Sunday, February 07, 2016

Losing the Dream Job: Writing and Recovering

I've been a writer my entire life. It is a lifelong vocation. It comes easily to me, I like doing it, and I can do it just about anywhere. Part of the reason I've seen it as a vocation rather than a job is because I never expected to find a job writing. Sure, I dreamed of writing the Best-Selling Book that makes a million dollars - but that dream rested on the same shelf as winning the lottery (both dreams end with me typing away in a well-appointed English cottage with reliable Wi-Fi).

I suppose I could have gone into journalism or freelancing, but (perhaps immaturely) I always preferred living in fictional realms rather than the real one. I never wanted to chase down elusive leads, I was terrified at the idea of contacting strangers and asking about their stories, and even more terrified at the idea of living, financially, like a desperate trapeze artist swinging from opportunity to opportunity, always one leap away from tumbling down into Ruin. 

Perhaps I was spoiled. Perhaps I was a coward. But that's not really the point of my post.

Anyway, last November, I won the lottery. No, I didn't sell another novel. No, I didn't pick the winning numbers. Instead, I landed a writing job at BioWare. 

Lightning Strikes

Back in September, BioWare put out a posting for a contract Assistant Writer position for their new IP. They were willing to look at applicants with no game writing experience, provided their practical writing experience and writing sample demonstrated talent and a willingness to learn. I sent in my application, was called in for an interview a month later, got a job offer the next day, and officially started with them two weeks later.

It really was the perfect job. First of all - I adore BioWare games. Dragon Age: Origins got me back into gaming, and I've played the Dragon Age and Mass Effect trilogies multiple times. Sure, the gameplay was fun, but it was BioWare's storytelling that hooked me. I loved the characters, I loved the choice-based narratives, I loved the worldbuilding. Whatever I would be working on, it was bound to be amazing.

Secondly, their office was located in Edmonton, right where I live. I wouldn't have to move to another city and miss my friends and family. Thirdly, it was that rarest of rare ducks - a pure writing job that was nine to five with a salary (and a fairly good one!). 

So you can imagine my joy: I'd found a job writing what I loved for a company I loved that allowed me to stay in a city I loved that paid enough money to buy more things that I loved. I learned a lot (and fairly quickly), I was super excited about the IP and the creativity I could bring to it, and I got to share a writer's room and trade ideas with legendary BioWare talents. I bought an embarrassing amount of BioWare merchandise with my employee discount and had a blast at the insane BioWare Christmas party. 

I planned to dye my hair blue (since BioWare has no dress code). I planned to get a tattoo of the IP's name (once it was finalized). I daydreamed about the merchandise and the fan art people would make about the character I would write. 

And Then...

BioWare terminated my contract two months in. The project was going in a different direction, they had to make cuts, and as the newest writer with the least amount of experience, I was the obvious choice. I held it together during the exit interview and the taxi ride home, barely. 

You know that feeling when you miss a step on a staircase? That feeling of disorientation when your foot meets empty air when you expected solid ground? Imagine feeling that for a week. Just total, empty shock, with no idea where you're going to end up. I knew my position was a one-year contract. I knew there was a possibility they wouldn't renew. It had come up in my interview, actually, and the interviewer had said, "Even if we don't renew, you'll have a year with BioWare on top of a published novel under your belt. You can get a writing job anywhere with that."

But what can I do with two months at BioWare?

Losing my job at BioWare is probably the closest I've ever come to experiencing a breakup. I didn't go full Miss Havisham and turn all the clocks in the house to 11:00 am (the time of my final HR meeting, but who remembers such petty details?) while replaying the Suicide Mission from Mass Effect 2 over and over in my BioWare 20 T-shirt and Tali hoodie. But I came close. I placed an inordinate amount of significance on diary entries and receipts and even credit card charges that happened before January 19th, 2016 - I bought this before I knew what was going to happen. I went to this restaurant expecting to have a job this week. I had no idea what was in store for me when I made this appointment.

