New Novel: It's Personal. Sort Of.
Last year, I spent months conducting hundreds of interviews and doing research for a local sports history that traced my community's high school teams all the way back to 1910. It was immensely rewarding. I'm sort of a stats and history junkie, so I
reveled in the research. And the community's reaction to the book was quite positive.
So this year, I decided to keep it local, but instead of non-fiction, I opted to try writing a novel set in my hometown. I've long been a fan of whodunits, and so
I settled on a murder mystery: A Phantom Walks Among Us. Here's a little teaser:
The children’s rhyme, sent in an anonymous letter to the editor, starts innocently enough.
Five little hearts, all in a row.
The first one said, ‘I love you so.’
But reading on, Star Calloway, new owner of the recently rebooted Mukwonago Chief, finds the author has altered the poem, creating a gruesome riddle that predicts chilling deaths recreating
grisly scenes from village folklore. When those deaths come to pass, and new, even more enigmatic riddles mysteriously arrive, Star teams with local police officer Nate Janowsky to try and discover the identity of the phantom killer and stop the spree.
The challenges posed by the new book were a bit different than writing non-fiction. In the non-fiction history, I had to take care to make sure I got the facts right so that no one felt insulted or, worse, libeled. With the novel, on the other hand,
I could make up things, but I had to do it in such a way that the characters couldn't be confused with real people, and that whatever happened to my fictitious townspeople wouldn't cast a bad light on the real community.
It was an interesting challenge,
and I'll find out whether I was equal to it when the book is launched in a couple of weeks. So I'm excited but anxious. Mostly excited.
And if you're so inclined, you can find A Phantom Walks Among Us on Amazon.
The Three Ages of Writers--Sans Tranquility, Sans Profit, Sans Sanity
As we age, our perspective on almost everything changes (or perhaps matures), and for writers, their craft is no exception. This process of maturation is typically born of experience, transforming the dewy-eyed neophyte writer into the more measured
and realistic veteran, and finally, into the grizzled, broken and desperate oracle.
That's not to say that writing is less enjoyable or fulfilling as one ages. But one's perspective certainly evolves. For instance:
YOUNG WRITER: I'll just
send out a few sample chapters, and in six months, I'll be doing signings at Barnes & Noble.
VETERAN WRITER: The publishing process is a marathon, not a sprint. Dozens and dozens of editors may say no before anything positive. But perseverance is
DESPERATE ORACLE: Maybe my work will be published posthumously.
YOUNG WRITER: This is gold! Man, I'm good! Every word perfection!
VETERAN WRITER: Let your writing sit and come back to it. You'll see areas that can be improved.
Writing is rewriting! And 90% of what we write will never be published, but will simply teach us to write better.
DESPERATE ORACLE: How do you turn off the Auto Correct feature?
YOUNG WRITER: Man, I can't wait to travel to different
cities for signings, to see the sights and sample new foods while promoting my book!
VETERAN WRITER: Touring can be expensive. Unless you have a very successful book and are signed with a big publishing firm, you may have to pony up for hotel and meal
expenses yourself. And there may be no time to take in the sights.
DESPERATE ORACLE: I packed a turkey sandwich and an orange and slept in the backseat of my car in the bookstore parking lot.
YOUNG WRITER: Get rid of the Oxford comma.
VETERAN WRITER: Keep the Oxford comma.
DESPERATE ORACLE: If you're telling a great story, no editor is going to give a rat's ass about the Oxford comma.
YOUNG WRITER: Only a matter of time before I have that best-seller.
WRITER: There are thousands of books published every year. According to Jack Canfield, author of Chicken Soup for the Soul, 93% sell fewer than 100 copies.
DESPERATE ORACLE: My wife bought a copy. My friends are going to as soon as the economy improves.
YOUNG WRITER: Write to blow people's minds!
VETERAN WRITER: Write what's in your heart, the story that only you can tell.
DESPERATE ORACLE: Write to distract yourself, so that you don't hear the soft footfalls of Death as he approaches.
YOUNG WRITER: I love writing.
VETERAN WRITER: I love writing.
DESPERATE ORACLE: I love...I forget, what was it we were talking about again?
After the Writing: A Different Type of Work Begins
While I enjoy writing and revising--probably way too much--I also enjoy what comes next: Finding an agent or publisher.
Finding an agent to represent your work is nice because it gets your toe in the doorjamb of editors' offices. If an editor
receives a manuscript from an agent, it's like your work is getting an endorsement from another competent editor. That's because agents won't agree to represent you unless they think your work is going to sell. (Why would they choose to represent so-so work?)
There's an understanding that your agented work has already caught someone's attention in a good way, someone who is knowledgeable in the publishing industry and often a former editor.
Not every agent will be the right fit for you. Some agents don't
represent mysteries or crime fiction or children's books, so if you've written one of those, and you send it to the wrong agency, you're wasting everyone's time.
As a result, finding the right agent is an extension of your research. Just as you often
have to conduct careful research to write a book authentically, you have to be meticulous in your agent search.
While there are a number of viable resources for finding agents, I purchased the Writer's Digest guide to Literary Agents. I work my
way through the listings, finding agents that express an interest in the kind of work I'm trying to sell.
Once I find a good fit, I go to the online web site to make sure the agent is still in business or if there are any updates. Sometimes agencies
will stop accepting cold submissions for awhile (they get hundreds a week, in some cases), and this information may only be available online. I also look at the bios and wish lists for all the agents at the agency, finding the one who seems the best match
for my book.
