When Star Trek Drops a Truth Bomb

My husband and I are watching through the Star Trek: Voyager series (again) with our sixteen-year-old son, who had never seen it before. It has been an enjoyable experience, especially as we come to our favorite episodes.

Currently we are in Season Five, and last night’s episode was “The Fight,” where aliens attempt to communicate with Chakotay using boxing as a frame of reference. Boxing is a sport in which I have less than zero interest. However,  during one scene, Chakotay’s trainer says this to him: “It all comes down to the heart. Do you have the heart for this? That’s the contest. It’s not against him [your opponent], it’s against your own natural human desire not to get hurt. That’s the real fight.”

I have seen this episode at least a couple of times before (not one of my favorites), but this time the trainer’s words stopped me dead in my tracks, because they are so applicable to writing. Once you’ve written something, and you want to get it published, you find out that you are in for a world of pain (unless you are very unusual).

I get looks of disbelief from those in the industry when I admit that I have completed seven novels but still haven’t sold a single one. The reality I’ve been forced to admit is that this is due in large part to my natural human desire to not get hurt. Every time I mentally strap on my guns and gird up my loins for another round of submissions, I find out yet again that I’m just not “enough.” Over the last ten years, editors and agents have told me the following:

  • You’re not special enough.
  • You’re not funny enough.
  • You’re not Christian enough.
  • You’re not quirky enough.
  • You’re not creative enough.
  • You’re not contemporary enough.
  • You’re not American enough (my personal favorite).

After the first few years, it’s harder and harder to go back and knock on more doors, knowing that you will most likely get the same types of rejections, and knowing that your writing has improved dramatically but will most likely not be given a chance. This would be easier to take if my test readers were lukewarm about my stories, but almost all of them have really loved my stories.

The amount of resolve required increases exponentially when no one in your life believes you will ever succeed, and when you face ongoing disapproval for your dogged determination to keep trying. So my natural human desire to not get hurt has led to my neglecting the “selling” side of writing. Instead I’ve focused on writing more and better stories—but of course those stories will never see the light of day if I don’t keep sending them out.

In a little over a week, I’ll be attending a new writers’ conference in Dallas. These days, I can only afford the cheapest of conferences, and this one looks like a great value. And, despite my natural human desire to not get hurt, I have signed up to pitch one of my books to a newly-formed small press. I no longer have any expectation of success, but I am increasingly aware that failure is guaranteed if I continue to do nothing.

It brings to mind another movie quote, this time from Chariots of Fire, when Harold Abrams whines to his girlfriend, “I won’t run if I can’t win.” And she comes back with, “You can’t win if you don’t run.”

True words.


When Does the “Law of Diminishing Returns” Kick In?

A couple of days ago, I finished a project I had been working on all summer. I had taken it into my head to revise one of my earlier (unpublished) novels. It had finished going through the critique process but I hadn’t kept up with all the critique suggestions, so that was my first task.

Meanwhile, I believe I have actually increased my writing skills considerably this summer, thanks to a new critique partner who has pushed me hard. As a result, what I thought would be a two or three-week project ended up taking the entire summer. Hours upon hours of scrutinizing every line, every word.

I hardly believe this story is now “perfected,” but it is certainly better-written than it was, and I derive some satisfaction from knowing that, even if it never gets published.

But this experience brings up an interesting point. At the same time I was working on the revisions of my “old” novel, I was and am continuing revisions on my newest novel. This one started off in better shape and this first round of revisions is taking it to a higher level than any of my “old” work.

So, I have started revising another older story. This story has also been through the critique process, yet I am finding plenty of ways to improve the writing. But at what point do you say, “Well, I’m done with this and I’m going to send it out and stop revising it.”

I can easily see this turning into a never-ending process. As my skills increase (assuming they do increase) I just keep subjecting all my novels to another round of revisions and upgrades. Of course, unlike some writers, I do keep producing new material—which just means that each round of revisions would take longer than the one before it!

What I’m asking myself now is this: at what point do further revisions become a bad investment of my time? I’m not changing any of my stories in any substantial way. I believe the stories themselves are pretty good. But I’m going through and eliminating pointless words and passive constructions and “telling” and unnecessary dialog tags. None of these things would bother the average reader if they were interested in the story. However, all of these things are very important to the gatekeepers: agents and editors, and I am much better at finding and fixing them now.

So the conclusion I’ve reached at the moment is that my skills have probably increased enough to make another round of edits worth the time and effort before I start querying again. I still am very anxious to start two new stories, though, so I may have to play a game with myself, where I reward myself with “new” writing for various milestones in my revisions.

The Rule of Three, Part V

I planned the series of posts for this week to distract me from the fact that my favorite writers’ conference is going on without me right now. But, as I prepared to write this post, I realized that I also have some deep-seated ambivalence toward this event.

