Fiction Writing and Other Oddities

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Rejection Collection

Just because you get published doesn't mean you'll never see another rejection again. Or that rejections will get easier or that the proportion of rejections to contracts improves. Naturally, for some people, they are so talented that their first manuscript receives a contract and they never need to worry about rejections. Others work through the rejections, get that first contract and thereafter have only a few or none rejections.

That hasn't worked for me. In fact, I'm stumbling around badly at the moment, having just gotten slapped down a few more times and really wondering what path I should be following.

In my last few blogs, I've mentioned difficulties editing what I've written. I really do make things worse by editing them, more often than not. Especially if I'm trying to do what someone else tells me to do. And I've noticed this before. I don't know how unusual this is or if I'm some weird alien creature, but in almost everything I've tried, my first "cut" at it is the best. When I was learning the piano, the first time I played an unknown piece, it sounded the best. After that, the more I practiced, the worse I got. Same with cooking. The first time I made a recipe, it always came out extraordinarily well. Each subsequent time…a little less well. Practicing and repetition, for me, is not generally a good thing. I have no idea why and I fervently wish it wasn't true because a lot of things require practice. And yet instead of yielding better results, repetition and trying to build a skill, in my case, yields declining results.

So I need to learn to wield the editing scalpel a little less vigorously. In fact, I think it's safe to say that I need to not do a lot of editing—I need to add in the things I missed on the first draft (clarification of emotions & motivations and descriptions). Polish and remove actual mistakes. And leave it the hell alone.

I am totally taking Margery Allingham's method to heart.

  1. You write the first draft to get it all down on paper
  2. You add in what you missed or forgot in the second draft
  3. You take out all non-essentials in the third draft
  4. You polish

That's it.

So after the last destructive category 5 hurricane of rejections, I'm going to let some of my manuscripts rest for a while. I'm going to finish a mystery I've been working on, tentatively entitled: Whacked! (A computer geek girl, her elderly completely stoned uncle, a cop who wants to quit and be a writer, and the murder of a man who gist needed killin' in a little southern town called Peyton...).

And I'm going to try a new tactic. After I get most of the first draft done, I'm going to put a little polish on the first few chapters, draft up a synopsis, and send it to my agent to find out if she thinks it is something she can sell. I sure hope so. I may not even wait until I've finished the first draft.

That's my plan. It's the best I can do to avoid sinking into despair, although I'm nearly convinced at this point that I couldn't write my way out of a paper bag even if Margery Allingham dictated it to me. I can't plot, do characterization, or write a comprehensible sentence. But I am stubborn. Really stubborn. And I got one book published. By God, before I die, I'm going to get another one.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

This and That

I'm deep in edits, trying to rework a story that is the first in a related set of Regency-set stories, so I'm a little harried this week. I don't have any new, brilliant words of wisdom. I'm just trying to keep my head above water. Mostly because, editing is NOT my friend. When I edit something, I tend to make it worse instead of better. Sometimes it's because I'm trying to make it something it is not. For example, "increase the sensuality". Well, if the story did not have that focus to begin with because it is not relevant, than just trying to shove it in is not going to suddenly make it 100% better and sell it to some editor 1/3 my age. I am so freaking sick of the whole subject of sensuality and the erotic trends in the market that I've basically stopped taking classes in writing or listening to any other writers because I really don't care.

What is this emphasis over one small, paltry aspect of the story?

And it's not that my stories don't sometimes include those elements if the characters "go there". In fact, I have one manuscript which I've hesitated to show to anyone, like my agent, because it starts out with "one of those scenes". Right in the very beginning. First chapter. Page one. But it was where the character was at the time. It is not the central focus of the story. It just happened.

Anyway, enough about that. It's a pet peeve of mine because I'm so sick of listening to everyone babble on about it, but it's like any other element of writing. You include what is necessary for the story and that's pretty much all there is to it.

So…whatever. I have discovered, though, that trying to trim down my already fairly lean-and-mean writing is not good either.

