Category Archives: Musings on Writing

State of the Zoo-nion Address 2015

Image from cafepress.com

Image from cafepress.com

Greetings, my fellow Simians.
Perhaps I’ve been binge-watching too much Homeland lately, but today, I am compelled to once again brief you on my current state of affairs as your faithful Primate President, as well as a Reader, Writer, and Editor.

First, I’d like to make a motion that we conduct our US zoological elections more like they do in the UK, with primary–I mean, primate–election campaigning limited to four months instead of an absurd two years. It’s enough that they’ve entrusted our species with the great responsibility of protecting their limited freedoms within our limited abilities (we’re all in cages, after all, so there’s only so much we can do, am I right?). But from the lion’s den to the penguin sanctuary, animals zoo-wide are crying (or roaring, or squawking, or squeaking, or spitting–looking at you, lamas) for us to waste less time throwing our feces and bribing each other with bananas and spend more on addressing the primate–I mean, primary–issues we all face. For instance, zoo opening hours have been extended to far too late, and really? Stringing up the zoo with fairy lights in winter means we can’t get the holidays off now, either? Humans have become too handsy with our habitats as well, reaching between our bars, fingerprinting our plexiglass, and throwing too much inedible waste our way. We must also battle against the discrimination still plaguing our gift shops and wall murals, in which the same animals are represented over and over again. We monkeys have had more than our fair share of the limelight, and the tigers, elephants, giraffes, and flamingos have grown increasingly vocal in their frustration, too, with the paparazzi attention such exposure continually wreaks upon them. But we must acknowledge the joys, too, in what we have taken for granted, so I want the more obscure species among us to exalt in that recognition as well someday. The crowned lemurs, the Inca terns, the Sichuan takins–they, oh yes, they will have their day to shine. Maybe even literally, if they can get onto one of those glow-stick thingies the shops are selling now, you know, with the LED lights and thingamabobs sticking out and spinning around for no other purpose than looking really cool in the dark and getting kids to stop crying. All this and more lies before us as achievable realities, not mere cow-pie-in-the-sky fancies.

In other current events, as of this week I have the honor of beta-reading the English translation of author Ellen Dunne‘s manuscript. Ellen was one of my very first blog buddies when The Fallen Monkey was instituted in 2010, and it’s been amazing to follow each others’ writing journeys, celebrating successes and persevering through challenges. She has since published two novels (both in German but hopefully translated soon!) and the English-language short story “Cigarette Break,” which I’ve read and highly recommend. In the pipeline are two more novel-length manuscripts (also translated), one of which I’ve got loaded on my Kindle, ready to go! I also recently read an ARC of Shani Struther’s The Return (book three in The Runaway Series, though it works well as a standalone), which was released today and also comes with my recommendations.

As for my own schtuff, I am not as prolific as the talented and creative Ellen and Shani, but I’m of course thrilled to have a debut novel and novelette see the light of day in the past year. And after much (much, much) revision and querying, Manuscript #1 is finally finding acceptance out there. So in the coming weeks, I’ll be weighing my options. Meanwhile, I’m querying a novelette-length urban fantasy, too, and am writing my next novel-length romance of sorts.

On the editing front, I’ve reached a blessed standstill. After a year of reviewing roughly fifty manuscripts in an acquisitions capacity, I’m now back to concentrating on developmental editing—but at a pace that I can better balance with my writing and other life obligations. Last year was very intense for both personal and professional reasons, so 2015 finds me in a state closer to equilibrium. Here’s to a brighter year for you, too. 🙂

*waves and steps down from behind the exhibit information plaque serving as podium*

 

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NaNo Nuh-Uh

HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAAAA!!!

Whoa, boy. What’s going on. Has the Monkey finally lost it? Did she ever have it to begin with?

Never fear, my resounding guffaw is simply me laughing in the face of my past self who actually thought she’d be doing NaNoWriMo this year. What? Really? HAHAHAHAHAHAAA! Who did you think you were kidding, girl?

Sad but true, I had to opt out. Again. And it’s killin’ me. But editing duty calls, and I am fully realizing the curse that is the otherwise-blessing of being both a writer and editor. Were I still in finance, shifting from numbers to writing after the workday would’ve been an easy enough if not hugely therapeutic way to decompress (I wish I did write back then). Were I still a teacher, I would admittedly still struggle to balance writing with the day-job like I do now since that’s an occupation where the work never ends, even after that last-period bell has rung. But I still dappled in freewriting and such back then as, again, a therapeutic way to shift gears and do what I love.

But as an editor…I spend all day every day troubleshooting story issues and thinking through different ways to rephrase sentences for other people’s manuscripts, so it’s not exactly a welcome relief to then jump into troubleshooting and thinking through mine. I need a break. I need to get away from the computer. I need to not brainstorm story ideas and sort out developmental stumbling blocks. Often, I don’t even want to read an already-published book because the activity is still too similar to what I do all day—and as it is, what I curl up with at night is usually just another raw manuscript that I’m reading on the Kindle and taking notes on so I can brainstorm its future plan of attack. Yes, that, after working on another story at the computer all day. So the most writing I do these days is in my head while I’m doing something else. It’s just kinda how it has to be, at least for now when I’m up against dueling deadlines.

