One Year Later

Look at me! Two blog posts in a week, must be some sort of record. According to Facebook, today was the 1-year anniversary of my return to Fish & Game. I wasn’t gone terribly long, and I had been with the department for years before that, yet this feels like a big personal milestone to me. I’ve been thinking about it for days, and with that milestone under my belt, there are a lot of things I want to say about the job, but I don’t really know where to start. I didn’t realize until last year sometime just how damn important this job is to me. Part of it is the people, yes, and part is the work, but any place you go can be like that, can’t it? I don’t know, maybe not.

I started at Fish and Game back in early July of 2004 as an Analyst/Programmer. It was something of a lucky break at the time, but not because it was Fish and Game. In my time, I’ve interviewed a lot of people to work for the department who want to work for the agency because of what it is and not because they have any of the knowledge, skills, or abilities to do the job. I, however, wanted to work for the department because it meant a promotion and it wasn’t the DMV.

Within the first few weeks of starting, I’d struck up a pretty friendly relationship with most of the folks I worked closely with, especially the other Dave at the time. One day he brought in his guitar to go pick with some of the other IT folks in the back parking lot at lunch. Somehow, we came around to the fact that I was trying to learn and he invited me along, so I went. That whole summer I’d join some of the other guys out back and pick bluegrass tunes. I loved coming to work, and not just because of that, it was also because I understood the work. It made sense to me. Sure, some parts were totally foreign and my training in SPSS was 100% on the job, but it made sense. There is a lot more to it than that, especially in the fact that there’s room to expand professionally if you’ve a mind to do it.

Fast forward to last September, at least I think it was September may have been October. I was still at the last job and even fairly recently gotten a promotion, but undeniably unhappy, though I was trying. In any case, I’d gone out to attend a going away get-together for a former fish and game colleague. It was a great event. The place was packed with so many people I’d worked with, including more than a few who had already moved on themselves. As I stood up to head out of the event with a friend (former coworker/team member), I looked around, shook a few more hands and thought: “Why the hell did I ever leave this place? These people are my family.”

I went home that night feeling profoundly nostalgic. The feeling kept up for days, maybe weeks. Every day, I’d go into work, feel sick to my stomach about how things were going, fail to be as successful as I wanted to, then go home. Then, I got a sign. Most people, when making difficult life decisions, look to the sky and ask for a sign, as if lightening is going to write the answer across the clouds. Well. I didn’t get struck by lightening, but I did get a text. It was short and basically said that my job was opening back up. But it wasn’t just the text, it was the timing. It came in the middle of a meeting that had been called to update the CTO on project progress. I was also attempting to lay out a case for more resources, I just didn’t see how I was going to be successful without more bodies. My case not only failed, but the CTO explained how my project management game was in bad shape and I needed to focus more on change management. All things that were, in fact, true but could not be achieved without more bodies. In retrospect, if I’d had to stay, I probably could have made a partial save, but I wouldn’t be satisfied with my lot just now.

I know, deep down, that while this place has been good for me, it could become something else as fast as anything. But that doesn’t change the fact that I walked back in those doors, and even to a lot of new faces, and thought: “I’m home.”

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REALITY CHECK – Getting a one-on-one agent review

It’s no secret that writers have big egos. Even when invited to eviscerate someone’s work, I don’t want to do it because while I want to help them, I don’t want to hurt them. Usually, though, the worst ego-bruising events have to do with rejections. I mean, we all get to the point where we’ve finished something and send it off to an agent only to have a short, terse, message come back with some version of “no,” provided we get anything back at all. Normally, these things come without context or explanation. What you rarely get though, on an unsolicited query, is anything more than that. However, if you did, I promise, your ego would be harmed beyond merely ‘bruised’.

Personally, I look at a rejection and wonder, but why? What was the reason that this has been rejected? How can I improve if all I ever get is no?

This fall, I had the opportunity to get a one-on-one review of my work by a big-time New York agent with a big publishing house. To be clear, I paid for this. I thought that having this review would finally get me to the answer of “but why did you reject this?” The goal was to find a compass bearing on the improvement process. Maybe I’d even get a sense of whether or not I was writing things that could be marketable.

Spoiler alert: I didn’t come away with an improvement strategy as much as a recommendation to be a completely different writer. I also cried. And if you’re looking for a reason to ugly cry with sort of minimal collateral damage, this is a really good strategy.

The first piece we looked at was Deep Space. I read about half of the prologue in a group setting. At the time, and especially now, I regard this piece as thoroughly unfinished. Not ready for submission and not ready for beta-readers or in-depth critiques beyond perhaps that first bit. I received the very, very favorable feedback of “That’s fun, I’d read more of that” This comment was followed by some commentary on the contents and structure which I generally regard as productive, but indicates much re-writing. This was 100% in-line with expectations, except for the bit where he handed me his card and invited me to query him O_o. Best case scenario right? (well, yes, but there’s more). After having my ego so rapidly and enormously inflated, what came next was painful and, to be perfectly honest, a little bit humiliating.

