Tagnovels

Farewell, 2013

It’s the time of year everyone writes up nifty little summaries of all the awesome stuff they’ve published and done and been over the past year. It’s the kind of post I’ve been considering not doing at all, at least not this year.

It’s not that 2013 has been crushingly bad. Plenty of good things have happened. They’re just not really the bloggable kinds of things, at least not on this blog, at least not by me. I’ve sold one story, published nothing, worked on writing mostly in a quiet and private way.

There are writers who write their entire lives in solitude. There are, I believe, stories of breathtaking beauty that make it onto the page and no further, relegated to notebooks in a closet somewhere. There are poems that force their way from head to hand and stop, a conversation ended as soon as it began. Even among writers who publish, there will always be stories that cut to close, that feel too true, that wander too far from what their writer believes of themself, eventually joining their brethren in the great unpublished story of the world.

I believe in those stories just as much as I believe in the ones that are sent forth over and over until they find a public home. I write them. Sometimes I change my mind and send them out. Sometimes it takes years to make that choice. The Lost was one of those stories. I have others as well. 2013 was a year for tending them. 2014 may be a year for sending some out.

This year has also been one of novels. Revisions, drafts, research…I’ve been working the long game. It takes a different mindset, a different set of writerly muscles for me, and I’ve needed to retrain myself. Time has been short, and I like to sprint through things, and it’s been frustrating to have to adhere to a schedule.

The one new thing about working on novels has been the addition of my agent to the mix. Alice has been wonderful to work with–she’s smart, understands what I’m trying to do, makes excellent suggestions, provides thoughtful support, and is both fun and genuinely nice. People choose agents for all sorts of reasons. I went with my gut and I’ve been so glad I did.

So, on the eve of 2014, I think I’m going to add a secret room here at Cosmic Driftwood, because who doesn’t love secret rooms? The rights on all my published stories have reverted to me. Some writers are very successful bundling previously published stories into collections and self-publishing them. I’m not one of those writers. Instead, I’m going to gather the stories all into the secret room and make them available to blog followers looking for entertainment on some snowy afternoon. My own little library, because in my world, a lending library of one’s own is supremely cool.

Most of these stories are already available for free online, complete with nice formatting and surrounded by lots of other great stories to read. (A complete list of my published work can be found here, for those of you who haven’t discovered the links at the top of the page.) A few of them aren’t–Abyss and Apex has a nominal fee for access to their archives, and The Sun still sells hard hard copies of the issue my story was in.

But for anyone who just wants to read the stories without pretty formatting, and without having to wander the online wilds, I will build you a library. I’ll post once it’s ready. If you’re a blog follower and you want access, just contact me. I’ll give you the password. Tea and cookies will be encouraged in my library, as will talking.

That’s all I have to say about 2013, I think. I hope the coming year is generous to you, filled with both the necessary and, occasionally, the frivolous.

How I met my agent

Okay. There’s a short story here, and a long one. The short one goes like this. I wrote a novel. I wrote a query letter, which took slightly longer than writing a novel. I sent the letter out. I had some requests. I received an agent offer. I accepted.

For those of you hungry for a bit more blood and gore than that, here’s the long story.

I started sending out query letters to agents for Wren in September. The unfortunate truth is that I would happily, HAPPILY, write an entire epic novel about earthworms, in iambic pentameter, rather than write and send query letters. I’m not supposed to confess such things in public, but everyone gets to air one dirty secret, right?

I started sending out emails in mid-September. Between then and the end of October, I probably could count the total number of letters I sent on my fingers. Yes, I was that productive. In my defense, I did develop an extensive list of agents I could query, which required hours of watching pages load really really slowly on Computersaurus Rex.

One thing I didn’t realize, until much later in the fall, was that most of those few emails never reached anyone. For some magical reason, my first few rounds of queries were gobbled up by the gremlins living in agent inboxes. Had I known, it might have made for a less lonely, non-responsive fall.

