it’s a trip . . .

tips, quotes, insights, and lessons about writing and publishing learned the hard way

Trite but true

I’m a very excitable person–a classic “P” in the Myers-Briggs model. I love to be bitten by the muse, believe that she bites regularly, and get overly excited when I come up with a new idea for a story or a theme or a title. I’m also not a particularly patient person. Now, none of these qualities make me evil, of course. They won’t keep me out of heaven if I feel as though I’ve earned a berth there; they won’t send me to hell either. They don’t even make me a lesser person.

I get so excited...

I get so excited...

They might, however, make me a less successful writer. And that’s what I thought I’d write about today, each lesson framed by its own cliche. Let’s start with mini-lesson numero uno:

Haste makes waste

Beware the hasty. The publishing world, even publishing success, is more likely to elude the hasty than those who are deliberate and those who persevere. Sometimes I get so excited with a possible submission that I rush too much and send something out before it’s ready or before I’ve done a sufficient amount of research. For instance, I wanted to submit a humorous essay today to a national publication. I wrote it for my ongoing writing contest and it fared well. I posted it on my favorite online writers’ site and got really strong reviews. So I decided to see if it had legs elsewhere in the publishing arena. I also had to run to work right in the middle of the afternoon and wanted desperately to shoot it off to the publication I had in mind before I left for work. I read it and re-read it and polished it and wordsmithed it a bit and pulled the plug on sending it.  Aspects of the piece thrilled me but I realized I needed to check the title against recent essays, to make sure it didn’t sound just like something else recently published.  The publication is important and it’s also selective. It will do me no good to be hasty whereas the payoff, at least in terms of exposure, would be fabulous were my piece to be chosen. I might have wasted my opportunity to contend for a column with this piece had I sent it off in haste.

When in doubt, cop out

When I was an undergraduate student, this was my English teacher’s favorite maxim: When in doubt, cop out. Simple to remember. Even easier to apply. Not sure how to spell something.  Don’t use it. Not certain if a word can be used in a certain context–substitute a word you know how to use.  This simple rhyming cliche can save you from embarrassing mistakes. Now, I’m not going to say I have been wise enough to follow this all the time.  It can apply to everything, but it certainly makes lots of sense for writers. I’m fond of trying out new recipes on guests. No harm done really–I can salvage almost any dish. But sometimes in publishing, you only get one chance with an audience. If you are not completely confident in your choices–words, spellings, punctuation, facts, figures–just DON’t use them. My trying to use new words and using them incorrectly has gotten me into more trouble as a writer.  “When will I ever learn? (Sing along with me.) When will I ev-er-er learn.”

Can cliches stink up your writing? Absolutely. Can cliches be illustrative? I hope they were helpful in this post. There are lessons everywhere if you have ears to hear and eyes to see.

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the ‘deadly competitive spirit’: avoiding Miss Trunchbulls

avoiding Miss Trunchbull

avoiding Miss Trunchbull

Recently, I ordered a book online called The Portable MFA, which offers readers the essential lessons that can be obtained in most MFA programs (as purported by its clever authors) for a mere $16.99. The text is divided into segments–just like an MFA program, too: fiction, creative non-fiction, magazine writing, playwriting, poetry.

Since I write mostly fiction, I read the fiction part immediately and found it to be helpful, definitely worth the small outlay of cash and the few hours spent reading it. You’ll have to buy it yourself to read Tim Tomlinson’s totally hilarious summation of everything he learned in his MFA program in eight paper-thin insights such as, “There are kinds of stories.” It reminded me of one of the communications professors in my graduate program who told a class of very sharp adult students that “Libraries have books.”

Just this week, recovering from the flu (sorry, that’s why I didn’t post Wednesday), I began the non-fiction/memoir segment of The Portable MFA and stumbled across this phrase of Peter Bricklebank’s: “the deadly competitive spirit” in referring to the intensified competitive experience among students in MFA programs like his own.

