Category: lessons

Getting Your Toe in the Door

“You must keep sending work out; you must never let a manuscript do nothing but eat its head off in a drawer. You send that work out again and again, while you’re working on another one. If you have talent, you will receive some measure of success – but only if you persist.”  ~Isaac Asimov

Recently I posted a review of a certain site I use to find freelance writing jobs.  One main concern of mine was the steep learning curve (that is, admittedly, not unique to the site) and that it is more geared toward established writers than a rookie like myself.  Today I looked past those concerns and submitted a few pitches in hopes of landing a new job.

Why would I do this?  The answer is simple, and for the same reason that writers trying to get published send out queries and manuscripts to anyone who will accept them.  Yes, it’s a game skewed in favor of the elite.  But how do you think the elite got there?

It’s a concept I’ve had to learn the hard way, especially now that I’m looking for a new job.  Finding a job in my area in my chosen field is more difficult than it should be.  Even though this is the right time of year to be looking (Season is about to kick in, when all of the tourists come to south Florida and throw money at hotels and restaurants), I reply to many job listings and receive few calls for interviews in return.  Some of the ads can be unreasonable (I need a cook with 4-7 years of experience, to work in my small kitchen and do his own dishes, for $8 an hour), some of the ads are minimal (Me need server!  You call now!), and some are downright fishy (I’m opening a bikini bar on the beach and need servers!  Send me pictures of you in a bikini to be considered!  Oh, you want the name of the bar?  Uhhh…)  Navigating the job listings is like walking through a minefield, except you kind of hope one of them will go off.  But that’s for another post.

Yes, I’m going to be turned down.  A lot.  I accept this.  And I’m not just talking about my recent pitches or my attempts to land a new job.  The same applies to the short story that’s currently making the rounds.  It will apply when I send a query letter for a finished novel.  But the thing to remember is this:  The worst answer you will hear is no.

I’ll repeat that:  The worst answer you can hear is “no.”  And odds are it won’t even be a rude “no.”  The rejections I’ve received for Swamp Gas so far were form letters, but politely worded.  Nobody is going to mock you for submitting your story.  (You wouldn’t want someone like that representing you anyway.)  You’ll get a thank you for submitting and an apology that it doesn’t fit.

Granted, you’ll also get a lot of non-answers.  Instead of a definitive answer you’ll just get silence.  Those sometimes sting more than hearing “no,” but keep in mind that, for whatever reason, this person couldn’t put up the effort to send a quick email or phone call.  Why go through the effort to stress over them?  Focus your attention on someone who appreciates your awesomeness.

It’s only by going through all of these “no” answers that I will achieve some forward motion, because the more exposure I get, the more likely I am to be noticed by someone who will say “yes.”

Plot Dot Test

I found this in a recent post on the Adventures in Agentland blog.  A plot dot test is supposed to be a way of determining where in your plot action is lagging.

To start, you either need a finished manuscript or detailed outline.
It goes like this:  Take a sheet of paper, and all along the top write a line of numbers corresponding with the number of chapters in your story.  For each chapter, place a dot somewhere below that number.  The idea is to make a bar graph for your story, with the x axis being your story chapters and the y axis being the amount of action in a given chapter.

If my math-heavy explanation is too confusing, here is an example.  This is the plot line I created from Jasper City:


There were a few errors when graphing, hence the crossed-out dots.  Other than that, that’s how I feel the plot flows.

Judging by this graph there are areas where I could probably ramp up the action.  It does look rather slow, but looking at the outline itself I would disagree.  It’s an interesting test but I feel there is a wide margin of error to take into account as we’re measuring something that can’t really be quantified.

What do you think?

How to Beat Writer’s Block

I’ll be honest, that title is sensationalized.  I don’t have a cure-all for writer’s block like others may claim.  What I do have are suggestions, that I am shamelessly reposting from another site.

I’m going to share this article I found from Cracked.com: 5 Writing Exercises That Will Make You More Creative.  At first I thought the article would be about writing prompts, but it’s actually more useful for if you’re in the beginning or middle of your story and feeling stuck.

