Friday, May 30, 2014

ArmadilloCon Cometh!

Quick, quick!  What day is it?


Yes, but besides that!


Yes, but besides THAT.

"...Colm Meaney's birthday?"

Why, so it is!  (And very happy regards to the best engineer in Starfleet!)

But today is ALSO the day ArmadilloCon has released its schedule.  And if you are going to be within 200 miles of Austin from July 25th to 27th, this is massively relevant to you - because EVERYone who's ANYone knows that ArmadilloCon is the coolest, funnest, best-kept secret in the annals of literary SFF history.  It's the convention equivalent of that one little hole-in-the-wall restaurant - you know, the one? - that the locals all secretly flock to while the turistas suck down $8 margaritas at Chili's and bitch about the jalapeƱo cheese poppers on Yelp. 

And if you had ANY doubts that this is going to be the best event in the greater Travis County area, you may lay them to rest on my glorious shining face.  Yes indeed!  I'll be doing a reading on Saturday, and appear as a panelist for:

"Cool Locations"
"Space Westerns"
"Sub-Genres in Fantasy"
"Perfecting Your Locations"


And (please make sure you're sitting down, and have smelling salts handy) even though One Night in Sixes won't come out until after the con, rumor has it that the magical book fairy may just bless us with advance copies for sale...!

"Say no more!" I hear you cry.  "What must I do?!"

Well, good citizen, you should certainly register today (and for all my fellow fictioneers, do not neglect the writers' workshop!)  And then, because you'll certainly need a distraction to tide you over through these eight hellish weeks between now and then, do yourself a favor and acquaint yourself with Mark Finn, Stina Leicht, Martha Wells, and my terrific good buddies J. Kathleen Cheney and Patrice Sarath.  These are the people whose realness is as a physical, palpable force - so, you know... come palp it!

(You may also like to swap pudding cups and make friends with Matt Borgard, Denise Dupont, and Lauren the Flute of The Returners fame - all of whom I have rigorously play-tested, and who have proven to be the absolute best con-buddies a body could ask for.)

So go!  Do!  Register!  And then come tell me that I will see you there!

And more than likely they'll be out tonight, a-wanderin' from the farms
Waddlin' down 1291 to keep their bodies warm
I'm talking walkin' belts and neckties, and boots for rodeo
They don't run too fast, don't waste much gas, I'm makin' lotsa dough

The armadillo...

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

My (Bizarre, Embarassing, Illustrated) Writing Process

Well, guys, let me tell you: when my good buddies Daniel Bensen and Libby McGugan tagged me into this fun little game, I wasn't sure what to write.  It sounds dumb, but I've been having so much fun lately that I'm half-wondering if everyone is grinding their teeth at what an insufferable bloviating ass I've become, and it's kind of hard to follow that up with "but let's talk more about what's really important here: me."

Nevertheless: the name of the game is #MyWritingProcess, and I am excited to play!

What am I working on?

The sequel to One Night in Sixes, enticingly titled Medicine for the Dead.  It's already written, but I'm hoping to do a bit more spit-and-polish between now and August.

100% unofficial sneak cover preview!
How does my work differ from others of its genre?

Oh, golly.  Well, if the genre is "epic fantasy", then I guess my books have an exceptionally high Stetson quotient.  If the genre is "fantasy Western", then about the most I can say is that I'm less interested in black hats, white hats, six-guns and monsters than I am in using fantasy power (magic) as a way to think about real-world power (identity and culture, and how those can be used for good or evil.)  And so we arrive at "rural fantasy": a sorcerous, dust-crusted tale in which we don't spend much time dancing with wolves or defending winsome ranchers' daughters, but still manage to have one hair-raising hell of a time.

Why do I write what I do?

Well, I love writing, and early reports indicate that it's even more fun when people like your writing and will even pay you for it!

