The Publishing Journey Perspective #2: Kari Maaren

Hey…kid. That’s right: you with the laptop under your arm and the aura of destiny upon you. Come over here. Come closer. Share your lunch with me so you’re following the rules of narrative causality and giving me an excuse to help you. Is that a pastrami sandwich? It is, isn’t it?

I hear you’ve started out on the perilous Journey to Publication and are wondering how it’s supposed to go. I can tell you, of course. I know the secret. There’s only one correct path, and I’ll tell you what it is if you stop hiding those pickles behind your back. I can smell the pickles, kid. I wasn’t born yesterday.

That’s better. Okay, here we go. If you follow these exact steps, you will be able to complete the Journey. If you skip even one, you won’t. Listen closely. Take notes. Why haven’t you opened your laptop? Kids these days. Sheesh.

The steps are:

1)     When you are eighteen, write a book. It doesn’t have to be good. It should probably be in longhand. It should also be four hundred pages long, single spaced. The benefit of this is that when you painstakingly type it all up, you will become an astoundingly good touch-typist.

2)     Do not send the book out to publishers. It isn’t a good book. Edit it for a year, then put it away and never look at it again.

3)     Write another book. You’re probably twenty by this point. It’s a slightly better book, but not by much.

4)     Send it out to one Canadian publisher you find in one of those books everybody used to buy: the ones in which inaccurate, outdated information about Canadian publishers was listed.

5)     Get rejected. Put the book away forever.

6)     Keep writing books. Do not write any short stories. Books are more exciting. Show all the books to your sister and force her to read them. Years later, consider sending your sister a gift basket as an apology.

7)     Do not send the books you are writing out. You know they’re not good enough and will be rejected.

8)     Build up resentment about how everyone else is getting published, but you’re not.

9)     Blame your lack of publishing credits not on the fact that you never send any books out but on the publishing industry’s lack of interest in children’s fantasy.

10) The Harry Potter books exist now! Blame your lack of publishing credits not on the fact that you never send any books out but on the fact that if you did, everyone would accuse you of being a J. K. Rowling copycat.

11) Finish your PhD. Continue to write books and not send them out.

12) Join a writing group. Wonder why you are not sending any of your books out.

13) Start writing and performing nerdy music about Beowulf and Batman. Make a couple of albums.

14) Tentatively, fearfully, with bated breath, write a book and send it out.

15) Get rejected by publishers.

16) Get ignored by agents.

17) Wash out of an Amazon contest that is basically American Idol for books.

18) Get rejected some more.

19) Get discouraged about the book. Maybe the book is not right. Maybe all that practice was for nothing. Maybe you will never be published. Maybe you are doomed to send books out forever and hear nothing in return.

20) Receive an e-mail from a friend who used to be in your writing group and is now a published author with awards and acclaim and so on. She was just in England, winning an award. While she was there, she talked to an editor from a big publishing company, and they somehow started talking about you. He had bought your CD from a table at a convention you were not even attending, and he’d liked it. Your friend said to him, “Do you know she writes novels too?” The editor said, “She should send me one.”

21) Get the editor’s e-mail from your friend and reach out, though your heart is in your throat.

22) A month later, the editor writes back and asks for a manuscript. Ask, in your capacity as someone eminently used to slush piles, “Do you want a synopsis and sample chapters?” “I don’t read synopses,” he says. “Send me the whole thing. I may not get to it for about a month.”

23) Send your manuscript to the editor.

24) Hear nothing for a year.

25) Receive a ten-word e-mail reading, “I like the book. Let me see about publishing it.”

26) Hear nothing for six months.

27) Get a phone call from the editor, who wants to buy the book.

That’s it. That’s how you get published.

What’s that?

No, of course I’m not kidding. That’s the only way. I swear it on these pickles, which are rather good, by the way. There’s only one path down the Journey to Publication. I mean, that’s what you believe, isn’t it? That’s what you’ve always been sure of. You’ve always had the feeling, deep inside, that there has to be some sort of mysterious key that will open the way to the Land of Publication, which is full of unicorns and space cats and parental approval. Why are you even listening to me if that’s not what you believe?

