Success Sickness, by Eric Witchey

FNTCVR

Fantasy Silver Medal, 2018 Independent Publisher Book Awards

 

Success Sickness

Eric Witchey

Last weekend, I supported a local mini-conference here in Salem, Oregon. The conference made use of the Parallel Play program psychologist Brian Nierstadt helped me create sixteen years ago. Parallel Play has been the subject of other articles and will be again. For now, I want to focus on the fact that the conference was all about production and overcoming obstacles.

Aside: Special thanks to Chris Patchell and Debbie Moller, who did the bulk of the work to create the very successful, sold-out weekend. Special thanks to Willamette Writers: Orit Ofri, Kate Ristau, and Summer Bird. Also, thanks to the other professionals who donated their time to help the local community of writers: Rachel Barton, Erica Bauermeister, Elizabeth Engstrom, Devon Monk, Diana Pharaoh Francis, Waverly Fitzgerald, and Natalie Serber. My deepest apologies if I’ve missed anyone.

Now, it happens that on the Wednesday before the conference one of my novels received recognition from the 2018 Independent Publishers Book Awards (IPPYs). Littlest Death, cover show above and available in print or ebook on Amazon from Shadow Spinners Press (grin),  received the silver medal in the Fantasy category.

Result? I can’t write.

This is not a new experience. I know I’ll get past it, but I thought I’d take a second to write about this particular form of writer’s block because of the inspiring mini-lectures I was honored to listen to over the weekend. However, before I really get going, I want to point out that this is sort of a violation of certain social mores. In our culture, we accept that people can talk about the struggles, problems, obstacles, and especially the solutions encountered while striving to achieve our dreams. The gods know, I have done plenty of that both verbally and in writing over the years. We are much less accepting of people exploring the struggles, problems, obstacles, and solutions that appear because we achieve the things we strive for. Nobody wants to hear about how annoyed you are about the misleading Engine Warning light in your new Rolls Royce, but everybody wants know how you managed to, and by extension how they can, get a Rolls Royce.

So, at the risk of social shunning, I offer these insights into a problem I hope everyone has already overcome or gets the chance to overcome.

First, I’ll point out that there are two types of success sickness. They are “Anticipatory success sickness” and “recent success sickness.” They pretty much work the same way, and the treatment is pretty much the same, too.

Here’s how success sickness, which I sometimes erroneously call award sickness, works.

  1. The writer either anticipates or has received some new success—any new success. It can be as simple as a compliment from a teacher, a friend, or someone in the family.
  2. The writer sits down to write.
  3. The writer starts wondering either what they should write to succeed or what they did when they wrote the material that succeeded.
  4. The writer can’t figure it out, so they scrub the bathroom floor instead of writing.
  5. Repeat 2-5 until suicidal or new floor tile is required in the bathroom.

I first encountered success sickness after selling my first short story in 1987. I didn’t sell another story until 1997.

Well, that sucked.

Then, I won a slot at Writers of the Future and a place in the top ten from New Century Writers. New Century was a big deal then because Ray Bradbury was involved. Now, sadly, both Ray and New Century are gone. About the same time as the above two awards, I sold my first short story to a national slick magazine.

All good, right? I figured I was off to the races—a made man in the fiction family.

Then, number 2, I sat down to write and…NOTHING…3, 4, 5, and 3, 4, 5, and 3, 4, 5…

Well, that sucked.

After about six months of cleaning the bathroom and chatting with my new phone friends from the suicide hot line, I realized that I was in the loop of trying to recreate the success without understanding that the success had been created by not trying to create the success. In short, I had just been practicing my craft when I wrote the stories that won the awards and sold.

Sure, I wanted to sell stories and win awards, but I hadn’t been working on each story with the idea that I would do certain things in order to sell the story or in order to win an award. I had just worked on each story to make it the best story I could make it. I had practiced craft without regard for outcome.

That realization led to the idea that I needed to just work on stories and stop thinking about the successes, which of course is like telling yourself to not think about the proverbial elephant in the living room.

Sigh… Well, that sucked.

Once the tile in the bathroom had been replaced and I had tattooed the suicide hotline number on the inside of my wrist, I decided I needed to figure out how to trick myself into not paying attention to what I may or may not have done to contribute to the success I wanted to repeat.

