them, I see questions I haven’t asked in years, Questions so basic that DON’T THOSE PEOPLE KNOW ANYTHING? comes to mind. Then I remember myself. Sometimes I drop a bit of advice, and often when I do it is appreciated (given a like or two, at least.) Thing is, I’m still not a famous, self-sustaining writer. Hell, I’m almost seventy, and I’m still aspiring to that (keeps one young, I’m told.) Great, but that means, that, while I can give advice to raw beginners (Speak Engrish, Troop!?) I still need a lot of help myself. And I have learned a few things over time.
Number one: nobody knows how you should proceed in your career. People who tell you what to do should pay attention to their own lives, and let you figure out yours.
Two: that’s not to say that you can’t learn from others’ experiences. You can, but never try to be them. Or even like them. You are you, and that’s fantastic.
Three: you will not be an overnight success. If you are, you’ll spend the rest of your life being unsure of your actual talents. As opposed to if you work hard for years and finally break through, in which case you will spend the rest of your life being unsure of your actual talents. This is called “Imposter Syndrome.” Get used to it.
And number zero: Know the rules like a professional so you can break them like an artist. (Pablo Picasso) Rule zero because it is the most important.
There, now you know everything you need to know to be a famous, self-sustaining writer. You’re welcome.
If you want to know where that picture was taken, look it up. You have all the information you need.
As a student of the French language, I know that ‘mémoire‘ is a word for ‘memory.’ (So is souvenir.) It can also mean a token, something to remind you of a place, that sort of thing. In English, memoir is a book about one’s experiences. It’s not a biography, although there can be a lot of biographical information in a memoir. With all that said, and, having bought “Memoir Writing for Dummies,” I am endeavoring to write a memoir. I don’t care if it’s ever published, though. I’m writing it because I’ve noticed that the best books are the ones where the author is totally involved in the story, in a way the reader can sense. (Not literally, we leave that to Vonnegut.) Since I aspire to write REALLY GOOD STUFF, I am using a memoir as a way to get to know who I really am. Sure, you can pay some shrink to help you, but as I write pretty good anyway, I figure this will be cheaper. (Hey, I write gooder than a lot of people, anyway.) 🙂
So far it’s almost 70 pages long. One page per year, more or less. Well, now that I put it that way, I think I have some more writing to do. Let me know if you’ve ever done a memoir, particularly if it was for self-discovery. Okay?
Last week I posted about ways to be true to oneself. I’m not just thrashing about on that topic. I have begun a memoir. Not necessarily for publication, but for real. So far there is one chapter, but it isn’t bad. My thought is that by crafting a memoir, I’ll get closer to whatever is my true self, and be that much more able to put that true self into whatever fiction I create. I do not think that I am the first person to make this connection.
As I wrote last time, the only successful artists of any sort are those who stay true to their own vision. I do have a vision, but I’ve only recently begun to realize what that vision is. And it isn’t entirely clear yet, not in the sense of what I can do with it at least. But it’s me, and I like it.
I hope that both of you readers enjoy following my progress along this path. 🙂
I’m late because I had to go to Arizona to collect some rent yesterday. On the way, I started seeing double, and the faster I drove, that is, the faster my field of vision slipped past me, the worse it got. No way that’s a problem at 80 mph, is it? Something to do with sinus congestion, I believe. Swiftly may it pass.
Besides contemplating language in general, I’ve also been thinking about ways to be genuine. Successful artists of any stripe are those who are simply true to themselves whatever else happens. Which makes me think: what am I, then?
Well, I have never had what most people would call a “real” problem in my life. I had pneumonia once, M, M, and R. Hepatitis A, Pertussis, and a bunch of broken bones, all of which cause problems, but only the temporary sort that go away with care and time. If you look at that list, you’ll see that I was born before the vaccines for those diseases became available. Why anyone would want to contract one of those when one doesn’t have to is beyond me, but I digress. Those have been my problems. Well, that and the fact that mom was too cheap to let me buy the briefcase I wanted in elementary school. Or the pool table I wanted for Christmas (I told Santa he could set it up in the basement, for cat’s sake!) I wrote a song about this situation, I call it the I Ain’t Got No Troubles Blues. I sang it as part of a stand-up bit, and it worked.
