Monday, June 29, 2009

Researching Literary Agents - It's Never Too Soon

Reading all my favorite writer's blogs, and your comments at this site, I notice that many of you are looking forward to the agent search when your book is finished. In fact, it's never too soon to start.

The process of deciding what tack you'll take, what agent query site, doesn't start when you've decided your work is ready - it starts now, because it takes a long time to vet each agent.

Here's my method, just to get you started. You'll soon find out what works best for you and devise different approaches, perhaps.

I used Query Tracker. I asked for results for Women's Fiction, and opted for New York* agents, because I'm only an hour away by air, brightly thinking I'd be handy to the wonderful being who'd committed to represent me, in case they wanted to have a quick coffee, shoot the breeze.

The truth is, many writers never meet their agents. Just about everything is done online now, and sitting down face-to-face is probably long gone. We all know that agents are busy, busy people, and I doubt they could manage regular meetings with their writers without seriously disrupting their attempts to find new ones. (However, if you make them heaps of money, I'm pretty sure they'll at least have a coffee with you.)

*Originally, I did research British agents, as Hafan Deg's setting is divided almost equally between Britain and Australia, but so few of them take email submissions - old-school traditionalists that they are. I managed to find only two who appealed to me, one of whom took me on, but that was late, late, in my querying, the submission almost an afterthought.

Once Query Tracker gave me my list of choices, those who didn't take email submissions were marked 'Disregard'. Perhaps I missed out on some great ones, but I have neither the time nor inclination to be running to the post office with hard copy. If things got desperate later, I could always return to them.

From the reduced list, I read the comments left by other Query Tracker users. It doesn't take long to skim down and see whether or not an agent is efficient in responding, or prone to losing manuscripts, etc. More 'Disregards'.

With the remaining list, I then looked more closely at each agent. I checked what their response stats were, what other writing sites like Publishers' Market had on them (linked from the agent page). If things looked reasonable, I went to their website.

This is where the real stuff is - their clients, perhaps (not always), to see what books they've handled and if yours is a good fit; their reading likes and dislikes; their personal genre favorites; their agenting style - warm and friendly, or cold and intimidating. I made notes here (on the site page) to be used in my query for that personal touch. More agents were marked 'Disregard' at this point.

The website is also where you examine their Submission Guidelines. It would be great if agents could agree on an industry standard - where all accepted a brief query letter, one-page synopsis, and first three chapters - or even just five pages - to see your actual writing, but they don't. Each one has his or her own set of rules.

The one-page query is mystifying. What can really be assessed there? How can the quality of your unique book be judged by a few paragraphs? I sent nine of them, of course, receiving just one request for a partial, and NO responses to the others. If you go this route, you'd better have a magical letter. I thought mine was perfect...

In many cases, when I came across condescending or what I called Bossy-Britches guidelines - we must do this, and must do that, or off with our heads! - I dropped them from my list. I mean, I'm not a child, and if most agents feel it unnecessary to treat me as one, I don't need to deal with those who do.

Once my list was more or less complete, I added them to My Query List. I began Googling them for their blog sites, to get a closer understanding of them, and more personal references for the query letter.

So, out of hundreds of names, I ended up with a list of perhaps 40 that took ages to produce, and even longer to analyze. And that's why you need to start now. Devoting some time to it, when you're taking a break from your writing, will give you a well-considered group to query when you're finally ready. If you're really ambitious, you could do draft emails to each of them, ready to go. You'll have spent so much time with them, perhaps following their blogs, and having articles about them delivered to your Reader, that they will feel almost like friends when you send that email off to them.

Now - your way - your brilliant book is going to just sit, while you mess around with your agent research at the end. Best start now. It's fun. It also could reveal some important points that need to be incorporated into your manuscript.

As to your query letter, that should be done and dusted. It's been tweaked and polished to a finely-tuned work of art in itself by now, right? Set it up in a draft email. All that's necessary is to pop in those personalized bits. Send one to yourself at your other email site. Pretend you're an agent, opening it.

Interestingly, you'll find that doing these things - having your agents' list, and the query all ready to go - will make you more confident in the writing, even more determined to stick to the schedule you've set for yourself.

By the way, I'm not so egotistical as to think that I am through with querying agents. Strachan's Attic, so close to completion, could be of no interest to the agent I'm signing with for Hafan Deg. And this same agent could well throw in the towel in a few months, if he can't find an editor for the first one. So I'm keeping my list up-to-date. Things happen. I'm always a realist.

I know my stats are of less importance now, as Hafan Deg's been picked up, but would you believe that an agent I really liked, who had my Partial, finally asked for a full submission? It hurt to have to turn her down, but a Full doesn't guarantee an offer, and I'm committed to signing with my new agent as soon as the paperwork arrives. One thing that came out of it - I now have her direct email address for anything else I'd like to submit to her in the future (she found my writing 'lovely'). This means not having to go through the usual crowded portal with other queriers, if I do need her down the road.