But to be honest, what I'm really in love with is the idea that... you know, every plot device in the world has been used since Aristotle was a lad - but not so for people.  Even in 2014, there are SO many people who see themselves in fiction very rarely, badly, or not at all.  And the realization that there are still millions of readers who are desperately thirsty to see themselves as center-stage heroes and villains and romantic ideals is a tremendous shame - but also a stunning opportunity.  It is a gold-filigree promise that there are LOTS of fresh new stories itching to be told - and the thought that I could contribute, even a little bit, to filling some of these huge gaping empty spaces on our bookshelves is such a powerful draw.  It's the one thing that makes this what I'm doing feel bigger than me and my own ego - and if I manage to write something that brings even one new fan in to the fantasy aisle, I will know for a fact that I have Done Good.

How does my writing process work?

Well, I feel a bit unqualified to talk like I have some kind of System, because in a lot of ways, this still feels like my first-ever project.  But if you want to follow the Tex Thompson Winning Formula for Writers™, here it is!

1.  Spend last two years of high school (1999-2000) writing massive, 170,000-word fantasy novel, set in Vaguely Plastic Medieval Animeland.  Draw and model characters in animation class.

Seriously, guys - it was REALLY anime.
(But Elim was cute even way back when.)

2.  Four-year hiatus for college and Everquest.  (2000-2004.)

Sorry / not sorry.

3. Take a year and a half to reboot the story in "started-as-outline-and-mutated-into-weirdly-crappy-screenplay" format.  (2004-2005)


4.  Two-year hiatus to finish grad school and attempt employment.  (2005-2007)

5.  Get the idea to ditch Vaguely Plastic Medieval Animeland and try setting the story in a world based on the American Southwest.

Winter view from the Acoma Sky City in New Mexico. 
It's amazing what happens when you leave your hobbit-hole to see the world.

6.  Take three and a half years to write a 314,309-word doorstopper of a tome, while working in food service. (2007-2010)

Hair net optional. Smokes on the loading dock required.
7.  Realize that you are neither Patrick Rothfuss nor Susanna Clarke, and cannot pitch a 300,000-word novel with a straight face.

8.  Break off first third, and spend two years rewriting and revising it in the Cave of Solitude.  (2010-2012)

Which occasionally doubles as the Cave of Obstructive Neediness.

9.  Make New Year's Resolution to grow a personality. (2012)

10.  Join writers' workshop in January (2012), attend writers' conference in May, sign with Agent of Your Dreams in August, go out on submission in January (2013), sign with Fairy Godpublisher in July for release in July (2014).  Commence building a massive vault for wallowing in future royalty checks.

(work in progress)

And that brings us to today, gentle friends.  Medicine for the Dead is the second piece of that original 300,000-word monstrosity, completely rewritten and slated for release in March 2015.  Lord willing and the creek don't rise, we'll be able to do the as-yet-unnamed Return of the Jedi the year after.

And while I imagine that all this above is of extraordinarily limited utility to anyone who isn't me, I would like to state for the record that:
  • you totally can write a 300,000-word book and get it published (just maybe not all at once.)
  • you totally can sell your first-ever story (just maybe not in its first-ever incarnation.)
  • you totally can go from completely clueless newbie to reasonably bad-ass writer. (It just might take you ten or fifteen years to do it.)
So if that affords any comfort to anybody who's still running that first long race, then by all means - let me be the dixie-cup of Powerade you throw in your face on your way to deathless glory!

And introducing...

Three of my great friends and fellow fantasians, who will be posting their own #MyWritingProcess entries soon.  Beat the rush and check out their blogs: it's too late to say you knew them before they were cool, but you definitely want to be able to say you knew them before they were mainstream!

Born in 1987, Hackney, London, Shay suffered a major mishap at the age of two when she came across a pencil and sheet of paper. Twenty odd years later, you could say the result from that encounter was having her right hand replaced with a Bic Pen - blue if she can help it. (Hence her Blue Bic Blog and chic matching @bluebicblog)

As a stay at home mum raising a crazier reincarnation of herself, Shay often delves into the world of Young Adult/Adult Sci-Fi and Fantasy, but when escapism is compulsory, she’s not afraid to pen the wEiRd either…

Mom of 2, wife of 1 and aspiring writer of fiction. Veena loves writing about vampires, werewolves and female heroines who are kick-ass, flawed and always breaking the rules.  Find her at and on Twitter as @VeenaKWriter and @AuthorVisitsVK

David Goodner’s life-long love of books has carried him through a degree in English from UTA and over a decade of cataloging in the Arlington Public Library.  His love of storytelling has carried him through 30+ years of gaming and writing.

