Sleep, Creep, Leap

Gardening and writing. Amazing how similar they are in process. Writing seems to also follow the old adage when planting a new perennial (a plant that returns, year after year).

In the first year, the plant sleeps. Most of the process is happening below the surface of the soil, putting in roots, establishing itself in space. The second year, the plant creeps. Slowly, new growth appears. And finally, year three, the plant leaps into the glorious beauty it is meant to be.

Writing is a lot like that. First draft, getting ideas on paper (on screen). For a while, it may seem like nothing’s happening. Words and ideas get tried and tossed. The product at the end of that first draft may read ugly. Onto the revision—maybe one, maybe more. Ideas coalesce. The right words appear as if by magic. And finally, editing polishes the whole until the manuscript is ready for publication.

Sleep, creep, leap. Gardeners and writers require the same character qualities: patience, tenacity, and enough fortitude to not rip things or discard a draft too early in the process.

Still waiting for replies to the queries I’ve sent out. Meanwhile, a new WIP is far enough along to be in the “dirty middle” of the process. The character milestones and outline are done. I’m ready to start writing chapter seven.

External Events and Internal Reactions

I’ve written before about taking on the Ray Bradbury 52 stories challenge. I learned a lot in that 2017 experience, including why it’s important to balance external events with the characters’ internal reactions.

Fill a story with too many external events and the characters can end up flat and stereotypical. Focus on emotions and thoughts to the exclusion of action and–uh-oh–where’s the story?

When I’m drafting a piece, I tend to stick to what’s happening. For me, rewrite is the time to ask what’s going on inside the characters. Even then, I sometimes miss those all-important emotional beats. As a fix, I play a little mindfulness game, blending the external and internal. That’s what I did in my flash fiction, The Wishing Stone.

A story with simple bones, the main character is gifted with an heirloom pendant that grants her wishes. When things start to go wrong, she moves from intrigued to worried to terrified. In under a thousand words.  

Since the physiological responses often need naming to mean anything—think sad and happy tears—I concentrated on the character’s experience of the world. In this piece, the character’s terror is shown when the pendant becomes a live coal on her chest. Her nightgown smokes when she inadvertently wishes her mother dead.

Staying mindful of how the external and internal worlds play on each other, helps me maintain that balance.

Heroes and Villains

Whatever happened to stories that distinguished the hero from the villain by the color of their hats? White for the hero, black for the villain. Where are the villains stroking their handlebar mustaches and laughing maniacally while tying the helpless, hapless heroine to the train tracks? And where the heroes galloping up on a white horse at the last possible second to save said heroine?  

For me, reading Sir Walter Scott’s Lochinvar—I think in high school—changed forever my perspective of what a hero could be.   Lochinvar comes too late to the wedding, forcing him to steal the fair Ellen from her family. Is kidnapping heroic?

I’ve written about the character milestones I use as a way to organize character arcs. In my latest work in progress, I discovered—with amazement—that my hero and my villain had virtually identical histories.

Both lost mothers. Both had emotionally unavailable—absent—fathers. Both had conditional love and support from replacement mothers. Both were sent far from home to learn their craft under the same demanding and morally-suspect teacher.  Both were forced to accept culturally defined roles that curtailed their freedom.

The difference between them, what made one the hero and one the villain, had more to do with conscious choices than with nature or nurture. Neither was born inherently good or evil.

Leaving me to ponder—am still pondering—the difference between them. Resiliency? Stubbornness? Positivity? Sheer dumb luck?

The challenge for me is to sort through the little choices they made and will make as I tell the story. I need to sketch their emotional connections to those choices, to get at what motivates them to be hero and villain. I’m a bit daunted.

Meanwhile, the query quest continues. No news on that front, but I hope there will be soon. Please keep fingers crossed for me.

Starting with Character Milestones

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Sitting down with a blank page and just writing. It hooked me early on—maybe around age 12. Many years later I learned the term pantser. Oh yeah, that’s me. A confirmed pantser. No plan except the vague one in my head.

Until I found myself getting to The End and needing to start over. And over and over and over…

I tried half a dozen outlining methods. No dice. For me, writing was all about letting my characters do the talking. When I imposed structure, my characters got sullen and silent, and I got stuck. I needed their voices. If characters don’t—won’t—speak, nothing happens.

But what if I gave each character their own therapy session? What if I just let them speak, telling their life stories, focus on what’s important to them?

I started with my villain and learned all sorts of important things I didn’t know. Most important, it was writing the way I like to write: in the zone, stream of consciousness, inside what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls Flow.