Brief descriptions for main characters does not cut the mustard. In fact, I've learned that the best way to create a cardboard character is to throw in a couple of lines about their physical appearance and move on with the story. It ends up sounding like a laundry list or wanted poster. What you really need to do is write a long paragraph that isn't so much a description as it is what the other character thinks about the one described. This means, basically, that there really are some rules:

  1. You can't describe your heroine until you are in the hero's (or some other character's) viewpoint. Because otherwise, you've got the heroine describing herself—which is never a good thing unless it's something like: she's in some store's dressing room trying on a dress and she can't get the zipper closed because she's gained about ten pounds over the Thanksgiving holidays. But for God's sake, don't have her stare in the mirror and itemize her hair, eyes and complexion. There is NOTHING worse than a mirror scene. It's lazy writing and it stinks. Never have a character describe himself or herself. Never, ever include a line like: She threw a lock of her golden hair over her shoulder. Just whose point of view is that in, anyway?
  2. Unless this is literary fiction, you—the author—can't just describe the characters, either. You can't play God for a few minutes and stare down at your characters and describe them to the reader. Unless you're a member of Monty Python and are being funny.
  3. So…one character has to describe the other. If it's your hero describing the heroine, he has to do it in his own words. Not in some poetic drivel, unless he's a poet. And don't use words like beautiful. It has no meaning—the word has lost its power due to overuse and just general malaise. Are her features perfect like Grace Kelly? Or does she have the exotic sensuality of Gene Tierney with her pouting mouth and hint of an overbite. That overbite has made millions of men lose it—and it's the kind of thing your hero should and would notice. Men often have a fixation with mouths because—okay, we're not going to go there… Anyway, more often than not, it's the small things that one person might consider an imperfection that drives another person insane with lust. A big nose on a man; an overbite on a woman; heavy-lidded, sleepy eyes. Whatever. But the thing to note is that it's not a description, per se, but the character's reaction to these attributes. What is it about the heroine that the hero really notices? What conclusions does he draw because of what he sees or smells? Is she a sloppy, rumpled dresser? Does he find it indescribably erotic that she's a mess, smells of warm, salty flesh, and looks like she just fell out of bed? Or…you tell me.

The best descriptions build up a picture from the opinions and reactions of the point-of-view character. The character doing the describing.

Yeah, it's a pain in the patootie. It means you have to think about it. You have to think about what the heroine sees, feels, and reacts to when she sees the hero. You have to use her words—not your words.

In essence, the author has to step out of the way and let the characters do the describing, reacting, and feeling. In fact, the author often needs to just step out of the way and let the characters tell the story.

It's not that easy to do.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Getting Help

I am addicted to books, I'm saying that right up front. For years, I spent hundreds of dollars on technical books about operating systems and programming for my day job. I finally stopped doing that about three years ago when I realized that I had reached a plateau where the books were simply not advanced enough to help me. The other determining factor, however, was even more interesting to me: I actually prefer documentation available on the computer. If I have it in electronic form, the computer can perform a search instead of me laboriously pulling down book after book, looking for one small description of a reghack I need to do. I never thought I would prefer electronic information to an actual, paper book.

My. How times change.

However, I raise these issues because from a writing perspective, reference material interests me.

First, in the complete antithesis of my day job, I found when I first started out writing, books on writing were interesting but not particularly valuable. What was valuable was actually…writing. And activities such as entering writing contests and doing/receiving critiques. Forming a partnership with another writer to perform critiques was particularly helpful. Over time, you may find critique partners are less valuable (e.g. you've learned where to put your commas) or don't have the time to do critiques in return. Writing contests are no longer useful.

You reach a mid-level plateau. You may even have sold by this time, but you're not burning with success. This is when I've found books on writing to become less of an intellectual exercise and more specifically helpful.

Actually, there's only one writing book that I've found to be helpful enough to recommend: The Techniques of the $elling Writer by Dwight Swain. Get it and read it. You can actually improve your writing if you pay attention. He covers things like:

  • Choosing the correct word
  • Building a character's motivations, reactions, and feelings to create the story's movement
  • Techniques like how to incorporate a flashback effectively

Stuff like that. I'm deliberately staying away from mentioning his "scene and sequel" information that everyone else babbles about because it's always provoked a "well, duh" reaction in me. This book is useful, however, but it is more useful to someone who has already done some writing and is looking for ways to go beyond the basics.

I really recommend this book. I actually didn't buy it for several years because I had bought other books on writing that ended up serving as dust collectors and not much else. So I didn't think that one more book on writing would really help me.

