Sunday, April 24, 2011

Differing Views: Not Black & White

Hooray! For once I have a clever link between my title and my post, just like Mindy McGinnis nearly always does. One of my greatest friends is both a science teacher and an artist, and she once noted something I found very interesting. Consider the following:

To a physicist, 'white' is the presence of all colors, such as white light broken into a rainbow by a prism.

To an artist, 'white' is the absence of color, a complete lack of pigment.

Their views are about as diametrically opposed as you can get. Who's right, and who's wrong?

That's the wrong question.

Try this one on for size:

Is a tomato a fruit or a vegetable? From a scientific standpoint, it's definitely a fruit. From a culinary perspective, I'd call it a vegetable, because that's how it's used.

There are some things in life that can be worked out to 'right' and 'wrong,' but plenty of others that depend on your perspective and the circumstances. I'm all for being opinionated (and I am ... oh, I definitely am), but if you're so entrenched in your opinion that you can't even entertain a differing view, you're going to miss out on a lot. If nothing else, it can be a fun mental exercise to try to understand why the other person has the opinion they do. I may still disagree, but that's not the point.

Then there's writing—I wonder if it's possible to be a truly great writer without that ability. How can characters come alive and feel authentic if the author can't shift their perspective? (This presumes all the characters aren't thinly veiled carbon copies of the author ... because how boring would that be?)

And yet I've seen many a mud-slinging fight among writers that came down to one or both sides being unable to acknowledge that a certain topic may not have a right or wrong—just different angles.

If I ever fall into that trap, someone do me a favor and give me a nice Gibbs-style head-slap, okay?

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Identity Crisis

Like most writers (aspiring as well as published), I have a day job. I don't know how many other writers love their day jobs, but I do. I get to hang out with very cool kids, talk about random things, and get them to think differently about mathematics. And I have a built-in test audience for my writing. What's not to love? (Uh, paperwork? School politics? Never mind.)

At the same time, this occasionally leads me into a minor identity crisis. No one really expects a math teacher to be a writer ... or at least not to be any good at it. That's fine, I like turning norms on their heads. But while they do overlap, there are parts of me that are distinctly either math-teacher or YA-writer.

Then the kicker—time allocation. Is the way I taught combinations and permutations last year good enough, or should I spend a weekend revamping the lesson? Revamping means giving up writing/editing time. Where are those 28-hour days we've all been wishing for? No, I won't kid myself. If days got longer, I'd still find ways to overfill them.

I think I've pinned down part of the reason I feel guilty when I settle for "good enough" on lessons. The math-teacher front is where I know I have talent. I'm not perfect, I could definitely improve, but I have solid evidence that I'm pretty darn good at it. With writing, I have some supporters, cheerleading in my corner, and I do trust their opinion. So far, though, I have to take it on faith that they're right.

Of course, the silver lining is in sight. My math-teacher side has mandated down-time known as summer vacation. As I did last year, this will be a time when I let Writer-R.C. dominate. Maybe crank out a short story or two, edit the new ms, dive back into the querying trenches ... and hopefully come that much closer to convincing myself the time is worth it.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Accomplishment vs Prestige

Some ... interesting conversations I've observed lately had me thinking about the distinction between the two ideas named in this post title. The whole writing/publishing world is changing, with more options readily available than ever before. And naturally, people are making value judgments.

Person A: [This, that, or the other non-traditional route] isn't real publishing.

Person B: Why are you tearing down other people's success?

Person A: You're deluding yourself.

Person B: You're a jerk.

Mud-slinging and childish behavior ensue. Any chance for rational discussion of pros and cons is lost.

Aside from personality flaws I'm not qualified to diagnose, it seems part of the problem arises when one or both parties fail to differentiate between accomplishment and prestige. So I'll stick my neck out and discuss it.

All of the following are accomplishments that warrant unequivocal pride and satisfaction:

  • completing a novel
  • writing a query letter that garners requests
  • securing an agent
  • landing a publishing contract with a big-name publisher
  • landing a publishing contract with a mid-sized publisher
  • landing a publishing contract with a small/niche publisher or micro-press
  • learning the formatting gymnastics required for self- and/or e-publishing
  • releasing a book through self- and/or e-publishing
  • selling books
  • finally telling your family you're a writer, and surviving the laughter

But the fact is, some of these accomplishments are more prestigious than others, and measuring "success" is complicated. I have a friend who's well into six-figures with advances (Big 6 publishers) and foreign rights sales with her debut novel, and it's not even released until this fall. I have other friends who've been published by start-up indie publishers founded by fellow writers, and some are doing quite well. Still other friends have gone entirely the DIY route, and a few of those are also doing impressively.

If I say that first friend with the Big 6 contracts is more successful than the others, does that mean I'm disparaging the others' accomplishments? Not at all. I'm saying she's reached a higher level of prestige. We can't all be Olympic gold-medalists. Even if some of us eventually get the same level of success as my friend, we won't necessarily take the same route. And that's okay.

(Incidentally, all of my aforementioned friends have accomplished more than I have in those respects. I'm still working on it.)

Part of the problem is likely the implication that novels that are self-published or released by a small start-up aren't "good enough" for the big-time. Is that true?

Let's be honest—sometimes it is.

There are other possible reasons, though. Not hitting the right timing with trends. A topic/genre that's more niche than mainstream. Or an author that wants to keep complete control over their product, for whatever reason, so they never even try the traditional route.

I'm in no position to say which category any given book falls into. But my advice to all is to acknowledge that there's always going to be someone "better" and more successful. Compete against yourself. Choose a route, set a bar for yourself, and focus on surpassing it. Next time around, get a bigger contract, or a higher percentage of positive reviews, more downloads at a specific price point, or whatever makes sense to your situation.

Not everyone can be at the top of the prestige tower ... but everyone can move higher bit by bit. Be realistic about where you are. You're not as high as someone else—the latest Big-6 bestseller or whatever. You don't need to pretend you are. Take what you've accomplished, own it, and enjoy it. Then get back to work.