Writing

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

What About the Cat? Or, Insert Quirk Here

We writers give our characters quirks and habits to make them relatable and different from one another. Fingernail chewing, smoking, polishing glasses, using certain expressions. The trouble is, it’s easy to forget about them while creating the plot.

Maybe it doesn’t matter. Once the reader has absorbed that this one mangles paper clips and that one wears polka-dots, are further mentions of those quirks really necessary?

I think they are. Real people keep doing things like that, and we want our characters to be real. And it’s just sloppy writing to forget details. Besides, some readers are incredibly fussy. I remember reading a library book in which a certain character had a cat. The cat didn’t play an important role in the plot, but it was mentioned several times. Toward the end of the book, there was a fire in that character’s house and quite a lot of action around putting it out, making sure no one was injured, etc. But the cat was not mentioned. I have to admit, I may never have realized that, had not a previous reader made a marginal note, “What about the cat? Stupid author!” Readers notice details, even trivial ones.

So another editing pass may be in order. Along with tracking down typos and patching plot holes, add a quirks checklist. Insert characters’ habits, tics, pet phrases, and oddities at intervals throughout the text. And make sure not to mix them up.

But don’t overdo it. Sprinkle, don’t shovel. Aim for a happy medium between “Hey, what happened to the polka-dot bowties?” and “Geez, if I see another mention of paperclip abuse, I’ll throw this book at the wall.”

Fellow writers, do you give your characters memorable quirks? Have you ever forgotten about them in the course of perfecting the plot, or attached a quirk to the wrong character? Or as a reader, been annoyed at an author who did that?

Words related to writing

Visualizing Your Characters and Reviewing Other Authors: Two More from WSW

Two more posts on the Writers Supporting Writers blog: Chuck Litka’s thoughts on how we picture the characters we create can be found HERE

And HERE, another video chat, this time on the benefits and pitfalls of reviewing and being reviewed by other authors.

Image by prettysleepy1 on Pixabay

quote marks and talk bubbles

Group Dialogue

I enjoy writing dialogue. In fact, I’m one of those writers who lets characters call the shots a bit too much. Often, they just sit around and yak, instead of doing something to propel the plot.

Dialogue between two characters is basic and straightforward. But in my current work in progress, a group of five people is about to go somewhere and do something. (Let’s hope it’s something interesting.) Of course they’re going to talk about things, make plans, argue about details–and I’m already getting nervous about refereeing those conversations.

A few things come to mind right away…

  • If the whole group is there, or even just three of them, I’ll have to supply dialogue tags or other clear indications of who says what.
  • At least one person will be the silent type. When they do talk, they should say something important or at least funny.
  • Each character’s style must be represented in the way they express themselves, which means I have to know all of them better than I do now. I could conduct character interviews, or try this technique described by author Richard L. Pastore.
  • Dialogue will be easier if most scenes include three or fewer of the characters, which means thinking up how to get the others out of the way.

In fact, I’ve already decided someone is going to go missing. Which means the others will have to organize a search while dealing with a number of other issues. That will, of course, require more planning, discussions, and arguments, many of which will take place over meals. (Can’t starve the characters, after all.)

table, teapot, plates, candle

By the time I’m done, I’ll either have mastered the art of managing the multi-character conversation or killed off two or three of the characters.

All you writers out there must have ways of dealing with group dialogue. Any tips or tricks you would like to share?

Images from Pixabay. Featured image by Mary Pahlke from Pixabay.

SWCF manuscript pages

A Page a Day

Once again, I have a work in progress. It took me a while to assemble the story’s elements, but on December 11th, 2020, I started writing.

Over the past twenty years, I’ve realized I can’t depend on obsession to fuel my writing projects, which is what happened in 2000 and 2001 when I wrote The Friendship of Mortals. (Writing project? No, that first novel was a bout of delightful madness!) For me now the normal state of writing a novel is a long and weary slog.

First drafting is a draining experience. Except when a scene fully blooms in my imagination and simply must be written, bridging the gap between imaginings and words is hard work.

A neglected work in progress is an albatross, a ghost, a sinister shape seen out of the corner of one’s eye, a bad smell lurking in the corner. A neglected work in progress is a burden. The choice is to keep slogging or lay it down and give up.

Giving up is out of the question.

So I made a deal with myself–write one page a day. One page, that’s all. If I hit a point where the work takes off and I write more than a page–great! But one page is enough.

A page of my handwriting is between 400 and 500 words. I’m aiming for a 100K-word first draft, eventually to be reduced to between 85 and 90K. A page a day until the end of June should get me most of the way there.

I’m not saying this is the best way to write a novel. I haven’t tried this technique before, but it seems to be working for me right now. Most days I can find the time and energy to write one page. Often, the session extends to a second or third page. The work is coming to life and asking to be written. After 12 weeks, I’m at 40K words, approaching the halfway point of the first draft.

Fellow writers, do you speed through your first drafts or squeeze them out word by word? Do you have any tricks to make yourself keep writing?