I'm on another hot-hot roll with Strachan - 11,000 words over the last four days, 80% finished, and not wanting to stop. It won't be long now.

That last wistful comment, incidentally, recurs throughout the novel, used as it was by so many waiting for World War II to come to an end.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Milestones - Michael's Gone

I know exactly where I was when John F. Kennedy died. I remember the Moon Landing, John Lennon's death, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of Apartheid, the introduction of the first personal computer, the cell phone, the internet - and many other events that have had an impact on all of our lives, one way or another.

Michael Jackson's death yesterday marks another milestone. I have neither the expertise nor enough personal knowledge to comment on his life, but I liked him, love his music, and had followed him since the beginning. This extraordinary talent was central to our days, whether we cared for him or not. He was there. He could not be ignored.

I'm saddened that he didn't have the opportunity to renew himself with the planned 2010 Tour. They are saying now that preparations for this perhaps contributed to his death. His public life was too much for one man, his private life too tortured.

I remember his dear little face when he first came on the music scene. That's how I'd like to remember him.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Renewed Writing Vitality - That's What Friends Are For

Well, I've reviewed the agency's contract, and now the hard copy should be winging its way to me for signature. According to Malinda Lo, things are then largely out of my hands, and I should just get on with the next book. Her blog on how she got published is a good one, and, whether you're at that stage, or dreaming about it, you must read it.

I had mentioned to the agent that my other novel, Strachan's Attic, was close to completion, and they now have a synopsis and 30 pages to consider. They pointed out that most publishers prefer writers with more than one book, to prove they aren't that hackneyed "one-book wonder". Naturally, I hope they'll want it, too, but it's a totally different book, quite unlike Hafan Deg, and nothing is guaranteed.

Did my news of this past weekend make you sit up and take notice? I think so, by the number of comments. Are you now more determined than ever to get your own book picked up? You'd better be.

Melissa, of Grosvenor Square, told me that she was spurred on when I mentioned publishers' preferences for more than one book, and now really would be getting down to it. We've been exchanging critiques lately, and I think of her as my writing buddy. Considering that Melissa has already finished three novels (!) and is working on her fourth, she's almost home and dry, in my eyes. Although her prolific output is impressive, her writing is even more phenomenal. Now if she can just snag that agent...

Casey's blog, Literary Rambles has been featuring the querying process lately, and there are some good things there. She also had a good post she picked up from Query Tracker on researching agents that I thought you should look at. Again, although you know these things, it's a clarion call to getting the query process right, and it can't hurt to revisit the topic.

So, are you now looking at your own work with renewed vitality? I want that for you. We know the writing is the most important thing, but getting an agent, possibly publication, would make it all so valid, wouldn't it? All those solitary hours of frowning, weeping, laughing over your words would finally be rewarded publicly. Are you feeling that?

I've calmed down now, and will get back to Chapter 24 of Strachan's Attic today. Poor Strachan and the others were left dangling at a crucial point of the story last week, because I just couldn't get my head around this Agent Found thing.

Thanks to all of you for your good wishes - you commented and emailed - even Etsy artists from my art blog. It was quite overwhelming. But, after all, to quote the song - 'That's What Friends Are For', I guess.

“You have been my friend. That in itself is a tremendous thing...By helping you, perhaps I was trying to lift up my life a trifle. Heaven knows, anyone's life can stand a little of that."
- Charlotte, 'Charlotte's Web' —E. B. White (1899-1985); author.

Monday, June 22, 2009

On Finally Securing an Agent, and Coming Back to Earth.

I had a range of reactions to getting that 'Yes!' from the British agent this weekend: disbelief, shock, joy, doubt, suspicion, then joy again. I did little writing, which was to be expected considering how out of things I felt. This morning I am accepting and grateful, now the adrenaline has worn off. I've apparently cleared the penultimate hurdle in this writer's foot race, but it has left me tired, as I slowly flutter back to earth today.

Although I did my usual snoop around, prior to sending off my query to them, I've since done even more homework on the company, and have found nothing negative. It's a relatively small outfit, with an equally smallish list of clients. This is possibly why they take such a personal approach with their queries. On their submission site, they are encouraging, warm and humorous - no drill sergeant orders here. I showed a snippet of their guidelines on May 29, in case you missed it. I certainly was getting impatient with being addressed like a wayward child on some of those other agency pages - in fact, I didn't query agents whose wording was overly demanding or patronizing.

All I have to do now is sign the agency agreement, assuming I like their terms. Practical as ever, I believe it's never over 'til it's over. The final hurdle will be their success in finding a publisher. And that's a whole new challenge in the race, akin to marathon runners 'hitting the wall', as they put it, but who's going to give up now, so close to the winner's line?

