Saturday, January 29, 2011

A Million Bad Words

I came across this wonderful blog entry from KidLit (literary agent blog), that talks about paying your dues, as a writer. The basic concept is that, just as you can't expect to become a top-paid executive without the proper education and working your way up that corporate ladder, you also can't expect to get published with your very first attempt at a novel. I'm not saying it doesn't happen (there are some rare success stories), but usually, it doesn't.

I've been writing since I was twelve, give or take, off and on. I only got serious about it in my twenties, when I started writing novels. In fact, I wrote four novels during my twenties that will never see the light of day. I call them my "experiments." My "million bad words." I wrote them, playing with the art form, figuring out for myself how to write a novel, how to craft a story and make characters rich. During those years, I also went to writers conferences, read books, and learned how to enrich my prose -- avoid cliches, trim wordy passages, "show" instead of "tell." Those were my years spent climbing the ladder. Paying my dues. (And those dues paid off in more ways than one - I now teach Creative Writing courses and pass along the invaluable wisdom I learned during those years to my students).

Now, I'm working toward the goal of publication. Three years ago, I wrote the first book of a series, then the second, then the third. And after querying widely last year, I got myself an agent! (*still pinching myself*). He's submitting the series to publishers now, and I'm crossing all my fingers and toes...and am still working while I wait. I'm revising Book 2 and Book 3, and hope to finish Book 4 this summer.

Just because it's taken me a long while to get where I am in this process doesn't mean that every writer's journey will be this way. But I wouldn't change a single minute of my journey, my years'-long apprenticeship. Because it's given me time. Time to study the Masters (reading, reading, reading), to attend writer's conferences and meet other writers online, to learn more about myself as a writer, to study and improve upon my craft -- and all of it makes me the writer I am today. Oh, I'm still learning. As I tell my students, no writer should ever stop learning, ever stop improving. But that's the beauty of this writing journey. It's fluid. I love the ebb and flow, the waxing and waning of it. And I can't wait to see where the tide will take me next!

Friday, January 21, 2011

First Sentences

Next week, I'll be talking with my Creative Writing students about the importance of first sentences. I've asked them to choose three favorites (from three novels and/or short stories) and bring them to class to read aloud.

The purpose is learning to identify which openings work, and which don't. The opening sentences can make or break it for a reader. It could be the one thing that makes a reader put down your book. So you've got to get it "just right."

There are so many choices to consider -- do you open with dialogue? Description? Action? Narration? If you're unsure, try each of all of the above, and see which works the best. Don't ever be afraid to experiment with an opening scene.

For next week's assignment, I've picked one of my favorite openings to read aloud. Here it is, by the brilliant Elizabeth Berg (Open House):

You know before you know, of course. You're bending over the dryer, you're pulling out the still warm sheets, and the knowledge walks up your backbone. You stare at the man you love, and you are staring at nothing. He is gone before he is gone.


Blog Makeover!

In the year and a half since I started this little blog, I've never changed the format, not even once. Back then, I chose a simple background, easy-to-read colors, and left it alone (I don't like change, you see).

But today, I started clicking, started exploring. Decided my blog needed a fresh look. True, the beige colors aren't so different from before, and I did keep my little Snoopy-writer safely in place. And the format is still...well, simple. But there's a bit more personality to the layout now, hopefully.

Detail, Detail, Detail!

Detail makes the difference between boring and terrific writing. It's the difference between a pencil sketch and a lush oil painting. As a writer, words are your paint. Use all the colors. ~Rhys Alexander

I couldn't agree more. I'm constantly telling my students (both in formal essay writing and their creative writing) to provide detail. To make their prose crackle with specifics. To be vivid, make their writing come to life. Because writing that's vague and abstract is writing that's dull and unimaginative.

But it's hard sometimes. It takes work, brain power, energy, to provide details. And it also takes the ability to distinguish which details to put in and which to leave out (let's face it - who wants to read detailed descriptions, floor-to-ceiling, of every single new room a character walks into? It's just not necessary...).

In the end, detail is crucial for helping the reader picture a sharper image in his/her head. It's our job, as writers, to guide the reader, nudge them to see the picture in our heads as we write the story.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Tell the Truth

I often talk to my students about the importance of their work "ringing true" (even the fiction - especially the fiction). And what I mean is that you, the writer, have to believe the words, to feel them in your gut, before you can convince the reader to do so.

I found a wonderful C.S. Lewis quote that elaborates on this -- I think he's spot-on, saying that as long as we tell the truth and stop worrying SO much about being original, we will be original. Because it's OUR truth that we're telling. And since every human being is original and unique, that will show itself in the work. Here's the quote:

Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before), you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.

So brilliant, so true.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Pass the Torch

As a reader, I always conjure specific images in my head - of characters (hair color, shape of face, tone of voice) or setting (room size, atmosphere, etc). Sure, those images are based on the author's description of them, but in the end, those images end up being uniquely mine.