He writes speculative fiction that’s a little (okay, a lot) off kilter both for adults and for children.  He’s on the board of the DFW Writers Workshop, which is not as impressive as it sounds.

Check him out at  Follow him on twitter @RDGoodner.  He’ll probably follow you back.

When I first came here, this was all swamp. Everyone said I was daft to build a castle on a swamp, but I built it all the same, just to show them. It sank into the swamp. So I built a second one. That sank into the swamp. So I built a third. That burned down, fell over, then sank into the swamp. But the fourth one stayed up. And that's what you're going to get, lad: the strongest castle in all of England.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Do You #SFFpit?

Yeah, that's right.  I took a hashtag and used it as a verb.  And I'm not even sorry.  SHOTS FIRED.  Come at me, world.

"#SFFwhat?  What are you even talking about?"

Why, I'm so glad you asked!   #SFFpit is a new Twitter pitch contest, the feverish brainchild of my good buddy and fellow Red-Sofist Dan Koboldt

"Another one?"

YES, dammit, another one!  Because this one is specifically for sci-fi and fantasy for every age, from picture books through adult works.  Just think about all those adorable picture books with pettable touch-n-learn hobbit feet, and colorful finger-socks you can wiggle to make the alien burst out of John Hurt's stomach.

"But I have profound moral objections to Twitter pitching!  Why should I try to cram the essence of my novel onto a virtual post-it note designed for people with the attention span of a sperm?"

I don't know, hypothetical objector!  But stow your Hatorade and think of it this way: the more avenues we open for people to make a great first impression with agents (query letters, conference meetings, Twitter pitches, whatever), the more opportunities you have to find a format that lets you shine.  And that's good for everyone.

"If you say so.  When is it, anyway?  Asking for a friend."

Tell them it's June 11th, from 8 AM to 8 PM CST.  And then tell them to get over to Dan's #SFFpit homepage to get all the rest of the sweet deets!
Seriously, do it before Gandalf wastes Coruscant.

Also: big apology who's everybody who's waiting to hear back from me.  I owe emails like Bunny Lebowski owes money (which is to say, all over town.)  And I keep thinking, "oh, I just haven't had time," but the truth is that I have - I've just been spending it on other things.  Workshop Wednesdays and IHOP carouses and lunch dates and dinner flings and hours-long chats with some of the most fabulous people in the world.

Which should not imply that the aforesaid people are any more fabulous than the ones whose loving missives have lingered in my inbox... only that after spending months sitting by myself chained to a computer, the feeling of being finally let off the leash has been, shall we say, overwhelming.  I really appreciate y'all's patience while I've been out chasing squirrels and catching frisbees, and will do my very best not to need too much more of it!

If you lose your cow you should report this to the Watch under the Domestic & Farmyard Animals (Lost) Act of 1809. They will swing into action with keenness and speed. Your cow will be found. If it has been impersonating other animals, it may be arrested. If you are a stupid person, do not look for your cow yourself. Never try to milk a chicken; it hardly ever works.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Winning Tips for Winning Write Club

Sick of hearing me talk about Write Club yet?  Too dang bad!

As I have said before, this contest was terrific fun for me last year, not to mention a HUGE eye-opener.  But if you're reading this, you probably don't need any more convincing.  If you're thinking of entering this year (or already committed to it!), here are my humble suggestions for giving yourself the best possible chance at pink-soap glory.

1.  Study the competition.  This is almost a no-brainer, right?  Who would submit a short story to a magazine without looking to see what they like to publish, or query an agent without checking out their current client list?  And here's how you can bone up on Write Club.