Anne Mini of Author!, Author! (left side bar under Helpful Sites) has a wealth of information - I mention her a lot, because she's so good. She's covered just about every question the unpublished writer could ask. Here's a paragraph on rejection that I'd like to share:
"The important thing to bear in mind is that at the query or pitching stage, the book could not possibly have been rejected because the manuscript was poorly written . The query might have been rejected for that reason, naturally, but it’s logically impossible for an agent to pass judgment on a manuscript’s writing quality without reading it."

So my suggestion to you today, if you're not quite convinced your query is the best it could be, or your automatic rejects are coming at you fast and furiously, give that vital letter an overhaul. Check out Anne's site and all those others offering tips.

Right now, with each query, you're standing outside the agent's door, your email 'send' button is your foot inching around the door, but your fascinating query is the only thing that's going to fling that door wide open. Once it's open, you'd better have a fantastic manuscript to follow up with. And I know you do.

Go get 'em!


Saturday, June 20, 2009

I Have An Agent!

Okay, guys, it's Saturday, not my usual day for blogging, but I had to tell you what happened this morning.

I opened an email from the British agent who had requested the full manuscript for Hafan Deg. Ho hum, I thought, as I saw the opening line,
"Thank you for your full submission which I have now had the opportunity to read in full."
This is where I expected to see "However, I regret that we are unable to offer..."

But then, what came next, well, it hit me in the stomach!
"I thoroughly enjoyed the whole story and couldn't put it down, which is always a good sign for me. Without making any guarantees as to publication, we would like to present your manuscript to a number of publishers for their consideration".
For all of you who have traveled this querying path with me, you know how I'm feeling right now. I thought I was Ms Cool about the rejections, but I sure as heck wasn't about an acceptance!

They've suggested some very minor alterations to the structure - I mean, minor: several scattered back story references that they'd like as one chapter being the biggest one. A few paragraph deletions here and there. Naturally (what else is new?), there are some minor typos (that Typo Imp even managed to get through to the agent!) but, with the amazing current technology, a clear, editorially-marked manuscript ready for me to take action on, I should have it done in no time. In the olden days, from whence I came, this would have taken weeks!

Then all they have to face is the long haul (as they put it) to publishers, but I'm not even going to think about that. My little orphan Hafan Deg has come in from the cold, at last.

Thanks to all of my blogging friends who have followed me this far. You were always there for me when I needed advice or reassurance.

And now I have another friend. He's my agent.

How cool are those words!


Friday, June 19, 2009

Writing chronologically your thing, or being bold with back-insertions?

I understand that movies are shot out of sequence, perhaps not all, but definitely some. I have no idea why this happens, other than obvious things. Outside shooting would require the right weather; the actor needs to lose weight within the film (Cast Away's ending was shot at the beginning - it was easier for Tom Hanks to get really thin before the start of production, then take time off to bulk up for the early scenes); the director's preference; and other reasons beyond my knowledge.

It must be one of the greatest challenges of movie acting (other than the boring time sitting around between takes) with things so disjointed and each day's shooting unrelated to that of the day before. I really admire film editors, too, who give us the final product.

In Belle's blog recently, she expressed her dislike of writing out of sequence, the disjointedness of it. I'd never considered my feelings on it, but I've always done it. Long after I've completed chapters, an idea will pop up that simply has to be expressed in Chapter 2, or an event in Chapter 20 needs a reference to it in Chapter 10. In fact, I write about a quarter of the book, I'm guessing, out of sequence. I've inserted great chunks of dialogue into beginning sections, because I suddenly want to introduce some new event now, in this later piece of writing, and it needs an earlier clue. I imagine that all mystery writers must do this.

In a way, it's the opposite of revision, where we must remove irrelevant passages (despite how damned good they are). Just as I take out brilliantly conceived paragraphs, or even whole pages, I also need to insert things.

I'm surprised that writers would have a different take on this; I assumed everyone worked the way I do. I guess it could be perceived as scattered thinking, but life is scattered, when you think about it. We go along day-to-day, and things from our past unexpectedly come rushing in at us; events long-gone now intrude; memories temporarily blot out our present; a casual conversation reveals an unknown snippet of history that totally changes our view of someone or something. So it is with my writing.

In fact, during the writing process - not the "ass applied to the seat" work, but the internal writing, while I'm doing housework, walking, whatever - I am rarely thinking about the future content, other than the basic plot outline. I'm analyzing what's happened previously. Did he really say that in the right tone? Would she have done this willingly? Should she have spoken to him first, before acting on it?

Whatever method we use, it makes no difference to the final outcome, as long as we're enjoying the writing process - all of it. I don't like to hear that people are agonizing over their work. Of course it's brain-taxing, and often emotionally-draining, but it should always be a joy. It's temporarily painful to remove some of your brilliant words during revision, but I believe there should be nothing but love involved in adding to the original work. No tortured writer here.

A rather chicken-pecking word count yesterday - just 1600 words. They resented being put on the page, but are thankfully satisfying to read. It happens sometimes, doesn't it? The little writing muse tells us to back off a bit, take it easy. But I prefer Tally-ho! writing, the Boadicea approach. I have a feeling it will be back this weekend.

