How do you know you’ve “made it” as a writer? (Part 1)

Today I won’t talk about awards or bestseller lists. I’m doing deeper.

I’ve been learning from Kris Rusch and Dean Wesley Smith since 2003, when I managed to cut together one week’s vacation and another rotation’s conference week out of my emergency medicine fellowship year to attend their two-week Master Class.

“They broke me down and built me back up again,” said Ilsa Bick, who had won Writers of the Future with me.

“I’m coming back to ICU. I don’t have time to get broken down and built back down again,” I replied. I also lived in Montreal, three time zones away from Kris and Dean in Oregon. So although they explained that a big part of learning was staying up late and talking, I’d already spent something like six hours in class per day, plus the writing exercises and technical assignments, including writing a 10,000-word story and two stories that were minimum 3000 words each (up to 8000 words, I think, but I never hit the upper limit). The second class ended at 10 p.m. their time, or 1 a.m. my time. The group would chat and learn from each other while I’d wave and hit the bed immediately.

Look how happy we are! I can’t even keep my eyes open!

I kept coming back to Oregon, and then Las Vegas when they moved. I kept learning. For example, at the first class, Kris told me flat out for a pre-printed story, “Your font is too small. I don’t care if it’s 12-point. An editor’s livelihood is her eyes. I could not read this story.” (Everything is paraphrased because it took place so long ago.)

We bought Kris a bell to summon us

Weird Tales had told me the same thing and asked me to use a 12-point font. But since it was already 12-point Times New Roman, I had continued to send out stories in the same font, destroying editors’ eyes.

And ensuring the rejection of my stories.

That was only a font issue. I endured two weeks of other writers tearing apart my words, or not reading my story past the second page.

Kris explained at the end of the Master Class, in her one-on-one session with me, that I was extremely different from other writers. “Publishing will have to create a new category for you. You’re not supposed to compare to other writers, but Robert Jeshonek is someone that, if they ask for a story about a spaceship mission, he’ll write from the point of view of the spaceship. You’re not like that. You’re extremely direct, to the point where it almost makes people uncomfortable. But you need to develop your toolbox. Read Jeffrey Deaver’s short stories.”

Kris and Dean talk about character, setting, plot, emotion, punctuation, etc. as tools in your writing toolbox. So I read Deaver’s short stories, as well as my fellow writers’ work, and was amazed at how theirs had improved. In fact, I burst into tears after one workshop at 3 a.m. PT (6 a.m. ET) because they had written so well that I felt inadequate, and the lovely and talented fellow WOTF winner Leslie Claire Walker had to talk me down and assure me that I, too, had levelled up. (Leslie also never shared a room with me after that, which I choose to think of as coincidence. I also do love the book that emerged from that conference, Dancing Through the Chaos)

Leslie Claire Walker in Oregon, before we knew that you can’t sit on Oregon Coast logs in case you get swept out to sea (no joke).

Kris mentioned that she’d looked up from one of my early stories and said, “She’s brilliant.”

“I don’t understand her,” Dean said.

Nevertheless, I contributed to the fruit basket Dean is admiring 🙂

Kris instructed me that my level of detail was either way too vague or way too detailed. “People are confused.” I spent years fine-tuning that skill.

More pearls of wisdom from Kris and Dean:

Have fun. Go play.

You are responsible for your own career.

Me: Everyone else here wants to quit their day job. I’m not even finished becoming a doctor, and I don’t know if I’ll ever quit. I worked too hard to become a doctor.

Kris: [smile] That’s a good thing to know. Good for you.

I kind of stared at her, waiting for her to order me to fall in line with everyone else, but she continued to smile without adding anything.

Permission granted to continue my own path instead of following anyone else’s.

Lisa Silverthorne (middle) treated me and Leslie to breakfast. So kind of her.

Dean: Kris won the Hugo … and then the Hugo again … so much success with the Smokey Dalton series …

Me, afterward: Does this mean you’ve done everything you ever wanted in writing?

Kris: Not even close.

Me: I get that. So you’re going to concentrate on the Smokey Dalton series now?

Kris: No! I need my sweet romances after I write Smokey.

Cool. More mountains to climb for all of us.

And permission to write multiple genres, when everyone else told me to choose one or I’d never succeed in publishing.

I e-mailed Kris I couldn’t write fiction after we lost our first pregnancy at 20 weeks. I thought she’d yell at me to be more efficient.