First, go to the Write Club 2013 master-list, which has links to all the entries from last year (not to mention the greatest number of voters who'll be returning this year).  From there, you can read in whatever fashion pleases you - but here are a couple of ideas.

--Make a note of the names of contestants who made it to the last few rounds
--Go back and look at how they did in their initial rounds, paying close attention to the comments.

--Open up each successive round in a new browser tab, and scan to find entries from your preferred genre.  (You should be able to do a Ctrl-F for the word "genre" and see them right away)
--Read the entry first, and then its competitor.  Do you feel it's a strong example of your genre?  Why or why not?  Get your own opinion, and then check out the comments.

REGARDLESS:  Study up on those comments!  Was it a close call, or a slam dunk?  Do you agree with the majority vote?  Were there any especially strong trends among the voters (a number of people commenting on the same issues, positive or negatively)?  Notice the enormous variety in the style and quality of the critiques: you aren't going to please everyone, but you can learn a tremendous amount from reading critiques of other people's work - before you even enter!

2.  Think about what other entries in your genre are likely to do, and how you will stand out from them.

This is good advice for submissions of ANY kind.  What are the Golden Tropes of your genre - the things agents and editors have seen a million times already?  More importantly, what are you doing in your 500 words to set yourself apart from your closest competitors?  With that said, though -

3.  Write for more than just 'shock value'.

- don't rely on explosions and murders and CGI special effects to carry your entry.  Those things can be enormously effective, of course, but they are used VERY frequently, as we've all been trained to grab the reader by the throat on the first page OR ELSE.  Remember, anyone can write "and then a dead body dropped out of the ceiling" - but making somebody care about a character in 500 words or less takes serious skill.

4.  Start from the beginning.

At least for the first round.  Write Club is the PERFECT place to test out that all-important first page: you've got literally dozens of fresh readers, none of whom know a thing about your story.  Your goal is to make them want to read more, not wonder what they've already missed out on. (Fun fact: I used first pages from three different projects, while Philangelus used three different portions of the same story - and we both made it to the final round.)

5.  Find a friend and polish, polish, polish!

First, because this contest is going to be a MILLION times more fun if you have a buddy you can angst and gossip with, high-school-style.  ("Oh my God, first person present tense?  Who does she think she is?")  And secondly, getting multiple sets of eyeballs on your entry BEFORE you hand it in gives you the best possible chance of making a great impression in the contest itself.  I read each of my entries aloud for my DFWWW posse beforehand - and I hardly have to tell you that those guys are the leanest, meanest, most vigorous literary rock-tumbler around. Rocks go in; diamonds shinier rocks come out!

"But Tex!" I hear you cry.  "I already turned in my entry!"

"Never fear, good citizen!" I will reply.  "DL is accepting re-submissions until the contest deadline on the 31st.  If you want him to delete your first entry, ask him nicely when you email him your revised version, and he will make it so.  Now go - seek out others of your kind at #writeclub2014, and spread the good word far and wide: Write Club cometh!"

Yes, these are bruises from fighting. Yes, I'm comfortable with that. I am enlightened.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Requiem for a First Novel

Boy, it's a hell of a thing – I went weeks without putting anything here, because I just had NO time to even contemplate it, and now I got posts stacked up and circling like 747s at LaGuardia.  

But I do have to bump the regularly scheduled programming for today.  Because today, I said goodbye to my first book.  Yep – as of right now, One Night in Sixes is officially off to the printer, and out of my hands forever.  So, you know, huzzah and bittersweetness and metaphors about sending the baby off to college and all of that.  All of it!

Here is what's really amazed me about the whole process, though.   At every milestone on the road to publication, the scope for changes gets smaller.  First the content edits (big picture story stuff).  Then line edits (sentences and paragraphs.)  Finally the page proofs (individual words, typos, punctuation.)  Like that duck in a pond that’s slowly freezing over, you the author are swimming in smaller and smaller circles, until finally you have to heave your duck ass out of the water, because it – your book – is becoming a fixed, finished thing, with no more room for you or your endless fiddling.

