My drug of choice is writing--writing, art, reading, inspiration, books, creativity, process, craft, blogging, grammar, linguistics, and did I mention writing?

Friday, October 18, 2019

What To Do With That First Novel (Mailbox)

This is almost exactly the combination on my luggage!
[Remember, keep sending in your questions to chris.brecheen@gmail.com with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox" and I will answer one or two of them every week or so. I will use your first name ONLY, unless you tell me explicitly that you'd like me to use your full name or you would prefer to remain anonymous.  My comment policy also may mean one of your comments ends up in the mailbox. And even if I can't exactly answer your question, I will totally do jazz hands until you sort of think I have.]  

AZ asks:

I’ve been reading your blog for years. It's definitely one of my favourite writing resources. Your honesty and thoughtfulness are refreshing amongst all the get-rich-fast / guaranteed-to-make-you-famous content out there. It's very much appreciated.

I love writing. Like actually writing, not just the idea of it wrapped in dreams of fame and fortune. I thought that might be refreshing for you too. 

I write in my job as a PR professional, and as a volunteer for a certain organisation, and as a parent for a parenting magazine that doesn't pay its contributors and as a hobby and for my mental health... I write. I guess that kind of makes me a writer.

When I was a young warthog, I used to think that writers were people who published books for money. But I've since broadened my view, and your posts were a big part of that. 

Anyway, here's the question I wanted to ask you: What should one do with a novel they're not ready to sell?

Trying to market a debut, stand-alone space-operetta -- be it through traditional agents/publishers or by going indie -- seems impractical. I'd rather spend the time writing more novels. I’m new to long-form fiction and will re-evaluate my options once I have a bit more to offer.

What should I do with the completed manuscript in the meantime?

[Full text of AZ's question below.]

My reply:

You seem to be a little reluctant to call yourself a writer, so let's get that shit dealt with posthaste. I love you (as much as I can love anyone who writes in with a question). I know where you're coming from. I get what you mean. I have felt this way before (even earlier today). But as sternly as I can say it without drifting past "kind" and into "slightly jerkitudinal," knock that shit off, AZ. You write, ergo you're a writer. Apparently, you write quite a bit, so you're totes magotes a writer. Not "kind of." Totally. But if you need some sort of external validation, allow me, in my unmatched wisdom, to bestow upon you the status of "Really Real Writer™" from on high.

"Verily Chris didst spaketh. Lo."

There. You can show everyone in the auxiliary club this post and ditch the "sort of". Now that that's out of the way, and you will never again doubt yourself as a writer (even a little) as long as you live, let me move on to your question while I can still keep down the cough/laughter.

Ah yes...the question. Which....um....there's some bad news about the question. I can't actually answer it....not without having read your book.

Not that this will stop me from writing a whole damn post, mind you. I am nothing if not thorough. I mean I suppose I could tell you what I might do with MY first book (also a space operetta), but it's probably better to just give you some thoughts to chew on, so you can make a better, more informed choice.

(That sounds like a very vague advertisement for some kind of suppository or something. "Mykexistrazinate: Talk to your doctor today. *low voice* May cause violent anal seepage. Do not take while inhaling nitrogen. If full body paralysis occurs, discontinue immediately. Mykexistrazinate. Better, more-informed choices." Then again, maybe I just shouldn't be writing before caffeine kicks in.)

Let's start with the bad news, AZ. Fortunately, it kind of looks like you've already started to guess it yourself, so it might not be quite so painful. In traditional publishing, almost no one publishes their first book. I mean obviously everyone who publishes a book logically publishes their "first book," but almost no one's first published book is the same first full-length manuscript they wrote.

Most writers (and when I say that, I mean probably half to three quarters as a purely anecdotal observation on my part) have this weirdly predictable trajectory. They love books. They think books are magical portals to other worlds (and they ARE). They want to do that magic themselves. They write a book. (There might be scare quotes around "book" if they're very young at the time.) Finishing their book is an INTENSELY meaningful and personal experience. They are very proud of their book, but they begin to realize, based on other people's reactions (agents, publishers, friends, and family), that it's possible their book is......not very good. They don't quite know why because it was VERY good when they were writing it. So they set about trying to discover what makes for good writing, some through formal education and some through self-teaching and some through some form of professional writing career like tech writing or freelance. In the course of this learning curve, they come to see all KINDS of mistakes they made in that first book. They look back on that old stuff and wince––it was so BAD. How could they think that was good writing? Often they consider it unsalvageable in its current form, abandon it (usually with the proviso that they're coming back some day, but they never do) and their second book is the one that has a chance in the world.