I’ve met this killer spirit. I first encountered it (in this case, a female Trunchbull) in a workshop in 2007. It was the first time I witnessed such an unbridled ruthlessness toward another writer’s work and my own work. It made me sick and caused me a lot of distress. I ended up leaving a workshop I was invited to join because I couldn’t stomach this spirit-killing critic.

I was introduced to this deadly spirit again when I foolishly joined a high-profile online writer’s group I’ll call The Virtual Chokie.

It didn’t take long for me to figure out that most writers at that site were competitive to the “nth” degree. Without saying as much, few wanted anyone to do better than themselves. And newbies? Forget it. You got shredded. The site regulars would as soon as step on your neck with heavy boot as give you any kind of helpful advice or mentoring. Of course, their criticism was spoonfed to newbies like the worst medicine you’ve ever tasted–this is going to hurt me more than it is you. And if you didn’t turn around and kiss their asses in response: “Thank you for making me feel incompetent and worthless and for ruthlessly tearing apart my work,” then the alpha dogs would write diatribes about your lack of gratitude for the pearls they deigned to toss your way.

All of which was just bullshit. And to make matters worse, once one of the alpha-dog authors on the site tore your work apart, everyone else just lined up for their turn like spineless vultures. No one would speak out on my or anyone else’s behalf, not even to say, “Hey, you’re being overly harsh and unfair to this person.”

Very, very twisted vibe.

The best way that I can describe it is this: “I can only be up  by putting you down.”  And to think, I actually paid good money to be so patronized.

Well, they can keep my annual membership fee. Maybe they can put it toward some counseling for e-bullying.

Yes, there’s needs to be a requisite hide thickness to succeed in publishing. Most gatekeepers are going to reject your work. If you can’t deal with that or accept that, you’ll be forced to abandon your writing, which is the number one reason why most people are never published: they are too thin-skinned and simply give up.

But there’s no reason why you or I have to subject ourselves to these deadly competitive types, the Miss Trunchbulls of would-be authors. I’m sure Mr. Bricklebank didn’t use the word “deadly” for nothing.  The bad apple always spoils the rest. The bad performer always pulls the rest of the team down. If you get a whiff of a deadly sort of environment in an online or in-person group or in a class, run. Run away as far and as fast as you can to a group with a more constructive vibe.

It may look like a cool, happening place teeming with talent, but it’s a chokie, pure and simple.

you can be too close to what you write

I won’t argue with the guideline that you should write what you know. Nobody likes poseurs unless (of course) you make them into unreliable narrators to lift your writing out of the ordinary. I’m asking you to consider that sometimes you can be too close to a personal experience to write about it well.

too painful for readers?

your pain: too painful for readers?

Your lack of distance can be a trap that snags up your storytelling, your pace, your plot, your character development. In other words, it can sabotage the book in your head you’re dying to write. It can and often is the dealbreaker.

When trying to write a fictionalized account of something that really happened to them, writers feel an unnatural and ultimately limiting responsibility to faithfully represent everything that really happened. You provide too many insignificant details–many more than the reader needs. You fail to use the old flash forward–jumping the timeframe of the story–because flashing forward is not true to your precious memory.

Memory isn’t always your friend.

I learned this lesson firsthand in writing my first book–a fictional account of a major midlife reckoning. It was gratifying for me to recount every detail of the viewpoint character’s meltdown for the reader. It was my life, I felt violated, I was writing this book to eke out some poetic justice for myself and those who suffered what I did–my motives were pure. It was a formula for an unsuccessful novel that would have held little interest for most readers.

I tried valiantly to recreate the characters in this autobiographical tale faithfully; I see now how that limited me.

