Writing

Three men and one woman under a tree, wearing hats, slanting sunbeams

Writing What You Aren’t

In a recent garden photos post, I complained that I couldn’t think of anything to say about writing and asked for suggestions in the comments. Priscilla Bettis wondered how I deal with writing from a man’s or a kid’s point of view, and Elizabeth Merry offered some thoughts on her approach to this.

And I thought–why haven’t I posted about this before? So now I’m doing it.

All my novels have first person narrators, and several of those narrators are men. One of them is gay, and part of one book deals with that character’s childhood. Since no one (fellow writer or reviewer) has noted any serious problems with my portrayals of those male characters, I have to conclude that I did an at least adequate job in writing them.

To be honest, it’s also a challenge to write from the point of view of a female character more sophisticated than I, or who has had a more adventurous or difficult life.

Woman with white mask, eyes outlined black, red hat and fan
Image by Viola ‘ from Pixabay

Dwelling on these challenges can have a paralyzing effect. In fact, thinking too much about any type of writing challenge can be discouraging. Instead, consider the following:

  • Writing exclusively from one’s own type (middle-aged-verging-on-old woman in my case) is way too limiting.
  • People have more in common than not. Everyone was a kid once. Everyone has occasion to talk with and observe all kinds of people.
  • Writers are good at creating from their imaginations. We can do this.
Group of children kids backs
Image by florentiabuckingham from Pixabay

Here are some practices and techniques that I have found helpful in writing male characters, children, and other characters unlike me–present-day me, that is.

  • Drawing upon conscious and unconscious observations made over a lifetime.
  • Drawing upon the results of a lifetime of reading, as well as listening to and watching different kinds of people in media and movies.
  • Deliberately seeking out writings by or about people like the character I am creating. This is a form of research–filling my brain with concepts, outlooks, and turns of phrase used by people different from me. Having primed the pump, when I go to write those characters, I set myself aside and let the other persona gush forth.
  • Free-writing from the character’s point of view, but outside of the main work-in-progress, is a low risk way to experiment.
  • Recognizing when I’m not capable of creating an intended character, due to lack of information or empathy. I can remedy that by further research, or replace the character with one I feel capable of writing.
  • Asking critique partners and beta readers to look out for problems with characters different from me.

In the end, though, fiction is artifice and our characters are artificial people. Close to real may have to be good enough, if we have approached character creation responsibly and respectfully.

So, fellow writers, how do you approach writing characters who are different from you?

Featured Image by icsilviu from Pixabay

manuscript and notebook She Who Comes Forth work in progress

The Work Progresses

You would think by now it would be easy. After all, I’ve written and published five novels and a bunch of short stories. I have idea notes, planning notes, things-to-fix-in-the-rewrite notes, and problem-solving notes.

But writing the first draft is still hard. In fact, some days it’s a real struggle. And yet, it lurches forward.

The work in progress is a sequel, which complicates things. It means I have to know everything each character knows about all kinds of things. Who knows what? Who lied to whom? It’s amazing how many details I’ve forgotten from the previous book, even though I wrote it.

Some characters from the first book have changed quite a bit. I need to account for those changes–plausibly, and in a way that contributes to the plot.

It will be bad news if something I think is crucial for the sequel doesn’t line up with, or even contradicts, something important in the first book. (A good argument for writing both books before publishing the first one.)

Then there’s First Draft Daily Anxiety Syndrome. I’ve managed to keep up with the page a day resolution I made back in December, but knowing I have to put in the required time every day to crank out the next page or two can be a cloud on my horizon as I emerge gummy-eyed from sleep.

Strange thing, though: sitting down and picking up the pen has an almost magical effect. With only the vaguest idea of what is going to happen next, I start to write, and a scene unfolds, complete with details and nuances. (Whether it will stand the test of the rewrite is another issue.)

I’m 85% through the first draft and on schedule to finish it by the end of June. The trouble is, now that daylight arrives early and lingers late, the garden exercises its own allure. I may have to shift my writing sessions from first thing in the morning to what I call Glare Time, the hours between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m., when the light is harsh and bright and the garden is devoid of magic.

Never mind–at least now I can finally see the day I’ll get this one off the ground!

hot air balloon on ground rainbow colours
Image from Pixabay

Fellow writers, I’m sure many of you have WIPs under way. What works for you? What gives you fits? Share your WIP woes and wins.

