Sunday, January 29, 2017

Short and Sweet

The short story pitch I wrote about in last week's post got picked up, which means that I get to put together the story for an anthology to be released later in the year.

After spending 2016 working on novels, I'm excited to get to work on some short fiction again. As much as I love longer projects, there's something refreshing about writing a short piece.

I think part of the fun of short fiction is the ability to stretch myself stylistically. When I'm working on a novel, I'm focused on telling the story in the long run. I want to keep my style consistent, to keep the character's voices steady and distinct. I've got to make sure that I'm keeping track of all of the aspects of the world--to make sure that I don't negate on page 200 something that happened on page 50.

Some of these concerns are still present in short fiction. Keeping character voices consistent and making sure that the logic of the world flows well are always important. But since the project's length is more manageable, I feel more able to experiment.

I wouldn't at this point, for instance, try to write an entire novel in present tense. But I did just that with the last short story I wrote--just to see how that change in tense changed how the story felt. I wouldn't try to keep every sentence as short as I could when working on a novel, but I might do that to manipulate the pacing in a short story.

Part of it is a time commitment. It usually takes me about three to four weeks to knock out a draft of a short story (and by short story, I mean something under 15,000 words--usually between 7 and 10,000). Outside of the pace I write at during NaNoWriMo--a pace which is not sustainable--the first draft of a novel can take between 6 months and a year. With a short story, I can tell more quickly if something that I'm trying doesn't work for the whole project, and even large-scale overhauls are easier to manage. It takes a lot less time to rework 10,000 words than 80,000.

There's also the fact that there is, in general, less information to keep up with and a shorter stretch of time during which I have to manage it. Short fiction has fewer characters, fewer story beats, fewer subplots. Since there's less information that I have to keep up with, there's less likelihood that I'm going to forget something important if I play around with my writing style.

Novel writing is where I make use of every tool in my arsenal. Short fiction is where I play around with and learn to use new tools.

I'm not sure what experimenting I'll do with this new project, but I'm excited to start playing around with something new and to see what new tool I manage to figure out for the next long project.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

The Wind Up

Right now, pitching is my life.

I'm still working on revisions for bits and pieces of what was formerly Project 2016 (I guess I'll need to give it a new name now), but I've by and large moved on to the querying process. For now, at least. Depending on how this round of submissions goes, I might end up back at the drawing board.

Queries are among the hardest things to write (the hardest thing is the synopsis, but that's a post for another day). It's hard to take 75,000 to 85,000 words and boil it down to a single eye-catching paragraph. You've got to introduce the protagonists. You've got to lay out the stakes. You've got to convince the agent/editor/publisher that your story is something special--something worth the financial risk. But you can't give away the ending. You can't reveal the twists and turns. Your Chekov's Gunsmen and their guns have to stay concealed.

The idea is that your query should read rather like the back cover copy you see on the books you find in a bookstore. Just enough information to set up a reader's expectations and to pique their interest without tilting the bean can too far.

This has been sort of a trial and error process for me. The early queries for Evin were terrible. As far as queries to agents went, I don't think I ever made it out of the slush pile. The rejections that I got were polite, but they were form letters.

By the time I sent a query to Evin's publisher, Foundations Books, I had figured out some of my missteps. I wouldn't call the final query I sent out sparkling--at least not by the standards I would use to judge myself today, nearly a year after the fact--but it was successful.

The queries for Delphinus have been considerably better. I've still gotten rejections, but they've been more helpful--more specific. Whatever I've done in the query has been enough to get people to read through the sample pages and respond directly to what they've seen there.

I'm still working on getting better at my written pitches in the only way that I know how: by pitching projects. By the time this post goes up (I'm writing in advance--part of my get-back-on-track-time-management plan), I should have heard back on the latest one. This time, I'm proposing the story I want to write to a publisher. It seems like that should be easier, since you haven't written a work that's locked you in to anything yet, but it was just as frustrating and complicated as any I've written.

And all of this is without even getting into spoken pitches--so-called elevator pitches, because they ideally take no longer to run through than a short elevator ride. Narrowing down to a paragraph or so is difficult. Trying to sum up a novel in a few sentences (I think something like 35 words is about the length people tend to shoot for) is Herculean. I don't yet have a strategy for making these better--most of my talking about my projects is me waving my arms and word-vomming at my writing group partner. It's possible that the Twitter Pitch Parties that happen every few months might be the best tool for this--maybe I'll try tooling around with that a little.

Pitching's part of the process that I'm not great at (though, honestly, there are times when I'm not particularly good at any parts of the process), but I'm hoping that through time and effort, I'll improve. The evidence seems to point that way so far. Until I  make it, I'll just consider these earlier efforts the wind up.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Pencil Me In

I've mentioned before, I think, that my day job is as an adjunct instructor for some local colleges/universities. This past week was the beginning of the new semester, so I've been having to make a lot of adjustments.

First, let me dispel a myth here: though until last Monday, I hadn't taught a class since the beginning of December, I did not have a month off. Between end-of-semester meetings, grades being due, having to prep a course that I've never taught before, and beginning-of-semester meetings--not to mention myriad family obligations--there really wasn't a whole lot in the way of downtime. 

But I did have a much more flexible schedule. When classes are in session, the hours that I have to spend focused on my day job are longer and more rigid. During the semester breaks, as long as I get done what I need to get done, I can arrange and rearrange my schedule however I like. If working in the morning makes more sense on a Monday, but the afternoon works better on Tuesday, I can make those shifts.

