Review of The Pursuit of Perfection and how it Harms Writers

Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s The Pursuit of Perfection: And How It Harms Writers (WMG Writer’s Guide) (Volume 3) is one of the best — though brief at 46 pages — writing advice books I’ve read in some time (click either on the link or cover image to purchase at Amazon.). It’s especially valuable to those of us who are perfectionists, either by nature or training or a mix of the two. (I think most of us get a little of both along the way. Or perhaps the training reinforces the nature?) It’s also a nice introduction to thinking about writing in terms of a business pursuit as much as an art or craft.

The business side of writing is an area I’ve only recently begun to explore, so I won’t at this point talk too much about trying to tackle the business side of freelance writing. That area is regrettably one I’ve cast aside for far too long and have much to learn.

On the nature side of things, I think some of my perfectionistic tendencies might be rooted in psychological fears about money learned at an early age and reinforced in later life by negative experience and accepting some myths about writing, myths Rusch explores in the book. I wonder how many of you have had similar backgrounds when dealing with money and business education?

What I want to concentrate on in this review are some of the myths Rusch brings up. In particular, myths from the world of the MFA in creative writing. Now, I sheepishly admit there’s a bit of me — the ego protecting me — still touchy about not getting into an MFA program when I entered graduate school eons ago, so I tend to get a bit giddy about critiques of MFA programs in general. But, for me, I saw the MFA as a route to becoming a fiction writer — as a way other than publishing that validated my fiction as valuable. Isn’t either Stephen King or George Orwell who says writers write to get published because a publication is a validation of existence?

While I didn’t get into my school’s MFA program, I did get into its graduate program in English — barely. At least I would be around the MFAs, right? Maybe I could absorb some of those writers’ wisdom? (Of course, there are other reasons I went to grad school: I was deeply afraid of engaging with the real world. Fear is always a constant bugaboo, isn’t it?).

So, here is one paragraph from Rusch’s book that dug into my brain like a hungry worm:

Creative writing, so far as I can tell, is the only degree a student can get that doesn’t offer any study of how to make a career as a professional who makes her living at the craft described in the title of the degree. In fact, in most universities, creative writers are told from day one that they cannot make a living at their chosen profession.

And that’s just bullshit.

What hit me so much about this passage was that it seemed outside of being a scholar and teaching (whether in secondary schools or at colleges or universities) there was nothing offered of how my English degree could help me make a living. It wasn’t until I consulted a school counseling service for other issues that I even thought I could be an editor. Still, I had no idea how to go about becoming an editor. And for that matter, an editor of what?

Scholarship seemed to be for scholarship’s sake as getting a creative writing degree seemed to be for the sake of producing more MFAs. On the other hand, the journalism department at the other end of campus taught their students to be journalists. You learned how to get internships at a paper or radio or TV station. You learned marketable job skills.

There was also a sense in grad school that a career of some sort, that pursuing a profession was something of a betrayal of art or politics or even self. Now, this was the ’90s and I know now there are classes in editing, and degrees offered in technical and professional writing. So, things are changing. Maybe? But how many people are getting their MFAs just to get them?

Anyhow, this isn’t to disparage my graduate school experience: I learned great research skills, I read a lot of literary works that I had missed or avoided in my reading life and my critical thinking skills are stronger than say the average bear.

But, I’ve had to struggle with the cannot make a living at writing thing for a long time — about two decades. I would write stories and take two or three months and polish them to perfection then submit them to one or two usually non-paying literary journals or magazines, get them rejected and pretty much give up on them. I still go through this. I’ve brought my perfectionism to my journalism and to my fiction writing still.

It’s something I work through and hope to overcome. Some of it’s rooted in fear, which I think is part of the perfectionist’s nature. But, Reading Rusch’s book has helped even with that part of me, giving me a different way of thinking.

— Todd

 

Lesson learned

I think I learned a beginning writer’s lesson: Always read the submission guidelines thoroughly.

I submitted a short story Friday morning and about an hour later received a message that I hadn’t formatted my submission correctly. I was frustrated not only by the message, but by the complicated process of editing the submission so it would conform to the publication’s format.

Part of the frustration I felt was that the manuscript I submitted was already set up in a normally acceptable format from William Shunn. The requested format wasn’t too much of a deviation — an elimination of all references to the author’s name, supposedly for a more objective consideration of the story. But, then reading the guidelines further, the editor mentions not to use Courier. Times New Roman was preferred.

This seemed very absurd, overly picky. But I changed the font.

After resubmitting, my frustration subsided. I kept thinking about students I’ve had in the past who couldn’t get formatting. I was feeling like those students must have. And I wonder, too, if not submitting the story correctly had something to do with the quick rejection — received today.

Did it reflect on my professionalism not submitting correctly?