Anyway. I didn’t mean to make this whole post a primate pity party. I’m so, so lucky to have the work that I do and to still have the ideas and drive to write my own stuff. And if I haven’t been writing anything new, I’ve actually been making good progress revising my original Manuscript #1 this month. And editing other people’s work is always a great way to hedge against mine sucking. I can still live vicariously through other writers’ talent. 🙂

If you’re participating in NaNoWriMo this year, huzzah! Bravo! Keep it up! Don’t lose steam! You’re over halfway there, and crossing the finish line is so sweet. Good job, and write on.

 


NaNoWriMonkey 2014

Hellooooo! And brrrrrrrrrr! The season has officially shifted—the temps are dropping, the days darkening, and lattes everywhere are getting infused with pumpkin spice whether they like it or not. I can smell Halloween in the air, and the day after that will be…National Novel Writing Month!

Now, I won’t pretend that I’m the most consistent, most winningest NaNoWriMo participant out there, but this year especially, I have a lot to be grateful to this event for. Those who’ve followed me awhile might recall my virgin yet Herculean (if I may say so myself) NaNoWriMo effort in 2011, when I first started in the middle of the month and still met my 50,000 words! The craziest thing about what I churned out over those couple of weeks is that I salvaged most of it as not pure and utter crap—I don’t credit my command of the craft for that so much as the OUTLINE I had going into it. I wasn’t writing purely off the top of my head but with specific plot points in mind for Manuscript #2, which gave me the destination to aim for even if the path I took was allowed to roam (which is really when the magic happens, I think…when you let go and just immerse and write, which leads to tapping into your storyworld so directly you almost feel like you’re just transcribing what already exists, not something you’re creating—see my NaNoWriMo follow-up post for more reflections on that experience).

In any case, what I salvaged from NaNo 2011’s 50,000 words can now be found in the novel that was published this year. So needless to say, I bow down to NaNoWriMo as a worthwhile endeavor no matter how ready or not you are. I’ve been itching to get back in the game ever since and attempted to last year, but I couldn’t knock my editing hat off to wear my writing one for long enough. And, granted, I wasn’t prepared with another WIP outline at that point; in lieu of that, I was going to try my hand at an anthology for all the miscellaneous paranormal ideas I have floating around. I did manage to write almost 8,000 words for one of those stories, which was in response to a call for submissions that had opened at the time. The publisher was looking for urban legend retellings, so I cranked out Bloody Hell, Mary!  It wasn’t accepted and certainly not the best I could do, but I appreciate the practice it gave me as I try to warm up my writing muscles for Manuscript #3…

…which is my NaNoWriMo goal for 2014. I still need to shape my next novel idea into an outline, but I’ve written a crapload of notes and wrote my first chapter yesterday. If I can start to find my groove over the course of October, I’m hoping November will be the month when Manuscript #3 gets officially underway.

And as for dear, sweet Manuscript #1…it’s hangin’ in there. I’ve revamped its opening chapters quite a bit and would like to tighten its second half around a more cohesive story arc. We’ll see. I know she isn’t going anywhere–which is both a relief and just what I’m afraid of. 🙂

All right, gang, so who’s with me? Who’s planning to get NaNoed this year? Write on!


crA-Z at A-Z

APRIL-CALENDAR [2014]

Hey there, Woodchuck Chuckers! It’s the Monk-monk Monkey, reporting back to duty after a loooong spell. I’ve actually been the opposite of inactive lately. First of all, due to the impending release of my debut novel, my social media energies have been focused on building my pen name’s brand.

But because I was such a slackass over at that blog, too, I decided to hop on board the April 2014 A to Z Challenge to build some momentum. So if you’d like to join me over there, Rumer’s been ruminating all month over the A to Zs of 1920s slang:

rumerhaven.blogspot.com

A2Z-BADGE [2014] - Support - small

Aside from that, things have finally gotten rolling on the editing front. Due to scheduling conflicts, my original editor had to reassign my manuscript to someone else, whom I’m just as pleased to have help me strengthen and polish my story. If all goes to plan, we should see the final result in August this year.

And where editing other authors’ work goes, it’s still been full-steam ahead. Piping hot steam, in fact, as I keep chug-a-chuggin’ through a stream of submissions. In the next month or two, I’ll be answering questions over at Nicki Elson’s Not-So-Deep Thoughts blog for her next “Ask an Editor” installment, so I’ll keep you posted. And if you have any additional questions not answered there, I’m more than glad to field them here.

Meanwhile, I’ve been saying it for a long time, but I’m still thinking about returning to my writing prompt roots at this blog since a lot of my writing experience will be logged over at Rumer Has It instead. I really need the kick in the primate pants to write some fresh fiction, much as I did when I created this blog in the first place. So we’ll see if I hold myself to that…

…After all, one of those writing prompts led to a short story that first featured here and at the Real Bloggers United blog (RIP to that one; it was fun while it lasted) but has since been published in Bibliotheca Alexandrina’s 2013 Beyond the Pillars fantasy anthology:

“She Who is Milk White”

CKWagner_She Who is Milk White

I also just found out this weekend that my contest-winning short story “Four Somethings & a Sixpence” has been accepted for publication. More on that as details develop…

So what have you kiddos been up to? I’ve missed you! Please do swing by and catch me up on your happenings, and call on dear Rumer, too, at her humble abode.