This freedom has been great--and has allowed me to continue in my goal of finding time to write just about every day. And it's allowed me to be pretty productive. 

But now that freedom is gone.

I've taken on a heavier teaching load this semester. Adjuncts are paid a flat fee for ever course they teach, so, since my writing, while it's bringing in some money, can't pay my bills, it makes financial sense for me to pick up some extra courses. The catch to this (aside from teaching frequently being exhausting, even when it's going well) is that the flexibility I had with my time is gone. The hours that I'm required to physically be at one or another of the schools where I work have gone up, and the off-hours work--the grading, responding to student emails, bridging between students and the administration--has increased.

It's a difficult shift under the best of circumstances, and this time it's frankly a little overwhelming.

I didn't manage to get a blog post written last week. There was too much else to do: on-boarding paperwork at my newest place of employment, finalizing syllabi, mapping the best routes from one campus to the next, meetings upon meetings upon meetings, last-minute course prep. My work for this blog, even my work on revisions fell by the wayside.

The desire to beat myself up for letting things get away from me is a strong one. I pride myself on being self-motivated and self-disciplined. When I fail to meet a goal that I've set for myself, however realistic or unrealistic that goal is, shame swallows me up. How could I do this? Don't I realize that I'll never make it if I don't keep doing the work? Do I just not care? It can lead to a spiral that, once I'm at the bottom of it, leaves me feeling at best unmotivated and at worst incapable.

I'm trying to take a step back. To remind myself that it's okay to feel overwhelmed now and then. That it's okay to give myself a break--it might even be beneficial in the long run.

What it really boils down to is balance--something that I've never been good at.

A visual representation of my two extremes, courtesy of Hyperbole and a Half
It's doable, I know. I'm starting with trying to set more reasonable goals. I'm in a spot where I have several projects going at once. I can't reasonably work on everything every day. So I'll take it in smaller bites. I can fit in a little time to work on one thing--maybe on small aspect of one thing--every day.
Today, it's the blog.
And if I can keep doing a one-small-thing for a while, maybe I'll start working out a way to do all the big things.
Just not all at once. 

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Wrap It Up

Well, 2016 was certainly a hell of a ride.

In a lot of ways, this past year was not a great one for me. I lost a great many idols and inspirations. I saw the appalling reversal of trends that I thought couldn't help but continue to march forward. I went through a semester of teaching that turned out to be more complicated and difficult than the last few have been. I had to find ways to cope with anxiety and depression without the aid of the healthcare system--which frequently meant not coping very well at all.

Let's just say it's been a rough one.

But, in spite of all of that, 2016 might have been the best year ever as far as my writing is concerned.

I don't say that to romanticize suffering in the way that some might. Sure, struggle can sometimes lead to the creation of great art, but it's really hard to create art when you're so deep in a pit of depression that a managing to get up and get a shower feels like a feat worthy of an Olympic medal. This glamorized image of the suffering artist is a problem in a lot of ways, and I could go one about the issues for hours, but that's for another day. What I mean is that, despite (despite and not because of) the difficulties I faced this year, I still managed to do.

I've mentioned before that one of my (many) stumbling blocks with writing has been momentum. I'll come up with an idea, steam ahead for a while, and then lose interest or stop making the time to work. Projects not only got moved to the back burner, but taken off of the stove all together and shoved into the back corner of the freezer.

That didn't happen this year. I committed to setting aside time for my writing work. I got shit done, and it felt pretty glorious. When I look at the list of achievements for 2016, it's actually pretty impressive.

  1. I finished the polishes on Evin
  2. Evin got published--my first ever published novel
  3. Had semi-regular writing group meetings
  4. I re-outlined and redrafted Delphinus
  5. And outlined and drafted its prequel
  6. I finished two rounds of revisions on Delphinus
  7. According to my Magic Spreadsheet count, I wrote almost 150,000 words
  8. I managed to keep up with this blog for most of the year (and I'm notoriously bad about abandoning blogs)
And most of that was in the back half of the year. 

So, yeah. As far as writing goes, 2016 was one for the books. But I don't want to rest on my laurels. I don't want this to be the one productive year that I get.

I've been thinking about what I want for my writing career, such as it is, and what I can do in 2017 to keep the momentum and to get closer to my dreams for my writing.

I'm compiling a list of goals for this year. I'm sure the list will change as the months go by, but I wanted to share some of what I plan to do to keep myself on track this year. Maybe these goals are relevant to you, too.

  1. Finish the next round of edits for Delphinus and send it back out to test readers
  2. Attend at least one writing conference and try to do some in-person pitching
  3. Continue writing group meetings and participate in more local writer events
  4. Do author events--a couple of signings are already in the works, but I want to make it to at least one convention in 2017 as well
  5. Send out more queries in batches of four. Review the manuscript and responses after rejections to determine if there are patterns in how agents/editors are responding
  6. Do round one revisions on the prequel and get it sent to beta readers
  7. Outline trilogy's third book
  8. Draft trilogy's third book
  9. Finish drafts of two short stories
  10. Continue regular blog posts
I've got my work cut out for me this year, but I've also already made progress on a few of these goals.

As difficult as 2016 was, it was the turning of a new leaf for me as far as my writing goes. I have high hopes for 2017.

In the meantime, I have work to do.

Happy New Year.