What Now?

And once you've found and lost your dream job, how the hell do you find another job? Game writing positions are dearer than pearls - finding a game writing job in Canada was lucky enough, never mind one in my own home town. And convincing an American video game company like Tell Tale Games or a British one like Failbetter Games to sponsor me for a working visa based on a novel and two month's game writing experience? What are the odds of that? 

And after having and losing an amazing writing job, is it worth trying again for another writing job? I didn't quit my administrator job of five years for BioWare - I'd already tendered my notice as I was planning on attending Vancouver Film School in January to study screenwriting. I withdrew from film school for BioWare, and the relief I felt that I wouldn't have to move away and I wouldn't have to empty out my savings convinced me I was making the right choice. Once I lost my job at BioWare, my desire to go to film school was similarly torpedoed. I'd opened the door to my fears of Leaving Home and Spending All My Money - and there they remain, ready and waiting for me whenever I try to revisit the idea of reapplying to VFS. 

Would you really want to leave all your family and friends and spend all the money you've saved over ten years to get into an industry that can kick you out after only two months?

So the remaining option is to go back to the way things were before - working in a stable, administrative field by day and writing by night. But once you've lost your dream job, how can you go back to looking for administrative jobs? You're supposed to apply for jobs you want, jobs that improve on the experience you have, jobs you envision being happy and fulfilled in. How do you apply for jobs knowing this will not and will never be the case? How do you keep from going crazy? 

Moving On

I'm still wrestling with what to do. I've applied to numerous jobs - mostly administrative, but I did take a shot on an Ubisoft scriptwriter position in Montreal. I haven't written off Vancouver Film School just yet. I suspect it's a choice millions of people (artists especially) have to worry over: ordinary stability or uncertain greatness? Do I go for a stable job and fight to keep up an artistically and socially impassioned home life? Or try for the fantastic artistic career and all the insecurity that comes with it? 

Out of all this, I remain certain about two things. The first is that I am not bitter towards BioWare. I realized it that first, awful afternoon when the taxi dropped me off and I collapsed onto my bed. The first thing I saw when I came up for air (and the first thing I see when I wake up every morning) is my Dragon Age Inquisition calendar pinned to my cork board. The second thing I see are my Tali and Garrus figurines on my windowsill. And the Tali hoodie on its hook on the back of my bedroom door. Dragon Age: Origins is my comfort game. The Trespasser soundtrack is my go-to secret to writing productivity. I still follow and converse with all of my BioWare writing friends on Twitter. 

The termination of my contract wasn't personal. It's a sadly frequent reality of the video game industry. BioWare has a lot of separate moving parts, and the parts I came into contact with during my employment with them treated me extraordinarily well. If I was sent back in time to choose between applying to BioWare knowing I'd only have two months, and never applying at all, I'd do it all over again without question. And if tomorrow, in a month, in a year, another Assistant Writer position becomes available, I will apply again. Without question.

The second thing I remain certain of is that I can still write, and that it will always make me happy whether or not I do it for money. Every day, after I spend the morning scrolling through job postings and sending out resumes, I open my latest journal or scribbler and the words continue to flow from my pen. Regardless of the panic I feel at being unemployed, the self-consciousness at having to define myself in every cover letter as an administrative assistant, the frustration and longing at discovering a game writing internship is only open to recent graduates who live in the United States, I can still come up with ideas that take me away from everything but my own mind. I'm still a writer. Hell, I'm a great writer, and I can always take pride in that.

I don't need to be paid to write.

But .... it would be nice.

Thursday, October 08, 2015

"Starship Troopers," by Robert A. Heinlein

Starship Troopers is my dad's absolute favourite book of all time by one of his favourite authors of all time. So of course I had to read it for my self-imposed Parental Book Club.