So, I procrastinated. I developed new hobbies. I considered becoming the Emily Dickinson of my time and publishing nothing. I thought about what colors I would paint the walls next summer. Then I decided to send out more letters. I’d send out lots and lots of queries! I’d be the very model of a modern query letter sender.

You know what happened? Two words. Hurricane Sandy.

Yes, Nature herself came along and told me not to bother agents. It was something of a relief. I could wait some more.

Here’s what happens when you wait. Before the storm, you have a list of agents, some of them starred. One of those starred agents has a stated preference for “character-driven fantasy”, which seems good, and you like her first name, which maybe isn’t the best reason to query someone, but hey, there it is. Even more important, you get that whole double-yolked egg feel about her, which is something your whimsical brain tells you not to ignore. You figure you’ll send her a letter as soon as things settle down.

Then you discover that agent was nearly washed away by Sandy and appears to be leaving agenting.

Okay, by then it’s Thanksgiving. What better time to get serious about sending letters than deep in the heart of the holiday season and after a devastating storm? I start to send queries. I’m moderately determined at this point.

On one of my trips to Query Tracker, I stumble across a surprising tidbit of information–the displaced agent, Alice Speilburg, has relocated far away from the ocean, and has opened her own agency.

I sent her a query on December 2. She wrote back three days later with a request for the full manuscript. I sent it. Six days after that she told me she loved it. We talked for a while. I liked her a lot. She had smart answers to my questions. In my heart, I was pretty sure she was the one I wanted to work with.

So, even while other agents were reading it and I was waiting until my deadline to respond, I was thinking I knew the answer. A few days before my deadline, I sent her a list of questions. One of her responses, just the way she said something, sealed the deal for me. I said yes.

And that is the entire story of how I met my agent. If you’d like to know more about Alice, please stop by on Monday. I’ll be posting an interview with her, and she’ll be open to questions in the comments during the afternoon.

Being here

I started to write this a while ago, then set it aside until I read this post by Widdershins at the Clarion blog. It inspired me to dig mine back out. It’s nice to find that sometimes the conversations I have with myself are being had by other people as well.

Write what you know is one of those rules tossed about as either brilliantly true or completely ridiculous. On a literal level, it’s simpler to write about things you know. I find it much easier, for example, to write about the life of a midwife, even one in a refugee camp, than to write about a mechanic rebuilding an engine. It’s more than just an understanding of the process–it’s knowing the language and the intuitive responses that aren’t likely to be covered in an instruction manual.

But I’ve never hunted anything in my life, and I still wrote a novelette about a woman who lived to hunt. Everything about her life I drew from things I do know. I’ve tracked and studied animals, I’ve camped in a shelter I built myself, and I’ve worked with dogs and horses. I understand what it’s like to sleep outside at night, to explore the banks of a river, to feel a heavy rain on my skin.

Those details give me confidence when writing about something I haven’t experienced myself. Hopefully that confidence extends to the reader as well, allowing them to believe what they read, even if it isn’t a literal truth.

There’s more, of course. There’s the emotional framework of a story. The tools necessary for building that come from being alive in the world, from listening and watching and feeling. It’s what makes one story about a mechanic different from twelve other stories about mechanics–the motor that drives their particular set of actions.

Why have I been thinking about writing what I know? Because I’m a little frustrated about writing a novel about travel to places I haven’t been. Yes, I can look at pictures and read descriptions and watch videos. The trouble is that visual resources lack other dimensions, and written ones filter place through another writer’s senses. Smells, sounds, how the air makes your skin feel, the pebbles that your fingers can’t help but reach for…these things are deeply personal.

Place is a character that longs to shake your hand, to look into your eyes. I won’t have that intimacy this time around. It’s been forcing me to think about how important place is to me as a writer. My interiors are often weak–the number of times I’ve had to go back and add the contents of a room is embarrassing–but I could spend days writing about the world outside of doors and walls.