No changes to my stats this week. Still 9 Pending, 1 Partial, 1 Full, 10 No Response, 12 Rejections, for a total of 33 queries for Hafan Deg, my orphan in agent-land.

Have a good weekend, and - if you're lucky enough to have him in your life - show Dad you love him.


Wednesday, June 17, 2009

How do you write? Fast or slow?

I finished another 2200 words over the past two days, bringing me very close (I keep saying that!) to my cut-off point for the World War II memoir-within-the-novel, prior to concentrating only on present day events.

Bonnie commented that she can't write so quickly, but needs to analyze each and every word. We all have our own methods. I can't work slowly, or interrupt my flow, as I mentioned in another blog. If my writing isn't moving like a torrent, I become irritable. For me, revision can only come after those exuberant words have been poured out onto the pages en masse.

There is an excitement during this period and I barely take a break, needing to get back to it. I revise after about an hour's work, it seems, although I certainly don't time myself. This is a quick revision for obvious errors and to get a clear feel for the structure, but I don't spend too much time at it, because I don't want to spoil that zone I'm in. I then get back to the actual writing, and then revise, and so on, again and again, including the earlier sections I've already dealt with during this session.

After about four hours of this, usually by the end of a chapter, I'll do a more thorough, more or less final revision. Then I start pecking around like a chicken, finding a better word, refining a phrase or a sentence, and correcting typoes. This is slow work, as all of you know, but it's the only time I am slow.

After that, I send the whole thing to my Yola site, suitably re-fonted for readability online. At this point, it gets edited again, because errors pop out with the larger font I use there. It's then ready for those of you who are reading it online to catch up with Strachan's adventures.

Once this manuscript is complete, I'll then revise, revise, revise, for the almost final version, print it off, and edit the hard copy completely. That stage could take weeks, or months. I've been doing so well with this particular book (it wasn't so easy with Hafan Deg, for some reason) that I'm making an assumption that the revision work will not take too long at the end, because I'm very satisfied with what's complete now. I may well add more segments on the War, because I keep coming up with new anecdotes that would just add that extra something, but, at the same time, I need to keep an eye on my word count. The last thing I need at the conclusion of the work, is to have to go back and chop major sections out because I've written too much.

Were I well-published, selling, receiving some critical interest, I could easily produce 150,000 words, but lacking that stature means I must stick close to 95,000 if I want an agent to consider me. They don't like flogging new work to publishers if the work is too long. (Something to do with their costing/revenue projections, I think.)

On days when I have few other household, art blog, or online reading demands, I write at my computer from early morning and, if the buzz is in me, will work right through until dinner time, when my cats start bugging me for food. I more or less work office hours, and this suits me. I am still writing in my head long after I've switched off the computer, of course, which makes for little piles of notes on the coffee table, scribbled out when I'm meant to be following the news, or a movie. It's really hard not to go back to the computer sometimes, and I have to be very firm with myself. I guess some of you might think this is a bit obsessive, this work routine, but it's a huge joy for me, having the time to devote to it.

I've freelanced for years, working from home for other people, and I made the decision when I came to Brighton, this quiet, not too exciting (but cheap!) town, that I'd do MY stuff, be it painting or writing. Of course, the writing is the clear winner at this point.

We want to be published, need it for some vain proof that our work has substance, that it could somehow move people who read it. But that's not the reason we write. Ultimately, this need that we have, this drive, goes beyond public recognition. It's simply necessary for ourselves. We are, in fact, in love with it.


Monday, June 15, 2009

Querying Two Novels - How tricky is that?

I wrote over two chapters this weekend (6,600 words) in my effort to move my main protagonist, Strachan, permanently back to the modern world. She doesn't want to go, so I'm stuck in the 40s for a little longer. I remind you that I am at the mercy of my characters. This week is crunch time. Who's the Momma here?

Soon, probably by fall, I should be querying agents for two novels. You can't query them together, because they don't want to know about your second until they've sold the first, but it makes life a little easier for me, this round. I've researched and approached so many agents, that it will be relatively easy to identify the true possibilities. I know who doesn't respond at all (a bit rude, I think - the bottom of my list), and the tone and substance of rejections, so the most approachable will be at the top.

But what if you sent out one book to a new agent on your list who hated it, when she might have loved the second? I suppose, depending on the quality of her rejection, you simply shoot back a second query, saying something like, "Well, I do have this other one, by the way, which could be more your style..." I mean, you've established contact, right? That's one of our biggest challenges.

I know a lot of you have written more than one book, yet to be picked up. How do you deal with it? Or, if you're in the same boat as I am, how will you deal with it, when the time comes.

As it is now, I end my query letter with, "This is my second novel. The first is currently being revised." So far, no one has sent a rejection with the postcript, "Oh, do send us details on your other book when it's ready, as perhaps we'll like that one much better."