My solution was to practice craft in a way that made it impossible to write a story that would sell. If I knew it couldn’t sell, then I couldn’t expect anything from it other than experience and words through the fingers.

Clever monkey.

So, I went back to the basic concept of practicing craft. I went back to my personal simplest form of practicing craft. I picked random topics to bind together into silly stories. That way, it would be impossible to believe I was creating saleable, award-winning material. Then, I picked a craft concept to practice. I called what I was doing my morning warmup, and I sat down every morning to a speed writing session in which I attempted to execute the craft concept I had selected while also incorporating the stupid random topics.

No pressure. No bathroom. No hot line. Just silliness and practice.

We are talking seriously random, here: My orange coffee mug; Mrs. McPharon’s black gravel driveway; The stinging fur on a caterpillar I found on Hogue’s barn. These are things from my desk and my childhood—totally unrelated. The concept to practice was, conversely, serious. It might be any of a thousand things, but it is always specific—something like “deliver implied intentions through indirect dialog.”

Five to fifteen minutes of speed writing attempting the concept and including the random topics was all I had to do. I started with one minute based on the belief that I can always sit down to do one minute. In a week or so, it became five. Later, and to this day twenty years later, it is fifteen.

Way back then, it took about six months before I stopped second-guessing every word and my writing became about the story on the table again. And, oddly, once I forgot to worry about how I had done what I had done, I did it again.

Well, that didn’t suck.

Except, then, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 3, 4, 5, and…

And begin again. New tile. Reacquainted with the hot line people. And back to five minutes and random topics at speed.

About six weeks passed, and I forgot to worry about how I did what I did, so I did it again.

… and 2, 3, 4, 5, and 3, 4, 5, …

You get the idea.

Fast forward to 2018 Silver Medal in Fantasy IPPY award, and 2, 3, 4, 5, and 3,4,5, and…

And back to five minutes of speed writing at the mini-conference. I did manage to put in several hours of productivity at the conference, but my stupid brain kept returning to what I had done to make Littlest Death an award-winning story.

Well, that sucks.

I’m hoping it will only take me a week or so to get to the point where I forget to worry about how I did what I did so I that can do it again. However, since I’m hoping that will happen, it will probably take longer since I now also have to forget to hope that I’ll forget to worry about how I did what I did before I can do it again.

Silly monkey.

The moral to this whole convoluted story is that sitting down to write something silly for one minute will lead to five will lead to fifteen will lead to an inevitable focus on the story at hand instead of what it might do once it’s finished because of what other stories have done in the past.

I will point out at this point that many of the stories I have sold were born during my warmup and became the story at hand. It turns out that choosing random topics to make it impossible to write a story is nearly impossible because the brain can, if given the freedom to do so, make a story out of pretty much anything. Sadly, that adds a whole new layer to this insanity of not thinking about what you did while you are doing what you are doing now so that you can repeat what you did. I think that’s another article.

Success sickness is the mind attaching itself to what was and what will be instead of resting in what is. Playful experimentation will bring the mind back to the here and now in which all successes are born.

Luck and skill to all who write and send.

-End-

Reconciling Fiction Techniques in Memoir

iStock_000051779652_Large

Reconciling Fiction Techniques in Memoir, by Eric Witchey

Something new for my blog this time. Instead of waxing dreary on some topic of my own choosing, I’m answering a question from a person who took a class from me at the Write on the Sound Conference in Edmonds, Washington. The last time I was there, I taught a class that included a brief discussion of a concept I first presented in an article for The Writer Magazine in October of 2011. The concept is the Irreconcilable Self (I.S.).

The writer, a memoirist, dropped me a line last week. The question has two parts. The first part is whether the I.S. the writer is working with is precise enough. The second question is more of a presupposition about whether the I.S. tool can be used in memoire. Also, note that the writer used Wallace Stegner’s book, Angle of Repose, as a reference point. It has been a long time since I read it, so my examples from memory may or may not fit the experience of people who have read it more recently. I did not go back and check the book to verify my memory, which is a swiss cheese muddle of too many stories that often blend together.