But I was worried. Yes, Heinlein was part of the Golden Age of Science Fiction, but this novel was released in 1959 and I thought it would be dated. I'd overheard discussions about his allegedly stilted language and stiff characters  (especially the female ones). It certainly didn't help that certain rabidly conservative groups in the sci-fi community revered this novel for being "simple" sci-fi that focused on action rather than "agenda."

I opened this book with such lowered expectations, it shouldn't be a surprise that Starship Troopers overcame each one of them easily.

This book was nothing but surprises - the vast majority of them pleasant.

The novel follows the military career of Juan "Johnnie" Rico from the point when he joins the Terran Federation's Mobile Infantry (MI) in the 22nd century. Johnnie joins the army on little more than a whim and discovers the military is far tougher than he gave it credit for - especially once war breaks out with the Bugs, a race of super intelligent insects operating under a hive mind. However, over the course of the book, Johnnie not only falls in love with the job, but the man it's turned him into.

My first busted preconception about this book was that it would be simple and apolitical. WRONG. This book is all about politics. In the future, only Citizens (people who have successfully completed a term of military service) are allowed to vote or participate in politics. You can volunteer for the military whenever you want, and the military has to accept you (regardless of sex, age, race, religion, or ability), but then it's up to you to sweat and toil and earn your franchise. If you wash out or resign, you don't get another chance. Ever.

Sure, Heinlein is conservative, and this set-up would do nicely as the dystopia for one of today's YA novels, but you can definitely understand his reasoning - the only people who have the right to vote for society are the ones who've volunteered to put society's needs ahead of their own. The contrast between Johnnie's lifestyle before joining the military with his life after neatly outlines the novel's definition of power: Johnnie was born to a wealthy, privileged Filipino family but had no voting rights and a father who'd already picked out a career for him. He gains his power after joining the military - by choosing his own path and rising on his own merits. In this case, the power to vote is a symbol of Johnnie's autonomy.

I was also pleasantly surprised by the novel's diversity - at least comparatively, for the time period it was published in - with a Filipino hero and a cast that includes hispanic, African-American, and Japanese characters. That being said - while women are apparently "superior pilots" in the future, we only see, like, two of them, and then very briefly.

Did I agree with all the politics? Um, nope. There's a cringe-inducing chapter devoted almost entirely to the Usefulness of Corporal Punishment and how Psychology is Ruining Kids Today that made me want to shout at the teenagers to get off my lawn. And this novel takes a very cynical view of human existence that suggests that morality is a disguised survival instinct and that humans are innately savage, violent monsters.

Preconception number two: this would be an action book. Wrong again - you can blame this one on the terrrrrrrible film adaptation. There's maybe a handful of action scenes, and they're all brief. Heinlein's preferred style is to introduce the reader to a fight and then skip ahead to focus on who won, because the action isn't what's really important. Most of the novel is dedicated to military life in between combat - the training, the technology, the relationships and the social structure. Heinlein's take on the military is an extremely positive and compassionate one. The novel toes a fine line between being pro-military and being pro-war, but it manages that balance pretty well.

I went in expecting a stilted, vaguely-out-of-touch story and wound up sucked into a compulsively-readable, thought-provoking political sci-fi work. I should have known better - they don't give labels like "Golden Age of Sci-Fi" to chimps.

Thursday, October 01, 2015

"Carnival," by Elizabeth Bear

Carnival's plot is wildly and enjoyably convoluted, but I'll try to convey the gist: Michelangelo and Vincent are two diplomats (and former lovers) from the Old Earth Coalition Cabinet who seek an audience with the Parliament of New Amazonia, a planet that's managed to remain independent. On the surface, the two men are supposed to broker an alliance. Secretly, they've been sent to discover the source of New Amazonia's miraculously clean energy and claim it for the Coalition. Unfortunately for them, the powers that be in New Amazonia have their own ideas.