First, some history. The last time I attended the big ACFW conference, it was in Dallas. I was going through a devastating crisis with one of my kids and almost didn’t go to the conference at all. Then, as it happens, there was a very polarizing incident which occurred during the fancy awards banquet. I had no idea anything had happened until I checked my email after getting home and saw that it had blown up with people weighing in on the incident.

Without rehashing that event in any way, I’ll just say the result was that many of us who write speculative fiction felt disrespected and/or marginalized by the group at large. One person decided to take action. She made the bold decision to start a whole new conference, a conference specifically for Christian writers of speculative fiction. (Note: NOT just writers of Christian speculative fiction.)

When I heard the news, I was thrilled. I was determined to go to that first Realm Makers conference. I knew it was going to grow into something amazing, and I wanted to be in on the ground floor. I loved their commitment to keeping expenses low. The conference was held at a university and we stayed in the dorms for $20 a night. That first year, my total cost for attending the conference was under $400, and that included paying for a room for my daughter Lina who drove me up there in her car.

There were about 80 of us that year, and the contrast with ACFW could not have been more stark. I felt welcomed with open arms. At mealtimes, I would cruise past the various tables before deciding where to sit. Did I want to join a conversation about superheroes, Star Trek, horror movies, or high fantasy? It was nerd heaven.

The next year, I was unable to attend Realm Makers as it was held much farther away and it conflicted with another event that was non-negotiable. However, I was determined to make it to year #3, when it would again be in St. Louis. That was my first lengthy solo road trip—in our non-air-conditioned Suburban, which passed the 300,000 mile mark that week!

To time my arrival correctly, I ended up paying for a night in a hotel on the way, but still my overall costs came to less than $500. A bargain! The conference had already grown to 150 people and now there were multiple classes offered in each time slot. There also was an impressive selection of editors and agents with whom you could schedule appointments.

A couple of my dear friends were there that year, which greatly added to my enjoyment of the conference. The classes were excellent. At long last, I had found “my people.” I thought for sure I’d be attending Realm Makers every year for the foreseeable future.

Then came last year. The cost of the conference increased, and it was held in Pennsylvania, 1500 miles away. Acting in faith, I registered early for the conference, hoping I’d have enough summer class students to pay for my transportation.

No one wanted to take my classes. Still, I had a backup plan which I mentioned in yesterday’s post. I was speaking at a local conference, and they paid me $300. If I stayed with relatives and friends on the way, and if I didn’t eat out at all, I could just cover my gas money with my conference pay. It took me three days to drive each way (I am so not a long-distance driver!).

Just a few weeks before I left for the conference, we received the devastating news that my husband was losing one of his regular contracts, which meant a serious loss of income for us—income that has not been replaced. So I knew even before I began my epic solo road trip that it might be my last trip to Realm Makers, or to any other conference for that matter.

It was a difficult few days for me. On the one hand, of course it was great to attend classes and to see some of my writer friends. On the other hand, I felt more strongly than ever that I was on the “outside” when it came to being published, and that I would never figure out how to get “in.” I came to realize that the path I’d been on for seven years was not leading to publication. In short, I gave up on the Christian publishing industry. I don’t believe I will ever write something that Christian publishers or agents can like.

At the banquet last year, they announced that this year’s conference would be held at a resort hotel in Reno, and I knew in that moment I would probably never be able to go to Realm Makers again. Still, a part of me hoped it would somehow work out, and I kept this weekend free “just in case.” Now, so many of my friends are in Reno enjoying the excitement of being together and learning together. Realm Makers is no longer the “scrappy little conference that could.” It’s now a full-blown top-notch professional conference with a big-name keynote speaker. I knew this would happen eventually, but I thought it would take a little longer! If I had gone this year, it would have cost me well in excess of $1000 for the conference, hotel, and airfare. That is now way out of my league. The Rule of Three seems to have stopped me in my tracks this time, even when I didn’t want it to.

But, I hear some of you asking, why did you make a cloak for the raffle then? Because I still believe in what Realm Makers is doing, that’s why. I want other aspiring writers to get the chance to go and soak in the all-encompassing nerdulence and take the classes and cosplay for the awards banquet. The raffle raises money for scholarships, and as long as I can still afford to make a cloak each year, I probably will.

Does that mean I have given up on pursuing publication? No. I only gave up on being published or represented by anyone in the Christian publishing industry. Since that approach did not work, I am casting a wider net. Over the next few weeks and months, I will be querying agents in the general market. I still believe there is an agent out there who will love my work and want to see it in print. I don’t believe that agent works for a Christian agency or works with Christian publishers. I have zero hopes or expectations in that direction.