She said something to the effect of, I’m surprised you’re writing at all. You need to grieve. Don’t force it.

Wow. Permission to grieve. How about that? I worked hard to experience what was happening without trying to control it.

Eventually, I wrote again. Kris said that my writing had come back stronger and more heartfelt than ever. But first, and periodically, I waded through sorrow and anger and self-recrimination. I eventually wrote Your Baby Is Safe and Buddhish. It helped me understand my fellow humans with empathy. But as one woman told Sylvia Boorstein in It’s Easier Than You Think, “Cancer has made me a better person. But I would rather not have cancer.”

Max, my dad, and my mom

When I finally had a healthy baby named Max, I cut back on my writing and assumed Kris would fault me for it.

Kris: You will never get this time back. I love my nephew. He’s a wonderful young man. But I still miss that little boy.

I miss baby and toddler Max and Anastasia now too. As they were growing up, I tried to write enough to keep me sane, while spending time watching baby TV (staring at them), nursing them, and introducing them to the world.

I still remember visibly startling baby Anastasia by opening the cabinet door to reveal stuff behind it, including our rice container. And then the whoosh of rice as I poured it into the rice cooker. Her entire tiny body wavered in the air as she processed the wonder of the world.

The next time I made rice, she didn’t react. Old hat already.

Pema Chodrön pointed out, Babies are impermanence.

Much of this is not the actual mechanics of writing. Kris was instrumental in helping me fine-tune my left of detail, how to let information flow, how to integrate and even enjoy writing setting. Yet what I remember most is how to live, not how to write.

I also knew that Dean didn’t “get” my writing even before Kris told me, which didn’t bother me too much. You can’t write for everyone. Write for yourself. Write for your tribe.

Still, I was touched when Dean invited me to the Past Crimes Storybundle and called me a “rising star.”

Another sign that, even if I haven’t “made it,” at least I’m climbing the ladder.

The New York Times featured me in their business section, a spot I earned in part by my writing. They asked for financial stories, and I answered, knowing that the way I express myself would probably catch their attention, in addition to them likely wanting more diverse testimony. My financial approach is outlined in my three webinars. The first is an overview, the second explains exactly how to move to low cost exchange-traded funds, and the third describes FIRE, or financial independence and retiring early. You can buy all three at once. I’m not a licensed financial advisor, but we are financially independent, which means we walk the walk.

These accomplishments aren’t money. They’re not rankings. But when The Most Unfeeling Doctor in the World first hit the bestseller list, money didn’t make me happy. It made me anxious, wondering if it would continue. I can make money faster and more reliably through medicine if I want. I decided instead then and there that my goal was to have writing to connect me to “people, places, and things that excite me.”

Elizabeth Gilbert promised her writing that she would always take care of it. She didn’t mind working other jobs so her creativity could relax. “But to yell at your creativity, saying, “You must earn money for me!” is sort of like yelling at a cat; it has no idea what you’re talking about, and all you’re doing is scaring it away, because you’re making really loud noises and your face looks weird when you do that,” she wrote in Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear.

Of course I want to reach more readers, which means making more money. But I also want to relax and enjoy my summer and see my children.

So please pick up the Past Crimes Storybundle if it pleases you to read excellent books at a price you set, and you want to support both authors and a worthwhile charity.

And keep reading and writing!

Femme Fatale

Are you a femme fatale?

Would you date one?

Could you outwit one?

Will you die from one?

When I think of a femme fatale, I think of an alluring yet dangerous female. Like a black widow spider, only sexier.

I read an anthology of the century’s best mystery stories, and I was struck by the portrayal of women. Most of the stories had been written by men, and an awful lot of the protagonists were males drawn to that mysterious woman who might be the death of them, but they kept walking toward her anyway.

When O’Neil de Noux, a Shamus award-winning writer, invited me to participate in a Storybundle of femme fatales, I felt like the antithesis of a femme fatale. First of all, as a doctor, my job is to heal, not kill. And because I spend so much energy on studying and working, I end up wearing scrubs (“Yay! I get to wear pyjamas to work!” said my friend and fellow ER doctor, Mai-Anh). I usually wear zero makeup. This is not universal—one of my French female colleagues reapplies her lipstick at 3 a.m. on a night shift—but let’s face it, most of the French are much more femme than I am.

Of course, I could react to the sexlessness of medicine by dolling myself up in my off hours and in my fiction, but I don’t. My brain just doesn’t work that way.

O’Neil helpfully sent me two definitions of a femme fatale.