*Monkey Mmwah!*


Omniscient Deficient

Now that I griped about the challenges of third-person omniscient narration in my last Red Pen post, gol’ damn if I’m not going to try it in novel manuscript #3! After stewing on it and reviewing another manuscript submission that actually handled it quite well, challenging myself to write with an omniscient narrator has become a quest. But more important than that, I sincerely believe it’s the best choice for the story that is presently budding in my head. I can’t pretend I’ll be at all skilled in handling this POV, but why not try and broaden my range.

I have been so inundated with editing assignments that I can hardly fathom starting a new novel anytime soon (I can barely fathom when the hell I’m going to edit my own book—manuscript #2, which is now slated for publication this August), but the voices have started chattering in my head, and ever so slowly, I am sifting through them to hear my individual characters. So I’m just grabbing minutes when I can to brainstorm the people and plot in the random, sloppy, handwritten way that I do (see alter-ego Rumer’s “Madness to the Method.”). It’s crazy fun exploring this new idea, just when I thought I’d be tapped out on novel-length fiction for a spell. In the meantime, I’ve also kicked around some short story ideas for a paranormal anthology. (Alas, I thought I’d conquer NaNoWriMo 2013 to accomplish that project, but all I squeezed out was one story that I ended up posting on fanfiction.net as a retelling of an urban legend.)

Anyway, back to third-person omniscient. Like I said, I wouldn’t use it just to try it; I think it’ll work great for my story, which will comprise an ensemble cast in a single setting over the course of a single night. Remember my ages-old post “The Shotgun-Shack Story: Nowhere to Hide“? I’m going for that. This will consequently place a lot of pressure on characterization and dialogue, and I’d honestly like to experience it as a fly on the wall. I’ve enjoyed writing in third-person limited narration so far—manuscript #1 is limited to a single POV, and #2 is limited to multiple–and that’s what I mostly read these days, be it published fiction or the yet-to-be-published stuff that I edit. But I don’t know…do you sometimes get sick of being inside the same head(s) as a writer or reader? Sometimes I’m bored trying to speak through a specific set of eyes all the time, and as an editor, I find a lot of authors over-indulge in introspection. I’m constantly hacking out superfluous inner narrative that either gets repetitive with itself or redundant with what’s already been said and done. The string of inner-questioning in particular seems a popular rookie favorite, the constant upswing in intonation at the end of every sentence that I “hear” with my inner ear driving me batty at every turn! We can’t let our characters just constantly stew in insecurity and indecision like that. I don’t care if the main characters eventually do get off their asses to proactively achieve their goals; even those small moments of having to swirl through the questions in their minds is just wheel-spinning and dizzying when we probe too deep too often.

So at any rate, I’m terribly eager to stick all my new characters into a room with each other and see what the hell they do. I don’t want to think for them. And I don’t want them to give anything away in their thoughts. So I’m going to aim for a truly objective POV, avoiding any head-dipping if possible. The risk, of course, is detaching the reader from these characters. It will sharply lose the intimacy that a subjective POV could provide. But that hasn’t stopped me from attaching to the characters I see on TV and in film, most of which don’t bring us into their thoughts like Dexter; they just let us watch and listen (with or without Ron Howard’s omniscient narrative assistance 🙂 ). So why not give it a go and practice my way from POV deficiency to proficiency?

How about you? Have you written third-person omniscient narrative before? Do you find it easy or difficult? Do you keep it purely objective, or do you like to head-dip now and then? And when do you think it’s most appropriate to use? Do you care for it as a reader?


Bits, Bobs, and Birds that Beatbox


Word, bird! Shout-out to the feathered friends in my tree for giving a Monkey music to bust a brag to, yo. (Can you tell a square white girl writes this?)

On to the bits and bobs, then. It’s been an eventful couple months on the editing front. My publisher represented for the first time at the London Book Fair in April. International reps visiting our booth clamored for smart contemporary tales but not YA or paranormal, markets they find pretty tapped, at least in Europe and Asia. And a Chinese agent began his criteria with “no sex.” But through random outside conversations, I learned e-published erotica is huge in the Middle East, and on audiobook it goes gangbusters among senior citizens in general…who knew.

In other news, the ongoing debate between traditional and self-publishing amused me as per usual—the mutual bitterness and disdain has not diminished, though they coexisted peacefully enough under the same roof. The big publishers and agents remained aloof, toasting each other in self-congratulation but otherwise totally unapproachable to walk-ins, whereas the non-traditional platforms sowed the seeds of revolution among the plebeians in the Author Lounge. Relative to the States, the UK still seems slow to adapt to both indie and e-publishing, but it’s getting there. At any rate, London is not where the big deals are made; it’s just a primer for Frankfurt in autumn, when publishers are looking to stuff their catalogs for Christmas.

Oh, and I met the publicist of a certain presidential intern of the 1990s. And learned that life is not happy for the “unmarriable and unemployable” thanks to that scandal. Which actually makes me quite sad, considering said president made out relatively okay in the end.

