Archives for posts with tag: completing a manuscript

IMG_1616I’m aching to have a piece accepted into my favorite peer-reviewed journal.  But I had a bit of an ego knock today when my submission was returned.

Five years ago a rejection meant stomping feet, pulled hair, flying word bombs and falling tears.  In other words – a full-on hissy-fit tantrum.

But that was then, this is now.

I’ll admit there was a pity party and pout – but it was momentary.  Because instead of washing my hands of the entire idea I re-read the editor’s email and found a glimmer of hope. And so I refused to accept defeat. Reading in between the lines I sensed the editor was rooting for me. When I re-read my submission I realized her criticism was spot-on (of course it was – she’s the editor!). Yes, the story needed fleshing out. What I’d written was good, but anecdotal. I needed evidence to support my story.

But I had to ask myself: if I swallowed my pride and crawled back to the drawing board, would the second round of effort be worth it?

I didn’t ask myself twice. The answer was a no-brainer.

I contacted the editor, told her what my plans were to improve the article and asked if I could re-submit for the summer issue.

She said “yes.”

So I’ve learned what a writer does. She doesn’t feel sorry for herself when she’s rejected. She keeps an

open mind and takes an objective look at her work and the criticism it has received. And then she makes it right.

Re-submitting the work does not guarantee acceptance. But it demonstrates (to me at least) that I’m not one for giving up on the first try. Not anymore.

281 Word/20 minutes/a bit of fiddling

Advertisements

DSC_0025 (2)_2This time of year I have some spare hours on my hands. Moments that I usually squander. Minutes that I typically spend sitting in my fat green chair pondering what great works I can accomplish. And then, before I know it, the next year has begun and it’s back to work.

I agree. It’s nice to simply be still. Stillness has plenty going for it. But to be frank, I have plenty of stillness in my life. I mean – I’m a yoga teacher. I spend a good part of each and every day sitting in stillness. Practicing stillness. Encouraging others to find stillness.

I don’t need stillness. I need action.

So maybe this year I won’t squander these days between Thanksgiving and the New Year. The days when clients visit family and quarterly classes take a break. Starting now.

At the beginning of the year I stopped writing. The same way I stopped creating visual art. “It’s all right,” I told myself. “I don’t need to write for others – writing for myself is enough.” And, in truth, it should be enough. Spilled words falling from the heart with truth and courage should be all any one writer might hope for. It should satisfy.

Except I had plans. Ideas. Intentions.

And instead of allowing the words I needed to write fall from my heart, I allowed my intentions to fall by the wayside.

But it seems the universe has other plans.

I was resigned to the situation. Reasonably content. Who was I to think I had any talent? And at this time in my life isn’t ambition as tacky as me trying to pull off a leather mini-skirt?

But in the past month I’ve been approached twice by two different and disparate organizations and asked to write 1,000 words. Asked to spill.

Initially I didn’t believe I had it in me anymore. Until I sat down and tried.

Those moments that don’t just gently nudge a dozing spirit but smack it in the face with a wet trout are pretty powerful. I remembered what I had planned to do four years ago. I gave myself five years.

I have twelve months left.

But I need to get back into shape. I need to work a part of my brain that, quite frankly, I’ve allowed to atrophy.

So, in these spacious weeks the universe gifts me this time of year I’m going exercise. Twenty minutes or two hundred words – which ever comes first – each morning before anything else. It’s a Julia Cameron-esque attempt at waking up my writing muscle. Tuning in to that faint creative buzz that I know I have buried somewhere deep in my cerebral cortex.

Wish me luck.

 453 words written in fourteen minutes. I used the remaining six minutes for revision.

 

 

How long does a first manuscript have to  “cook” in a drawer before we admit defeat?  And, of course, by “cook” I mean, “gather dust”.  Is there a limit to how long we can wait before we rewrite the first chapter?  How do we revive personal passion for the story and the characters we’ve created – or is it better to let them quietly fade to nothing?

After all – we cut our teeth on our first novel. We learn grammar we forgot when we were twelve and we learn about hooks and plot devices and discipline and story arcs.  We fight to make our characters real and their journey believable.  Our first novel teaches us that we’ve got what it takes.  Shouldn’t the accomplishment of writing a cohesive ninety-thousand word first novel be enough?  After all, how many people, determined to dedicate themselves to that novel inside them, never get around to it?