On the other side of that curtain, as a writer, I do my best to take the images in my head and transfer them to the page accurately, so that the reader will see what I see. But it's not that simple. I know that when I see something in my head, and describe it on paper, that the reader could quite possibly picture an entirely different image than I do. (It's All in Your Head)

And I'm okay with that. First of all, because it's impossible, with words alone, to transfer an image from someone's mind to another person's mind in its exact, original, intended state. And secondly, because that's the fun of writing--giving readers a broad platform and then letting them create their own specific detail in whatever way their minds want to offer it.

I'll go a step further -- how many times, as a reader, have you read a description of a character (short, brown hair, bright blue eyes, crooked smile) and deliberately decided it's not what you, as the reader picture for that character? Have you ever downright ignored an author's description, and just made up your own as you read? Pictured a physically-different character than the author has described? That's okay, too!

Because once a description leaves the writers' hands and enter the readers' hands, it's theirs. The readers'. They own it now--these characters, this story, these descriptions. And in the creativity of their unique minds, they get to picture what they desire.

What first sparked this blog entry was a quote I read yesterday:

Writing gives you the illusion of control, and then you realize it's just an illusion, that people are going to bring their own stuff into it. ~David Sedar

I think he's spot-on. We authors think we have all sorts of control over our story, over our readers. But really, when we give up the book and put it into the readers' hands, we're just passing the torch. Our torch then becomes their torch, to do with whatever they please...

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Treat It Like a Job

A colleague and I were talking about writing yesterday, and he asked me, "How do you do it? Where do you find the discipline to sit down and actually finish something?"

At the time, I said something cliched like, "Mind over matter -- I just sort of make myself do it, like it or not. I just dig in."

But now, I wish I'd elaborated, told him this, instead: "Try to treat writing like a job. Pretend there's something huge at stake (a salary, your reputation). Because when you have something depending on the writing, you'll be more prone to write."

That's probably why my Creative Writing students usually tell me that, as hard as it is to have deadlines for creativity, they appreciate the deadlines I give them in class. Because it forces them to write. Their grade is at stake.

Every semester, there are students who take that "how do I finish something?" question a step further -- they're frustrated with themselves because they have "all these ideas," have started all these stories, but they can't seem to finish one of them. At that point, I tell them, "That many stories can feel overwhelming. So just narrow your focus. Pick one and only one. Then, finish it. And don't stop until you finish it, even if you think it's awful. Because that sense of accomplishment will give you the courage and determination to finish the other pieces."

Pardon me while I get a little philosophical, here, but yet another incentive for diving in, finishing that languishing manuscript, is that time is short. I turned 40 last year, and though numbers are just numbers (and, in a way, meaningless), that birthday did make an impact. No longer in my twenties, no longer in my thirties. Two decades that passed by in what feels like a blink. 40. Yikes. Yes, the clock IS ticking.

We only have today, for sure. Tomorrow? Who knows. So why not dust off that manuscript, that 10-year-old short story - TODAY - and set a new goal--to finish it. Even if it's a few minutes a day. Just do it.

Perfect quote for this entry: You can't build a reputation on what you are going to do ~Henry Ford

Sunday, January 9, 2011

10 Questions You Should Be Asking Yourself

At the agent blog of Dystel & Goderich, I came across this wonderful link - 10 Questions Editors Ask Themselves When Evaluating a Manuscript.

Aside from the misspellings (*giggle*), some wonderful questions are asked, about pacing and characterization, about theme and readership. Questions every author who's trying to get published should be asking about every book he/she writes. Some of them seem too simple (common sense questions that should be obvious to any writer), but I think each question is worth carefully considering.

I found myself stopping and thinking about each question as it related to my own novel (Book 2). I could answer "yes" to many of them, but when I had to pause and consider my answer for too long, it made me wonder if there's something else I could be doing to strengthen the plot/characters.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

The Agent on My Shoulder

I admit, as thrilling as it's been, getting an agent, it's also been quite a mental adjustment. I keep having to remind myself that someone "out there" liked my book enough, believed in it enough, to offer representation. There's also a pressure I hadn't expected--to prove him right, that he was wise to offer representation. I don't want to let him down!

More importantly, having an agent has created this little voice in my head--this little person sitting on my shoulder as I write, now. Because a phenomenon has occurred, in the weeks since I've signed with him: I've started seeing my book (the current one, as well as works-in-progress) through his eyes. We've been through a couple of revisions together--he gives me suggestions, we bat ideas around, and I get to work. And now, as I write fresh material, I'm already jumping ahead to wonder, "What will he think of this plot twist? Will he agree that her reaction here is appropriate?" I'm already anticipating his input, his suggestions.