We writers are an over-imaginative lot, aren't we?

Friday, June 12, 2009

Manuscript Analysis and a Voice for Your Words

I've completed just 1800 words since Wednesday. My writing process for those few pages was unusual for me. I did a page, and then needed a break. An hour later, I went back and did another page, and so on over an eight-hour period. For the life of me, I can't think what was behind this odd, broken word flow, but I hope it doesn't happen too often; I can't work that way. If my fingers don't fly for a sustained period, about three hours, I lose all interest.

So many of you commented about my full manuscript request, and it was lovely to hear from you all. I could feel your excitement for me, and understand that it brings everything we're pursuing more sharply into focus when one of us has this kind of news. I don't want you to get your hopes up for me too much, however. I mean, it's bad enough that I could have to deal with a rejection on it, but I certainly wouldn't want to spoil those positive aspirations for your own work. Let's simply be optimistic about it, keep ourselves on an even keel, and just wait and see.

Grammbo has this useful post at The Bookshelf Muse dedicated to manuscript analysis and it's an interesting read. We all have doubts about our work from time to time. They come from out of the blue, for no reason I can thing of (other than to get rid of any arrogant tendencies, and to fill us with humility). This blog makes some not-so-obvious points about possible writing flaws that could wound our darlings.

Darcy Pattison at Revision Notes is always coming up with useful advice. I've incorporated many of her suggestions into my own work, both literary and technical. Her latest must-try is this text-to-voice site. We know we should all be reading our work out loud. This is essential. But our own voice is so familiar, and it's good to hear someone else speak the words back to us. Natural Reader has a free download, and the voice is wonderfully robotic, like Hal in 2001, a Space Odyssey, when his power packs were being removed - remember? But if you can put up with that, it's a good exercise. "Hal" doesn't seem to read more than a couple of paragraphs at a time, so you have to constantly click on the next passage for him, but, if nothing else, it's fun.

There's a new listing in my Submission Stats. Those queries sent out more than three months ago, with no response to date, are now separate from the possibles. Today's Stats are as follows: No Response 10, Pending 9, Partials 1, Full 1, Rejections 12, for a total of 33.

I intend to finish the first section of my book this weekend, the part that involves World War II England. You already know that I'm sad to do this, but at the same time I'll be more or less permanently back in today's world, without the emotional ups and downs that earlier time gives me as I write about it. My Toronto protagonist is about to enter a brand new stage of her life. It will be like starting a new book!

Have a great weekend!

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Another Full Request - British Agent!

Hafan Deg, the novel that's currently out there, poor orphan, in agent land, is set mainly in Wales and Australia. I would have preferred dealing with a London agent for it, believing they would somehow relate to the work more easily, but most British agents seem to detest email submissions, and I'm darned if I want to be running to the post office on a regular basis, especially as it costs. So I concentrated on New York, with only two queries sent to London.

I am delighted to announce that I had a request for the full manuscript yesterday, from a London agent. It's silly, but this pleases me enormously - not just the full request, which is amazing in itself - but I was born there, and my roots are there, despite years of living as an ex-pat. It's only fitting that my novel, which is probably 25% autobiographical, should go home.

This is the second Full request I've had, and I'll try to remain as practical about it as I can. I've been very cool about this whole submission business, haven't I? You know that from my philosophical blogs. If it happens, it happens. If it's good, it will sell. If it doesn't sell, I'll keep writing regardless. You've seen all that.

Then what the hell was that about yesterday, when I opened this agent's email, figuring it for another rejection? I burst into tears, didn't I? Only for a minute, mind, because I would have made the keyboard wet, but long enough to worry the cats.

My excuse is that I've been a bit emotional lately, what with the World War II events in Strachan's Attic (and the D-Day anniversary marathon TV viewing last weekend), and probably needed that good old-fashioned female response. But deep down I'm wondering if I'm as cool as I thought I was. We writers are only human, after all, agent-fail comments to the contrary.

I've written just one chapter of Strachan's Attic since Friday, or 2,600 words. I'm working in two time frames and locales, modern day Canada and 40's Britain, and the story is a fascinating but complicated ride. In some unconscious way, I think I'm delaying this portion of the book because within the next 5,000 words, I believe, I'll be dealing only with modern day events. I'm seriously going to miss my 40's characters.

Because my basic plot and the last line of the book (I always come up with that first with my novels) is already firm in my mind, it's where the characters will take it that's the unknown factor. This draft was based on a much earlier book but it's changed so much that my original agent wouldn't recognize it. It's the book I should have written the first time around, but didn't, and then I revised it for her, and basically screwed it up even more. I didn't believe in it after the changes, and neither, in the end, did she.

If you lose your passion for the work, you should put it firmly aside and let it ferment a little longer, and then try again. Strachan's story has been fermenting for a long time, and should be ready for decanting this time. I'm loving every minute of this total re-write, although it's taken me far longer that I'd expected, because my characters took over and I surrendered control to them. This time, however, aside from the sheer slog of writing, I am having a huge amount of fun.


