Metathesiophobia – The Fear of Making Changes

Monday is my day for writing about the actual process of writing and revising.  And today I’m going to use it to vent about my revision process, because I’m in the stage of rewriting where you just look at your notes with the same numb horror that grips you when you see a particularly nasty car accident, except that you also occasionally bang your head on your desk and moan.  (Fellow writers, please tell me you have these kinds of days, too…?  Otherwise I have to question my sanity, and I don’t really want to.)

My notes, at least, are very organized.  I read through my NaNo draft a couple weeks ago and made a detailed page-by-page rundown of any problems I found – from awkward dialogue to gaping plot holes – and finished up with a set of observations about overall issues with the book as a whole.  Then I went through the notes with four colors of highlighter – (1) needs research, (2) needs additional material, (3) dropped thread / follow up, and (4) needs clarity / flesh out.  Any problems not in those categories are pretty much too small for me to care about at this point.  My philosophy is:  Fix the big stuff first.  Usually you’ll fix a lot of smaller stuff without meaning to in the process.

So, in a way, I know what to do next – my research, cut and combine some characters, re-outline with my dropped plot points and new character set in mind, and do some writing exercises to acquaint myself better with some of the characters and their backgrounds.

What makes it overwhelming is the scope of the book.  With so many characters and such a vast amount of information I need to convey to the reader within the first 1/4 of the book, the necessity of pinning the events down while keeping the feel of the plot fluid for the reader, and a hella lot of complications, it’s a lot for one brain to keep track of.  It doesn’t help that my last book was a very focused first person POV, and now my writer muscles have to readjust to the different gravity of working in third person omniscient narration.

Woe is me.  But these are the times when a writer must buckle down and start the daunting task in spite of being overwhelmed by it.  If I need to, I will break out the colored pencils and DRAW the threads of the plotline as they move around each other and then converge and resolve.  Sometimes a brain does not want to think in words anymore, even when it is a writing brain.

Right now, anything that will get my head around this plot is my friend.

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Interview

Send a character to a job interview.  You can start prior to the interview itself, with the character mentally preparing for it, or start with the actual exchange.

There’s a lot to be revealed here – why the character is switching jobs, what kind of job they have now and how they feel about it, what they’re striving for that this new job might offer (or may fail to offer), how the character feels about his/her life, how he/she deals with stress and his/her level of self-confidence, what his/her skills and qualifications are….  And that’s just the interviewee.

Your interviewer has a goal here too – what kind of person is he/she looking for, and why?  What will he/she like or dislike about another person?  What is a point of contention or a reason to pass judgement?  How does he/she feel about hiring someone new – maybe this person has never conducted an interview before, or maybe this is the millionth time in his/her career.  Maybe the vacant position belonged to a friend – or an enemy.

There are a million angles to approach this from, whole back stories the folks in this scene could bring to the table, and plenty of opportunity for conflict (both internal and external) to grow a story from.

