Archive for December, 2009

Writing Life: Your Journal and You – More on Writing Longhand

Somewhat continuing the theme from Monday here by pointing out that if you’re serious about writing, or even just moderately enthusiastic, you’re going to wind up doing it longhand at one point or another.  Some people absolutely swear by it, and write everything by hand; for others, it’s strictly out of necessity.  But the necessity does arise — at train stations, at the relatives’ house for a visit, at really boring parties — and it’s good to be prepared for it.

My father was a Boy Scout and a gentleman; from a very early age my brother and I were reminded to never go anywhere without a pocketknife, a handkerchief, and a comb (I still carry all of them).  To his list I have added a pen, which I believe he also generally carries, and a small journal, which he does not.  Lest the word should be misleading, let me clarify — the “journal” is not a personal diary, organized record of my thoughts, or neatly-arranged draft of a single specific work (or even several specific works), though it may at times function like any or all of those.  It is a small, fat collection of bound pagers, easily slipped into a pocket or the back of the belt that I always (Dad, again) wear, which I fill with whatever I happen to need to write down.

This is just common sense.  They are the tools of the trade.  I assume that plumbers usually have a few wrenches and things kicking around the back of their trunk even when they’re not on a specific job; same basic principle.  I’ll never be one of those writers that has neatly-indexed notebooks for specific projects, though I sometimes wish I could be when I’m rummaging through my last three full journals looking for that one damn paragraph that sounded so good, but I recognize the need to always be prepared for those precious moments of inspiration.  They may well get rammed in between a couple of grocery lists, but the lists — and the writing — are in my journal, safe from cats, housecleaning roommates (ha!), stray breezes, or my own careless misplacing.  Scratch paper, better than nothing in a pinch, isn’t a reliable tool for the long-term.

As far as the form and function of the thing goes, I expect everyone has their own preference.  I hate lined paper; my girlfriend can’t write without it.  She travels everywhere with a pack, and can use a full-sized 8.5×11″ notebook; I travel obsessively light, and tend toward the smallest journal that I can still wedge my hand between the pages of.  Organization comes out to be a similar matter of taste, from the aforementioned separate-project-separate-notebook types to my own undated, unannotated scribbles, though after a few frustrating events to find what I’m looking for, I think I can put in a fairly well-educated opinion in favor of the more organized approach.  Some people will even do all their writing longhand, only transferring the final draft to typewritten or word-processed pages — I couldn’t do it, but the creative process is weird and different enough for everyone that if that’s what they have to do to get a book out, I’m not going to be the one to tell them “no.”  I might still suggest a separate, smaller journal for day-to-day life and the occasional scribble, though — you never know when the next inspiration is going to hit, and if it’s a big one, you probably don’t want it sandwiched in between two sections of a totally different draft.

Of course, as with any centralization of data, a certain vulnerability has to be considered, which was recently driven home when I lost a journal full of a great deal of random thoughts, many notes on my shifts at work, months of grocery lists, and perhaps two or three very messily-written pages of genuinely worthwhile writing.  Barring the notebook’s reappearance somewhere unexpected, that particular writing is gone for good.  Some may reappear in slightly-altered form in something else, if it comes to me; some I don’t even remember writing, and will probably never think of again.  But at least I wrote it once, and without the notebook, I couldn’t even say that.

Writing Life: Shorthanded, or, Why I Don’t Write Like That

I’ve been traveling more than usual this last week or so (and slacking off on Friday’s post for the holidays, but who’s counting?), and that means that a lot of things have wound up scribbled in my notebook rather than directly into the computer.  I don’t object to writing out longhand, though it’s hard to find pens large enough for my monstrous huge hands, to say nothing of pocket-stuffable journals, but I’m noticing more and more a total incapability to write in bullet points or any kind of shorthand.