Monday, June 8, 2009

June 6, 1944

I am recovering from more than two days of almost constant television-viewing. I watched so much, with marathons beckoning from a couple of channels, that I was stiff this morning from near-total inactivity. It was the 65th anniversary of the D-Day landing in Normandy, of course, and, for me, it all started with the BBC's full live coverage of the memorial service on Friday, and just continued from there, concluding at 11 pm last night.

Although I could talk at length about my emotional response to all of this specific viewing, I won't, because you either experienced it, too, and empathize, or don't have any particular interest, or even a sense of connection with it. This is not to say that we aren't ALL connected with it, one way or another, but I understand that my fascination is likely more powerful than it could be for some of you.

I have indelible links to that era, and particularly to wartime England, through my own family, most of them gone, but with a few remaining. They recounted their stories over the years (those who could bring themselves to do that - my father certainly couldn't) and I never tired of hearing them. I have, in turn, woven their anecdotes into my current novel, although their segments are not fiction at all, but it's the only way I know to record them.

Despite rather a lot of tears shed and almost-forgotten memories rekindled, this total immersion in the past left me strangely refreshed. If we came through that, we can come through anything.

So my blog is relatively short today. My own words are inadequate for the enormity of that day, June 6, 1944.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Not writing? Don't feel guilty!

How are we all doing today? I've been a bit bossy this week, trying to get you guys back in line. The reason I did this is because I've been there, full of avoidance and doubt, and will probably be there again. Discipline is one of the key elements in getting your book finished - or started, for that matter, so I nagged you about why you weren't writing, commented on your unwarranted fears, and generally offered my personal suggestions on how to get beyond that. Today I just want to finish up with that old demon, guilt.

In the ideal world, you should be writing, and you shouldn't be suffering from any sort of fear about it, either, because this is what you want, the thing you believe you were born to do, isn't it? But, sometimes, much as you wish you could change things, you just don't want to write, and then the guilt takes over, and you feel even worse. Double whammy. You're not a real writer, you conclude, although you've spent most of your life telling yourself you are.

I've felt this way a couple of times in my life, and I didn't write for years! That would have been okay if I'd enjoyed the down-time, but I didn't, because I constantly felt bad about my two unpublished books, the other unfinished novel, and over my abandonment of what is, truly, a very special aspiration.

It's useless to be reminded that you need to get in front of that computer and just do it, work through blocks, overcome slowdowns, when you're feeling this awful. Sometimes, whatever uplifting things you read, whatever self-help program you watch, it just makes you more cynical.

After all, you're not as good as those other writers churning out thousands of words a week, and you're not as dedicated as those happy writers who say they can't wait to get to their revisions each day, are you? Obviously you've been leading yourself on, because a real writer wouldn't just turn away from their creations, would they? You keep hearing about passion, but suddenly you don't have any.

And so you read other people's blogs, vaguely hoping they'll help. They all seem gleefully dedicated to congratulating one another on their huge productivity. She's finished her 95,000 words, you read. She's already queried 15 agents, and he's just reponded to requests for two Partials AND a Full! One of your favorites - you've commented there many times - has just announced she's about finished with revising her second novel. You've been following her since she finished her first...

Oh, please, enough with the self pity.

Here's where I confuse you by appearing to disregard my Monday post. If your writing is going badly, for whatever reason - sickness, family or money problems, hormonal imbalances - it's okay to put it aside. Get away from it completely, for as long as it takes, but do it with intention, with understanding of why you must. State to yourself and the world, "I must take a break from the writing." And then go ahead and do something entirely different and DO NOT FEEL GUILTY. Think of this as your time to refuel.

You will be back. The ideas will flow again, the plot will resolve itself, and your characters will finally behave, because you've been here before and you know things always turn around. So stop beating yourself up.

Buy a bunch of top notch books and drown yourself in them. Try not to read them as a writer, but just enjoy them. They don't all have to be new books, because sometimes that can be a downer, seeing the shiny new cover, the crisp, fresh pages, especially if the jacket blurb mentions "...this block-buster first novel..." Used books are good for getting away from what's hot now (and which may not be hot by the time you're ready to publish, by the way), and cheap, and will still keep the economy flowing on a tiny scale. (I often buy books at my library, where they regularly sell off their unwanted ones to make space for the new.)

So take the summer off, if you like. Read every chance you get. Relax with the thought that you'll be rearing to go by the fall. All that reading is going to get you itching to get back to it. While you're relaxing, between reads, your next book is also percolating away in your brain recesses just waiting to emerge - along with a third and a fourth, if you'd take time to consider them. If new ideas do nudge you, after you've jumped up and shouted "Eureka!", make some simple notes and put those notes firmly aside. You're on vacation, so vacate.