7 Ways to Deal With Receiving a Rejection

  1. Send your query or story out again to someone else.  Immediately.  Before you even feel an emotional reaction.
  2. Talk to another writer or your critique group.  Most of the time, writers are really excited for their fellow wordsmiths’ attempts at publication and are highly supportive and encouraging in the “low” times.  They may even suggest additional markets or resources, or help you pinpoint issues with your query letter itself.
  3. Do something nice for yourself.  After all, you put yourself out there – and you’ll keep putting yourself out there, right?  Right??? – so reward your own efforts.  Buy yourself dinner or a book or a movie (hold off on the good Scotch until you get an acceptance.  Alcohol is a depressant, after all.)
  4. Remind yourself that better writers than you have been rejected.  They stuck with it and got published, and so will you.
  5. Write back (but don’t send it).  Say the publisher/agent wrote, “Sorry, I’m just not sure what to do with this piece.  It just isn’t quite what I’m looking for.”  Okay, so you can’t really respond and make a big joke out of the guy who wrote this to you, but you can pretend you’re writing back.  “Dear sir, what you can do with this piece is PUBLISH it.  I have to tell you how to do your job now?  Okay, but I want extra royalties for that.”  Again, don’t actually send something like that to anyone.  Ever.  They won’t find it funny.
  6. If you’ve sent the piece/query out to, say 25 places, and haven’t had any luck yet, it may be time to look it over and consider reworking it.  You don’t want to rewrite everything every time you get a rejection, but at least look it over after a big chunk of “no”s and see if anything pops out at you that could be done better.
  7. Think of every rejection as one step closer to the time someone says, “YES!  I want your story!”  Above all, don’t let it get you down when you get turned down.  It happens to everyone (well, almost everyone – but we know about those people who get accepted their first try, right?  Deals with the devil never pay off in the end…!)  Rejections are to writers what sandworms are to the dead people in Beetlejuice – everyone hates ’em, but you have to deal with ’em if you want to get out into the world.  Learn how to use them to defeat Beetlejuice get published.

A Good Swift Kick in the Pants

In last Monday’s post, I talked about how sometimes characters and storylines can “decide” to go their own direction.  On the flip side for today’s post is:  writer’s block, when your characters and storyline refuse to go anywhere.  Sometimes I literally picture my character sitting in the middle of the road with his/her arms crossed like a petulant little kid, shaking his/her head at my every idea.  And that makes me wish my characters were real human beings so I could kick them good and hard for such behavior.

What I’ve found with writer’s block is, it’s usually a signal from some creative depth of my brain that doesn’t believe in communicating directly.  What it’s trying to tell me when I have writer’s block is that something I’ve either just written or something I’m just about to write isn’t right.  There wasn’t enough setup to pull off what I was going for, I dropped a thread somewhere and forgot about it, a character isn’t believably motivated to go where I want them to go yet, there’s actually a much more elegant way to tie the plot together than what I originally planned on…there are all kinds of things it might be.  But if I can just nail whatever it is that’s off, I get unstuck.

So if you have writer’s block (which, these days, I consider to be a thing that happens to Other People), check over the last few pages and see if you find a big inconsistency, a character acting out of character without good reason, or anything that just doesn’t feel right.  If not, think about the scene coming up.  What is it you were about to have happen?  Why doesn’t it work?  If you didn’t have a plan for your upcoming scene, then my advice is just to write something.  Think of it as a writing exercise instead of your actual work-in-progress.  Play with it instead of trying to have it come out The Perfect Thing first try.  Have something crazy and unexpected happen.  Your protagonist dies or his long-lost brother comes back to town or zombies attack or he wins the lottery.  Anything you write is a possible continuation of the story (whether you end up using it or not), and the process itself will help you feel out more about the character – plus, I’ve found that my brain won’t always tell me what it does want for my story unless I make it a little antsy by writing things it doesn’t want.  All of a sudden it pipes up, “No, I don’t want him to win the lottery!  That wasn’t what you were supposed to have happen.  It’s more like–”  Sort of like telling a bedtime story to a little kid who has to control every element of the damn story…Mom, I can see you looking this direction out of the corner of your eye…stop that!

And while you’re figuring out why you’re stuck, sometimes it’s good to get away and do something else.  So here are some movies about writing/writers/writer’s block that I like:

Scrounging for Agents

It’s Wednesday – Marketing Day here at Sara D vs. Reality – and I’ll tackle the topic of finding agents and researching them (both to avoid scams and to help determine if they’re a good fit for you and your project).  Now, to start with, it’s different with fiction than with nonfiction.  With nonfiction, you can start querying prior to completion of the book (how far along it needs to be seems to depend on the agency/publisher).  Working with fiction, however, you need to have a complete, tip-top manuscript written and revised and rewritten and perfected and gone over again and then polished some more – in other words, make it as good as you can possibly make it before you even Google an agency.