I’ve always been led to believe that the best artists suffer, either for the art, or their art arises out of their suffering. Which means that a guy like me, a man of great privilege, probably can’t be a good artist of any sort. I’m more of a Nero type, maybe, but not really an artist.
Or am I?
Well, you tell me. It’s as existential as I can get, given my fortunate upbringing. I am, I must admit, fascinated as to where this line of thought will ultimately lead. Stay tuned, dear readers (you know, both of you.) We’ll find out together.
In five years or so, we plan to be living in France. Exactly where isn’t decided yet, which is why we’re going to stay in Bordeaux for a week in October and explore the Atlantic coast, at least the Southern portion. The logo above is real. It has three crescent moons laid across each other. Seems the port of Bordeaux is on a curve of the river. When the French took over (not so long ago as you might imagine, they called the place Au bord de l’eau, which means “along the water,” and sort of sounds like Bordeaux when you say it out loud in French. The logo drives that crescent theme home thrice. Sometimes Bordeaux is also called the city of the moon. The more you know, huh?
The question naturally arises, could I write in French? Uh, je ne sais pas? Can I write in Englilsh? Will anybody buy what I write in English. I mean, if not, who cares if I can write in French, right? Yes, we are seriously studying French now. Spanish has been fun; I was sometimes able to eavesdrop on my students when they were speaking Spanish and thinking I didn’t understand them. But if I’m going to live in France, I want to speak the language as well, ideally, as I do English. Yes, that well. Ahem. But, here comes the real writing tie-in. Learning French spelling and syntax as well as I know English spelling and syntax (which really is rather well) can’t help but let me write even better, more clear English. When you study things like Future Perfect tense in another language, you are confronted with deciding just what the purpose of Future Perfect is to begin with. Sure we have that in English, silly. You shall have seen that directly. And now you have. (In French, that’s Vous aurez vu que.) The syntax sounds in English like, wait for it, you will have seen that. Vu is the past tense of “you see”, que is one way to say “that,” vous aurez is simply you will (or shall.) Why did I use “shall” for my English example? Because I like the way it sounds, it’s as simple as that. In fact, “will” and “shall” mean the same thing, so there!
Now, that syntax is the same front to back, but such is not always the case. But, in using that phrase, I have to think of which tense to use, and why, and then come up with not only You (pronoun,) but also will (a prediction) have (future perfect, same as plain old present tense this time,) seen (past tense of “see”,) and that (a definite article standing in for an object.) Having to suss that out in a language other than English makes it a lot easier to explain, in any language, why you use those particular word forms. ‘Cause you gotta, right? Well, yeah, you gotta.
I recommend that any writer learn a foreign language. It doesn’t have to be French. Heck, Spanish is easier and a surprising number of the words are just like French, only simpler to pronounce. Also spelled better. Or Russian, or Chinese, Norsk, Algonquin, whatever. After all, if you are a writer, you are not a student of English, even if you never use a foreign phrase for anything. You are in fact a student of language, which is a different thing altogether.
I was in France last week. Half of the week in Brittany, half in Paris. The picture above is from Paris, as you probably already know. The place is in Montmartre, but the better part of Montmartre is on the steps of Sacre Coeur. There’s your advice on what to do in Paris for the week. We like France enough that we hope to move there. With that in mind, we’ve gotten serious about learning the language. I won’t bore you with my progress, or lack of same, or put any French here, well, not much, well, maybe a lot, because as it happens, English vocabulary is sixty percent French in origin, one way or another. Any word ending in –tion, for example, is French. Mostly the meanings are the same. Une table is exactly the same thing as a table, so in reality, once you figure out how to “turn the corner” between French and English, the meaning of words isn’t that tough to master. But, what about the other forty percent of our words? Where did they come from?
Mostly, from German. Words like thief, belief, relief, and even brief (but brief is only used in the original sense by lawyers. It means “letter,” and lawyers write letters (briefs) to the court.) And our syntax is mostly German, while our spelling is a god-awful mess. The rules they give you in school are mostly French spelling rules, which makes sense and they will work most of the time (sixty percent of the time, that is.) Trouble is, those pesky German spellings come in, and they are the ones that you “just know” if you grew up speaking English. I suspect that most of the problem areas in English come from French, but for someone learning English, I suspect that their biggest issues come from German.