The Question:

I’m presuming that the I.S. can apply to a memoir ‘character’ since I’m treating myself as the character? Good. So then, my opposing conflicts of ideals are — ideal notions of country/”smaller” living and (true) community not a neighborhood VERSUS ‘freedom’ of city life and anonymity.

My questions — is that SPECIFIC enough?? Or is it too linked to place and time? Do I need more soul-searching to really get at stronger conflicting notions here? I am conflicted in the idolization of country living vs the reality and want to expose that a little more via my experience, but also have notions and real experiences of longing for that country living.

The Answer:

Hi, again, Writer X:

First, I’ll be teaching an 8 hour seminar on this subject in Eugene, OR in May. I have a couple of memoirists already signed up. You don’t have to sign up for all six classes. You can just take this one alone, but I would recommend this one and the one in June for a full sense of how I.S. works in conjunction with other story elements. The people at WordCrafters can help with accommodations. The classes are set up so people can drive or fly in on Saturday and drive or fly out on Sunday. Anyway, here’s the link.

https://wordcraftersineugene.org/fiction-fluency-2018/ff-seminars/

Second, I always welcome “one-off” emails, but I can’t always answer them. Also, I’ll only answer one or two before I send you a contract to set up a formal relationship as a sort of piano teacher of words. Too many people think of me as a private encyclopedia of writing techniques if I let them, and I do have to fulfill my own obligations in life.

So, no worries. I’m especially happy to hear from people who have read my stories and taken one or more of my classes.

Interesting that you mention The Angle of Repose. Not many writers who contact me have read it. Stegner is brilliant. Before I talk about that, I’ll talk a bit about Irreconcilable Self.

When I teach I.S., especially in a short form venue like a conference (60 to 90 minutes, total), I teach it as a binary form to get the idea across. It can be more complex. The form I teach has two parts and relies on “I believe” statements in juxtaposition—something like this:

“I believe Romantic idealism is the only truth in this world.” Vs. “I believe deeply in personal honor and family honor and pride.”

This would be Romeo.

Notice that I have already put in more than one thing in the second “I believe” statement. The juxtaposition of these deeply held, untested beliefs is what’s important. The beliefs are deep and often, but not always, unconscious. They are, however, untested. The only way the character is able to believe both things at the same time is that the beliefs have not been tested in his or her life.

That’s the short version of I.S.

Now, Stegner. Keep in mind that Stegner is telling several stories. Lyman is narrating. He’s telling both his story and the story of Susan. Susan’s story includes the story of Oliver and Frank. Each of these major characters has an I.S. that generally functions beneath their consciousness and either drives or allows them to act in the ways they do. Each character has their beliefs tested. Lyman’s is tested by the telling of the story and the revelations that come because of that. His I.S. is something like, “I believe I am a good man from good stock” vs. “I believe the world and my family owe me for their betrayals.” His I.S. is tested by revelations and experience. He abandons the second belief, modifies the first one, and reconciles his experience into, “My choices create the love around me.”

Okay, I’m making this up on the fly, so don’t expect “correct” summary descriptions of a novel I read a long time ago. I’m just trying to give an example that might be useful for you.

Frank can’t reconcile his beliefs. He kills himself. That’s, more-or-less, the definition of tragedy. I’d say his belief was something like, “I believe I’m a good and loyal friend” vs. “I believe I love Susan beyond life itself.” Yeah, that doesn’t work out for him. If memory serves, he kills himself.

Oliver is something like, “I believe I’m an honorable, educated, man worthy of love and loyalty” vs. “I believe one more shovel full of dirt and I’ll strike it rich and save everyone around me.” Or, maybe, “I believe I’m a good husband and hard worker” vs. “I believe my worth is determined by the success of my next project.” I’d have to go back and reread it to do better.

Now, Susan, who is probably the most interesting character in the whole nested story mess, appears to be dragged through events, but she really isn’t. She’s just more subtle. Her I.S. is something like, “I believe in the trendy, romantic idealization of love and the West” vs. “I believe in family values and am a good wife and mother.”

