Morality and Motivation

#SFWAPRO

Please note, in the following discussion I use the term hero and villain. I’m using it in a non-gendered sense, much like actor is now used. Nothing I’ll be discussing need vary based on gender.

It’s common writing advice to make sure your characters, all of your characters, have a motivation; they need to want something. In some cases this can be as simple as wanting a glass of water because they’re thirsty. This might serve in the short term, or for very minor characters. For the protagonist (hero) and antagonist (villain) of your story—assuming they’re people—your story will be better served if they have a deeper motivation driving them, beyond just the scene, but for the overall story. I’ve found establishing the morality of the characters makes this much simpler. It’s also helpful because you have something against which you can judge their actions; does is fit the character, or is it just a means to fit the story?

If you suspect my choice of topic for this post was influenced by current events, you’d be correct. This post isn’t about the principles we proclaim or project to the world, it’s about the true core of who we are, and what we believe is right.

I make no secret of the fact I majored in philosophy in college. As such, I enjoy a good and spirited debate. So long as it’s based on reason and fact. Sure, opinion can be a valid point if what you’re arguing has no objective answer. Chocolate being a superior ice cream flavor over chocolate doesn’t have an objective answer, but you’ll still need a reasoned argument if the debate will have any value. Because I like it, is not a reasoned argument. With that in mind, let’s start this discussion in a manner that would make Socrates proud, let’s define our topic.

A great many people confuse morality and ethics, and use the terms interchangeably. In point of fact, not only are they different, they are in some ways complete opposites. Morality is an internal set of principles you use to determine if something is wrong or right. Ethics are guidelines exerted by an external entity to moderate behavior. You workplace code of conduct for example, or the rules the doctors (and most medical professionals) and lawyers have to abide by. Obviously the two can overlap but they can also be opposed. In those cases a person with either remove themselves from the circumstance those ethics are applied, compromise their morality to fit, fight to have those ethical guidelines changed, or attempt to justify why such guidelines can’t or shouldn’t be applied to them. A prime example of this are the laws of commerce in the U.S. that preclude discrimination based on race, religion, sexuality, or gender (or gender identity). The now famous, or perhaps infamous, case of the wedding cake maker who refused to make a cake for a same-sex couple was argued on the basis that customized cakes were an artistic expression over a commercial endeavor and as such should be excluded from the commerce guidelines.

Another common misconception is that a person’s morality is an immoveable, unchanging thing. A normal part of life is reexamining our morals and deciding if they still fit what we currently believe. In some cases it is an honest reassessment based on our changing selves and understanding of the world. In others something of greater value causes of us compromise, or abandon all together, some principles. I don’t have to tell you that in the latter example, a great deal of self-delusion and/or justification often follows when questioned on it.

Now that we’ve established a definition of morality, let’s look at some basic schools of moral thought. A discussion on the vast and complicated points of a person’s guiding principles would take far too long for a simple blog post. There are in fact countless books on this. So let’s focus instead on core morality. The roots of the morality tree if you will. In philosophy there are two basic schools of thought in terms of morality; the more complex and nuanced areas of study or almost always based on one of these two schools.

The first is absolutism. This is the idea that there are a set of moral standards to which all people, everywhere, and regardless of cultural or societal acceptance can be held to. The other, as you’d imagine, is the opposite. Relativism is the idea that there are no absolute moral principles and instead, every society (or even individual) must be permitted to determine their own moral guidelines. As such, in relativism anyway, it is inherently immoral to foist your principles/beliefs on anyone else. You can try and persuade them of course, but you can’t hold them to your moral standard.

A lot of people (at least people from western based cultures) would go with absolutism, at first anyway. We tend to believe there is a bedrock morality that can’t, and in fact shouldn’t, ever be compromised. Some will dismiss relativism, until you mention the part about the immorality of pushing your beliefs on another. That often gives people pause, especially Americans, which in the spirit of full disclosure, I am one of. A heavy cultural importance on the idea of individual freedom runs very deep. And make no mistake, it is cultural.

Odds are if you’re from a western (or westernized) country, the choice between these two schools isn’t an obvious one. Yes, of course a person should be allowed to determine and live by their own beliefs, but there are also some things that are just wrong. Abuse of a child is never right, be it sexual, physical, or emotional. Right? Well, if you’ve watched the news lately, you know a great many people feel it can be justified. Understand we’re talking about absolutism here. There is no justification, there is no “yes it’s wrong, but” explaining away. If there are things that are absolutely wrong, then it must be absolute. I could also use murder, but even our laws allow for self-defense. Rape? Well, for me that it is an absolute wrong, but if you spend any time on the internet and social media, you’ll find a sizeable population who feel otherwise. Often, as retaliation for a woman (or other marginalized person who isn’t male) having the audacity to speak their mind, or refuse to accept a predominantly male opinion.