Also during this time, I was promoted, reviewing manuscripts on acceptance to determine whether they’re ready for micro-editing or need to go back to the author first for big-picture revision. In either case, I give the editor/author recommendations on how to more effectively shape the story and its characters. I usually only need to read a manuscript once for this (as opposed to the five-plus times for a deeper edit), maybe twice for a substantial rewrite. And as utter lack of luck would have it, I’m finding that the ones I usually send back for rewrite are previously published authors who seem to be sliding by. Ah well. Another discussion for another day.

But for every bunch of rotten bananas like that, there’s one that’s green and ready to ripen into something sweet indeed. A book I edited in winter has been on Kindle’s Top 100 bestseller list ever since its release this month. It’s made its way to the single digits, topping its categories as well. Yes, yes, truth be told, I am Dan Brown’s editor…okay, no, not really, so I am gobsmacked—and ecstatic for my actual author. Two of the Big Four publishers have already purchased rights to several of our books, so I won’t be surprised if this one follows suit…I just selfishly hope I can edit the sequel first! Meanwhile, I’m developmental editing a sequel for a YA author and paranormal series that I adore (your loss, Europe and Asia!), and think I’ll go on hiatus thereafter to make more time for editorial direction.

So that’s my editing news. My writing news is not nearly as eventful. I did finally finish drafting manuscript #2, but surely we all know revision is only the beginning. The story is partially set in the 1920s, so I had hoped to query by now while Gatsby‘s back in the  limelight, but what can ya do. In the meantime, I managed to find a home for one of my short stories, which was actually inspired by one of my early writing prompts on this blog—remember how I used to do that? Anyway, it should appear in an anthology later this summer, so I’ll follow up on that when the time comes…as in, when I know for sure it’s actually happening. Unlike a 9,000-word story of mine that had won 1st place in a 2010 short-story contest and was supposed to be published in an anthology but went homeless after that prospect went bust. No luck finding new shelter so far. One publication said they “were really impressed by the writing” and “enjoyed the different voices and POVs,” but they’re more into flash novels and my tale didn’t have the temporal breadth for that. Fair enough; I’d kinda known that but thought I’d try anyway. 🙂 Then there’s good ol’ novel manuscript #1, which has received a couple more rejections, but while one publisher “just wasn’t excited enough” by it, another said:

This was a near miss. We were intrigued by your proposal, and it seems that the genre and style in which you write match what we are looking for. We would be happy to see more of your work in the future, either when book submissions re-open, or for consideration in future anthologies.

And there ya have it. I’m back up in my tree and making a royal racket in the branches—clearly, more beatboxing animals are in order. Barnyard, cameras on you in three…two…[silent one]:


SEO is Where Good Writing Goes to RIP

Yes, sir, it’s been one of those weeks, and yesterday was my breaking point. Basically, I put my foot down when being asked to yet again bastardize web content I’d written in the interest of SEO.

If you didn’t previously know, “SEO” stands for “Soulless Evil Occupation,” I mean, “Search Engine Optimization.”

I never aspired to write for SEO, I just sort of fell into it blogging for a small business I used to work for in-house as its first employee beyond the owner. Back then, we didn’t take the blog so seriously. It sufficed to write a paragraph about a local London point of interest or whatnot each of the five work days. Then when I went freelance, working from home, it became a seven-day-a-week task, which was annoying yet still rather casual. I mixed up informative, practical information and advice that related to the business with more touchy-feely human interest tales also relevant to its services. And I wrote off the cuff, providing facts, figures, and supplemental resources where they naturally supported topics and going research-light on the days when I wrote more from the heart. It was a nice balance, and the writing and ideas flowed organically. AND it still managed to double site traffic within the first three months of blogging every day.

A novice (still am), I delved more into the social media world, reading books, articles, attending seminars, even hopping a train to Manchester to meet one-on-one with an SEO guy (a friendly one, I might add, who I miss desperately these days), and simply chatted up other bloggers to compare notes on what did and didn’t work for us. Interestingly, a lot of feedback I received was that the most important thing is to write information your intended audience wants to read. Some bloggers didn’t even bother trying to deliberately seduce Google into upping their rankings; they just wrote relevant content, and the following grew from there.

I write that business blog with a personable tone and always a lot of empathy for what the target clients are going through. My expertise lies in the subject matter and in the written expression of it, not in SEO. And I always got favorable feedback from our readers, with some clients actually crediting the blog as why they chose this company over another. Modestly, I bowed my head with a blush and just kept writing, just kept being myself.

And then SEO experts entered my world. To start, the third-party SEO company hired to supplement my blogs ended up increasing our spam hits but drove actual readers away with their empty content. All they prioritized was quantity of posts and keywords, not whether there was any helpful information conveyed. It was when we received feedback from a successful web owner and ally that he’d stopped reading the blog because the SEO writer’s meaningless content had flooded it and drowned my own that those schmucks finally got fired. And I quote:

“I figured you were no longer doing it. I was attempting to read the blog and it’s now contentless. All the articles are structured around keywords with no actual content.”

