Someone tipped me off to this brilliant essay by Charlie Jane Anders, a chapter in a larger book about being a writer. There are so many good points in here that I knew immediately I should talk about it. If you’re interested in being a writer, there’s a good reason to stop what you’re doing and read this chapter right now:
Nobody is ever going to come along with a magic wand and say “You’re a real writer now.” There are a million different definitions of writing success out there, and almost everyone feels like a failure sometimes. (Constantly, in my case.)
And we’re not really competing with other writers. The first thing people do when they finish reading a book they enjoyed is search for more books like that one. Your biggest competition is always the dreaded “reading slump,” when people just fall out of the habit of reading because they haven’t found the right book for them lately. Anything, or anyone, who gets people reading more is good for all of us.
Nevertheless, imposter syndrome is everywhere, and everyone has their own supposedly ironclad rules for writing—and if you let this stuff get you down, you’ll find it harder to write. And you definitely won’t be able to use writing to find liberation, or to see a better future, if you’re worrying about whether you’re “allowed” to do this, or whether your work matters.
Her chapter is filled with tons of glorious emotional validation. If you’re sitting at a keyboard, wondering if you have what it takes, this chapter is for you.
Following my previous posts on the History of Hacking, you should check out this documentary on the genesis and evolution of cyberspace. Since cyberspace and hacking go hand in hand, this is an important adjunct to the overall story of our time.
Hypernormalisation was released in 2016. It gives a context for why and how cyberspace began, and how it’s impacted the rest of world ever since. It’s detailed, but informative. Definite watch.
Quick Housekeeping Note: this blog post will either make you or break you. If that’s not something you’re up for, feel free to pass this one by. One of the big ideas I talk about in Mesh are harsh truths, and here’s one of them: Sometimes, you will lose at life before you even get started.
I know Forrest Gump says life is like a box of chocolates, but that’s nonsense. Sometimes life is like playing a game you know you’re going to lose. Suiting up for a game that starts out 1000 – 0. Boarding a plane you know is going to crash. For many people, including kids, life is the torture of seeing a finish line they’ll never reach, but trying for it anyway.
These are some harsh truths to talk about, but the kids who enjoy Mesh will get what I’m saying. Too often, adults sugar-coat the truth because they don’t know what else to do. Bad circumstances, bad childhood, bad role models … any number of things can wreck your shot at life. No fault of your own, nothing you could have done differently. Life can and will break your wings before you get a chance to fly.
“That’s not true,” people will sputter. They’ll cite example after example of people who solved their problems, overcame their obstacles. They fail to acknowledge is that life is complex. What works for one person may not work for another. All those little differences can add up to what engineers call a ‘cascade effect.’ Sometimes all the weak points of your life align at the wrong time, becoming a catastrophic failure.
Plus, in this low-empathy / boring dystopia world, your life isn’t just a struggle; it becomes work just to have you around. Kids exploring humor and empathy will make cruel jokes. People have to be willing to show compassion to make room for you and your circumstances. Hard times bring out the best in good people, and the worst in bad people. Not everyone is up for that kind of choice every day so they check out; even those who promised to be there no matter what. That’s a soul-crushing reality to accept.
I know there’s a common myth that any problem can be overcome with a sufficient amount of willpower and determination, but for many people including kids, that isn’t true. Some are born into life hampered by circumstances they can’t change, imprisoned by walls they cannot climb.
For those experiencing a loss at life, you should know that you aren’t alone. The bitterness that comes after realizing your best isn’t good enough? The anger and sadness from living a life dealt a raw hand? That’s something I talk about a lot in Mesh.
That anger, that sadness, that bitterness doesn’t have to be the end of the story. After all, if you relate to anything I just said, you might be asking yourself a reasonable question: If I’m going to lose, why try at all? What’s the point of playing, if there’s no possibility of winning?
I’ll tell you why. Buckle up, buttercup.
We try for one simple reason: we don’t know everything. We might be wrong about our chances, we might be wrong that our circumstances won’t change. We might be wrong that people won’t care, we might be wrong that things will never get better.