Which isn't to say we didn't catass every page of those revisions.
Needless to say, I've spent MONTHS angsting about how this book will be received – you know, how well it will sell, and who will hate it and why, and whether and how I can deal with that.  But what surprised me this weekend is that... like, I thought that by the time I got this far, I would look at this sucker and think, "Yes.  This is absolutely the best that it can ever be.   It is a flawless gem, one that I am now sick of looking at.  Go, my precious diamond, and cleanse the world with your light!"  

But I'm not sick of it.  I love this story as much as I ever have.  And it's not perfect.  Or at least, I'm still looking at it and seeing ways to change it, even though the deadline for those kinds of changes has long since passed.

I thought that would make me sad.  After all, this is my first published work, my first impression.  This is the thing I chose to write when I was soft and new and nobody had any expectations about me.  Once this book is out in the world, I will officially no longer be an unknown quantity.  I will be judged by my sales numbers, star ratings, genre, style, reviews – rightly or wrongly, people will look at this thing I made and think, "That's her.  That's what she does."   And although I can always go write something completely different later, One Night in Sixes will always be out there - a yardstick that people will use to measure me, and a permanent part of my reputation.

But even though it was years in the making, this book isn't my one single, special pearl.  It's more like a skin or a shell – a reflection of me and what I could do at a specific time in my life, and one that had to be finished and cast off so that I could start growing another one, and another after that.   

(With that said, I do hope you enjoy my first fictive sloughing - I will be talking about it in far more appealing terms over the next few months!)

Oh, and in the name of posterity and motivation for everybody who's still in the trenches, this manuscript was born on February 2nd, 2007, and ended yesterday, May 18th, 2014.  Seven years, three months, and sixteen days.  Keep at it, y'all.  It's a long row to hoe, and there's nowhere to go but forward.

Pulitzer Prize, here I come!  Hemingway!  Steinbeck!  Scuzzbopper!

Friday, May 16, 2014

A Happy Hiatus

Hey guys!  Sorry, no Part 3 today - I have been waylaid by a thoroughly happy task.

It rhymes with "rage roofs."

But the news gets happier still: as of today, I am officially on board for CONvergence in Minneapolis!  I'll be a panelist for "Tell Me That Again! Classic Stories Retold", "Invisible Aces," and "Studio Ghibli & Anime After Miyazaki."  (You can click on the panel titles here to read the full descriptions.  Short story: ten kinds of awesome.  Eleven kinds of excited.)

Anyway, much love and MANY thanks to everybody who's been chatting and commenting this week – I have enjoyed it more than you know.  Next week: Part 3, blog hop fun, and a genuine bona-fide insider list of Hot Tips for Winning Write Club 2014.  Stay tuned!

One town's very like another 
When your head's down over your pieces, brother

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Artificial Barriers to Entry, Part II: The Inescapable Catass Factor

(Continued from Part I!)

Let me confess something right here: every time the Olympics come on, and the athletes march and the flags fly and the national anthems swell, I catch myself getting misty-eyed.  "My God!" I think.  "This is it: a true meritocracy.  A magical land where prejudice doesn't exist, equality prevails, and everyone is judged solely by their athletic ability."

It's not, of course.  I mean, let's be clear: the athletes work damned hard and deserve every bit of their glory.  But behind just about every one of them is a family who could afford to (or went into debt in order to) have a parent become their kid's full-time coach, hire private lessons, travel around for national competitions, shell out for snow-gliders and polo-vaults and whatever other equipment their sport requires.  At the very least, that's a family who could afford to have a child focus exclusively on their sport, even at the risk of failure or permanent injury.  You can't do that when you need every able body either working a job or training for one.

Not in training for Tokyo 2020

And it's a similar story for writing.  No, the equipment's not massively expensive, and it's not like you're going to be washed up and stove in if you don't make it by the time you're thirty (thank God!)  But in a way, it's a parallel problem: whereas Olympians do their intensive training during childhood and adolescence (when Mom and Dad would be supporting them regardless), writers aren't usually publishable until well after they've become adults, often with jobs and families of their own.   That complicates the learning curve considerably.