Did I learn I from my mistake? Absolutely. In fact, I approached the same theme again in a short story a few months later, this time taking quite a bit of poetic license with the protagonist and antagonist.  The protagonist even became a ghost, coming back to haunt the man that drove her to self-destruction. I changed up lots of small details. And it was very freeing. I felt unshackled from my own history and finally able to tell a story, and I did much better job of it. It won a short story contest, and I made my first ever money from writing creatively–at 3 cents a word, that story earned me $90-some bucks.

Now that I’ve committed the I-was-too-close-to-the-story-I-was-writing offense, I recognize it in others. When I point it out, however, people most often balk at the observation. That includes memorists and essayists, too.

“Well, I have to say what really happened,” one writer said, when I told him he really didn’t need to share every detail of his motorcycle ride across New England. He disagreed with me. He won a battle but lost the war–he lost a reader.

This topic segues nicely into the next lesson-from-friends segment I’ll be posting, one that has to do with control, discretion, and writing about something very painful with a healthy amount of emotional distance, which is necessary for exquisite memoir or autobiographical fiction.

But some people can only learn this lesson the hard way. At the time I wrote my first book, I didn’t have a circle of writing friends as resources. I had a burning passion to pour out my story, my keyboard, and my unflinching memory.

In the instance of autobiographical fiction, two out of three would have been better than three out of three.

I should have flinched a little.

my works in progress . . .

I’m posting the novels I have started as motivation or electronic thumb screws–take your pick–to finish one or two or all. I compare it to someone who goes public with a weight loss goal. Well, I now have gone public about all the work I need to finish. Feel free to prod me on my progress. Or tell me to get to work.

Because as I mentioned in an earlier post, nothing starts until you finish. And by the way, if you like any of these progress meters, the links available in the third sidebar of this blog under Resources for Writers.

COSMO GIRLS

Women’s Fiction


DIME STORE DEBUTANTE

Women’s Fiction


WHO KILLED TOM JONES?

Cozy Mystery

LEARNING TO SEW

Young Adult Mystery

RACE CARD

Suspense/Woman-in-Peril

lessons from friends #2 – Lori Bentley-Law

"Orange Crush" One of the things I learned from writer Lori Bentley-Law is the value of digging deep for an original story line in fiction. In at least two of her books, MOTOR DOLLS and THE UNDERGROUNDERS, she pushes herself, never settling for the comfortable or easy premise. As a result her work has a freshness and a creative abandon to it I have tried to emulate, a quality that will surely lift her work above the cliched stuff glutting agents’ in-boxes.

The first chapter of MOTOR DOLLS, entitled “Orange Crush” opens up with one of the protagonists, an artist with an irrepressible joie de vivre, jumping into a vat of orange dye just to see what it feels like.

“In perfect form, Jeda raised her arms and bent at the knees. With one more deep breath, she sprang from the ledge, executing a swan dive into the vat of swirling orange dye.”

Perhaps because Lori is an artist herself, a videographer by profession, she has the artist’s worldview that makes artists so engaging when they turn to writing.

Since I am more familiar with THE UNDERGROUNDERS, her YA novel, I’ll pay special tribute to that one  in this post. I have a YA novel, too, but mine is grounded in (or maybe I should say weighed down) by my own experience and limited by my preconceived notions that I have to represent life as it is. However, consider Lori’s premise for THE UNDERGROUNDERS:

“Weird stuff is happening to thirteen-year old Viola DeMarron, and it sure the heck isn’t puberty—unless puberty consists of getting sucked Underground to have deep and meaningful conversations with the roots of vegetables and the Tenders who care for them. After waking to find mud on her feet, it dawns on her these episodes must be more than freaky dreams.”

Viola has a nose like a potato. While underground, she chats up a gregarious carrot and consoles a grumpy turnip, that is, after she diagnoses him with club root.

One of Lori's clever characters

one clever carrot!

This past summer, I wrote my strongest short story ever. It was based on a woman with a hen’s nose and elephant ears–a woman who looked like a Dr. Seuss character and had a Grinch of time meeting men because of her frightful face.  Had I not admired Lori’s work and spent so much time enjoying it and happily studying it, I might never have ventured out of my own comfortable art-is-life skin and into a more fantastic story line.

