(Part of a series applying the Prayer of St. Ephraim to the writer’s life, and considering where I can improve.)

Grant not unto me a spirit of idleness,
of discouragement,
of lust for power,
and of vain speaking.

I said last time that we writers have one power: the power to write a good story. Now let us consider what a great and serious power that is. A good story will inspire or terrify; it will teach you truth and beauty; it will make you recognize lies; it will change your life. I dare say that those of us who want to write have embarked on this vocation because we’ve been transformed by the books that we’ve read, so we know firsthand the power of a story well-told. How should we approach our calling, if not with fear and trembling?

When I speak this way, I have to quickly disavow two common misconceptions. The first is the notion that stories must have a Message. This is a terrible mistake. Stories which are deliberately written with a Message tend to be terrible, and even when they’re good they often succeed in spite of their Message, and not because of it. The writer has a responsibility to avoid vain, empty talk, but she does not have any duty to give a sermon. On the contrary, sermonizing usually undermines the writer’s real efforts.

The other misconception is to think that writing must be Serious, and must absolutely not be Fun. After all, if writing is a serious business, then surely we have to write about serious things. But come on: I’m a genre writer, so I will take a story about dragons and spaceships and explosions over a self-serious, “literary” work any day. Let us banish all shame in writing a pulpy adventure story or a steamy romance. However, we must recognize that even the most gonzo space opera contains within it a vision of goodness. You have a hero: what are his heroic qualities, and what will your readers learn to imitate from him? Or maybe you have merely a collection of antiheroes: what does this choice say about the world?

As writers, we have to tell the truth in our fictions. When the zombies attack, when you find the Ring of Power, when Mr. Darcy comes with a proposal, what will you do? What will your characters do? And what will these choices say about the good, the true, and the beautiful? Is your story telling the truth in what it says?

Let us put aside vain speaking, which entrenches prejudice, ugliness, and despair. We have better things to do.

Next time: This is the last of the vices in the Prayer of St. Ephraim, so we move on to the second stanza of the prayer and begin with the virtues.

(Part of a series applying the Prayer of St. Ephraim to the writer’s life, and considering where I can improve.)

Grant not unto me a spirit of idleness,
of discouragement,
of lust for power,
and of vain speaking.

Perhaps St. Ephraim was a writer. He hit the biggest two writing killers at the beginning of his prayer. Last time was idleness, and this time it’s discouragement.

Does it need to be said? Writing is incredibly discouraging. You will work for weeks on a short story, or for months on a novel. It will be rejected. You will make it better, and it will be rejected again. And again. And again. You can expect to garnish dozens of rejections before you ever see an acceptance. And you must reckon with the fact, either disheartening or encouraging depending on your point of view, that being rejected often has nothing to do with your story. Lots of great stories get rejected. The only thing you can do is keep trying.

I actually haven’t counted how many rejections I got before I sold my first story. It doesn’t matter, really. If you’re gonna write, you have to become immune to rejection. You have to get to the point where you don’t care how many times you get told “no” for every “yes”. Seriously, if Duotrope didn’t keep track of my acceptance ratio for me, I woudn’t have any idea what it was.

Just a few weeks ago I sold a story which was the first one I wrote after I decided to get serious about publishing. It had been rejected 20-some times. And the market I sold it to was a top-paying, selective pro market. Discouragement is for chumps.

Next time: the lust for power.

Grant not unto me a spirit of idleness,
of discouragement,
of lust for power,
and of vain speaking.

Thus begins the prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian, which we Orthodox Christians repeat every day during Lent. Now, I’m aware that today is Easter for those of you on the Gregorian calendar (which is, um, everyone), and that a good portion of you are not religious or don’t care about Orthodox Lent. But never mind that! This is a series about writing, not a series about religious observances.

I am going to use this prayer to structure the next few posts, though, because it’s a good one. The challenges of writing are not so different from the challenges of the spiritual life, and the pleas of St. Ephraim are certainly applicable to the writer’s vocation. So let us take this line by line:

Grant not unto me a spirit of idleness

Hoo boy.

I saw a tweet the other day that said, roughly, “Being a writer is 3% talent and 97% not being distracted by the internet.” I don’t think I’ve ever met a writer who didn’t identify with this sentiment. For me, given that I’m still writing in my free time while also trying to hold down a day job, it’s especially acute, because after a hard day of work the thing I most want to do is to curl up and read webcomics. Or play Magic. Or do any number of things other than the difficult, demanding job of writing a stupid story. I tell myself that the full-time writers have it easier… but I don’t actually think that’s true.

I have been very bad at this for the past few months. Mostly, it’s because I let my Magic playing take over too much of my writing time. I took a hiatus from Magic for Lent, and my writing output has gone up dramatically. As a result, I’ve reevaluated how much time I’m going to devote to the game once the fast ends, regardless of how much I love it.

A maxim I’ve heard over and over again from pro writers is that you need to put your butt in the chair and write. No amount of other things can possibly make up for sitting down and puking out words until you have enough; and then you have to pick through your verbal vomit to find out which chunks of it are gold. Everything else is just idleness.

Next time: Discouragement