Imagine it wasn’t true. Imagine the Journey to Publication was different for everyone. Imagine there was no mysterious key, no One True Way, no secret to be heard from a lurking helper figure with a thing for pickles. Imagine every path was different. Imagine luck and connections sometimes helped, but not always, and imagine hard work and determination sometimes helped, but not always, and imagine a writer could be someone who did nothing but write or who did a variety of creative things or who succeeded at eighteen or who succeeded at sixty-three or who self-published or who never self-published or who stewed in self-pity for fifteen years or who didn’t know the meaning of the term “self-pity” or who practised a lot or who never practised at all and was awesome the first time out the gate or who was a social media god or who didn’t even have a Twitter account or who accidentally left a manuscript in a bathroom where it was found by a big-name editor or who sent out a manuscript over and over again for seven years and had it plucked from a slush pile or who found a great agent or who found a terrible agent or who never found an agent or who became an agent out of desperation. Imagine there were a million possible paths, and none of them could be predicted ahead of time.

Wouldn’t that be ridiculous? No. There is one path, and I know what it is. I hope you were listening carefully. Your Journey depends on it. Have fun at the next crossroads, and watch out for wolves.

I can see you have questions. Try not to worry about them. You should clearly know exactly what you’re doing by now.

Goodbye, kid. Enjoy the Journey.

And next time I see you, make sure you’ve got more of those pickles.

Kari Maaren is a writer, cartoonist, musician, and academic who has no spare time. Her first novel, the Andre Norton-nominated Weave a Circle Round, was published by Tor Books in 2017. She has a completed webcomic, West of Bathurst, and an active one, It Never Rains, and she has produced two CDs, Beowulf Pulled My Arm Off and Everybody Hates Elves. She is fond of time travel and titles that begin with “W.”

The Creative Process Perspective #3: Kari Maaren

Writing on the creative process requires use of the creative process, and if there’s one thing that’s true about the creative process, it’s that it’s never there when you want it to be. Creativity is like a cat: when you’re sitting around with oodles of time, it hides under the couch, whereas when you have ten things to do and no time for creativity, it’s suddenly everywhere, sitting on your keyboard and looking at you accusingly. If you’re very, very lucky, it won’t throw up in your shoes.

The creative process is a simile taken slightly too far in an essay about the creative process. Is that creativity or desperation? How do you know if you’re being creative enough? If you ask yourself several questions in a row without answering them, will readers accept your creativity and go away without disparaging you on Twitter?

No! Shut up! The creative process can and must be quantified! It is logical. It is a locked box that is accessed with a single key, and the key is a logical key and not made of magic at all! Try This One Weird Tip, and you too can master the creative process! Stop thinking mystically. There’s nothing mystical about any of this. Similes are useless. Questions are open-ended. Write 500 words a day, and you’ll produce a 95,000-word novel in exactly 190 days. What are you waiting for? Write!

 I…I’m not sure that’s right. I mean…yesterday I wrote 2,694 words, and I don’t know why. And the day before, I wrote three words, and I still don’t know why. And the day before the day before, I looked out my window and saw the peach tree in my backyard, and I spent the next five hours standing there imagining out this entire epic fantasy series in which the peach tree was a pocket universe that had sealed itself into its own reality and now hosted a thriving population of supernatural beings, one of whom was a young wood nymph who felt too ordinary and just wanted to be loved. Is that invalid? Am I going to fail? Has this been done before? What if I’m not good enough? What if wood nymphs aren’t trendy right now? What am I going to do?

Everybody stop panicking. I just pantsed the hell out of a 140,000-word novel about time-travelling space monkeys. If I can do it, so can you. The trick is to start with a great idea, then surrender yourself to the story. Don’t get hung up on outlining or worry about research until the story has formed itself. You can always rewrite sections that don’t work.

Outlining is the only way to go. Without my outline, I am nothing. The story must be perfect and perfectly contained, with every element mattering and profoundly affecting every other element. I’ve read books by pantsers, and they tend to be loose and chaotic. A good story is taut, economical, beautifully structured. Writing by the seat of your pants will never give you that.

What is creativity? Is it a candle in the wind? A breath of fresh air in an inferno made of despair? Why is creativity? If we are not creative, how are we human? If we do not do art, are we really alive? When my soul does not soar on the wings of creation, shot through with metaphorical fire and stretched on the rack of hope, how am I not nothing at all?

