August 4, 2013

WRITING ADVICE: Julie Czerneda’s Writing Workshop! #1 -- The Courage

In 2005, whilst perusing the shelves at the Hennepin County Public Library, I stumbled across CHANGING VISION by Julie Czerneda (say it: chur-nay-dah), an author I'd never heard of, and was intrigued by the aliens on the cover by artist Luis Royo. It didn’t matter that the book was the second in a series, the cover entranced me and so I read. The book was spectacular, I read others and fell entirely in love with another series of hers called  SPECIES IMPERATIVE for its fascinating aliens and superior characterization. A teacher deeply at heart, Julie Czerneda shares ideas and methodology wherever she goes. On her website, she shares ideas for writers. I want to share what kind of impact how her ideas have had on my own writing.  They are used with the author’s permission.

When I say someone with courage, I mean you. You wouldn’t be looking at these pages if you weren’t interested in writing. Not just writing, but writing you intend to hand to someone else to read. Trust me, the mere thought gives all of us the same combination of ‘wouldn’t it be wonderful’ anticipation and ‘oh, my, I couldn’t, ever!’ dread. Those feelings never go away. As for the dread? Your courage will see you through.”

What is courage? The simplest of definitions actually suffice here: “...the ability and willingness to confront fear, pain, danger, uncertainty, or intimidation.”

At first read, you might be tempted (as I was) to think that Julie Czerneda could NEVER feel nervous about sending her work to her publisher. “She don’t need no stinkin’ courage!” might run through your head as it ran through mine.

 As I was, you would be surprised to find out that she feels that dread every time she submits something. I should also define ‘dread’ as well, though less formally than ‘courage’. When I first read it, I thought of the image above, and that does represent an aspect of dread.

But another form of dread comes out of the near-certainty that an editor is going to send your story back with a standard rejection. A lot of things in publishing have changed since I started submitting stories in the 1970s as a kid, but rejections haven’t changed much. They just happen faster now. I think the dread has its roots in fact that every story is a small part of me that I’ve fashioned into a message I want to send to the rest of the world. If I’m any kind of good author, I’ve exposed a bit of my heart to another person – a scary proposition even when you’re in love with someone! – and they have to take the story on its own merits. I’m not there to comment on or coddle the piece.

I can see how that wouldn’t change no matter how many manuscripts I’ve sent out or how many award-winning novels I have on the shelves. (In case you were wondering – the answer is NONE!) It’s a new story every time; a new part of my heart exposed; and so the dread can’t diminish much.

That kind of dread is hard to avoid. But there's another kind of dread to struggle against and that is the kind that freezes me. Maybe I start a story then stop, dreading the investment of time and effort that might produce something not even worth the paper it’s printed on or the broadband it occupies. Maybe I finish the story and then bury it in a file, dreading the rejection I might get (and don’t get me wrong, the chances are good that it will be rejected – my own record stands at 80 acceptances for 875 submissions since 1990…an acceptance rate of just over 10%). Maybe I send it and spend the next few minutes, hours, days, weeks, or months dreading its return. Or I send it and get it back and now dread sending it out again for more of the same. Or it’s published and I dread the response of readers. Or readers love it and I dread critical reviews. Or the reviews are great and I dread the nominations list. Or I make it on the nominations list and I dread the vote. Or I win the vote and, prize in hand, dread that I have nothing left to say and my career is over...

Whatever the source of our dread at whatever stage of writing we’re at, the only way any of us can overcome that dread is to be brave and keep writing things and sending them out to editors.
Julie Czerneda has obviously taken her own advice, so I feel confident that I can take it as well: “Your courage will see you through.”

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