Does that mean then that there are no moral absolutes? By default then the choice would be relativism. Do societies only go on because of some agreed upon tenets of behavior? That’s a good question. In order to answer it, I’ll need to reveal my own moral point of view. You’re of course welcome to challenge it and debate me on it. Understand however, if it isn’t well reasoned and doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, I’ll dismiss it as lacking any value to the overall discussion. I expect no less from others in regards to my arguments. I’m sure some people are already prepared to argue against my inclusion of gender identity mentioned above. To briefly digress, I included it not because I’m a gender studies expert, that but because I am not. As such, I defer to the experts in that area of study, the majority of who, through scientific study, have concluded that gender and biological sex aren’t interchangeable, and in fact, gender is much more of a spectrum than a binary classification. Yes, there are dissenters, but those I’ve looked over either started from a conclusion and sought to “prove” it correct, which is not scientific study. Or, they define gender as a social construct and as a member of that society we should adhere to it. By this argument, the very fact our society is starting to accept gender classification makes it self-negating.  Or, it’s simply a philosophical argument, which is fine, except this is something with an objective truth and as such, science wins out. Argue if you like, but gut feelings, just knowing what’s right, or other such arguments will be ignored. If you have scientific studies, feel free to link to them and I’ll look them over. If they turn out to be as I noted above, I’ll dismiss them. If not, I’ll recognize there are valid dissenting conclusions and look forward to further study on the topic.

Now, as you might’ve deduced, I’m a liberal minded person. As such, it might be a surprise to learn that I’m an absolutist. Yes, I can already hear some people grumbling about the “tolerant” only being so in regards to points of view they agree with. It might also be surprise that I will agree with that, and I have no moral confusion on the point; being liberal minded and an absolutist is not mutually exclusive. How? Well, I’m an absolutist because I believe there is one single principle that is absolute, and that all people should be answerable to. Yes, even having a single absolute belief means I’m an absolutist. What is that one thing? It’s simple. I believe every person has the right to live their life how so ever they chose, up until it prevents someone else from living their life however they chose. Thomas Jefferson had a similar mind in terms of ethics.

“The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts as are only injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”

Which has also been paraphrased as, “the reach of my arm should stop at my neighbor’s nose.” Of course I have can and do have varying opinions on individual actions (by individuals or governments), but I weigh all them against that single principle. It’s important to note here that something being moral (fitting within your moral principles) doesn’t mean it also kind. Likewise, just because something is immoral doesn’t mean it is evil. Not to say you can’t try, as I do, to always be kind, it just means that there is a higher standard which can overrule that desire.

You’re probably starting to see why there are countless books written on this topic. Like much of philosophy, and life, there are rarely easy answers and those we find might well be wrong.

Now, you’ve stayed with me for two and half pages of philosophical waxing, let’s talk about how all this helps in character development.

If you’re going to write compelling characters, they’ll need some motivation for their actions. For that motivation to be believable, it has to be consistent. The exception to this is if something happens that makes them reanalyze their own beliefs and motivations. While you’re free to delve deep and establish a complicated moral grounding for your characters, you rarely need to go that far. I find a get a deeper understanding of my characters and what they believe as the story develops. However, you still need a starting point. I’m sure the idea of developing motivation seems obvious, but I’m also sure we’ve all read stories where this wasn’t done, or not done well. Like much of your character development, these foundational principles don’t need to be obvious, or even stated in your story; your characters don’t all need to make a grand speech as to their values and beliefs. That being said, as the write, YOU damn sure should know what those motivations, values, and beliefs are. You needn’t have an in-depth understanding right away, or even for the entire first draft, but by the time you start revisions you should. It goes without saying that the sooner, and the deeper, you really understand your character, the better. It’s this understanding that will ensure a characters actions (with very, very, few exceptions, and those for good reason) is consistent and within their own morality.

Why is this important? Well you obviously want your readers to find your characters interesting. They don’t have to like them, though I believe there should always be at least one they can relate to and like. They do have to be compelling though. Readers are more likely to forgive a weaker story, or one with issues, if they like or are interested in the character. I’ve rarely heard of a story written so well the reader will keep going even if they find the characters blah. Heroes can’t just be the good person, and the villain can’t just be the bad one. Their motivations/beliefs don’t need to be a twisted web of complexity, but they must not ever be simple “because”. Why did the hero shoot that person? Because they’re a hero and the person they shot was the villain! What else would a hero do? While that’s a perfectly valid answer, it’s not a compelling one. Why did they shoot? Why didn’t they try to stop or subdue the villain without killing them? Why didn’t the hero try to reason with the villain? Or any number of other options? As the writer, you should be able to answer those questions. The reader doesn’t necessarily need to articulate it, though it’s not a bad thing if they can. They should however have a strong enough sense of who the character is that when presented with moral dilemmas, or complicated situation, they hero’s choice will feel correct at the end.