Your questions are meaningless. Your imagery is hackneyed. You will never be a writer. You will never be an artist. There is no creative process. I read your heartfelt essay, and I know for a fact that I will someday be a millionaire, since if you can get published, anyone can get published. I could write a bestseller tomorrow because it’s all about figuring out the formula, and I’ve already done that. The only reason I haven’t published anything yet is that I am profoundly cynical about the whole process. It’s a rigged game. That book you love is garbage. Everything is garbage.

Guys? We’re getting off track here. Guys? I think I can do this, but how do I know? What if I write my story down and it’s no good? Maybe I shouldn’t write it down. Maybe I should eat chocolate while I’m brainstorming. I’ve heard that helps. Also wine. And carrots. Guys? Are you listening? Are you—

WHAT IS THIS WEBPAGE? WHY AM I ON IT? I WAS IN A BOOK. I FOUND THE WHEAT. I PLANTED THE WHEAT. I GREW THE WHEAT. I HARVESTED THE WHEAT. WHERE IS THE WHEAT? WHERE IS THAT LAZY DOG? WHAT HAS HAPPENED TO THIS ESSAY? WHAT HAS HAPPENED TO MY BOOK? AM I AN EXAMPLE OF POSTMODERNISM? ARE YOU?

Don’t be postmodern. Everything is postmodern now.

Do be postmodern. Everything else is too restricted.

What even is postmodernism? Is it a creativity-killing crutch?

Yesterday, I saw a flower growing through a sidewalk crack, and I ended up in tears. What if I die tomorrow, with all my stories still untold? What if no one ever hears the things I have to say? I feel as if the stories are there, right there, but I just don’t have time to get them all out. There are so many that they choke each other off before they even get started. I need to write everything today because there may be no tomorrow.

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 The ice creeps

into my brain

into the depths

of everything I am

and the sea of stories

freezes solid

turns

from everything

to nothing

as I gasp

helpless

on the shore

Today, children, we are going to write a story. Does everybody have a pencil? No, Nigel, that is a glue stick, not a pencil. Okay! I want you to imagine you live in a castle with a magic bee! What happens to you and the bee? You have one whole page to answer this question! No, Nigel, that’s still a glue stick. Please put the glue stick away.

We are all creators. We must all create. Children know this; adults forget.

Creativity doesn’t pay the bills. Stop being so childish. Grow up and get a real job.

 My creativity is better than yours.

 My creativity is weirder than yours.

 My creativity is a more useful cat simile than yours.

I GROUND THE WHEAT. I MADE THE DOUGH. I BAKED THE BREAD. NOW WHO WILL HELP ME EAT THE BREAD?

 Guys? Guys? Guys?

 I think I have an idea.

 

Kari Maaren is a writer, cartoonist, musician, and academic who has no spare time. Her first novel, the Andre Norton-nominated Weave a Circle Round, was published by Tor Books in 2017. She has a completed webcomic, West of Bathurst, and an active one, It Never Rains, and she has produced two CDs, Beowulf Pulled My Arm Off and Everybody Hates Elves. She is fond of time travel and titles that begin with “W.”

Dry Spells Perspective #4: Kari Maaren

Some writers take never having a dry spell as a point of pride. “Oh,” they’ll say, smiling faintly with disdain, “I don’t get writer’s block. My imagination is always flowing. Writer’s block is really just unwillingness to work.”

My imagination is always flowing too. Right now, I am happily imagining those writers slowly sinking into a bog. They don’t realise what’s happening until it’s too late. Their cries of despair warm my withered heart.

The thing is…I used to be one of them. I used to be smug. I was sure I would never have a dry spell. The stories were everywhere, right? They were, metaphorically speaking, ripe fruit hanging from the branches of a highly symbolic tree, just waiting to be picked. All I had to do was reach out and take them.

There are many reasons the metaphorical story fruit may vanish from the symbolic branches. Hell, there are many non-reasons too. Inspiration doesn’t need a reason to disappear. But I’d like to focus on one of the fruit scourges many never imagine will be a problem. I’d like to talk a bit about what happens when a life-changing event comes along and, well, changes your life. What you may not realise at the time is that it can also change your writing.