Old Earth and its allied planets are under constant pressure from the Governors - a manmade race of artificially intelligent beings programmed to maintain ecological balance. Part of that balance includes population control and resource distribution - the Governors will go into Massacre Mode and start culling if a planet's population gets too high or if the environment starts to decline. The tyranny of the Governors has forced the Coalition to adopt a desperately expansionist philosophy: the more planets they colonize, the more space and resources there'll be to go around, which means fewer excuses for the Governors to intervene. On Coalition planets, resources are tightly controlled, and neither mediocrity nor nonconformity are acceptable.

The Coalition's societal structure is twelve kinds of fucked up, but we quickly learn New Amazonia's freer way of life isn't automatically better. In New Amazonia, women are the ruling class while men are second-class citizens categorized into two camps: "stud" males who have to earn their status by performing gladiatorial challenges, and "gentle" (gay) males who are permitted to be servants and artisans.

Carnival is a clever and intricate science fiction novel about the many ways in which different societies fail to live up to their ideals. The novel encourages you (at least at first) to view the Coalition as the soulless aggressor, but New Amazonia has troubles of its own. Both societies feel they have the science and the history to back up how they've structured their worlds, but their vast generalizations leave swaths of people out in the cold.

It helps that all three protagonists (Vincent, Michelango, and New Amazonia's Lesa) teeter on the edge of being outcasts in their respective societies. Vincent and Michelango have to officially hide their homosexuality from their superiors (the inability to reproduce is seen as a waste of resources), while Lesa rages that her soft hearted, intellectual son will soon be forced to give up his studies because of his gender. While all three are strongly influenced by their environments, due to their outcast status, all three are clear-eyed enough to spot the flaws in their ways of life.

Carnival also asks: should one accept one's society's inevitable inadequacies to preserve the peaceful status quo, or should one risk death and sacrifice to form a better society - even if that society will eventually wind up failing somewhere down the road as well?

Carnival isn't perfect (it can be incredibly difficult to keep up with all the double-triple-quadruple crossing and double blinds going on), but it uses unique settings, nuanced characters, and fantastical set-pieces to ask deeper questions of the reader.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

"Tapping the Dream Tree," by Charles de Lint

So I'm back to reviewing!

Sort of!

Basically to get myself back in the habit of both reading and writing critically, I'm going to go back to reviewing books - although I might be briefer than I used to be.

I've recently moved back in with my parents, and to while away the hours I started an impromptu Parental Book Club, encouraging my parents to submit books or authors they've always loved and always wanted me to try.

Which is what got me reading Tapping the Dream Tree. Charles de Lint is one of my mother's favourite authors, and she thought this collection of stories would be the perfect appetizer platter to introduce me to his unique brand of urban fantasy.

And to be honest - it was rather refreshing. I burnt out on urban fantasy pretty early after one-too-many novels about a Tough Heroine with a Mysterious Parentage who wears a Leather Jacket and Disrespects Authority and is in a Love Triangle with Two Equally Hot and Morally Ambiguous Magical Boyfriends.

De Lint's stories have a different, folkie, down-to-earth tone, inspired by Celtic and First Nations folklore. Most of them take place in or around the fictional town of Newford, with a revolving cast of recurring characters. Most of the protagonists are artists or musicians - people who, while not explicitly magical, are still open enough to the world's mysteries to be pretty chill about the magical stuff that inevitably goes down. I really enjoyed this - none of the stories get bogged down in "What do you mean magic is real?!" denials or overwrought explanations about rules or worldbuilding. Whether it's a fairy-powered internet search engine, a Ferris Wheel of alternate universes, or the ghost of the teenage free spirit you sacrificed for a happy adulthood, the drama comes not from confronting magic, but from accepting and learning from it.

What I enjoyed the most about these stories is that although characters might reference events from other collections or novels, I never felt lost or left out because I was a de Lint newbie. Tapping the Dream Tree is an effective Charles de Lint taster - each story is a satisfying standalone that still drops delicious hints about his pretty impressive backlist. I may have to try one of his novels, next.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

"Little Men," by Louisa May Alcott

Yeah, sequels are rarely as good as the original story.

