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Closing Time

(Originally posted Friday, May 25, 2012)

Good grief, is it really the Summer of 2012 already?

When I first launched the Friday Challenge in March of 2005, it was with one idea in mind. After what was then 25 years of being a successful, published, professional writer and two-term member of the SFWA Board of Directors, I was getting a constant stream of email from a tremendous number of people who couldn't seem to find the answer to one very simple question:

How do I become a writer?

Because they couldn't find this answer, these people collectively were wasting a lot of time, money, and energy on self-help books, seminars and workshops, and college-level creative writing programs, all in a desperate search for that tightly held secret -- that magical incantation -- that je ne sais quois that would enable them to make the leap from saying, "I want to write," to being able to say with a straight face, "I am a writer."

In my more cynical moments, of which I have no shortage, I came up with a number of alternative ideas. Perhaps to become a Real Writer you must have a sheet of Magic Paper™ --  parchment made millennia ago in ancient Biblyos from the hide of the Golden Fleece, but still possible to find today if you have enough money and know the right -- 

Nah. On second thought mail fraud prosecutors are a notoriously humorless bunch, and I doubt if any of them have ever seen Dumbo. Okay, next idea. How about if it requires calling together a Dark Triumvirate consisting of one Hugo Winner, one Nebula Winner, and one Philip K. Dick Winner, and kneeling in the center of the Triangle of Power while they lay hands upon you and, invoking the names of past SFWA Grand Masters, repeat the ancient incantations that --

Nah. While this would gag would be fun to do once at a con, I've met too many young women (and more than a few men) who truly believe that becoming a successful writer does involve kneeling before a SFWA Grand Master, or at least a couple of book publishers and a magazine editor or two, and I know far too many industry pros who would be unable to resist the temptation.

After a few more ideas, none of which were any better than the foregoing two, I came up with The Friday Challenge. At heart, everything we have done here together for the past seven years has been based on this one very simple idea. To wit:

To become a writer, you must:

  1. Write something.

  2. Put it out where other people can read it.

  3. Listen to what those other people have to say about that which you have written.

  4. Learn from the feedback you receive.

  5. Apply what you've learned, write something else, and return to step 2.  

Follow this recipe with dedication and you will, in time, become a successful writer.

After decades of participating in writers' workshops and critique groups, though, I've found that the two places where most would-be writers fall down are in steps 3 and 4: listening and learning. This is because, let's admit it: it's damned hard to sit quietly and listen to someone elses' criticism of something you've written.

Our stories are our children. In some cases we've carried them around inside our heads for years. When they do finally come out into the daylight, we want to believe that each and every one of them is an Athena, emerging fully grown, armed and armored, ready to peal to the sky a clarion call that will make Ouranos and Gaia tremble. No one ever likes to hear, "Hey, Athena. Your sandal's untied."

So right from the start, The Friday Challenge was designed to make it easier to learn how to listen and learn. The design points were:
  • We would present it in the form of a challenge because that way, it's not your brain-child being tortured, it's mine, and if the results turn out badly -- well, it was my stupid idea in the first place. Blame me and move on.

  • We would present a new challenge weekly because that furnishes an incentive to move on quickly, and to learn from, apply, and let go of the critiques you receive.

  • We would encourage -- in fact, beg for -- everyone including passive lurkers and readers to participate in the criticism sessions, in order to teach the two simple lessons that seem hardest for aspiring writers to learn:

You can't please everyone all the time.
No one critic is right all the time.

Writing for professional publication is not like writing for your mom to post on the refrigerator door. As a writer, you must develop a thick skin, or at least the ability to fake having one. If you do make it to being professionally published some day, your work will sometimes be criticized unfairly -- sometimes praised unreasonably, which is always more embarrassing -- sometimes damned by people whose opinions you respect and sometimes loved by people you thought you despised.