I’ve been guilty of some of these before, and it’s not a bad way to keep writing.  The first exercise is to start writing the ending before anything else, which is what I tried for Jasper City.  I was intimidated by the plot and not sure if I could pull it off, so I started at the part of the story that (at the time) I felt stronger about.  Did that ending make it to the current draft?  No.  Did I drastically change the ending?  Absolutely.  Did I get more excited about my manuscript after writing that ending?  Also yes.  Problem solved.

One quote that stands out in that article is, “As a writer, never forget that you’re Bill Murray on Groundhog Day.”  If you follow the advice you’ll likely end up scrapping whatever you write, and that’s okay.  If it gets you unstuck on your story, it’s not a waste of time.

One Little Instability

My social life has taken a backseat for the past few months due to work.  I went from having no job at all for two months (I should probably count my blessings that the unemployment was relatively short) to having more hours than I know what to do with, simply because I have coworkers who do not work.  And then things got worse.

One coworker who transferred in from another branch of the company gave us some hope.  She knew the job already, at least.  She turned out to be lazy and much too argumentative.  Before long she was that one coworker that we drew straws to figure out who would have to put up with her for the night.  And this wasn’t the worst of it.  Said coworker became increasingly whiny and attention-seeking, and made her (false) complaints all the way up to the corporate offices to cost one employee his job and threaten another.  And despite documented thefts and walking off of the job more than once, she is still employed.
What have we learned from this?  Two things:  One unstable individual can make some substantial waves, and some characters seem to escape karma.
A blog post for The Bitter Baker will be up in the near future regarding poor employees and the tendency of companies to enable them.  I’ve neglected that blog for far too long.  But that’s not a rant to share here.
This story ties in to a favorite theme of mine, that the bad guys don’t always lose.  Greater influence and cutthroat companions can undermine a “good guy” faster than you can say “justice!”  It isn’t motivations or purity that decide the outcome of a battle, but the actions each side takes.  One threat of a lawsuit can be enough to scare a company into submission, no matter how unfounded an allegation can be.  This is something one never wants to encounter in real life, but necessary in fiction.  It creates the conflict that drives a story forward.  It makes stories such as A Song of Ice and Fire so popular.  It’s also a hell of a lot more interesting than a story about the hero who has everything handed to him.
Let’s aim to make real life more comfortable and fiction less so.

When Being a Packrat is a Good Thing

This is the first blog post I wrote from my phone.  Let’s see how this goes.

During the editing process for Jasper City one of the first things I did was cut out fluff.  There was a lot of fluff.  Over 20 thousand words of it.  You can imagine how painful that was after so much time spent writing all the fluff.

I’ve always been a packrat.  I don’t like throwing things away, especially if they’re things I created.  There’s a corner in my closet with a pile of beaten up duct tape purses of my creation that I will never use but perhaps never throw away.  The same goes for my writing.  Each draft that I’ve completed is sitting on my hard drive.

This is a good thing, because not all that fluff is bad.  Much of it contributes to the culture of the city and overall worldbuilding.  I plan to save at least one chapter and re-present it as a standalone short story.
So if you’re editing a manuscript and find you don’t have a use for so much filler, don’t get rid of it entirely.  You wrote that chapter for a reason, I’m sure, and it still has potential.  See if it can be recycled!

Door #3.

The other day I received a response from the previously mentioned magazine.  They thanked me for the submission, but would not be accepting the story.  It’s disappointing, certainly not the last time I’ll be seeing that answer.  I’m now moving on to the next magazine on my list.

Here I discovered (and promptly kicked myself for) the mistake that likely contributed to my previous rejections: formatting!  I knew on some level that having proper formatting for a manuscript is crucial, and then never thought to apply that knowledge.  I don’t know how I let that lapse in judgment go on for so long, but I did.  Now I intend to fix it.

I found William Shunn’s guide on proper manuscript formatting while combing through submission guidelines. It’s very extensive and pointed out quite a few things I’d neglected to fix.  I also felt like I was back in high school when fixing my formatting, as the guidelines are very similar to the MLA style we used.

