Monday, March 29, 2010

The Awful Truth

Writers must learn to be sadomasochists (if they aren’t one already). You must be a sadist to your characters (Vonnegut, Rule 6), but a masochist the rest of the time because there’s no other way you can endure the long slog and see your work through all the obstacles the publishing process will throw your way without learning to love the pain of defeat…the brutal stab of rejection.

You must love learning from your mistakes.

Beginner's Mistakes

Once I finally made peace with the notion of being a writer, I was ready for things to start happening. Didn’t the universe get the memo that I was finally ready to fulfill my destiny? Hello, anyone up there? I guess I’m still waiting. And writing. Lots of writing.

But that’s ok, because it pays to be patient. Or at least it can’t hurt. We’ve all heard the stories. People who query their NaNoWriMo novels on December 1st without revising, people who pester agents or editors because they simply cannot wait for feedback. Or those who query everyone with a promising WIP and get rejected, only to realize two more revisions later they would have nailed it. I don’t want to be the person who blunders out of inexperience or impatience.

But despite my intentions I am not immune to beginners’ mistakes. Case in point: The first (and currently the only) time I submitted my work – and I don’t mean contest entries because we all know there’s no accounting for taste or luck – I was nervous. Of course, I thought I was ready, thought I had done my best to internalize the editorial guidelines and make my work shine. Query letter? Check. Attachment full of brilliance? Check. All that was left was putting together an email and hitting the send button before I lost my nerve. So I sent it off into the world and tried to remind myself why I would do such a crazy thing. Turns out, in my haste to get my work out before I chickened out, I made a typo in the email. A minor one, an understandable one I told myself, but a typo nonetheless.

Of course, I waited for the autoreject for the next two weeks. I had heard too many stories about grammar nazis and finicky editors to expect my mistake to go by unnoticed. But when I did get the inevitable rejection months later, it wasn’t for that error, or at least not that error alone. Which made me relieved. Or not, because the rejection still stung, and my work obviously wasn’t at the point I thought it was. Had I waited a day or so before sending out my submission, nine times out of ten I would have caught my error and felt confident in the knowledge I had done all I could. Now, I still can’t completely dispel niggling doubts and whispered what-ifs.

Yet, despite my disappointment, I have all the more reason to take care with my next submission and to be watchful for silly mistakes. I will take my time and not let my nerves overwhelm my judgment. I must remember to always strive for perfection in an imperfect world.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Getting Serious about Submitting

I’m getting close to the point where I’m ready to submit a novel I’ve been working on, on and off for the last fifteen years. That’s a long time. As such, the work is the most fully conceptualized out of all my other WIPs. It’s good, I know that much, but it still has flaws. How do I know? One, because I started it in my early teens. And two, because as soon as I think I can do no more with it and put it aside to work on something else, I come back to it with fresh eyes and new ideas to make it better. The problem with unpublished works is you can keep tinkering with them for years.

But this time, I’m ready. And I have a plan for publication. But for starters, I will be submitting the first twenty pages into a contest hosted by a regional writer’s organization. Every entry is critiqued, and I want to use that as a way to see where I’m at. Like I said, I think it’s good, but it’s hard to be objective when I’ve been living and breathing this story for so long. I also haven’t had a lot of people read the work. For a number of reasons. Primarily because of lot of my friends would not be the best choice for feedback on a historical romance, and a medieval one at that. Plus, they don’t really know I write… Awkward.

So anyway. Contests. Fortuitously enough, I recently stumbled upon Miss Snark’s First Victim’s blog and learned Authoress would be hosting a 25 word challenge where people submit their first 25 words (or up to 25 words that ended in a complete sentence) to see if people would be hooked enough to keep reading. I submitted the first 17 words of my WIP along with 175 others and got some comments. And all it took was an email and poof! Instant feedback. Part of me was just so excited to have feedback from other like-minded individuals. Some of the comments surprised me, but they signaled things I need to keep in mind as I move forward with my WIP.

Granted, the first 25 words will not make or break an entry, but I found the experience invaluable in terms of getting other eyes on my work. Blogger Sharon Mayhew, inspired by Miss Snark's First Victim, is hosting another contest, this time the first four sentences. And I have happily submitted my work to this contest as well. These mini challenges have been a great way to jumpstart my final stretch edits as I prepare my manuscript for the regional contest. Hopefully the momentum will keep me going!

Three Minute Fiction Entry

The winner of round three of NPR'S Three-Minute Fiction was announced last week. Sadly it wasn't me. But I enjoyed many of the selected entries, finalists and honorable mentions alike. I participated in rounds two and three, and even though my work hasn't been featured, it has still been a rewarding process for me.