It hurts me to see the blogs where you mention struggling to get past 14,000 words, or having doubts about your plot, or your voice. Time to step back and let your little writing genie ponder its mysterious life without you for a while. It will, you know, because it will always be there, despite how you're feeling now.

There are no changes in my query stats this week. Still 18 Pending, 2 Partials, and 11 Rejections. I'm going to add a new category next week, because it's probably warranted: No Response. Some of those guys have had more than enough time to get back to me, so I must be realistic and accept that they never will.

Check out this website, Poets and Writers, if you don't already know about it. I've found a lot of interesting things here, and it just requires registration to be a part of it all. I doubt you'll think of a single writer's question that hasn't been covered. Impressive.

Have a lovely weekend, and either work your little writing socks off, or - forget Dorothy Parker - lift yourself firmly off the seat and have fun.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Writers' Insecurities, and the Bravery of Bonnie Kozek

Well, my lecture on Monday seemed to hit a nerve. So many of you reacted to it, that I'm happy to say I won't be picking on you again, as it would only be preaching to the choir, yes?

My concern today is fear. There's a lot of that out there. We fear we haven't quite got our books right, that they need something else that we're missing, that we're still not quite saying what we intended. That our readers will miss the point, somehow. That we've said far too much. After suffering the fear we often feel at the moment of querying an agent, we then suddenly think - after it's gone - that perhaps, after all, it's all a load of rubbish, and no wonder we get rejections. The following are a sprinkling of neurotic fears I found in the pages of The Writer's Chapbook. Read these and realize you are certainly not alone and that your nervousness is mild in comparison with some of the Greats.
". . . I've done as many as twenty or thirty drafts of a story. Never less that ten or twelve drafts. It's instructive, and heartening both, to look at the early drafts of great writers. I'm thinking of...galleys belonging to Tolstoy, to name one writer who loved to revise. I mean, I don't know if he loved it or not, but he did a great deal of it. He was always revising, right down to the time of page proofs. He went through and rewrote War and Peace eight times and was still making corrections in the galleys. Things like this should hearten every writer whose first drafts are dreadful, like mine are."
Raymond Carver
"I do a lot of revising. Certain chapters six or seven times. Occasionally you can hit it right the first time. More often, you don't. George Moore rewrote entire novels. In my own case I usually write to a point where the work is getting worse rather than better. That's the point to stop and time to publish."
John Dos Passos
". . .By the time the thing is in typescript, it is really with physical nausea that I regard it. When the proofs come back I have to take an aspirin before I can bring myself really to read it through. Occasionally when I'm asked to correct or edit a version, I always ask someone to do it for me. I don't know why. I just have a nausea about it. Perhaps when one day I get something I really do like, I won't have to take aspirin."
Lawrence Durrell
Whoa, I guess we aren't this bad, are we? Along with those fears, I hope these guys all had some pleasure, some moments of bliss over their work. It's sad to think that their writing was purely imperative to them, and that they experienced no joy at all. I can put up with fleeting self-doubt and trepidation, as long as I remember just how satisfied I am with the occasional perfection of it (to my eye, at least) - even that one line, that one paragraph, that no one else could have written. I hope you feel the same way.

Bonnie Kozek doesn't seem to be equipped with the usual fear mechanism, or she is, but is incredibly brave. I came across her during some online writer meanderings recently, and she gave me a quick rush of adrenaline, and filled me with awe. Most women don't write in her stomach-clenching genre, other than the obvious pathology-trained Patricia Cornwell or P.D. James, and they appear tame in comparison.

From what I've seen of Bonnie's book, Threshold, it's an in-your-face, raw, unrelenting, no-holds-barred, graphically-violent, roller-coaster ride.

Now I happen to enjoy a good thriller. Harlan Coben is my all time favorite, and he can turn a terrifying phrase better than most, but it's not Stephen King horror, not too, too, disturbing, just enough to have you sweating a little as those scenes unravel.

So I'm apologizing here for not reading all of Bonnie's book yet. It will take some courage on my part to step into her tough fictional world. I have, however, come across these reviews:
“… a fast, enjoyable read. . .left me excited enough about the character of Honey to read the next in the series which will be out this year. I highly suggest reading Threshold if you enjoy suspense/thrillers with the hard-boiled edge, or even if you're not sure if you do and just want to try them. I think this is a wonderful book to try out the genre.” The New Pedler Review of Books

And this one, which is long, at Pulp Fiction Reviews

I don't promote writer's books very often, but I believe she deserves our support, published as she is through a small house, with equally small print-runs. And this isn't a one-off. Bonnie is a prolific writer.

Bonnie tells me it's not for the faint-hearted, so be warned. Check her out and get back to me. I want to read it, really I do. Perhaps one of you, or my thriller-loving friend, Judy, will vet it for me first...

Monday, June 1, 2009

Why Aren't You Writing? No Excuses, Please.

I worry about you. Not all of you, but some of you.