The problem is, I sorta kinda fell in love with my protagonists and I can’t abandon them.  I lived with Maggie, Ben and their families for over a year.  I watched their story take shape.  How can I turn my back on them, even as I plunge into the second book?  Is it possible to bring Maggie’s story to a level where an agent may take an interest while working on The Growing Season?  Is it possible to date two people at the same time?  I don’t know, but I can find out.  Because here’s the thing – as much as I love hanging out with Cora and Rose (the protagonist and her sister from The Growing Season) I can’t stop thinking about Maggie and how badly she wanted to fly.  Don’t I have a responsibility to make sure she does?

When I began to write the story about Maggie and her romance with Ben Nakada at the start of World War II (she joins the Women’s Airforce Service Pilot and he is interned until they reunite in 1945) friends were eager to ask ‘how’s the book going‘.  And I usually answered ‘not bad’ or ‘plugging away‘ or sometimes – rarely – ‘I don’t want to talk about it‘.

When I declared the book ‘finished’ I headed to the San Francisco Writer’s Conference and piqued the interest of a few agents. Friends then asked,  ‘When’s it comin’ out‘ or  ‘Is it published‘  and the wonderful ‘Have you sold the movie rights yet‘.

But they grew tired of hearing me say ‘No, not yet…I’m revising…it’s resting for a while‘.  And they were definitely bored when I tried to explain how difficult it is to find an agent and to have a book published – that it can take years.  My very well-meaning and supportive friends (and I mean that – thank you!) began to suggest self-publishing.  But my reasons for avoiding self-publishing will wait for another blog post.

And so, here I am, almost three years from the day I walked into the writing group at Avenidas and said, “I know this woman who was a WASP…”

Fortunately, it’s that time of year when life’s pace slows.  Four of the yoga classes I teach are approaching a month-long hiatus.  I’ll have a few spare hours in the week to look over my research, read Maggie’s story for the first time in almost eight months, and decide, once and for all, what my next step should be.  My heart wants her to fly.

 

When I returned home to Pennsylvania in September, I had ulterior motives.  I wanted to see my mother, of course, and I wanted to visit dear friends, which I did.  But most of all I wanted to write.

Things, however, didn’t go as planned.

I anticipated a resolute commitment to plot, form, structure and characterization by the time Labor Day weekend was over.  (Yes, I do believe in miracles.)

What actually happened is I came to the conclusion that the outline I had written just a few short weeks earlier bore no relevance to the story I wanted to tell.  Oh well.

Prior to realizing the error of my ways I was forcing dialogue, bending situations, and following a convoluted story arc that led to no satisfying conclusion.  It was like trying to shove my size six feet into size five and a half Stuart Weitzman pumps.  It just wasn’t going to work.  The pumps…er, plot…had to go.

And so, after my long weekend in Pennsylvania, the only thing I was bringing back to California was a new title for my novel:  The Growing Season.

So I stopped writing.  I wasn’t concerned at first.  I knew I needed to process everything; I knew I had to fall back into my normal routine.

A couple more weeks passed and nada.  Zip.  Zilch.  I was bringing old, reworked dreck to my critique group or waiting until the very last moment to pull together fifteen hundred sloppy words.

No – this was not a good sign. I reached the point of feeling comfortable not writing.  I felt all right about giving up.  I convinced myself I’d be happy dropping the occasional blog post to get it all out of my system.  After all, my life would be so much simpler if I didn’t write.  I could read for recreation, watch more television, shift that ten pounds I gained with the first novel.  Heck – I might even develop a social life!

So I stopped showing up.

But then it happened.  They started talking to me.  Nagging me.  No, not in a ‘it’s time for your medication’ way – but in that itchy way we feel when there’s something on the ‘to do’ list that we keep putting off.  Eventually Cora, Wanda and Rose let me know in no uncertain terms they weren’t ready for me to give up.  And when Scott’s grandmother Helen Hamm arrived I couldn’t get a word in edgewise!

During my time away from the computer Cora, Wanda and Rose took flight.  As their characters developed, they liberated me from the burden of true experience.  It’s their story I’m telling now, not mine.

And now the words are flowing again.  Isn’t that the most exquisite feeling in the world?

 

It isn’t just another  job.  I can’t treat it like a job.  This writing thing.   We’re meant to develop discipline by ‘showing up for work’ and pounding out a sentence or a paragraph or two thousand words each day, six days a week.  That’s the way it’s done.  That’s how we ‘succeed’.  But I haven’t been able to do that since the week before last when I completed my basic plot outline for Cora, Wander and Rose.  All I’m capable of lately are self-indulgent blog posts and a letter to the editor of my local paper.