And money IS a factor.  We cultivate the Hemingway Mystique of a lone writer banging away at an Underwood under the glare of a single naked lightbulb, armed with nothing but a ream of paper and his genius.  But the reality is that the people who could afford to drop $300 or $500 or $700 on DFWcon last weekend came away from the conference with a hell of an advantage - not only in what they learned about their craft, but in the connections they made with publishing professionals and other writers.  In academia, it's the kids who can afford private tutoring and test prep classes who get ahead.  For the athletes, top-tier coaches and training camps.  No, you can't skip the 10,000-hour time investment - but money is a powerful catalyst that can speed things up considerably.

Well, and so?  Everybody else can still get there, right?  They just have to take longer and work harder, that's all.

But that's just it.  Time itself is a commodity, as anyone raising kids or working double shifts knows excruciatingly well.  In athletics or academics or other arenas where it's death or glory by the age of 12, 18, 25, that permanently excludes people who don't have extra years to put towards their Eye of the Tiger montage.  Even with a gig like writing (where there is no ticking clock or game-over screen), that still means that people we should be hearing from at 25 or 30 or 40 don't make it until they're 50, 65, or indeed ever, because they give up in despair after decades of spinning their wheels.

In online gaming, there is a term - catassing - whose origin is a story in itself, but which basically refers to the act of devoting all your time to the game, steamrolling other players whose jobs and lives and commitments mean that they're simply unable to compete with someone who can play literally 18 hours a day.  The Oatmeal has chronicled this well

So what happens when you catass writing?  Can it even be done?  

Well, Jim C. Hines has done a fantastic survey charting authors' average time to publication, and the factors that seemed to shorten or lengthen their path.  From my limited and anecdotal experience, I've certainly seen some writers improve much more quickly than others.  Maybe Person A can learn in 10,000 hours what Person B will learn in 80,000 hours, and Person C just won't learn ever.  (There is a PERFECT metaphor for this, by the way, but the magic system in Final Fantasy 6 is not nearly the cultural touchstone that I wish it were.)
And oh, how I wish it were!

Still, even if every writer on the planet needed just 10,000 hours flat to get the skill portion down, people who can afford to practice for four or six or eight hours a day would still get there ahead of everybody who's waking up at 5 AM to get in 60 magical minutes of writing before they have to get the kids ready for school.   And whether we're talking college admissions, Olympic glory, or the Great American Novel, these two things - time, and its interchangeable counterpart, money - are the two biggest obstacles to just about any competitive endeavor you can name.  Talent is a big factor, yes.  So is timing and luck.  But whenever there are more willing and baseline-capable applicants than there are places for them, the people who are first to get chairs when the music stops are almost always the ones with the most time to invest in getting them. 

(Touching back on Part I: this is why I don't see Twitter and the rest of social media as a universal equalizer.  It still requires a time investment and a commitment, especially if you're doing it with any degree of effectiveness, and that's still constraining or excluding people who don't have that kind of room in their schedule.  I guarantee I would not be spending 6+ hours on this week's blog series if I were still trying to work a 50-hour-a-week desk job.)

"So, what?" you might ask at this point.  "The people with the most time and money win, and that's that?"

The evidence says no!  I mean, Margaret Mitchell made it (a wealthy, pedigreed Southern belle and childless stay-at-home wife who devoted three years to writing Gone With the Wind), but so did Frederick Douglass (who taught himself to read, escaped slavery, and went on to become one of the most accomplished preachers, writers, and political activists in American history).  Hell, so did J.K. Rowling.  So did Octavia Butler.  So did Sherman Alexie.  We have far too many phenomenal hard-scrabble success stories in our canon to believe that the cause is hopeless for anyone who doesn't have a trust fund and an MFA.

