Wednesday, August 25, 2010

How I Write: Rest and Recreation

Welcome to another weekly post in the How I Write series. This series of posts is the brainchild of Ansha Kotyk, who--along with the other participants, including Yours Truly--haunts the forums (registration required) of the Romance Divas website. You can go here to find a list of all the participants with links to their individual blog posts. We'll each be posting on the same topic each Wednesday for the next two or three months--longer, if it goes well and we're having fun with it.

This week's topic is open--we all can write about whatever topic we choose.

I choose: burnout. Or, the necessity for time off.

Regular readers of my contributions to this series know I'm a big proponent of Heinlein's Rules For Writers. Because they're invaluable, I'll post them. One. More. Time.

  1. You must write.
  2. You must finish what you write.
  3. You must not rewrite except to editorial order.
  4. You must send your story to an editor who will buy it.
  5. You must keep your story in the mail until someone buys it.
I've also run the numbers, showing that a reasonble word count each day (or each working day), produced consistently, can result in several novels over the course of a year. If you doubt your ability to produce enough fiction to fill a 90,000 word book, this exercise is invaluable. It convinced me that I could do it, and I've written two novels this year.

Something else that needs discussion, though, is time off.

When you're self-employed, you have to be your own boss. Kristine Katheryn Rusch (whose website I linked to last week) is doing a series of posts about the freelance life. She makes that point--you have to be your own boss, and you have to be a strict taskmaster. Freelancers have nobody standing over them, demanding that they do a job in return for a regular paycheck. That means you have to motivate yourself.

You also need to treat yourself like an employee in another fashion: giving yourself permission to be ill, or to take a vacation. It can be stressful, knowing that the onus is on you to bring home the bacon, or when you're just starting out, to try to break into the writing field so you can begin to bring home the bacon. It takes time. Most "overnight sensations" in any field are people who worked for years, laboring away in obscurity, mastering their craft, before they found themselves in the right place at the right time with the right product (be it a novel, a screenplay, an invention, a service) to become an "instant" success.

In one way, writing is like any other sales job: you have to be prepared to hear "no" far more often than you'll hear "yes" from prospective clients (editors). If you produce enough stories or novels, and you work at improving your craft every day, and you keep them out there (Heinlein's Rules, again), eventually you'll start hearing "yes" occasionally, and then more often. But you're going to hear "no" a lot too. Even the greatest salesman can't sell to everyone, even with the greatest product in the world. To turn Lincoln's phrase on its head, "You can sell to all of the people some of the time, and some of the people all of the time, but you can't sell to all of the people all of the time."

It can be wearying. Depressing, even. Even when you're selling everything you write, you're still going to need to take time off sometimes. You're only human. But when you're still trying to get your foot in the door, it can be more difficult to justify taking time off. Cashing a royalty check makes it a lot easier to tell yourself that you deserve a rest. If you're still trying to make that first big sale, when you have nothing to show yet for all your hard work, it's a lot more difficult.

But you still need it. Burning yourself out helps no one. It won't improve your craft. It won't sell your work any faster. It won't give you the wherewithal to support your spouse in the manner to which he or she would like to become accustomed. But it can drain all the joy out of what should be a great job. You're getting paid (or hope to get paid eventually) to sit alone in a room and make shit up. If you're not enjoying it anymore, you're doing something wrong.

That's not to say that there won't be days when it feels like work, because it is work. It's a job. But if you feel like you might as well be punching a clock in an office, well, it's like the old vaudeville joke:

Patient: "Doctor, doctor--it hurts when I do that!"
Doctor: "Then don't do that!" (rimshot)

Don't do that. Sometimes you need to step away from the keyboard, put all the stories and story ideas and possible markets and calls for anthologies out of your mind. You need to rest. You need to take a vacation. And you're entitled to one, like everyone else. Rest your mind. Rest your spirit. Let your mental garden lie fallow for a time. In the long run it will help.

I've been spinning my wheels for the last month or more. According to my original plan for the year, I should be most of the way through a third novel. I haven't even started it yet. And yes, four novels is an ambitious goal for someone who never wrote even one before this past year. If I get three done, it'll still be a hell of an accomplishment. I still want to manage four, if possible. But right now, it's time for me to step back. I'm going to take a few days off from my writing. I'll write if I feel like it, if it's something I want to write. But otherwise, not. Not for the next few days.

