Thursday, December 27, 2012

Off the Shelf

Writing advice books are like diet books. They all say "here's this thing I tried and it worked for me, so it must work for you too." Wouldn't it be nice if that were the case? But, the truth is, just like how-to-lose weight, all you can really get from how-to-write books is "Here's this thing that worked for me. You're welcome to try it. No guarantees." That's fine. That's fair. As long as you're trying, you are bound to find something that works.

I've only read a small handful of instructional books. There are a few more sitting on my shelf, but I've been deterred from going too in depth, because while some books are helpful and inspiring (Hello, Stephen King) many of them are just collections of  "you can do it too" trope. There is, however, one thing that every book, every guest speaker, every fellow writer seems to agree on; in order to be a writer you have to write. Don't just think about it. Don't just dream about it. Definitely, don't just read about it. Put your butt in the chair, your fingers to the keyboard and write. Sounds like pretty solid advice to me, but I think there is still some validity in reading the occasional instructional manual. Even if all you get from it is a renewal of inspiration, then you've done something good with your time.

If you're taking a break from the keyboard or if you're just looking for something to help you refocus, here's a list of a few instructionals that I've really enjoyed. If you have any to add, please chime in.

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King
Writing the Blockbuster Novel by Albert Zuckerman
The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. & E.B. White
How to Write What You Want & Sell What You Write by Skip Press

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Procrastination Station: Work, Play, Work

I have been a bad bad writer. Not because my writing itself is bad (that's still up for discussion), but because I haven't been writing. Every how-to-write book that I've read ends in the same sentiment; sit down and write. It's the only solid advice that is universal to every writer and I've been ignoring it for well over a week. Not acceptable! As a form of self punishment, I have to fess up to whatever is keeping me away from my manuscript and this time it's work, play, and more work.

Work, my bill-paying job that is, takes up 60-70 hours of my time every week. It's just one of the perils of working in television. If you can't hack it with the schedule, then you can't hack it in the industry. I knew that going in, so I'm ok with it, but the number of hours isn't the only problem. It's also the mental exhaustion that comes from being the person that helps the creative types accomplish their goals.  When I was in school, one of my professors told me, "film making is problem solving," and he was absolutely right. That's the bulk of what I do, and I like it. I get a charge from developing and successfully executing a plan. It's the same thing that makes me love plotting a story, but when I get home, all of my mojo is gone and there is nothing worthwhile to put on the page. How do people do it? Writers come from all walks of life. There are doctors, lawyers, nurses, and all other manner of in-demand professionals who manage to write, publish and promote their work, so there must be a way.

Weekends are my prime time for writing. I usually have the better part of at least one day when I can sit down, focus, and do some real work. Last weekend - nothing. I didn't edit or add even one word. And what, you might ask, kept me away from something that is so important to me? Georgia Football (Go Dawgs!) and fancy dinner. Instead of putting in the time on my manuscript, I spent four hours in a bar screaming and barking (it's a DAWG thing) at a television and then drinking, laughing and eating with co-workers. But, there's nothing wrong with having a little fun, right? I don't want to be a hermit writer who never interacts with the outside world. Again, I ask - how do people do it? Surely not every successful writer has quit his or her full-time job and shunned all socialization for the sake of writing. Think of all of the disturbing and twisted work we as readers would be subjected to if published works were coming from personalities that only existed at a keyboard.

From what I can tell, this time management issue is a pretty normal writer problem, but how do we fix it without moving home with our parents or spending all of our time alone in a room with nothing but a blank page to keep us company? If you've got the answer, please, PLEASE share it. If you don't, join the club.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

A Little Help from My Friends (Part 2)

I'm sure you'll be thrilled to know that I did depart "Procrastination Station." Ok, maybe not thrilled, but whatever, I was pretty psyched. It started with some superficial changes and evolved into huge cuts and major re-writes. I have a long way to go before my manuscript is ready for an agent's eyes, but after I hit the delete button on chapter 3, (Don't feel bad. It was total crap.) I was fully committed. As the pages changed I could clearly see two things; 1: there is value to this excruciating exercise, 2: my friends/beta-readers had been telling me all along what was wrong and I was just too chicken to see it.

Here are some honest-to-goodness answers from my beta-reader questionnaires:

Question: How did you react to the opening of the story? Were you engaged or bored?
Answer 1: I was engaged.
Subtext: I was bored. So bored in fact that I'm going give you a three word answer because I can't remember anything specific.
Answer 2: It seems to drag a little, but also needed to understand why [the protagonist] is the way she is.
Answer 3: I was intrigued, but not completely hooked in the beginning. 
Subtext: I'm trying to be really nice here, because I see what you were trying to do, but damn, pick up the pace! 

