Keep Swinging the Axe

First things first: it bugs me to no end that often times spellcheck will give the little red squiggle to “axe” if you spell it with an ‘e’ at the end, but “ax” is perfectly fine even though “axe” is already perfectly fine.

Whatever.

That was stupid.

What’s up everybody?

I’m not sure what reminded me the other day of the following story, but I’m glad whatever it was did. Back in 2016 was when I tried submitting my first-ever piece of fiction to an outlet. I didn’t know how to format it, hadn’t really tried writing like that ever before, never tried researching a market before, or had any practice addressing editors – I just went for it. You know who the outlet was?

Tor.

For the uninitiated – they’re big; at the very least much, much, much, MUCH bigger than a kid trying his first EVER tale had right to reach for. But they were cool, polite, and cordial when they dutifully rejected the piece I rushed to compile for their submission window.

But I thought that was how you did it. I thought you went for the big fish. Adjusting my approach (still incorrectly), I then thought it was about thoroughly researching a market, tooling a piece of fiction tailored to them specifically, and spending months finely polishing it for them before perfectly and carefully crafting the impeccable cover letter to whet their appetite for the fruits of your labor; like a sniper lining up for a half-mile bullseye: check the wind, curvature, your breathing, your trigger discipline, time it between beats of your heart.

Turns out, a better approach is a lot more like laying down on the trigger of an uzi. Spray and pray, til you’re empty, reload, rinse, repeat. Tenaciously.

There’s a publisher called DreamForge that’s pretty great, and on their site they have an essay that attempts to outline why a story submitted to them might be rejected. And the answer in a nutshell is thus: any of a million reasons.

It could be that they find it poorly written; could be too many typos; could be they didn’t understand it; could be they didn’t care for the expression of the stated genre; could be they find it doesn’t fit their project’s theme tightly enough; could be word count conflicts with their budget; or it could be that it’s well written, but the editor wasn’t quite in the mood the day they read yours; or they love your story about kickass ninja vampires fighting ogre assassins on the moon, but they just happened to read and accept another story in their stack about kickass ninja vampires fighting ogre assassins on the moon right before finding yours.

The point is that it’s sort of a lottery, if you’re an independent writer starting out. Making sure your work is well-written, cleanly done, strong in concept, and appropriate for the market you’re submitting it to are all the right ways to increase your chances, but in the end you’re still competing with an unknown amount of other writers, of unknown quality, against unknown standards and tastes – a gamble.

Captain Picard said it best:

It is possible to commit no errors and still lose ... " ~ Captain ...

This tortuously long preamble brings us to a few summers ago in 2018. I was working in an optics lab at the time, preparing to leave that job for a writing sabbatical. I was feeling burnt out, tired of my day-to-day, and wanted to embrace the daydreams I kept cooking up. The budget I wrote up figured I had about a year to do that before reality would come calling. (Reality would catch up way quicker than that, and I’d find myself caring for my ailing mother two weeks after leaving my job – but we’ve talked about that life-asteroid to death already.)

About a month before leaving my job, Mandy and I were at a friend’s birthday party. Also present was a young woman we’ll call Delilah. Before I say anything moving forward, I want it clearer than crystal that I’ve nothing but fondness, respect, and best wishes for her, for reasons we’ll lay out here and in great part for the lesson my encounters with her taught me.

Turned out, Delilah was also going into writing freelance at about the same time, or had started about a month or so before. She talked about how (I believe I’m getting this right) she was a housewife at the time, and wanted to pursue it while she had the time. She went to an event or workshop of some sort down in San Francisco, delivered a stand-up set she’d prepared, met an editor, and snagged a gig for a that outlet.

On the one hand, easy-peasy; two weeks into freelance writing and you’ve bagged a job and a contact. On the other, it takes guts and no lack of panache to do what she did.

So she shares this with us and while the group dissolves a little into its various chat circles, I overhear Mandy and Delilah talking. Mandy’s sharing that I had an intent to pursue something similar, and Delilah’s asking questions. I’d wandered away, but was told later than Delilah’s response was more or less: “Oh…that’s his plan? I wouldn’t, if I were him.”

Even though it was just birthday party hearsay, probably said off-hand, it was a little dismissive remark that stuck with me. It bit me with this sort of stinking moral superiority that would gnaw at me for months later. The first five months of my sabbatical were literally nothing but hardship and rejection; and every time, I would think of Delilah’s quick-won success and her “I wouldn’t if I were him,” remark.

And every time, I would close my eyes, tell myself to shut up, and get back to it. I didn’t have a network, hadn’t made contacts, was learning through trial and error, had a lot outside of writing work on my plate, but dammit I would make it work out.

