It’s the first question we all get asked when we mention that we write fiction.

“Are you published?”

When you had to answer “no” or “not yet” people lost interest and gave you that polite smile that said, “Talk to me when you’re legit.”  A sale takes that monkey off your back.  You finally have some proof that someone else thinks your work is good enough to pay for.  All writers crave that first sale.

But what is the difference between a published and unpublished writer?  Is that single sale enough proof that you’re going to sell on a regular basis?

A look at the cold statistics can give a different perspective.  A statistician would look at the problem and ask if there is enough data (one sale) to support the idea that a new norm (continually selling vs continually rejected) has been established.

I’ll spare everyone the formal statistics…  Imagine you head out onto a baseball field and start throwing balls as far as you can.  Most balls will land close to each other (your average throwing distance).  As you throw more and more balls, there will be the odd throw where you mess up and the ball will land by your feet.  Conversely, there will be the odd occasion where the arm speed, release, and the wind all combine perfectly and the ball soars over all your other balls to land at a major league distance.

 

Ball Toss

 

 

Are you suddenly a pro-baseball player?  No.  Because when you throw the ball again and it is very likely that it will fall near your average distance.  In statistics, this is called regression towards the mean: if you have an extreme result on one measurement, the following measurement will tend to be closer to the average.

 

So, as a writer, you have to look at that first sale and ask yourself: Am I writing at a semi or professional level or did I write so many stories that one, by chance, was good enough to be bought?  Was selling my story an extreme result or part of a new norm?

 

The answer lies in the next story you submit.  If it’s a rejection then you have yet to prove that your writing is better than a non-published author.  You need to quickly get your head back into improving as a writer because the line between published writer and unpublished writer is more hazy than people think.  Until you have overwhelming evidence (i.e. multiple sales) that you are consistently producing work that can sell, the statistics say that there is no evidence that your work is any different from someone who has never been published.

Low Percent Publishable Distribution

 

I don’t mean to discourage anyone or take away from the accomplishment of publication.  Publication is a big deal that should be celebrated.  But, if people focus their attention on the extremes (the odd sales that are occurring in spite of their writing ability) then they risk missing the point that development as a writer is on a continuum, not one giant step.  If people focused on their average performance rather than the extremes then they’d walk out onto that ball field day after day and keep throwing.  Eventually your skills will improve and the average distance thrown will be farther and those initial extreme results will eventually become the new norm.

Higher Percent Distribution

Ray Bradbury provided some words of wisdom that I cannot find online, so I will paraphrase:  He said, “If you want to be a professional writer, write a story and submit it for publication.  It will probably be rejected.  Take that rejection and pin it to the wall in your office.  Write another story, submit, pin the rejection.  By the time your office is covered in rejection slips, you will have made it as a writer.”

Published vs rejected are just labels, more indicative of whether a story found the right market rather than speaking to the quality of the story itself.  Just write.  Get feedback.  Learn from it.  The rest takes care of itself.

To me, Bradbury had perfect focus when developing as a writer.  If rejections are the norm then don’t think of them as failures.  Instead, think of them as proof that you are out there trying to be a better writer each day.  Pile up enough rejections and you’ll get there.  Published or not, we’re all in the same boat.

 

 

Advertisements

My wife took the boys with her to visit family, leaving me on my own to care for our baby girl. As I searched our daughter’s dresser drawers for a shirt that identifies my top ranking as a father, I started to think about the relative quiet of the house.

The boys (6 and 4) weren’t running, screaming, laughing, banging and tackling each other…At least they weren’t doing it at our house. My daughter was still keeping me busy as only a toddler can. She can walk, which I thought would translate into more independent exploring on her part, but she kept close, attempting random leg-grab takedowns whenever I’m not paying attention. Then there’s feedings, diapers, constant laundry, and that’s just the toddler. How do we do this when two more kids are here?

I think of the tales I’ve heard of the isolated writer; the shut-in; the individual who can shun social interaction for months on end to devote themselves mind, body and soul to the completion of their novel. They have cabins deep in the woods with no means of communication with the outside world until they are ready to emerge from the wilderness, a changed person with a new literary or genre-bending masterpiece.

I can’t sit in the washroom for two minutes without some tiny hand shooting under the door and a squeaky voice demanding to know what I’m doing.

It’s a challenge. There’s no privacy for a parent. There’s even less time to let the ideas flow for stories. And there’s always a chore you are behind on. We’re not talking about a leaky sink either. I’m talking about the Sisyphean tasks like dishes and laundry. Day in, day out.

Birthday parties, family dinners, play dates, sports…

But there’s also energy and joy moving around you at every moment. There’s also the one-liners that only young children could get away with saying, that a writer can steal and use in his stories.

I remember publishing my first story, Shadows Lost,  and wanting to share the moment with my eldest son (4 years old at the time).  I took him aside, put the book in his hands, opened to the page with my short story and helped him read my name.  His eyes widened.  “You wrote this?”

I nodded with a smile.  Then he flipped through the pages, “There’s lots of words here.  When’s the movie coming out?”

A friend suggested I write about parenting.  I’m not too excited about the idea, but I did outline the book just in case I change my mind.

Chapter 1: Diapers

Chapter 2: Diapers

Chapter 12: So your child sneezed on your dinner and you just don’t care anymore. 

… 
Chapter 52: Never let a bedwetting child sleep in your bed. Seriously, why do we have to tell you this?

