Monthly Archives: October 2012

The Perspective of Hustle

I have returned from the Surrey International Writer’s Conference, but I’m relatively certain I left my brain under one of the presentation tables somewhere.

As always, the conference was awesome. In the classes taught by the fantastic speakers I learned several new skills to drop into my ever expanding writer’s tool-box. In the bar I had several meaningful, occasionally enlightening, conversations, and had plenty of opportunity to mingle among friends, old and new, and rejuvenate my love for the craft. I drank more than was wise, and ate more than was healthy, but enjoyed myself from the time I arrived to the time I left.

As much as I learned – and the amount is significant – the new knowledge I gained pales in comparison to one thing I was lacking: Perspective. And I got that in spades.

As I’ve discussed before, I am not a patient person. I want too much, too soon, and am inclined to pull a snit out of my closet when the mood strikes me…which is often. I easily grow discouraged by my own perceived lack of success, and I’ve been known to stamp my foot like a child who has been denied a lollipop. In speaking with other writers (most of them far better, and far smarter than me) I gained some valuable insight into what their lives are like.

A storyteller I admire a great deal, is CC (Chris) Humphreys, whose most recent book, A Place Called Armageddon, sits among my favorites. Chris describes himself as a mid-list Author (he makes a living from his writing, but doesn’t drive a Ferrarri or buy and sell people like heads of lettuce), and is much further along in his career and his craft than I am likely to ever be.

I had an opportunity to speak with Chris, and talk about his most recent book tour(which he also discusses in his blog, here) in which he traveled several hundred miles for a book signing and have not one person show up. Not one. At all. And he’s famous.

During a keynote speech, notable science fiction author, Robert J Sawyer, who has won every science fiction award known to man, told us that it takes only 5000 copies of a book to be sold in Canada for it to be considered a bestseller. Despite the fact the requirements for bestseller status are so low, very few books ever make it that far. If you, as a Canadian Author, he said, sell 7000 copies of a book, you are exceptional. If you’re published with a small house (like me), and you sell 300 copies of your book, then you have something to be very proud of.

When I heard such tiny numbers I felt myself absolutely deflated. I do not write for money (and if I did I would be living in a cardboard box and eating out of dumpsters), but I still have hopes of one day being able to retire from my day job and make a living from my craft. If these authors, who are so much better than me, are struggling with book signings that no one comes to and dismal sales numbers, then what can I, an uneducated goon, really expect from this writing life.

The answer: Nothing.

I can expect Nothing at all. But I can strive for much.

Instead of allowing what I’d heard to pull me down, I forced it to push me up, which is what they intended anyway. Even though Chris had a vacant signing, he is still telling the story with a laugh and making a good living doing what he loves. Even though it only takes 5000 copies of a book to make a bestseller in Canada, Robert J Sawyer is winning awards across the world, and giving up his time to try and help us do the same.

What I learned from these men is that the numbers don’t matter. They don’t matter one little freaking bit. What matters is the writing. What really matters is the story. What really matters is that we hustle, and strive, and keep working on our craft.

“Your story might not matter to everyone,” Robert Sawyer said. “But it is going to matter, very much, to someone.”

With these words in mind I am making a commitment, to both you, my friends, and myself, that I am going to work more and worry less. I am going to produce more stories and less excuses. I am going to focus on what is important, and forget what doesn’t matter.

With the conference done, a new year of writing is upon us. It is time to put down the pouts and pick up the pen, and get some shit done.

Let me know if you want to tag along.

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October 23, 2012 · 4:43 am

The Growth of Craft

I, like everyone else, am many things. I have a bunch of different hats, titles I bear, and they change depending on where I am standing and who is looking at me at any given time.

My kid calls me Dad. My Dad, despite the fact I’ve been bigger than him since I was 16, still calls me Squirt. The people who work for me call me Corporal, while my boss calls me a “Massive Pain in the Ass.” My friends call me “Ty”, or “I can’t believe you just did that,” and my wife, occasionally calls me Jackass, depending on what I’ve done.

No matter what title is given me by the various people in my life, there is one thing I know I am:

A Storyteller.

With equal clarity I know there is one thing I most certainly am not:

An Educated Man.

Despite the fact that I have a book published by a legitimate publishing house, and have actually won short story contests and been paid for my work, I have literally zero university level education concerning composition or creative writing. Before I joined “the Force” I was roughly half way to an English Literature degree with a small university, which provides only with the ability to analyse someone else’s work (in my case, incorrectly) and not to create any of your own.