The hardest thing for a writer to learn is how to take criticism: how to figure out what's valid and what's not; who you should listen to and who you should ignore; how to avoid going into a tailspin over a bad review or becoming irrationally exuberant because of a good one; and when you should shrug off your best friend who loves you but is totally missing the point and listen to and learn from your worst enemy, who also happens to be absolutely right.

This is how you learn to become a writer. This is what defines us as writers. We learn to dig deeply into our hearts, guts, and souls, and pull out some words that seem important. We put those words out there for other people to read, and with luck, get paid for our work once in a while. We suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous critics and ignorant Philistines, and console ourselves by saying they only seethe with bitterness because they wish they could do what we do half as well as we do it. We accept the praise of our fans magnanimously, and then tomorrow, we get up and do it all over again.

And once in a rare while, when the time is just right, and the stars align perfectly, and Serendipity smiles down upon us, we can capture lightning in a bottle, and string together some words that take on a life of their own. Then we write a story that makes Ouranos and Gaia tremble, and puts a noticeable dent in the Zeitgest --

And when that happens: that, my friends, is a feeling like no other.


Seven years ago, this is what I -- we -- set out to accomplish with The Friday Challenge: to help people find the bridge that goes from "I want to write" to "I am a writer." Looking back on it now, I can't help but feel a certain sense of pride. We've done some very cool things, these past seven years. A lot of terrific talent has come through this site, and I have made some wonderful new friends, both online and in the real world. I would be remiss if I did not give special thanks now to Henry Vogel, who has been my unfailing Dotar Sojat and the constant Voice of Reason; M. David Blake (a.k.a., "M"), who stepped in heroically and kept the site running while I was preoccupied by some pretty horrendous family issues; David Yener Goodman (a.k.a., "Vidad"), who designed the site banner and has been our consistent behind-the-scenes source of creative madness; and Kersley Fitzgerald, our ever-thoughtful den mother, who has kept us boys from getting too far out of line.

But this list of credits and acknowledgments is much too short. Thanks also to Arisia, who has been a stalwart from the beginning; Guy Stewart, an old friend made new again by his involvement here; Allan Davis Jr.,  no relation to Sammy; Waterboy, "they also serve who only stand and wait;" the legendary Snowdog, whose name will live on in infamy, but a little later; Leatherwing, XDPaul, KTown, rycamor, Ben-El...  The list goes on and on, and would go on much longer, except that HaloScan got acquired by JS-Kit, which in turn became Echo, which was replaced by DISQUS, and thus seven years of accumulated comments have gone down the drain.

Thanks, everybody, including those who only read and lurk.


"The time has come," the Walrus said, "to speak of other things."

It's been fun, these past seven years, but whatever we set out to accomplish when we launched The Friday Challenge, it's long since been accomplished. I've gotten to know some great people. I've had the chance to watch some talented amateurs become published pros. The Friday Challenge, proper, has become -- well, a challenge to keep going, and most of what it used to do has now moved over to STUPEFYING STORIES. My time is finite, and as STUPEFYING STORIES continues to grow and demand more of my time, something's got to give. Ergo, after a considerable amount of thought and backstage discussion:

This is the final Friday Challenge.

This site will continue to exist. We, the site authors, have at least a few more columns in us, and the Slushpile Survival Guide practically writes itself. Next Wednesday's Ultimate Geek Fu will, of course, review Men in Black 3, assuming one of us can rouse him- or herself out of our deep apathy long enough to go see the thing. But the writing challenges proper end as of today, which does make the site name and URL somewhat problematic. We'll have to reconsider that.

All that lies in the future, though. Right now, I want to lay my virtual hands upon you and offer up this closing benediction.
Don't be content to work the traditional tropes. Don't follow precisely in the footsteps of those who have gone before. Don't set your sights on being merely "good enough" to get published, and don't let "what they're buying now" be your sole guide.

Write a story that makes Ouranos and Gaia tremble! Write a book that makes a difference! Write something that thirty years from now will have schoolchildren and reporters looking you up, to ask, "Mister (or Ms) [your name here], what was it like, to be the author who wrote [your title here]?"

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