Question: Did the story move quickly enough? Too quickly?
Answer 1: Some parts were too quick; especially at the end.*
Subtext: Totally rushed the ending. What the hell?!
Answer 2: Could move faster in some places.
Subtext: It was too slow. I don't know where you fell off because I was napping.
Answer 3: Yes.  
Subtext: ?????

Question: Was the resolution satisfying? If not, what would you have like to see happen?*
Answer 1: I liked the resolution. Plus you could do a sequel.
Answer 2: It was satisfying enough and left potential for a follow up book.
Subtext: No. It was not satisfying. I want you to write a whole 2nd book just to make it ok. Get to typing! 
Answer 3: No!! I want a good sex scene at end! Okay. Okay. Save it for the 2nd book.
Subtext: I just finished reading Fifty Shades of Grey. Also, what the first two said.

So, what can I take away from this? 1- I have some serious pacing issues. 2- My friends know what they're talking about. They may have given soft answers to spare my feelings, but the truth was still there. I just had to pay attention.
* I'm not sure if I should be comforted by this, but according to this post on  Bent on Books, the rushed ending is something that plagues a lot of us newbies. Check it out: Beginnings, Endings, and the stuff  in between

Friday, November 23, 2012

Procrastination Station

Days off are supposed to be precious writing time for us aspiring novelists. In planning for this free day I imagined pages and pages of meaningful re-writes flowing easily from my fingers. Instead, I've watched two made-for-television Christmas movies (the cheesier the better), done two loads of laundry, played some hashtag games on Twitter, made friends on Goodreads, checked out the online Black Friday deals, and, in a final gasp for time away from my manuscript, answered emails from my bill-paying job. Not exactly the progress I was looking for.

I have notes and a refreshed outline for my revisions, so at the very least, I know where I'm supposed to go, but the thought of facing my current manuscript makes me ill. I feel guilty, because I'm going to have to take it apart, completely discard several chapters and add several more (nine at the current count).  I spent months writing that first draft. Then I spent a couple more months making (I now know) superficial revisions, but those left the first draft basically intact. This set of revisions is going to change it completely and I feel terrible. It's like I'm saying "You suck little book. You are not good enough. You need a serious makeover." I'm like Stacy London except instead of ripping a wardrobe apart I'm tearing down my poor little manuscript. 

Those people on "What Not to Wear' do always seem happier after Stacy is done with themand my manuscript will be better after I'm done. I know it will. It's a tough love kind of thing. Ok, I'm going to get to it...after lunch.

Monday, November 19, 2012

A Little Help from My Friends (Part 1)

When I finished the first draft of my manuscript, I wanted to start sending the thing off to agents and publishers, because it seemed like getting criticism from those total strangers would be a lot easier than taking notes from someone I would see next week at dinner. The downside of going straight to an agent or publisher is that you're using up your first impression on a first draft. It would be like rolling out of bed and going to a job interview. That would be a stupid thing to do and so would sending a first draft uncritiqued. 

Once my pragmatic side won at the game of pro and con, I decided to go to five of my friends and ask them to be the first readers of the book. I wanted variety in perspective, so I asked friends from different parts of my life. My first five picks agreed to read and so my list of my readers were 2 of my best friends (one who is always brutally honest and the other who might gloss things a bit but will still give you a straight answer), 1 former boss who has aspirational style and direct knowledge of some of details as they pertained to my protagonist's career, 1 former co-worker who has one of the best eyes for editorial content I've ever seen, and 1 friend-of-a-friend who I knew had similar literary tastes to my own. Those were my five and I still feel like I chose wisely.

When I delivered the hard copies (Note:All were given the option of electronic versions, but opted for paper. Take that e-books!) I also brought them supplies, a questionnaire (Click here for a sample), and an instruction sheet disguised as a welcome letter. The supplies were simple; a red pen, because who doesn't like to play teacher every now and then, and pastel (this is chic lit after all) page flags. In the welcome letter/instruction sheet I thanked them all profusely and then asked they be as honest as the could while using any method of critique that they preferred. You want to write in the pages? Go crazy. You want to keep your notes separate? Tag the page so I know where to look. Don't be bound by anything tell me what you think. I wanted them to know that I was looking for the truth. If the manuscript sucked, I wanted them to tell me before an agent did.