Then, luck struck, and I had my first story picked up. Shortly thereafter, lightning struck twice and I had a second acceptance, which came with being an interview on the podcast where the story aired (as well as a follow-up appearance later to talk movies). And since, I have had three more fiction sales, some traction in fiction contests, and been fortunate enough to work for a few local papers and magazines. It’s been hard-won, organic, independent, and with large amounts of tenacity and dumb luck.

A year after that party, the birthday boy had another (as is usually the case with birthdays), and we bumped into Delilah again. We caught up around a little campfire circle and naturally were each asked about how well writing was going. Delilah recounted how it was going well, but [paraphrasing] “her editor had relocated to a different outlet and gone radio silent, so that was dead now and a bummer; and while she was going to produce a podcast with a partner, said partner was being a c*** and so hadn’t come to fruition yet.”

When the question came to me, the host of the party (birthday boy’s wife) did me one of the greatest compliments/blessings I’ve received in my life.

“And you were going to be a writer too, right?” came Delilah’s question. And the host interjected with, “He’s been published, in fact,” then motioned for me to explain.

Doing me that honor, saving me that modesty, and acknowledging that achievement all in one swoop has been, to date, one of the deftest moves in etiquette I’ve witnessed in person; and I was thrilled to be its subject.

I did my best to continue that modesty through my explanation, but I’m sure some pride leaked through. I give myself a pass, though, because the truth is I was proud of it, and especially in that moment I felt vindicated. The slow, steady, organic grind of failed attempt after failed attempt after failed attempt finally becoming a small success triumphing over – at least as was the way my mind viewed it – over the model of quick but fleeting satisfaction…felt great.

But in that was also a lesson. And the markets and guidelines I’ve seen all point to an average acceptance rate of somewhere in the neighborhood of 2-3%; but usually it can be more like 1%. That means, if you do everything right, you can hope for or expect one success for every one hundred attempts.

So, try one hundred times. And after that, try a hundred more. So on and so forth until you can begin to count your successes. And be okay with them being small, they’ll get bigger.

At least, this is what I tell myself. But I will say that the math checks out.

My plan was to join the California Writers’ Club after my third independent fiction sale, and while I still plan on it because I’m eager to see what opportunities that might afford, the struggle of the independent author has been one I’ve come to enjoy the fruits of.

Ah, I just remembered what kicked this all off, actually. The other day, I was looking on my body of work (which feels hilarious to say, given how tiny it is) and feeling unsatisfied where I used to feel proud. And so mentally running back through the journey of the past couple of years was a good chance to review, take stock, and realize the accomplishment it is; especially as any beginning writer would likely agree, five months is actually a startlingly turnaround for one’s first printing. So I recognize the element of luck in this experience.

In the end, the message doesn’t really change. Help or not, friends or not, network or not: keep swinging the axe, keep trying.

Hasta.

Jake, the Road Trip Guy: Symbol of an Odyssey

I’m 99.8% confident we haven’t gone over this one before, which is good. And this time, I’ll note off the bat that I’m doing the same name thing as last time. I have no idea if the guy I’m about to talk about was actually named Jake; but he looked like a Jake and did some Jake-shit. So if you’re a Jake that’s offended at being misrepresented, take it up with Jake, the Road Trip Guy. I’m just the messenger here.

A few years ago, I took a trip to the Grand Canyon. It was something I’d been “planning on doing” for years but never pulled the trigger on actually doing. Finally, after enough pressure from Mandy to actually pony up, we made it happen. Loaded up the car with WAY more supplies than we needed, and started the drive at 5:00 in the morning.

Thus began the adventure, thus began the troubles.

The day of driving was actually incredibly smooth. The problem came when the sun was setting on the town of Kingman, Arizona. For context, I drive a 2003 Chrysler Sebring (and I named her Phoebe). She ain’t a powerhouse. No indomitable work horse. Not a racing star. But dammit, she’s been reliable. We drove for 15 straight hours, averaging about 85 mph through state highway and open desert in 100 degree+ July summer heat, loaded down with two adult asses and way too many camping supplies. So when we pulled into the Travelodge and I rolled down my window to hear a crunching, grinding sound, there was some concern.

“Is that your car?” Mandy said.

I looked around at the numerous cargo trucks driving and idling near us, saw the low-flying plane overhead, and replied, “No. Don’t think so. Can’t be. There’s a lot of noise here. It’s probably that.” But after checking in and parking somewhere quieter, I changed my tune: “Nope. Yup. It’s definitely my car.”

The awesome part? I had just that morning written “Grand Canyon or Bust” in the dirt of my rear windshield. But, as I told myself, it was all part of the adventure. It was tomorrow’s problem to be solved in the morning.

Waking up with the sun, I google nearby auto-shops and am fortunate enough to find one just down the road. So we check out, croak and grind our way down the road, and pull in. I put on my best helpless Californian young man charm (which is a delicate line; you either appear like the adorable, handsome puppy you’re going for, or come off like a witless douchebag). By a combination of, I’m assuming, my efforts working along with their natural good-heartedness, they fit me in.

