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

 

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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

Creating Short Fiction


In rereading Damon Knight’s Creating Short Fiction: The Classic Guide to Writing Short Fiction, he provides one of his annotated short stories, “Semper Fi,” for study. In the annotations, Knight mentions his third paragraph marks the moment where the action really begins in the story.

Is this a pretty good measure of when to begin action in the short story, or is it just another arbitrary point in a story?

How soon in a story should the action begin?

Asimov’s, August 2015

In between reading the books stacked on my to-read pile, I like to catch up with magazines, especially short fiction to study and absorb as a writer myself. One of my favorites is Asimov’s Science Fiction, and I just finished the August 2015 issue.Asimovs-Science-Fiction-August-2015

One of the things in this issue that caught my attention was James Patrick Kelly‘s regular “On the Net” column in which he writes about the joys of getting your first acceptance, noting how he had run across a post by new writer Kelly Robson, “who announced that she had sold her first story to this magazine.” His piece is one of those that gives hope, as well as insight, to all of new writers waiting to do happy dances for first or second or fifth acceptances from Asimov’s or any other magazine willing to take your fiction.

That piece talks about the importance of market analysis, reading the stories and persistence, the faith writers have through hard work their stories will get accepted. I would say it’s a must-read piece for new writers.

As for newbie Kelly Robson’s story “Two-Year Man,” it’s definitely worthy of placement with such established writers as Kristine Kathryn Rusch, whose time travel story “The First Step” is a heart-wrencher about an absent father coming to terms with missing out on his son’s life.

Robson’s story is set in a near-future, Eastern-Europeanish-bleak Vienna and concerns itself with a couple picking out the best of thrown away children and hoping to keep their relationship together.

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.

The First Rule of Beginning a Story . . .

. . . don’t start with strangers bashing each other in the mouth or the nuts or anywhere else. “[I]f you plunge instantly into the action, you risk losing the reader,” writes Damon Knight in Creating Short Fiction. “It is hard to take much interest in absolute strangers, no matter how enthusiastically they may be bashing each other.”

Of course, there are always exceptions to the rules of Write Club, as Chuck Palahniuk demonstrates in the opening of Fight Club:

fight 2Tyler gets me a job as a waiter, after that Tyler’s pushing a gun in my mouth and saying, the first step to eternal life is you have to die. For a long time though, Tyler and I were best friends. People are always asking, did I know about Tyler Durden.

Why does this beginning work, though the narrator has a gun shoved in his mouth in the hook? (Also note the comma splice. Does that work for you? Why? I like it; it speeds the beginning, alerts you to the roller coaster ride you are about to begin, and tells you you’re about to get your nose bloodied, or worse, much, much worse.) I think Palahniuk’s beginning works, because, if you are like me, you’re suddenly asking who is this person who gets you a job then shoves a gun in your mouth? What kind of psycho is this? It raises suspense.

But Knight is probably right. You have to begin a story and make the reader care about the narrator. And unless the narrator has a gun in his mouth, you probably won’t be interested. You don’t have to have someone in such dire straits to get your money for  nothing and your beginning for free. You do need tension and suspense or provoke interest, as  Knight confirms, “The opening must establish character, setting, situation, the mood and tone of the story; it must provoke interest, arouse curiosity, suggest conflict, start the movement of the plot—all this in about two hundred words.”

What do you think? What makes a good beginning?

—Todd

But Learn the Rules First . . .

“There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”—W. Somerset Maugham

Earlier, I tweeted the following link to breaking writing  rules. Thought I’d share it here for those who didn’t see it then. Also, I would say you do need to learn the rules, learn to use them effectively before breaking them.

Anyhow, enjoy:

5 Classic Writing Rules We Could Do Without

—Todd