This is a handicap, I think, in the world of texting and e-mail; I was anachronistic ten years ago, when adolescent society revolved around AOL Instant Messenger — the kind that came bundled with AOL, which we all used, because it was the only dial-up provider out there.  Most of us didn’t have cell phones yet, and I suspect that tying up the home phone lines by logging in just to chat was part of more than a few bids for getting one.  But the point here is, I wrote in complete sentences, used punctuation, and capitalized words where appropriate, including “I.”  It drew comment then, and I always have this nervous suspicion that anyone reading over my shoulder would criticize my note-taking, too — even when I’m not drafting a story (or one of these damned posts), I tend to wax paragraphical rather than bullet-point my way down the page.  Occasionally I will start with intentions of shorthanding it, scribbling a title like “Thoughts on Tea for Two” over a bold horizontal stroke, justified left, and dashing out a recklessly fragmented thought or two beside the almost calligraphical indicator.  Then there will be another below it, and perhaps another after that, but by the fourth or fifth, every bullet point (or perhaps “arrow-point” might be more appropriate, give the preference of dashes to dots) has become at least a complete sentence, and probably two or three.  This does not necessarily indicate a wandering of thoughts or slowing of the creative process, though it can; my brain just doesn’t seem to work well in incomplete sentences.

This is less of a hindrance than it might seem when working on short fiction.  Generally speaking, a 2,000-word story doesn’t need to be summarized.  If you sit down and write the first few paragraphs, that should give you plenty to go off of for the rest, even if it does change around a bit in the writing.  An outline is overkill.  For a novel, that becomes more problematic, although I got by all right just letting the plot wander where it would during NaNoWriMo, where volume was more of a consideration, and the finished draft could serve as the outline for a much tidier offspring of its own.  But the really odd sticking point — for me — has been blogging.

Despite being shorter than even my shortest stories, or perhaps because of it, blog posts really seem to demand a tight-and-tidy ordering of thoughts that my paragraphically-inclined brain doesn’t like.  Go back up and read through the paragraphs of this post — see how they aren’t always neatly separate thoughts from the one above them?  It’s flawed writing; I need to work on tidying it up.  And writing them out in my journal ahead of time — as bullet points — might just be the solution to that.

But first I have to find the damn thing, which is somewhere in my holiday luggage…perhaps by Wednesday.

Personal Pages: Mry xmas k thx by

I suppose I should put this up before Christmas Day, so no one thinks it’s targeted specifically at them. I should also have really put it up yesterday, to keep with the M-W-F posting schedule, but holiday travel shot that one all to hell — believe it or not, I’m still trapped in the Early Stone or “Desktop” Age, and even if my Mac is lightweight and compact enough to drag home on the long trips, it still can’t be unpacked for a quick gas station update (it does, however, weigh less than the laptop I used before it).

So on to the appropriately-themed topic at hand, the holiday text message — you know, the ones that arrive in your inbox from friends who haven’t sent you a text since the last Hallmark Holiday. It’s probably the same one, with the actual event name deftly replaced, if they happen to be packing a QWERTY phone that makes cutting and pasting sufficiently efficient.

Now, I come from a household that sent “The Cubbage Chronicle” out every December of my childhood and adolescence, so I am not a stranger to the mass-distributed, unpersonalized Christmas greeting. It was even kind of fun, as much an opportunity for my father to show off his skills with the primitive page-layout softwares of the early 1990s as it was a family brag-sheet; there were feature articles, a central photograph, and always the sidebar of everyone’s favorite books of the year (I believe Patricia C. Wrede’s Dealing with Dragons appears in every issue from 1992 through 20-whenever I went to college and stopped getting consulted, and I’m reasonably certain that I actually did read it each year, sometimes in early December, just to be sure it made the list). My personal favorite innovation in home publishing was the substitution of bright red construction paper for the perforated dot matrix paper one year; we got to feed each sheet in by hand as the one before it finished, and you had to time it right or the whole thing came out too low on the page, with the bottom few lines cut off. It was the closest I have ever felt to the pre-digital publishers with their hand-cranked presses or sliding type.

So let this not be a tirade against the tradition of the Christmas mass-messaging, but damn it, we put some work into it. And there was, I can only assume, some kind of selection process here, involving address books and considerations of stamp and envelope resources and do we really want to tell the southern cousins about Geoffrey’s winning debate case on evolution? Nobody just hit “send all.”