An attractive and seductive woman, especially one who will ultimately bring disaster to a man who becomes involved with her. -Oxford Dictionary

A beautiful, seductive, and usually evil female character in drama and literature. She is usually shown as a cruel, man-eating seductress. Men fall victim to her beauty and are eventually brought to ruin by her. -Urban Dictionary

O’Neil added, “If she’s a ‘kick ass’ woman going around shooting people, it doesn’t fit.”

Luckily, my characters and I don’t go around shooting people. See “healer,” above.

In the end, O’Neil put together a wonderful group of books, including mine, Terminally Ill.

Here’s the deal with Storybundle. It’s time-limited: you can only buy it for the next 19 days.

If you pay at least five dollars, you get 4 books.

If you give at least $15, you’ll get all 10 books! You can choose to give a donation to the charities Mighty Writers and Girls Write Now. It’s an awesome way to grab a bunch of award-winning writers.

I was amused to see that of the four books in the main Storybundle, two of them refer to doctors and medicine in their opening. Check this out:

ToxiCity

by Libby Fischer Hellmann

1998

Prologue

It wasn’t supposed to be this easy, watching life seep out of a body. Knowing you were the cause of it. Standing in the motel room, fingers against the carotid, feeling the pulse dwindle to a weak, irregular tremor. Smiling, as his skin became translucent, a bluish tinge to his lips. Not so hard, now, to understand that doctor who helped people die. And sometimes stuck around to watch. Hadn’t someone said at the moment of death, he’d shout at his patients, imploring them to tell him what it was like?

Bubba Goes for Broke

by David H. Hendrickson

Today he’d prove them all wrong. He wasn’t, as The Boss had said on more than one occasion, “the second or third dumbest fuck in the universe.” Bubba Winslow didn’t think he was even in the top twenty.

Redneck Riviera Box Set

by Julie Smith

They popped him in Alabama that last time, and the first thing Forest did when he got out— after he got drunk and laid— was call his buddy Roy. Roy was out in East Jesus, Florida this time— Forest didn’t quite know where, but it didn’t make much of a damn. It was somewhere to go.

Roy was so tickled to hear from him, he hollered at the phone like it was Forest himself. “Hey, ol’ buddy. Get your ass on over here. Where the hell are you, anyhow?”

“It’s where I ain’t that I’m callin’ about. I ain’t in jail in Alabama.”

“Hey, congratulations, ol’. buddy. Where in Alabama ain’t you.in jail?”

Bad Boy Boogie

by Thomas Pluck

She said to meet him in a train station lot. Jay drove there and waited, listening to an AC/DC mix tape Tony had left in the Challenger until a blue Aston Martin DB9 pulled nose to nose with him.

Ramona grinned above the wheel from behind black shades.

On the highway, she winced at the red marks on his nose and cheek. “If I wanted to help you, I should’ve gone to med school.” She weaved through traffic and drafted behind a box truck, the spy-car’s nose to the bumper.

“Way you drive, it’s good you’re a lawyer,” Jay said. “Maybe you can teach me sometime.”

Ramona wore navy slacks and lipstick that gave her the prim air of a strict schoolteacher. “I trained on the Nürburgring,” she said. “Driving here’s easy. Just expect everyone to behave like a complete jerk or a total idiot.”

And the bonus books

Candy

by Lawrence Block <–Grand Master. Winner of the Edgar, Shamus, and Anthony Awards.

The Perfect Man

by Kristine Kathryn Rusch <–New York Times bestseller. Edgar nominated. Shamus nominated.

Hit Somebody

by Steve Liskow <–two-time winner of the Black Orchid novella award. Stories in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine and Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine. Has published thirteen novels.

Terminally Ill

by Melissa Yi <–I hope you know who I am. Derringer Award finalist. Writer of the Future. Recommended by CBC Books and The Next Chapter. Recognized nationally on CBC’s The Current.

Death Takes a Partner

by Dean Wesley Smith <–USA Today bestseller. Has published over 100 novels. (Stand aside, Steve.)

Bourbon Street

by O’Neil De Noux <–winner of the Best Police Book of the Year. The Derringer Award. The Shamus Award. The United Kingdom Short Story Prize.

So I hope some of you pick up the femme fatale Storybundle.

 

As for the questions above, my answers are

Are you a femme fatale? No. Although I could play one on TV, or for Hallowe’en.