I could pretty much end my review of Little Men (the sequel to the classic Little Women) right there, but despite the fact that Little Men is nowhere near as interesting or well-written as the book that came before it, it is still a remarkably interesting book for its time.

Little Men chronicles the adventures of one year at Plumfield Academy, the school Jo and her husband Professor Bhaer founded at the end of Little Women. You'd think this would be interesting, and it sort of is, and it sort of isn't.

Plumfield is home to 14 students, plus Jo's sons Rob and Teddy (yes, his name is Teddy Bhaer). Four are the main(ish) characters - Nat, former urchin and violin prodigy; Demi, Meg and John's bookworm son; Tommy, the rascally troublemaker; and Dan - the bad boy street kid with a dark past. Yes, ladies, we have been mooning over angsty brooders for more than a century.

Five of the other boys are vague characters who mainly serve as comic relief or mild antagonists (Jack, Stuffy, Franz, Emil, Ned). Three are the token "special" kids (Dick has a crooked back, Dolly has a stutter, and Billy is mentally disabled) who are mentioned very rarely and never without some combination of the adjectives "poor," "feeble," and "valiant."

Strangely enough, the "quadroon" student Jo and Fritz boasted of so smugly at the end of Little Women is nowhere to be found. Suspicious, that.

Lastly, two of the students are girls - Daisy, Demi's twin sister, and "Naughty Nan," who is AWESOME. More on that later.

The main reason this book didn't work for me was the youth of the characters. While the main children are comparable in age to the March sisters at the start of Little Women, they act much younger. Perhaps this is due to the fact that they reside in a school environment where they are constantly reminded that they're children, while the March sisters had to grow up rather fast to survive while their father was away.

Alcott also wastes an awful lot of scenes chronicling the cutesy fan-servicey adventures of the March sisters' children, most of whom are under the age of 5. Lots of tears, chubby fists, and baby talk. Imagine reading a Facebook friend's posts about their two-year-old, only instead of a post, it's like 40% of a novel. So most of the episodes read as very childish.

Little Men, as a whole, feels strangely directionless. It's "a year in the life," separated into little episodes and vignettes, with no real goal or point. The closest the novel comes to an arc is the Bhaers' attempt to tame Dan - a defiant and obviously troubled boy who wants help as much as he fears to ask for it. The Bhaer's conflicting hopes and fears for Dan (hope that he might be brought around, fear that his violence might affect the other children) are powerful, as is Dan's slowly unfolding trust for them. It's the strongest subplot in the novel, and I honestly wish we had more of it.

On the positive side, Plumfield gives Alcott an excuse to rhapsodize at length about how best to educate boys and girls, and her ideas (considering her time period) are bold, progressive, and feminist. For instance, a huge emphasis is placed on individual study - some kids learn at different paces, and that's okay! Rote memorization will not help a young, eager brain to learn (rather laughably, mentally handicapped Billy's backstory is that he literally studied so hard his brain gave out). As well, Alcott preaches a balance between book learning and practical, hands-on knowledge (the boys are encouraged to explore and collect their frogs and snails and puppy dog's tails).

Even better, Jo decides to make Plumfield co-ed by inviting local girl "Naughty Nan" to board with them and study with Daisy (who's at Plumfield to be close to her brother). Jo theorizes that having boys learn alongside girls will encourage them to moderate their behaviour and respect women more. FANCY THAT.

Alcott also demonstrates many feminist themes in her treatment of Daisy and Nan. Daisy fits the more conventional model of Victorian femininity - she's gentle and sweet, loves to cook and clean and pretends to mother her dolls. Nan is the wild child - running and racing and challenging the boys, voraciously interested in science and the outdoors. Neither child is shamed or depicted as the "bad one" for what they want out of life. Nan is "naughty" because of her behaviour, not because of her desires.