Does that mean I wouldn’t attend Realm Makers again if it became financially feasible? Not at all. I would give my proverbial eyeteeth to be there right now. If I ever go again, though, it will be for the classes and the fellowship and the wall-to-wall nerdiness—and that would be worth it. I can’t imagine I’d even consider setting up any appointments, because I can’t imagine the outcome will ever change.

Tomorrow: a follow-up post wherein I try to answer some of the questions that I know my posts this week have raised.

The Cold Dark Winter of the Soul

Yesterday I shared with you the actual events of the Realm Makers conference I recently attended. Today I’m going to go deeper and darker, because I try to be honest here about the struggles I experience on my journey, and this experience was a struggle.

Before I left for the conference, I kept telling myself that I should squeeze every last drop of enjoyment from it, because I knew it was in all likelihood my last conference. The problem, as I soon found out, is that it is easier said than done! It is surprisingly difficult to enjoy an experience you know you have no hope of repeating.

Then, I arrived in Philadelphia after three grueling days on the road, only to get lost and spend an hour trying to find the right building before I could check in. What little confidence I might have had began to leak away. The next evening, after the early bird class, I was a basket case. I posted on my personal blog that maybe the time had come to let the dream die. Maybe I just don’t have what it takes to succeed.

I wrote that because, as I say, I try to be honest, and that’s what I was feeling at the time. I kind of hoped someone would read it and say something to encourage me. Anything! I longed to hear that at least one other person believed I can do it. A “hang in there” or an “I know you can do it” would have made a world of difference to me.

Instead, there was silence. In my compromised state, the message seemed clear: you are delusional if you think you can succeed as a writer, because everyone who knows you knows you can’t. Stop kidding yourself.

I think you can probably see this is not a great mindset to have going into appointments. I didn’t have to fake enthusiasm for my projects, because, so help me, I still believe in them. What I had to fake was hope, because I don’t have any.

This Realm Makers was my fourteenth writers’ conference in seven years. I have been writing seriously for twelve years. By any measure, I am a failure (and yes, I’ve read all those inspiring articles about famous writers who received a jillion rejections). I was told, by many people who should know, that the road to publication leads through writers’ conferences. I believed it with all my heart. My first writers’ conference was one of the most traumatic experiences of my life, but it was also a big and necessary and valuable reality check. I learned so much from that experience, much of which I might not have learned otherwise.

Now, after seven years, I have attended dozens of classes. I’ve been told over and over to “show, don’t tell.” I’ve learned a lot, and my writing has improved as a result. I’m glad my earlier submissions weren’t accepted, because my writing is so much better now. But am I any closer to publication? I don’t think so.

We’ve all heard that the definition of insanity is to keep doing the same thing and expecting a different result. That’s where I am right now. Seven years of cheery appointments with agents and editors. Seven years of them showing real interest in my work, only to reject it once they actually read it. This past weekend I realized that nothing has changed, and I have no reason to believe that it ever will. Having submitted material in the wake of the conference, I am simply waiting for the rejections to roll in.

My first response to this realization was despair. Clearly, I don’t have what it takes to ever be accepted by even a small independent publishing house. My writing may have improved, but it will never improve enough to make it past any of the gatekeepers in the publishing world. Despite the fact that my target audience (teenage girls) seem to love my stories, it seems unlikely that the decision makers will ever agree with them.

This is not a dig at the countless editors and agents who have rejected my work over the years. They know what they like and what I write isn’t it. I have no argument with the fact that people have different tastes. That’s what makes life interesting, right? The other huge issue is that editors and agents know what they can sell. They have certain contacts in the publishing world, and they know the kind of things those contacts are interested in, and if my story isn’t a good fit, they’re not going to accept it even if they do happen to like it personally.

So, what all this boils down to for me is this: I see myself as having two choices. I can give up. I can turn my back on all the stories that are waiting to get out of my brain and walk away. I believe this is the choice that most of my close friends and family want me to make. It’s probably a sign of my profound stupidity that I am not willing to do this yet.

So what’s the second choice? If the current approach isn’t working, maybe I should try something different instead of doing the same thing over and over. Maybe, the pool of agents and editors I’m exposed to at conferences is so small that I’ll never find one who is a good match for me. Maybe the time has come to cast my net wider, to send out queries to large numbers of agents and editors, in the hope that my work might resonate with one of them. Maybe it’s a good thing I can’t afford to go to any conferences for the time being. It will force me to pursue my goals in different ways.

Does this mean that if my circumstances change and I actually have the option of going to the 5-year anniversary of Realm Makers next year, that I’ll stay away? No. But if I go, I’ll go with the understanding that the real value of Realm Makers for me is the fellowship and the inspiration and the new knowledge. It’s a wonderful thing to get to hang out with likeminded people, and I think I could really enjoy that if I no longer have any expectation that someone there might want to publish what I have written.