How can I say that when I have nothing to show for my efforts? Simple. Unlike submissions to a literary magazine or publishing house, all these short stories evolved out of a single prompt. Round two was an opening line: The nurse left work at 5 o'clock. Round three was the evocative image below. All the potential writers were given the same handicap if you will; only skill and imagination set the entrants apart.

Having submitted my own story, it was fascinating and hugely instructive for me to read the selected entries, noting not just writing technique and word choice, but the writers' basic premise and how they negotiated the prompt in their work. Round three had far more entrants than round two, which means competition is only getting fiercer. Every literary/intellectual type out there thinks getting featured on NPR is the ultimate wet dream. I can only imagine the bar will be raised yet again for round four, featuring judge Ann Patchett, author of Bel Canto.

I'll be entering no matter what, but here are a few caveats I'll need to keep in mind. Since this is now a hugely competitive contest, my work must be perfect if I'm going to hang with the alpha-dogs. I must also avoid the obvious interpretation of the prompt. Or if I do go with the obvious, I must give it my own patented twist. When we did round two in my writing group, everyone followed the nurse home in their stories, while only I stayed at the hospital. I'm not saying my story was more successful then the others, but I did something different, which can only help when you are competing against thousands of other entries.

When working on my round three entry, I kept seeing heartbreak and loneliness and all the sap that goes along with those themes whenever I looked at the picture prompt. I knew I couldn't write a story around those issues because it seemed too obvious. When I told my husband that, he said, "Well, you could go in the complete opposite direction and make a story about terrorism." After he said that, I couldn't get the notion out of my head. So my story became a what-if exercise exploring that idea. I also used 2nd person, a first for me, as a way to stretch myself. I knew my entry had shock value and a good energy to it, but I know my craft is still being developed and probably wouldn't hold up against the readers from the Iowa Writers Workshop NPR brought in to winnow down the entries... It didn't, but I am still proud of my piece because I stretched myself in the writing of it.

If you aren't pushing yourself or discovering something new every time you sit down to write, then you must ask yourself why you are even bothering.

Here is my entry for round three:

By Design

You have no idea. You only spy the discarded newspaper as you scan the café and think you’ve finally caught a break. After all, you no longer carry loose change and news racks don’t take debit cards. You thrill at the thought of getting something for nothing as you claim the stool so recently discarded and smooth out the newsprint in front of you. Despite your good luck, you still inwardly cringe at the residual body heat that confirms my existence at that very same table only minutes ago. You want my crumbs but you don’t want to have to feel grateful about it. But all that’s forgotten as you read over the headlines in a desperate bid to ease the comfortable monotony of your existence.

You don’t even pause to question what I was doing at that table before you walked in and ordered your skinny soy latte with an extra shot of fair trade espresso. I could be anyone: the jihadist next door, the cokehead in over his head, or the local crackpot who amuses and frightens in equal measure. I could be any number of people pushed too far who inhabited your space moments before. The newspaper is our only link, but you try not to think about that. It’s too intimate. Just as you avoid looking at the fingerprints stuck to the table. You’re not ready to acknowledge the world we live in.

Had you looked out the window instead of answering your cell phone, you might have figured it out in time. You might have seen the backpack shrugged off by someone who immediately fades into the mid-morning crowds. But you sit there and ruffle through the paper sections as if you hold the key to the universe at our little table. You won’t find the answers on inked newsprint, only yellow lies and agitprop. But you don’t realize that. When you hear the explosions across the street you still won’t understand. Not right away.

Not as chunks of concrete and twists of rebar fall from the sky. Not as I slide into a window seat on the city bus as it groans down the street and out of sight. Not as people cry out in fear or pain or disbelief. You have a front row seat to the destruction of what offends me most, and you can only gape and take a sip of your drink and think on how you’re going to get back to work. Only later will you realize luck had nothing to do with it.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Carrot and Stick

Sometimes the words don’t come. Maybe you can’t figure out how to wrap up your WIP with a satisfying ending. Or you can’t find a way to justify your character’s behavior in a certain scene. Sometimes the concentration needed for writing is simply impossible. How do you push through? There are lots of quotes out there from successful writers that basically boil down to: Keep writing. No. Matter. What.

Useful? Not so much. But it is illuminating.

If the best way to work though the lulls in inspiration is to keep writing, then you need to find a means to keep you motivated. Some people advocate writing at a set time every day so that the routine does the heavy lifting when inspiration is scarce. Others set daily word counts or work through writing prompts on a regular basis. It may take some experimenting to find what works best for you.