Would you date one? If I were single, I’d be open-minded. This is not my usual type, though. I’m not into games, and I hadn’t dated any females before I got married.

Could you outwit one? I think so. Depends how devious she is.

Will you die from one? Hope not. I bet it would be painful.

I’d love to hear your answers, too!

Fantasy time: Fairy Tales Are for White People, By the Light of the Kumquat Tree, Can-Con, and other cool beasts

And now for something completely different. Some of you may know that my first published stories were fantasy and science fiction, for two practical reasons: 1. Speculative fiction pays better than copies-only literary magazines, and 2. I really wanted to escape school through my imagination. Especially once I was a red-eyed resident ploughing through family and emergency medicine.

Now, medicine (and, to a much lesser extent, medical and mystery writings) pay a good chunk of the bills. But I still nurture a love for mind-blowing fantasy and made-you-think-and-feel science fiction.

Fairy taleS are for white people Galen Dara correct

When I attended Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s fantasy workshop, she asked for–nay, demanded–that we write a story based on food. She didn’t care what kind of fantasy story it was, but she had to be able to see, smell, and taste the food. My mind leapfrogged to Jacques Wong and Ho Ho BBQ, whom I’d first met in Gourmet Magazine through this wonderful article by Francis Lam.

Let’s face it. When rich people are throwing down hundreds of dollars on restaurant meals, they’re not usually driving out to Scarborough’s strip malls and seeking out the cheap Chinese joints.

We stumbled upon Ho Ho BBQ in real life, after visiting my grandmother. Jacques gave my son some free pork skin and beamed while Max ate it. You could not get better food or more heart at any three star Michelin restaurant.

So first I wrote the title, “Fairy Tales Are for White People.” Then I started writing about a fairy godfather.

Climbing up the basement stairs with a duck carcass, holding the slippery neck far enough away from his body so that his knees didn’t clank into the dangling legs, Trenton Lo caught his first glimpse of the fairy godfather.

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Fireside Magazine immediately accepted “Fairy Tales Are for White People,” and Galen Dara made the best art. Gorgeous and capturing the spirit of family and beauty and perseverance. I adore it. Read it here and enjoy the full art! Feel free to support Fireside Magazine, which makes a point of paying both writers and artists properly and promptly.

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Everyone loved “Fairy Tales Are for White People.” I’m not trying to brag; it’s just something that happens once in a while. A story falls down from the sky, almost fully-formed, and it’s a story that immediately resonates with readers of different ages and backgrounds.

It’s also available as a standalone complete story here, on all platforms. I’ve added an author’s essay about the genesis of the story, the workshop with Kris, the yumminess of Ho Ho BBQ in real life.

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The last one is rated R, but I do love it.

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Next, I went to LA for the Roswell Awards this year again, as I mentioned here. (And by the way, Rico is committed to Humans ‘n’ Hot Dogs, but he booked a film in August, so he didn’t have a chance to record it yet, but he will! Our crowdfunding campaign is still alive!)

My new writer/ER doctor friend, John Burley, flew down to meet me. He thought I was nuts for staying at an airbnb, but look at the back yard I shared. We sat and talked and he pulled kumquats off the tree. I don’t know if I’ve ever tried kumquats before, let alone eaten them straight from the tree, rind and all. The first time, I made a hideous face, but I guess it’s like shots, you get used to them.

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Enchanted Conversations was taking submissions for their Midsummer issue. I decided to weave a small, poetic tale based on this setting, and BOOM! They published “By the Light of the Kumquat Tree” here. Make sure you read the other luminaries as well. I always wanted to get published in this fairy tale magazine, so yay!

Finally, I’m heading off to Can-Con this weekend. I’m on two panels.

  1. Rewriting Fairy Tales, with Dominik Parisien, Fanny Darling, Charles de Lint, K.V. Johansen, Kelsi Morris, Melissa Yuan-Innes. Look at me, with Charles de Lint! Woo hoo! I’m sure I’ll adore the other panelists as well.
  2. SARS, Ebola and Zika, the last Decade of Outbreaks, with Agnes Cadieux, Dr. Dylan Blaquiere, Dr. Anatoly Belilovski, Dr. Melissa Yuan-Innes, Dr. Alison Sinclair, Pippa Wysong (m). It’s 50 percent doctors and 50 percent non-doctors! Party on!

Oh, and thanks for all the comments on the Italian School for Assassins cover. Behold, the final version. It’s also available for sale on all e-book platforms here! (The print version will come in 2017.)

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