And so, right now, this writing thing?  It’s an ache.  You know the one I’m talking about.  You’ve been there.  Part guilt, part failure, and part hope – because there is always hope.  I have all the words in me – I know I do – I just don’t seem capable of getting them down on paper.

The truth is, sometimes our hearts are elsewhere.  My heart is preoccupied by the past – a disappointment that I experienced earlier in the week – and by the future.  In twenty-four hours I’ll be in Soquel for fourteen days of yoga teacher training.  Three days after I return I leave again for a reunion with my mother in Pennsylvania. The past and the future effects so much of how we handle now.  But here’s the thing:  the past already happened – not too much we can do about it.  As for the future?  The last time I checked it was pretty impossible to predict.  So I guess there’s nothing left to do but to let go of yesterday and to stop worrying about tomorrow.  And maybe, just maybe, I’ll discover the joy in embracing the present.  It’s only a matter of time before the pressure is released and the words flow again.  It’s time to stop worrying.

And it’s time to pack.  I’ll be back online in two weeks.

The title of this post will resonate with anyone who spent a few weeks at Summer Bible Camp when they were kids.  If the song stays trapped in your head just long enough for you to consider pulling your hair out, dial up some Patsy Cline on the ol’ iPod and you’ll be fine.

About ten years ago, a friend of mine decided to learn a musical instrument.  It’s something she had always wanted to do, and she was looking forward to the challenge.  A decade into it my friend continues to struggle, to push forward, to insist on learning – even though she may have peaked around 2002.  I asked her if the struggle brought her joy.  Her reply, which continued non-stop as we walked across town, included these snippets:

“It’s not about joy, it’s about satisfaction.”

“I’m f***ing tired of people telling me it takes a long time.”

“I want to learn how to do it right.  There’s no point if I’m not doing it right.”

As we reached Whole Foods and she stopped to take a breath I squeezed in some snippets of my own:

“I suck.  My goal is to suck less.  And maybe, one day, I won’t suck at all.”

That, of course, is the Mimm version of Beckett’s idea of ‘failing better’.

At first she interpreted my comment to mean I didn’t care. That I was going to write, no matter how bad I was, and give little thought to improving.

“No, that’s not it at all.”  I said.  “I want to be the best writer I can be.  It’s just that right now – I sorta suck.  I’m not that good.  But I can see the road ahead of me, I know what I have to do, and I’m happy to do it.  It brings me joy to do the work.”

Even when I’m ready to throw my laptop onto a bonfire I still love the process.  When I feel guilty for not meeting my word goal, when I feel guilty for saying ‘no’ to friends – underneath it all is joy.

I’m not certain my friend will ever understand what I was trying to tell her. Tempering the guilt, frustration, anger and struggle in the process is the giggling joy that bubbles up when words that I’ve selected fall together and create a meaningful sentence. There has to be some joy.

Speaking of Joyful Sucking…

Last week I mentioned the book Structuring Your Novel by Robert C. Meredith and John D. Fitzgerald.  When you research the book online, you’ll find a scathing review from a ‘successful screenwriter’ who insists he never would have tried had he listened to the advice of this book.  Good for him.  My experience with the book has been just the opposite.  It’s the anti-thesis of the ‘touchy-feely’ collection of books I was railing against last week.  It’s a book of clearly written, step-by-step advice for the new-ish writer.  I’ve been working through the questions that appear at the end of each chapter – just like homework.  I’ve stopped floundering and have begun to focus. I hate floundering.  Structuring Your Novel has moved me into the next phase of my Master Plan:  Sucking Less.  And that, no doubt, is a cause for joyful celebration.

I’ll cut to the chase.

I don’t need any more touchy-feely books about writing littering my bookshelf.  I don’t need deep and meaningful prose compelling me to look within my ragged soul for answers to my mangled words. Give me a break.

I won’t name names – you know the type of book I’m talking about.  They offer sympathy and stir our hearts into action.  They help us ‘resolve to write’.  Big deal.  I already have resolved to write.

And then what?

Oh.  I guess we go to the next category of books that are really beginning to bug me:  the books that promise a finished first draft in the time it takes to walk the dog, or a publishing deal just by following three simple rules.  You know the type.  They promise things that simply aren’t humanly possible if you:

a.  Work full-time and write when you can – like when you’re waiting for a light to turn green

b.  Have children

c.  Have a life  (at this point I’ve happily handed a good potion of my life to writing – but I’m simply not willing to give up So You Think You Can Dance and Top Chef. Does that make me a bad person?)