I do a little bit of everything. I write for two-hour intervals at the local library or coffee shop at least once a week for a change of scenery. I set monthly quotas but I don’t get into a twist if I don’t make it – I don’t want writing to become a chore. And I belong to a writing group that meets every week that focuses on writing prompts instead of workshopping WIPs, so I always have the chance to work on something new each week. A breath of fresh air, if you will.

But the whole blogging thing… I haven’t quite figured out where that fits in my routine. Since I’ve developed a bit java habit, for every coffee I have out, I must write a blog post. Coffee is my carrot to keep my blog up to date.

Wish me luck (and lots of mochas).

Monday, March 15, 2010

Thirty Seconds of Snark

I’m an introvert by nature. When people made fun of me growing up for my blushes, my stammers, and all the books I carried around, I consoled myself with the knowledge that one day I would be successful and famous, and they’d rue the day they messed with me. Even then, successful and famous to me equated being a well-known author.

But I’m pretty sure there’s nothing more passive-aggressive then wanting to be successful by writing books, because chances are the people you want to stick it to don’t read them or recognize all the hard work and talent that goes into their creation.

No one said writing would solve all your problems… (sigh).

Contradictions of Being a Writer

Writing is a solitary pursuit 95% of the time. You spend hours alone as you put words to paper until your hand cramps. Or maybe you sit in front of your computer typing in one word only to erase it a moment later in an endless cycle.

But here’s the rub. You can write by your lonesome for years – wholeheartedly embracing the myth of the lone writer – but you won’t have any idea of your level of skill until you put yourself out there. Unless, of course, you are awesome. For the rest of us mere mortals, this means writing groups, critique partners, classes, and lots of rejection. This means strong-arming friends, family, anyone you know into reading your stuff and generating feedback. No matter how awkward or embarrassing. So long as you are committed to improving.

And there’s the paradox when writing for publication – what began as an insular, solitary trek becomes public at some point. After all, you hope there’s an audience for your work. But it’s all too easy to convince yourself that it’s just you on your little island with your typewriter, notebook, laptop, or what-have-you. And quite frankly, it’s safer for your ego that way.

But as painful, or terrifying, or annoying as it is to have someone else’s eyes on your work, it’s usually worth it. It doesn’t mean compromising your writing so it’s in accordance with the lowest common denominator. The more people who read your stuff can only help you get a sense of your strengths and weaknesses and a range of possible reactions to your work.

Saying all this, of course, is easy. Alas, putting it into practice is not.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Motivation to Make-Believe

As a child, I was an over-imaginative dreamer, who loved to read, to draw, and above all, to play. Now that I am what people would consider grown-up, I still cling to the childish aspects of all that I do. Part of this is because I am still trying to convince myself that yes, I am an adult now. But I also want to embrace the childlike joy in all things because if I don’t – or worse, I can’t find some quality to be joyful about – then I have succumbed to the boring, hum-drum everyday that wears all of us down. The next thing you know you’re collecting Medicare checks and living in Florida. Yikes.

I find myself abnormally conscious of the passage of time. Maybe it is because I have too many loved ones who were snuffed out too soon. Maybe I have too many regrets already and don’t want to accumulate any more. Maybe it’s all those summers I spent growing up watching Days of our Lives with my mom and sister (“Like sands through the hourglass, so are the days of our lives.”). In any case, I am tired of doing what is expected of me. As such, I don’t want to be doing things that don’t bring me happiness or make me giggle. I don’t want to settle for a cookie-cutter lifestyle. I want the freedom of my childhood back.

So I continue to dream. I play make-believe everyday. I conjure words on a page and harness the whirling dervish of my mind. Sometimes it’s surrealist gibberish. Sometimes I surprise myself. But it propels me forward. Writing needs an element of play to succeed; otherwise, it just becomes work.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Music as Muse

After reading the fascinating article on Joanna Newsom on the New York Times this weekend, I was reminded of the many artists I listen to because of the excellence of their lyrics. Joanna Newsom is definitely on that list, as is Nick Cave, Neil Hannon of the Divine Comedy, and Pavement frontman Stephen Malkmus.

Some writers have go-to tracks that influence them when they are trying for something angsty, hyperactive, full of longing, and so on. In these cases, the music is only there for atmospheric purposes and the lyrics fade into unimportance when compared to a throbbing bass line. But for me, I listen to music because I enjoy it, not because of what it brings to my writing.

Well, that’s a bit of a lie, because in examining song structure and lyrics -- in experiencing them -- you are looking at just another form of storytelling. Word choice, rhythm, beginnings and endings.