This sort of shallow simplicity does happen for heroes in a story, but it is much more commonly applied to the villains. Why did the villain blow up that building? Because they’re the villain, they’re evil! It’s what villains do. To be fair, being evil can be a legitimate motivation; some people just want to watch the world burn and all that. But apart from being a pretty lazy motivation, it’s only the surface. What is the deeper drive? What is the morality that drives them to be evil? With the exception of sever sociopaths and psychopaths, nearly all villains see themselves as the ones doing the right thing. Remember, something being moral doesn’t means it’s “good” or that it fits with societal normals and ethical standards. Likewise, morality, particularly of the villain, doesn’t need to make sense to you, or even the reader. It must however be consistent, apart from the examples I noted above.

This can be confusing, so let’s take a few villains from popular culture and dig a little deeper.

We’ll start with the Joker, and since the comics have had different artists and writers, which lend itself to inconsistency, we’ll stick with the one from the movies. In the Dark Night movie, the Joker wanted to make people (or possibly just Batman) see that the order and structure of polite society was all a lie. Further, that once people (and by consequence society) were shown that lie, they would devolve into monsters with no care for others. This is actually a very common theme, particularly in dystopian stories. When society and its norms begin to vanish, people will naturally become focused on themselves to the exclusion of others. If it helps them survive, anything is justifiable. The problem, which doesn’t have to matter to the villain in question, is that reality counters this fairly decisively. Whenever there is destruction and/or tragedy, some selfish people emerge, but many more reach out to offer help and aid. In many cases it brings people together much more than it drives them apart. We see this after natural disasters, and even manmade destruction. Some might argue this is only because the overall structure of society remains intact, and provides some comfort even amid the destruction. But for those amid that destruction, have any thought to society beyond what their own experiences. To them, everything is burning, or destroyed. I wonder how many of those amid the destruction, see others suffering or hurt (including total strangers), actually ignore them and trust for someone of something else (society) to help. Some certainly, and some might be unable to help either because of injury or circumstance, but it always seems many more become that someone else. They become the helpers Mister Rogers said to look for. Again, my argument doesn’t discount the validity of the Joker’s motivation and morality (at least to him), it’s simply to show that morality, especially a villain’s, doesn’t need to be grounded in reality.

Darth Vader, especially in A New Hope was pretty much just evil. He did what he did because he was a bad guy, and his boss the emperor was also a bad guy. Yes, he had a redemption in Return of the Jedi (spoiler alert), but let’s focus on the motivation behind his dark deeds. Though it pains me to admit, the prequels, especially Revenge of the Sith, added some depth to his character. Basically, he was angry. He was just so angry! He couldn’t save Padme, and besides she was cheating on him with Obi-Wan. He just loved Padme SO much! He did those dark deeds in the prequels, including murdering a bunch of children, just to get the power to keep her from dying. Yeah, it’s valid, also creepy, really childish, only slightly better than “because evil”, but still valid. Let’s ignore the prequels for now though (I can hear some cheering). In the original trilogy, it appears that Vader is just following the commands of the emperor. He does bad things because he’s told to. Why though? Without a doubt some people are content to follow orders and surrender any responsibility to someone else, even in the face of horrific acts. Those people don’t tend to be second in command of an freaking empire though. Vader has to lead, and good leaders aren’t just mindless followers. And he was a good leader, even considering what we’ll call an issue with blaster marksmanship on the part of the Stormtroopers. Despite years of trying, the rebellion never managed to bring down the empire. He also makes his own choices. The emperor gives him broad commands, but it’s up to Vader to figure out how to achieve them. I think, and I’m likely giving Lucas too much credit here, that Vader wasn’t driven by anger or love, but fear. Still ignoring the prequels, Vader took some serious damage. So much that, to quote Obi-Wan, he’s more machine than man. That kind of trauma leaves scars, and not just physical. I think Vader was driven by a fear of chaos, and the destruction it can bring. His morality was that order must be maintained at any cost. And real order only comes under the heel of a boot. People (or sentient beings) are willful and unpredictable. They do stupid things, and they must be kept in line. Everything he and the emperor do is for the greater good; a phrase responsible for countless pain and suffering. No amount of death, or suffering, is too much to pay. It’s nothing compared to the death and suffering that would come about if order is not maintained. In short, the suffering and/or death of an individual doesn’t matter when put against the preservation of society. Some modern laws in what we would consider progressive/democratic nations are based on this. Granted, it’s rarely carried to such an extreme.

