Hello. This is my first time here. I want to thank Robert Lopresti for inviting me to be a permanent member of Sleuthsayers. I am honored to be invited to blog with so many talented and well-respected writers, many of whom are experts in short story writing—my favorite form of fiction.
It’s a pity that it is next to impossible to make a living from writing precise gems that waste none of the reader’s time with superfluous words. ;) I believe there is an untapped audience of potential readers who don’t know they are short fiction fans. How to expose folks to short stories so they’ll give them a chance and catch a short fiction addiction is a nut I haven’t cracked yet. Steve Jobs proved you could create needs that nobody knew they had with iPods and iPhones and iWhateverelses. But more on that topic in another post (assuming I’m not banned after this post).
A few quick words about myself. I’m originally from Oklahoma. I moved to Los Angeles in the late nineties, worked in television and then marketing for a few years before moving into up to Berkeley where I worked in academia. In 2008 I moved back down to LA. I’d written short stories and screenplays here and there, but it wasn’t until the early 2000s that I started focusing on prose and five or so years after that, specializing in crime fiction. I had my first story published in 2012 and have since had about 40 short stories and two novellas come out. I have also worked on several unfinished manuscripts that may or may never see the light of day.
While I've had a few weeks to prepare for this article in my debut, I never settled on a topic with my wife’s birthday festivities last week followed by my daughter's birthday this week. I feel like there are many issues I want to write about, but for some reason, I’d draw a blank when I tried to write a draft. Performance anxiety, perhaps. Not sure. But one question kept coming back, how did I get here? That is, how did Robert come to invite me after Steve Hockensmith left for greener pastures? (Talk about filling a big pair of boots.)
Today I’m going to write about serendipity. Years ago when I worked on a cable show called Home and Family, I took a pop psychologist to the airport after he appeared on the show to promote his book. I told him that I wanted to be a writer (instead of production assistant running errands for the show). He told me about his concept of serendipity.
Apple Dictionary (the reference I use most these days) defines the word as:
The occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way.
His pitch on serendipity was that while the core principle of the word involves luck if one prepares and positions themselves in the path of their goal, it increases the likelihood that a serendipitous moment may arise. And if that opportunity happens, that person will have the skills and ability to grab the moment and fulfill their dreams. A sports analogy might be a third-string quarterback not expecting to play the season because the two guys ahead of him are All-Stars, but an injury and scandal later, he’s taking snaps on Sunday in a sold-out stadium. Or this guy who wound up being an NHL goalie for a night after a day of working as an accountant.
|Scott Foster: accountant by day, NHL goalie at night|
I often talked to the guests on the show as I shuttled them to and from the airport, or hotels, or wherever. I’ve forgotten most of them as well as what happened on that job outside of a few events (like twisting my ankle on an obstacle course during a commercial break before Bruce Jenner was about to run through it on live TV,) but that conversation stuck with me…although I forgot the psychologist’s name. Like Steve Liskow wrote last week, I think I’m a slow learning kinesthetic. It takes me a while to get something down and even longer to put it into practice, but every now and then things work out.
If you want to be a writer, you certainly need skill in the craft, a strong voice, and hopefully an interesting story to tell. A lot of this can be achieved with reading, writing, and rewriting. But there are other attributes that can help raise a writer’s serendipity percentage when it comes to getting published.
An easy, cheap way is to read websites and blogs that talk about writing and those that have submissions. As the saying goes, information is knowledge. Find the genre you’re interested in and follow what folks in that world are talking about. Glean tips and tricks from those already in the game. If somebody has cut a path in a forest, it’ll be easier to follow their path than chopping down trees to go your own way. Although sometimes you need to use that ax to forge your own way, it’s just good to know that you’re a pioneer and not a wheel re-inventor.
Also, there are Facebook groups, Twitter hashtags, Yahoo groups, and other places to join conversations and find out more about what is happening. (Yet, I still work best in person. Shaking hands, talking, working off of nonverbal cues, and everything else that comes with being in front of a person works best for me. While I’m half extroverted, I can't seem to function well in a digital world, especially places like Twitter.) Also, you are looking for places to submit stories, especially in the crime world, I always go here: http://sandraseamans.blogspot.com/
Writer events happen all over the country. The bigger the city, the greater the opportunities. Living in Oklahoma (pre-internet days), there weren’t many events, but I would go out to see writers, poets, and people of significant cultural import when I could. Living in Los Angeles, there are so many events happening that I barely catch any of them. But to listen and support an author, and possibly meet them as well, is something that, beyond enrichment, might have benefits some day. What exactly? I don’t know. You won’t either if you don’t go.
Take writing classes. This could be a one-time weekend class, a community college program, or even an MFA. One can learn techniques to improve their skills and meet like-minded writers. The cost slide on a scale from free community and library programs to $60k masters level study/workshops. In Tulsa, I went to summer parks and recreations programs on creativity and learned about artistic expression. In Berkeley, I took a writing extension course and found out that I disliked a lot of mainstream literary writing after I had to write a paper on stories in “The Best American Short Stories.” This led me into a life of crime…fiction writing where more things happen than just wealthy characters’ overwhelming ennui.
I also meet writers who were serious about taking their writing further. From the class in Berkeley, a few of us started a writing group.
Writing groups have been essential in my growth as a writer. I’ve been in several throughout the years. Some only lasted for a few meetings, while others have carried on for several years. Having a successful group has a lot to do with the chemistry of the members, the commitment to allot time to yourself and others, and the ability to listen to and use criticism to improve your work.
Not every writing group is going to work out. There are many personalities at play. Some people are too dominant and others hostile. But others can be genuine assets that provide valuable insight. It also helps to have writers in your group who understand your genre. It can get frustrating explaining to a member who is writing a memoir why a dead body is necessary for a murder mystery.
Also, writer groups have benefits in that some members share knowledge about writer’s markets and opportunities. After I wrote my detective novel, a writer in a group told me about mystery writing organizations.
There are many writing organizations that help promote their members’ works and keep their genre relevant. Many are national organizations with regional chapters. I joined Sisters In Crime and Mystery Writers of America in the San Francisco Bay Area and found both groups to be welcoming and supportive of novice writers.
When I moved back to Los Angeles, I attended several SinC and MWA meetings which led to me volunteer at some of their events.
Most nonprofit literary organizations are run by volunteers. The work takes up time that can be spent writing or other pursuits. But by volunteering, you are paying forward (or back) to other writers like yourself. Sometimes you get credit, but often you don’t, working behind the scene make sure the trains move on time (or the sausage gets made). Regardless it’s doing good for the community and it could lead to unexpected…serendipity.
In my case, I ran the craft room for the California Crime Writers’ Conference in 2011. I introduced presenters, made sure they kept hydrated and watched the time. Gary Phillips taught two classes. One was on dialog, but I don’t remember the other. Between the two sessions, I was talking to Gary and mentioned that I wrote short stories. He invited me to submit a story to his next anthology, SCOUNDRELS: TALES OF GREED, MURDER, AND FINANCIAL CRIMES.
So several stories, board meetings, and conferences later, Robert asked me to join SleuthSayers and I jumped at the opportunity. Is this serendipity?
Thanks for reading. I promise my next submission will not be so rushed!
PS: Happy birthday, Pauline!