Of course there are exceptions. There are a few exceptions at every stage of this wild generalization, peeling off a few working writers, but also there are some major exceptions ubiquitous enough to be worth mentioning separately: Occasionally you get someone who either understands the learning curve of writing from early on or (less often) stumbles into the fact that TONS of writing has to come before publishable work, and they set about learning the lessons on smaller efforts––or they basically get good writing short stories and throw-away pieces long before they start their novel. And of course some people are determined enough to keep taking that first book back and reworking it with new feedback until they carve it into a sellable product pretty much by sheer force of will. Also, it's pretty normal to see very famous authors go back to their first book when they reach that point where anything they write will sell pretty well and they feel they have the tools to really revise and fix it.

I should probably also mention here that non-traditional publishing has given authors an opportunity to do an end run around gatekeepers with their middle finger held high. And while this is great for a lot of reasons (particularly the voices that can no longer be erased), one of the places it's...uh....a LOT less amazeballs is when it comes to starting writers who can't stand the rejection of a publisher (or never bother soliciting in the first place). The fact that a pretty good-sized chunk of self-publishing is ENTIRELY composed of beginning writer's first books is part of the reason that self-publishing has a (somewhat deserved) reputation for lower quality. The artistic process is messy, has few absolutes, generally involves screaming like a howler monkey at least at one point, and sometimes you have to bust out the Fleetwood Mac and go your own way, but MOST of us, MOST of the time are going to need at least one part of that process to involve someone who can tell us firmly but with all the love in the world that something isn't working (and perhaps more importantly have us listen). And even though I'm one of the first boots on the ground to argue that non-traditional publishing is absolutely legit, a lot of self publishing is side-stepping that part of the process.

About 95% of us, though, are never going to publish that first book.  Not through a traditional publisher.

Most first novels have a couple of really big, predictable problems.

It's the predictable part that's kind of interesting really....

First of all, they are usually, in some way, a catharsis for the writer. That first book is usually, in some way, the story that writer is DYING to tell. Maybe it's about their childhood. Maybe it's the REAL relationship they had with their uncle. Maybe it's a scathing repudiation of their non-mainstream culture. Even if it's JUST a space operetta, there's usually something important in there. (Mine was an anti-war, anti-capitalist examination of trying hard to find one's own voice and way in a world of people focusing on their own causes that were all just and valuable in their own right. Sound familiar?) There's nothing wrong with this per se, but the problem is that a more sophisticated craft is usually needed to really do what the writer is trying to do. It usually takes a writer a lot of hard lessons with peer review to realize that those powerful emotions bubbling up are only happening within the writer.

Secondly, beginning writers often have two problems (and very often simultaneously)––they ham-handedly tell the reader WHAT to feel, but at the same time they don't create a world that evokes those emotions organically. So it's kind of like reading a card that says, "Feel SAD now. REALLY SAD!" or one of those "Applause" signs in the old studio audience TV shows. Not only does that not work, but you're not really sure why you're supposed to feel sad. It takes a lot of skill to put one's feelings about "X Thing" aside and then describe "X Thing" using enough concrete language to get a reader to feel those things....without ever telling them what they ought to feel. So, with all the love and kindness in the world I can muster for first time writers, what is going on in a first book is often more like a therapy session with the page. (And please don't get me wrong, that's a fantastic reason to write, but what I'm saying is that the end result is a harder sell.) A lot of the freshmen writers in my program wrote about terrible experiences, but they were TELLING the reader it was terrible, not showing* the reader it was terrible.