Oh, and did I mention? Jo sees Nan's interest in science, biology, and medicinal herbs and encourages her to study to be a DOCTOR. IN 1871 NEW ENGLAND. Because JO MARCH-BHAER IS AWESOME. I just about flew up out of my chair reading that part.

So while Little Men doesn't tell as interesting of a story as Little Women did, it's still a fascinating look into the mind of a 19th century feminist and her idea of what the ideal school would be like. While some of her ideas and themes are problematic when seen in a modern context (especially her depiction of disabled people), the amount of stuff she got right is still encouraging.

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Learning to Love "Little Women" Again

There are three stages to reading Louisa May Alcott's Little Women.

Stage One is when you read it for the first time because your mother bought it for you, usually around the ages of 12-13, and you love it. Because there's Jo - who's awkward and a tomboy and a writer and likes books just like you! And has sisters who love/annoy her, just like you! And has a totally cute next door neighbour who she loves and this is where the comparison ends because you would TOTALLY marry Laurie, what the HELL were you thinking, Jo? He's rich and half-Italian and a musician and looks vaguely like Christian Bale! Instead she marries some random old dude (HE'S FORTY) with a beard that you just KNOW is worse than Laurie's terrible Rejection-Goatee from the movie. 

Also, Amy is the worst and Beth is weird.

Stage Two is when you read it as a smart, sophisticated, cynical intellectual (between the ages of 19-23) because you remember loving it as a kid, and are surprised by how much you hate it. Good Lord, did you actually love this novel at one time? Everything is sugary and preachy and condescending, and a March girl is always sewing or darning something in literally every scene ever. That's Beth over there, embroidering a handkerchief as Amy falls through the ice. I'm almost positive Meg managed to tat some lace while she was wearing high heeled shoes and sipping champagne like a godless harlot while Laurie looked on in Righteous Patriarchal Disapproval. This time around, you can only stand about a hundred pages of Marmee's cheesy moralizing, creepy Beth with her broken doll hospital and Foreshadowings of Death, and Amy being The Literal Worst before you slam the book shut and write the novel off as something that just doesn't age well.

Stage Three is when you pick it up again in your late twenties. Partly for nostalgia. Partly to make a few more jokes at its expense (for you haven't completely outgrown your cynical I'm So Clever phase). This is the stage where you stop pausing to point out the things that haven't aged well (it takes place in the 1860s, remember) and rediscover the parts that remain stunningly timeless. When you read it as a girl, you loved and remembered it primarily as a book about girls, and as a Cynical Teen you couldn't even read past the girl part. It's Stage Three when you rediscover what this book has to say about women.

In case you are unfamiliar or would like a reminder, Little Women is about four sisters (Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy March) who live in genteel poverty in 1860s New England. The first half of the novel deals with the sisters and their mother (Marmee) eking out a living on their own while the March patriarch is off serving as a chaplain in the army. With their male anchor away at war, these five women work tirelessly together - not only to support themselves financially (both Meg and Jo work full-time jobs), but also emotionally.

Poverty is a big issue in this novel, and during Stage Two, I dismissed this first half as a simplistic sermon on how "We Don't Need Money Because We Have Twu Wuv." During Stage Two, I saw the Marches as this judgy family that repeatedly hammered home how much better they were then those Godless Immoral Rich People because they relied on their Pure Christian Love and not filthy, filthy lucre.

Reading in Stage Three gave me a completely different interpretation. It wasn't, "We Don't Need Money Because We Have Twu Wuv." The Marches don't have a choice between poverty and wealth. They're poor, full stop. It's not about how being Poor makes them Better, it's how they struggle and fight to be Better despite being Poor. A good chunk of the novel's first half deals with the girls battling the incursions of envy, greed, despair and bitterness that come from being poor. Especially Meg. One of the details I missed during previous readings was that the March family used to be rich, and Meg, as the eldest sister, has the clearest memories of what their lives used to be like before disaster struck. This informs so much of her character - her conflicted feelings about wealth and status continually influence her life and her eventual marriage, and Alcott portrays these feelings as natural without slighting Meg's ultimately virtuous character.