If Vader’s motivation sounds like some political arguments you’ve heard over the years, and even recently, that’s not a coincidence. Fear is a powerful motivator. Now, even if we do consider the prequels (sorry) I’d argue my position is strengthened. Anakin lost his mother, the only family he knew and the only person (before Padme) who showed him kindness. When Palpatine lies about a vision of Padme dying, Anakin gets scared. Unfortunately, that fear drives him to really extreme lengths. When he loses Padme, he’s given up any hope that anything but complete control will serve. I could say that’s why episode IV is called “A New Hope” but that’s a reach even at my most optimistic.

Lastly, let’s look at Voldemort. Some of you might remember I used him in a post about villains and learning their motivations called “Interview with a villain”. This post digs a little deeper and is meant to give a better understanding. Now, no question, Voldemort is a massive dick. However, he does have a valid (if horrific) motivation. It’s one that comes up again and again in history: some people are simply inherently superior to others. Or to paraphrase another abhorrent group’s dogma, the preservation of the superior must be defended at all costs. To Voldemort, muggles and non-pureblood wizards are inferior to purebloods. As are other races such as house elves, centaurs, and the like. More than that though, they are a corrosive, infectious element. If left to their own devices, these “others” will destroy those worthy of power and the society they deserve. This means that the other must be destroyed, or at a minimum, subjugated entirely under their betters. Yep, he’s a bigot with a wand. And like all bigots and hatemongers, fear is the ultimate driver. Not quite the same fear as Vader, but certainly a different shade on the same color wheel. Most bigots will even admit this is their motivation. They’ll claim it’s a fear of losing their values, or culture, or even their very identity. They’ll wrap it in the robes of nobility and justify preemptive horrors in the name of self-defense. Of course it’s just a clever lie. So clever in fact that some actually believe it. The truth is they fear is being oppressed by those they themselves have been oppressing (either overtly or indirectly). They fear the very marginalization and injustice they put upon others, which they also discount. They see those others as empirically less than them. Theirs is a motivation of selfishness. Their morality is often of perversion of my own. Rather than everyone, it’s “I (and those like me) should be free to live however I chose, up until it stops me (or those like me) from living as I choose.” With no need to morally consider anyone not them, or like them, they are free to take any action they see fit. Not only are the complaints and fears of the bigot (in their minds) wholly justified, the complaints of the other (less than) is just petty whining and a refusal to see how good they have it. Voldemort is indeed evil, and being morally and rationally justified (again, to him) makes this brand of evil especially nightmarish, and one we’ve seen throughout history, and even the present.

With all the above in mind, you can see the separation between a hero and a villain usually comes down to few differences, or a combination of all three.

The first difference is a question of who is included in their moral principles. Heroes include and fight for everyone, or rather not just themselves and those like them. Even if they appear to only fight for themselves, ultimately it proves to be a lie. Villains on the other hand fight only for themselves and those like them (racially, culturally, of a similar mind, or any other standard). Villains might ally temporarily with those outside their group, but only if it benefits them and costs them little or nothing. When that changes, the villain will betray that alliance.

The second difference is the means they’ll use to achieve their goals. Heroes have lines they won’t cross. If they do, they either become a villain, or work to redeem themselves and make amends for the moral failing. This is often the basis for entire stories on its own. Villains do sometimes have a sense of honor, but it and their moral principles rarely extend beyond themselves, or those they see as their own.

The third difference is a question of offense or defense. Villains go on the offense; they work to impose their morality on others. No one is immune, no one is innocent. You’re either on board, or you’re on the tracks. Heroes tend to be defensive in their morality. While it could be argued they are also imposing their morality on others, it’s always to stop the villain from pushing their morality on an unwilling party, and when that imposition stops, so does the heroes. A hero won’t seek out and stop/kill a bigot just for being a bigot. They might confront the bigot openly, even make them face the societal consequences of bigotry, but they won’t try to stop them. However, when that bigot acts on their bigotry (through violence, subjugation, exclusion, or other means) the hero will get involved.

You might be wondering at this part how anti-heroes fit in all this. Well, anti-heroes are still heroes; they just lack some typical heroic features. They could be cowardly, lack idealism, or use questionable methods. Some would argue they might lack morality, but I’d disagree. Anti-heroes will still have a bedrock set of principles they won’t cross, often times with more vehemence than a typical hero. They might hunt down villains, but it must always be a villain who has done something, or is literally about to do something villainous. An anti-hero will rely on the third difference heavily.