By the time I finished letting my characters dictate their milestones, I earned their permission to do some chapter-by-chapter plotting. They were happy. I was happy. A finished novel was the result.

The how-to is pretty simple. I start with a description of the character, then stay open to whatever they want to tell me. It never seems to matter whether in first or third person, present or past tense. My job is to take what feels like dictation.

Instead of my drudging through their goals and flaws and aspirations and hopes and dreams—making stuff up about them—my characters reveal what’s important to them. What happened at age 6. Age 12. Age 16. Age 25. Childhood. Puberty. Traumas. Struggles. Rebellions. Everything else emerges from those tales.

Nothing works for everyone, and nothing works for anyone all the time. But if you’re stuck with a character or a plot, giving your characters control is worth a try.

Query update: This week, an agent asked to read the full manuscript. It took me a day to get back to normal.

Thanks for your past good wishes and please keep wishing me luck.

Embracing Rejection

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As a technical writer, I didn’t worry about rejection. I worked for mid-sized agencies and companies and, for the most part, helped them grow through grants and business proposals. Rejections came only when the company I worked for decided to compete on the national level. Those rejections were less about my efforts and more about the company’s offerings.  

My life in fiction started off differently. I began submitting short stories in early 2017 and was dismayed by the number of rejections I received. Experienced writers are probably laughing right this minute at my naivete.

My editor/coach/mentor, Anna Yeatts said to think in terms of wallpapering my office with rejections. So, okay, I was trusting her. But I didn’t really feel okay about rejection. I mean—who does?

In January 2019 I got this message on my Duotrope dashboard: “Congratulations: Your acceptance ratio is higher than the average for members who have submitted to the same markets.”

And that’s when it came to me. I was doing something wrong. For a high acceptance ratio—given the number of acceptances I’d had—I wasn’t getting my writing out there often enough. I needed more rejections. I needed to embrace them.

That’s my goal for 2019. With querying agents and getting stories, both old and new, to market, I expect a boatload of rejections. It means I’m ready for my voice to be heard.

Wish me luck.

The Basics: Querying Literary Agents

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The adventure begins. After 18 months and five rewrites, I have a finished, polished novel manuscript. Now, to sell it.

Here are the essentials according to every book on selling a novel I’ve ever read and my mentor/editor Anna Yeatts.

  • The manuscript itself
  • A one-page synopsis
  • A query letter

I put together all three with a lot of help from Anna, an editor friend of hers, and a novelist friend.   

The rest has been research to find the right agents. How to search? Look for agents who want to represent your genre. Or check #MSWL (Manuscript Wish List) on Twitter or Pinterest.

And now the fun begins. I started with a list of 13 agents (yes, I also planted 13 trees in my backyard) and started researching. Not just the literary agency website, but also all social media, including podcasts. And found a wealth of helpful information.

What worked for me was to send one query three days a week. Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, I narrow my sights on a single agent and end by hitting SEND on the email or SUBMIT on the query submission manager. Different agents want different items. A query letter only. A query letter, a synopsis, and the first—five pages, ten pages, three chapters—of the novel.

So far, I’ve received four rejections that say my submission—a paranormal romance—does not line up with the agent’s MSWL

I’m waiting for the email that says, “Please send the entire manuscript.”

Wish me luck. Stay tuned.

Chilly Sunday

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Another Sunday–another week gone. I was hoping to set out the tomatoes this week, but it’s been in the 30’s at night (about 0 degrees C) and way too cold for tomatoes. I have homes for ten of my forty plants, another ten ready for my garden. And what to do with the twenty remaining? Hard choices in the garden.

The photo shows the first stirrings of my white feather hosta. For several years now, I see photos in the gardening catalogs showing white hostas. Three years ago I gave in and bought one. Don’t be fooled, though. It’s only this creamy white in the early spring, and turns pale green the rest of the time.

I have another novel outline on my plate for the coming week. I’m going to try and write two novels at the same time. Wonder if anyone else has tried to do that. How did it work out?.

Enjoy the day.

Perfectionism & Criticism

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A couple of years back, a self-published author asked me to read and then review their e-book. “It’s nearly perfect,” they said. “I’ve had it edited by a friend of a friend who’s an English teacher.

“How honest do you want me to be?” I asked.

There’s the rub. How honest? Just so you know, that “nearly perfect” editing resulted in a piece with gross grammatical errors and often laughable word usage. I wrote an honest review and before posting it, sent a copy to the author. Never heard from them again.

