Float Like a Butterfly, Write Like a Bee

Supposedly there’s an old saying that the bumblebee, an aerodynamic impossibility, doesn’t know it can’t fly, so it goes ahead and flies. (Which is not unlike the physics of Saturday morning cartoons, in which as long as you don’t know you’re standing on thin air, you don’t fall.)

To be a writer requires, I believe, a certain amount of forgetting that you can’t do stuff. You have to blot from your mind the awareness of all those zillions of people who are writing out there, competing for the same limited space in magazines’ inventories and in publishers’ project schedules. You have to forget that they’ve all read more than you, have better ideas, are more eloquent, and are way smarter than you. (Okay, okay, I’m speaking for myself–sorry!)

Another old saying asserts that God looks out for children and fools. That’s comforting–I fit quite snugly into that category. You do, too, if you’re determined to write–fool!

But seriously, there are times when ignorance pays off. Let me tell you how Dragonfly got published. Just about everything that I might have done wrong when submitting it, I did. First, I should say that Arkham House was about the 12th or 15th place I sent it to. I no longer remember the exact figure, but it was more than ten, less than twenty. I’d been getting some pretty good rejections, as rejections go–personal scrawls from editors saying, in so many words, “Almost.”

Well, when I’d written down a long list of places to try from the pages of Literary Marketplace in the library, Arkham House was near the top of the list, because it began with “A,” but I didn’t send the book there until I’d tried at just about every other place I’d written down. Why? Because I didn’t think it stood much of a chance there. I knew Arkham House as the venerable and legendary publisher that had brought the works of H.P. Lovecraft to the world in book form. What would they want with my novel?

Finally, nearing the end of my list, I tried sending the book to Arkham House. If I’d done just a bit of homework, I never would have done that. After I’d sent them the package, I started reading up on them (brilliant methodology, eh?), and I found out that, 1.) they generally considered only agented manuscripts [I had no agent]; 2.) they typically didn’t publish novels, but rather collections of stories; and 3.) they were not the place for unknown writers to try, since they published works by the old masters of the genre.

But somehow, when editor Mr. Peter Ruber fished Dragonfly out of his slush pile, he liked it enough to go to bat for it, to persuade the other decision-makers that the book was worth doing all sorts of things they didn’t normally do. (I met the internationally-acclaimed critic and Lovecraft scholar Mr. S.T. Joshi at the last World Fantasy Convention, and he remembered me as the guy who sent the unagented novel manuscript to Arkham House over the transom.) Interestingly, when theĀ “we’re-seriously-considering-it” letter came to my U.S. address, my mom glanced at the return address and supposed that “Peter Ruber” was one of my college friends–so she waited to forward the letter to me in Japan until she had some other stuff to send!

The point is, we can’t worry too terribly much about doing things right. The important thing is to do them. Out of the blue, my parents–some years after they were both retired–took a painting class. They told me what they’d learned, and for a couple years, we all had a great time painting pictures. We never stopped to consider the fact that we couldn’t paint–we just did it.

When I was a kid, it was my best friend’s mom who helped me over the last hurdle to riding a bicycle without training wheels. She started out running along behind me, holding onto the back of the seat so I wouldn’t tip over. At some point, without telling me, she let go. When I figured out she wasn’t there, I’d been riding the bike for some time, all over the yard.

I believe things happen that are meant to happen. I believe they happen when they’re supposed to happen. If you want to write, yes, learn all that you can–but in the end, just write. Don’t stop to consider how impossible or insane it is. Harrison Ford said something like that about acting. The guy who gets the part is the guy who’s there, who doesn’t go away.

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19 Responses to “Float Like a Butterfly, Write Like a Bee”

  1. Chris Says:

    Being the science-type I feel compelled to provide a few factoids:

    1. Bumble-Bee Flight Myth: Indeed this is a myth. Science has come to the rescue to investigate the flight of the bumblebee. If you are interested here’s a study on this topic:
    http://physicsworld.com/cws/article/news/3410

    2. “God looks out for children and fools”: I actually ran across this the other day in the form of a quote from Otto Von Bismark (Germany’s “Iron Chancellor”)

    “God has a special providence for fools, drunks, and the United States of America.”
    (Quoted in Walter Russell Mead, Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How it Changed the World (2002). pg vii)

    I like this quote very much.

  2. Tandemcat Says:

    Reminds me of the quote attributed to Douglas MacArthur, IIRC: “A good plan executed today is far better than a perfect plan executed next week.” Just do it!

  3. Daylily Says:

    Here is THE very best thing I learned from the 2006 Festival of Faith and Writing, the one thing that comes back to me over and over, the bit of wisdom that helps this perfectionistic artist: “Finished is better than good”–Ellen Kushner.

  4. Rita B. Says:

    A nice way to start a dreary morning in California. Thanks Fred!

  5. I smoke-bombed Bigfoot Says:

    Those of you who did not know Fred from his K-12 days, be assured of this: He was always creating, always trying out new ideas and, whether he knew it or not, was living out the Italian cook’s motto of throwing the pasta against the wall and seeing if it sticks. As a lifelong friend who was blessed to witness many of these trials (and even to partake in some of them) I can assure you that the spark was there from the earliest days and he is just being modest. I only wonder what would have happened had he fallen in love with his old 8mm camera more than with the pen — the next Spielberg, Burton or Shamalyan? I have no doubt …

  6. Carlos Says:

    Is Peter Ruber still the editor at Arkahm house? How long did it take him to send you the acceptance letter? I believe now they accepting new unagented writer. Am I right?