I'll see you all again then.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

How I Write: Recommended Reading/Classes You've Taken

Welcome to another weekly post in the How I Write series. This series of posts is the brainchild of Ansha Kotyk, who--along with the other participants, including Yours Truly--haunts the forums (registration required) of the Romance Divas website. You can go here to find a list of all the participants with links to their individual blog posts. We'll each be posting on the same topic each Wednesday for the next two or three months--longer, if it goes well and we're having fun with it.

This week's topic is Recommendations--Readings or Classes I've Taken.

Years (and years...yikes!) ago, I was a member of a critique group. Soley by good luck, I fell into a group with published writers involved in it. Mary Rosenblum (who writes SF and mysteries) was one. Mike Moscoe (or Mike Shepherd) was another member, though he was still a wannabe when I joined the group, but he sold his first novel not long after I joined the group. I wrote and got critiques and learned how to listen quietly while my darlings were put through a blender in front of me. I even sent a few stories out, but I didn't either write or submit consistently, and soon fell back into my old ways. That group eventually dissolved, as groups tend to do.

I continued to write fanfic, and some original fic, and participate in online games (that were really more like collaborative writing projects). I attended the local SF convention every year, attended all the panels aimed at writers and wannabes, and every year I got fired up to want to write again...and then after the con the desire would fade away and I'd go back to my old habits.

Two of the writers who sometimes presented panels were Kristine Katherine Rusch and Dean Wesley Smith. Separately and together, they've been editors and publishers, and they've both published scores of novels and short stories. They both have websites and blogs, and it was they who introduced me to Heinlein's Rules For Writers and who taught me to run the numbers. I would strongly recommend that you check out both blogs.

Dean is currently doing a multi-part series on his blog called Killing The Sacred Cows of Publishing, about the many and destructive myths around writing fiction for a living. Kris is writing The Freelancer's Guide on her blog, about the ins and outs of working as a freelancer--of any kind, not just writing. They both have extensive experience and know whereof they speak, so it's good advice--and it's free. They're both also posting frequently about how the advent of electronic publishing is changing and will change the world of publishing. Short answer: nobody knows yet, but you need to pay attention to this stuff because nobody will care more about your career than you will. (P.S. the comments to their blogs are often as useful as the blog posts themselves, as other professional writers chime in with their experiences, opinions, and beliefs.)

Kris and Dean also do workshops for writers in Lincoln City, Oregon. I attended one last September which helped spur me to buckle down and work at writing instead of playing around at it. That's why I now, around a year later, have seven erotic romance shorts published and two novels circulating. Their workshops are well worth the cost.

In a less interactive vein, I also recommend a number of books that I've found helpful over the years:

Orson Scott Card's Character and Viewpoint (Writers Digest Books) - An in-depth look at how to construct and animate convincing characters, and--my personal favorite part--an analysis of the differences between first, second, third and omniscient points of view, pointing out the benefits and drawbacks of each.

Jack Bickham's Scene and Structure (Writers Digest Books) - I've never read a book that gave me a clearer understanding of the structure of scenes, from the smallest to the grandest levels. It all boils down to cause and effect, stimulus and response. Bickham goes into great detail about the many ways you can screw this up, and how to do it right.

Dwight V. Swain's Techniques of the $elling Writer (University of Oklahoma Press) - This is an older book, but well worth reading. It covers some of the same ground as the previous book (and did it first, really, but it wasn't the first one I read), and is another excellent manual on how to create dramatic tension scene by scene.

Robert McKee's Story (Harper Collins) - Subtitled "Substance, Structure, Style, and The Principles of Screenwriting", it's obviously a book about writing movie screenplays rather than novels. Nonetheless, it is full of excellent advice on how to pare a story down to the essentials and find the "skeleton" of your story, or (going in the other direction) start with bare bones and work your way up to a fully-fleshed dramatic story.

I recommend all of these books, and I welcome comments suggesting others you think I might profit from reading!

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

How I Write: Knowing When You're Done/Ready to Sub or Query

Welcome to another weekly post in the How I Write series. This series of posts is the brainchild of Ansha Kotyk, who--along with the other participants, including Yours Truly--haunts the forums (registration required) of the Romance Divas website. You can go here to find a list of all the participants with links to their individual blog posts. We'll each be posting on the same topic each Wednesday for the next two or three months--longer, if it goes well and we're having fun with it.