[*Look, I hate cliché writing advice that gets used in place of actually understanding craft, and every unnuanced platitude is proved inaccurate by dozens of examples, but sometimes there's a pretty good nugget of truth in there––especially for starting writers. "Show, don't tell" is one of those bits of advice. (Maybe Leela Bruce needs to kung-fu-fight it soon.) It is possible to do both at ANY time, but it takes a skilled hand. And if you're telling and not showing, the chances are pretty good that your writing is not hitting the emotional resonance that you're hoping for. 

Imagine describing your room to someone. You say where a couple of big things are and maybe the color scheme and your mind fills in thousands...MILLIONS of tiny details.....for you. But you insist over and over again that it's comfortable and cozy. No one hearing that room described is going to get a sense of why it's so comfortable and cozy. They're just taking your word for it––which is fine in person, but doesn't work so well in writing. So you have to learn techniques like significant detail to really convey something like this--you talk about the plush fuzzy blanket that covers your bed and you just sometimes like to push your face into and rub your cheek along it and how the bookshelf is crammed to overflow with books of deeply sentimental value––like the very copy of the Quran with which you learned about Islam that still smells a little like the sumac and turmeric that were always in the air in the house of the family that gave it to you and the Ann Leckie trilogy that a friend  with the crooked smile lent you right before they were diagnosed with a second recurrence of lymphoma from which they would not recover. Well....you get the idea.]

Third, they can't kill their darlings. Since this book is catharsis––not a simple matter of prose and craft to be mercilessly cut and reshaped until it's better––they have invested their egos into the text, and that real work of revision feels too much like changing themselves or what is important about their own emotional stake. Everything is too dear to cut out. Everything is too important to really change. Because of course it is. That's not a STORY with some objective structural/mechanical/literary problems that need to dispassionately be improved upon if it's going to sell. It's a piece of their soul that they've laid bare, and they don't want to cut or change a piece of their soul. You can fiddle with the word choice a bit, but you can't amputate a limb. (And in the writing process, sometimes you HAVE to amputate a limb.) Everything matters to them (there are no unimportant bits), so that story has kind of a "Revision Shield" around it that makes getting it to sellably readable a little hard.

And....perhaps most conspicuously of all....the quality of the book changes as it goes on. Writing is a skill. Writing is a skill that one improves upon by WRITING. When writers write a book, they are LITERALLY BETTER WRITERS by the end of the book. Now, way up the learning curve, most of us can't really see the difference. The end of Stephen King's 685th novel is not appreciably different than the beginning. But, when it comes to writers who are just getting started and improving by leaps and bounds, it is PAINFUL just how noticeable it is. When you're first starting to do something, you can't do it for five hundred hours and not be better ––a LOT better––by the end. My publisher friends all tell me it is piss-easy to tell when they are reading someone's first book because the writing is SO, SO much better by the end.

Sadly, this sort of quality change is VERY hard to revise out. Even if you revise HEAVILY, you can still see those "fingerprints" all over the prose. A writer basically has to rewrite the book from scratch and they'd do well to let it sit in a drawer for a good long while and have a "coming to Jesus" moment after their fifth or sixth novel about whether they really even WANT to revisit it.

These first manuscripts form a strange cultural touchstone in the writing world. In many other arts, you have artists who FULLY understand that their initial efforts will not be professional caliber. They improve and keep going like a fire-and-forget missile. They practice for years before going out for the city's professional orchestra. They cut their teeth in local theater before assuming that it's time to audition for the big city theater. They paint and doodle enough throw-away images to wallpaper a mansion before trying to get a gallery to do a show that features them. Yet, for some reason, when it comes to writers, they have a hard time letting go of anything they write. It's all going to be "cleaned up and published someday." All of it. Forever.

Imagine me now, standing on a cliff or something, backlit by city lights with the wind whipping at my hair. Are you imagining?

"It doesn't have to be like that."

Whatever you decide to do, AZ, you can't unwrite that book, by which I don't mean "You can't undo the damage you have wrought into the world" but rather "the hard-fought lessons you learned through sweat and blood (and probably not a few howler monkey tears if you're anything like me) can never be taken away from you." You're a better writer now, and you can write a MUCH better second book. And likely, even if you don't publish that first book, you will find other ways to "drizzle" its emotional center into future works, and for years to come (decades even) you will find yourself using bits here and pieces there. (And actually, when it's broken up and subtle, you may find it feels much more authentic to that initial effort of trying to get emotional catharsis.) So even if you take your only copy out back tonight and burn it on the barbecue, using its flames to make some smores, you got a metric fuckton out of having written it.