I’m told that, depending on the problem, it can either be $1,200 and they’ll need my car for about three days, or it might be a $200 patch job and I’ll have it back in three hours. Thanks being to Odin, Vishnu, Yahweh, and whoever else, but it was the latter, and we were back on the road in a matter of hours. The one caveat: no more air conditioner. It was a bypass sort of fix, which mean the air compressor and drier was toast, but the car would run. I told him that it didn’t fuckin’ matter because he saved my trip and that we’d be fine.

As it would turn out later, spoke a little too soon on that last part.

We hit the road again in high spirits at having overcome the obstacle with the power of good fortune and were on route to making it to Mather Campground by around 4:30.

That was when I discovered how deliciously freaky the whether in Arizona can be during the summer.

Having no AC was pretty rough, but at the time I was pretty thin and had an affinity for the heat, so it was bearable. That said, when we crested one of the desert hills to see thick storm clouds in the distance, we didn’t take a second to question it and zoomed ahead for the shade they offered. To this day, that remains one of the most refreshing sensations I can call to mind. The rush of cool air, the smell of fresh rain on desert sand, the relief of shade from the clouds.

Just…dude.

I held my hand out the window to feel the cool wind, and it was like running my skin under silk. Then, I felt a little rain drop. Mandy and I looked at one another, giggling about the mana from heaven. One more drop, and then another hit my windshield…

Moments later, and I shit you not even one little bit, moments later – I couldn’t see. The rain appeared so suddenly and in such dense sheets, I was driving utterly blind. The only reference I had to go on were the reflectors in the middle of the road, but even those were scattered and obscured. Every few moments, water that had flooded any little dip in the road’s curve was slamming my wheels and threatening to wrench us off into the unknown.

I was so intensely focused on maintaining control of the vehicle, I did what I could to run a list of options. I started a mental countdown to when I would pull over, put on my hazard lights, and pray we weren’t hit from behind by an equally blind driver.

5…

4…

3…

2…

Right when I got to “1…”, just as quickly as it appear, the rain completely vanished. The air was utterly clear, out of nowhere. I’d been warned about how spontaneous and strange the weather could be, but experiencing it first hand was…just a real trip. We made it the rest of the way to the town outside the Grand Canyon, which played host to the national park, in actual safety.

I should mention here that although I had bought an overabundance of supplies – physical things one might need when hiking and camping the Grand Canyon – I didn’t actually plan anything. I didn’t make an itinerary, I hadn’t picked a camp ground until that afternoon, hadn’t made a reservation of any kind, nothing.

So when we showed up to the front gate and saw the big sandwich board sign reading, “No Vacancy”, it threw a wrench in things.

Or did it…?

This was where my power of undying, stupid optimism came into play. I saw the sign telling us to go away because all hope here was lost and figured, “What the hey? The worst case is that we’re in the same boat we’re in now.” So we drive up to the gate.

The ranger leans out of his post, smiles, and points out our lack of placard/park pass. I smile back, tell him I totally don’t have one, explain our situation, and said, “Now, in our shoes, what would you do? Like, is there a reason we can’t go in to look around?” And he explains that he would probably go in, drive around, and see what we can scrounge up as there’s no harm in trying. We trade high-five’s and I go in to explore the campgrounds.

Zone after zone, more signs all reading in big red block letters: No Vacancy.

“S’all good,” I figure, and we keep plugging ahead. Finally, we come to another ranger post to another campground with yet another sign reading: No Vacancy.

Well’p, it’s worked so far.

I park off to the side, and approach with the ranger giving me a bit of a quizzical look as she eyes the sandwich she knows has told me to go away. “Hi,” I say a bit sheepishly. “So, I see the sign, and totally get that things are booked up, buuuuuut I’m holding out hope.” Even as I’m saying this, she’s nodding and reaching for a(n already familiar at this point) map of the area. She makes marks and points out other areas we could try instead. I smile, take the map, nod, and head back to the car.

Now, we face the decision to race to other destinations and explore other hopefully available options, but something in my gut told me to hang on. So I stood there, making sure to be in plain view of the ranger’s post, while I pulled out my notebook and made a list of options – the first bit of any real planning I’d done or would do for the rest of the trip. And it was more of a flow chart, “We’ll try this, and if that doesn’t work, try what? These, and if these don’t work, then what? Go here. And if that doesn’t work, go here,” so on and so forth.

Then, the most wonderfully serendipitous thing in my life to date happened.

It’s 4:55. The ranger station closes at 5:00. And I hear from off to the side, “Ahem. ‘Scuse me. Sir?” I look over and see the ranger smiling and waving me over. “You still wanted to camp here, right?”And y’all, I DANCE my way back to her post, nodding, smiling, and all the rest of it.

