Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Out of Hand

Project 2016 continues to be an on-going struggle.

Lately, I've been looking back over the responses to my queries. I still have a couple outstanding, but the responses so far have been nos. A couple of them have been form rejections, but the ones that have had even one non-form line have suggested that I've got something here--there's something about this project that has potential. It's just not quite clicking.

So, this has sent me back to the drawing board, so to speak. I've started another round of revisions on the project. The plan was to make a few tweaks. The structure of the story itself is pretty sound. There were a couple of big things that needed to be done--blank page rewrite on chapter 1, add a chapter in the first act, change a setting in act two. But I figured most of the revisions would be pretty small. Manageable.

As has been the trend with this project, I underestimated.

The thing that I've learned in this past year--the year that I started diving in to writing as a craft and as a pursuit in earnest--is that the writer that I am changes over the course of time.

I wrote the bulk of Evin in 2011. It was absolutely the best book I could write at that time. But, if I sat down with the intent to tell the same story today, I wouldn't end up with the same book. I can even see changes in my writing style between Evin and "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes," which was written in 2014.

Changes in writing style over three years might not seem so surprising. What's been more striking is the changes I've seen in the way I write in this one year.

I wrote the first draft of the manuscript that I'm currently revising this past November. In the time since I wrote the draft, I've done a couple major revisions, written two short stories for anthologies, and done small writing exercises that were more for practice than anything else. I don't write every day, but I spend several hours a week engaged in my writing--actually drafting or building or outlining a scene in my head (or on my phone, as the case has been a couple of times).

That time spent with the work makes a difference.

When I did the blank-page rewrite of chapter one, the strategies I used were completely different. My focus was in a different place. Certainly, part of this was the fact that I knew the story better this time around, but it's impossible to discount the amount of time I've spent learning about writing and practicing what I learned.

This was great for the chapter rewrite. But it's turned into A Thing as far as the rest of the revisions are concerned.

I'm still working my way through act one. There have been a couple of chapters that I've only tweaked. But there have already been chapters that have moved from the "light revision" category to the "start it over" one.

The writer I am now isn't satisfied with some of what the writer I was before did.

This isn't a problem, really. In the end, the writer I am now is better than the writer I was earlier this year and late last year. Reworking parts of the project is letting me get closer to the story, the world, and the characters as they exist in my head. It's a good thing in the long run.

The theme with the work on project 2016 has been "this is getting out of hand." But I think, really, that's what a project like this should do.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Events, Workshops, and Appearances

This summer has been hectic.

Though things have slowed down in terms of my day job, I've still been doing work. The summer class I'm teaching lasts until the end of the month. I've had the worst month in terms of migraines that I've ever had. I've had two pieces due on deadlines (both are out the door now, thank goodness). And I've been going back to Project 2016 trying to get it in the best possible shape (I've about decided to call in a professional editor to take a look at it--I think I've hit the end of what I know to do to clean it up).

So I've had a fair amount on my plate. But, as I've mentioned before, my ability to use moderation in the creation of my schedule isn't the best. I'm trying to take breaks and get some rest, but I promised myself that 2017 would be the year that I did everything in my power to further my writing. Part of this is wrapped up in working on the writing itself. Part of it is working on promoting the work that I've already got out there. In the coming months, I've got a few workshops, events, and appearances on the schedule. If you want to find my work, check out a workshop, or meet me, check the schedule below.

JULY

July 29--Indies in Indy, Carmel, IN

I won't personally be attending the Indies in Indy event, but Evin's publisher, Foundations, LLC, will have a table. Copies of Evin will be available for purchase. Be sure to say hi to Steve and Laura and to check out the other Foundations books at the event.

AUGUST

August 12-- LitPow Author-Prenuer Workshop, Huntsville, AL

I wrote about going to the Alabama Writers Workshop back in February. That event was an excellent experience, and I noted at the end of my post about it that it was a shame I wouldn't be able to do many similar events.

And then one got scheduled right next door.

Where this workshop differs somewhat from the ALAWW is that there's more time given to platform building and getting a career started. This and the opportunity to get feedback on my first page and to hear what agents are looking for has got me pretty excited for the workshop.

August 19-- Southern Authors Expo, Huntsville, AL Library Main Branch

This day-long event is a combination of panels by authors dealing with different aspects of writing and publishing and a writers market. I'll be there all day with copies of Evin for sale. I'll also be signing copies, so if you're local and have already bought one, bring it by. If the event works the way it has in the past, there will also be door prizes and chances to get your own writing reviewed and critiqued by the participants.

