Planting the Decision Tree

Monica Valentinelli is an author who lurks in the dark. Recently, she released a science fiction novella titled “Redwing’s Gambit” which was based on the Bulldogs! RPG. She has over a dozen short stories published and two novellas with more on the way. For more about Monica and her work visit her website.

At some point in your career, you’re going to get some advice on what to do with your written works or your future as an author. Maybe the suggestions will originate from a peer or your mentor. Maybe it’s from an old teacher or a friend of yours. Maybe you spot something on a website just like this.

Getting inundated with advice isn’t always a good thing, because often pieces will conflict with one another or worse – derail you from your current manuscript. This article is geared to help you keep your focus on the page and weigh the benefits of what recommendations you encounter.

Here are a few decision tree matrices that will help you decide what’ll work best for you and your work:

  1. Knowledge – What background information are you required to know before you act on the advice that’s been given to you? How much time are you willing to spend researching the validity of the claim or learning the pieces you aren’t up-to-speed on? While you can’t put a price on knowledge, it is an intrinsic asset and one that may require more effort to attain in specific cases when technology, new forms of writing, etc. are involved.
  2. Achievability – Based on what you’ve been told, how many other authors have successfully replicated that same piece of advice? Or, are you willing to risk everything on the off-chance you’ll be “lightning in a bottle?” Another way of looking at whether or not a piece of advice is valid for you, is if the recommendation hyper-focuses on a trend. Just as one example: the latest zombie craze may sound like an opportunity in disguise, but what’s chic in fiction now has already been written, revised, and edited. If you can leverage that monster-of-the-day, great! If you can’t? Well, then maybe your forte is not braaaaaaaiiiiinnnssss.
  3. Relevancy – You know yourself and your work best. Ask yourself whether or not the advice is relevant to what you want to do, what you’re working on, and where you are now in your career. This is probably one of the most important qualifiers when you process information, because you’ll need to decide how well that fits with what your goals are. If you find yourself questioning your work to the point where you desire to change what you’re doing before it’s completed, then you may want to reconsider who and where your getting the recommendations from.
  4. Distraction – Will the advice prevent (or delay) your completion of what you’re currently working on? If yes, what benefits do you hope to gain from applying the advice and do they outweigh finishing your manuscript? This concept goes back to relevancy, but it also further clarifies whether or not you can acknowledge how the recommendation will negatively impact your manuscript or goals.
  5. Experimentation – If the advice given to you is a risk, is it one you’re willing to take? How much time do you want to spend experimenting versus strengthening your core competency? By identifying opportunities for trial-and-error when they arise, you can help shape where you want to go, provided you’re in a position to accept a positive or negative outcome. After all, speculative ventures are not guaranteed to work. That’s why they’re experiments.
  6. Data Crunching – Can the advice be backed up with good data? Would you be willing to use that data and apply it to your own career? Oft overlooked, data is crucial to any business owner who wants to make fact-based decisions. Mind you, good data can be difficult to obtain and it’s often a snapshot of a larger picture. The idea behind getting data in the first place is to have supported claims and avoid anecdotal bits of advice that are steeped in conjecture. Data removes the emotion right out of the equation and can help keep you grounded when you want facts.
  7. Financials – Will you be able to afford to take the advice you’ve been given? Or does it cut into your time to do other paying work? A lot of advice doesn’t always come down to the “M” word – money – but more often than not hidden costs can start to affect your pocketbook. In addition to time, stress is an invisible expense that can spur you to write or freeze your fingers. When you stop producing, whether they be short stories, novels, articles, etc. you affect your ability to monetize your work. Advice itself may not have a dollar sign attached to it; but the application of it can both positively and negatively influence your bottom line.
  8. Timeliness – Is there an expiration date on the advice? Does your success or failure rely on how fast you can complete the recommendation? The adage timing is everything is often true for pieces of advice that are not only time-sensitive, but also demand your full attention. Understanding the “what” and the “how” of what someone is proposing can pale in comparison to the “when.”

Hopefully, these eight concepts will help remind you what you already know, that advice is cheap if not free. However, nothing can replace the precious time you spend in front of your monitor, typewriter, or notebook writing. Regardless of what anyone says, you’re the only author qualified enough to shape where you’ll go. By training your inner voice to critically think about how the advice you receive applies to your work – you’ll be able to do just that.

Just Breathe: Rejuvenating Your Imagination

Sometimes we forget to breathe when it comes to our creativity. By which I mean we are so busy creating and interacting with the world that we forget to pause, to be silent, to be alone. The imagination, the spark of all creativity, is a renewable resource, but it is not an inexhaustible resource. You can raze the forest, drink the stream dry, and not get it back…or not get it back right away.

As I get older, I have more and more of an appreciation for the need to be still, the need to be silent, and the need to be alone. I have less energy than I did when I was younger. My mind is less elastic, less flexible. On the other hand, because I have to be I am craftier now than I was in the twenties or thirties, and I have more experience, although not necessarily more wisdom.

Any wisdom I do have as regards tending to my own personal creativity has to do with monitoring myself and knowing my limits—allowing space for my imagination to guide me, and for it to recharge after long, difficult creative endeavors.