The second half of the novel deals with the girls growing into women, mustering and altering their lives' ambitions, and learning how to deal with the men in their lives. While I recognize the book is a product of its time, I was nevertheless astounded and delighted by the strong and amazingly relevant themes about feminism and art I took away from this novel. Marmee trains all her girls to be independent - to value hard work, to develop useful skills, to maintain a moral compass, with or without a husband. She'd rather her daughters be happy old maids than unhappy wives.

Meg learns that even a happy marriage has hiccups (hilariously still-relevant hiccups) that need to be resolved with open communication and understanding. My favourite scene is when Meg, a new mother, has to be cajoled into letting her husband John look after the kids because she deserves some personal time. Imagine that.

Jo's storyline remains my favourite, and now that I'm an author, too, it's great fun to recognize how little has changed about being a writer. Jo struggles with the morality of writing immoral garbage (gasp! Genre fiction!) because the pay is good, handles an editor's notes on her manuscript, reacts to conflicting reviews (GoodReads would destroy her), and learns that life has to be lived before it can be written about.

Moreover, now that I've reached Stage Three, I actually understand why Jo doesn't go for Laurie.

SURPRISE: Laurie's a Bit of an Asshole.

Little Women is all about girls growing up, and Laurie and Jo's bromance perfectly demonstrates the distinction between friendships formed in childhood and adult romantic relationships. Mature romantic relationships require a bit more than simply Liking Someone a Lot, and to say this in a Victorian novel?  This is huge. Jo and Laurie are brilliant friends, but they're both rambunctious and impulsive and bring out the impulsiveness in each other. It's hilarious when they're kids because it gets them into entertaining scrapes, and their siblings and relatives are always close at hand to yank them back when they skirt too close to the cliff's edge. But as adults, anything more than friendship between them would be a hot-ass mess.

I get it now. Great job, LMA.

One of Jo's most important lessons in her artist's journey comes when the simple story she writes to deal with Beth's illness and death winds up phenomenally more successful than all her sensationalist gothic fantasies put together. Writing something true will ultimately resonate more with readers than writing something that's merely clever. Imagination is important, but the stuff that you write has to have an emotionally honest foundation to stick around long enough in people's minds.

That's what I got from Little Women - when I first read it as a child, I revelled in discovering a young heroine who was so much like me. Reading it now as an adult, I feel the same way - I just relate more to second-half Jo, who struggles with her writing and her sisters' successes and wonders what she's going to do with her life and what choices she needs to make to speed up the process. Once I put down my Horn-Rimmed Glasses of Irony, I rediscovered the emotional truth of Little Women that's made it such a perennial favourite.

If you haven't read Little Women in a while, maybe it's time to pick it up again. The results just might surprise you.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

How I Learned to Wake Up and Smell My Laurels

You've probably heard the expression, "resting on your laurels." It means to milk a singular success instead of going out and succeeding some more.

But is there the opposite of that expression? "Downplaying your laurels"? "Hiding your laurels in a tasteful floral arrangement"? "Those aren't really laurels, that's just a Christmas wreath you stole from the sales rack at Target"?

Last August, I actually won some laurels I'd been searching for my whole life. My debut fantasy-romance novel, The Duke of Snow and Apples, was published by Entangled Romance. And for one hot month I was wearing 100% laurel-woven tunics and eating laurel salad and drinking laurel smoothies.

I'd done it, I was an author. I had reached the Mount Olympus of artistic achievement, and it was time to drink ambrosia, abduct Greek maidens and commit incest in a variety of impractical animal forms with the other mighty wordsmiths who had come before.

And yet, the more time passed, the less I believed in what I had done. It wasn't that I stopped bragging (although I did, because the world kept turning after I achieved Literary Immortality and I'm not a dick). It was that my brain started reverse-bragging.