I'll be posting more events as they're scheduled. If you want to keep up with what I'm doing, you can follow me on Twitter or Facebook or check out my website.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

First Impressions

I've been querying again lately. The whole process makes me nervous. Pitching is always an anxious process, but this project is more important to me than anything I've written so far, so the tension is higher and the rejections have a harsher sting. I'm letting this round wrap up, and if nothing comes of it, it'll be time for the next round of revision.

I've got to where I'm pretty comfortable with my query as it stands. It was the basis of the in-person pitch that got a partial request from an agent at ALAWW, and I've had it critiqued by an Writer's House agent via The Manuscript Academy (this is a great resource for authors, by the way--I really recommend checking them out). From the feedback I've had on it, it's pretty solid. And I'm proud of that. It's not easy to distill 82,000 words of novel into a compelling two-paragraph pitch.

But, of course, a good query is only part of finding representation. What I've really been thinking about recently is first pages.

Most of the agents I've got on my query list ask for sample pages. The number of pages varies. One agent asked for the first 50 pages of the manuscript. One only asks for 3. Most want the first 10 pages or the first chapter. No matter how you look at it, there's not a lot of time to make an impression.

I've poured over my first chapter dozens of times. I've moved the starting point. I've sheared description and reframed sections from the character's point of view. I've cut words that create space between the reader and the character. I've played around with starting at a different point in the story entirely to change what the reader knows at the beginning. I'm trying to find a balance between compelling reading, connection to character, and a solid establishing of the world. I've had test readers and critique partners give feedback, and I've applied it--or at least tested it to see if it would work.

The first chapter--the first page--of a book has to do so much. I know what potential the entirety of my story has. I love the narrative and the characters--I have followed them through their journeys.

But a reader doesn't. I have to earn their time. If a reader doesn't like the first page, there's no guaranteeing that they'll read the second page--let alone the second chapter.

I've been reading and listening to podcasts and researching, trying to find advice on how to craft the best first page I can. It's overwhelming. But there are a few things that are common threads in all of the information.

A first page has to introduce the main character. That seems obvious, but it can be more complicated than it sounds. You have to give a sense of who the character is and what they want, and you have to do it without relying the cliche: things like waking up in the morning or getting ready for work (there are always exceptions--some authors can make these intros work, but more often they get boring).

The first page should introduce the conflict, or at least give a sense of it. I tell my students that, by the time I read through the introduction of their papers, I should know what to expect from the rest of the work. In some ways, this same principle applies to a first page. You don't have to telegraph the ending, but there should be something of a feeling that "oh, hey, this thing is probably going to be a problem."

On top of this, the first page should give a sense of the world. What is the structure and how does it inform people's actions and reactions? What are the rules? What is the character's place in all of it?

When you consider that a single page in the standard format-- Times New Roman 12 pt., double spaced, one-inch margins--is only about 250-300 words, you get a sense of what a tall order all of this is.

I've been trying to find ways to be more precise with my language. Some of this is dropping crutch words (the word "that" is a big one for me--also "had"). Some of it is finding ways for sentences to do double duty: to reveal something about the character while simultaneously introducing the conflict or building the world. It's improved my writing overall from where it was when I wrote my first book--even from the way I was writing at the beginning of the year. I don't know that I've "cracked the code," but I certainly have more tools in the toolbox than I did before.

There's still a lot of the process that's out of my control. I have no say over what editors are interested in. I can't control agents' personal preferences. Even an excellent first page won't excite someone who's not into the story idea. But I keep working on the things that I can address, and I'll do what I have to to make my work the best I can.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Schedule

I have been really bad at keeping up with my schedule this summer.

I guess that's not really surprising. During the school year, my days are highly regimented. My time is so limited that, if I want to get anything done at all, I have to carve out a specific time to spend on each task. The level of "get up and go" I have in me doesn't matter all that much, because the schedule itself is unforgiving. My 300 or so students don't care so much about my energy level or about the fact that there are so many of them--they want their grades; they need me to lead class. So I do. And I jealously guard the time I have for my writing--for the work that I love.

But things are different in the summer. I'm still working. I have one class that I'm leading over the summer--but it's one class of 16 compared to six classes of 40 plus.