Chapter 120: Congratulations!  They’re well adjusted adults! Wasn’t it worth it? (Just say ‘Yes’)

I wasn’t sure if I should start this post with, “Why would anyone think it’s a good idea to give monkeys the power to control robots with their minds?” or “If you want to know where speculative fiction writers get their ideas, just scan the news.”

The press is reporting on a campaign to ban autonomous ‘killer robots.’  They don’t exist today as unmanned drones still require a human to set the target.  The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots  argues that the technology is near that will allow these drones to pick targets without any human intervention.  Machines would decide who lives and who dies.  The campaign organizers want to stop it before it ever happens.  Sounds like a reasonable cause to me.

Other prescient scientists might also have seen the drone-wars coming and prepared a counterstrike force against our future machine overlords.

Miguelr Nicolelis delivered a great TED talk on how he is teaching monkeys to control robots with thoughts.  His research is intended to aid quadraplegic people (a completely awesome goal, by the way) but I did question the logic of giving monkeys the power over robots.

We have one set of scientists looking to empower logical, algorithm-driven analytical machines with the power to decide if we should be killed and on the other side of the battlefield we have given nature’s poo-flingers, monkeys, their own robots to control.  Humanity may get caught in the crossfire.

In the near future, a feces-covered autonomous drone may ask you if humanity unleashed the monkey-controlled robots.  You might want to lie.

Hmmm… “I played ignorant and shrugged my shoulders as the feces-covered killer drone demanded to know who unleaded the monkey-controlled robots.”  Sounds like a decent start to a story.

 

I was talking to a friend about a story she sold to an anthology. She was thrilled about publication but was taken aback when she saw an online review for the story. It was a positive review for both the anthology and her story, but the reviewer completely misread the story.

We’re not even talking about missing a few points here and there. I described the discrepancy to my wife in terms she, a wildlife artist, could relate to:

“Imagine painting a majestic brown bear and a reviewer publicly stating that you painted a great gopher.”

The intention of the reviewer was good, but the execution was lacking. It’s one of the perils of writing today. Anyone can be a critic and if they make a mistake, it’s public and lasts forever.

What’s done is done. How does a writer move on?

The optimist sees opportunity in every crisis. I think there’s an untapped market in providing incorrect reviews to established stories or movies. Sure, the reviews may have already been done, but I bet no one could do them as poorly as I could if I put my mind to it.

Star Wars: A young man explores the universe to find the answer to the riddle that has haunted him for years: Why can people on his desert planet build floating cars, but not a decent air conditioner?

Raiders of the Lost Ark: A monkey with a date addiction trusts the wrong people. Hilarity ensues…unless you are a monkey.

Lord of the Rings: In a case of epic cold-feet, Frodo Baggins embarks on a journey to destroy his fiancée’s engagement ring in the most dramatic fashion possible…

A Tale of Two Cities: Frankly, the times weren’t that exceptional…

2001: A Space Odyssey: This alternate history, where space travel was the norm at the turn of the century, covers the eternal battle between the red spheres (the Hals) and the black cubes (the Monoliths). Humans are involved, but generally they are around only to be ejected from the rear of the spaceships as a form of propulsion.

Where did Smart as a Mouse come from? I’ve always been fascinated in the human mind. Our ability to reason, usually quite well, and improve ourselves. After spending years studying psychology, I wanted to apply what I learned in order to build the best type of life for myself and my family.

I wanted to know how to make the most of the time given to us. How to organize life’s random nature with goals and plans. How to motivate myself to make the tough but best decisions day in and day out.

The most compelling lesson I learned was unexpected but it has stayed with me ever since.

The lesson developed not out of a university course, but out of an epic battle between myself and field mice that kept invading our family trailer. I went out one weekend to deal with the problem once and for all. I had the size, tools and the brains in my favour. The mice didn’t stand a chance.

What started out as an afternoon of finding mice and patching holes in the trailer turned into an epic battle through the night. Whenever I thought I rid the trailer of mice and sealed another entrance, more would find their way back in. I was fighting the Battle of Helms Deep and mice were starting to overrun the Hornburg.  At its worst, I was standing on the trailer couch, humane mouse trap in hand, cocked, ready to hit a home run with the next mouse that tried to run up my leg.

As I carried the latest captive outside (I was under strict orders from my wildlife artist wife to not harm a single mouse) I looked up at the Milky Way as it stretched across the sky. For a moment I contemplated the vastness of the universe and how insignificantly different the grand expanse of stars would think I am from this mouse.  We were both living creatures, persistent and goal oriented; currently at a standstill in a turf war.  The difference in our size, resources and wits meant nothing.  I thought about chucking the mouse at the Milky Way, but figured somehow my wife would find out.

Instead, I took in the cool night air and thought about how difficult it was to stop these mice. I didn’t take it personal. Their intentions had nothing to do with me. They were looking for food and shelter. It was a matter of survival for them. My size, tools and brains were no match for their single-mindedness and perseverance.

Single-mindedness and perseverance. What a simple way to reach your goals. I could have repeated every self-affirmation in the world, read every self-help book, joined Mensa, got a degree in “Sealing Trailer Holes” and I still wouldn’t have been able to stop them.

I thought about my own challenges: Finding time to develop my writing and other interests while raising three energetic kids and working a challenging job (some downtime would be nice as well.) I thought of the mice, their success against what should have been insurmountable odds. I thought that maybe it didn’t matter much how much of an education, resources or time I had. Maybe all I needed was to pick my goal and approach it like there’s no other choice. Maybe all I needed was to be as smart as a mouse.