See, English is sort of a bastard child of Daddy German and Mama French, and the result isn’t always pretty. But knowing about our bastard language can certainly help one to choose the right word as opposed to the okay word. For hundreds of years, the English nobility spoke French in court, so in England, French words came to be seen as high class and tony, which is why we hear so many people say “utilize,” particularly when trying to emphasize that they are “really using it, not just using it!” Most of the time, the word “use” provides more clarity, so for a writer it’s better. For a cop or a manager, maybe clarity isn’t what they’re after, but for us writers, it’s better to use “use.” Is that useful? (Heck of it is, “use” comes from French, too, but utilize looks fancier.) This melding of linguistic cultures is why we have such a generous collection of synonyms. You can be tranquil, calm, at peace, relaxed, loose, and so on. This is probably the reason that you see the advice to cut your adverbs. After all, with all those synonyms, you probably don’t need any.
Let me know if you find this helpful. I know that I do.
Fair Warning At The Top: This post uses that ‘F’ word a lot. You know, the one that’s four letters, starts with F, and rhymes with Truck? Nobody’s doing that in the post, if that helps, but the word is featured prominently. If that’s not a word you want to read, go somewhere else.
Yes, that title means “Ah Fuck!” This is a post about language and how it changes. The word Fuck is an excellent example. (I could use “sucks” also, but it lacks the impact of Fuck.) In some histories of the English language (yes, there certainly are such things) the word is traced back to early Indo-European, where it was a terrible thing to say, meaning something like “go back to whatever hell you were in before you were born,” or something like that. Other sources cite more recent etymology, but still point out that the word was well beyond the line of impolite throughout most of its history. In fact, it has only been since the late 1950s that the word has gradually come into common use in English outside of military personnel and frontier towns.
It’s a fucking shame, is what.
What I mean is that, it has become more common, and you can actually say it on primetime TV so long as it’s used for emphasis, as it is in italics above. It doesn’t happen often, and conservatives always get aroused when it does, but when it does, in that manner, the FCC shrugs and goes about its business. Not so back in the 1950s. Good heavens, Lucy and Ricky had Hollywood beds. That is, matching twin beds. She got pregnant somehow, but certainly not by fucking, because that just wasn’t done in those days, except by tattooed sailors and criminals in seedy hotels and back alleys. Everybody knew that. And when you told somebody “Fuck You!” it was a damned serious thing to say. It’s maybe not the nicest thing you can say to somebody these days, but it probably won’t get you knifed or shot, or at a minimum in a fistfight. ‘Cause that’s what it did back in the fifties, my friends. Because that good old word, fuck, was a very powerful word. Now? Pffffft! Not so much, huh?
Look at those italics again. It could say terrible shame, or tremendous shame, or horrible shame, and the meaning would be the same. A really big, honking, lot of a shame, bro, and don’t you forget it. Yeah, fuck indeed! One of the most powerful words ever to enter the English language has been reduced to a weak, slap-on-the-wrist sort of word, and that’s on the powerful end. On the weak end it’s just another one of those modifiers you search your manuscript for so you can use fewer of them. Friends, I really do think that’s a fucking shame, because I like powerful words. Which fuck isn’t, anymore.
And that’s because that word, like all of English, and every language, even French, much to the dismay of their language Institute there on the Seine, changes constantly. In Spanish, during my lifetime, B and V have come to be pronounced exactly alike. They weren’t in 1967, but they are now. If you want to see change in French, just compare written to spoken French. The joke is that it’s simple, you just don’t pronounce most of the letters. But, they used to. And in English, among many other changes (anyone can check their own vocabulary to see that I’m right) (heh heh) the word Fuck has been diminished by too much everyday use. As a person who uses language to craft his products, this is the sort of thing that I have to watch out for. I try to avoid using slang, because it changes so often. Not so easy to know how to avoid having your wonderful word become useless, though. Sigh.
Well good luck, give it your best shot, and if they don’t like it, you know . . .
Weird Al looks like he certainly has a problem. The poor man has no face! I picked this picture deliberately to go with this post. This post is about my real problem as a creative individual (I hope.) Weird Al wrote and performs a song titled First World Problems, wherein he outlines such tragedies as having to brush his teeth manually when the batteries die in his electric toothbrush. I relate to that, I truly do. Because, I, too, am besieged by First World Problems, and not much else.