After years of raising kids, animals, and generally meeting the needs of others, I've had a lot of experience at worrying. I do it efficiently, not wasting it on things that can't be changed, but focusing on how to make things better if it's at all possible. Call it a weakness, but I've always done it, and I probably always will. My children need very little of my worry time now, and seem to be managing perfectly well. I don't have any particular money issues, so no demands there. There's no Grand Passion in my life, so I don't need to waste time wondering what he's getting up to. My health is good. My neighbors are nice. Jeevesie has had a bit of a cough, but I'm not so worried that I've felt the need to rush him off to the vet. Deciding where to live is an on-going challenge for me, one I'm constantly examining, but I wouldn't call it a problem.

This frees my worry-time up to concentrate on you. Why aren't you writing more? I know you're writing some, but it doesn't look like a lot, from where I'm sitting. You seem to spend rather a lot of time discussing what you intend to write, along with detailing all sorts of other goals vaguely related to that, but I don't think many of you are following Dorothy Parker's famous adage,
"Writing is the Art of Applying the Ass to the Seat."
Look, you all want to write, I can see. The passion in your blogs, the firmness of your resolve, the excitement in your plans - they all prove you were born to be writers. But you don't seem to be producing much. Why is that?

Don't talk about writer's block, because we all know we can work through that with the act of writing. Don't say you haven't the time, what with work, school, lovers, spouses, children and pets. Most of our writing occurs in our heads when we're not at the computer. It happens in all the oddest or most mundane places. All you need to do is to record it. Take that great dialogue that was running around in your mind the whole time you were dining with friends, or while you were doing the laundry, and get it onto your hard drive.

You can squeeze in an hour a day somewhere, if you really want to. Think of it as your morning workout time, but for the soul, and get up half an hour earlier. Tonight, be firm with yourself and get out of the living room and away from that TV (there's really not that much worth watching, be honest!) and put in half an hour at your computer before bed.

An amazing thing is going to happen if you do this. You'll find that the half hour is not enough, that you haven't quite finished what you wanted to say. You'll scrape up more time, somehow, and you will feel wonderful because of it. You'll find you can't wait to go the manuscript, can't wait to finish what you started to write at 10 pm the night before.

As a reminder, unless you are the slowest writer in the world, one hour should produce about three pages, or around 750 words. You should write as quickly as you can, just getting the words down, and letting your thoughts flow. Don't spend more than a minute re-thinking a word or phrase, because you'll come back to it later and immediately know what you were looking for. (And, sometimes, you won't know until the book is almost ready for an agent!) These pages could well be imperfect to your eye, but that's fine. Perfection comes later. Someone said that the real writing comes with the final revision. And that comes with a whole new set of devilish obstacles that you can face down the road. Let's just concentrate on your initial draft.

The time is for being frivolous with your thoughts, adventurous with your plots, bold with your characters. If the dialogue is proving to be a laborious slog, just get the main points down with the notation "blah, blah, blah". Throughout the day, your characters will have those conversations in your head, believe me, and you'll replace those "blah" bits easily when you get home. You can revise the whole thing, picking up obvious spelling or grammatical errors then. (But remember the little Typo-Imp will arrive later, despite all your efforts.) Or you could leave it all for the weekend and revise all of your week's work at one sitting, because you can spare a little more time on the weekend, right? This might be the perfect routine for you. Unload through the week - inadequate thoughts or brilliant ones - and refine on Sunday.

You should then have a satisfying 4,000 good words to boast about.

Do this for a month (16,000 words!), and then take a little break. You deserve it. Not for long, now, because you don't want to permanently break your new schedule. A week or two should do it.

Please be strong and ignore your must-read blogs during your half-hour writing time. Don't be seduced by a catchy headline in your Reader. I know you need to research things, that you still need clarity on some points, but save that for a separate session. Your own writing is more important than anything else that's out there.

You must keep up with your book-reading, however. This is where your writing-bug came from in the first place, and where you'll find renewed energy for your own work. Even if it's only half an hour before you turn out the light, it's valuable.

I don't want to have this discussion with you again. It's unfair to make me worry like this.

Oh, and just to get you in a competitive frame of mind, which doesn't hurt, I completed almost 8,000 well-revised words for Strachan's Attic this weekend, after a couple of weeks of ruminating, and I'm past the 50% point in my final draft.

Now, let's see what you can do.

Quotes to Consider

"If you would not be forgotten, as soon as you are dead and rotten, Either write things worth reading, or do things worth writing." ~Benjamin Franklin

"Well behaved women rarely make history."~Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

“A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.”~William G.T. Shedd (1820-1894), theologian, teacher, pastor

"It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something." ~Franklin D Roosevelt (1882-1945), 32nd U.S. president

“Adopt the pace of nature: her secret is patience.”
~Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), essayist, poet, philosopher

"Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn't do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover." ~Mark Twain

"You miss 100% of the shots you don't take."
~ Wayne Gretzky