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My mother started exhibiting symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease a few years before her diagnosis in 2011. In movies and TV shows, Alzheimer’s is often portrayed in the early stages, with a character maybe forgetting a few words every once in a while, or in what the writers imagine are the late stages, with a character sitting at a window and staring blankly out of it for hours. The truth of the disease is much more complex and messy. I felt as if my mother were being taken away from me piece by piece. Horribly, as the disease consumed her, it also seemed to consume my memories of her as she had been. I still have a hard time remembering my mum before Alzheimer’s. She turns up in my dreams sometimes, but she’s gone in the morning.

The seven-odd years of my mother’s disease comprised the longest dry spell I had ever suffered. It wasn’t a complete dry spell—I wrote comics and music in that period, and I did work on novels and novellas—but it was a time in which the stories seemed to dry up. I couldn’t finish a novel. The stories had beginnings but no endings. I would go for a walk, and instead of spending the walk dreaming up stories, I would find that my mind was a roaring blank. All the old stories, the ones that had occupied my imagination for years and that I had been sure I would get around to writing one day, seemed suddenly flimsy and juvenile.

This was all happening as what would become my first published novel was slowly working its way through the submission, acceptance, and publication processes. It felt sometimes as if Weave a Circle Round would be the last novel I would ever write: as if the stories were gone forever, just when I desperately needed them. I spent a lot of time in tears. I was losing my mother, and I was losing my creativity.

It’s hard to see the cause of the dry spell when you’re right in the middle of it. It took me until some months after my mother’s death in December of 2016 before I even realised that my grief and my writer’s block were connected. I’m pretty sure it was the realisation itself that started me writing again. I went back to a novel I had failed to finish during my seven-year drought, started from scratch, and wrote it all the way through. As I did so, however, I discovered something else.

Somewhere in those seven years, my writing process had changed.

Before my mum got sick, writing was easy. I would sit down at my computer, the world would disappear, and the words would flow out onto the page. I could write a novel in a month and a half. Now the writing was coming in fits and starts. I kept having to go back and rewrite chapters. One chapter needed to be completely reworked three times before I could move on; I later rewrote it twice more. I got to the end of the novel, but I had to delete the entire climax and try again. The story seemed to be fighting me. The words wouldn’t obey. Where I’d once soared on the wings of poesy, now I was hacking my way through a swamp full of spiky, thorny words that wanted to hurt me back.

I discussed this with another writer on Twitter at one point. She was going through some devastating grief of her own and was struggling to come out of a dry spell. It was, she said, going slowly: she still hadn’t finished anything, but she was inching along, writing two novels at once, something she had never done before in her life.

Maybe, I said, you’re now the kind of person who writes two novels at once.

It was a lightbulb moment for both of us. Maybe we were both different people now. Maybe being a different person meant you also had to be a different writer. And maybe that wasn’t a bad thing.

It’s possible I’ve been struggling so much with my new novel because I’ve been trying to write it as if it’s one of my old novels. I need to grab a clue from my beloved Samuel Taylor Coleridge and approach my writing as someone who has made it all the way through the Ancient Mariner’s story and come out the other side sadder and wiser. The dry spells caused by traumatic life events aren’t fun, but they may just be trying to tell us something.

So if you find yourself in this position, don’t just sit there silently plotting to boil cheerful writers who never ever have writer’s block in oil. Think about why the dry spell is happening. If it’s just a random visitation from the Writing Gods, so be it, but if you’re locked in a futile struggle with the ghost of your old self, pause a bit and try to get to know whoever you are now. The writing process isn’t the same for everyone, and it may not remain the same for you throughout your life. You may eventually find you’re the kind of person who writes two novels at once, or who needs to rewrite huge swathes of the story multiple times, or who approaches characterisation differently, or who needs stricter deadlines, or who has developed an unexpected love affair with enormously long sentences, or who suddenly does more subplots, or who leans towards science fiction instead of fantasy, or who is more interested in picture books than novels, or who has an overpowering urge to produce a musical about bees. Get to know the person you are at the moment, and listen to what she has to say.

You never know: someday, she too may be the kind of writer who soars on the wings of poesy.

Kari Maaren is a writer, cartoonist, musician, and academic who has no spare time. Her first novel, the Andre Norton-nominated Weave a Circle Round, was published by Tor Books in 2017. She has a completed webcomic, West of Bathurst, and an active one, It Never Rains, and she has produced two CDs, Beowulf Pulled My Arm Off and Everybody Hates Elves. She is fond of time travel and titles that begin with “W.”