Maybe I’m so against the “send all” because I’m bad at phone maintenance — there’s people on that list that I’ve probably never even met, but “hey, let me give you his number” in a bar somewhere, and now there it is. Do I really wish that person a Merry Christmas? In a general sense, sure, in that I don’t particularly wish a bad Christmas on anyone, or a lousy any other day of the year for that matter (unless they’ve done something to piss me off personally), but I’m not all that comfortable with sending them a signed (has my name on it, anyway) greeting. Or with getting one from them.

So bah, humbug, and read the title of the blog again, if you haven’t already. I don’t actually like people much, as an abstract, collective whole, and getting holiday cheer delivered, as it were, directly from that whole is a little disconcerting. If you haven’t texted me since last Christmas, the odds are good that your text this year is insincere, and I would really rather not receive it. But, as we are all told that it is better to give than receive, perhaps I should not fault the generosity of the gesture.

Mry xmas, k thx by.

Works in Progress: An Operatic Story

It’s been a few weeks, now.  We’ve gotten to know one another a bit, or at least you’ve gotten to know my voice, the kind of voice that uses “gotten” twice (three times!) in a lead sentence — let’s get personal.  For the most part, I try (and will continue to try) to keep my own projects out of the more general posts-on-writing, but let’s not kid ourselves — there’s plenty of general writing blogs out there, not to mention how-to books and the like from much more authoritative sources, so we’re going to have to dip into the well of personal experience at some point here.  Keeps things fresh.

So with that in mind, let me tell you about the single most troublesome story I’ve worked on thus far.  Even writing about it is giving me fits; the draft of this very post was the death of many a fine sheet of looseleaf.  What do you say about a story that hasn’t found its final form yet?  Quite a number of painful butterfly-and-chrysalis sorts of things, of course, but I hope to God you aren’t reading this blog for that sort of thing, so I’m just going to start off by saying that it was conceived as an opera in words, and go from there.

It’s not a perfect metaphor.  Operas have words, for one thing; some even have very well-regarded librettos that can stand on their own artistic merit.  And there’s a certain association with length that’s not really appropriate to short fiction.  But the idea was (and is) to make a simple (and perhaps even slightly silly) personal story into something very grand and beautiful by making it sound good, rather than by pouring time and effort into the narrative.  There’s a real addiction in modern fiction to quirky, nuanced characters in sprawling, complex situations — “the powerful story of a recovering drug addict whose aunt leaves her the prize-winning stud poodle that her transgendered brother always wanted” sorts of thing — that I’m trying very deliberately to get away from with this piece.

And to some extent, I think it’s worked.  There’s an exotic setting that doesn’t actually do anything, there’s interpersonal conflicts that could be solved by just talking to one another; there’s tragic death.  And there’s not a whole lot else.  It’s a story about a girl who’s sad because the boy she loves won’t relate to her the way she wants him to, and the unhappy things that come as a consequence of that.  So nothing that hasn’t been said or done before.  The fun has been in blowing in up into something much more elaborate than that with word choice, narrative voice, and no small amount of shameless punning.

Can it work?  I don’t know.  Operas don’t actually make a whole ton of money these days, so it’s possible that I’m trying to appeal to the wrong target market here.  And I’ve always hated “gimmick” fiction, where some narrative trick is the whole point of the story — this might be skating dangerously close to that edge.  Hard to say, from the distinctly unobjective authorial viewpoint, though I can at least rest secure in the knowledge that the story itself won’t have any “gotcha!” surprises for anyone.  But it’s one hell of an exercise in wordsmithing, and I’m enjoying the challenge of making more attractive phrasings for everything I say.

I’ll be adding a “Selected Works” sort of section soonish, subject to the limitations of the publishing world — these are works for sale, at the end of the day, and most publishers don’t like things that have been shown in toto or heavily excerpted, even just on a private blog.  But there’ll be a sentence here, a paragraph there — enough to give you a sense of what the voice of a story sounds like, hopefully.  Should have it up by tomorrow, hopefully; by Wednesday’s post at the latest, and there’ll be some snippets from the story I’ve talked about here (working title:  “Beside a Pale Gray Lake”).  And then you can be the judge.

Stay tuned!