The end position for a character who has resolved their I.S. (transformed) is one of the following:

  1. Experiences force the character to reject both beliefs and die (Frank). I might also argue that Oliver ends up in this position, but he dies emotionally and spiritually.
  2. Experiences force the character to reject both beliefs, but they find a new belief on which to base life choices and actions (Lyman).
  3. Experiences force the character to reject one belief and embrace the other (Susan).
  4. Experiences force the character to find a way to reconcile the two beliefs and live on in harmony with both (Nobody in that story).

Okay, on to memoir.

The chief problem I see when memoirists approach the use of fiction techniques in telling their stories is that they have difficulty stepping back to examine themselves for the underlying psychological, philosophical, and sociological understanding that fiction writers apply when working with made up characters. Finding your own I.S. is like trying to grab your shoelaces and lift yourself up so you can reach a book on the highest shelf. Even if you succeed in violating the laws of physics, you can’t let go of your shoelaces to reach for the book.

The various successful memoirists I have worked with have had to do extensive work in separating themselves from the character who represents them in the story. It’s much harder than making someone up from scratch, but the techniques are the same. For Memoirists, the trick is to do a lot of work figuring out what the core significance of the experience was both for the writer and for the reader. Sometimes, a very clear statement of the experiencing character’s main transformation will allow you to work backward into the land of unconsidered beliefs. Sometimes, deciding to assign an I.S. and then attempting to cause the story to conform to that I.S. will result in either success or failures that provide insights into what was really going on deeper down during the experience.

Regardless, one of the tasks the memoirist must always remember is that no matter what they think the experience meant to them, the end result is only useful if the reading experience means something to the reader. Those two positions are not in any way connected except through craft. Sometimes, they are two completely different meaning results.

I haven’t read your story, and I don’t know enough about it to name the I.S. for you. Frankly, that’s probably a bad idea anyway. However, I can say that once you know it, it is only one of three core control structures I teach. The other two are “arc” and “premise.”

That said, here’s how you described your I.S.: “opposing conflicts of ideals are — ideal notions of country/”smaller” living and (true) community not a neighborhood VERSUS ‘freedom’ of city life and anonymity

The description you provided could be translated into I.S. form like this:

I.S.: “I believe I will only be whole if I am a known, respected member of a small, rural community.” Vs. “I believe only the anonymity of city life will let me fully express who I am.”

Do keep in mind that at story open the character rarely knows they believe both things. Given the above I.S., I can certainly see how a story that demonstrates this conflict of values and transformation of a person could be told. I can’t, however, really speak to how your character and your character context will manifest these belief systems on the dialectic, tactical, conflict set, scene, sequence, or movement dramatic levels. I think that’s where you’re getting stuck. You have an I.S., but the translation of it into increments of stress and change caused by experience isn’t taking your story “from-to” in a way that feels both true and satisfying to you on the I.S. level. For that kind of analysis, I’d also need the premise, arc, and a synoptic outline that captures emotional change resulting from the conflict for each dramatic scene.

I don’t have time or space to do a full exposition of these ideas here, but I can say that by using the control concepts of arc, premise, and I.S., it is possible to analyze the story along the conceptual boundaries readers use to internalize emotions while reading. Subconsciously, readers look for moments of emotional change. In fact, physiologically, they respond to those moments before they have time to think about them. The speed of emotional response overriding the speed of cognitive response is one of the things that keeps readers in the story. Being able to name the I.S., being able to see how each moment of the story either stresses the character’s belief system or confirms it (which is another kind of stress since things will get worse because of confirmations), being able to incrementally move the stress levels toward a personal, emotional/psychological crisis in which the character experiences one of the reconciliation results described above, and being able to deliver the emotional power of that moment of transformation to the reader in a context that allows the reader to FEEL its value to them is, at core, what all story telling is about.

I’m sorry I can’t provide more insight than this. The woods are lovely, dark, and deep and…

Best of luck and skill to you.

Eric

 

Lying Fallow, Going Wild and Writing in the Nude

By Cynthia Ray

Last week in her post, Liz talked about her literary compost pile. It is summer, after all, so I was inspired to continue with the gardening theme. The principles of fallowness and wildness can be applied to our creative lives.

fallow quote

Before the advent of chemical fertilizers, farmers would rotate crops to balance the nutrients in the soil, leaving some fields fallow for a season. Leaving fields fallow meant that nothing was planted there for the entire growing season. This allowed the soil to rebuild itself, and rest. This thousands of year old process continues to this day in many parts of the world, because it works.