Once you have your manuscript finished, it’s time to find an agent or a publisher.  You can get an agent after your manuscript has been published, or you can get an agent first and they’ll help you place your manuscript with a publisher.  Either way, an agent’s job is to negotiate your contract with the publisher, getting you more money and more exposure.  No agent should ever ever ever get any money from you up front – they get paid when YOU get paid by the publisher, and industry standard commission for an agent is about a 15% cut.

Here is my method for agent hunting:

  • Google search for literary agents plus genre of project
  • Look over the website of a given agency
  • Check http://pred-ed.com/pubagent.htm (Predators & Editors guide to agencies and publishers) to see if there is a warning or a recommendation for the agency I’m researching
  • Google the agency name and/or the specific agent I want to query from that agency, checking for interviews, articles, or horror stories on public forums about working with the agency/agent in question
  • If the agency/agent looks good after my “background check”, I personalize my query letter to them based on information I found in any interviews or articles from my research

And that’s how I roll.  Any additional tips & suggestions?  I’d be happy to have ’em in the comments section!

Forcing the Issue

Anyone who’s ever written a novel (or a solid number of short stories) knows that there are times when the story or the character(s) just won’t go the way you want them to.  I’m not talking about those times when you feel like you’re unable to pull off a scene, when you feel like your writing skills are simply not up to the task at hand.  I mean the times when the story or the characters or a single character start veering away from what you had in mind for them, when a story takes on its own direction, or when a character develops a mind of his/her own.

I realize this kind of thing probably has a psychological explanation rooted in the subconscious, but I still think of it as “the story taking over” or “[character’s name] refusing to cooperate”.  Sometimes, when I feel like I, as the writer, have lost control over the events and people I’m writing about, it’s exciting and fun, and I get much better results than my original plan would ever have yielded.  Other times, I fight tooth and nail to get my characters back under my thumb and do any number of awful things to them in order to make them do what they’re supposed to do for the story.

Some writers hate rampant character takeovers and the story not going as planned, arguing that it’s plain sloppy not to reign in your characters and stick to the plot you set out to write.  Other writers thrive on the anarchy of their characters and the chaos of possible plot turns that even they didn’t expect when they sat down to write a particular story, and the argument on that side of the question is that you leave room for a dynamic, exciting story and characters who are true to themselves rather than slaves to a pre-planned set of actions to move the plot along.

Now, I think both sides have a point.  Sticking too much to an outline or a plan can be boring and, worse, get you stuck.  Making a character do something whether it feels right when you’re writing it or not usually means that it doesn’t make sense, on some level, that he/she would do what you’re telling your readers he/she is doing.  That means you either need to give the character the reigns and do things his/her way, replanning your story accordingly, or you need to have external forces (events and other characters) push that character in the direction you need him/her to go.  Which of those do you pick?  Whichever one makes the story better.

Then there are times when a writer gives too much leeway to a character, and the character ruins the story.  Sometimes it’s because the character isn’t appealing to the reader.  Or the character is too obviously appealing to the writer (*cough* Lestat *cough*).  Or the character has no clear goals or direction, but is just running around doing stuff.  Or the character takes things too far off track to be in line with the overall plot.  Again, sometimes you have to force the issue and make the character want what you need him/her to want – and you don’t do that simply by having them do what you want when it feels wrong for them to be doing it.  You have to use the power at your disposal, as the writer, as the god of your story world, to affect your character in a way that will get the reaction you need from them.

There are so many external factors that can affect a character’s choices.  From weather conditions to family drama, physical danger to a touching observation of a stranger’s troubles, an unexpected break to the anguish of loss – there are so many ways to push and pull at a character, and by using those tools, you not only get your character where you need him/her to be, but you make him/her more accessible to the reader, too.  You reveal a lot about someone by showing what gets to him/her.  You might even make the reader fall in love with your character by doing so.