The next day, at my appointed time, I went in for a one-on-one on Hexe – at the time, this one was drafted and out for early readers to come back and tell me what’s wrong. Most definitely ready for critique, in any case. I am (was) proud of this work, even after nearly trashing it this spring. It’s got some good humor, it’s got a light fun tone and the characters are memorable. So memorable that my daughter was trying to make Hexe’s castle in minecraft – high praise from her, I can tell you. So, what was my feedback do you think? I have to paraphrase this one, because we spent twenty minutes covering the same ground. “This is really, not very good. It’s solidly one-note and I couldn’t imagine reading this for… How long is it? 120K? no, cut that down to 75K, max…” and it went on. The bits of feedback can be summarized in the following bullets:

– It’s one-note

– Play it straight

– Get there faster, shorten it up

– Make the main character more likable

– and (INFURIATINGLY) The writing itself is pretty good, can’t fault that.

He then spent the last few minutes asking why the hell I hadn’t given him deep space. I told him it wasn’t ready yet, I really wanted the feedback on this one. After hearing the review of Hexe, I realized that even if I sent him Deep Space to have a look at, certainly as it was then, he was going to shake his head and say, ‘nope’. The humor and approach are really similar. I was so certain, actually, that I told him as much right there. He repeated his advice in the bullets above, and reiterated that he wanted to see more.

I feel like this is the worst spot to leave a writer. I don’t even know what to do with the comments. I mean, sure, shorten it up makes sense, but play it straight? That was a choice I made specifically to support the humor and, in fact, to give the satire a little more punch. And one-note? – I’ve been thinking about this for weeks now and still don’t know what it means or how to fix it. What’s more, I walked away with the idea that I’m not very good and that the writer’s voice I’ve finally found isn’t either. To be successful, I have to write like someone I’m not.

The same agent who’d reviewed my work pointed out that there are many millions of manuscripts written every year, and only a small percentage of those ever get to print with fewer yet making it into bookstores. Not only is this environment competitive, the odds of having a story, no matter how good, make it into print and even on to the shelf at the bookstore are a million to one against.

A rejection letter without context is a kindness. The reality is that if you knew the agent’s full reasons for not requesting more, there’s a very good chance you’d throw your laptop into the ocean and never think about writing again. So, next time you get a rejection and ask “but why?” just assume they didn’t like the concept, and keep going. If you hit the point where there is nobody else to query, maybe write something else or simply self-publish then write something else. The real, honest truth is, on average, becoming published traditionally is simply not going to happen. In a lot of ways, it’s the best and most compelling argument for self-publishing I’ve run across yet.

Anyhow, that’s what I’ve got. I’m headed back into my existential funk and clean the kitchen, which will also be critiqued and found wanting. Cheers.

A year ago I was in a bad place

It’s been a few weeks since my last post, and to be honest, I haven’t been writing much at all lately, this is largely to do with the day job being incredibly busy, but also an experience at the Alaska Writer’s Guild annual conference which put me into a seriously weird place as a writer. I’m still digesting that and giving myself time to think about the writing endgame (read: Publishing etc…) In any case, I’ll blog about that sometime in the future, for now, something else is on my mind.

This morning, as with most mornings, I crawled out of bed and picked up my phone to check Twitter and Facebook. As Facebook sometimes does, I got a notification about memories from previous years. One of those memories was a blog post titled “Can’t I just disappear for a while?” I’ve been thinking about this post a lot lately. Not because I feel that way, because I don’t, but because it was about a year ago. Arguably, I’m as busy right now as I was then. This past weekend was the first weekend that I really took in its entirety since about mid-September. The post from last year was a long and ranty about how I wasn’t having a super-great time. What I remember most about the post was standing in the parking lot at work and staring at the building and wondering what the bloody hell I’d gotten myself into and was it worth it? There was also a keen feeling of self-loathing and failure. At the time, I was doing a lot, but didn’t feel like I was accomplishing anything. In fact, every step forward felt like two steps back. I’m a pretty driven individual, usually, and this wasn’t a good place for me to be.

Not three weeks after that post, I’d gotten a promotion and a shiny new office. I blogged about that too. There was some hope and optimism in it, but in my heart I didn’t actually feel it. When I moved into that big new office, it put me in mind of what I used to do at Fish and Game, and those feelings grounded me, a little. However, by the end of November last year, I had left that job and gone back to the old one.

In looking back at those posts, it feels so far away it may as well have been someone else’s life. In hindsight, leaving that job was one of the smartest things I’ve ever done, but so was taking it.

When I left Fish and Game, I had loads of reasons, I wanted more advancement opportunities, a more stable position, a place where I could get back to programming, and all sorts of other stuff. A lot of that really ended up being true, except for the position stability – turns out that doesn’t really exist for my generation. In any case, by going out to experience a completely new environment where being the new guy meant nobody had time for me was a tremendous growing experience. Of course, that’s a bit harsh, I did get along with folks well enough, and I did get help, when I asked, but a lot of times, especially when it came to the biggest most important parts of the job, it wound around to things like “I don’t know” and “I hope this project fails” or “This project is going to fail”.

I could easily rant all day about the things that made me feel bad or worked against me, or made the job intolerable, but nobody wants to hear that. What I can tell you is that not quite one year on, and I’m back where I started and I feel positive in ways I haven’t since I first started at Fish and Game back in 2004. A lot of that attitude adjustment has to do with the negative experience I had at the other place. I think it just goes to show that sometimes we all need to step back from our current problem or situation and look elsewhere for perspective. Maybe it’s not as bad as we think, or maybe turning your back is the right thing. In any case, it was a good experience for me, even if I really look back on it with a negative attitude.