Thanks, Lori, for showing me that when something feels so comfortable in one’s writing in very little time, it may be because the writer has seen it or done it before.  Lori’s storytelling shows me what is possible when a writer really pushes herself not to settle for what is comfortable and familiar in one’s writing and how successful one can be as a result.

P.S. Lori also (informally) tutors her friends in the craft of writing by lesson and by example–look at this week’s craft tip, which Rachel Greenaway shared with me, something she learned from Lori (aka Modobenny).

rules are good until they rule you

Earlier this evening, I read an online article from an online digest for writers that included submission tips for querying an agent, most of which I had heard many times, including this one:

3. Make sure your work is edited, revised and polished. Rewriting is a crucial step to bettering your work, so be sure to have trusted peers give you an honest critique, or consider seeking a professional freelance editor to evaluate it. And never query an agent for a novel until the work is complete.

A good rule to follow, on average.

However, sometimes hard and fast rules can be too hard and fast. Often newer writers, myself included, cling to rules so steadfastly that it’s just plain silly or shortsighted to do so, and we end up cutting off our noses to spite our faces in the process.

Here’s an example.

I had some back and forth conversations with an agent who expressed an interest in my writing though he passed on the work I was pitching. He encouraged me to try writing something he could sell, for starters, citing a few writers for me to read, perhaps to emulate.

So even though he didn’t pick up my romantic comedy, I was hardly discouraged. I was encouraged. And I got an idea for a book in the genre he said he could sell and pitched it to him with only three chapters complete, fueled by a  tremendous fire in my belly for the theme of my book.

He wrote back to me thusly:

“I’d be happy to see it when you have a substantial portion completed. Say 100 pages?”

When I mentioned that I had a 100-page partial ready to send an agent on another writing site, everyone flipped out like I had just confessed to freebasing cocaine.

“NO!!!! Don”t do that! Never send a partial if your ms isn’t finished. Learn to listen to people smarter and more experienced than you (you pewling spawn). Agents never request partials of unfinished manuscripts from unpublished writers. Learn the rules. Follow the rules. Blah, blah, blah.”

(I added the ‘pewling spawn’ part because ever since Captain Hook said it in Peter Pan I’ve wanted to use it–you get the idea.)

gakk!

gakk!

I was shocked that this torrent of censure was unleashed on me without anyone bothering to ask me what exactly the agent had requested.

Unbeknownst to these folks, I heard that rule at least 50 times since I began writing creatively, and I said, in my defense, “Well, just a minute. The agent said, (and I quote) that he’d like to read my partial.” And referred them to the response he sent me verbatim, listed above.

Still they expressed their incredulity at this request.

Funny. I had taught English for ten years and reading comprehension for five, but I wasn’t smart enough to interpret the meaning of sixteen words in two sentences?

Can you spell condescension?

I’m a rule-following gal for the most part and especially dutiful when I’m trying to get something I really want. I’ve broken some rules in writing (though not deliberately–sheer ignorance), but I’d never do something deliberately to jeopardize my success as a writer.

Nor will I follow a rule blindly when it would absolutely be of no advantage to me to do so. If agents make the rules, aren’t they at liberty to relax them when it’s in their best interest? Isn’t the writer at liberty to respond accordingly when it’s in her best interest to do so?

Only a complete and utterly gutless moron would decline to send 100 pages of a unfinished manuscript if an agent (gasp) broke his own rule or bent the industry standard and requested it.

Though I have my flaws, being gutless isn’t one of them.

In fact, I had read on other sites that this agent really likes to take on a story, which some writers may not appreciate, but I certainly would. Coming from him, such an overture makes sense. I did my research, which suggests I’m not a moron either.