All of my formal writing training has come from one source: the Surrey International Writer’s Conference (www.siwc.ca).

I had been hammering away at a story – a truly horrid High Fantasy tale which has not, and never will see the light of day – for over a year when I first walked through the doors of the Guildford Sheraton hotel in Surrey, British Columbia, for the first time in 2007. Like every beginning writer I thought everything I’d produced was pure gold, and I gripped my 120,000 some odd words of ridiculousness like a proud parent and showed it to everyone who would sit still long enough. Through the haze of my own perceived awesomness I could not see that the smiles I got were forced and the stupidity written upon the pages I had in my hand was making people uncomfortable.

Included in the cost of registration at the conference is something called ‘The Blue Pencil Cafe.’ During this appointment you get 15 minutes with an established writer of your choice; one of the presenters at the conference. You present this writer with 3 pages of your work, they read it, and then help you improve your craft. I had managed to get in with Jack Whyte, who I had been reading since high school and held in very high regard.

I sat down in front of Jack, a gigantic grin on my face, and handed him the first three pages of my story, expecting him to read it, jump up and down, and proclaim my brilliance to anyone who could hear his shouting.

This, as you might imagine, did not happen.

Jack read the first few paragraphs of my story, looked up at me, looked back at the page, and then sighed heavily. Without finishing the three pages he put them down and folded his hands on top of them. “Tell me about your story,” he said, instead of reading the rest of my three pages.

I, of course, launched into an enthusiastic explanation of my story idea, making wild hand gestures and fighting the urge to get out of my chair and act out some of the more interesting scenes. When I was done, Jack nodded. “You’ve got a good idea for a story,” he told me. “But you’ve got no idea how to tell it. If you want to be a storyteller, you’ve got to learn the language.”

I was crestfallen, my delusions of grandeur having been ripped apart and tossed about by a scottish man in a wool sweater. My misery was diminished, however, when Jack pushed my three pages aside, and tapped the notebook I’d brought with me with one finger, then handed me a pen. For the next eleven minutes I jotted down point form notes as Jack told me what I needed to do to become a storyteller.

He set me a number of tasks: writing exercises, books I was to read, lessons I was to learn. “Once you learn the craft of writing,” he told me, “you’ll be able to tell your story.”

His words in my ears I went through the rest of the conference that year, sponging up every piece of information and advice that was presented to me. I realized, also, during those workshops another very important thing: I was not alone.

All around me was a legion of beginning (and veteran) storytellers who had all come to this conference in efforts to improve their craft. These people were all rowing in the same boat I was in (although some, admittedly, were rowing in wrong direction and crashing themselves upon a set of very pointy rocks). There was absolutely no adversarial feeling in any of those rooms; everyone there wanted everyone else to succeed, and to tell a better story.

With new advice, and new friendships, I went away that year and started working my furry ass off. I wrote, and edited, and read, and wrote, and read some more. I kept in touch with the friends I’d made and shared ideas, constructive criticism, and support. I wrote a lot, and I felt like a writer, and it was good.

The next year, at the conference, I completed and submitted a short story to the Storyteller’s Contest. The year after, I submitted a story and it got short listed. The year after that, I submitted a story, and it won first runner up. I was able to stand up in front of the conference, with Jack Whyte, and receive a cheque, the first time I’d ever been paid for writing, and also recieve the good will and congratulations of a group of people who shared several of my dreams and goals, and wished me nothing but the best.

Every year I’ve gone back to that conference I have learned something new and left the hotel a better storyteller. Every year I’ve made new friends, developed new contacts, and expanded my network of likeminded writers.

I am a firm believer that good writers are made, not born, and you don’t have to go to university for four years, wear a tweet jacket with elbow patches, and say ‘Speculative Fiction’ as though it were a dirty word to do it.

If you’re willing to work at it, you can learn the craft of writing and become a better storyteller, and there are plenty of people who will, very enthusiastically, help you do it.

The Surrey International Writers Conference might not be a possibility for you, but I’m willing to bet there are conferences and festivals held locally, where ever you are, that will help you along your way. I whole-heartedly encourage you to seek these things out, pay attention, and learn the craft of writing.

You just have to be willing to set your delusions aside and get busy.

It worked for me, and it’ll work for you.

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