I’ve been going to writers’ conferences for about four years now. I’m not going to name most of them because some of the things I’m about to say are less than flattering. I will say, however, that at the end of each conference, I left with the distinct impression that I had surpassed most of the other attendees there. I’m not trying to sound arrogant, I promise. It’s just that when the majority of classes had titles like “So You Think You’ve Got a Novel in You,” and “Fiction VS. Non-Fiction: Which is Right For You?” you start to wonder if you’ve got anything left to learn.
Two hundred or three hundred dollars is a lot of money to spend on a conference that really only served to reinforce the behavior I had already been practicing for a couple years. It was frustrating to know that I was doing every single thing those classes suggested and I still wasn’t published. If I’m going to be completely honest, it was starting to affect me negatively. I was writing, editing, and querying with at least one novel per year and I wasn’t getting anywhere. Every teacher I talked to told me they couldn’t believe I wasn’t published yet.
I’m sure they meant well.
The problem was this: By the standards being set forth by some of those conferences, I should have been a best-seller at the age of 30, and I wasn’t. It’s a terribly unfair thing to know that you’ve put in your time, mastered your craft, and surpassed your peers, and still can’t get an agent, let alone a publishing contract. The problem I saw was obvious: the publishing industry wasn’t being fair.
It was hard to want to write when I felt like I was being treated unfairly. It was hard to keep plodding along when I already suspected that I had attained the necessary skill to achieve publication and was simply waiting to stumble by accident upon some unspoken, arcane, or completely arbitrary rule that would finally get me published. It was hard to put in my time in front of the computer screen when I already felt like the thing I needed was luck.
This past weekend, I went to DFWCon for the first time.
It started out like all of the other conferences. People asked me what I wrote. They asked if it was hard to finish a novel. They asked what it was like to have a couple books on Kindle. Same old, same old. Thirty minutes in, and I was already ahead of the curve.
Then the sessions started and I was not prepared for what I was being told. I pitched my novel to a New York agent and was not prepared for the advice I was given. For the first time in years, I wasn’t ahead of the curve anymore. At the very best, I was in the middle of the pack with a bunch of people ahead of me.
Initially, it was hard to take. My novel Salvage Yard was supposed to be the book to get me a contract. It was supposed to be as close to perfect as a debut novel could get. But suddenly, I saw its flaws.
And I saw my flaws.
But most importantly, I saw some of the things that had kept me from being published. They had nothing to do with luck.
Once I got past the heartbreak that came along with realizing that I wasn’t as good as I thought I was, a whole world of opportunity seemed to open up. I saw the flaws and habits that had kept me from publication. I saw my writing through the eyes of agents and editors. I saw my shortcomings.
And I was starting to see some of the solutions.
I’m now editing and revising my last novel, and I’m excited to know that it can be improved upon. I’m thrilled to know that the reason for my lack of publication wasn’t because of some changing, unknowable, arcane standard. I’m ecstatic to know that maybe my writing wasn’t ready, but that someday, it will be. But most importantly, I’m writing again, and it isn’t the chore it was a year or two ago. Writing is challenging again.
I was raised in the Wesleyan Church. For those who aren’t familiar with it, the Wesleyan Church is a part of what is known as the Holiness Movement. Briefly, I was raised to believe that salvation doesn’t only mean being forgiven for the bad things you’ve done; it also means that the Holy Spirit begins to work in us, healing us from our bad habits and giving us the strength to resist new temptations that come into our lives. As far as doctrines go, it’s extremely proactive.
By now, most of us have heard of the Steubenville rape case. Most of us have heard the voices sympathizing with the perpetrators. Most of us have heard the cries of outrage against those same sympathizers. And it’s starting to dawn on some of us that we’re living in what has been called a “rape culture.” Julia Gazdag explained rape culture thusly:
The term “rape culture” refers to a culture in which attitudes about rape are tolerant enough to be an enabling factor in anything ranging from sexual harassment to actual rape. When a girl complains about being catcalled on the street because it made her uncomfortable, and you tell her to just take a compliment, you’re perpetuating rape culture. When a girl has one too many drinks at a party and is taken advantage of, and your reaction is that it’s her fault for not being more careful, you’re perpetuating rape culture. When you say that someone was “asking for it” because their skirt was too short, you’re perpetuating rape culture. When you assume that men are never victims of sexual harassment or assault, yes, you’re still perpetuating rape culture (not only because desexualizing one gender sexualizes the other by proxy, but because classifying one form of harassment or assault as valid over another is contributing to the problem).