Yet I understood the good intention underlying the new SEO focus. When all a small business has going for its marketing is its website and social media profiles, those understandably become a top priority. As the business made more money, it threw more of it into rebranding and website development. Which has been brilliant and absolutely makes a difference. I could not be prouder seeing what was once a one-man band grow into a legit office of several employees delivering top-notch service and receiving accolades from its industry and clientele. I have very, very much wanted to stay a part of it, even lending my face and voice to its promotional videos.

But this third-party SEO guy we now work with is killin’ me. Worse, he’s killing my writing. And I just don’t know if I can do it anymore.

I no longer have to blog every day; in fact, I only do so two or three times a week now. But the word count dictated to me has gone from whatever to 500 to 800-1,000, and the rules have become more defined. Each article must be well-researched and restricted to logistical advice pertinent to the service (fair enough). Each one must focus on a single keyword term that is used in the title, first two headings, first and last sentences, and overall repeated at 2% density, with no single word ever exceeding 4%.

Those are the basic rules, which probably don’t sound too bad, but try confining your creativity to the bland, redundant list of keywords dictated to you. Sometimes these terms are phrases, and sometimes the syntax of the words in these phrases make no sense when used in a sentence. And then try achieving that density with the repetition sounding natural and not too obvious. Try finishing an article you’re pleased with only to find you’re still short a few keywords. Try scanning your carefully thought-out and gracefully crafted sentences to see which you can force-feed a keyword term like they’re ducks being prepped for foie gras.

Even better, try spending your summer researching for and writing a 64,000-word website (your third version by now of the same site), with each of its approx. 100 pages containing 500-800 words and following the same rules above. Try doing so to sell a specific service to a specific target audience with a specific tone within the specifically-defined structure imposed by SEO rules. Try racking your creative brain to figure out how to write the same thing multiple different ways (in one case, writing the same paragraphs in over 70 different ways) to expand the content Google can search for without duplicating it. Manage to follow all the rules step-by-step even though every time you have a question about the instructions, the SEO guy is a dick who, in lieu of just answering the question, each and every time simply redirects you to the original directions “you were instructed to follow,” asks you why this is so difficult, tells you to stop making excuses for yourself and get the job done, and repeatedly throws you under the bus during conference calls with the business owner and web developers.

Try then keeping your cool when, even though you shared your content with everyone involved two months ago, it’s only now at the last-minute that there are claims of densities and keywords supposedly not following the almighty gold-plated “original instructions you’d been given,” even though you can’t fathom how that could possibly be so, that if there are other terms appearing too frequently it’s probably because the subject matter and purpose of the writing naturally commands it. That manipulating it too much in the interests of what Google might fancy could confuse if not offend an end-user who sees right through what you’re doing. That you can already hear your poor words dying a slow, painful death by SEO.

Oh, but there you go “making excuses for yourself” again…listen to you.

Granted, all the while, the business owner—the only one who really matters, in your opinion—is over the moon with your work, defends you to the death, and wants you to stay on writing for the company. That’s the only redeeming factor, and yet the SEO deeds still have to be done.

So try all this and tell me you wouldn’t want to tell this SEO guy where he can stick it and abandon the project.

I am a good person.
I am a good writer.
And I am usually a great team player.
But I can’t work with someone who threatens to erode my ability to be any of the above.

So, cheers to all you douchebag, socially inept, condescending, basement-dwelling computer guys who perpetually lord your technological expertise over us pea-brained common folk! Thank you for reminding me I’m an idiot every chance you get, and I’ll remind myself how blessed I am not to live a life as miserable as yours. Now go back to computing on your Cheeto-encrusted keyboards while I go do some real writing for my manuscript.

*

P.S. As a disclaimer, I repeat: I never aspired to write for SEO. Nor have I ever pretended to be skilled at it. In fact, I originally tried to turn down this recent website project on that basis, but the owner wanted me to do it because I understand the business better than an outside writer would. So, out of loyalty (and for the money) I took it on.

P.P.S. I like to think I am usually not this mean. Throwing my non-SEOed poop around on this blog is just great therapy. Thanks for indulging it. Golden Rule? Respect me and I’ll respect you. Diss me and I won’t respect you, but I’ll still be professional to your face and maybe just trash-talk you under the alias of a primate with buttons for eyes.
😉


The Lazy Way to Write a Blog Post…

…copy/paste something you’ve already written. 🙂

Okay, so we’ve established by now I’m not the most reliable of bloggers, and now I’m not following through on my promise for this post to be about 1st-person narration. Fact is, I haven’t prioritized time for thoughtfully compiling thoughts/excerpts on that topic, but I will, I will…

What I have been prioritizing lately—FINALLY!—is my second manuscript. I’ve been close to the end for months now, but, just like with my first manuscript, the characters’ voices went quiet. I probably should have pushed through anyway, but I didn’t, and now I’ve got them all screaming in my ear. So, when I have free time (or blow off work to create pseudo-free time), I am writing the rest of my novel. And giving advice to friends to get them started writing theirs!

Which brings me to my lazy post today. The novel-esque email responses I just inundated my dear friend with this week as she prepares for NaNoWriMo as a first-time writer. Here goes:

Q: How do you narrow down an idea? I have a million…

A: [First of all, I thought, “Lucky girl!” It took me ages to generate even one idea for my first manuscript.]