  7. fsdthreshold Says:

    Hello, Carlos!
    I haven’t been in touch with anyone at Arkham House for a long time, but I just checked their website. They give instructions there for submitting manuscripts, so officially they’re open to unagented manuscripts. However, they mention “booking into 2007,” so I don’t think the site has been updated in quite a while, and they haven’t released any new books in quite a while. They say on the site that they only respond if they’re interested; otherwise, you never hear back from them, apparently even if you include a SASE. When last I heard, Peter Ruber was still the editor, but again, my information is very old. (To answer your question, I believe it took close to a year from the time I submitted my book until the time I received a positive response, but that was back in 1998.)
    I would suggest, if you’re really interested in submitting to AH, that you try contacting them directly through their site or by snail mail (their address is on their site):
    http://www.arkhamhouse.com
    Best of luck to you!
    Fred

  8. Carlos Says:

    I appreciate your answer very much. I sent them one of my stories five months ago. Maybe I have the same luck you had. I am a fool. LOl. I tried email before they don’t answer. are you still writing?

  9. fsdthreshold Says:

    Carlos,
    I hope you will have good luck with them. Is it a novel you sent them? If it was a short story, I’d suggest sending it somewhere else. Arkham House publishes books–novels or collections of stories. From everything I can see, it looks like AH really isn’t publishing much of anything these days. Anyway, good luck to you!
    Yes, I’m still writing. There’s a bibliography of my stuff on my web site: http://www.fredericsdurbin.com
    Take care, and best wishes!
    Fred

  10. Carlos Says:

    Fred,

    I’m sorry to be a bug that doesn’t go away. AH sound like the only place that my stories could be published. All these megazines are so espesific. I bought a few books from AH. I think my next choise will be yours. I will go away now. I thank you for your time. I will continue to be a fool.

  11. fsdthreshold Says:

    Carlos,
    You’re very welcome, and you don’t seem to be either a bug or a fool! :-) It certainly doesn’t hurt to try AH if you believe your work is just right for them. Meanwhile, please keep your eyes open for other markets you can try, too. There are magazines, anthologies, and more opportunities opening up in on-line publishing. If you’re focusing on your craft and writing good stories, there’s bound to be a market somewhere that they’ll fit. Happy writing! (I guess we’re all fools for doing it–so have fun being a fool, and don’t give up.)
    Fred

  12. Carlos Says:

    Fred,

    Did I metion I write Twilight Zone like stories but even more horrorfying and deeper. Nobody followed after Rod Sterling, nobody honored him with a publishing house? If there is any I can’t find it. I’m not giving up. A feeling inside tells that they will be publish. I know you are familiar with that feeling. Your suggestions and the way you sound keep me writing you back. You must has been an encorouging teacher.

  13. fsdthreshold Says:

    Carlos,
    If you’re writing Twilight Zone-like stories, I still think there would be a magazine market out there somewhere that would be right for your work.

  14. Carlos Says:

    I hope so. If you bump into one please let me know at guaraguo2@aol.com. I know is too much to ask but it doesn’t hurt to ask. Thanks….

  15. fsdthreshold Says:

    Carlos,
    Well, it’s hard for me to recommend specific magazines without knowing your work as you do. Have you looked at http://www.ralan.com? (I hope I’ve got that right!) That’s a site that lists a whole bunch of fantasy and horror markets.

  16. Carlos Says:

    Dear Fred,

    I am a fool! I didn’t expect to hear from you again. I thought I had annoyed you enought. God is really looking out for me. I can’t let this opportunity pass by so I must ask you, can I send you at least one of my stories? I don’t expect you to find a publisher for me but an opinion would be great, especially coming from a writer like yourself. Now, I’m really asking for too much but who knows you might say yes.

  17. fsdthreshold Says:

    Dear Carlos,
    I really wish you the best in every way as a writer, but I’m really sorry–my life is just too crazily busy to take on the project of reading your story. However, I know for a fact that there are all kinds of on-line writers’ groups you could join that do exactly that: the members read and critique each others’ stories. If you’re looking for feedback, I would highly recommend that. Just type “on-line writers’ groups” into your search engine, and you’ll find all sorts of listings! (And if you’re looking for markets for your stories, you really should check out that Ralan.com I mentioned!) Also, do you know about magazines such as _Writer’s Digest_? The magazine comes out once a month, and it’s really helpful–plus, they run a school called “On-line Writers’ Workshops” or something like that–the ads are in the magazine. (You may also want to consider attending a writers’ conference or workshop in your area–they’re loads of fun and you meet lots of other writers and professionals in the industry–and you can get critiques of your work from writers, editors, agents, etc.)
    Best of luck to you! (And no, you’re not annoying at all!)
    Fred

  18. Carlos Says:

    I had a feeling you would answer that way. I was just giving it a shot. I was not trying to take you as an agent or anything like that. I’m sorry if I disrepected you. I have been lucky enought with your comments and recomendations. It was a pleasure talking to you. You are a very polite person. Perhaps, one day you will get to read my stories.

  19. fsdthreshold Says:

    Hi, Carlos! No, there’s no need to apologize! I’m sorry I can’t help you more directly, but I’m glad you’re looking in on this blog. I also hope I will be seeing your stories in print someday soon!

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