Apparently, there at that moment, about five minutes before the gates closed on us…someone cancelled their reservation. The best part (and the weirdest), was the type of thing that if you wrote it in a story, you’d be called a hack: the people that cancelled their reservation, there, five minutes before the chapter closed on us, right before hope wasn’t an option anymore, had reserved the EXACT bracket of days we wanted to be there.

Hope…hope is a weird thing. Especially being an optimist, it forces you to dance the shadowy line between being persevering and being heinously stupid and delusional. But this, moments like this where the impossible, least likely thing works out, is why we do it.

Because of the nature of it, the ranger could get us in for one night, whereupon we’d have to try to re-reserve the space in the morning. So we made our way to our camp spot, set up the tent, and lived it the fuck up. Utterly in the moment. Tomorrow wasn’t guaranteed, so we did all the camping shenanigans in one night: s’mores, drank too much, got a big-ass fire going, did firespitting, BBQ’d, everything.

Morning came, we made a grand ol’ breakfast, wondering where the day would take us, not knowing where we might lay our heads that night. We packed up came, and drove out to the front gate, content with the uncertainty….whereupon we got there first, totally reserved the spot for ourselves the rest of the week, went back, unpacked everything we just bloody packed, and settled in for a week of camping at the Grand Canyon.

Now, a LOT of stuff happened that week, and it’s already been – like the trip itself – a long road to get here. To the point. To the main meat of the the trip and this tale.

It’s time we met Jake, the Road Trip Guy.

So the Big Hike of the week was that next day, where we took on the Bright Angel Trail. Just like the rest of the trip to date, I hadn’t done any worthwhile planning – just operated on a whim and improvised where necessary. So, why change up what had been working?

We would later see plenty of signs all saying distinctly not to hike between the peak hours of 11:00am and 4:00pm, which I still think is a little dumb; because when the hell else are you supposed to go? But whatever. Nevermind. The point is that you can safely bet your shapely buttocks that we began our hike into the canyon RIGHT at 11:00am.

And you know what? It was BEEEEAAAAUUUUTIFUUUUUL!

We saw all manner of strangely colorful bugs, terrific people, watched a line of mules climb on by us (their pee is gross, take it on faith), and got to take in the majesty of the canyon.

That said, it was also grueling. Peak heat in the shadows was about 130* Fahrenheit, and while there was a rest stop every mile and a half where one could get water, our bottles or canteens were reliably dry by the time we made it to each one. (That said, never urinated once, and never noticed any sweat. That’s how much you sweat and how quickly it evaporates. Y’all. It was the surface of the Sun.)

Along with these rest stops were NO SHORTAGE of signs ALL saying: “DO NOT try to make it down to the Colorado River (the bottom) AND BACK in the same day. You WILL die.”

Queue: Jake, the Road Trip Guy.

We made it about 2/3 of the way to the bottom (just about the maximum safe distance for a 1-day hike), and turned back for the ascent – which was about 100x more painful than going down. Who’da figured? It was during this climb back up that we meet Jake – being attended to by park rangers and kindly hikers – and hear his story.

Jake was from Seattle, apparently, and was on a one-man road trip of the American Southwest. He’d been to Bryce Canyon, Monument Valley, and Zion, and he was finishing up his expedition with the Grand Canyon itself. In truth, I’d long loved the idea of doing exactly that, so I was totally on Team Jake. I was ALSO on Team Jake, because he made my lack of preparation look like a fully stocked Bat Cave complete with a top-of-the-line Alfred.

As the story goes, since he was only going to be in the Canyon for so long, he was determined to make it – yes, exactly – down to the bottom to the Colorado River and back up in the same day. Were that the extent of it, stupid, but no harm-no foul. He was a solo hiker (something you’re not advised to do) from a city along a cool coastline at sea level coming to perform an arduous hike at elevation, for one. His equipment for the endeavor? Basketball shorts, shoes, and a single heavy glass growler for water.

His reasons? He didn’t bring food because he wanted to “lean out,” and he thought the growler was cool and would be enough – which it, decidedly, was not.

The reason he’s (probably) still alive today and didn’t die then and there in that canyon: another hiker that spotted him and his hilariously shitty gear and said, “Uuuuum….what’cha doin’?”

That said, I’ll end it with this: I admire Jake, the Road Trip Guy. He embodied the spirit of adventure that pervaded my own journey those several days. When I got back home, I had to attend a wake some weeks later, and when sharing the story with family members for sake of small talk, I told my Uncle Forrest: “You know, it was great. We made it through that trip on a combined 10% wit, cleverness, charm, and calculation, and the remaining 90% was all total dumb luck.”

I’ll remember his answer until the day I die.

“You know,” he said, “you might be surprised to find out that those are actually the same proportions for getting through life.”