Are We Blocked or Afraid?

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I’ve been wondering about this lately.  While writing this novel, I occasionally find myself unsure of how to proceed. There are kinks in the plot that need to be worked out.  Sometimes what I planned for my characters doesn’t work and I need to make a change.  Plot holes appear out of nowhere.  For example, at one point, my main character thinks someone may have broken into the house.  I had her going up to her bedroom and locking the door.

Dumb and unrealistic.

I had to add a scene in which she realizes she left her cell phone upstairs and flees to a neighbor’s house to call the police.

For several days, though, I left the problem unresolved.  It isn’t really that I wasn’t sure what to do but that I was afraid to do it.  Like the rest of you, I suffer occasionally from nagging doubts about my ability to pull this off.  It was silly, of course, and the scene I crafted turned out well.  The reader will know that the presence of an intruder can’t explain what’s been happening in the house because the police have ruled that out.  That helps to move the plot along.  I even got to know the neighbor a little better.  Maybe I can use that later in the story.

I’m guilty of going for days without adding to the story because I’m afraid to face it.  It’s too big and unwieldy.  I feel intimidated by it.  There are things I’ve left out that need to be added.  Character descriptions, for example.  Right now, the reader would have no idea what any of the characters looks like.  It’s had me slightly panicked, but I had an epiphany today.

I haven’t written the descriptions because I haven’t been able to see the characters.  And you know what?  It’s okay!  As I continue to write and spend time in the world I’m creating, the people and their surroundings are coming into focus.  I can get all of that nailed down in the next draft.  It doesn’t have to stop me from doing the first draft, which is about the plot.  I don’t have to become “blocked” over it.  Bake the cake, then add the icing.

I think this may be why there are so many characters in self-published novels that feel like they’re 2-dimensional people.  It’s as if the author felt they couldn’t proceed with the story until we knew what color nail polish the main character wore.  It feels forced.  If you’re stuck or bogged down because your characters and setting don’t feel detailed enough, let it slide for now.  The more you think about them and the more words you put into their mouths, the clearer their faces will be; and the rooms they sit in will become furnished.

My characters are finally starting to emerge from the mist and introduce themselves.  And I just realized that the living room couch in the main character’s house is a hideous shade of green.

For now.

 

 

 

 

Family Fallout

As you know, I’m working on my first adult novel.  My main character is a woman who had an abusive family.

I find myself facing a dilemma.  The story isn’t autobiographical, but I’m using some of my own experiences in it.  I guess in a sense I’m fictionalizing nonfiction events.  Both of my parents are dead and aren’t here to defend themselves.  My siblings are all alive, and a couple of them are the basis for my main character’s cruel siblings.

You see where this is going?

I have no relationship or connection to the siblings in question, having gone no contact several years ago.  There is a chance, however, that once I publish this book they’ll read it.  I expect quite the s**t storm.

Now, one could argue that if they see themselves in the characters in my book, that’s entirely their problem.  As the T-shirt says, “If you didn’t want to end up in my novel, you should have been nicer to me.”  On the other hand, I’m not writing a revenge piece.  As a writer, I’m using what I know about life to flesh out my character.  I’ve made some changes to the circumstances my character lives through and have sometimes consolidated events or changed who was responsible for them.  In the book, the character suffers primarily emotional and psychological abuse.  There is only the suggestion of physical abuse.  Quite frankly, I didn’t feel like including it because the emotional and psychological were much more damaging to me. Bruises on the skin heal eventually.

I’ve made a point of making sure my main character is as emotionally damaged as you would expect her to be.  She isn’t a warm and fuzzy person.  Rather than cowing her and making her mouse-like, what she suffered has hardened her and given her something of a prickly personality.  I’m trying to find ways to soften her or at least make her more sympathetic.  If I were a shrink, I would say I was searching for some good in myself after a lifetime of being told I’m not worth anything.  Pathetic, right?

What do you think?  Is it all truly grist for the mill?  What are the boundaries, or do they even exist?

Writing this character has brought up memories of things I’d long forgotten; and of course, my view of things is decidedly one-sided.  I don’t want to hurt any feelings.  I don’t want to make a bad situation worse.  I just want to write a story that rings true.  A happy family situation wouldn’t fit the story I’m writing.  The abuse needs to exist.

Where do you, as an artist, draw the line?

 

Making Progress & Finding the Groove

The novel is coming along.  Slowly.  I find myself being pulled back to the beginning by the need to edit what’s been written so far.  The things that need to be fixed are becoming obnoxious in their insistence.