But here is what I'm driving at.  It is really, really easy to get discouraged in this business.  It is even easier when it seems like all your writer-buddies are beating you.  Easier still when you keep hearing that "real writers write every day" - that they write amazing books AND do eleven kinds of social media AND read all the latest in their genre AND do boatloads of research AND keep up with all the industry trends AND AND AND. After awhile, it all swirls together in this toxic Martha Stewart soup - you know, the one that makes Harriet Homemaker feel like garbage because she can't keep up with the rich lady making soap molds in her fake TV kitchen.

Well, at least we hope that's soap.
And speaking as one of the Margaret Mitchell types, I guess what I'm trying to express is that

A) a lot of that "real writers _____" business has been propagated by people who are talking out of their silk-lined hats (please listen to Ann Bauer if you have ANY doubt about this), and

B) how quickly you progress compared to your writer-buddies may have VERY little to do with your talent - or theirs.

And although you can't control whether or how successfully anyone else catasses their way to fame and fortune, I sincerely hope you can avoid feeling like an ass yourself.  If it's taking you longer to get there, it doesn't mean you're not talented, not committed, or not trying hard enough.  It doesn't mean you won't make it.  It does mean that you might have a longer, harder row to hoe.  And I really hope you won't give up - because the harder it is to get let in to whatever club you're aiming for, the likelier it is that they are desperately short on people like you.

There is one more thing I want to say, actually - about how all these obstacles and limiting factors affect our industry even after writers show up to the table with well-written, original stories finished in hand.  Let's do that on Friday.  In the meantime, I would be really interested to hear your take on this stuff here.  What would you say have been the biggest limiting factors on your progress as a writer?  Are there others we haven't considered here?

--For one brief moment, victory was within our grasp.
--And then the game started.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Artificial Barriers to Entry, Part I: Twitter, the SAT, and Peanuts

It's become something of a spring tradition.  Every year, a few weeks before DFWcon, I watch my Facebook feed fill with writers testing out pitches and business cards, and my Twitter followers list blossom with egg icons - aspiring writers acquiescing to the Social Media Mandate.  I love it.

But I know a lot of people don't.  And I admit that sometimes I'm one of them.  Being around real live earth-persons makes me feel like a million bucks - it's the biggest thrill, honestly - but email and Twitter and Facebook and blogging easily reduce me to tears.  I know I'm not alone in that.  "Why do we have to do this social media garbage?" cries that reliable wailing and gnashing of teeth.  "This has NOTHING to do with the quality of my writing, but agents keep saying they won't even consider me if I don't do it!"

This is an almost perfect echo of what I hear in my day job (well, night job), doing test prep classes for high school students.  "Why do I have to take the SAT?" the little darlings keen in frustration.  "This has NOTHING to do with how much I know, but colleges won't even consider me if I don't do it!"

And you know, I think these two mournful choruses really share the same origin.  A hundred years ago, the SAT and ACT didn't exist, and social media was in its dots-and-dashes infancy.  (Though Face-book was not unknown.)  You got your book out to the world the good old-fashioned way: by sending your manuscript to a publisher.  And as for getting into college - well, what could be easier than sitting your Greek and Latin exams, producing your certificate of good moral character, and waiting for your acceptance letter?

Sounds like a simpler, friendlier time, doesn't it?

Well, here is a question: did you ever see Charlie Brown's All-Stars?  It's a Peanuts special from the '60s, and the short story is this: Charlie Brown has the chance to get his baseball team real uniforms, and entry into a real league, and (naturally) jumps at the chance - until he's told that the league doesn't allow girls or dogs.  If he wants his team to go pro, he's going to have to ditch some of his teammates.

Who don't always appreciate his managerial style.
And it seems to me that the academic and publishing worlds of old were much the same way: it is easy to miss them today, because it's easy to forget that they were very exclusive realms.  And part of the reason why writers and students today are having to jump so many extra hurdles is because there are so very many MORE of us now than there used to be - because now girls and dogs and gays and minorities and blue-collar people and pink-collar people and no-collar people have entered the good ol' boys' ring, stiffening the competition for what are still a limited number of top-choice seats.