Just doing nothing can be incredibly valuable. Have you ever tried to do nothing? No TV, no book, no writing, just sitting and doing nothing? It’s an under-utilized non-activity. It is not even trying to be “mindful”. It is just being.   How long can you do nothing? Fallowness, for me also meant taking a break from plowing the same old fields over and over again. I had to give up some non-productive, obsessive habits that depleted my creativity and time.

Giving up my habit of editing my manuscript before I had even got to the end of the first page, stopping at the first paragraph and going back over every word. I forced myself to just leave it be, and keep writing.   Not an easy task but a freeing one. It also meant for me to take more breaks, walk in the woods, dig in the yard and then come back to my project renewed.   Tearing myself away from a computer screen and immersing myself in nature is how I re-charge and give my brain a break.

wildflowers

Another version of this ‘leave it be’ approach requires letting a portion of your yard or garden go to seed, creating a non-domesticated space. This small wild area enables natural ecosystems to develop, attracting butterflies, birds and other creatures to abide there.  It can replenish and rejuvenate the soil/soul.

Letting ourselves be non-domesticated for a while, allows the wild to show its face. How could I be a bit wild? I experimented with writing in the nude. I thought it would be a way to symbollicaly drop pretense, and get to the heart of things. Later, I found out that this is not uncommon. A web search turned up several authors that used the technique:

  • When Victor Hugo, the famous author of Les Misérables and The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, ran into a writer’s block, he concocted a unique scheme to force himself to write: he had his servant take all of his clothes away for the day and leave his own nude self with only pen and paper, so he’d have nothing to do but sit down and write.
  • DH Lawrence [who wrote the controversial (and censored) erotic book Lady Chatterley’s Lover, liked to climb mulberry trees, in the nude, before coming down to write.
  • Ernest Hemingway did not only write A Farewell to Arms, he also said farewell to clothes! Hemingway wrote nude, standing up, with his typewriter about waist level.
  • Benjamin Franklin also liked to take “air baths,” where he sit around naked in a cold room for an hour or so while he wrote.
  • Mystery writer Agatha Christie liked to write anywhere, including in the bathtub!

So drop those habits along with your clothes, sit around and do nothing for awhile and enjoy the rest of the summer!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cue Orchestra by Christina Lay

I have this peculiar aversion to writing advice that has become law. But then, I love adjectives and have been known to use the adverb “suddenly” with wanton abandon. Today I’d like to take on this current fad about writing the greatest first line ever penned by humankind.

We’re told over and over how our first sentence must hook the reader. Okay, that’s pretty much a given. But hooking the reader is not enough. No, the first sentence of our story or novel must be so inventive, gripping and compelling that there is no possible way anyone who reads it will not buy the book and write gushing reviews before they even get to the end of the first chapter. This is because we now have exactly 3.5 seconds to capture the attention of an e-reader reading Gen Xer who is also binging on Firefly reruns on their phone, texting, and tweeting all while standing on line at Starbucks while on the way to their high paying job at a mysterious security firm in Dubai.

3.5 seconds. Oh, and this first sentence must also cleverly harbor the seed of the ending, but not in an obvious way. It must convey the tone of the story, set the stage and introduce the voice of the narrator, but not be too wordy or contain any adverbs, adjectives or passive nouns.

This makes my teeth hurt. I want to reject it outright but I was dismayed when a friend of mine who judges for a prestigious contest confirmed this. With hundreds of books to read in a few months; she was on the prowl for this rock star sentence. Nothing less would do. No fireworks—no read. And this is what we hear from many quarters; the overworked agent, the jaded editor; they want fantastic, cutting edge, rock-you-like-a-hurricane opening lines, because damn it, they’re busy. Who in the world had time to waste on two, or even three sentences that might lead to just another story?