Evaluate each one for how easily you think you could run with one for an entire novel. Do some have nicer complexity than others? Are they more appealing for you to research and live with for a long, long amount of time whereas others you might tire of or not be able to develop very far? And is there just that one that really, really speaks to you from the inside…you can’t get it out of your head, it gets you excited because it’s so original/meaningful/interesting/etc., you can already see the setting and hear the characters, it is THE book you were meant to write?

You can also try writing little vignettes for each idea and see which one takes off, inspires the most possibilities. Foregoing an idea at one time doesn’t mean it can’t be revisited at another, either as another book or as a short story.

That’s always another avenue—write several short stories and compile them in an anthology. With short stories, you can also submit them individually to contests and publications (e.g., magazines, anthologies, e-zines, etc.), which builds a publication history you can cite in your novel’s query letter down the road. It’s a great way to earn credibility. I only wish I could be more prolific that way. 🙂

One blog that I follow is www.milo-inmediares.com. The guy (Milo) is a maniac about writing/submitting stories based on Ray Bradbury’s early discipline of writing and submitting one story a week to get his start. Milo helped create the Write1Sub1 blog, too, to encourage others to write one story a week or month so that, at the end of the year, you have a large collection to work with, not only because getting published is such a numbers game but also to have that accomplishment for yourself. It’s a proper repertoire. Anyway, in either his April 2011 or April 2010 archives, he blogged every day about one new publication to submit stories to, in case you wanted to explore the short story option with all your different ideas.

Regardless of what length you write, just remember every story has an arc: exposition builds to rising action, which reaches climax and descends with falling action toward a resolution. The major climax occurs late in the story (and resolutions shouldn’t be too dragged out). There must be some sense of ongoing internal/external conflict that builds and builds before getting resolved in the end, but minor conflicts along the way help build tension, too—subplot helps add complexity/depth. I’m hoping to blog in the coming month about some stuff on story progression. Oh, and the NaNoWriMo organizers are so awesome—they provide so many great resources and pep talks along the way. It’s such a special experience, and I’m so happy you’re doing it!

Q: So much to take in, I feel far from prepared for this. The issue is I have no actual ideas, I have had no time to even think about them, develop them.

A: [Okay, so I obviously misunderstood her first question, thinking the exact opposite. And, yeesh, leave it to me to overdo it regardless…here was my attempt to backpedal.]

Oh no! I didn’t mean to flood you with info. There are just all sorts of options for wrestling down an idea. How to approach it varies for everyone. It’s really just a matter of what makes you tick.

When I first considered ideas, I didn’t have one to hold on to either. I started with what I loved to read—and that’s a top tip I’ve heard from authors since: write the book you want to read.

So I thought about how I love ghost stories of the Gothic variety, yet also liked the modern edge of supernatural stories like The Time Travelers Wife. I also thought about how whenever I read or watched a ghost story in a book or on film, the story always went a different way than my expectations had hoped for. So then I thought about what consistently caused my disappointment and jotted down in a journal all the elements I would love to see in a story, what, for ME, would be intriguing, atmospheric, and frightening. I just had pages and pages of all this related and random stuff, and then I started to research the topic from different angles and recorded my findings in the journal, too. Then, as slices of story started to occur to me based on what I’d brainstormed/researched and really wanted to feature in the story, slowly but surely the dots started to connect.

And a lot of it comes from just writing it. I told you about subplots before, but sometimes those just occur as you go along. Secondary characters appear out of nowhere because you start to see them or instinctively know that your main characters would meet them in a certain situation or whatever. I at first created this one gal simply to give my protagonist a friend at school as it seemed unnatural for her personality to not at least form an acquaintance. But then as I wrote this other person, suddenly she started behaving oddly and became a mystery unto herself. That was purely spontaneous writing, and then the strategy and planning came in afterwards when I had to determine why she was acting that way, what new role she could play in the overall scheme.

My point is, so much comes to you when you finally just start to write. That’s the spirit of NaNoWriMo—it doesn’t give you time to think about it much; you just have to write and keep going, keep pushing forward and forward and then sort out what you’ve got when you’re done. No one comes out of it with a polished and complete novel. And it might not even be a novel but a free association of ideas that spins off in tangents. The ideas could first come through THAT process, and it could serve as a way of finding your writer’s voice, too, so you can determine what tone to approach your book with.

You just don’t know until you write, so forget what I said for the time being about story arc and outlining and whatnot. Just take what time does come to you on a day to scribble out something. Practice describing your daughter as she plays with something. Write an entire paragraph about her disgusting boogers now that she’s sick! Pretend your house is the setting of a story and describe it for a reader to “see.” Maybe write about a funky dream you recently had. If you get in the habit of writing a little something creative every day, it really warms you up and gets you into a groove. It’s exactly the same thing as exercising, you know? The more you do it, the more energized you feel and the more you want to do it. And just like there’s a runner’s high after pushing past a certain distance, there’s a writer’s one—that’s why I keep harping on this one point: write! If you can tap into that weird mode where it’s almost like the story already exists independent of you and you’re being chosen to tell it (it’s a little haunting but so wild!), you’ll get it and so many inhibitions about the task will drop away.