One final important note is that villains don’t have to be, and rarely are, a villain through and through. To have depth, a villain needs to have a human side, possibly even characteristics more in line with a hero. Perhaps they’re kind to animals, or children. Maybe they volunteer at retirement homes, keeping lonely old people company. The key is that this human side must also be consistent with their morality. Don’t worry about it making them less of a villain; Hitler was an animal lover, and that love made him a vegetarian. The most disturbing, and frightening villains aren’t the creatures of nightmares. They aren’t made of evil and dripping darkness. The best villains (in terms of story and character) are those who look like everyone else, who go to the store, who repair a broken toy for a child. Monsters are easy to hate. But when they’re not always monstrous? Likewise, a good hero shouldn’t be perfect. No glint off their teeth when they smile, no gleaming armor. A good hero, a believable hero, a hero people will root for, should have issues they are dealing with. Maybe they’re poor, and even though they’re always on the verge of starving, the do what needs to be done. Or maybe they’re jaded, armor dented and dirty from a life of facing villainy. Maybe they don’t like kittens and puppies? Okay, that last one might be too far.

The Bittersweet

In July, I wrote a guest piece for Katherine Harbour called, “The Awesomeness of The Bittersweet.” Recently, I was invited by Gail Martin to join in the #HoldOntoTheLight campaign. September/October are the months for Depression Awareness, Suicide Prevention, Bullying Prevention, Traumatic Brain Injury Awareness, World Mental Health Day and Domestic Violence Awareness. Several authors are participating, you can check out the Twitter Hashtag, or the Facebook page to see what others are sharing. I hope to post more, but this post seemed like a perfect way to start my participation.


The Awesomeness of The Bittersweet

As someone who has struggled on and off with depression since my adolescent years, it’s probably not a shock–and some would argue less than healthy–that I just love the bittersweet. Not the chocolate, though that isn’t bad. I’m talking about music, movies, books, and art in general. I love scenes, songs, or images that are sad, but filled with hope, and the promise of tomorrow, a new day where anything is possible. The power of the emotion, the magic and the power of it fuels me, both in my life and in my creative endeavors. Music, books, movies, every kind of art, it all serves to connect us. When the artist creates, that creation is imbued with some of their soul, an emotional snapshot of them at that moment in time. I can relate to the bittersweet moments. That’s probably why I love the songs of Sarah McLachlan, The Cowboy Junkies, and Tom Waits. Each of them excels at wrapping sadness around a glimmer of hope that can’t be extinguished.

Of course there are moments in life of pure, unbridled joy: hearing someone say they love you, the smile of your child when they look at you, or achieving a hard won success. Those moments are treasures to be sure, but rarely is bliss ever an immaculate conception. Often it’s born from hard work, pain, turmoil, sadness, or grief. Life tends to be complicated and messy, but there is beauty in that mess. And I think we all see it. I believe we all know that the pain will end, and in the ending there is a happiness all its own. There are all sorts of cliches, but the one that has stayed with me the longest is: if you weep because you miss the sun, you also miss the stars. Like all cliches, there is something profound in the simplicity.

When I was really struggling with my depression, I found a book titled Man’s Search for Meaning, by Viktor Frankl. It’s about his time at the Auschwitz concentration camp during World War II. He is taken there, separated from his wife and sees the utter worst humanity has to offer, and I use the word humanity in its loosest possible sense. During his time there, never knowing the fate of his wife, parents, or siblings, he struggles to find meaning, a reason to continue on. After reading this book I knew that if this man could find purpose in a nightmarish place like that, surely I could as well. So I set to find happiness in the cracks and crevices of the everyday, and that became my purpose.

But as I matured I came to see that every emotion had value. They all could be debilitating if not tempered by another. Haven’t we all rolled our eyes at the sickly sweet, lovey-dovey couples of the world? We all know that past a certain age, there is no perpetual state of happiness, and those who seem to achieve it often come across as delusional. Sometimes it’s okay to be sad, to be angry, to grieve, to weep. And isn’t there a special kind of happiness in offering comfort to someone who needs it? The key is not to let those darker emotions overcome you, to slip from merely experiencing them into wallowing in them.

That’s why I love the bittersweet. It’s like an entire life experience all in one dose. I recently watched Inside Out with a friend, and we both got a little misty eyed when Bing-Bong fades away. Sorry, spoilers. It’s a sad moment, one we can all probably relate to. It’s a piece of childhood slipping away, losing a friend you know you’ll never see again for the first time. But there’s more to that scene. There is also the hope in the understanding that it’s also the beginning of another journey. That the sun might be setting, but it will rise again on a new world, and they will both be beautiful, filled with possibility.

We all listen to sad songs when we’re sad, at least everyone I know does. So often we chide ourselves for it, seeing it as wallowing in self-pity. But that’s not really what we’re doing. We’re grieving for something, or someone, lost; for a future we hoped for that won’t ever come to pass. More than that though, we’re remembering. So often we forget that, which is ironic really. When we listen to that same song, or watch that same movie, over and over, we’re reliving the joys of the past. We think we’re grieving for their loss, but we don’t lose them. What we’re really grieving is that there won’t be more like that. And we’re right, there won’t be, but there will be new joys.