Stacks of books

Guaranteed Time Wasters

I’m going to go out on a limb and pronounce that I am not unique. And I read. When I click on a sample or when I trundle on down to the purveyor of paper books, I almost never stop at just one sentence unless it actually offends me. Maybe I’m not busy enough. But as long as the first line is competently written and mildly engaging, I will keep going. I’d say it takes a couple paragraphs for me to judge whether this is the story for me or not.

As an average reader, what do I look for? I’d say the number one thing is voice. Do I like what I’m hearing? Because, I don’t need to know what’s going on, what the conflict is or who the protagonist is, and I don’t need to be assured that this is a totally unique story that will surprise my socks off and make me laugh, weep and stay up late.

I just want a good story, well told. So I would suggest we all take a deep breath, envision our first scene and listen for the soundtrack. Yup, the rhythm, tone, beat that will tell the reader what kind of story this COULD be, and give them a feel for your voice. Now pardon me for a moment whilst I travel to ye old book shelf where yon paper books are quaintly stored.

I’m back, and I have randomly selected three best-selling, rocked-somebody’s-world books.

Samuel Spade’s jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting v under the more flexible v of his mouth.

Do I detect adjectives? Holy cow. And ‘was’? How passive! What was Dashiell Hammet thinking? I think he thought he’d dive right into his character and give us a feel for him. That ‘jutting” tells you Sam is not an easy-listening sort of character. The whole first paragraph is taken up with the description of Spade, including this line, which I love: “He looked pleasantly like a blond Satan”. Pleasantly. Mmmmm. (The Maltese Falcon)

The idea of eternal return is a mysterious one, and Nietzsche has often perplexed other philosophers with it; to think that everything recurs as we once experienced it, and that the recurrence itself recurs ad infinitum!

Despite the exclamation point—yawn! I hear inscrutable jazz in the background, discordant and demanding concentration. Who’d think this hot little Czech number took the literary world by storm? To be honest, I’m not sure if I would have continued on if all I got to see was the first sentence; to read or not read? Meh. But luckily I continued on long enough to get to the more interesting bits like “If the French Revolution were to recur eternally, French historians would be less proud of Robespierre.” (The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera)

The accused man, Kabuo Miyamoto, sat proudly upright with a rigid grace, his palms softly on the defendant’s table—the posture of a man who has detached himself insofar as this is possible at his own trial.

Oh, wallow in those lovely adverbs for just a moment! But seriously, this sentence comes closest to that over-achieving first sentence. It does quite a bit, showing us a main character (not the protagonist), his dilemma, a setting which the agile reading mind fills in instantly with generic courtroom visuals, and a bit of his character. Kudos on “rigid grace”. But it’s only as you delve a bit further that you get the bigger picture, the cultural divide, and the poetry of the author’s voice, which is the real hook. (Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson).

Now here’s the part where I back pedal a bit. Trying to pen the best first sentence we can is not bad advice. It is the first impression the reader will get and it’s very important. But I don’t think we as writers should buy into the 3.5 second mentality nor should we paralyze and petrify ourselves with the idea that our first words must be pure genius.   I’d suggest we find the rhythmic heart of our story, discover what’s important about the setting, character, or declaration of philosophical disconnect we’ve decided to start with, and key in to how to best present it with a voice that reflects the tone and music of the story.

Then we move on.

Do you have a favorite or most hated first line?

Fish Every Cast, by Eric M. Witchey

Fish Every Cast

by Eric M. Witchey

My father was an avid sport fisherman, so my head is full of little gems of parental wisdom couched in angling metaphors.

More on that in a minute. First, a joke.

Have you heard the one about the aspiring writer who asked the editor, “What is the difference between a manuscript you accept and one you reject?” The editor smiled, sipped her wine, and quipped, “Lunch.”

In Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” Scrooge suggests to Marley that the ghost might be the result of a bit of underdone potato. We are all glad Marley wasn’t, but he might have been. Scrooge’s experience and the editor’s quip share very significant characteristics. Marley really is a ghost, and Scrooge embraces the possibility that human perception is influenced by environmental factors. The editor’s response assumes that the manuscript is a story, and she also embraces the knowledge that her perceptions might be influenced by blood sugar or general attitude in the moment.