— Todd

ConDFW: Escape from the Slush Pile

banner-1200x2881This post will be brief. I’ve been busy with a move that has interrupted writing (excuses, excuses) but wanted to post some helpful advice I received at ConDFW this past weekend from western romance writer Sabine Starr during the panel Escape from the Slush Pile:

  1. Polish
  2. Polish
  3. Polish

One way to get out of the slush, she said, was to send editors your highest quality product.

Will try to get more posts on the convention up later this week. Went to some great panels on developing your career as a writer and met some great people. Stuff I want to share with you.

Let the Tale Tell the Tale

Sodiviner's script, like many of my scribbler friends, in November I started a story-a-week project that resulted in me finishing two stories and getting them into slush piles (and one rejection; sent that story right back out.) I finished a third story the third week that is in the hands of my beta reader.

I started a fourth story in the fourth week. That story is still being written. It’s moving past story length into the territory of novelette or possibly novella. In some way this is discouraging because it doesn’t fit at all into the goal of writing a story a week, much less a story a month.

Still, I am determined to finish it, whatever its length, and found encouragement to carry on after reading an essay by Kristine Kathryn Rusch, who wrote “But most of all these writers [referring to writers such as George R.R. Martin, Connie Willis and Robert Reed] are spectacular storytellers. They tell long stories and short stories and medium length stories and short punchy stories. They let the tale determine its own length, and they continually add to an already rich field.”

Not to say I am a spectacular storyteller by any means, but I am determined to finish this story and let the tale determine its length. Is it a good story. I hope so. I know I’m enjoying writing it. And I look forward to its outcome, whenever that comes.

Fonts, Page Design and Publishing

I was just reading Rudy Rucker’s blog post today about his efforts to find the right font for his forthcoming self-published novel The Big Aha, and was Free Fontsstirred by this paragraph about fonts,  page design and reading:

Getting back to my rant about font design—one bad thing that that can happen is, I think, that a book or (more often) a web page might be designed by someone who doesn’t actually read.. They want to be different and cool and hardcore and they don’t actually like text. So—they go with 9 point Arial beige type on a brown background.

I wonder if this is true about web designers or other non-text-oriented types. Many of the commercial clients I write for aren’t text- or design-oriented, until I try to diverge from their preferred Calibri text, and write a document that fits with the product being sold. I’ve had email flame wars with my clients over fonts; I actually like bolder serif fonts for the main body of the text, but sans serif fonts seem preferred for online reading, and my clients presume the final documents will be read online and not printed out.

Are, generally speaking, most people reading business documents, or for that matter other online content, not readers? Does font matter to you? Do you consider the nature of readability over legibility? What do you prefer, serif or sans-serif fonts?

Is the sans-serif font of this page readable?

—Todd

 

Copy editing conundrum 6: Shady Cliche and Stunted Emotions

Episode 6:

It’s been some time since I last posted a Copy Editing Conundrum. So, welcome new readers. Hope you enjoy, and are informed, as well as entertained. Although, technically today’s episode has less to do with copy editing, and much more to do with substantive editing, or perhaps injecting bad substances into published work like Hunter Thompson injected, well, everything, rather than pumping those substances out.

I found this cliche-ridden gem quoted in a Writer’s Digest article on what makes novels sell, and the excerpt is from a novel, or series of novels, that’s making the writer a J.K. Rowling-rich hack. (I write for money; I think writers should make money and a lot of it, but it still irks me that bad writing can make so much money and sell people on cheap emotions.) Anyhow, here’s the passage in question:

Okay, I like him. There, I’ve admitted it to myself. I cannot hide from my feelings anymore. I’ve never felt like this before. I find him attractive, very  attractive. But it’s a lost cause, I know, and I sigh with bittersweet regret. It was just a coincidence, his coming here. But still, I can admire him from afar, surely. No harm can come of that.

Every line is a cliche. It reminds me  of a teenage girl’s diary, or even a prepubescent girl writing about her first crush. And yet, the character is supposed to be an adult woman, confessing her darkest erotic desires. An apparently emotionally-stunted woman. (Have you guessed the bestseller?)

This is bad writing at its finest, reveling in its shiny badness. And I’m disappointed in Writer’s Digest for providing it as an example of tension-filled writing that will make your novel sell. It may help sell, but it’s not tension-filled. It’s not remotely satisfying, at least for this reader. Is this the kind of writing modern readers want, even if it is meant as escapism? I hope not. I hope it’s a passing fancy.

My advice would be to send this passage back and tell the writer to rewrite it until a real character, a real woman with genuine desires emerges from the prose.

Of course, if the whole novel reads like this one passage, the writer could churn out a novel a month, which will make the writer’s publisher happy, as long as readers are buying. And the hack will laugh all the way to the bank.

—Todd