Sure, that voice can be a little irritating, because I'm not used to it being there. I've only ever had to please myself when I write. But now, there's someone else (and hopefully, in the future, many more someone else's (readers!)) to consider. And I've realized--having someone else to please has also done something wonderful. It's upped my game. That agent on my shoulder is like a supportive coach, holding the goal up, higher than it's ever been, and telling me, "You can do it. Reach higher, go bigger. Stretch yourself."

Sure, one could argue that as writers, we should only please ourselves. That we should ignore other voices, the tendency to please someone else. But, as long as we agree with those suggestions of another, as long as they do nothing but improve the book, why not try to please them?

So, even if you don't have that agent just yet, place that little coach on your shoulder anyway, the one telling you to reach higher, go bigger. Stretch yourself.

Friday, January 7, 2011

You're Not Alone

Thanks to the internet, we writers have easy access to information and resources we need. When I was querying agents, the internet was invaluable -- not only because I was able to track down agent info, but also because I discovered messageboards and blogs, written by writers who were in my very shoes. Support groups, writers in the trenches, like me, awaiting word from agents, fighting frustration at the rejections.

Being as shy as I am, I would mostly lurk at these sites/blogs, rather than participate directly. But still, just reading the posts made me feel less alone in my experience.

There's a wonderful page at Absolute Writes (entitled "Rejection and Dejection," lol) that contains dozens of threads, each with a similar purpose--chatting with other writers who are in the holding pattern--waiting, waiting, waiting to hear something either from an agent or editor. Or, who are tired of the rejections and need a little morale boost.

Inevitably, amongst the frustrated posts, there are always success stories that inspire the rest of us. They offer us something tangible, something to hope for, a reminder that sometimes, a publishing story does have a happy ending.

I also love that there are different "levels" of waiting-hell/waiting-purgatory (the Dante-inspired titles are so creative) on that board -- those who are waiting on agents, those who are waiting on editors, even those who just got a book deal and have no idea what to expect next. All can commiserate and swap war stories and pat each other on the back. (Cyber chocolates and spirits are usually offered along with said pat on the back!). The camaraderie at AW, most especially on that "Rejections" page, is downright inspiring.

It's easy to feel alone in the writing process, especially if few or none of your friends/family are writers. So, if you're feeling alone in your experience, just skim through any one of those threads, and you'll feel instantly better (or, at least, understood).

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The Inner Sanctum

I found this article yesterday, from an AbsoluteWrite board posting. It's an interview with four book editors. I loved getting a peek inside the inner sanctum, to see how their minds work, regarding what they look for in a novel--why they might select one book over another. In the end, it's just as I suspected: the process is extremely subjective, and it takes more than a strong plot or strong voice for an editor to put money behind a book. They talk about "falling in love" with a character or tone, and say the story just "clicks."

Above all, for them (just as for any reader), a book must make a connection with them, one that takes them to a different plane, a different level outside themselves. And don't the best books do that? Whisk you away to another world, so that you're barely aware of this one?

In one way, the editors' subjectivity sort of lets me off the hook, as a writer. There's no possible way to know how to please a specific editor. So, my job is to write what I want to write. To give the Muse what she asks for, to present my personal best. Then of course, edit it, polish it, and submit it.

And by then, the ball is no longer in my court. It's out of my hands, whether an editor will "fall in love" with my book--or not. Which is both lovely and terrifying.

Expect Nothing

So, my agent confirmed that he's pleased with my revisions (yay!) and that he's sending my manuscript out to five publishers this week! Soooo exciting, sure. But also, completely nerve-wracking. The material is officially out of my hands now. Nothing left to do. And although the reality is that this submission process will take months and months, I'm eager to know something now, now, NOW!!

Long ago, in an interview Don Johnson did, he was asked about his life philosophy. He just said two words: Expect nothing. And that really stuck with me. Sure, be hopeful, be positive, put good thoughts and prayers behind your hopes and dreams, keep reaching for the stars. But then, expect nothing. That way, if your dreams aren't reached, you're less disappointed. And if they are reached, you're wonderfully surprised!

Of course, this philosophy is much easier said than done. Expecting nothing is something that has to be practiced. Daily. When I feel my hopes rising, when I feel that impatient anticipation and want to check my email for news every five seconds, I have to push the impatience down and....wait. Lower my expectations once again. Put my focus elsewhere (on a new project is a good idea--at least I'll be productive!).

So, for those of us waiting on publishers (or queries to agents!), I think "expect nothing" is a good philosophy to adhere to. I only hope I can! ;-)

*checks email one more time before taking my own advice*

Monday, January 3, 2011

Arm Yourself!

Here's a great article I stumbled on this morning, that gives advice from three literary agents, about the agent/publishing process.

I'm always on the lookout for little tidbits about the process. I love to feel more well-informed about publishing. And, I think it's necessary, for writers to have a knowledge base about the "other side" of things. The business side. Sure, I much prefer dealing with my characters and creating storylines, than thinking about publishing and all its complexities. But it's essential for writers to arm themselves with certain knowledge about something that will, hopefully, affect them someday...getting published!!