Blogging Basics: Oh Ma Goodness, Blogs (Not a Post About Writing)

Or at least not about writing fiction.  As the title says – oh ma goodness, blogs.  Who thought these crazy things up?  What the heck do I do with one besides write on it?  That part, I think I’ve got down, but to hell with networking, gaining exposure, “backtracking” (whatever that is) — I’m still trying to figure out how to make it slap my avatar (or I understand it’s now “gravatar” for some reason?) up above the right-hand column.  I feel like I’ve fallen behind modern technology already, and I’m not even thirty years old. Oh ma goodness, and other, less self-censored exclamations.

So I get the whole “tell your friends about it” stage of the game — that was easy.  Most of ‘em probably at least clicked on the thing once, and more power to ‘em — they all know me; if they really want to hear my thoughts on writing, they can call me.  And then we can probably assume that if someone leaves a comment, it’s polite to go check out their blog and leave a comment on something they’ve written.  But say I like that blog — there’s probably a way to figure out when it updates (if they’re not on a regular schedule like this one tries to be), but heck if I know it.  I’m stuck at the “bookmark the page and hope” level of usage, Neanderthal that I am (how did that “H” get in there in the English spelling, anyway?).

And then taking it to the next step — seeking out other blogs to initiate communications with — hoo, boy.  I tried searching WordPress for a couple of the tags I use a fair amount (writing, editing, etc.), and holy crap but there’s a lot of people out there writing.  And that’s just one site — I’ll never even see the blogs about editing, writing, whatever on some competing blog-host-service-thingie.  Googling is right out; even if my-mother-the-librarian wouldn’t kill me, I’m trying to narrow down options here, not expand them.

What a mess.  But on the bright side, most people (and I’m getting this from other blog posts that I have managed to find, ha-ha!) seem to have more trouble with generating content than with networking, and I can generate content like a fiend.  All that takes is writing — at last, something I’m good at.

Writing Life: Interpreting Rejection, or, About the Form Letter

When he was fresh out of college and trying to get published as a freelance journalist (a very different job back then), my father used to wallpaper his (very small) apartment in rejection slips.  Times have changed, and most of my rejection slips are entirely electronic, but the accepted-to-rejected ratio remains about the same — a proportion that, in most calculations, could functionally be approximated to zero.  At least I won’t have to hide the one with the official Playboy letterhead when my girlfriends come over to visit.

Best-selling authors and other “established” figures may get personalized rejections, I really couldn’t say.  But for most of us, the vast majority of submissions are going to be answered with a form letter saying that the work was appreciated, but not what they’re looking for right now — “It’s me, sweetie, not you.”  So that’s what we’re taking a look at today.

First off, take heart – a lot of times, the “not what we’re looking for” thing is exactly what happened.  You wrote a story about apples; the editor wanted an issue of orange-centric stories.  Shit happens.  And it can happen an amazing number of times with a perfectly good apple-story before you hit on the right combination of publication, editor/reader, and issue.  Unfortunately, form letters don’t usually go into that kind of detail, and after the fourth or fifth time, it starts to get easy to assume that the story just, in fact, sucks.  And maybe it does — but I try to make that assumption the very last-ditch conclusion.  What I try to do instead, to avoid the mental “I keep getting rejected; maybe I should just stop” pitfall:

1.  Get other feedback.  Ideally this has already happened (never send out a story without having plenty of other people look at it first), but go ahead and keep bugging people about it after the story goes out.  Try to get some really harsh critics in there, so that you’ve always got lots of ideas to consider if you do decide to revise the story heavily — but I also sprinkle a few softies into my editing group, since reading their comments makes me feel a lot better when a story keeps getting bounced.  Self-serving, and perhaps a little self-deluding, but as long as you’re taking everyone with a grain of salt, it should all be more helpful than “Not what we’re looking for at this time.”

2.  After the first rejection, go back and re-edit the story — but not the content.  Assume that’s good (unless you realize in re-reading it that there’s a serious continuity flaw or something else major that’s making it just not work as a narrative).  Avoid the temptation to make sweeping changes in theme or characters or setting just because it got rejected.  Just go over the mechanics with a fine-toothed comb, make sure that each sentence makes the most effective use of English possible for what you’re trying to do, and above all make sure that there are no typos or spelling errors and that your manuscript form is perfect — some editors will care, and some won’t, but don’t take a chance on getting rejected by the first group for a boring reason like a dropped comma.  Find another publication that the story works for and re-submit with just those basic mechanical corrections and some minor re-wording.