Now that things are looking up at work I’m trying to get my head back into writing and submitting.  By the time I submit this post, I’ll also have submitted “Swamp Gas” to a third potential publisher.

Seeking a Beta

I’ve reached the point in my Jasper City draft where I can no longer read it without going cross-eyed.  Despite giving it significant time to breathe, I’m so familiar with everything that goes on and unfamiliar with all of the parts in the manuscript that need improvement.  I skim right over the holes and see endless paragraphs and words strung together.  Perhaps it was time to seek outside help.

But was it really ready?  I knew there were changes I could still make myself, provided I could identify them, and I didn’t feel right asking someone else to help me when I knew of problems to address.  It would be like painting a house, and asking someone else if they could point out spots I missed when I could easily squint and find them on my own.  It seemed like the lazy way out.

For one, I know there’s a problem with the tone.  There is a feeling of utter helplessness that betrays a bleak ending.  It should be stronger, and help avoid the reader feeling exhausted halfway through.  There is an appendix that I’m not sure about keeping.  But then again, when it comes to fixing these problems, I become lost.  So I asked for advice.

Someone advised me to seek help as soon as the draft was completed, and not make any edits without help.  I’m not sure if I agree with it.  After all, there’s always room for the individual to identify areas in need of self-improvement.  I spotted several areas in my first round of edits that could use trimming, or more accurately, weed-whacking.  I cut out 35 thousand words of filler.  It was painful, but I could see it needed to be done.

But the one piece of advice everyone had in common was that it’s okay to seek a beta sooner rather than later.  So, I’ve started my search!  Let’s see how it goes.

Burnout

Lately I’ve been feeling a bit of creative fatigue.  This isn’t the same as writer’s block.  I want to do something creative/productive.  I want to finish my outline for Jasper’s Fall.  I want to get back to finishing my edits on Jasper City.  Hell, I even want to take my online class.  But whenever I try my mind draws a blank and I wind up wasting time on social networks.  And lately even Facebook and Twitter give me the same feelings.

I want to blame the stress at work for this.  Office jobs are surprisingly draining, and the morale there has become so tense in recent times that often when I get home all I want to do is curl up in my bed and not see anyone for a few hours, or go on an extended walk.  But I know I can’t blame everything on them.

I’m hoping that the weekend will give me some much-needed rest so I can get back to work on the things I want to do.  It’s already starting to help.

This post on the Office of Letters and Light’s blog made me think about the kind of direction this series is going.  As I think I’ve mentioned in a previous post, Jasper City started out with a simple idea of playing with the hero and villain dynamic.  I wanted to build up one character as a shining hero and set him against an enemy who would be easily identifiable as the villain and the scum of the earth.  I wanted the reader to cheer for the hero as he overcame obstacles and rose out of the hole his enemy threw him in along with other innocent victims.  That was supposed to change at the very end, when the hero revealed the final phase of his plan and did something so horrible that the reader would realize he was cheering for the wrong character all along.  It was an ambitious idea, but something I was willing to tackle.

I kicked the idea around in my head for much of 2011.  At the time, I was listening to Year Zero on repeat as I tend to do for most of the albums I recently purchase.  The ideas in that album gave me some ideas for the plot, and introduced religion (or the corruption thereof.)  I took more inspiration from the culture of North Korea, more specifically the idea of isolationism, when I read the journal of one American tourist who had the fortune of going there.

My ideas for the plot kept changing even as I wrote the first draft.  One major change was when I decided to add robots to the story.  The other was a twist ending that I’m not prepared to reveal.

I started out with the idea for one novel, and it has since grown into a longer series surrounding a post-apocalyptic attempt at civilization that ultimately collapses upon itself.  But that’s just one story.  After reading that blog post I took a look at what I was writing before the Jasper series and my interests were all over the map.  I wrote a crime drama, two soft-sci fi novels (one about a relatively nonviolent robot takeover, the other about space), a speculative fiction novel about a civilization of humans on another planet, a scifi graphic novel with iron-based aliens, human hibernation, and resettling an abandoned Earth, a comic strip about a restaurant kitchen, and scattered short stories.  In recent times I’m becoming a lot more settled, and willing to work on one project and see it through to its completion.  I think this is a good thing.