When I write picture books or young reader chapter books, I never truly write a first draft all the way through before starting to revise.  My drafts are done in layers.  I write the draft until my inner editor starts to pace inside my head, and then I go back to the beginning and revise what I’ve done before continuing with the rest of the story.  It’s my process, I guess.

I wasn’t sure that process would work when writing my first novel.  I’ve been pretty focused on getting the basic story down before I allow myself to edit, but I don’t think that’s going to work.  I need to do the second wave of the so-far first draft before I go much further.

On a positive note, I was writing a scene involving a ghost and actually creeped myself out to the point that I had to look over my shoulder.  I’m not trying for slasher movie scary or Stephen King scary–I’m aiming for creepy.  My main character, however, is in need of some softening.  She’s a tough broad but not very likeable.  She’s too much like me.  That will never do.  Most readers won’t connect with her in her current state.  My supporting cast, however, is shaping up nicely.  I like them.  They’re very human.  Their dialogue feels natural.  They’re trying to do the right thing, but they’re scared.

When writing for children, I’m definitely a planner because the plots are simple.  Since starting my first novel, I find myself to be neither a pantser nor a planner but that in-between creature called a plantser.  I wrote a very basic plot outline that functions as a map, but every bit of the story that fills in that rough outline has been created at the cold keyboard, save the occasional idea jotted down when I was doing something else.  I’ve had some great writing sessions when I’ve slipped into that state of self hypnosis where I’m inside the world of my characters.  The scenes that were fuzzy at the beginning are becoming more focused and three-dimensional as I write.  I suppose that’s why I feel like I need to clean up what I’ve written so far.  Some of it is too vague or clumsy.

The opening scene, which lays the groundwork for the problem my main character faces later, certainly needs to be beefed up a bit.  In that scene, two characters are sent out to find a dead man and make sure he’s buried.  I can see them better now.  I can see the house in the clearing.  My characters are afraid, and now I know they have reason to be.

Developing a story in this way takes time and thought.  The story as I first envisioned it has already changed quite a bit, and for the better.  This is the wonderful part of writing, taking the time to savor each scene and put flesh on my characters’ bones.  There’s no need to rush to publication.  There is joy and satisfaction in the work to be done.  I can’t imagine anyone wanting to forego that just to beat some imaginary publishing clock.

I hope the New Year finds all of you freshly in love not only with writing but with writing well.

How’d NaNoWriMo Go?

I’ve just completed my first NaNoWriMo, which was also my first attempt at writing a novel.  Regulars here know I write picture books and chapter books for early readers.  I never thought I would attempt a novel; but sometime over the last year, an idea for a novel popped into my head and refused to go away.  Having jotted down a few notes and a very rough outline, I decided to take the chilly November plunge this year.  My goal was never the 50K word count.  I’m accustomed to writing in a much shorter form and knew my first draft would come along slowly.  My goal was to carve out a couple of hours from my busy day to devote to writing the novel.  I’m more of a morning person, so that meant getting up at 5 am instead of 5:30 am and cutting out morning TV and/or social media.  I managed to keep my morning devotions in place and not skip my workout, arriving at my desk at 8:30 am.  That gave me about an hour-and-a-half to write before beginning the day job.  As it so happens, several of the doctors I transcribe for have just decided to switch to Dragon rather than having a human being transcribe their gibberish, so my work hours have recently been scaled back.

Unfortunately, NaNoWriMo coincided with a long-planned partly DIY kitchen renovation that couldn’t be put off.  This put a serious dent in my schedule.  All told, I managed to write about 10K words.  I’m pleased, however, with what I have so far.  It’s a solid beginning.

What I found with NaNoWriMo was the motivation I needed to finally start the novel.  It was fun knowing there were other writers out there who were doing the same thing.  I don’t regret giving it a try this year.

However… 

Before the month even had a chance to begin, I received an email from NaNoWriMo offering “NaNoWriMo 2019 Winner” t-shirts for sale, before any of us had posted our first word count.

Participation trophies for everyone!

I realize NaNoWriMo is a nonprofit trying to raise money, but I wish they had just sold “NaNoWriMo 2019 Participant” t-shirts instead.  Allowing anyone and everyone to declare themselves a winner right out of the gate was embarrassing.

I left the official NaNoWriMo Facebook page shortly after the month began because I couldn’t believe the garbage I was seeing.  One writer boasted about how she was going to finish her novel in November and publish it on December 1st.  I cautioned against that and encouraged her to take time to revise and edit.  Then came the flying monkeys, one of which gave me the “Better three hours early than one minute late,” line.  Really?  So, you think that what you’re writing is so earth-shattering that society will crumble if people can’t get their hands on your half-baked novel right away?