So what do you think, have I steered her okay? Is it better for a first-time writer to go into it with more structure or less as they find their voice and creative footing? What other advice would you give?


The Curious Case of the Missing Editor

OMG, the Monkey screeches again! (for those of you who are still left to hear it)

Though I’ve obviously been MIA, my title isn’t in reference to me. As an editor, I’m always at the ready—always on the job, in fact, even if it isn’t my own, apparently. You see, I mentioned before how I’ve been more in Reader than Writer mode lately, and I’ve got to say I’m gobsmacked by some of the poorly edited work I’ve read lately. And I’m talking traditionally published stuff by best-selling authors. Even the best indie authors know not to dare self-publish without consulting the expertise of an editor. At least they should know if they take their writing seriously and want others to as well. Repeat after me:

Everyone needs an editor.

Everyone needs an editor.

Everyone needs an editor.

We can be ever so proud of our book babies and earnestly believe in our talent, but it’s downright diva to think that any of us could possibly be above the need to have someone else edit our work (and neglectful of editors to let anyone slip through the cracks). I don’t just mean proofreading to clean up the spelling/grammatical bits; I mean deep copyediting, where, yes, you might have to let go of that sentimental scene or hack out some delightful description, no matter how poetic the prose. Anyone who wants to evolve from rookie status should understand the value of a fresh pair of eyes. None of us are perfect in any way, shape, or form.

Hats off to indie author Tahlia Newland, for instance, who in the last few months has published an imaginative suite of stories through Catapult Press. Having myself offered some input on a couple of her projects, I was just one of several beta readers Tahlia makes a point to share her pre-published work with before then employing the services of a professional editor. I’ve been following her blog for a while and, consequently, her journey to bring her short stories and soon-to-be-released Lethal Inheritance novel to readers, and her revision process has been nothing less than comprehensive, involving a team of critical eyes. She also runs the Awesome Indies website, which upholds a standard of quality for the independently published.

Some traditionally published authors, on the other hand…

Well, of the last several novels I’ve read, one that I enjoyed while reading but was quick to criticize in hindsight was The Tiger’s Wife, by Téa Obreht. Now, this is a bestseller that has had readers falling over themselves in absolute love with it, and I just have to say, “Eh.” NO QUESTION, Obreht is a debut author that will be a literary force to reckon with going forward. She has a spectacular if not intimidating command of the English language (which is not her first language and surpasses many of those for whom it is!), a maturity transcending her years, and her capacity to describe is absorbing. I’ll delve more into that last observation in a future post about 1st-person POV, but for now I just want to say that, while a tremendous and captivating storyteller, Obreht should have trimmed down a substantial amount of that description, along with secondary characters and story lines. A classic rookie case of wanting to keep in every great idea that crosses the mind, she was just too ambitious with all the folk stories of sorts that she chose to interweave—we’re introduced to an exhausting list of characters who are described in exhausting detail, only for them to fall off the planet with no lingering consequence. The tangle of tales, I felt, ultimately rendered none of them as effective as they could have been (standing alone as part of an anthology, maybe?) and, in the end, left the primary story thread underdeveloped. And her editor should have known this.

To be honest, I think a lot of the readers who gave The Tiger’s Wife rave reviews did so because they didn’t get it and attributed that fact to some profound, intellectual meaning that was surely just going over their heads. That their comprehension simply and understandably fell short in the face of genius. And, hey, you can bet I originally gave benefit of the doubt that my own questioning was a product of me being dumb as rocks. But I don’t think we readers should be so quick to sell ourselves short. When I find myself discussing this book with a group of women on the same page, and all of us educated, well-read, and discerning yet equally baffled as to whether there’s indeed some grand overarching purpose unifying the excess, methinks it actually all boils down to, nah, it was just really crappy editing.

But by far the most abysmal absence of editing I’ve recently encountered was in Julian Fellowes’s Past Imperfect. Now, Fellowes is another brilliant storyteller. He’s brought us the Oscar-winning Gosford Park and hugely popular Downton Abbey. But after just finishing the aforementioned novel (as well as reading his book Snobs a few years ago), I’ve come to the conclusion that screenplays are clearly his forte. Why? Because there’s no doubt he knows his subject matter (rich people). No doubt that he conceives compelling stories, engaging dialogue, and settings that are a feast for the eyes. But he can’t write narration. Or, rather, he has a clumsy handling of it. He’s very good at description and development, but in Past Imperfect, he seems to have invented an entirely new narrative POV: 1st person omniscient

That’s right, his 1st-person narrator can read the minds of every other character in the novel:

A pink cloud of nostalgia hovered over him for a moment. “The library was one of the prettiest rooms I’ve ever seen, never mind lived in. But no.” He shook his head to loosen these disturbing, self-indulgent images. “I’m finished with all that.”

*

“What happened to her?”

“She died.”

“Oh.” She sighed, saddened by the inexorable process of life.

The narrator can also see what other people do while on the phone with him:

“And Terry.”

He was puzzled for a second, and then he nodded and smiled. “You’re right. I’d remembered it as being before we left.”

Unless this was a video-conference (which I assure you it wasn’t), seriously, WTF. Or should I say, WTE, as in “Where’s The Editor?”

Because he/she certainly wasn’t there to correct the error in “reaping what you sew.”