Where Marley is actually a ghost, the editor’s assumption that the manuscript is a story is a huge and kind assumption. She is really only speaking to the selection between two stories from equally skilled writers. She has, in her mind, automatically dismissed the other 99% of her slush pile. Given her obscene workload, we have to allow for that.

Keep our hypothetical editor in mind for a moment while I return to my father. We used to go bass fishing on a pond in the woods at the back end of a Catholic Seminary in Ohio. That pond is where I learned to use a spin-caster. I can still hear my father saying, “If you want to learn to cast well, cast more.” I have fond memories of that place.

Now, having travelled the world and fished in many places, I can say that the little pond of my childhood was a bit of a shithole. It was choked in weeds. It was surrounded by a wall of cattails ten feet thick in places, which made water access difficult. Additionally, that pond wasn’t more than fifty yards from a landfill where we used to shoot rats, but that’s another story. Luckily, the shithole pond was full of nasty, hungry bass.

Learning to cast was an exercise in managing mind, body, equipment, and environment. Little-by-little, under the patient tutelage of my father, I got the hang of finding access, seeing where the bass might hang out, flipping the bail on my reel, letting out a little line, locking the line with a finger, swinging the rod to load the fiberglass and establish the throwing arc, and releasing the line by pointing my finger at the spot where I wanted my bass lure to land. Then, I learned to work my lures in the water in order to attract bass.

I caught bass.

However, and I actually started keeping track because that’s how my sad little OCD brain works, I only caught a bass about every 50 casts. Now, it turned out that in 50 casts, a fair number of them went astray of my intentions—especially early on while learning to cast by casting a lot.

One day, while trying hard to impress my father with my casting (and catching), I sent a hoola-popper (bass lure) out into the lily pads and tangled vines of elodea (weeds). That was not what I wanted. It was embarrassing because my father was standing next to me watching, so I quickly started to real the lure in to try again.

My father put a hand on my frantically cranking arm to still it. In his quiet, fishing voice, he said, “Fish every cast. You never know what might happen.”

Frustration at my failure battled with my desire to appear as though I believed my father. That day, the desire to please won out over my frustration. I slowed down. I worked the lure, and I caught a bass in the middle of the weedy, mucky, lily pad-laden shallows.

What has all this to do with writing, Scrooge, and jokes?

Well, in case you don’t already see it coming, it has everything to do with them. Sometime in the last few years, and I won’t say exactly when, I won an award for a story that had been rejected 65 times. That’s not an exaggeration, and I won’t name the story here for the same reasons I won’t pin down the timeframe more specifically. No organization wants to believe they gave an award to a story that other editors had rejected 65 times, but that prejudice is a human foible to explore another time.

The point here is that the story didn’t change over the almost 15 years it took before an editor had the right things at lunch to set their mood and allow them to embrace it. The manuscript was always a story, and it was always a “good enough” story. I put it out on the pond over and over and over because you have to cast 50 times to catch a bass. I put it in the lily pads. I put it in the elodea. I put in open water. I hit the bank. I got it tangled in the trees. Then, one day, it magically became the right story in the right place with the right editor, who, incidentally, had had the right things for lunch. In short, I caught a fish in the weedy, mucky, lily pad-laden shallows.

If, as writers, we are sure the manuscript is a well-crafted story, then it is important for us to remember that my father was a wise man. When he said, “If you want to learn to cast, cast more,” and, “fish every cast,” he wasn’t talking about fishing. Fishing was just the tool he used to slip his wisdom past my anti-parental advice defenses.

Every story is a lure. Every submission is a cast. You can never be completely sure which lure and which cast will bring a trophy bass up out of the muck and weeds. So, cast more and fish every cast.

I have to say one more very important thing. Editors are not bass. I never said that they are bass. Don’t ever tell them that they are a bass. That’s a very bad thing. Editors are people who have nothing whatsoever in common with bass. It also helps to buy them good lunches. Never let an editor eat a bad lunch.

PS: I’m adding this post script about thirty minutes before this blog entry is scheduled to go live because I just found out that the one and only science fiction story I have written about a boy and his father teaching one another to fish just sold to Daily Science Fiction. The story is titled, “Vincent’s First Bass.” I love it when the universe throws these tiny convergence parties.