I got a lot of valuable feedback on the manuscript, which I'll get into in a later post, but the process of asking people to read my work forced me to look at the manuscript as I would if I were a reader. It was the first time I had considered it from the perspective of the person on the other side of the page and that alone opened my eyes to some of the weaknesses in my work. Opening myself up to the criticism, even to my friends, was nauseating, but in the end it really helped. A lot of this writing thing is a solitary activity, but I don't think there's anything wrong with a little help from friends.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Take Three

As this is the third post in Moil & Merriment, it seems like the right time to admit that it took me three attempts to get through one first draft of a manuscript. That's three "plots". Three sets of characters and three versions of myself that I've tried to commit to written word. If you consider the completion of a first draft a success, which I do (no matter what happens with it), then it means my first two attempts were total failures. Neither of the first two tries made it to a central conflict. Both meandered around little oddities I thought myself clever to observe and neither were plotted, but were just different sets of events strung together by protagonists' commentaries. (In fairness to my younger self, I thought that was the same thing as plot. I was wrong, but let's move on for now.) 

I've picked up a lot from doing my homework. I started reading everything; how-to books, grammar books, fiction in my style, fiction outside of my style, basically anything on paper. There is a wealth of helpful information out there and while I'm grateful to the people I've met at conferences and to the writers, agents, and editors who have taken the time to give us how-to books so that we have a place to start, I think the biggest difference, the thing that helped me get from first chapter to first draft was copious amounts of red wine. Just kidding! (Sort of. Maybe. Not really.) Ok, so besides the wine, the thing that really helped was that I learned to be open; open to new ideas; open to characters and stories developing on their own even if it meant leaving my outline behind, and open to advice and criticism. That last one, the criticism, is a real toughie, but even in the limited critiques I've gotten, I've seen so much of my work differently and not just the things that need to be worked on, though those are plentiful, but also I've seen the things that are working.

Now, don't get crazy! I am not offering advice here! I told you in post one that this wasn't the place for that, and I meant it, but what I am saying is that sometimes the first step can happen without you even realizing it. When I sat down to start my third manuscript, I had no idea that it would be the one I would actually finish. I didn't know that I would have learned, felt, and lived enough to make it through that one part of the process, and now, because I made it once, I can make it again.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go find a beret to fling into the air.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Tell Me Everything...

Last January, I finished a first draft of a novel. I was quite proud of myself. I thought I had really done something. I thought, hey, I'll just check this thing for typos and send it on its way. There are so so SO many things wrong with that thought. First of all, what my novel really needed was a meaningful and constructive critique followed by a deep revision process that bordered (actually, is bordering) on a total re-write. Besides the writing, there's a whole gamut of elements that go into the "send it on it's way" part of things. -  Buy the Writer's Market. Find agents and publishers who take unsolicited submissions. Learn to write query letters. Go to conferences. Network with other writers. Start a blog. Comment and support other blogs. Keep up on your reading. Submit your work. Take the rejection. Get an agents. Build a platform. Give your readers something of value.  

Did that list make your head spin? It makes me want to panic, put the computer down and just deny that I have any interest in writing, but I know deep down, that just won't work. Writing is a compulsion. That sounds bad, I know, but I've now spoken to enough writers that I know that it's pretty normal, - or writer normal, which isn't normal at all, but I digress. So, I have to write. Fine. But that doesn't mean I have to try to publish. But if I don't try to publish, why even bother writing? It's like the damn tree in the forest. Somebody needs to hear that thing. These circumstances leave me with few options beyond getting the information and figuring it out. It's all I can do, so I'm reading the books and the blogs, going to the conferences and listening to words of the writers who have managed to pull off this seemingly impossible task. As I run into gems, and I've already been lead to a few, I'll be sure to share, and if you're reading this and have found things that have helped you, I invite you to do the same. Tell me everything and I'll do the same for you, because it's all we can do. Learn it and then work it. Good luck to us all!

Friday, November 2, 2012

Don't Know Nothing...

Warning! If you have come here (I appreciate that, btw) for writing or publishing advice, you are at the wrong place. Wait! Don’t go! I can’t offer wisdom or strategy, but I can give you honesty. I am just a woman who loves fiction, respects words and has combined those two things into something called a novel. The writing of the novel was equal parts awful and awesome and I can’t wait to do it again, but there is a problem. Once you write a novel, you have to do something with it. That is where I’m completely stumped. There is so much information out there, but what I can’t find anywhere is where you go from the very beginning. Most advice that I’ve found is from someone who can say something like “I have won some contests” or “My short stories have been printed in…”  I can’t say that. I am not published. I am starting from zero. So, since I was out there looking for the absolute beginning; I thought I should share my absolute beginning. Here it is. I don’t know anything, but I am going to figure it out.