With Newsom, looking past the beauty of her harp playing and the intricacies of her compositions, you are left with her lyrics that range from the plaintive to the playful, along with soaring flights of fancy full of highbrow referents. The breadth of the vocabulary she employs, their placement in a song, is awe-inspiring. Don’t believe me? There’s a book published by Roan Press called ‘Visions of Joanna Newsom’ full of essays exploring her work. Here's 'Sawdust and Diamonds' from Ys:

Nick Cave is another artist I admire for his lyrics. First his output is impressive, with the Bad Seeds and before that with The Birthday Party. His lyrics are often imbued with tension, raw honesty, and undeniable masculinity. His storytelling is most obvious of course with Murder Ballads, and his most recent work with the Bad Seeds, Dig Lazarus Dig!!! is an album length exploration of the Lazarus story from the Bible. But each album has songs worthy of note and of further exploration. There is a reason this man is still making music! Here's 'Where the Wild Roses Grow' from Murder Ballads:

The Divine Comedy is a group out of Northern Ireland fronted by Neil Hannon. While retaining highbrow sensibilities, the songs are seeped in wit and joy. Song titles like ‘The Pop Singer's Fear of the Pollen Count’ and ‘Generation Sex’ only provide half the picture. While the Divine Comedy’s music is intentionally and unapologetically poppy, there is an earnestness in each song that entwines the jokes and jibes with thoughtful characters and meditations on 21st century living. 'The Gin Soaked Boy' is an excellent example of the tension between wit and earnestness in the Divine Comedy’s work:

Maybe it’s because Pavement is reuniting for a summer tour this year, but a discussion of song lyrics would not be complete without mentioning Stephen Malkmus. His lyrics focus on the irreverent and the non-sequitor, resulting in eternally quotable snippets that are still compelling. NPR currently highlights a handful of their songs thanks to their reunion tour and a best of soon to be released. Pay particular attention to 'Stereo' and 'Shady Lane.' Malkmus's solo albums are just as compelling... Here's the video for 'Jenny and the Ess-Dog,' from his self-titled debut.

There are other songwriters out there, of course, who are just as amazing with three and a half to five minutes of music. But these are the ones I keep returning to.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

A Typical Week

Since I’ve gotten serious and all about this whole writing thing, I’ve learned a thing or two about how I like to work. Most of this was thanks to trial and error over the last few months.

Weekly Writing Activities

1) Spend two hours at the coffee shop or library

I try to ride my bike (weather permitting) to the coffee shop and/or library at least twice a week for some dedicated writing time. Just me, a pen and notebook, and all the white noise I could want. I write at home as well, but the act of going to a specific place to write helps me focus. Two hours is about the max for me I’ve discovered when I am working on first drafts. When editing, it’s harder to know when my brain will give out on me, but the caffeine does help. Just do me a favor and go somewhere that’s local and not Starbucks. Good karma will abound.

2) Monitor RSS feeds daily

I’ll do a more elaborate discussion of sites to follow another day, but suffice it to say you should be keeping track of the movers and shakers in the blogosphere relating to all things writing, publishing, and the world at large. For motivation, for information, for procrastination, for confirmation. A good place to start is Writer’s Digest’s list of 101 best websites for writers.

3) Read one book a week in the genre I’m writing in

Sometimes I get through more, depending on how compelling the book is, how busy I am, etc., but I aim to read at least one book in the area I am trying to work in. So if I am working on a speculative fiction draft, you can bet I am reading as many Hugo and Nebula award winners as I can.

4) Track my word counts

This can get rather anal retentive, and implicitly, this type of activity tends to place emphasis on quantity over quality, but at the same time, knowing how many words I churn out in a day, a week, or a month is surprisingly encouraging. Author Barry Lyga says you need to write a million bad words before you really understand how to write well. By keeping track of the words I produce, I know I am inching closer and closer to that threshold each day. Theoretically, I should be getting better.

5) Read books on craft when time allows

I try not to formally force this into my routine, but at times I find myself paging through various how-to guides for inspiration, to help with a particular scene, or just for my general edification. Since I never took a creative writing class in college (ok, well I did take a screenwriting class, but it emphasized the format, not the actual writing), reading books on writing have been useful, so long as they don’t get in the way of, well, actually writing.

6) Participate in a writing group

I joined a local writing group I guess nine months or so ago, and it has been hugely beneficial. The group emphasizes improvisational writing, which means once a week we work from various writing prompts, spend 15 to 20 minutes free writing, and then share our work. I don’t think I am a very strong spur-of-the-moment writer -- I find more success working on pieces iteratively -- so this group has helped me practice and grow more confident. Some of the work has surprised me, some has disappointed me, and some has potential to become something more. While I would like to find a group whose goal is polishing work for publication, I wouldn’t want to give my current group up.