3.  Do the same thing if it gets rejected again.  Go over the grammar and the mechanics, but don’t change the story.  It’s good, otherwise you wouldn’t have sent it out, right?  Try to mix up the publications a little bit, not just hit the same half-dozen faces over and over again, but obviously don’t go beyond people who run the kind of story you’ve written.  If it really doesn’t fit the magazine you’re sending it to, of course it’s going to come back as “Not what we’re looking for at this time.”

4.  Finally, once you’ve gotten bounced from a whole pile of magazines that theoretically ought to like your story, go ahead and take another sniff at the content — but not immediately on the heels of a rejection letter.  Let it cool for a while.  Work on something else, get some friends to read the story again and give you some more comments, and then slowly work your way back into it.  Consider the comments you have from other people, consider where you’re sending it next and how to tailor the story to that publication’s needs, and then — carefully — make your changes.

5.  The obvious conclusion to all this (I hope) is to keep re-submitting, no matter what — a story that’s sitting in your “Projects” folder for revision isn’t going to make any money.  Make whatever changes you think absolutely have to happen to make it a publishable work — and no more — and get it back out there to someone, anyone.  Don’t be afraid to go off-market, small, independent — whatever it takes to get that credit (and hopefully some cash too).

And beyond that, there’s nothing you can do except to pick up a hobby on the side that rewards you frequently and easily.  You’re never going to get the endorphins of easy victory from trying to get published (especially with no credits to put on the cover letter — the first one is hardest), so maybe pick up a computer game that lets you play in God-mode or something.  Beat the snot out of it while you wait to hear back from the latest round of submissions.  Better still, learn to take a quiet joy in a really well-cleaned kitchen/apartment/whatever — your significant other/roommate/whatever will become much more encouraging of your authorial ambitions when they inspire scrubbing.

Trashy Fiction, a Writer’s Friend

Since I’m still slogging through the revision process on the novel (as detailed on Friday), some thoughts on a more general subject — the benefits of reading trashy fiction!  I won’t get too technical with definitions and lines there — if it’s written strictly for entertainment, it’s probably at least a little trashy (or “pulp” — does that sound nicer, or worse?), and the more entertaining, very likely the trashier.  Genre isn’t particularly relevant here; whether your preference is bodice-ripping romance, epic fantasy, or licensed characters from some kind of “shared” universe (Star Wars, etc.), my point remains — the really pulpy, trashy stuff is your friend as an author.

No, really.  It’s great stuff for the creative process.  Definitely not a style to emulate, unless that’s what you’re trying to write (and the sales of people like Robert Jordan, Nora Roberts, and Stephen King suggest that maybe it should be), but there’s a great value in reading simplified stories.  If you’re only chowing down on “literature” (oh that word!), you’re inevitably going to come away with a focus on intricate literary mechanics that don’t always help with telling a story.  Pulp fiction gets back to the basics.

Uncomplicated characters, especially when they reach the two-dimensional caricature extreme, don’t do much to entertain on their own.  They need a good, ripping story to captivate.  There’s an attention to plot and description, even when those two fundamentals are also pulled directly off the Wal-Mart shelf of book ideas, that hammers itself right on into your brain and says “Here, dummy, this is the story — isn’t it cool?”  Distracting features get stripped away, the narrator is always reliable, and you get to just focus on what’s happening to who, and why you care.

I don’t think I’d want everything I read to be like that.  But I do think that a writer could do a lot worse than to start from a perspective where good people are good, bad people are bad, and everything turns out happy in the end — at the very least, it gives a valuable model to deviate from.  And I think it requires a good deal more creativity than may be initially apparent, just to make that fundamental, two-dimensional world of right vs. wrong and happy endings remain compelling.

So put down the Proust and dust off that old copy of The Flame and the Flower, or dig out the Star Wars paperbacks from childhood.  It might just help reset the creative process and get you back to basics a little bit — just don’t, as I mentioned earlier, read directly before writing.  Unless you’re a far less suggestible person than I am, and more credit to you then, I suppose.  But enjoy!  Because really, that’s what this is all about.

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