How has your writing changed over the years?

Editing: Seeing the Light!

Yesterday, I finished up and polished the short-short story I’ve been tweaking on and off for a few years now.  It’s amazing.  I’d compare this feeling to what I had when I finally finished a rough novel draft.  I can now breathe a sigh of relief and move on to the next step, as well as work on edits to my novel.

There are a few things I learned about the editing process along the way:

*Don’t expect perfection.  Writing, like any other form of art, is subjective.  You can work on the same piece for decades, rewrite, scrub it clean of fluff, add description, and set the entire scenery on fire.  No matter what you do to it, there will always be a reader or critiquer to find a flaw in your work.  Now, this isn’t a bad thing.  Maybe they didn’t like how you worded a particular scene, but you disagree and feel it’s necessary.  Maybe they don’t relate to the characters as well.  Maybe they just hate your genre.  But for every person who finds fault with your writing, there will be others who love it.  At some point you need to take a step and decide whether the flaw you’re trying to fix is really a flaw or just an indication that the reader just isn’t a good fit for your writing.

*Don’t expect to get it right the first time.  Take another look at my first sentence.  Not taking into account the time it spent on the backburner, I’d estimate I spent a month or two working on this piece.  The story is less than 1000 words.  My novel is not even close to second draft status, and my first novel is also far from polished.  Editing will take time.

*Don’t overwhelm yourself.  Looking through my rough draft I noticed many spelling and grammar errors.  There were even more plot inconsistencies, POV changes and other miscellaneous things that were just plain wrong.  It’s the worst part of the writing process, because you wonder to yourself what the hell you were smoking while you were writing it.  But that’s the nature of the draft.

It doesn’t mean you should aim to fix everything in one go.  I’ve tried to do that.  I tried reading through quickly, jotting down notes in a “to fix” list that took up pages, before I became disgusted with myself and put the book down.  Don’t do that to yourself.

I read a tip somewhere, and unfortunately the source escapes me, but it compared editing to looking at your story through a camera lens.  The first time around, look at your story from a “zoomed-out” view and focus on the thornier issues of grammar, excess fluff, and things that make it generally unreadable from a technical aspect.  That’s your second draft.  Next, take a look at those POV changes and figure out who should be saying what in what scene.  Finally, tackle the plot holes and inconsistencies.  My order may be off, but take care of one issue at a time and you’ll find your plate much lighter.  The process takes longer this way, but see the previous point.

I hope this is of use to you.  I’m going to take this advice to heart and use it to finish up Poplar when the Jasper series isn’t calling my name.

Moving On

Last time I updated this blog, I was stuck in the beginnings of a new project fighting my way out.  It wasn’t long after that that I realized something:  I don’t have it in me at the moment to work on something new.  You see, my mind puts up fine, solid blocks in my creative pursuits when I have something my heart is really set on elsewhere.  At the moment, it’s Jasper City that’s getting much of my creative attention.  This makes tackling another NaNoWriMo project difficult.   I started writing the first chapter to 99%, but all I could think about was that city and its characters.

It’s because of that that I dropped out of Camp NaNo June, and did not take part in Camp NaNo August.  Instead I’ve been working on fixing Jasper.  Poplar is back on the backburner, as I’ve realized it needs much more work before I’m comfortable with releasing it, if at all.  It certainly couldn’t be done in the timeframe I set so long ago.

I’ve written about the joys and sorrows of editing here and here.  Editing Jasper City doesn’t feel all that different, except that this time the baby feels a bit older and more mature.  I put more time into writing this draft than Poplar, and it takes inspiration from so many things than just a writing prompt.  This is why I’m putting Poplar aside for now.

Real life still takes its toll.  I still work at the insurance agency, but now I take a more active role.  I’ve decided to look into getting my 2-20 insurance license so that I’m not limited in how I work there.  And lately with the storm blowing through the Gulf, it’s more hectic than usual.

Expect more posts to come within the week.  I’m breathing life back into these blogs again.