New rules

For all that I love arguing with rules for writers, here are some worthy suggestions from author Kevin Brennan, along with others from artist Richard Diebenkorn.

WHAT THE HELL

Artist Richard Diebenkorn had some rules about the way he should approach his work. I can’t remember where I got these, but I was inspired enough to copy and paste them at the time. I was also inspired enough to come up with a few of my own. When the going gets tough, it’s always good to have some reliable aphorisms you can fall back on.

Diebenkorn’s: 

1. Attempt what is not certain. Certainty may or may not come later. It may then be a valuable delusion.

2. The pretty, initial position which falls short of completeness is not to be valued—except as a stimulus for further moves.

3. DO search.

4. Use and respond to the initial fresh qualities but consider them absolutely expendable.

5. Don’t “discover” a subject—of any kind.

6. Somehow don’t be bored but if you must, use it in action. Use its destructive potential.

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submission of manuscript

Feeling Submissive?

I’ve already written a post about my problems with the words “submit” and “submission” as used in the world of publishing. Even I think this is a bit of a bee in my bonnet, but there it is… Everyone has a bee or two. Before leaving this point, however, I’ll just note I had a really hard time finding an appropriate image for this post. Try a search on the word “submission” in Pixabay. Interesting, eh? No hopeful writers there, but quite a few handcuffs.

When I started writing seriously, I assumed I would offer my novel to agents or publishers, and do it well enough that a publisher would take it on and turn it into a real book. One day I would be on the bus and the person next to me would be reading my book. Or I would be invited to have a serious discussion with a literary journalist on national media about how I came to write it. Yes, that stuff.

Well, I bought one of those fat directories of agents and publishers printed on pulp paper in tiny print. (This was in the early 2000s.) I pored over it and selected targets. I beavered up query letters and synopses and put together packages of paper.

In 2010 I published my book myself.

Now I sometimes read advice to writers about submitting, and realize I would have a really hard time getting back into submission mode. The process of scrutinizing agent and publisher websites, making lists of likely ones, following each one’s requirements precisely, putting together the query letter, synopsis, and first few pages or chapters–that takes a lot of time and mental energy. And that’s before the rejections come rolling in.

Then there’s the skewed mentality of the submitter. You have to be confident but humble, hopeful but pragmatic. You have to believe in the piece of writing you have created, while at the same time realizing it’s nothing special (except to you). And you have to think of the fellow human beings to whom you’re appealing as powerful divinities, eternally busy, always overworked, too preoccupied with important matters to give your flawed offering more than a few minutes seconds of attention.

(Uh-oh, this is turning into yet another foot-stomping, pouty, watch-me-hold-my-breath-until-I-turn-blue rant. ‘Nuff said.)

What I meant to say before that happened is the writer has to psych themselves into the correct state of mind before undertaking a round of submissions. Some say it gets easier the more one does it. That wasn’t my experience in the ten years I spent querying and waiting, processing rejections, querying and waiting, processing more rejections. When I decided I would probably be dead before I got published, I was delighted to discover that self-publishing was a viable option.

At least now that most queries can be emailed, one is spared the tedious and expensive business of preparing SASEs (self-addressed stamped envelopes).

For those intending to submit, here are some (slightly jaundiced) tips:

  1. Prepare by cultivating the correct attitude. Instead of posts like this one, read some of the many with serious and helpful advice for hopeful writers on how to submit
  2. Ponder the fact that publishing is a business. Big business, in the case of the Big Four (formerly the Big Five, and before that, the Big Six). Starry-eyed romanticism won’t help you at all
  3. Don’t think of your novel as an extension of yourself, but as a potential product for a competitive market
  4. Try to convince yourself that the busy businesspeople who will look at your submission are evaluating your writing, not your worth as a human being. (Yeah, I know…)
  5. If you don’t already know your novel’s genre, figure it out and bone up on the salient points of that genre, such as reader demographic and key words, to give your submission the correct tone
  6. Study agent/publisher listings assiduously so you don’t waste your time directing your efforts to the wrong ones
  7. Once you have compiled your list of likely prospects, follow each one’s submission guidelines precisely. Don’t assume they’re all the same
  8. Consider dividing your list into two or three groups. After sending your first lot of submissions, distract yourself from fretting about them by preparing another batch
  9. If an agent or publisher requests a “full,” i.e., your full manuscript, rejoice. But don’t assume imminent success
  10. You will notice that most agents/publishers do not tell you exactly why they “pass” on your submission (i.e., reject it). Assume it’s because whoever read it thought it would not sell enough copies to make it worth their while
  11. But do not try to guess the reasons for rejection and fiddle with your manuscript before sending further submissions. The next person will evaluate it by their own criteria, which are likely different from the previous ones’
  12. Remember that once an agent or publisher has rejected your submission, you cannot re-submit it to that person unless they ask you to (which in my experience rarely happens)
  13. Prepare for rejections by invoking whatever activities, thoughts, or people make you feel good about yourself and your writing
  14. Persevere. If you have the energy and desire, write short stories, submit them to journals, enter them in contests. Building a track record of such publications may be helpful in finding an agent or publisher for that novel.