Rape is the far end of the spectrum. You don’t have to rape someone to sexually assault them. When you verbally suggest the things you’d like to do to a girl, that’s sexual assault. When you grab someone somewhere you ought not, that’s sexual assault. When you joke about and make fun of sexual assault, you’re perpetuating a culture of sexual assault. These things are unacceptable. These things are sin. They make God angry, and they ought to make us angry too.
Growing up, I was taught not to drink, smoke, chew tobacco, do drugs, swear, lie, or take the Lord’s name in vain. No one ever actually sat me down and said, “Don’t rape people.” But it’s getting to that point. Last year, I saw someone on Twitter mention that their college freshman orientation class had a segment on how not to get raped. And I get that, I guess. It goes along with classes on self-defense and on protecting your identity online. But why aren’t we making sure that in some way, shape, or form, that there’s a “How not sexually assault someone” class? Why are we focusing on those who are victims and not on those who do the victimizing. Why is the unspoken question, “What did I do wrong?” rather than “Why would someone do that?”
As I’ve said, I’m a Wesleyan. That means I’m a free-will kind of person. When I hear someone suggest that a girl was “asking for it” because she was flirtatious, or because she dressed a certain way, I get very offended. The implication is that she triggered the sexual assault and that the perpetrator was somehow sucked into the act by surprise. It suggests that I, as a male, if I keep my head down, if my co-workers don’t dress too provocatively, if none of them look my way, I might just, possibly, maybe, if I’m lucky, make it through the day without raping someone. And that’s ridiculous.
Holiness means trusting the Holy Spirit to be an active part in my life, but it also means taking responsibility for turning away from temptation and helping others to do the same. It means shutting down crude jokes about rape. It means telling my guy friends that they need to have respect for women. It means teaching my daughter’s guy friends what kind of behavior, humor, and attitudes will not be tolerated in my house. It means understanding that the beauty God created is not an invitation, but a demand for respect.
On Twitter, fellow writer Lauren Scribe Harris, asked that we share the first 500 words of our WIP as Friday500. I don’t usually do this kind of thing, but I thought, why not? So here you go.
A battered and rust-spotted jalopy of a wagon rose high into the evening sky, crucified on a pair of weathered stilts. It seemed to defy gravity, threatening to fall from its roost at any moment. The name Verner’s Salvage Yard had been painted across its broad sides in a meticulous calligraphic script, and the whole monstrosity served as a road sign for the establishment of the same name—a name I should have recognized.
Over the previous six months, I had ridden my motorcycle past the make-shift landmark no less than ten times. That being the case, it was somewhat embarrassing to learn that an old friend of mine, a man named Havelock Verner, whom I had known for the better part of five-hundred years, had been living there, running the business, for quite some time.
My shame was worsened by the fact that the only reason I now knew was because he had called on me at my blacksmithing shop, told me of his whereabouts and then, without a word, stormed off.
Because one does not often run into an old friend of five-hundred years, I closed up shop early
As we walked up to the front door, I sniffed at the air. There was a thick, lingering smell of oxidation, interrupted by occasional gusts that carried the mingled scents of native grass and dog hair.
“Cage, How big is this place?” Constance asked.
“I’m not sure.” I pointed to a engine-covered ridge. “There are more machines beyond that hill. I’d say it’s a half-mile wide and a half-mile deep.”
“You could crash an airship in this place and no one would notice.”
Even though I was a bit unsettled by the fact we were venturing into another wolf’s territory, I found myself chuckling at her comment. “I’m sure Havelock would notice. If not right away, he’d surely realize it when someone asked to purchase a spare wheel that was buried under a couple hundred pounds of charred airframe.”
It seemed that Havelock’s tiny house doubled as the salvage yard’s business office. There were no other structures nearby. We climbed the rickety steps, stopped at his door, and stood there.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
“I haven’t seen Havelock in fifty years.”