And certainly didn’t caution Fellowes against too much telling or constantly interrupting the flow of dialogue with needless narration:

“Are you on good terms these days?”

The question seemed to take him by surprise and return him to the present. My words had told him something beyond their content. “Why did you want to see me?” he asked.

*

“Which ‘some’?”

“Sorry?” The phrase sounded foreign. I couldn’t understand him.

*

He shrugged. “It was obvious she was talking about Damian.” He must have caught and mistaken my response to this news, and hurried to undo any possible hurt. “She was always very fond of you, but…” How was he to phrase it?

I helped him out. “She wasn’t interested in me.”

We both knew she wasn’t, so why should he argue? “Not like that,” he said, accepting my own verdict.

*thump*
*slam*
*swish-swish*
*bam-bam-bam*

Oh, sorry, that was just the sound of me tripping over narration, brushing myself off, then proceeding to deliberately bang my head against the wall. Back to what I was saying…

The long and short of it is, Writers: Each of you needs an editor. And Editors: Even if your authors are already best-selling superstars, don’t cut corners in polishing their work. Just as every writer should take pride in their writing, editors should take pride in their editing, whatever the constraints we face.

I like to think I do, and yet I still don’t claim to master the art on my own—for the work that I do for a small publisher, I have three other editors on my team for any given manuscript, and it’s always a learning process for me. I’m pleased to say, though, that two more guinea pigs I’ve developmentally edited on this publisher’s behalf are out in the world as of September, making five published novels in total, with three more on the way this winter. I also just finished editing a short-story prequel to one of those books, and a freelance manuscript that I’d proofread for the sake of querying has already found itself an agent. SO proud of my authors, and may we all continue to write, edit, and prosper.

See my related post: “Editing Out the Editor

Also, stay tuned for some reflection on use of 1st-person narration


Pathetic Much?

Books to be returned...

(Photo credit: hashmil)

Go figure my last post on “productivity” should date back to over a month ago. Hm. Sure, we writers don’t have to write every day, but maybe we bloggers should post more frequently than every six weeks. Sorry, folks. Thanks for sticking with me if you’re still out there. 🙂

As per usual, I’m full of excuses, excuses. Back-to-back writing and editing projects have proven more of a workload than I’d anticipated, and my personal writing projects have suffered for it. And summer is not proving helpful so far as hosting and traveling has predictably kicked into high gear. One unanticipated trip I recently took was home to Chicago—a force larger than myself compelled me to go, I think, as I couldn’t stop dreaming night after night about going there and hugging my family. Waking up was never so tragic. So thank you, frequent flyer miles.

The price I paid for that, though, was the hectic situation that was returning just before taking in another visitor, a former student of mine whom I’d taught as a freshman in high school and will now be a sophomore in college. But it was so special to have that time together and introduce her to the literary and historical wonders of London, and we experienced a phenomenal performance of Les Miserables last night. As she departs for Chicago today, I leave for Paris tomorrow for a week-long working holiday—or “worliday,” as one journalist so obnoxiously put it, considering that, to me, the concept of “working holiday” is obnoxious in itself. Yet, alas, often necessary. At the very least, my husband and I will finally have an easy enough getaway for just the two of us (perhaps sipping a little absinthe in a few old Hemingway haunts) while still keeping on top of real life.

And THEN we return to the Olympics. Tickets to volleyball, basketball, and track & field, two of which my in-laws are coming in town to view as well. After a week hosting them in London, we’ll travel with them a week in Istanbul. Another worliday, I expect. Then two weeks after that this selfish bastard finally caters to someone other than herself by volunteering a few days in southern England for Honeypot, a children’s charity that provides respite breaks for child carers—i.e., gives some semblance of childhood to those who’ve had to grow up too fast. I’m also initiating the process for a potential return to the classroom this fall as an English teacher, short or long-term TBD. Well, all of it TBD, really. Just exploring options.

Amidst all of this, I can’t determine when. To. Write. It’s awful, I know, and maybe I should have my “writer” membership card revoked. But you know what I’ve been escaping to in the meantime, whenever I can catch a break? Books. I’ve been reading again and reading often and reinforcing if not rediscovering my love of it. It helps me as a writer, sure, as reading does for us all, but it’s also become a source of great comfort in view of that challenging writing and publication process. As long as reading books still gives me joy, I won’t despair if I myself never publish one. As long as I can appreciate the talent of other writers, I won’t lament if my own talent never develops to their calibre. It doesn’t mean I’ll stop trying—oh, HELL no! I love writing, and I still have characters and situations swarming around in my head that need a place on the page. I’m set to begin querying again on manuscript #1 and hope I can get manuscript #2 ready for it, too, by autumn. My writing life goes on, that’s for sure; I’m simply saying it won’t die an agonizing death if doesn’t go beyond my computer.

On a side note, the small publisher I edit for has just seen one of its titles make the New York Times Best Seller list and another climb to an #11 Amazon rank in its category on Kindle (#23 for the print book), which is exciting and promising for the joy I reap from editing as well!

“So long as books are open, minds can never be closed,” Ronald Reagan once said, and so long as my mind is open and life full, there will always be ideas for what to write next.


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