Book Signings and Other Delights

I went to a book signing this past weekend. Sadly, I wasn’t the one signing the books. Instead, it was Dan Wells, the LDS author of the John Wayne Cleaver books (I Am Not a Serial Killer, Mr. Monster, and the just-released I Don’t Want to Kill You), a YA/adult horror/suspense/supernatural series that I ranted about (approvingly) here.

Wells is a former editor of The Leading Edge, BYU’s science fiction and fantasy magazine, where I also got my start in editing back in the mid-1980s (about a decade before Wells, I think). He also tied for the Whitney Award for best first novel in 2009 for I Am Not a Serial Killer — an award for which No Going Back was also eligible, but did not win. I can’t really resent him for it, since I Am Not a Serial Killer is really quite good — and the later books are better.

So I made my way to Uncle Hugo’s, the Twin Cities’ premier independent sf&f bookstore, where Wells was holding forth. I stood around for an hour or so, then went with him and several other fans (including William Morris, a compatriot in the field of Mormon letters and coeditor of the forthcoming Mormons and Monsters anthology), and we went to lunch, where I listened and tried not to talk too much and generally absorbed good writing vibes. And then I went home, while Wells and several of the others made their way to Minicon, an sf&f convention that was being held in Minneapolis Easter weekend and which I had briefly contemplated attending, before deciding otherwise.

It was a good experience. Well, maybe. As a fan, I was glad to go. As a writer, I felt (and feel) deeply ambivalent.

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Back when I was younger, I used to enjoy writing groups. I also used to like conventions, and hearing other writers talk about writing, and reading and doing my best to become informed about the writing world in general, both on the compositional side and from a business perspective. And then a few years ago, I started trying to write more seriously, and things changed for me.

Part of the problem is simple jealousy — or, to be more accurate, demoralization. It’s depressing to see other people talk about writing who are succeeding in actually doing it, when so far I’m not. That’s especially the case when they mention all the clever things they’re writing about and their strategies for staying in print and promoting their work, and I think to myself that no way am I that smart or persistent or insightful or whatever. Hearing about other writers’ troubles is even worse. If they’re having a hard time getting contracts and such, how can I expect to have a chance?

I recognize the paradoxical, no-win nature of my feelings, in which every possible input seems depressing. Kind of like Monopoly, where I discovered years ago that I’m both a poor winner and a poor loser. And so the only winning move is — not to play? I can only hope that’s not the case with writing.

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Back in the summer of 2008, I was in the early chapters of No Going Back. I’d shown what I had written to a friend, who gave me an honest and much-needed but not positive critique. And then things had stalled. I was having a hard time figuring out where to go from there, and indeed whether it was worth continuing at all.

And then I went to Worldcon, with a group of friends and acquaintances from the writing group I’d belonged to in college. And it made me feel even worse. On the way back, I remember feeling closer than ever before to deciding I was permanently done with trying to be a creative writer.

Obviously that isn’t what happened. Even now, I can’t be sure if going to Worldcon helped or hurt my writing process. Or maybe it was simply irrelevant, because when it came down to it, the things I needed to do in order to become a published novelist didn’t have that much to do with Worldcon or my writing friends or anything else except simply persisting in putting words down on paper.

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There’s a point at which you’ve learned enough, and then you have to try. Not that there isn’t more to learn, but rather that until you’ve attempted to apply what you already know in theory, no new ideas are going to do you any good.

That’s where I am in my writing. Out of those years of reading and listening to writers talk about the writing craft — as well as time spent in English departments, and working as a professional informational writer and editor — I’ve acquired a store of ideas and suggestions about how the writing process works. Quite likely too many ideas, if the truth be told. And now I have to try to actually make them happen, and see what works and what doesn’t work for me.

That, I think, is the most important part of why showing up at other writers’ book signings and going to conventions and reading what other writers have to say about writing don’t do much for me these days. At this time in my writing life, they’re all substitutes for the writing itself, which is where the rubber meets the road — or fails to do so, with the result that my nascent writing career flies off into nothingness.

The potential value such events have for me lies in reminding me of this basic truth. If going makes me feel snappish and quasi-depressed — and drives me back to pencil and keyboad — then maybe that will be worth it. I suppose we’ll have to see.

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6 Responses to “Book Signings and Other Delights”

  1. I tend to feel in similar ways. I find myself staying away from literary events these days. And I too am trying to decide my future with creative writing. Driving home from a camping trip today, I decided to cease all involvement in creative writing. But then later I thought, Hell, I’ll just do it if I ever have the time and inclination, but I will NOT get into a deadline/publication frame of mind.

    Maybe I’ll get back into it if and when I can get myself back into a regular writing rhythm, but there are still a couple more freelance writing/editing jobs to finish up first… But I’m getting better at saying no to things, so maybe a new vista of time/energy will open up again for me later this year or next.

  2. Laura Nielsen says:

    I went to a writers’ conference at which the keynote speaker stated that all writers have to face the big Harry Potter question which is, “Lord, why wasn’t it me?” Also, the popularity of the book Outliers to the contrary, spending 10,000 hours on something doesn’t guarantee anything. But writers keep writing because . . . well, we have to . . . whether anybody reads it or not.

  3. Randy says:

    Wow! I’m going to show my age a little here (and by age I mean senility), but as I recall, Dan was the editor of TLE when I first attended BYU before my mission and who put me on the staff for a short time before I left. I had a great time. (I think it was Dan, but I’m losing my brain cells rather rapidly and hope to be a burden on my children sometime soon.) If I’m crazy, please let me know, if not…and if he remembers me at all (if I’m losing gray matter, it is possible he may be too) make sure to let him know that now that I’m back in country and catching up on things, I will make sure to read his books as well!

    • Jonathan says:

      Actually, I was the editor of TLE for Issue 9, where you’re listed on the staff list for the first time. Karl Batdorff was the fiction editor. He became the executive editor with Issue 12 after I stepped down. I don’t know when Dan joined the TLE staff, but I believe it was in the 1990s, after I’d graduated and left Utah.

  4. Th. says:

    .

    I think about this often also, though I have to say: I’m bummed I didn’t get to hang out with you all that afternoon. Sounds fun.

    • Jonathan says:

      Enjoyed your link. Yeah, it’s important to remember that neither talent nor success in writing (however one defines it) are a zero-sum game.

      If you’re ever in the Twin Cities area, let’s make sure to all get together!

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