I could simply stick my protagonist on a plane or a train, or have her spend her time in chain motels. It’s not what I want for her, or for the story. I need her feet on the ground, the air on her skin. I want her to reach for those pebbles that feel right in her hands.

This will be interesting experiment.

Who am I?

I’ve been rereading The Lost recently. I’m working on a completely different project, one that requires a bit of planning, so I’m only writing a chapter or so a day. In my spare time, I’m playing with The Lost and figuring out how to rearrange it. I have a massive revision in mind, one involving structure, not story.

It’s fun to read it again after so much time away. It’s impossible not to compare it with Wren. They cover some of the same territory, but from such different angles, and with very different POV characters.

Wren lives in a world of near constant mental stimulation. Isis doesn’t, not in the same way. Isis feels her way through the world, literally. She’s very tactile. She’s also frightened of people, of touch, which leaves her at odds with her nature. It’s a fun friction to work with in a story. One of my favorite scenes involves just the brushing of pinkies across a table.

That friction…I couldn’t have explained it when I was writing it. I approach things a little more clinically now than I did then, but I still tend to feel my way through a story. Afterward, that’s when I identify those necessary threads and figure out how to pull them taut. Until then I try to sit in the character’s skin the same way I sit in my own. Efficient? No. Messy? Yes. Surprising? Almost always.

Familiar faces

(I wrote the following post for a friend who wanted to hear this story.)

Working on novels is very different than working on short stories. (For me–I’m compelled to add that qualifier, always, because I don’t claim to know how anyone else’s head works.) The sheer volume of time I spend with the characters means my relationship to them is stronger, more complicated. There were times with The Lost that I felt as though my main characters were with me all the time. In the backseat of the car, for example, like three troublesome kids.

Which is all fine and good. The scary thing is when they cross that line between imaginary and flesh and blood.

A few years back, around winter holiday time, I went to a chain bookstore. I got in line for the register, not paying much attention, as usual. When it was almost my turn I looked up.

Crap.

It’s one thing to write a monster–a man whose obsessive desires and sense of privilege justify a range of cruelty. It’s quite another thing to have him sell you a book.

I crossed my fingers that I’d get the nice college woman instead. I didn’t. I looked very carefully at the man’s name tag when I came to the register. It wasn’t the name I’d written. He was just a guy selling books, a bored one at that, but the tilt of his head, his features, his attitude…it was him. I scooted out of the store. It’s not as though you can say to stranger in a bookstore, hey, do you carry a knife, by any chance?

I saw him one other time. Never again after that. I hadn’t thought about him in a long time. Not until a couple months back, when I ran into Juno Stuart in the grocery store.

Now, I can’t tell you much about who bookstore guy reminds me of, because that gives away some things in Wren. Juno isn’t such a secret. She’s driven, and charismatic, and intensely physical. If someone were going to make the leap from imagination to tangible form, it would be Juno.

And apparently she likes trail mix.

I’m tall for a woman. I can’t easily hide in a small grocery store. If I could have, I would have followed her the whole time. As it was, I watched her check out trail mix while I pretended to be checking out tortilla chips instead of her. She acted like she didn’t care. Like Juno would have acted.

And that was it. She was there, she bought her trail mix, she was gone.

That’s the way novels go. They pull you in to the world as you write, and it’s hard to walk away from it. It’s very much like reading as a kid–that sense that if you just look hard enough you’ll find your way through the wardrobe (if only you could find a wardrobe). Some little piece of your mind devotes itself to that search, always tuned outward, like SETI, and every now and then it goes bing. There’s always an explanation–in a college town you see so many people come and go that you can spot just about anyone–but it’s fun to feel that thrill.

Almost there

I should be finished with my latest pass through Wren later today. Everything is finally in the right place, more or less. It was a great shaggy mass of a story to work, kind of like oatmeal bread dough, wet and sticky and hard to shape. The good news is that it now looks and reads more or less the way it should.