‘Losing at life’ is what happens when your narrow definition of success is unattainable. ‘Losing at life’ is what happens when you think there’s only one way to be happy. ‘Losing at life’ is what happens when you think only superheroes can be brave.
We might be wrong about all of those things and sometimes we have to lose at life, be screwed before we get started, before we can start to see all the ways we can win.
I’m not going to lie – my life, my actual life, is pretty messy. That’s one of the primary reasons I write: writing helps me keep my frustration, my anger, my depression under control. I describe all my negative stuff with this example.
Louis L’Amour talks about something called ‘creep’ in his novel about the Nevada Silver Rush Comstock Lode. Clay mud, compressed between plates of rock for millions of years, were suddenly freed. There was nothing the miners could do to stop the clay from coming, billions of tons of pressure forced the clay out like gray toothpaste. Instead, the miners had to work to keep the creep cut back every day – otherwise the clay would fill the tunnel.
I admit it: this is a complicated, obscure metaphor. If you can think of a better one, please feel free to share it. Until then, this is best way I can rationalize why I write and why writing and publishing are important to me. When I don’t write, when I don’t create, that dark stuff starts crowding in quick. Daily work to create, or build the Inkican platform, is what keeps it cut back.
One of the biggest challenges of these truths is to realize you don’t have all of them. I have no idea what the true answer is to all of this for me, or anyone else. All I know is that this is keeping me from giving up, and I talk about that in Mesh because there are many kids out there struggling on that journey with no idea how to take the first step. It’s important to me, then, for Mesh to help show Roman taking those first steps and getting the help he needs.
So the end of this blog post is really the beginning of a conversation. Mesh is a deeply personal project, as I’ve said. Now you know a little bit more about why it’s personal. I’m hoping that Roman, Zeke, and the rest of the Snow Foxes become friends for the other kids just like them. We’re all working to figure out what to do with the rest of our lives, now that life as we know it has come to an end.
Had an exchange today that reminds me of this simple adage – Always do your homework – when deciding whether to engage with a new publishing opportunity. In this case, I’m starting to get emails from unknown places with offers of new writing opportunities. My first reaction may be like yours – “OMG, someone emailed me. Cray!” – but then I decided to put my thinking cap on.
“Jackson,” says I, “you need to do some digging. Figure out if this is a legitimate publishing opportunity.” Thirty seconds with Google and I had all the information I needed: SCAM.
Here’s the bad news, kiddies: there are a million snake oil publishing scams out there, preying on naive writers/authors. We’re so starved for attention or validation, that sometimes we can look before we leap when ANYONE expresses interest in our work. Scammers prey on this, period. Be very, very cautious and DO YOUR HOMEWORK before signing with anyone.
Here’s the good news – there are a ton of resources out there (including querytracker.net and publishers marketplace) that give you feedback on who the publisher / agent is and what their past business track record may be. Bad guys slip through the cracks sometime, but if they have a name, they’re on Google and if someone’s had a bad experience, they’ll tell you about it. Conversely, if an agent or publisher has NO information available, this is also a bad sign. It may mean they have a terrible reputation, but under their old name. Caveat emptor.
So, thanks to a little homework I avoided a big headache. I’m passing this along as a lesson for everyone else – always do your homework before signing with an agent, publisher, or anyone else associated with your work.
And if you’re a younger reader / aspiring author – always do *your* homework, too! Shelter-in-place is no excuse to neglect your studies. 🙂
Happy Monday – here are a couple of Microfiction posts to get your week started. First up, the VR technician who gets trapped in virtual worlds: “You are a VR maintenance worker, tasked to jump from realm to realm, making sure everything runs smoothly. You find a world that’s a little corrupted, and go in without calling for backup. Suddenly, you learn this isn’t a simulation.”
Next up! I read this prompt and the words started pouring out: “When a fictional world stops receiving new content, (sequels, new issues, episodes, games, etc.) the world slowly breaks down. You provide a refuge for the now homeless fictional characters.” I treated it as an opportunity to take a bunch of famous characters and bounce them off each other. Hope you enjoy it!
After many years, I’m content to walk away from exchanges that I think are going to be negative, but it took me many years to get there. Here are some quick notes on what I’ve learned about being an author and social media. Let me tell you how we got to here.
