Friday, August 31, 2012


The local convention has come back around again, and all the ambitious thoughts I had this time last year seem like the rest of my dreams. I have a list of things I should have done, and it syncs nicely with the list of things I would have done had I the chance of a re-do. Oops.

On Sunday, the fourth draft of the short story I wrote was sent to the contest, an entire month before the deadline. This was not done entirely to give me something useless to fret about, but mostly to let me focus on some real-life things that have become most pressing. I had some good talks with people who read it, and learned some things about my constantly improving style and feel. I've been told I'm getting better at tap dancing the knife edge of showing just enough and telling too little.

And, crushing onslaught of reality or not, the voice in my head spinning sentences for the novel returned this very morning and I was happy for it. It's looking like this weekend will be productive on that front, at the very least. I feel confident that if I can move past the upcoming chapter things will be somewhat smooth for the next foreseeable chunk of the book (I outline, but with respect to the understanding that things can change in the moment of the actual writing). The trouble I ran into was trying to convey information to the reader through a character that is less helpful at conveying information. I'm still considering the obvious solution of switching point of view to another of the characters in the scene, but that might not be as beneficial as it sounds.

The transition from writing in a shorter form to a longer one is as strange as it always is for me. The maximum word count for the contest is 17,000. I sent somewhere around five, which came out, double-spaced, at around 18 pages or so. Not a leisurely chunk of reading by any stretch, but it can be done in one sitting. And I think that's fairly ideal. A short story comes in one bite, for me. There might be a difference in the chewing needed, and the mass on the utensil could be larger, or denser, comparatively, but I think a reader digs in one good time, takes away a full compliment of what the author was providing, and then drops the silverware into the bowl to signify completion. It's not as full of a meal, but it can sate if prepared correctly. On the other hand, a novel tends to have multiple courses. Things have to be eaten and paired together as the reader moves along, a bite of this mixed with that, a nibble here, a sip there. It takes longer, and is much more complex, and people are much more likely to take different things away from it. I'm consciously slipping back into a slower, more thorough mode of preparation, because the risk of putting in the wrong ingredient is the same, but there are so many more opportunities for a miscue. The likewise is true, too, and that is what can make it more rewarding.

And if you're wondering where all that came from just now, we'll go with "Ratatouille is one of my favorite movies."

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

High note

This weekend saw a hiatus, not in writing, just in what I was writing on. A few weeks back I had a discussion with a writer friend. He had paused in working on his own novel to chisel out a short story for a competition we try to win every year. To date, he has two honorable mentions and I have nothing. Even though he knew I was working on a book, he questioned my lack of initiative to write something for this year's contest. At the time I was against it because I had nothing to write about, and felt no incentive to wrack my brain to uncover if that were really true. We left it at we were both writing, and that's what mattered.

Last week an idea struck me, struck me so squarely that I decided I would write the story, and that it was going to that contest. The timing was good, I felt. Further inspired, I decided not to put any outlining or the usual amount of forethought into it. I wanted to sit down and let the idea take me somewhere. Normally, such an unfettered notion spells disaster for me. I always run the risk of writing myself into a situation I could have foreseen in outlining, and in free style writing most of the time it kills my momentum. I'm never clever enough to write around the block or diligent enough to erase back to the point where it all started to go downhill. Fortunately, there were no blocks. When I was done I had a vague telling with a horrible ending. I felt accomplished only in that I had finished it, and was regretting my decision to try the method in the first place.

It is at this point that I'd like to share some wisdom that I received recently: there is nothing that won't shine if you polish it enough. At least, the sentiment struck me as deeply profound. I saw it as applicable to any skill, life or career or otherwise, and I saw it as applicable to the heap of garbage that I had produced. I had written in the morning. I spent the rest of the time before lunch inundating myself in visual and audio media, washing my brain liberally. Then, I went back and read it. I read it out loud, fixing it as I went, cutting out entire sentences and adding others in different places. Most of the afternoon was spent clearing my mind again before I went back and edited that 2nd draft. Then I slept, and the next day turned the 2nd draft into a 3rd draft. By then, the ending was an actual ending and the rest of it was much more cohesive. I found the differences in the methods interesting. With an outline, supporting detail can be generated independently and not on the fly, marked down and notated so it doesn't have to be conjured on the spot. Main characters can be identified, named, and even sketched in advance. More than once during the writing, I recognized a need for a character, wrote them in, then realized I had no name for them, and they had no real qualities.

I won't say that I'll never try that again. After all, the feedback so far has been glowing. I don't know to what extent it's my maturity as a writer or if it's the spur of the moment style. For once though, I felt like I might actually place in the contest. I believed in the other stories I had submitted, but I knew going in that they would be labeled in the same fashion as my others. The kind of stories that only some people got, and that being only party do to sophistication. With this one, I feel like it has the same heightened aspect, but instead of just being on a summit, there's some built in features to allow a person to climb to understanding. I think that part of me believed that some people just wouldn't get some ideas. And while that may be true, it might just be possible to get a larger percentage over to the promised land than was previously assumed. What I'm most proud of is that looking back on my previous writing, it didn't make me look down on those stories or regret them. It made me thankful because writing them is what allowed me to climb.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Kindest negatives

The query letters have gone out. Not to every place I could conceivably submit to, but on one particular website I found for registered agents, I certainly submitted to every single New York science fiction agent that accepts email queries. I did this because in such close proximity, such salesman could most easily shop my work to the imprints of larger houses face to face, provided they liked what I sent. Also, I wanted to test the waters, as it were, in case the query was too aggressive, passive, esoteric, or biting. I've received nothing but rejections so far, which is not surprising, but none of the kindly worded negatives implied any of my previously listed fears. 

By the way, if you've ever been curious about the kinds of lives authors you've never heard of lead, they engage in daily conversation with both people and machines that include language like this:

" to your material I'm afraid I will be passing -- I'm just not
enthusiastic enough about the concept of your story to feel that I'd
be the right agent for the project"

"Due to the amount of queries we review, we are unable to comment personally on why the project wasn’t right for us..." 

"After careful evaluation, I have decided that I am not the right agent to represent your work. I can only properly represent materials that greatly excite or interest me."

"We'd like to apologize for the impersonal nature of this standard rejection letter..."

"It sounds like you're on the way to a solid career but right now we're not taking on new clients; my hands are full with the ones we have."  

I include that last one in segue. I remain optimistic. Last time I tried this, I submitted initially to the same amount of agents and received replies from only a handful. This time around I've heard seven eloquent, unambiguous no's with more, I'm sure, on the way. 

A scene I may right down one day occurred to me earlier this morning. I was looking at the window sill next to my bed. It's full of trinkets and souvenirs from other countries, gifts from friends. Most of them are good luck charms, idols that remove obstacles or creatures that grant luck. The only thing that isn't from elsewhere is that list of goals a friend encouraged I write down. That item came from a place I carry with me wherever I go, and I figured it would do well to rest near where I like to dream. 

In the scene though, two characters were investigating the living space of a victim of a homicide. One asked the other "Do all these things really help, all these little superstitious bits" and the other character, whom I had decided was both wise and knowledgeable suddenly, said, "Well, they won't stop bullets or anything, but believing in them can lead to the kind of mindset that avoids situations where being shot is highly likely. I suppose it's very chicken-egg."

Clearly if I ever were to write it down, it would need to enter through a drafting process. All of that is to say that I continue to write, both things that I think about and then scribble down and things I think about and resolve to scribble down some time in inevitable futures. Failures will come. Successes will follow.