I read somewhere that agents and publishers hate December because that’s when all the NaNoWriMo gems hit their inboxes–unpublishable tripe that desperately needed several trips through the editorial sieve.

A pet peeve of mine, and one I’ve discussed here in the past, is the amount of self-published garbage clogging the internet.  The books with thin plots and 2-D characters, full of spelling, punctuation, and grammatical errors.  One of the dangers of self-publishing is that we don’t have the benefit of an agent or editor to help us recognize and smooth out the rough spots.  We’re on our own.  Unfortunately, an awful lot of people don’t take that responsibility seriously.  It’s a terrible stain on the self-publishing community and will continue to prevent us from being taken seriously.  If you hit the magical 50K mark and hit “send” today, you aren’t a serious writer and you have no respect for the craft.  What you are is an egotistical wannabe who likes to call himself/herself an author but who doesn’t want to do the required grunt work to produce a good story.

Then there was post after post asking for help with everything from plot lines to character names.  Someone suggested rolling dice.  Another suggested tarot cards.  How about sitting quietly and giving you novel more thought?  Several people were in a panic because NaNoWriMo was about to begin and they didn’t yet have a story idea. I’ll let you in on a little secret.  If you don’t have an idea for a novel, it’s okay to skip NaNoWriMo.  For far too many people, NaNoWriMo appears to be just another competition.  A social media gimmick.  All you have to do is write 50K words to win.  Whether or not those words are any good seems to be of no consequence at all.

Writing as an art form, a craft, and a profession is suffering.  Even the traditional publishing world isn’t immune to the mediocrity infecting the literary world (did you see the picture book about the dinosaur who pooped Christmas? Yeah.).  As writers, real writers, we need to do better.  We need to stop patting the posers on the head and telling them their collective s**t doesn’t stink.  It stinks to high heaven.

I think the whole 50K word thing needs to be tossed in the circular file.  It’s a terrible idea.  What should matter most during NaNoWriMo is that writers show up regularly and put words to paper that move the plot along.  Anyone can type words.  I can hold down a single key to up my word cooooooooooooooooooouuuuuuuunnnnnnttttt.  That’s not writing.  It’s word vomit.  Now, if you hit 50K usable words and intend to spend the next few months revising and rewriting, bravo!  You have enough self respect and respect for the craft to call yourself a writer.

What could be a community of writers spurring one another on to achieve real writing goals is, for far too many people, a sprint toward a meaningless finish line.  Anyone can write badly.  A real writer, a true artist, will take that first draft and work on it until it shines.  That takes time and patience.  It means postponing the gratification of calling yourself a published author.  It means you have to work hard to earn the title.  What you wrote during NaNoWriMo isn’t good enough for publication, not yet.  Put the manuscript away for a few days.  Then, with a red pen in your hand, take the manuscript out and read it aloud.  Does it still sound wonderful?  I doubt it.  If you think it’s good to go, send it to a few beta readers–not your best friend or your mother.  Send it to someone who reads a lot and ask them what they think.  Another pair of eyes is going to find glaring problems you missed because you’re too close to the project.

You will have to revise and rewrite, perhaps many times.  You owe that to the craft and to your readers.  There are no shortcuts to good writing.  There are no 30-day sprints to publication.  Used as a writing tool, NaNoWriMo has great potential.  Used as a means to induce premature manuscript labor, it’s a travesty.

 

Are You NaNoWriMo-ing?

Since I’m taking my first stab at a novel, I thought I’d hitch my wagon to some accountability and try NaNoWriMo this year.

I’m not a “write every day” sort of writer in the sense that I don’t sit down at the keyboard every day.  I spend random moments throughout the day thinking about the WIP but rarely do more than jot down a note or two in my notebook.  My keyboard time is a once-a-week endeavor.  I need to change things up a bit if I ever hope to finish a novel.

I’ve never really had to consider the idea of writing to a word count before.  Picture books aren’t really a word count sort of project.  I’m trying to decide on my writing timeslot for the month.  Lunchtime is out of the question.  I’m knee-deep in medical reports by then and can’t successfully switch to creative mode and back again.  That leaves very early in the morning or after dinner.  My mind is usually pretty fried at the end of the workday, so it looks like early mornings will be it.  I’ll have to get up a little earlier so I don’t have an excuse for skipping either my workout or my writing session.  Setting my alarm for 5 am should do it.  That alone will give me 30 extra minutes a day.  If I start my workout earlier and skip the morning news, I might squeeze in yet another 30 minutes each morning.