“Good luck with your writing journey.” Indeed.

And remember also that publishing your own novel is no longer a mark of failure, but a viable option.

So fellow writers, which of you have followed the submissions route? Have any of you succeeded? What are your thoughts about the process?

Featured image designed by Audrey Driscoll using Canva, incorporating an image by Peggy_Marco from Pixabay

Writing notebook and notes

Notes and the Work in Progress

The novels I write begin with notes. Well actually they begin with ideas, visions of characters, scraps of plot, and imagined scenes. All these early elements are recorded in a notebook, along with random thoughts that might be relevant. Some notes are written on scraps of paper that happen to be handy when an idea strikes. With luck, I manage to copy them into the Official Notebook, or at least keep track of them. This stage lasts for months, or even years.

Eventually, I start writing the first draft. On paper, with a pen. Right now, I’m still writing a page a day, sometimes more if I’m lucky. As the plot has developed, in an amoeba-like way, I’ve resorted to another set of notes that are sort of like, but not quite, an outline. Character sketches and motivations, rough timelines, problems to be resolved, things I know that the characters do not, and yes, actual outlines of the next section to be written. These notes are on a separate group of 8 1/2 x 11 (A4) sheets of paper.

Novel writing notes

Then there are the in-manuscript notes. Things like [CHECK THIS!] or [EXPAND IN REWRITE], or alerts to areas of weakness [CRAP ALARM GOING OFF!!!] or [WOULD SHE REALLY THINK THIS???]. And often, when I finish a writing session, I scribble a tiny outline for the next day at the very bottom of the page.

So I guess this proves I’m not really the pantser I thought I was. More like a “plantser,” I guess.

Some things to keep in mind about notes.

  • They’re useless unless read over as the work progresses. There’s nothing like rediscovering a good idea after publishing
  • Notes on scraps of paper should be transcribed into a notebook. The lost idea is always the best one
  • There should be only one notebook per novel, but a single notebook may be used for more than one novel
  • Dating the notes is helpful for cross-referencing (e.g., “See list of names in notebook, Nov. 21/20”)
  • Manuscript pages and pages of notes should always be numbered, and indicate the title of the work (even if provisional) at the top

A novel with multiple characters is a complex creation. Notes are helpful at every stage, from concept and basic plot to rewrites. Also, in working out plot problems and bringing characters to life.

But even more, some notes represent a debate between the Imaginer and the Editor. The Imaginer is the part of my brain that’s laying down the text of the first draft. The Editor’s role comes later, in rewrites and editing. But of course, the Editor is around all the time. Every now and then it plants a flag in spots where it anticipates extra attention will be needed. That’s where those “crap alarm” notes come from. And even some quite rude remarks.

Manuscript with inserted notes

Fellow writers, do you make use of notes to help you write? Do you have any note-related tips to share?

airplane blue sky cloud

Flash Fiction: Into the Cloud

A bird sang, and Anna raised her eyes to the topmost twigs of the still bare maple. Far, far above the tree, a jet plane ghosted across the luminous blue of the springtime sky. No contrail, and flying ahead of its sound. Silvery-white, it looked almost translucent, beautiful. Anna thought how strange that dozens of humans were up there, perfectly ordinary people talking, eating, farting, sleeping, anticipating their arrival in some distant city.

The tubular shape vanished behind a medium-sized cumulus cloud that billowed pure white, its edges made incandescent by the morning sun. Anna waited, neck craned, to see the aircraft emerge–because you just do.

She waited. Nothing emerged. No jet plane. No sound, either, although it should have arrived by now. The cloud shifted its shape, sending out illuminated tendrils, elongating, transforming. But the flying craft had disappeared completely, as though vaporized.

Exactly three minutes later, the rain of blood began.

Image by Pexels from Pixabay