“Let’s not wait another fifty.” She pushed me to the side and knocked three times on the door.
A long minute passed, and the door didn’t open to us.
“I don’t think he wants to be disturbed,” I said.
“Nonsense,” my friend responded. She pointed past the building to a wrought iron fence. He’s probably out back somewhere. You said it yourself, that scrap yard is probably half a mile wide. We should take a walk back there and see if we can find him.”
There’s this t-shirt that features three wolves howling at the moon. It’s very mystical, native American-ish, and also kind of corny. It’s not the kind of shirt you’d expect to see being sold in a store like Hot Topic, but at a turquoise and leather craft fair. But there it is. Out of place among all the vintage Nintendo and Tim Burton tees. Why? Because it’s ironic.
The idea of ironic clothing has always baffled me. I’m not sure I get the idea of wearing a t-shirt that you hate as a way of secretly mocking those people who wear the exact same shirt because they like it. Maybe I just stopped being a hipster before it was cool.
Perhaps I’m missing something, but I’m starting to feel like irony is overdone. And when you like something because it’s intentionally or unintentionally ironic, is that really any different than liking it out of some other sense of taste? I once met a kid who was wearing a Christian tee that inserted the word “Jesus” into a Pepsi logo. I didn’t actually like the shirt, but as a good church brat, I wanted to at least support the bravery of wearing such a shirt into public. So I said, “Nice shirt.” He chuckled and told me that he was wearing it to be ironic, and after I walked away, I heard him, very obviously, over-asserting the fact that it was only supposed to be ironic. As if his friends hadn’t noticed he was wearing a Jesus tee until that point.
I could have dumped the irony back on him, I suppose, telling him that my “Nice shirt” was only ironic, and that I didn’t really like his crummy ol’ shirt anyway.
The problem is that irony doesn’t hardly translate into any other arenas. Vegetarians don’t occasionally eat a hamburger to be ironic. Vegans don’t wear fur as an inside joke to other vegans. Christians don’t worship idols out of some kind of mockery to those that do.
Or do they?
Writing in the first century, St. Paul spent a great deal of time trying to teach early Christians, many of whom were converts from other religions, a sense of balance. If he taught about rules, he would rally those who came out of the legalistic system of Pharisaical Judaism. If he preached on grace, he drew about him a circle of former hedonists who were excited about the idea of having their slate wiped clean every morning. As he sought balance, a weird hybrid of the two arose: Christians who celebrated Christ’s eternal grace and forgiveness by indulging in weird and wicked acts so that grace could “abound more.” St. Paul rightly called a group of Roman believers out and said, “What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?”
I see something similar still today. Without pointing fingers at any one group, there seems to be this notion that certain believers within a certain denomination, or a certain theological mindset, enjoy greater freedom to sin than the rest of us do, precisely because they understand grace better. The problem is that they then must also jump to the assumption that their theological foundation allows them a greater understanding than was afforded to St. Paul, when he was under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. The problem, as I see it, isn’t that grace doesn’t abound. There is always forgiveness. The problem is that no one told your friends that your crazy partying is only ironic, and after a while, maybe it isn’t.
(And speaking of wolves, be sure to check out my novella, GRAVESIGHT.)
I followed the wolf to a canyon,
I sneaked up and pushed him in.
Now I’m the sheep in a wolf’s clothing,
‘Cause I ate his carcass and wore his skin.
I went to his den and they let me in.
I lived with his pups for three full days,
Before revealing I wasn’t him.
I think a lot about religion. A lot. And I’m hardly diversified. I grew up within Christianity, attended Christian school, and spent a considerable chunk of each summer at a Christian camp. It’s probably not surprising, therefore, that I look favorably on religion. But I think it surprises many of the Christians I meet. There is, within contemporary Christianity, this trend to try and rise above one’s religion, or to disavow it in favor of being “spiritual” or “in a relationship” with Jesus. Don’t get me wrong, I do think that there is a danger of putting the cart before the horse, and making religion a priority before God, but tackling the issue has worked its way backward into other aspects of my life.