I found myself exhausted after a late-evening sesh with Twitter the other night. Many people have strong opinions on the publishing biz, and sometimes those conversations find their way to Twitter where simple opinions become exhaustive examination. Seeing the approaching storm, I closed the laptop for the night and turned my attention to video games.
So what are the takeaways from a wild ride across social media? Here are three big strategies that it took me a long time to figure out. Pour yourself a cup of coffee or tea, and take these in. Remember, these are strategies so give them some time to sink in.
Don’t Say Anything Unless You’re Sure You Can Say the Right Thing
In a world of hot-takes, quick reactions, and viral social media, it’s tempting to open your mouth to say something. Kim Kardashian gets away with it, right? Uh, yeah, but no. You have to remember: anything you say online can literally become ammunition to be used against you at a later date. Kim’s got a million-dollar PR team ready to smooth over any social media faux pas, do you?
The simple way around this nightmare scenario is to remember those old-fashioned adages: “Keep your words soft and sweet, you never know which ones you’ll have to eat.” You’ll never have to apologize for something you didn’t say.
But this is the 21st Century, right? We’re social media people, right? We have to say SOMETHING, don’t we? Of course. And therein lies the strategy I mentioned above: Don’t say anything unless you’re sure you can say the right thing. Respond, don’t react. See your words as a sword, swing only when you are sure of a hit. If someone should stick the proverbial microphone in your face, there’s nothing wrong with saying: “I’m not sure I know enough to give a complete response.”
No one will remember when you said nothing, but EVERYONE will remember when you said the wrong thing.
Checking in on a Monday morning – Lights, coffee, action! Getting behind the keyboard to send out more author query letters and update my draft of Mesh based on Beta Reader feedback. Meantime, here are some more free author tools I picked up over the weekend:
John Scalzi did an AMA on Reddit yesterday, so I took the opportunity to ask a me-specific question:
So the key here for any author, regardless of stature, is the ability to keep going. It doesn’t matter what you did before, it matters what you’re going to do next. Lack of success isn’t the universe saying ‘no.’ It’s the universe saying ‘not yet.’ Write on!
I got a lovely note from Barbara Lincoln, a librarian in Salt Lake City last Thursday, who writes:
Good Afternoon Mr. Allen, I would just like to say a quick word of thanks!
As a youth services librarian and educator, I’ve been running a fun writers workshop for 12-15 year olds and thought you might enjoy hearing that we were able to get some great use out of your writers’ interest links lists before the self-quarantine and social distancing. We were even able to use some of this information for our most recent group project!
Thanks so much for sharing! I hope you don’t mind, but one of our youngest, Amelia has also asked me if I could share an article that she and her mother found together on writing basics for young writers, which includes a great breakdown of potential writing careers, education options and essential skills, self-publishing, book proposals, the editing process, etc. I’ve included it below if you’d like to review! We noticed you don’t have this one listed yet, but Amelia was actually the one to bring up that this could be something you might like to include for other young writers who could also be coming across your information and have an interest in becoming a published author someday, like Amelia!
If you find you are able to use this one, would you please let me know? We’re meeting tomorrow virtually, and I would absolutely love to surprise Amelia if you’re able to do so – I’m hoping to keep spirits up in light of what’s happening across the country right now, and I think it would make her day to know she was able to ‘pay it forward’ and maybe even show her mother her contribution if it ends up being included! inkican.com/free-author-tools-to-make-you-feel-like-a-genius/
Thanks again for all your help here Jackson,
Thank you, Ms. Lincoln – this was a welcome message to receive.
I’m happy to say that I loved the idea and included Amelia’s contribution on the Free Author Tools Page, with credit. Now it’s up there to help other authors, too! Thank you, Amelia!
Information like this is absolutely essential for other authors since learning how to write for a living is a challenge for anyone at any age. I love that I’m able to help the young authors of SLCCN and thanks to kind people like them, I’m able to pass along more helpful author-related info.
Thank you again! You made my day.
My name is Jackson. I am a private person who lives, eats, and breathes sci-fi. When I'm not talking about my writing projects, I talk about stuff related to the science fiction genre and community.