This opens up so much time. At the start of the summer, I had the best intentions. I'd spend my days writing--wrap up a short story for a local anthology, start re-drafting the second book in my trilogy, outline book three, spruce up my submission packet, and send out new queries. I'd prewrite and schedule blog posts to give me more time on the weekends. I'd use my mornings for marketing work for Evin and "Smoke," and my afternoons for new projects. And I've done some of these things: a couple of interviews and guest posts on other blogs, a promotion through IWIC, some query refining and some new submissions. I've got about 600 words on the anthology project, which is turning out to be more of a struggle than I'd anticipated.

But by and large, I've not kept up with my schedule. I've had to fight to pull myself out of bed most mornings, and by the time I do, the time that I planned to spend working is half gone. So, rather than work, I loaf around. I promise myself that I'll work in the afternoon. And I do, about two thirds of the time, but lost days are much less infrequent now than they usually are.

Some of this might just be recovery. My schedule this spring was unforgiving. My three jobs are technically all part-time, but when you add it all together, my work weeks were well over 40 hours, and that's before we get to the hours spent working on Canus and other parts of project 2016. In the past year and a half, I've treated writing as another job--one I love, but one that requires a lot of work and a sizable time commitment. I'm still getting things done, though the pace has slowed down. Maybe a few lazy days in a week during the only time of year when lazy days are an option isn't such a bad thing. And I've been able (willing?) to take the time to read both in and out of my genre, which is both relaxing and helpful in terms of improving and focusing my own writing.

But it makes me feel miserable. I feel like every moment that I'm not working is a wasted one. If I were a real, serious writer, I'd me making use of every minute of this time (I guess that Daily Beast article got to me more than I thought--though I still think the piece was misguided and ultimately harmful).

There has to be a balance. I can't procrastinate--there's too much to do, and by mid-August, the time I'll be able to devote to it will be limited. But I also can't beat myself up every time I take a break, and I shouldn't fault myself for trying to relax a little during a time when I've got a lighter load to carry. Figuring out how my process has to work in these different circumstances is a struggle, but if I can manage to find the sweet spot between productivity and rest, this could be a great time.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Interviews

It's been a busy few weeks. I've been pounding the pavement, as it were, trying to get the word out about Evin  and "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes." In case you've missed it, here are the interviews I've done in the past few weeks.

I hope you enjoy them!

First, a video interview with Lorana Hoopes on her show Lorana Writes the World. (Watch for my cat, Stormageddon, to make an appearance.)


I also had the chance to do a live interview on the ArtistFirst Radio Network program Authors First on June 20. The live broadcast has come and gone, but the show has been archived here. Sit back and listen to me chat about myself, my books, and the wonder that is the Wishbone television series.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Team Building

A few weeks ago, there was a Daily Beast article that made the rounds on creative Twitter. I'm not going to name names, but this is what I typed into Google when I was trying to find when it was published.


Look, there are a lot of issues with this article. Most attention has been given to taking apart the premise that someone who isn't writing everyday should just hang it up and stop trying. I don't intend to retread that ground too much. Yes, having a writing habit is important--for me, it's crucial--but everyone works in different ways, and as long as you're getting the work done, it ultimately doesn't matter if you're writing every day or a few days a month.

There were a lot of smart people who gave some pretty excellent takes on that aspect of the article. Literary agent and blogger Eric Smith (who I had the pleasure of seeing at ALAWW back in February) gave one of my favorites.


The part of the article that bothered me--the part that convinced me to write this post--was the part where the author said that he hated other writers.

I'm not paraphrasing there. "What is certain is that on that same day [when I start writing my novel], whichever one it is, one thousand other people will start their novels. In order to publish mine, it has to be better than theirs. So, forgive me—I pretty much hate them."

I had two initial reactions to this statement.
1. Yikes.
2. That's the most self-sabotaging thing I've every heard.

The article's author isn't wrong on one point: thousands of people do start writing novels, and plenty of them don't finish. But where this goes awry is with the creation of this needless sense of competition. It flat out doesn't make sense. From a reader's point of view, reading one good book doesn't stop me from reading another. That I read one person's book doesn't mean that I won't read someone else's. In fact, good books usually make me hungry for more books. Someone else's success doesn't hurt your own chances, because it's not like there's a finite number of books that will be read. People will keep reading new books as long as there are new books to read.

From a writer's standpoint, I can't imagine viewing everyone else who's trying to write a novel as my enemy in no small part because working with and building friendships with other writers has been one of the biggest factors in my growth as a writer. I've written a couple of times about some of the ways that other writers have helped me. With longer projects, there's always a point where I can no longer see the forest for the trees, and there's nothing better than having another person who's familiar with storycraft to take a peek and see where things might have gone off the rails. Apart from reading and critiquing with writer friends, I've also found my local writer's group to be a boon.