I thought we all read enough allegorical dramas (The Handmaid’s Tale, for one) about what happens when people or a society becomes more concerned with following the rules for rules’ sake than about thinking logically and independently about their allegiance to certain rules. Well, at least I have.

No, I haven’t sent off that partial yet even though I have more than a hundred pages because I don’t think it’s strong enough. But if I get 100 pages where I want them, I intend to send them.

Because an agent asked me to. Because rules are great until they need to be overruled.

lessons from friends #1 – kirk ort

THE ADVENTURES OF KATE DARLING by Kirk Ort

THE ADVENTURES OF KATE DARLING by Kirk Ort

Tonight marks the first post in a series called “Lessons from Friends.” Through various online writing sites and competitions, I’ve been exposed to others’ writing, have reviewed their work, and, of course, tried to learn from their example. In my case, I’ve wisely befriended most of these writers.

For my first “Lessons from Friends” post, I’d like to begin with an extraordinarily talented writer and my most stalwart and longstanding writing partner Kirk Ort.

Kirk specializes in historical fiction. Unlike me (I write contemporary stories), he has the particular burden or pleasure of transporting the reader to a wholly different place and time. One of the things I like about Kirk’s writing and the thing he does almost better than any writer I know is place the reader in the setting seamlessly. No long drawn-out Michener-esque descriptions in any of Kirk’s historical stories (in the 21st century, who among us has the luxury of indulging in description to the extent Michener did? And I liked James Michener. I read many of his books). Instead, Kirk pulls the reader into the scene efficiently and effectively via character’s actions. Take a look at  the opening paragraph to his newest book: THE ADVENTURES OF KATE DARLING.

“With a creak and a bang the hatch cover was thrown open and sunlight streamed down into the fetid cargo hold. Kate Darling, lying in a heap atop a bale of trade goods, raised her head and squinted into the dazzling light.”

The first sentence of his novel transports us to a castaway’s world on a sailing ship. In one sentence, through his careful choice of nouns and verbs (and two adjectives), he’s done a wondrous thing. Does anyone reading this not have a clear picture in his/her head of when and where this novel takes place within forty words?

A few paragraphs later, he combines action and description following direct dialogue, evoking Kate’s surroundings and Kate’s appearance herself in a sentence.

“All right, Mr. Smithers, I’ll go quietly,” said Kate. “And I do thank you for your many kindnesses.” She shook some of the dust and bits of filth from her skirt and adjusted the bodice of her frock to better accommodate its fulsome cargo before pulling herself onto the first steps of the ladder.”

I don’t think there are many readers among us who would say, “Gosh, you conveyed the setting while describing the action. I’m so bummed. I was looking forward to reading lots of exposition.”

Kirk’s writing taught me the value of conveying description without stopping the action, rather by incorporating it into the action.  Is it any wonder he won second place in our writing site’s strongest start competition.

Thanks, Kirk, for an exemplary lesson that I strive to include in my writing more than you know.

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  • my author bio . . .

    I began writing creatively three years ago, fueled by midlife and a Curves' addiction. Since then, I have published short work in The Christian Science Monitor and Sirens Magazine in the same year. How's that for versatility!
    Sirens Magazine

    Sirens Magazine

    Also the Duck & Herring Company's Pocket Field Guide, The Giggle Water Review, Alighted, Wet Ink Press, America's Funniest Humor, Brilliant!, Laughter Loaf, Flash-Flooding, and the Greensilk Journal where my short story, "How I Boinked John Cusack" won editor's pick.
    The Greensilk Journal

    The Greensilk Journal

    My newest novel, THE SHAKER PROPOSAL, has received numerous accolades, the latest a fifth-place in the 2008 annual NWA (National Writing Association) Novel Contest.
    THE SHAKER PROPOSAL

    THE SHAKER PROPOSAL

    I am a marketing professional by vocation (but not by choice). My husband and I live in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania—the sounds, sites, smells, and flavors of which are a never-ending source of literary inspiration.