It's one thing to not brag about an achievement because it's not relevant to the current conversation.

It's another thing to retroactively dismiss a legitimate achievement. Some months after Duke came out, when people asked about my book, I'd talk about it - and then I'd find myself apologizing. Adding some sort of explanation to it. Just to make sure they didn't get the wrong idea.

"Oh, I had a book published - but it's only in ebook form."

Or, "My book came out - but it didn't sell very many copies. My mom bought a lot."

Or, "My book was published by Entangled - you've probably never heard of them."

Or, and this makes me really kick myself, "I do have a book out - *apologetic smile* - it's a romance."

Let me back up for a moment. I grew up as one of those quirky kids who, despite not being an habitual liar, was always afraid of being thought a liar. I've always been paranoid of people not believing me. It's resulted in a pathological reluctance to take sick days ("what if my boss thinks I'm faking?"), return retail items ("what if they think I actually wore it?"), or demand refunds ("what if the malfunctioning coin-laundry company thinks I'm trying to scam money from them?").

For some reason, when I told people I was an author, it felt like I wasn't telling the truth. Or at least, the whole truth. I wasn't really an author. Entangled was a small publisher, and they probably published everybody. My book was only a step above self-published. It was a nobody book at a nobody publisher - what the hell was I doing, telling people I was an author? Susan Elizabeth Phillips is an author. Robin Hobb is an author. I'm just a schmuck.

What the hell? Why was I thinking those things? Why was I downgrading my achievements in front of people who asked about my book?

First of all - Entangled is a fantastic publisher with a rapidly growing reader base and a diverse stable of authors. They do not accept "just about everybody." I would know - I interned there for over a year. I read their slush pile. And their best authors sell tens of thousands of copies.

....and, okay, I didn't make it that far. But I checked my sales stats and I know as an empirical fact that I've sold more copies than my mother could possibly justify buying. Which means that strangers I'd never met - of sound mind (hopefully) and of their own free will - liked the idea of my book enough to buy it and read it. And a lot of them liked it and wrote great reviews! That means something!

Moreover, when I attended the Words in 3D Conference in my hometown this weekend, I was strongly reminded just how tough it can be to break into publishing. People who have been writing their whole lives and have slogged through hundreds of writer's cons and writing groups and author seminars are still fighting for that dream.

At my workplace, I had someone from a different department reveal to me they've been trying to write and publish a novel for ten years. AND I STILL FELT EMBARRASSED, like I had cheated on a test and won the scholarship that the struggling genius working two jobs should have received.


Wow, I am a schmuck.

Hubris can be fatal and arrogance is unattractive (unless you're a sexy, swarthy Duke with a dark past, of course!), but everyone needs to have pride in something. And maybe pride needs to be nurtured.

I don't know why I've felt this way about my book. Maybe it's because I'd dreamed for so long about Becoming An Author, and embellished the Ultimate Glory of that Achievement in my mind for so many years. When it finally happened and Hugh Jackman and Channing Tatum failed to materialize at my door on a tandem bicycle holding my You Did It! Trophy, I suppose that caused my brain to tell me that I hadn't really "made it" yet.

This is sort of true. Publishing your first book isn't the end of the road - it's just a super awesome rest stop where you can replenish your self-confidence and creativity. You're never going to reach that "Made It" plateau where you can stop and the world's accolades will just come to you. When I was a teen I just assumed once a publisher took on your first book they were contractually obligated to publish you forever, like a Random Penguin imprinting on its mother. You were now an Author, and your publisher had only to bask in your radiance and provide offerings of royalties and deckled page editions. This is not true. Like, at all.

No one likes a braggart, and I'm not supposed to rest on my laurels. But I need to remind myself every now and then to smell the laurels. To remind me they're real. That I did win them. That I worked really hard and had a lot of fun and was rewarded. That I am special and talented.

I am an author. I was published. I even made royalties! But now it's time to get back to writing.