I have a shelf of books that I bought because other writers recommended them. Turns out that the brief descriptions given about the books were all I needed. I didn't need the book itself. It just took 250 pages for the author to describe what others encapsulated in the 250 word concept and description. A lot of books on "how to plot" are like that. Read the blurb on the back, glance through the charts, and you're done. Get the concept and get out.

There is one exception to this which I do go back to occasionally and that is the book on Creating Character Emotion. You don't have to read the whole thing, but reading a few of the examples really does help you understand how to show emotions like anger without just telling the reader that the character was angry. I do refer back to this book to refresh myself on ways to portray emotion, but again, if the book was half the length it is, it would be enough. The author really didn't need to have a chapter on each emotion. Can we say…redundant?

If I had written the book (easy to say, right?) I would not have made chapters on each emotion. I would have made chapters on the various techniques used to portray emotion and then included the example of the emotions that used the technique. That's why I never read the entire book. It started to repeat techniques in the guise of showing how to portray different emotions.

Entirely unnecessary. Which emotion is being portrayed is entirely unimportant. The crux of the matter is how to portray any emotion.

So after a few chapters, I marked which "emotions" were really examples of a specific way to portray an emotion—any emotion—so that I could refer back to the techniques.

The fact that I bothered to go back and mark the techniques, however, shows you that there was some very valuable and interesting information in that book. It is definitely worthwhile reference material.

However, I still have one complaint which circles back to my first paragraph: I've reached a point where I actually prefer my reference material to be online. I wish I could have gotten Swain's book as an e-book. I also wish the character emotion book was available as an e-book.

As far as other reference material: I heartily recommend the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). It is invaluable although exceptionally expensive. (I got it free for joining a book club in the distant past—otherwise I wouldn't have it, either.) I wish I had it online. It is so much easier to look things up on the computer than to stop and drag out some book. When I get rich and famous, the first thing I'm going to buy is the OED on CD (right after I get the D.R. Field & Brush Mower).

I am always using words that aren't in the standard online dictionaries. I also find most Thesauri to be pathetic. (What the heck is the plural of Thesaurus? Thesauruses? If it follows the Latin, one would think the plural would be Thesauri—and my speller doesn't barf at it so maybe that's right, although it doesn't barf at Thesauruses, either.)

Anyway, I don't use particularly obscure or complex words—just different words. Most are easy, most are words everyone has heard and used before. It's just that these lazy, limited, popular dictionaries and thesauri don't contain them. Although the Microsoft versions seem better than other e-dictionaries I've bought like Websters… Who would have thunk it?

So—that's it. Get Swain. It's about the most help I can offer other writers.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Writing Conferences

The Romance Writers of America conference is being held this week in Dallas, Texas. Unfortunately, I can't attend this year. Or maybe that's a good thing because conferences often depress me. However, my problems aside, I really encourage anyone who wants to be a writer to attend conferences. Particularly if the conference has seminars or classes that can help you improve your writing. Assuming you are open new ideas and don't believe that your writing is so good there is no way it can be improved.

Yeah. Right.

Be aware, however, that conferences can be a bit depressing if your confidence is fragile. When you see all the authors out there and start to realize how great some of them are, and you go back and read your stuff, you may begin to have doubts. You may think you're the worst writer on the planet and will never sell. Or that what you've sold is total dreck.

So you need to prepare to have your confidence shattered and continue writing anyway. Because everything, and I mean everything, can be improved upon. You can learn. If you put enough sweat into it, learn from your mistakes, remain open to new ideas, and don't let the rejections get to you, you may eventually get published. Of course, there are no guarantees.

And even when you're published, you should be aware that you must continue to learn and perfect your craft. Because there is always the second contract you have to earn.

One of the biggest fallacies I see when I talk to writers who attend conferences is the profound belief that what they just heard in class doesn't apply to them. Some writers attend the workshops with an open mind, ready to learn, tempered by the notion that their own writing does not suffer from whatever weaknesses or problems are under discussions. Or worse, they say, "Yes, I understand completely about overuse of adjectives and adverbs. But I have a very lush writing style and that is just my style. So it would be foolish of me to change it—it is perfect the way it is. But other writers should really pay attention to the advice from that class."