And when there are 50,000 people applying for 1,000 places, you do have some extra work to do in whittling them down.  It's not enough anymore to just toss out the ones with rotten grades or lousy spelling.  That still leaves 20,000 solid competitors.  So you have to start looking at other things.  Throw out everyone who doesn't do extracurriculars.  Then put in a standardized test, and axe everyone who fails it.  What does that leave, 5,000?  Okay, new rule: we want to see volunteer work.  Tell them to start clothing the hungry and feeding the naked and neutering shelter-puppies on the weekends, or they're out.  And if too many students start making it through all those hoops, I promise you that they will invent a new one, or make the existing ones even smaller.

Which isn't to say that the hoops are all completely arbitrary.  For example, a successful writer is going to have to be able to sell themselves and their book - so it's reasonable to see whether and how they've made a start on that. 

"So, Tex," you may now resentfully sigh, "you're saying that the New World Order is good and right and just, and Twitter is the price we pay for diversity and freedom."

Not at ALL, my hypothetical friend - not at all, and I will tell you why.  But let me pause here for the moment, and resume on Wednesday.

In the meantime, here is a question: for those of you with skin in either game (publishing or college admissions), what do you reckon we could do to level the playing field?  How can we more fairly assess the applicants - or should we quit squabbling over who gets a piece and focus instead on enlarging the pie?

So they have one man on first, but if they think they can beat us, they'd better try. 
I hate it when they try.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Prose and DFWcons

All right, you guys.  Real talk.  These last few months have been the most stressful, challenging, miserable months since... pretty much ever.  And now that I'm finally out from under it, I can tell you the tale.

See, I was going like gangbusters trying to get my second book written, and teach a night course, and help with DFWcon, and get two classes prepped for the aforesaid con.   Everything came to a head last week: book was due on Monday, programs/schedules had to be finalized by Tuesday, the last conference meeting and bag-stuffing was Wednesday, night course finished on Thursday, and Friday found me crying discreetly at the pre-con mixer because I was supposed to teach a class the next day and wasn't even half ready for it.  At one point, I was up for 36 hours straight.  It was ruinous, absolutely insane, and I never, ever want to be that crunched ever again.


Let me tell you what the victory lap looked like.  Let me tell you how completely worth it all that agony was.  Let me tell you what a fantastic time I had, and how many super-awesome people I met, and how many (now former) total strangers came up to me and said, "Oh my God. Your class was amazing.  My mind – you blew it.  I seriously can't even deal with your realness."  

(And if any of y'all from the "Punching Up Your Prose" class are reading this, look at that last paragraph again.  Yeah, it's one of those!)

This was me.  This was what I did.

So let me write this real quick and sloppily, before the glitter wears off and I start second-guessing it.  Are you ready, world?  Here it is:  this what I just did is without question what I was put on this earth to do.  I want to write awesome books, and I want to help other people write awesome books.  That's it.  That is my talent.  That is the goal.

So here's how it's going to happen.

1.  Going to send the two class presentations to all the awesome folks who signed up for them.  That's job #1.

2.  Going to resurrect this blog here, do more fun cool stuff.  I definitely want to do more GrammatiCats (the posts take so much longer to write than you would think, but maybe we can run them once or twice a month).  I also want to start showcasing other authors – because man, I know so many truly first-rate fictioneers, and the world desperately needs to pick up what they're throwing down.

3.  Going to work on doing more classes.  Maybe online, maybe in person, probably both.  (Y'all holler at me if you have any genius ideas or secret leads on this front.)  Not sure yet how that will shake out, but I'll tell you this right now: I am not waiting for DFWcon 2015 to do this again. 

And whether I blew your mind in the last 3 days or have been sporadically ignoring you for the last 3 months: if you're reading this right now, please know that I am so, so grateful to know you and have you in my posse.  I will never know how I got lucky enough to have this life, but I intend to make really damn sure the world is better off because of it.

People are all like, "oh, it's okay, don't cry."  No.  This is DFWcon.  If you're not crying, you're not trying.