This week's topic is Knowing When You're Done, or Am I Ready to Submit or Query?

How do you know when you're done? When can your manuscript benefit from another editing pass, and when are you simply gilding the lily? I can't give you any hard and fast rules. I can only tell you how I look at it.

I'm a believer in writing fast, in writing as much as possible from the subconscious, creative side of the brain. Your subconscious knows everything your conscious mind knows, and plenty more besides--as anyone who has ever been blindsided by a long -forgotten memory coming to the fore can tell you. It remembers everything. So it knows everything you know about the art and craft of storytelling. Trust it.

Once I'm done with a story--a novel, especially--I put it away for a few days, or for a couple of weeks if it's a novel. Then I reread it from the beginning, looking for anything that leaps out at me. Typos and wordos and other artifacts of writing quickly; rough bits of description that can be improved quickly; and deeper issues. Sometimes I'll rearrange scenes, add or delete scenes, or add transitions to smooth the flow of the story. Once I've done that, I give it to my trusted first reader, my spouse.

Once my spouse has read it and given me a critique, I go over the story once more, making any changes I think advisable, give it a final polish--spellchecking (by eye, on printed paper with a red pen), fixing any other last-minute errors I find, and then I call it finished.

Is it perfect? No, but nobody writes a perfect novel. Nobody ever has, and nobody ever will. Is it the best I can do at the moment? Yes. Will I someday look back at it and cringe? Almost certainly; if I'm still learning and still improving my craft years from now, I certainly hope I'll be able to see things I could have done better in my earlier work.

Would it benefit from another editing pass? I don't think so, and I'll tell you why. Barring an obvious flaw that I somehow managed to miss every time I've looked at it so far, I've already given it the best effort of which I'm capable. Continuing to try to polish it is likely to do more harm than good. Whatever creativity I possess, whatever distinctive "voice" I may demonstrate in my writing, will only be diluted if I continue to fiddle with the manuscript. My voice--anyone's voice, really--is freshest with as little editing as possible.

I believe I'd be better advised to send the current manuscript out into the world to sink or swim on its merits than to continue polishing it to a mirror finish. Any lessons I learned from writing that story, or from the critique I got, or from editorial replies, are best applied to all my future work. I will learn more from applying those lessons to new tales than I will by trying to retrofit them to an earlier story.

So...I know I'm done when I've had at least one other person read the story and give me a reaction, and I've revised the story once based on that critique. I never, ever ask someone to re-read the story after I've made the changes (or some of them) that they suggested. After all, if I didn't make the changes they think are necessary, why should I expect them to have changed their minds? And if I did make the suggested changes, how can they complain?

As for submissions...if you're sending out a short story, it goes to one market at a time. The cardinal rule is, send it to the top markets first, however you define a "top" market. Maybe you want to be read by as many people as possible, or you want desperately to be published in a particular magazine. Maybe you just want as much money as possible for your work. Whatever the criteria you use, don't sell yourself short. Don't assume they'll reject it. Let the editor(s) decide whether they want your story.

That doesn't mean you should ignore their guidelines. Don't send flash fiction to a market that wants novellas. Don't send "sweet" romance to a publisher who only prints scorching erotica. But if there's any doubt in your mind about whether your story suits their market? Send it to them. Let THEM decide. They may just like it enough to make an exception. And the worst thing that will happen if they don't like it, is they'll send you a rejection letter. Eh. You're going to get lots of those over the course of your career. Get used to it.

If you're sending out a novel, send out multiple submissions. I send my novels to five publishers at a time, and as rejections come back, I send it out again so that it's always out at five publishers. I also ignore "no unsolicited manuscripts" rules. Not everyone will agree with that stance, but it works. I know--because I received a rejection on a novel from a publisher who "doesn't accept unsolicited manuscripts". The rejection letter came from a second editor, who had looked at the manuscript at the request of the editor to whom I'd sent it. Yes, they then rejected the novel--but they considered it. They did, in fact, read it despite the alleged rule against unsolicited manuscripts.