I’m willing to guess that a majority of writers are like me.  We went to college but our major was far removed from creative writing (in my case, Studio Art and Secondary Education).  We always wrote but didn’t consider it as an option.  We listened to the advice of our elders “Be practical.  Make sure you have something to fall back on.” Yeah, right.  As if choosing art was practical.  My first choice, history, was already taken by every pre-law man on campus (it was 1970’s Nebraska – I was a little intimidated by pre-law men).

My point is this:  I didn’t learn how to write.  But I always wrote.  I wrote long, melodramatic, doom laden stories when I was a child.  I always kept a journal.  My essays in high school won awards. I even wrote a newspaper column for four years.  Yes, I wrote.  And wrote and wrote and wrote.  But I didn’t know how.  No one corrected my bad habits.  Like my over-reliance on sentence fragments and ellipses…

So the books I need are the books that will teach me about plot, structure, characterization.  They’ll correct my passive voice.  They’ll teach me – once and for all – what the hell a dangling participle is.  And dare I say ‘gerund’?  Seriously. Who knows what a gerund is?  Buehler?  Buehler??

Here are the books recommended to me by my mentor:

Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft by Janet Burroway.  I’ve mentioned this book in earlier posts.  Can’t get enough of it.  The chapter on characterization is worth the price of admission.

On Becoming a Novelist by John Gardner.  Need inspiration?  Just a wee drop of ‘touchy-feely’?  The forward alone – written by Raymond Carver – made me feel it was possible.

Structuring Your Novel:  From Basic Idea to Finished Manuscript by Robert C. Meredith.  Remember Dragnet?  And Friday’s request for ‘just the facts, ma’am’?  Well, that’s what this book is.  Clear, succinct, facts on structure, plot and character.

Listen, we all know a book can’t really teach you how to write.  Learning how to write – being a writer – runs deeper than that.  There is no magic formula for writing the break out novel.  Cobbling a first draft together in thirty days means nothing if there’s no point or logic to it.

I write stories (and blog posts) for others to read.  It’s as simple as that.  I don’t need someone to tell me what I already know – that I love what I do.  And I don’t want to measure my success by how quickly I can crank out a first draft.

I just want to write – and I want to write well.

Now that I know my characters live happily ever after (or not – you didn’t think I was going to give away the ending, did you?) it’s time to navigate the next step.

You should know, despite all the horror stories I’ve read about how difficult it is to find an agent, I still believe I can do this in my lifetime.  This is a step-by-step process requiring research, discipline, optimism and luck.  I can do this.

I read recently that it helps to set a goal for your writing.  What is it I want? To write a best seller?  To have books printed for family and friends?  To produce one book per year?  To meet Oprah? What is it?  What do I want?

I want to make money telling stories.  There.  I’ve said it.  There are “jobbing actors” who make a decent living delivering one line and a withering stare on CSI: Miami.  I want to be a “jobbing writer.”

From learning about my characters to learning about World War II, I have loved everything about the process.  Even the critiques that made me wince with pain.  Loved it.  Can’t wait to start the next one – it’s already chomping at the bit.

So – to make that goal a reality, what is the next step?

Polish, polish, polish.  When those agents ask for the first fifty pages, I will send the most perfect first fifty pages they’ve ever seen. The paper will be crisp, white and unstained. Once I get them reading, they’ll find no misspelled words, no misplaced commas, no syntax errors to distract them from Maggie’s story.

And while I’m polishing and taking critique from the brave souls who have volunteered to read the manuscript for me, I’ll begin work on the ‘business end’ of writing.  I need to do three things:

  • Compile a list of agents appropriate for my work
  • Find comparison titles
  • Learn how to write the best query letter
  • Write a chapter summary, a short synopsis and a long synopsis.

All right. Yes, technically. I have six things to do. But I can do this.  One step at a time.

All last week I was building up for this moment – the day I would pack a few essential items into my car and head into rural suburbia on a house sitting retreat for the holidays.  The perfect Thanksgiving.  No forced holiday cheer, no forced feeding.  Just me, the guesthouse, some homemade split pea soup and my computer.

And a manuscript to polish.

So why am I stalling?

I haven’t packed or showered.  I haven’t even opened the blinds to see what sort of day it is – although based on the sound of strimmers and lawn mowers at my apartment complex I’m guessing crisp and gorgeous.

Does every first time novelist reach this point?  The moment where the light at the end of the four hundred page tunnel becomes blinding?  Almost terrifying?

Because what do I do next?  What happens to Maggie, Tom and Ben after I type “The End”?