It’s that feeling that I try to capture in my books. Each ends on a hint of sadness, but with the light of hope just visible on the horizon.If you finish one of my books and you’re crying, that’s okay, but I also hope you’re smiling as well. There is no darkness that won’t eventually end at sunrise. There is always hope. That’s what the bittersweet means to me. It is the happiness we find, that we hold on to, and carry with us for our entire lives. Sure, we might find some sadness and carry that for a time as well, but we have to eventually let it go. When we do, there is more room for new happiness. So listen to sad songs, watch sad movies, but always find the bliss behind that sorrow. Experience the latter because it reminds you of the former, and always be looking to the horizon for the rising sun of a new day.

#SFWAPro

Winners and Losers

Perhaps it says something about me (and if it does, I hope it’s good) that when the excitement from receiving the publishing offer from Harper Voyager wore off, I started to think about all those people who submitted their manuscripts but didn’t make the final cut. There were over 4500 submissions. It’s probably safe to say that close to half of those were cut after a short read. Perhaps the manuscript just wasn’t ready to be published; I certainly started submitting The Stolen before it was ready. But this post isn’t about that level of rejection. I covered that pretty thoroughly in here, and here. No, the people I thought about were the last hundred or so who made it to the final stage, waiting more than a year, only to get the dreaded “no thank you” email. I think as writers, after a while we start to expect rejections, but that really doesn’t help. It’s especially bad when you make it to that last step, only to have the door close in front of you. The Stolen was submitted to 118 different agents, and that’s after getting it edited. There were probably 40+ before that. Out of those 118, I received six requests to see the whole manuscript; on one occasion I even had two agents request it at the same time. I was sure that was a sign and that I’d get an offer of representation. Spoiler alert, they all passed. So I understand how that feels, to almost make it, but not. We all know the adages: there are no points for second place, second place is the first loser, close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades, etc. That’s when I saw a post on Absolute Write, on a thread tracking forum members’ progress in the submission process. I was lurking at the time, having been chided for a comment I posted announcing the publication offer before I was supposed to. The author of it put it in such perfect terms, I’m not even going to try to summarize. It deserves a direct quote (with permission granted from the author):

I was thinking about this last night. I always thought, back when the call started, that the saddest person was the one who would come in 13 out of 12. You know? The one who ran the whole race, who survived every cull, but still had no prize at the end. That’s probably going to be me and several other people here.

On the one hand, I’m sad that I basically did all the work and got none of the reward. On the other hand, it’s nice to remember that we clearly did something right with at least ONE editor in this process, or one assistant. At the very least, our work was probably considered publishable. In the end, it fell because of a matter of taste, not talent.

I sometimes think that the greatest moment of weakness that happens to an aspiring writer, when they’re most compelled to give it all up, is not when they get rejected, but when they almost succeed. It’s a long fall, and sometimes you don’t want to get up again. I’m sort of feeling that as I rush towards a probable rejection.

But if you do get up again, you can remember that at least one, probably several professional editors thought you had some real promise and ability. In my opinion, once you’re there, getting SOMEWHERE is only a matter of time and will.

So this is a long, drawn out way of saying that even though this is going to be kind of a crappy week, and we should all be allowed to go into our caves and sulk for a bit, that the bright side is really very…bright.

Anyway. Rant over.

You can find the original post here. I read that post knowing I’d made it, but seeing others languishing with no news. I felt for them, and I knew MerchantIV (the author of that post) was right: a number of people would make it right to the end only to fall all the way back down. It’s true that in life there are winners and losers, but it’s important to remember that losing doesn’t mean failing. Those Olympians who take home silver and bronze medals are understandably upset they didn’t win gold, but they still wear those silver and bronze medals with pride. Writing is about winning by inches, a slow progression. Sure, some people land publishing deals on their first tries, but they’re the exception not the rule. The rest of us make a long, hard slog to get to publication. It’s easy to feel like a failure and think about giving it up. The thing to remember is that you’re the only one who can decide if you’re a failure or not. So long as you get up and try again, you didn’t fail, you just lost one. It’s not fun or easy, but if it were, people wouldn’t react the way they do when you say you’re an author. Publishing a book happens with hard work, determination, talent, and more than a little luck. It’s brutal and not for everyone, but if it’s what you want, don’t ever let anyone tell you to give up. Besides, the victory is so much sweeter when you’ve had losses along the way. Just ask a Red Sox fan.

Hobbes and Bacon

Something for everyone this Thanksgiving (in the United States). I’m a big fan of Calvin and Hobbes, have been since I was a kid. Like most fans, I dearly miss the rumbustious kid. There are countless, well, let’s call them tribute pieces, out there. Some are aren’t so good, others are excellent. Here’s one such example of the latter I enjoyed too much not to share. If you click on each of the four strips, it will take you to original posting of each (www.pantsareoverrated.com is the parent web page).