My difficulty in working on Wren had everything to do with my process, and what happens when I don’t follow it. I wrote The Lost in the space of a couple months. I wrote its unnamed successor in a similar time frame. Working like that means the story is constantly in my head, and I sort through plot details on a daily basis, making changes as I go.

I wrote Wren off and on over eighteen months. Too many breaks, too much time in which to lose plot and character threads. It’s been an adventure sorting it all out.

Were my process different, were I someone who started with a detailed outline, for example, it likely would have been a different experience. But minds work in their own ways. Mine does better working out details as I write, rather than plotting it out in advance. Same process, whether with novels, short stories, or, long ago, college papers. The act of writing allows my mind to make connections that would be a struggle otherwise.

Anyway, one or two more revision passes and Wren will be done!

What then? I wrote a short story this weekend. I have a handful more waiting for my time. I have the short story that will not die waiting for me to take it out and despair over it again. And with Wren complete, it will be time to revise The Lost (the stories overlap), something I’m eager to do.

Almost

Almost finished.

No, I didn’t actually do half of the things I meant to do this week, but I managed the most important one. Wren is done. Mostly. I need to go back and adjust a few things. I need to squirrel away and read the whole thing out loud to the cat (because she’s in the room, not because I’m looking for her opinion; her tastes run to slightly racier fare).

Then it will be ready for my patient readers, and I will be able to move on.

If it wouldn’t take roughly six hours to do so, I’d insert a picture of fireworks here.

How I write (part two)

Picking up where I left off, I’m clean, exercised, and I have an unedited draft of a novel. By novel, I mean a document somewhere between 100,000 to 124,000 words (yes, one was that long), made of mostly connected story. Next comes the the process called either revision or unbearable suffering, depending on how I’m feeling about my writing.

That piece right there, the bit about how I’m feeling, that is the crux of things for me. The truth is that I enjoying revising, or drafting, or most any other part of writing, as long as I’ve got my head in the right place. There other truths too, though, things like the fact that it’s easier to keep the Infernal Editor at bay when I’m in the flow of drafting, and that when I start to think critically the head games begin.

Who is the Infernal Editor? She’s the one that tells you that you’ve failed in some catastrophic way, the bit of your mind that tries to shred your writing to bits. I suspect that most writers have vulnerable points, places that despair can seep in all too easily. For me, it’s while revising.

What do I do? I hang on to my support people with both hands. When it starts to feel like it’s just me and a giant pile of words that looks suspiciously like…debris, I go looking for help. Have you ever watched a horse race? More specifically, have you ever watched the horses going out to the starting gate? They’re ponied along by a rider on another horse, a calm horse that doesn’t freak out at the antics of their highstrung companion. Support people can be that for a writer, the steady presence that gets them to the starting gate to do their thing.

Okay, I prepare my support, and I sit down and read. I read the whole story, often in hard copy, though I have no printer currently, so Wren is stuck in pixels. I cross out lots of things, and I write little questions, and I make lots of faces at really bad prose. I get a sense of the overall shape, and how things move along. Sometimes I discover things I like more than I thought I would. Other times I feel like it’s all a irredeemable mess, and I cry on people’s shoulders.

Then, I go through chapter by chapter. I cut and reword and buff things up. I take out really boring bits of action that are more or less stage directions inserted to remind me what’s happening, and I replace them with somewhat less boring bits. Sometimes it goes quickly. Sometimes I spend a day or so stuck on one line. I try to think of it as working on a puzzle, and that helps. When I finish a chapter, I read it aloud to myself. If it seems to work, I pass it on to my first reader.

And so it goes. At some point I reach the end, and I read it again, and I have other people read it, and then I read it one more time, also aloud. With each pass, I change less and less. Sometimes that’s not the case. Sometimes I make huge changes, but as I’ve gotten more adept at figuring out what I’m doing, those huge changes tend to come earlier in the process.