After finding a good fit, the next step is to make sure you give the agent exactly what is requested. In some cases, it's just a query letter. In other cases, it's a query and 5 oages. or 10. Or the first chapter. Or the first three chapters.
Some only allow responses via special electronic submission forms on their site.
And of course, you want to make sure your query has plenty of sizzle--and no spelling or grammar snafus.
Then comes the waiting. Some respond quickly--in a week
or three. Others may take months. Still others never respond. Thankfully you can almost always submit to multiple agencies simultaneously.
It's a lot of work, and there will almost certainly be rejections, usually polite. "Sorry, but this isn't right
for me. Better luck submitting elsewhere." I always remind myself of a todbit I heard somewhere...that John Steinbeck was rejected 114 times before his first acceptance. Submitting to editors and agents is a winnowing process, and luck favors the perseverant.
Luck also favors the perseverant who has a good story to tell.
The Big Writing Questions
I led a writing roundtable at Carroll University a few weeks ago, and wishing to tailor the experience to the needs of the participants, I asked the young writers in attendance what their big questions were concerning becoming a writer. The questions
haven't changed much in the past ten years.
Or thirty. And perhaps longer.
While certain narrative styles may wax or wane in popularity, particular genres may fall in and out of favor, the Big Questions seem to remain the same.
Here were their biggies:
How do you get published? Everyone wants the magic answer. There isn't one that qualifies as a guarantee, although there is lots of practical advice that can increase one's chances. You've got to keep
writing. (And reading.) You've got to submit. You must be a fierce and meticulous editor and critic. Humility and a willingness to learn and change helps. Getting objective feedback can be invaluable. And you have to have the courage to submit...and keep submitting.
How do you overcome writer's block? Truthfully, I never get writer's block. I think being a voracious reader and a lifelong learner helps. The more data you can input, the more you have to work with. Lots of writers engage in habits
that block them from moving ahead with their work, and I've actually written a blog entry about it that you can find in the WRITER'S TIPS archive here. But I'll offer one example here: I occasionally would encounter student writers who would sit staring at
a blank page, not because they had no idea what to write about, but because they didn't know how or where to start. I would ask them, "Do you know what you want your main character to be doing later in the story?" Their answer was invariably yes. "Start THERE,"
I'd say. "You can always come back and write the beginning later when you figure it out." And off they'd go. Half the time, they'd never come back and write the "beginning," because it would turn out that the action they started with worked even better as
a jumping off point.
How do you find time to write? I find that we can make time for what's important. I try to write every day, putting dedicated time into the schedule. If I were training for a marathon, I'd set aside an hour
or so every day to run. Writing is a kind of marathon. And if you only run a couple of times a month, you're going to have a tough time completing that race. So it is with a novel or other writing projects. Even when my children were toddlers, as soon as they
were in bed at 9:30, I'd sit down to write for a half hour or an hour. You can get a lot accomplished in a year if you do that at least 4-5 times a week.
If you have writing questions you'd like me to answer in this blog, send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.
When that writing project fizzles out...
A good friend of mine recently confessed to having trouble moving ahead with her writing.
Saw a quote the other day, “you’re either writing, or you’re not.”
"Im decidedly on Team Not Writing these days," she
wrote. "I’m so committed to Team Not Writing, I’m at the gym right now instead of taking advantage of the quiet house. Between a writers block I can’t seem to get around, and characters that have gone rogue and are doing unexpected (and unacceptable,
in my eyes) [things], I’m ready to throw in the towel. How do you get unstuck?"
First, let me say that this friend is a superb writer. I've read her stuff, and she has what it takes to grab a reader and tell a compelling story. Thus, competency
is not the issue.
Second, the precription for un-stuck-ness may differ from person to person. However, I'll share a few items that keep the gears whirring for me.
- I like to have multiple projects going so that if I lose steam on one, I can
move to another.
- I've visited this point before, but it's so important: When emerging writers write a story, they often paralyze themselves by wanting it to be perfect. I've seen students stare at a blank page for twenty minutes because they couldn't
think of just the right name for their protagonist. I've seen students who know what they want the protagonist to be doing ten minutes from now, but who can't figure out how to START the story. My advice: Write the ten-minutes-from-now scene. You can always
come back and write the opening of the story later. (Because as everyone who has visited Uncle Rod's Cool Green Island & Writer's Retreat knows that "writing is rewriting".) And at least half of the time, writers find that once they have written the ten-minutes-from-now
scene, they don't need a different opener, because that's where they should have started in the first place.
- Let your characters go rogue. Let's face it, in real life, people make poor decisions, act impulsively, take up crummy habits, do things that
WE completely sensible and moral authors would never think of doing. The fact that they are different makes them human and interesting rather than cookie cutter clones of the author (or cleaned up representations of what the author would aspire to be).
- I've sometimes tried to write in a different form (try writing and submitting a short story rather than plugging away at that novel) or genre (try romance, sci-fi, fan fiction, etc.) just to freshen things up. My greatest success came in a genre I had
never attempted until I was 51.
- Get some feedback. Join a writer's group...or form one. Get some friends together for coffee, wine, or peyote and have them evaluate a section of something you're working on. Take all feedback seriously--though you
don't have to agree with or act upon it all. Getting out of the writer's vacuum can sometimes breathe new life into a project.
- Take a merciless look at your story arc. I've sometimes found the inspiration lagging on a novel when I've added plot elements
or characters that really aren't necessary. Or if I've taken the plot in either conventional directions, or in the direction I--rather than my characters--would be inclined for it to go.
Hopefully these six items will privide some help. Even if you're
not on Team Writing right now, signing up again requires no more than a single keystroke.
Time waits for no one; it merely laughs
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