There’s room for debate about the benefit of showing Calvin as a grown up. I enjoyed these specific cartoons, and some others I didn’t share, but the more I found and read, the more I realized how important it is that Calvin stays six-years-old forever. He represents the child in us all, the one that can’t, and shouldn’t, ever grow up. Especially for those moments when you want to be creative, you need to let your own Calvin run wild, or Spaceman Spiff, or Tracer Bullet (the PI), or Stupendous Man. When you’ve written something you really love, and you’re really proud of, odds are it was the six-year-old inside you running free.

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Letting Go of Your Work

If you pursue any kind of artistic endeavor, you invest a lot into it. Ernest Hemingway once said; “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” I’m not a big Hemingway fan, but I think his mastery of the simply stated shines through here. Blood, sweat, and tears aren’t always a metaphor. Having invested so much of ourselves, and our time, into our writing (or any art form), we become quite attached to it, and understandably so. It’s not a coincidence my first entry was called “Your Baby is Ugly.” In a very real sense, our writing can be like our children. We birth it, we raise it, we marvel as it grows and develops, we protect it when we feel it’s being attacked. And sometimes, we even see it die, but please don’t email me about what a bad comparison that is. I’m not saying that the death of something you’ve written is even in the same solar system as losing a child. However, as I said, we do become attached to those things we work hard to create, and so it becomes a handy analogy. Through all the stages, there’s a final step we often forget, which is that our beloved creation takes on a life of its own. It becomes something separate from us and ventures into the world. That hard part is letting go.

Now, I don’t mean in the literal sense of submitting your writing. I’m talking about the next step after that, when it actually gets into someone else’s hands. Once you share your writing, it’s not yours anymore. This might sound like a romantic notion, but there’s more to it than that. What I mean is what your writing “means.” Sure, you’ll be able to tell people what it’s about: the story, plot, and characters, but your thoughts on what you’re trying to express are no longer the only correct ones.

Each of us is truly unique. We each take different paths through our lives, and even the things we share in common are seen through lenses shaped by previous experiences. Combine that with our individual genetic predispositions (to whatever impact they may have), our ever changing world, and you can see how astronomical are the odds of any two people having the same set of experiences. As such, we all experience the world in different ways. Take Starry Night by Van Gogh, one of the most recognizable paintings in the world. Van_Gogh_-_Starry_Night I don’t know if we have any kind of record what Vincent was thinking when he composed this, but honestly, it doesn’t matter. Odds are we’ve all seen this picture. Some of us love it, myself included. Others are more sanguine about it, while still others don’t care for it. Are any of us wrong? Okay, that’s an easy one. How about this; what’s it about? What’s it mean? When you look at it do you see a serene and peaceful night? Does it bring back memories of your childhood? Or do you see a dark and cold night, imagining yourself standing alone on a hillside looking down at the town, at the lit houses where you know you’ll find no comfort? Or do you feel no strong reaction at all? Again, are any of those interpretations wrong?

When you let your writing go, you’re offering it up to the world. Someone could read your work and have a reaction to it that is nowhere near what you’d expected, or perhaps hoped. And yet, the very act of putting it out there is an act of surrender. If someone wants to know, you can explain what you were going for, what inspired you, etc. But, your thoughts are now simply your opinion, one amongst many in fact. Think of a song you love. If the person who wrote it, or performed it, came up to you and told you that what you thought the song was about was completely off base, would it really change how it makes you feel? What it does in your mind?

I recently posted some poems here, and I didn’t say what they meant, or were about, for the reason I just explained. For me, poetry is especially personal. I can tell you what I was thinking and feeling when I wrote it, I could explain the imagery I was going for, but that’s not as relevant as what you think and feel when you read it. Those poems, like anything I put out to the world, are not mine anymore. They’re yours. They’re ours. As writers, as artists, I think we strive for connection in our expressions. I’m storyteller at heart, and of course I love knowing someone was entertained by a story I came up with, but I’m hoping people find something in it that’s familiar to them. Something that says despite each us being unique, there are countless experiences, thoughts, feelings, “things” we have in common to one degree or another. In a world that is increasing isolated, ironically because of all the social media and interconnectedness of the world, we writers, painters, sculptors, actors, what have you, use our art like a message in a bottle, cast into the vast ocean surrounding our individual islands in hopes it reaches someone else on theirs.

Of course that’s just me. I could very well be insane. I heard a quote attributed to Picaso, I have no idea if it was his or not, but I like it. “All artists are half-crazy, but so long as I’m submerged in my work, I’ll be okay.”

Writing: A Journey, Not a Destination (Part 4)

This is the fourth, and final installment of a four part series on the journey or writing. If you missed the other three parts, you can read them here, here, and here, respectively.