Friday Freakout Exercise

Friday is writing exercise day.  Here’s a good one for conflict, characterization, and character dynamics.  Inspired by my own lousy week:

Make three really crappy things happen to your character in the same week he or she has made a major life decision for the better.  See how he/she reacts.  More determined than ever for positive change, or ready to give up?  Murderous rage by the third incident, or laughing at it by that time?  Who’s around to help out, and who bolsters your character’s confidence when things look bad?

On Writing a Synopsis

It’s Wednesday – marketing day!  When you start sending query letters out to agents and publishers, you’ll find that you need to write at least one version of a synopsis to include either in the query itself, or as a follow-up to your introductory letter, if you’ve peaked anyone’s interest.

First off, I’ll explain why I wrote three versions of my synopsis.  I have one version (I call it the “blurb version”) that’s a one-paragraph summary of the setup, much like the “blurb” on the back of a book you’d read to decide if you want to buy it.  That’s what I put in the query letter itself, to (hopefully) catch the agent’s interest.  Then I have a full, straight-up point-for-point synopsis that summarizes the entire book and its ending, which I wrote mainly for reference, to keep myself straight on what order things happened in when I was writing my third synopsis.  The third synopsis is the one I give to agents who ask me for one – it’s in the style of the book itself, to give a taste of the voice, tone, and character of the novel.

What surprised me about writing the “blurb” synopsis was that I didn’t find it particularly difficult.  I expected it to be agony.  Instead, it was kind of fun and it flowed easily for me.  Yes, I chose my words carefully and considered the gravity of this being, most likely, my one and only paragraph with which to hook an agent, but it really didn’t seem that hard to write.  On reflection, I realized that my time working as a supervisor in a bookstore had served me well in this endeavor.

See, we used to write up a certain number of staff recommendations every week, with a little summary of what the book/movie/album we had picked was all about and why it was good.  I loved writing those summaries because it gave me a chance to share a little of my passion for good stories with anybody who took the time to read my recommendations – plus, it gave me a rare opportunity to work at my desk, but that’s beside the point.  Anyway, I think it stood me in good stead to write those blurbs for other people’s books.  It was great practise at making the most of a limited space in which to show and generate enthusiasm for a particular story.

So, although it’s Marketing Wednesday and not Exercise Friday, I give you Marketing Exercise Wednesday, and recommend that you practise writing exciting blurbs for your favorite books every now and then, as a warm-up to writing a synopsis for your very own novel.  It’s been a good tool for me!

Making Sense Just Makes Sense

I love it when people say stuff like, “Oh, it must be nice to write fantasy and sci-fi.  You don’t have to do any research.”  That’s sarcasm, by the way.  Speculative fiction, in order to suspend a reader’s disbelief, requires at least as much research as mainstream or literary fiction.  Details have to be consistent, incongruities have to be clearly accounted for, and all in all the stuff you make up has to make sense.

And, frankly, the more fans like something, the more they want your world to make sense – think about how avid fans of Star Trek and Star Wars will study up on ship designs, pseudo-scientific principles, alien races, etc.  Any writer of speculative fiction who hopes to have a fan base that devoted someday (and let’s face it, we all wish our works were as beloved and marketable) should have in mind that, if they’re lucky, people will want this kind of consistency and detail from their creation.

It’s funny how you have to leave so much technical detail, background, history, etc. out of the text of your book because to put it in would be to bore the reader half to death with “info dumping”, and yet that same kind of material is exactly what a fan base seeks out once they’re in love with your world and your characters.  And they’re disappointed when the world crumbles on inspection, which a writer can say is silly (it’s only fiction, after all!) or can embrace and enjoy that folks care so much about it.

Dig in.  Don’t be sloppy with your details.  Work things out even if they won’t be said outright in the text.  You’ll write your world and your characters better for it, probably save yourself from some messy rewriting to fix inconsistencies, and, if you’re lucky enough to have avid fans someday, you’ll be able to answer their questions with confidence at science fiction conventions.