It’s taken a lot longer than I’d hoped to put up the shed I bought at Sam’s Club last Winter. My hearing aid batteries only last 4 or 5 days. My dog sometimes poops in the house. My house is so big that it’s almost impossible to keep clean. My optometrist recently moved far away and I have to find a new one. My local supermarket stopped carrying my favorite 35 percent fruit muesli in bulk. See what I mean? I could go on and on.
Boo-hoo, I hear you saying. I say that too, but this really is a problem. I have observed, and psychology backs me up on this, that the most creative efforts arise from relatively tortured circumstances. The one time I wrote a good poem was just after a break-up. It really was a good poem, but it’s gone forever because I lost whatever media it was on. (Another first world problem, I know.) It’s so bad that I actually got a comedy bit out of the situation. It’s a bit that ends with a song that I wrote, a song that is the only blues that I can legitimately sing. The song is called the I Ain’t Got No Troubles Blues.” And that’s the trouble with me. I’ll record it and post it to YouTube sometime, and put a link to it here while I’m at it.
Meantime, for my own version of Imposter Syndrome, I worry that I may never sell any significant amount of fiction because I’ve just lived too easy a life!
In keeping with Mr. Wendig’s contribution, just prior to right now, I want to talk more about rejection, and how it absolutely is not something to worry about. I write from experience, as I have done sales in the past, and have been rejected plenty.
In insurance sales, there’s a rule of thumb that goes for every ten people you call, one will be willing to talk with you. For every ten people willing to talk with you, one will close on something you’re offering. And, results, naturally, vary with how well you present your case, and with exactly what it is that you’re selling. In real estate, for instance, the odds are longer initially, because nobody knows you from anybody, and they don’t trust you. Which is reasonable.
Book sales are still sales. Yes, you introverted kid you, it is necessary to plug your product. You can, of course, simply publish your work and then plug that. Or you can plug your unpublished work to agents and editors, sending query letters, pitching in person. Everybody involved in writing anything ends up knowing all about these things, right? And, what happens? In my experience, there are two types of rejections you receive as a writer. The first, unfortunately common, response to a query is, ready for it? Nothing! Nada! Rien! NIchts! As Caesar would say, NIHIL! Then there are the good ones.
The good ones are good by virtue of being real and definite. When I get an actual rejection note via email or messaging (I guess snail mail is still possible but I haven’t seen one in years) I am overjoyed that the person took the time to at least drop me a form note. My very favorite rejection letter (it was via USPS) was from Mad Magazine, because it was truly funny. Those are the rejections which I savor, those ones with a modicum of personal touch to them.
If you’ve published a few books that sold well, your marketing gets easier, but you’ll still get rejected a lot. And, here’s my advice about that:
DON’T WORRY ABOUT IT!
Ever heard the advice, “Just keep doing it?” Well, that’s true. You will be rejected, by many, and by some who will, in time, come to regret the fact that they rejected you. (Think Decca Records and The Beatles.) Keep writing, keep plugging your product. If one thing just won’t sell, write something else. You are a writer, right?
“I’m Anna Nomly, and we are the “Like a Fish Needs a Bicycle” society.”
That’s a line from chapter one of what will, of course I’m going to say this at this point in the process, be undoubtedly the YA RomCom runaway hit of some year to be determined. I’m putting it in the same high school as the YA I’m working on marketing as I, well, no, not right this minute, but during this same general time.
My goals for the year include getting a start on another project by the end of February, so, by gum, I’m on track. I’ve also been entering contests as they come up. RWA contests, that is. Amongst other things, they tend to give actual feedback. Not the big national contest, but the local chapter contests. So far I’ve entered everything I’m eligible to enter. My goals say I’ll keep doing that all year. Unless, of course, I win the big national contest. Stranger things have happened; I’ll let you know when that does.
Of course, there is a foil to the “Like a Fish Needs a Bicycle” society. If you want to know what it is, you’ll have to wait until later. To be honest, I have two pages written, and this is my first overt comedy novel. Should be fun. You know, ’cause it’s a comedy. You know, funny.