No editor wants to be known in the industry as the one who rejected the next J. K. Rowling sight unseen so that some other publisher makes a fortune on the book. They're going to look at everything that comes in the door, even if only briefly. But unless you're a name author already, everyone gets only a brief look--unless you grab the editor by the throat and make him miss his subway stop because he's caught up in your story. In which case, rules or no rules, he's going to want to buy your novel. And again, the worst thing to happen to you if they don't like it is, they send you a boilerplate rejection letter that says "we don't accept unsolicited manuscripts". But it's just that: boilerplate.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

How I Write: Revisions--First Pass, Resources, Critique Groups

Welcome to another weekly post in the How I Write series. This series of posts is the brainchild of Ansha Kotyk, who--along with the other participants, including Yours Truly--haunts the forums (registration required) of the Romance Divas website. You can go here to find a list of all the participants with links to their individual blog posts. We'll each be posting on the same topic each Wednesday for the next two or three months--longer, if it goes well and we're having fun with it.

This week's topic is Revisions--First Pass, Resources, Critique Groups

Well...I'm not sure that I have a lot to say this week, to be honest. I said most of it last week. Revision is my least favorite, least time-consuming part of writing. Based on how some of the other participants described their writing technique, I suppose one might say I do a lot of my revisions while I hammer out the first draft.

I don't think of it as revision, though. It's all part of the mysterious, mostly subconsciously-driven, seat-of-my-pants approach to writing that I employ. I begin at the beginning, and write until I reach the end, then stop. Of course, along the way I may add or delete scenes, cut and paste scenes so the arrangement works better, or go back and modify scenes to suit changes I've wrought since I first put it down on "paper". I suppose one might call that revising, but I've always thought of it as simply part of the process of writing.

Thus, when I'm done with my first draft, it's relatively clean. The revisions are minimal at that point, and involve much cleaning up of typos, dropped or extraneous words, and smoothing out the rough edges of text being composed on the fly. And spell-checking, of course. I run the computer's spellchecker--but only after I'm done with the writing. I never, ever, ever allow the computer to spellcheck (or worse, grammar check) me when I'm writing.

And I never rely solely on the spellcheck. Software guys can't spell for beans. Many a spellchecker is as likely to introduce errors as eliminate them. Besides, there are too many errors a spellcheck program won't catch: homynyms, of course, and words that aren't the word you meant to write but which are at least spelled correctly. I'm never done revising until I've printed the story out and read it through line by line with red pen in hand. It's amazing--and a little alarming--how many errors I always catch that way.

I briefly mentioned critique groups last time. I'm in one, but they've met maybe twice since joined them. And even if we met regularly, I wouldn't depend on them to critique my work. I never show anyone--not my critique group, not my spouse--a work in progress. Nobody sees it until it's finished because it's my story; it'll be the best story I can produce at the time. I will only show my work to them after it's finished (and in the mail to an editor who can buy it--Heinlein's Rules again). Then they serve as another audience. I'm interested to hear what they have to say, but any valid criticisms I get will be applied to the next story. Once a story is done, it's done.

I suppose all of that might sound arrogant, but that's not my intention. It's just that I work best when I simply write the best story I can produce all on my own. I don't want to write by committee, or to please a committee, or for the approval of a handful of individuals--all of which can happen all too easily with critique groups. Plus, even if your critique group is full of established, published writers, they are still giving you their personal opinions, based on (among other things) their personal tastes. And if I'm going to ask someone's opinion of the story, why not an editor? If he likes it, he'll not only tell me so, he'll give me money! Does your critique group do that? Mine doesn't.

So my stories go to editors first, then to other people, whose opinions I respect. I'll listen to their criticisms, and heed their advice (if I think it's valid). But I won't revise a story once it's finished. That ship has sailed. I will, instead, apply the advice to my future stories, which--given both my greater experience as a writer (by a minimum of one additional tale) and informed criticism, is likely to be better overall than a story I might revise after the fact.

In fact, I may soon redraft (i.e., rewrite from scratch--not revise) a story I've had in circulation for over a year now. I've gotten some good and useful feedback on it, and I can see the validity of the comments I've received from some editors who rejected it. It won't be a revision of the original story. It will be a new story based on the same premise, with some of the same characters, but told anew--with (I sincerely hope) more skill and better craft than the one I wrote a year ago. (I won't pull the old story from circulation, mind you. Heinlein's Rule # 5--keep the story in the mail until someone buys it. It may yet find a home someday. But there's no reason I can't take another bite at the apple.)