Stage 4: Senility.

For most of us, there’re really only three stages. Not many of us are around long enough as writers to lose our literary marbles. But, some do. I’m not going to name names, but most of us can think of a favorite writer (or musician, or actor, or whatever) who produced work we loved, and then, well, something happened. Perhaps it was a complete reversion to infancy, like real old-age can sometimes do, or something more akin to grandpa’s obsession with buying peanut butter.

“It was on sale, and you should always have some peanut butter, so I bought you six jars!”

“Wow, um, that’s great. Thanks, Grandpa. I’ll just put them in the cupboard with the other eight jars you’ve given me.”

He might be eccentric, but he’s grandpa and we love him. I said I wasn’t going to name names, but maybe just one. For those in my generation, the original Star Wars movies were almost mythical. I’m not a diehard Star Wars geek, but I’m a fan. When Episode 1 came out, often referred to as “The episode which must not be named,” there was a general consensus amongst my peers that George Lucas had “lost his freaking mind.” I’ve since learned that members of the younger generation, those who were kids when Episode 1 was released, feel he really came into his own with the prequels and that the first movies were his lesser works. They’re completely wrong of course, but that’s beside the point. It actually shows us something important. Crazy, like so much else, is all about perspective.

In truth, we should all be so lucky to reach this stage. It means we’ve been around long enough that we’ve developed a devoted fan base. It means we have readers who were touched and changed by something, or many things, we wrote. They developed an emotional tie to our work and when that tie doesn’t seem to be there anymore, it hurts. No, it’s not fair to assume our favorite artist will never change, but we do sort of hope they don’t. Don’t look at me that way. Are you someone who cheers and screams at a concert, even when the band you love doesn’t play any of their big hit songs, just stuff from their latest album? Yeah, I thought so.

Writing, like life, is a journey. We’re always growing, learning, and changing. Sometimes that means we’ll grow in ways that will make old fans move along, but like George Lucas, the change might also bring in a whole new generation of fans. For most of us, change is a gradual and generally painful thing. It takes a long time for us to change that much, so, yes, I think we’d all be lucky to be writing long enough for that to happen. I look forward to the day I excitedly present my readers with the book equivalent of six jars of peanut butter and they smile politely and put the book on their shelves anyway.

Writing: A Journey, Not a Destination (Part 3)

This is the third part of a four-part series. If you missed parts one or two, you can read them here and here, respectively.

Stage 3: Adulthood.

I like to say the main difference between me now, as an adult, and me as a teenager is this: now I know I don’t know anything.

While wisdom does not always come with maturity, the two do usually walk hand-in-hand. Do I think I’m wise? I do, but in the same sense as Socrates. He was called the wisest man in Athens, and he said he was wise because he admitted he didn’t know anything. Only by acknowledging ignorance in something can you be open to learning. To loosely quote the movie Avatar, it’s hard to pour water in a cup that’s already full.

Literary adulthood isn’t the point at which we’ve come to recognize the bounds of our writing ignorance; it’s just when we admit we have writing ignorance. The first time you look at your writing and think it could be better, and that someone might be able to give you some good advice, is when you earn your grownup writer pants. Unfortunately, that moment is rarely achieved in a pleasant way. For many, myself included, it comes after being beaten senseless with less than complimentary feedback, usually repeatedly and brutally. After the third or fourth concussion from trying to walk through a wall, you start to realize the wall isn’t going to disappear, and maybe you should find another way in. After receiving a number of rejections from agents and publishers, I decided perhaps it was the manuscript. I wrote a short story, which I posted online. It was fairly well received, so I decided to make it into a full novel. The Stolen Child was born. Now, if I’d still been a literary teen, I would’ve just started submitting that story. Instead, I decided I was going to make sure it was the best it could be. I bought some books on character development, read articles online, and then I bought a book on editing, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers. I won’t turn this into a commercial for the book. I’ll just say that I got a lot out of it, but I was also ready to learn because I’d admitted to myself that I didn’t know anything. When I reached a point where I knew I couldn’t take my book any further, I decided it was time to put my money where my mouth was, literally. I hired an editor. Again, I don’t want this to become a commercial, so I’m not going to mention who I hired. However, I knew it wasn’t going to be cheap, so I spent a LOT of time researching editors before deciding on one. If you’ve read my other posts, you know it was brutal at times. But I forced myself to hear what was said, to really listen and try to understand. That, in essence, is what makes us adults, no matter the realm; writing, life, music, driving, what have you. Taking criticism, especially harsh criticism, isn’t easy, but to my mind, it is a defining characteristic of maturity.

Stupid people don’t learn from their mistakes. Smart people do learn from their mistakes. Wise people learn from other people’s mistakes. We should hope to be smart, but strive to be wise.

To be concluded next week with senility.