Honestly, I’ve always viewed NaNoWriMo with something of a “What’s the point?” kind of attitude.  Nobody can write a novel, start to finish, and have it ready in one month for publication.  That leaves no time for proper revision and editing, and we have far too much of that going on in the self-published world.  But I don’t think that’s the point of the exercise, at least not for me.  What I hope to get out of it is a more consistent writing schedule and a good head start on my first novel.  I also like the sense of community, of writers all over the world cheering one another on.  With only one car between my husband and I, I don’t have the freedom to regularly attend a writing group.  Writers need a certain amount of solitude to write; but too much isolation breeds loneliness, and loneliness dries up the creative juices.

Due to a previously planned kitchen project in the first week of November, I’m going to start in the last week of October, take the first week of November off, and then pick up the rest of the month from there.  Hopefully, I’ll have my new kitchen table by then so I can do my morning writing close to the coffee pot.

I’ll admit, I’m a little geeked about it.

Is Somebody Cooking a Novel?

While I’ve been able to get back on the writing horse since my latest disappointment, it has proved itself to be somewhat of a bucking bronco this time.

After my close encounter with traditional publishing came crashing down around me, an idea for a novel (or maybe a novella) began to form in my mind.  Normally, novel writing just isn’t my thing.  I don’t think I have the patience for it, and years of writing for kids has trained my brain to keep things very short and to the point.  I never thought of myself as having the literary stamina required to write a novel.

So what is this story idea doing in my head?  I suppose it could simply be the result of long-term stress and emotional upheaval finally looking for an exit (as if the erosion in my esophagus weren’t enough).  The plot isn’t fully formed in my head, though as usual I know the last line of the story.  At present, it’s about a woman who returns home to bury her father, clean out her parents’ now empty home, and put it up for sale.  The conflict for my protagonist lies in the fact that her mother was an emotionally abusive monster and her father a weak man who never stood up to her.  Returning home is the last thing she wants to do.

It’s not based on my life, though I’ll be dumpster diving my own memories in order to flesh out my character a bit.  It’s all grist for the mill, right?

Did I tell you there were ghosts involved?  Yeah.  So there’s a bit of the supernatural in the story, as well as the struggle to forgive in the face of injustice and learning to recognize how generational abuse is perpetuated.

Sounds heavy, I know.  It’s also meant to be allegorical.  What happens in the story isn’t meant to be a theological commentary on what happens after death, heavenly reward, or punishment.

So this is brand new territory for me.  I’m still working on the Winthrop Risk sequel, for which my serious sit-down time is reserved (though I’ve admittedly been giving the day job more attention of late).  The basic plot of the novel is still coming to me in small bits of random ideas arriving at inconvenient times that are scribbled in a notebook.  Eventually, it will all coalesce and the first draft will begin.

I’m intrigued by the idea of being able to slow the story down a bit, to indulge in more descriptive language, to give my characters more than a name.  I might be good at it.  I might suck at it.  Who knows?

It’s quite the adventure, isn’t it?

Maybe Next Time…

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Well, I finally heard from the publisher today.  My manuscript made it through the slush pile and through editing, but the folks in acquisitions decided to pass on it.

I won’t pretend I’m not deeply disappointed.  I’ve been riding this cautiously hopeful wave for months, only to sink right before reaching the shore.  What I want to do most right now is to sit on the porch and watch the grass grow.

I will allow myself a brief period of mourning for what might have been.  I’ll wait until the house is empty and I’ll shed a few tears.  Maybe a lot of tears.  Then I’ll get over it.

In the next couple of days, I’ll change the manuscript back to its original form.  I wasn’t thrilled with the change the editor requested and felt it interrupted the flow of the story.  Changing it was a business decision on my part, not an artistic one.  No doubt, an editor at another publishing house will want different changes anyway.

While I regret the outcome, I appreciate the experience I’ve had.  I received affirmation of my writing skills.  The next time I’m asked to revise a manuscript, I won’t feel quite as panicked as I did the first time, resulting in a headache that didn’t go away until the revision was done.  I can revise on demand.  I also learned that editors aren’t monsters.  I was treated with respect from start to finish.  In spite of the sadness I feel right now, I also feel like I’ve found my professional footing.  This is the business side of writing.  In retrospect, I feel good about the interaction I’ve had with this publisher over the last several months.  In the past, I’ve received a couple of form rejection letters or (for the most part) no response at all.  I guess I would call this progress.  Painful progress.