Growing up, I learned that making a mistake was the worst thing you could possibly do. I know I’m not alone because perfectionism—not the immobilizing kind but the quality of believing in one’s unquestionable faultlessness—runs rampant. Everybody may be saying “nobody’s perfect” but who admits to making errors? And above all, never apologize.

In my last paid job—one that lasted almost twenty years–I spent about fifty percent of my time writing business proposals. At least ten people, and sometimes as many as thirty, reviewed and critiqued what I wrote.

Without commenting on the lack of efficiency inherent to that process, one benefit I gained early on was how to take criticism, both constructive and ridiculous. For my own sanity, I adopted an attitude of learning when faced with the errors of my writing ways.

For example, should I have used “I” as an object instead of “me”? Really? But instead of arguing with that particular (repeat) grammar offender, my attitude of learning led me to take the time to look it up. I’d explicate, using expert citations, the grammar of subjects and objects and first-person pronouns.

I learned something and, hopefully, so did my critic.

That same approach has helped me grow as a fiction writer. It goes beyond “learn from your mistakes” to Miller’s Law: “In order to understand what another person is saying, you must assume that it is true and try to find out what it could be true of.”

So critique me. My long-held mantra still works. I’m far from perfect. I’m open to whatever you tell me because it may make me a better writer.

 

Make Something Happen

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A little more than a year ago, I started reading slush for an online flash fiction zine. I expected to learn tons about writing short stories and flash in particular. And I did.

Those of you who have followed me for a while know that in 2017, I took up the Ray Bradbury challenge to write 52 short stories. Bradbury says it’s not possible to write 52 bad stories, and I aimed to prove him wrong.

Honestly, my first five or six stories looked like 52 bad stories was a possibility. They were only good for the trash heap. But, with a little—okay a lot of—help from Anna Yeatts and my experience reading slush, I had five stories accepted for publication last year.

The main thing I learned about writing short stories was that something has to happen. It’s fine to have dark and stormy nights or bright and sunny days. Lovely prose is a delight. But if nothing happens, you ain’t got story.

This is where I think a lot of writers (based on my slush reading) get a bit lost. They have a great premise, but nothing happens.

For example, I wrote a story called “The Stain on the Wall” about a mother and son who move into a house where a tiny stain on the staircase wall keeps getting bigger. But there it stopped. All premise, no story. What’s behind the stain? Ghosts? Poltergeists? A doorway to hell? And what happens to Mom and son?

Never figured it out—at least not so far. So not a story. Yet.

Speaking of stories, my query saga for my completed novel, The Last Summer Queen, continues. Eight queries out the door with a ninth tomorrow. Two “not interested” replies. Notice, I’m not calling them rejections.

Please keep on sending lucky vibes my way. Fingers crossed.

Writing Every Day

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This past March 7, I participated in #PitMad, a Twitter event in which writers pitch finished novels to agents. While I didn’t get a bite, I did join #WritingCommunity and followed a number of different writers.

Living where I do—rural Kansas—I don’t get to interact with many writers. We have a local writers’ group, but it’s sparsely attended. So meeting other writers online has been a real treat for me.

One question I see asked frequently is “how do I write every day?” And I’m amazed that some folks write at all. What with the day-job, the kids, and other various commitments, I can’t imagine finding time to sit in a quiet place with yellow legal pad or laptop.

At my last job, all I did was write. Business proposals, grants, web articles, email tips, the CEO’s blog, internal and external newsletters … you get the picture. I’d stop at the local coffee shop on my way into the office. When arriving, I’d sit down at my desk, take that fortifying first sip of joe, and write. I’d leave the office after eight (or ten or twelve) hours of writing, and drive home, only to repeat the next day. Because I wrote to short deadlines, it wasn’t unusual for me to write all day, every day. And no time, usually, for editing.

My writing—getting the stories in my head into words on a page—was impossible. After that writing-heavy workday, I’d had a surfeit of writing.

Once I left that job, though, I found I’d developed the habit of daily writing. Getting words on paper—my words now—was an imperative. Like brushing teeth or exercise or bedtime, writing had become an essential of everyday life. My theory is that if a person wants to write every day, it can be done through habit formation.

There are tons of books written about developing habits. My personal favorite comes from Prochaska and Norcross, Changing for Good.

Once a person moves into a state of readiness for change, it’s a matter of toughing out the ninety days or so that it takes to develop a positive habit.

Warning: if a person is already overextended like I was, maybe the first step is to let go of other commitments. Just saying…

And now for my finding an agent update. Five queries have gone out the door for The Last Summer Queen. Another goes out tomorrow. Wish me luck.