Sigh. All styles can be refined. All styles can be improved. Even the most lush, sensuous style can suffer from overwriting and the way too excessive use of adjectives and adverbs. Or infelicitous comparisons, similes, and descriptions.


And I can't help it, I've got to use Gil Mayo's observation from The Gil Mayo Mysteries on BBC America, about a shampoo called, Maximum Infinity. As he put it: infinity is, by definition, infinite. You can't modify it and make it more, or less, infinite. I don't think that's exactly what he said, but you get the gist of it. And translated into my words: unless you are writing something for some humorous effect, don't be a jerk about it. Watch your modifiers. Understand what the language you are using actually means.

Oh, and if you haven't seen The Gil Mayo Mysteries on BBC American—go watch iti! It's a brilliant show! Of course now that I've discovered it and have become a huge fan, it will probably be canceled. All the shows I like are canceled almost immediately. Just like all the stocks I buy immediately crash and never recover.

Anyway, The Gil Mayo Mysteries is the ONLY show I actually watch on television—not having time to actually watch television on a regular basis. Other than the occasional: Absolutely Fabulous, of course.

So, I adore Alistair McGowan as Gil Mayo and the absolutely brilliant new actor Huw Rhys as DI Kite. Huw Rhys has the most expressive face—he is a joy to watch. He can say more by just rolling his eyes than most other actors can convey in an entire speech. Of course McGowan is perfect as the deadpan, precise Gil Mayo. God, I love to watch those two. This show is fantastic. It is so funny and I even love the small bit before the show begins when the BBC recommends that American viewers may wish to use their close captioning feature because of the accents…What a riot. I always start the DVD recorder a little early to catch that part.

And yes, Huw Rhys is from Wales and has a achingly beautiful accent, but I can't say as I've needed the close captioning feature yet. J I just wish they would have some decent pictures on the BBC America site for the cast. The one group shot has a pretty appalling picture of poor Mr. Rhys.

And lest we forget the women: I'm totally jealous of Jessica Oyelowo as the character of Alex. She is truly gorgeous. Not to mention that her outfits are fabulous and in some odd way remind me of the creations by my favorite costume designer, Edith Head. Sometimes I really wish that well-tailored, good looking dresses that look good on an actual female body with curves would come back into style. It's so rare to see well-constructed clothing with flare. Maybe that's one of the reasons the character of Alex looks so good—she often wears "costumes" that in fact look well-made and good on a woman.

There is something tragically missing from today's gowns—they just lack style. They look good on hangers. They look good draped over a stick figure. But none of them really look well made or good on an actual woman with an actual woman's body. And the more "high fashion" they are, the worse they look. Some just frankly look like someone took a bolt of expensive fabric, basted a few seams along strange-and-wacky bias lines and threw it over the poor, starved woman. Too bad. They just look like an anorexic pile of expensive fabric remnants.

Anyway, this has absolutely nothing to do with writing or conferences.


Back to writing conferences…

Strangely enough, I tend to disagree with the conventional wisdom about what is useful about conferences. A lot of people go "to make contacts in the industry".



Frankly, I don't think that is very useful until you have actually sold your book. If you have, then you need to go to conferences to meet the people who will put your book into bookstores and libraries.

If you haven't published, here's the thing: you can chat up as many agents and editors as you want, but your book is only going to be contracted by one of them if the story and writing are good enough. Your book will essentially sell itself if it is good enough. Until it is that good, you are wasting your time. No one is going to buy anything you write no matter how many drinks you buy for them or how friendly you are.

The only exception is if you are some sort of celebrity. Then your celebrity status may sell your first book for you. After that, if it doesn't do well, you're back to the old "is the story and writing strong enough?"

So, I totally don't believe in the value of networking until you are a published author. Then you need to cast your net about you to pick up contracts in the industry such as librarians and booksellers who may acquire your masterpiece, and nose around editors to see what the trends are, who is buying what, and so on for your next project.

Then, with tears in your eyes, you ask: What about the opportunity to pitch your book to a lucky agent or editor?

What about it? It's frankly a waste of good adrenalin and nervous tension. Because they are still going to read what you submit to them. And if it isn't good enough, it's rejected. They're aren't going to buy it because they met you face-to-face at the conference.

