Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor
Vision@sff.net
Holly Lisle's Vision

Write like a Damsel

By Valerie Serdy

2002, Valerie Serdy

I decided back in April that I wanted to try this writing thing fulltime.  I set myself a goal (Get Published) and got to work.  With the ultimate goal of Getting Published in mind, I set out to the library and began researching tomatoes.  It was early spring, so I figured my best chance lay in writing some kind of children's article describing how to grow summer tomatoes.  There are about a jillion children's magazines out there; I figured it would be a slam dunk.

Then I got bored with tomatoes.  Well not with tomatoes exactly, as I love a fresh tomato and basil sandwich, but I grew bored with the idea of writing the article.  About this time, I stumbled across Holly's Forward Motion site and decided, heck!  I should be writing a novel.  That's what I'll Get Published.

And I was off.  I wrote my first draft in about six weeks.  Then I got stuck in the rewrite.  I had spurts of productivity but nothing like that first blissful outpouring of words that got me through the first draft.  I stumbled and fought and cursed that the rewrite wasn't going as well as the first draft.  I wasn't having any fun.  I knew I needed to take time away from the work to figure out what was going on, but I was unwilling to do so.  I felt that if I stopped the rewrite, I'd quit altogether and then where would I be?  I wouldn't have anything that I could submit to editors, that's for sure.

Oh, I took a break. I took about four weeks off between writing the novel and starting the revision, but I never got the story and characters completely out of my head.  They danced and cavorted.  Bits of my favorite dialog and scenes chased themselves around in my head.  I dreamed scenes from the book and came up with better descriptions and dialog than what went into the novel originally.  It was a zoo in my head.

My real break didn't happen until we went on vacation to Mexico.  We dove for five days straight; my biggest worry was whether I'd reserved enough tanks for one more dive.  Crowding out my characters and story were images of graceful sea turtles, parrotfish, lobsters, and damselfish.

I was resting on the ocean bottom, watching a school of black and silver striped sergeant major fish drift back and forth with the surge, when the epiphany started.  A rainbow-colored damselfish approached me and poked around my fingers.  Soon, a group of four damsels swam around my face and darted under my arms and poked at my fingers; it seemed like a game they were playing. 

Suddenly, one fish darted straight for my face.  And this wasn't one of those tiny blue damsels you see in aquariums.  No, this was a big honking six inch long iridescent silvery blue and red fish with teeth.  Lots of teeth!  I waved my hand at it.  It kept coming.  I brushed it away with my arms.  It kept coming.  I swam backwards a little.  Still, it kept coming.  Finally, when I could count the sucker's teeth as it aimed at my facemask, I backpedaled clear away from its coral.

It didn't help to learn later that this was a juvenile damsel.  Every species has its hoodlums, I guess.

By telling this story to everyone who would listen, I discovered a six-foot-six-inch tall giant of a man in our dive group, who's probably been diving longer than I've been alive, had been bitten by one of these fish.  A little research showed damsels are very territorial and aggressive.  They show no fear.  Taking on a diver nine billion times their size is quite common and those little teeth hurt.

Later, I sat under an umbrella, shaded from the sun, though not from the humidity.  My pen slipped in my fingers as I wrote about the experience.  For the first time that week, I thought about my characters and grew excited.  I wanted my main character to come diving in tropical waters.  I had all sorts of ideas for her continuing adventures.  And I realized what was missing from my writing.  I needed to cultivate a little damsel attitude: fun, fearlessness, and aggression.

I wasn't having any fun with my story anymore.  I was afraid I'd never Get Published and my fear made me timid.  I'd back off before I got started, too afraid my words would stink before I ever put them down on paper.  I'd block because I was afraid my family would read my work and laugh.

Fear.  Plain and simple.  Well, damselfish have no fear.  So, I stepped back.  I was afraid my writing was too bad to Get Published.  It probably is; I'm still just learning.  I had started writing as a pleasurable way to spend my time: something fun to do.  A hobby, if you will.  Seen that way, why would I expect to write well straight out of the gate?  What gives me the chutzpah to expect to be published without going through some training? 

How many other hobbies have I tried where I was successful straightaway?  I spent years burning meals before I learned how to cook well.  I took a class to learn how to scuba dive, and I'm still working out some of the basics.  I would never dream of putting on skis without investing in an instructor and aspirin.  I picked up these hobbies because they are fun, and I enjoy spending my time cooking and scuba diving. 

And here's where the aggression kicks in.  As I darted into every cookbook I could find to learn and practice new techniques, I need to do the same to learn about writing: grammar, punctuation, style.  As aggressively as I practiced baking cakes (one cake a day for two weeks), I need to practice writing.  And just as I am now skilled enough to take my cooking hobby professional if I choose, perhaps after all the practice and learning, I'll be able to take my writing hobby professional as well.

But first, I have to discover if I even like it.  I've tried hobbies and learned after giving it a go that it wasn't for me.  By focusing on Getting Published, I never gave myself a chance to enjoy the writing; I stressed about creating the perfect turn of phrase that would catch an editor's eye.  Now, my goal, thanks to that damsel, is to Tell the Story.  Tell a story with a beginning, middle, and end.  Tell a story with gripping characters and a moving plot.  Then revise that story to make it as good as I can.  Maybe I'll share it with people.  Maybe I won't.

But once I've finished that story, then I'll sit down and look at what I've done.  Did I enjoy it?  Did I enjoy those endless hours tapping at the keyboard, risking RSI, to produce something as ephemeral as a story?  Something that, with any luck, will survive only in some interpreted fashion in a reader's mind?

If I did, I'll do it again.  And again.  And again.  Practicing new things, learning new things each time.  And maybe I'll decide to risk rejection (fearlessly!) and submit something to a publisher.  And maybe I won't.  Today, it doesn't matter.  Today, only the story matters.

And if I decide I didn't enjoy the writing process?  If I decide that sitting my butt down in my chair regularly, listening to Enya croon and my fish tank hum in the background, tap-tap-tapping away isn't fun, well, it won't be the first hobby I've abandoned.  It will be the cheapest, though.  All for the startup cost of ink and paper, I'll have discovered whether this new hobby is for me.

But I think I will enjoy it.  I already do.  After that fateful meeting with the damselfish, I've finished two nonfiction articles and two short stories.  I've revised four chapters of my novel and I've finally got new ideas to continue it.  I'm still practicing.  I'm not worried about Getting Published.  I'm having fun.

And all thanks to a damsel fish who straightened out my priorities.  Have fun.  Be fearless.  Be aggressive.