When Actually Writing

By hand – I am a huge proponent of writing by hand, especially when it comes to generating new content. People have spoken before and more eloquently than I could on how the act of writing by hand helps their creative juices. I make sure I have a notebook with me at all times to jot down snippets, ideas, or full drafts. And I do all this in pen. Pencils have never been my friend – maybe because I stabbed myself in the hand with one by accident and still have the graphite smudge under my skin to prove it.

Printouts – I generally print out my work to edit, and I don’t wait until I have a polished, nearly complete manuscript to do so. Often I cobble together a skeleton draft by hand, type it up, and then print it out to add on the actual flesh of the story. It helps me see the words in print, but gives me the flexibility to add to and edit by hand, which I prefer.

On screen – I edit on screen too, but not as often. Sometimes it is because I don’t have time or the ink to print out the material I want to work with. Sometimes it is because I don’t have a real goal for editing – I am just looking for general issues that pop out at me. And when it’s a small project (as opposed to say a novel), it can make sense to write and edit solely on screen.

Whenever I am using my notebook computer for writing, I have an army of go-to resources to support my work. First and foremost is Microsoft Word. Say what you want, all you Mac lovers, but I can’t give up Word. I rely on Visual Thesaurus, Merriam-Webster, and WordWeb to assist me in identifying the proper word. If I have trouble coming up with a concept or am still struggling to identify how I want to say something, the Onelook Reverse Dictionary can sometimes help. When it comes to research, I start with Wikipedia (surprise!) and then work my way to my local library to find the resources I need to get my facts straight. And since I have a hard time coming up with names, I often use to find just the right name by meaning, number of syllables, etc.

What works for you?

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Writers on Writing

It’s been all over the place this past week, and if you haven’t seen it, get thee to the Guardian website and read “Ten Rules for Writing Fiction” parts one and two, and be quick about it.

Lots of nuggets here, some obvious, some not so much. My favorite is Philip Pullman’s words of advice:

My main rule is to say no to things like this, which tempt me away from my proper work. (Ten Rules, part two)

Other authors echoed this in various ways, most often railing against the dangers of the internet. It is all too easy to find yourself engaged in distractions. I firmly believe reading widely, being curious about the world around you, even if it does not have immediate bearing on your work can lead to kernels worthy of further exploration years later. I never want to close myself off to serendipitous discoveries and the creativity they may later spur on. At the same time, procrastination can only lengthen the already lengthy process of turning your idea into a draft into a polished piece into a submission to an agent into a shiny covered book in the window of a bookstore. So the take-home message is balance in all things. Just like your diet or your ability to have fun out with your friends but not get so drunk you can’t drive home.

Another caveat I liked came from Rose Tremain:
Forget the boring old dictum "write about what you know". Instead, seek out an unknown yet knowable area of experience that's going to enhance your understanding of the world and write about that. (Ten Rules, part two).

The whole ‘write about what you know’ thing bothers me greatly. I write primarily for escape or to discover things about myself I didn’t know, both of which necessitate me writing about subjects I don’t always know something about. And it’s more intellectually interesting this way. I refuse to believe something that is intellectually interesting to the writer does not translate to something a reader wants to read. So I like the nuances of what Tremain says, in that you need to mine something unique about yourself or the way you see the world and write about that. Self-discovery and authority are not mutually exclusive this way.

Finally, Geoff Dyer’s quote brings home the unease I feel when thinking too hard on the act of writing with respect to others:
Don't write in public places. In the early 1990s I went to live in Paris. The usual writerly reasons: back then, if you were caught writing in a pub in England, you could get your head kicked in, whereas in Paris, dans les cafés . . . Since then I've developed an aversion to writing in public. I now think it should be done only in private, like any other lavatorial activity. (Ten Rules, part one).

Maybe it is just me in my shy, introvert ways, but I have a lot of difficulty admitting to others outside a very select few that I want to be a writer, I want to write books. Some would say by already committing words to paper (or disk) on a semi-regular basis I am already a writer. So let me clarify, I want to be a published writer. But I don’t want to tell people that. I don’t want to seem like a dreamer (who thinks they’ll be the next JK Rowling) or a slacker (who never actually gets around to writing anything but has somehow already cultivated the clothes and lifestyle). I can just hear the derision: “You’re writing the next great American novel? Yeah right.” So it is refreshing to hear someone who has achieved success as a writer still refer to it as a “lavatorial activity.” An activity where you produce crap behind closed doors and feel slightly guilty about it.

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