It's not just about having someone else look through your work to help you improve it. Reading and critiquing others' work helps you figure out where some of the common pitfalls are (pretty much all of us in my local group have a hard time with beginning hooks, for example).

And other writers have different experiences. If I want to write a story with a military setting, I know three or four writers off the top of my head that I can go to for advice. I'm not limited to pulling from my knowledge and experience--there are other people who know how stories work who can help me cut through the material I find in research.

On top of that, there's value in listening to people with varying levels of publication experience. I can talk queries with people who've had success. I can hash out the costs and benefits of self-publication with people who have tried it out. I can compare experiences with small presses to find the best fits for my work. Being able to talk shop with other writers has encouraged me to try new things with my process. And some of those new things have made me a better writer than I ever would have been on my own.

Other writers aren't--and shouldn't be--the enemy. For me, writing has always been about community. Yeah, I do a lot of work by myself, but I rely on others that are in the trenches with me.

I guess what I'm saying is: if you want to write, do it. But don't view other writers as your competition--view them as a resource. They're people you can learn from and people you can teach. And that is what's great about it.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Sincerity

I went to see a movie this weekend, and I haven't been able to stop thinking about it. The movie I saw (I'm sure this will surprise no one) was Wonder Woman.


I'm not going to review the movie here--because I'm not sure how to frame all of my feelings about it. I thought it was great and enjoyed it, but there was, for me, an importance to it beyond the movie itself that I'm not sure I can properly articulate. What I really want to talk about today is tone. Wonder Woman, apart from being a really enjoyable movie, was something of a tonal departure from big-budget superhero properties (particularly DC superhero properties) in the last several years.

My overall enthusiasm for superhero movies and shows has cooled over the last few years. This isn't to imply that there haven't been cool things happening in superhero properties or that there haven't been recent superhero movies and shows that I've enjoyed (I thought Logan was a very well done movie, for instance). But superheros on film and TV have definitely started to feel a little bit like a slog.

Some of this is specific to trends within the superhero genre itself. DC and Marvel (to a somewhat lesser extent--though only somewhat lesser) have leaned pretty hard into the grim-and-gritty trend. It's understandable, I guess. The superhero renaissance we've been seeing over the last decade really got started with the wildly successful Nolan Batman movies, and part of the draw of those movies is that they don't treat the titular hero or his rogues like kid stuff. The stakes are high, the action is powerful--and we see the consequences to a greater extent than we have in the past. This all works within the context of the Nolan films. It suits what he's going for in tone, and (though angry-vengeance Batman will always be less interesting to me than broken-person-trying-to-fix-broken-people Batman) it matches his interpretation of the character. But, because entertainment is an industry that's really more about minimizing risks by replicating formulas that have worked before, the success of this film led to a slew of grim-dark superhero stories and reboots.

This isn't a trend that's limited to superheros. American media in general has jumped on the grim-and-gritty bandwagon in the last decade or so.

And this isn't necessarily bad. There are things that edgy, dark stories can do very well. Our lives and stories include moments of darkness and despair, and our fiction, films, and television should reflect these moments.

Here's where my problem is: at a certain point, "grim-and-gritty" became a proxy for meaningful.

Certainly, dark stories can be meaningful. Poignant moments are sometimes painful, and mediated version of these moments can be cathartic and help the viewer negotiate their experiences and emotions. But darkness is no inherently meaningful. That a story is grim, that a character suffers, doesn't make the story automatically meaningful. Killing off a character for the quick gut-punch to the viewer or reader doesn't necessarily make the work more powerful.

Wonder Woman had its share of darkness--the movie is set during World War I; painful moments are inevitable. But the powerful parts of the movie, the moments that were the most poignant, were the once that sprang from sincerity, not grit. The momentum didn't come from a thirst for revenge or anger or bloodlust. It came from a sincere desire to try to improve a bad situation. That was the motivation. That was the lens through which the action was framed.

I've found it hard to root for some of the heroes in movies in the past few years. I like a reluctant hero as much as the next person, and I like a redemption story--remember, the heel-face turn is one of my favorite tropes. But it was refreshing to see a hero that wanted to help people just to help people.

There's certainly still room for gritty and dark hero stories. But, at least to me, Wonder Woman speaks to the value of sincerity. We don't have to rely on dark, tortured heroes to create compelling, meaningful stories--we just have to tell stories that are true to the people in them. And, frankly, we could stand to see more stories about people motivated by their love for other people.