And here's the real secret: if your book is good enough to buy, they will buy it—even out of the slush pile! So you are no better off and if you have a tendency to ramble (the way I do—see above digression) then you are actually better off not pitching in that venue.

Perfect your pitch/query. With the help of a query vetting group, I've reached the point where 99% of my queries net a request for a partial.

When you reach that point, then just send the query letter. If they ask for a partial, send the partial. If it's good enough, they'll ask for the rest of the manuscript. If they like it, they'll buy it. That's the process. Pitching in person just makes you insanely nervous and crazy and for no good reason because you still have to go through exactly that same process. You may possibly get to send your completed manuscript first instead of the partial, but again, if it isn't good enough, all that will net you is a quicker rejection.

So you can be a cool, calm, rational person and send a query to start the process, or you can be a sweaty, tongue-tied person who pitched face-to-face. Both authors end up in the same queue. Naturally, if you prefer to make contacts and pitch face-to-face, then have at it. I'm just saying if this is not your preferred style and you are shy—don't worry about it. In the long run, it's your writing and your story that matter.

And that's it. It's your writing and your story that matter. Not buying rounds in the hotel bar for all the editors at the RWA conference.

Monday, July 02, 2007

This and That

We all think we know how to talk and write. We all think we communicate clearly, get our point across, and any idiot can understand us. And yet… How many times have you said something and then had someone reply or ask you a question that is so, well, on another planet entirely from what you were saying that you just stopped, completely nonplused?

Happens to me all the time. In conversations, e-mails, and my writing, I often feel like I'm speaking a completely different language from everyone else. I read what I've written and it makes perfect sense to me. Or I mentally review what I've said and it seems reasonable and not at all anything that someone else would take issue with. And yet…they do—take issue. Or, they don't—understand. And yet it all seems so clear and just fine to me.

I'm left with the odd feeling that I must not "speak good English". Or maybe I speak some really obscure form of English.


The thing is—I'm in a lot of writers groups and so many of them trash critique partners or say "they just don't have time for a critique partner" or other rather uppity things like that. My answer is: how much time do you have to rewrite? How much time do you have to revise over and over again because you're revising the wrong things because you have no clue what is really wrong?

Sure, it's hard to find a good critique partner who won't just say: Oh, this is great! Or one that won't just focus on where the commas ought to be placed. Or one that doesn't cut you to ribbons when you don't deserve it (versus cutting you to ribbons when you do deserve it and need to pay attention).

But I really think a good critique partner is worth his or her weight in gold. Because every time she wrinkles her nose, pauses, asks a question, re-reads a line, or glances away for a moment, those are places that need fixing. Can you find those places on your own? I don't know. Can you?

Mostly, I can't. Because I know what I mean—I wrote the darn thing. If I didn't know what I meant then not even the greatest critique partner on this planet is going to be able to help me. However, the fact of the matter is: if you wrote it, you understand it. But not everyone else will. What is an English garden to you may be a plot of nameless weeds to someone else. Worse, your English garden may be a loathsome, foully diseased plot to everyone else who reads your description. That's the value of a second opinion—in a word, a critique partner.

Now, it's true. Some really lucky writers have agents and no critique partners. Because the writer's agent is actually working not only as an agent but also as a critique partner. Oh, sure. The agent isn't reading every single word the way a critique partner might, but they are providing feedback to the author such as: This scene didn't work. And what the heck were you thinking when you wrote that the hero's head looked like a peeled cabbage? So someone, somewhere is often providing feedback even for those authors who have no time for critique partners.

For beginning writers: get a critique partner. Develop a thick hide. All those things you thought you were so good at—well, make sure you're not just kidding yourself. This is particularly true if you've written a lot of manuscripts and can't seem to get anywhere. You may be making the same mistakes over and over again because you haven't been able to identify what is wrong. And you have no one to point them out to you. Find someone who is going to be hard on you and listen to what they have to say. Think about it. Think hard and don't just dismiss stuff out of hand because you think the person "just doesn't understand". Or the person "just doesn't get your style of writing". Honestly, think about it.

Everyone needs feedback in order to improve their communication skills. Some reader comments are more useful than others. Many comments are completely contradictory. It's not always easy to sift through everything and figure out what—if anything—you are doing wrong.

The bottom line, however, is that you should always be open to comments, suggestions and new ideas. You have to grow or die. It's your choice.