The most important piece to these final passes is to not overdo things. I find it far too easy to edit the voice out of a piece if I spend too much time on it. That’s been one of the best lessons writing short stories has taught me, and I’m working on carrying it over to the novels. At some point I’ll write more about short stories, but this is long enough for now.

How I write (part one)

As a follow-up to my pizza-induced insistence that everyone must find their own way to write, I thought I’d share my process. This is how writing a novel goes for me (I’ll talk about short stories in a different post).

I start with a character. Sometimes more than one, but at least one who’s been on my mind for a while. I generally have an end. Hopefully, a few ideas about things that happen on the way to the end.

I take what I have, I open a fresh document on the computer, and I begin to write. The first five to ten pages, those are just warmup material. I’ve yet to start any story, of any length, exactly where it needs to start.

Once I get past the warmup, then I begin to have a sense of where things are going. It’s a bit like slowly being drawn into a river’s current. I’m swirling in the eddies, my destination is impossibly far away, but I can feel the pull of the water starting to give me direction.

I write. I write and write, and when things go well, I think about what I’ll be working on the next day as I fall asleep at night, and I wake up excited to start. It helps if I write consistently. Too much time off and I drift back to the shore, and it’s hard to get moving again.

I write too much. Technically it’s too much. In truth, it all feels necessary at the time. I write scenes about hanging out by the river, about sitting inside on rainy days and reading books in bed. I write long sections about sitting by the ocean as the waves pound. These scenes do nothing for the plot, but they’re my way of connecting with the characters.

Those characters… sometimes they start out clear, but usually they start out like the stones you find on a dirt trail–rough, dull, nondescript. By the end, if I’ve done my job right, if all those extra scenes have helped, then they feel like river rocks to me, those stones washed so smooth that your hand just aches to hold them.

It’s not the most expedient way to write, and if I were trying to write something with a specific (and close) deadline, I’d be more likely to outline and keep everything neat and tidy. For where I am now as a writer, it works just fine. Eventually I reach the end, and I celebrate with something big, like taking a shower, or going for a walk.

Then…well, I’ll save that for the next post.

A question of length

Most of the time when I sit down to write, I know whether I’m working on a short story or a novel. They simply feel different. Some feel full of ideas and want to be long, and some don’t.

Occasionally I’m wrong. Occasionally I end up with a story that just doesn’t take off the way it should, and I run through my list of reasons, and none of them quite fit, except, as always, the idea that I’m a complete hack and can’t write my way out of a paper bag. For some reason that one always fits.

Anyway, none of the reasons fit, and I decide the story doesn’t work as a story, and I put it away. Then something happens. I’ll be driving home and a line in a song will hit me, or I’ll be thinking about gardens, or moose, or the Badlands, and all of the sudden I’ll realize the story doesn’t work because I’m trying to make it the wrong length.

(Alternately, I’ll be writing a blog post and will realize that every single paragraph has three sentences in it, and it will disturb me to no end, and I’ll forget my point entirely…)

I have a story I started in the winter. The idea came to me last year, and it had to do with this poem, which was in a poetry book I had as a kid. I wanted Bess as the highwayman, with her long black hair and her fury at the world.

But it didn’t work. Something was missing. Why was Bess so angry? I didn’t know, so I set it aside. I didn’t think of it again until I was talking with a friend about OWS and the appalling distribution of wealth in the U.S. Suddenly I knew exactly where her anger came from.

Better, but still not right. I could get to a certain point and go no further. Once again, Bess went on the back burner.

Then yesterday, while watching Trouble the Water (about New Orleans and Katrina, and so important to see), I realized what was wrong. Bess’s story was never meant to be short. There were too many elements to fit in. I’d been squashing the characters in an effort to keep the length down.

It’s a relief of sorts, because I hate to dump ideas. It’s also frustrating, because I have more than enough on my plate when it comes to novels. I’ll just have to add it to the list.

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