I’ve often said that religion is a tool, a set of spiritual habits that a Christian (or person of any religion) commits to, in order to draw nearer to God, personally. Religion is also a tool that Christianity commits to, as a whole, to draw the world nearer to God. On a personal level, Christians have found spiritual aid in consistent times in prayer, in the Bible, in fasting, vows of chastity, celibacy, or temperance. I don’t advocate all of these, but you cannot ignore that some of the most peaceable, productive, and effective people on the planet (Jesus, Desmond Tutu, Gandhi, etc.) have worked from within a frame of self-sacrifice.
The idea of giving something up isn’t limited to spiritual things, though many who sacrifice for some other reward often describe their experience in terms that suggest a spiritual high. Eric Liddell said, in Chariots of Fire, “I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure.” There is a sense of accomplishment we have when we sacrifice for something we know that we are good at, are called to, or enjoy.
One of the reasons I despise the phrase “It’s not a religion, it’s a relationship,” is because it sets up a false dichotomy, or else, a false definition of religion. Imagine a husband who says of his marriage, “It’s not about romance or fidelity, it’s about the relationship.” Imagine a soccer player who ignores the rules and referees because he’s only interested in “the game.” Or a student who eschews the rules of their school, the deadlines of their assignments, or their schedule because only their education matters.
That’s how I try to be with my writing, and most successful writers will describe their process in something that sounds very much like Judaic or Mosaic Law: Write every day. Write 1,000 words a day. Write 10,000 words a week. Keep deadlines. Cleanse your manuscript of all adverbs. Some rules are so deeply ingrained that we forget that they’re there. Like spelling.
The point of making those rules and habits is to develop a routine. The writers of Leverage talk about the self-imposed rules of the show, one of which is that there isn’t any deus ex machina, and that any secondary complications have to arise from the characters’ failures, or the fact that they succeeded too well. There was a particularly revelatory moment in the commentary of one episode where a writer said that while self-imposed rules sound limiting, they actually help them to know where to go next.
When I started writing Salvage Yard, I decided that no matter what happened within the novel, it needed to end where it began. This isn’t so much a gimmick as a promise to my reader. It says, don’t worry, we’ll be back. It also helps me to know where to start the story, which is a hard thing to choose.
In order to be successful at writing, or anything, really, one must make a religion of it. If one believes that God honors our efforts to be diligent in anything, whether we’re talking about studying or earning a paycheck, we actually make a religion of the thing we do. To be clear, we don’t make a religion of it in order to worship that thing, but in order to become better at it.
The Bible is almost entirely silent on the actual workings of religion and this is something that has caused centuries of arguments within the church. Should we baptize by sprinkling or immersion? Is one day holier than another? Are all days equally holy? Do we fast, or do we eat in remembrance? Do we gather together or do we pray in the solitude of a prayer closet? Do we marry or stay single? The fact that the Bible says yes and no to each of these is telling. The fact that the Bible never outlines a specific form of church government should be something of a hint.
I think that the authors of the Bible, and the early church fathers, and probably any successful religion recognize that people are different, and yet, we’re all the same. We all face troubles, pain, grief, periods of emotional drought, periods of achievement, joy, and success, but we deal with those things in vastly different ways. But we must deal with them.
It is hard for me to understand how people write without an outline. It’s hard for other people to understand how I can outline a novel to such a degree that I know, within a thousand words, when a particular thing will happen in my novel. It’s hard for me to understand how some people can sit down and write 3,000 words a day and not turn out drivel, and they don’t understand why I do so little revising. It’s because my religion of writing is different from theirs. The ultimate goal—to create a readable, enjoyable, reading experience is the same, and we both have the same burning passion to fulfill that goal, but the roads by which we reach it are vastly different.
I’ll be honest from the start, my book sales are barely that of a part-time job. I make more than a babysitter but less than someone who works 16 hours a week at minimum wage. Obviously, I know I’m not a best-seller. I do, however, have several acquaintances who take it upon themselves to try to use my Facebook wall as a springboard for their own fame (be it musician, political writer, or what have you). None of them are close friends (nor can they or their family read this). What is the reasonable action to take? Nothing? Unfriending? Blocking?