Two particular examples: after finishing the last novel in my Ambergris cycle, Finch, I made myself take a break from fiction. I knew that I would not just be worn out from writing an intense novel but also going out into the world to read from it and tell people about it. I also knew that I would experience a sense of loss from having lived in a world and with characters for not just three books but eighteen years of my life: almost my entire adult life. You cannot help but feel unmoored and at sea after such an immersive experience—and an experience that took so much of your imagination to see through to completion, with each book a different type of spark, a different approach to creation. So I gave myself permission not to write fiction. I forgave myself in advance…and slowly, over time, I could feel the urge to write fiction come back, and the inklings of inspiration, and those moments of going to sleep with a character or idea in my head…and waking up to find the solution, the catalyzing image, the scene expressed whole in my mind.

On a smaller, weekly scale, I also monitor my limits. Recently, my wife Ann and I undertook a fairly mammoth anthology in terms of concept and the number of what I’d call “moving parts”: The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities (HarperCollins, 2011). For this book of fictions we needed faked museum exhibits, recollections of visits with Dr. Lambshead, fiction in the form of essays, and traditional short stories—all integrated with art from over 25 artists, some of them living in countries as far away as Russia. Just keeping this straight in your head is a task, let alone seizing opportunities for communication between fictions created by sometimes wildly different writers. In addition, I knew I’d be writing the connective tissue in the form of a fictional frame and fictional introductions to each section, and that these would set not just the context but the emotional tone. Well, this stuff doesn’t just conjure itself out of blue sky and clean air. It is a cumulative process and you can’t just leap in and do it all in one go. You need space: silence, stillness, aloneness. It’s a stop-and-go-and-stop-again process. Otherwise, you wring the rags dry and what comes out is attenuated, brittle, uninteresting.

So for the past two weeks, my goal hasn’t been just to write this material—it has been to set up roadblocks to writing, to find ways to procrastinate and delay so that (1) my imagination has the time necessary to work through the creative problem set before it and examine all of the possibilities and (2) so that I don’t reach that point of attenuation where it’s almost as if you’ve cooked your chicken dinner until it’s dry and practically inedible. It looks like something moist and delicious, but it most definitely isn’t.

Being aware of your limits—weekly, monthly, yearly—and having, in an odd way, the discipline to know when not to write, when to let yourself breathe, is part of making sure you have a long and happy career in your chosen creative endeavor.

When Publishers Do Bad Things

It doesn’t happen that often, thankfully, but sometimes publishers do bad things, things that go beyond issues of incompetence or lack of organization. Usually these “bad things” have to do with non-payment of royalties or advances, the cancellation of books for specious reasons, and/or poor or abusive treatment of the author during the editorial or publishing process. (Granted, repeated cancellation of books may just indicate poor initial decision-making on the part of a publisher, but is still an important factor when considering what publisher to go with–assuming you have a choice.)

What are usually not valid excuses for bad behavior?

—Blaming sudden growth for non-payment of monies because of supposed ma-and-pop corner store accounting practices. Most all publishers, large and small, deal with distributors and wholesalers who keep records of books sold. It would be unlikely that any publisher would not have a fairly good idea of book sales for an individual title, no matter how busy they are. Publishers have to communicate with the entities that help them sell their books in order to keep publishing. This requires them to stay in the loop.

—Suggesting communication issues as a generic catch-all reason that absolves particular individuals of responsibility, especially in cases where it is quite clear that those who have been ill-served have been attempting to communicate and simply have been ignored. In this case, the excuse is simply an effort to stave off negative publicity.

—Putting the onus on the individual writers published by the publisher to come to them with any issues or problems related to non-payment.
This suggests a less than proactive approach on the publisher’s part and may simply be a delaying tactic.

Always remember that by the time individual writers are willing to say bad things about a particular publisher, this is usually just the tip of the iceberg, to use a cliche. Very few writers feel comfortable bad-mouthing their publisher, for fear of being seen as difficult. In cases where several writers have spoken out, you can almost always guarantee that many of those who haven’t spoken out also have issues with the publisher.

When considering a publisher, be sure to check with a sampling of writers published by that publisher, to get a sense of how consistent, honest, and fair the publisher is in dealing with writers. From a writer’s point of view, a publisher is only as good as the average experience that can be expected in dealing with them. Every publisher will have highs and lows depending on personalities and issues beyond anyone’s control.

Also remember that indie presses in particular have their eccentricities, and that each press has its strengths and its weaknesses. This is not the same thing as “bad behavior”–these are simply the quirks writers have to deal with, just as the publisher and acquiring editor are agreeing to put up with your quirks, in a sense, and you will have to decide which quirks you don’t mind and which make a publisher unattractive to you.

Everything I’ve learned about writing this year I’ve relearned by watching the Olympics [Part III]

Today is my last visit to BookLife and I want to thank Jeff Vandermeer again for asking me to contribute this week. It’s been fun parsing thoughts about the Olympics through the lens of the writing life and I appreciate all the support and comments I’ve received. Remember, I can be found at Writer’s Rainbow at any given moment; this weekend I’ll be adding the March monthly dispatch, an introductory discussion into the three basic building blocks of a writing platform, so drop by sometime, check it out, and leave a comment! I wish all of BookLife’s readers a solid 2010 filled with inspiration and prosperity. 

Back to our regularly scheduled programming… I left my favorite observations for last. I live in the Puget Sound area, so the fact that I’m a huge fan of Apolo Ohno should come as no surprise. I do appreciate a golden child whenever he or she does come along (complete with awesome attitude), so I must also confess a fondness for snowboarder Shawn White. How can we not live in awe of these two Olympians? Here is what I took away from each of them over the last couple of weeks. Continue reading