I believe that in a situation like this, inaction would be a mistake.  I know how easy it would be to just shut down and adopt an “it will never happen for me” attitude.  It will do me no good to sit in a corner, eating worms.  This is probably the point at which many a good writer has given up entirely and silenced their own voice forever.  I’m making a conscious decision not to take that route, though right now I feel like I’m trying to dance in knee-deep mud.

Time to start, once again, looking for publishers and agents accepting unsolicited manuscripts.  Time to finish the sequel to Winthrop Risk, Detective (I’ve decided to keep that series in the self-publishing realm).  Time to open up the purple box and see the story nuggets I’ve buried there.

If I never achieve publication of my picture books, it certainly won’t be because I gave up.  There’s no adventure in surrender.

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The Paralysis of Waiting

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I’m still some weeks away from learning whether or not the publisher will make an offer on my picture book manuscript.

Friday I had to vacuum the dust off the backpack containing my laptop and WIP.

Yeah.

I have the most miserable sense of being in author’s limbo.  It’s nothing like the limbo I was told about as a child, where babies go if they die before they’re christened.  It’s more like the lowest circle of hell.  A terrible place where images of success and failure alternately flash before my eyes–the dream realized vs. the dream dashed.

My sense of identity as a writer has grown stronger over the last couple of years.  It’s no longer simply what I want to be, it’s what I am.  Lately, I find myself slipping back into that insecure place where I’m waiting for a third party to nod in my direction and bestow upon me the coveted title of published author.  Something inside my brain is telling me I have no business sitting down to write before permission is granted.

I hate myself for allowing that to happen.

I have no excuses today.  The inbox for my day job is empty.  I already did the dishes.  I have forced myself into writer mode by dropping this little note of confession to you.  I’m going, at this very moment, to grab the backpack and see where I left off.

Join me.

Now What?

Well, the publisher who contacted me said the acquisitions board would meet in late February/early March.

We’re coming to the end of March with no further word from the publisher, so I have to assume they decided not to publish my manuscript.

A dream-crushing experience once again.  How should I, as an author, respond?

I checked their website.  They’re open for submissions once again.  I sent another manuscript.

Stand up.  Dust yourself off.  Get back in the game.

So, This is Where Things Stand…

Four years ago, I sent a picture book manuscript to a small publishing house that was accepting submissions.  I never heard from them and eventually forgot I had submitted to them at all.

At the end of November, I received an email from one of the editors there, asking me if the manuscript were still available.  I responded in the affirmative right away and began looking for the long-abandoned ledger I had used to keep track of submissions.  There it was, January 28, 2015, via snail mail.

December and January dragged on with no further word until January 30th when another email announced that the editorial team liked the story but wanted a minor revision.  They wanted it before the acquisitions board met at the end of February/beginning of March.

Hackles up.  Paralyzing fear.  I kept my cool, though, and responded that I’d work on it and send the revision in soon.  I had a few weeks to make or break my chances of being published.  No pressure, right?

I spent the first few days frantically trying to think of a way to revise the scene in question.  It had seemed simple and elegant to me at the time and quite frankly, I didn’t see why it should be changed.  They thought it was confusing.

Breathe.  Take another bite of that reality sandwich.

I can’t self-publish the story because I can’t draw.  I also can’t afford to pay someone to do the illustrations for me.  Could I swallow my pride and do what they asked?  What if I changed the story and the acquisitions board passed on it?

A fellow writer I know had been through this song and dance.  Agent acquired.  Publisher interested.  Publisher asked for a revision.  Revision submitted.  Publisher passed.

Was I compromising my manuscript?  Would the manuscript go from being liked to being rejected?

After several false starts, I thought I had a revision I liked; but I held off sending it in.  I like to let a story stew for a few days and then go back to it.  I tweaked it.  Waited.  Tweaked it some more.  The more I worked on it, the more the panic subsided.  Finally, I felt it was ready to be resubmitted.  Off it went, accompanied by an email that sounded upbeat and confident.

I had turned it around in a little over a week.  I sent it in and then put the folder away in my desk.  If I look at it again, I’m sure I’ll find something else to change.  The revision would spiral out of control and the editor would have no time to consider it before sending it to acquisitions.  If there is another change to be made, I want time to make it.

Unless the editor wants another revision, I probably won’t hear from them again until after the acquisitions board meets in a few weeks.  I’m trying to stay positive.

I wrote a good story.  I choked down my considerable sense of pride and made the revision they asked for.  I turned it around quickly.  I behaved professionally, even though I didn’t feel particularly professional.  Will it pay off?

Stay tuned.

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