Only you know the true path of a thousand journeys, Grasshopper. I can only tell you what you're up against––you must take the first step upon your voyage.

Did that sound really deep and profound? I'm going for deep and profound.

Me, I'd go with your initial instinct. Drawer the sucker, and see if it sings to you in the deep of the quiet night to be completely rewritten when you're a much better writer a few years from now––and in fact, that is what I have done with my initial novel that I spent five years writing. Especially if you're kind of FEELING like you'd rather get to work on your next novels. The worst thing that happens is that you pull it out of the drawer years from now and say, "It's you! It's always been you!" because it turns out it was so brilliant. Okay, I suppose the WORST that could happen is that you don't get the million dollars that you would have gotten and someone you love dearly––who you could have saved if you had only had the means––ends up dying of neo-consumption or the vapors or something, but....PROBABLY the worst thing is that some perception of your progress as a writer is just "behind schedule."

However, whether you want to thank your manuscript and tuck it into a very fond place in a very deep drawer for the lulz and memories, or just keep retooling it endlessly for years until an agent says you're cooking with gas, or ignore the better editors of your nature and go self-publish it....is up to you. Only you know what artistic itch you need to scratch.

And thank YOU, AZ for the years of reading. It's nice to hear the good stuff from time to time. *makes a heart out of index fingers and thumbs*

Hi Chris,

I’ve been reading your blog for years. It's definitely one of my favourite writing resources. Your honesty and thoughtfulness are refreshing amongst all the get-rich-fast / guaranteed-to-make-you-famous content out there. It's very much appreciated.

I love writing. Like actually writing, not just the idea of it wrapped in dreams of fame and fortune. I thought that might be refreshing for you too.

I write in my job as a PR professional, and as a volunteer for a certain organisation, and as a parent for a parenting magazine that doesn't pay its contributors and as a hobby and for my mental health... I write. I guess that kind of makes me a writer.

When I was a young warthog, I used to think that writers were people who published books for money. But I've since broadened my view, and your posts were a big part of that.

Anyway, here's the question I wanted to ask you: What should one do with a novel they're not ready to sell?

Trying to market a debut, stand-alone space-operetta -- be it through traditional agents/publishers or by going indie -- seems impractical. I'd rather spend the time writing more novels. I’m new to long-form fiction and will re-evaluate my options once I have a bit more to offer.

What should I do with the completed manuscript in the meantime? I had it peer-reviewed and will have had it beta-read and rewritten multiple times before calling it done. But after that, should it go into the proverbial drawer? Or is there any sense in making it available online?  What about something like Wattpad? Is there any value to it?

One benefit I can think of is the possibility of collecting feedback beyond the current beta-readers, to help me keep improving as I continue to write. But I’ve been warned against it by some people: “No agent will ever work with you if your work appears online!” But... I’m really interested in your opinion.

Thanks for everything.


Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Best Horror (Reminder to Vote)

What is the horror genre book (or series)? Come vote on our reader-generated poll. 

Hi folks! I'm back. The power is on. Writing...well the writing itself never stopped, but writing with a schedule and an agenda has resumed. Tomorrow we are off as usual for Wednesday (though if things go swimmingly, I'd love to get something posted on NOT Writing About Writing), Thursday and Friday should basically be business as usual. Next week I'm aiming for "inspired." Thank you to everyone who sent me words of compassion through my wargable table flip.

Only two weeks and two days remain in our best horror poll. Results go up on Halloween. I'm sorry I have to remind everyone so aggressively on these polls, but ever since Facebook fucked Page admins as a cash grab throttled the content of pages I have to do twice as many "Come on, folks!" to get half the response.

Everyone will get three (3) votes. Use them....wisely.

The poll itself is on the bottom left of the side menus, below the "About the Author."

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Fuck This. See You Next Week.

Folks, I tried.

In regards to my last post, I tried to slip out and find a place with power and keep going. The show must go on and shit, right?

Places are closed. Traffic is ridiculous because public transit is fucked up. People are acting like The Purge is going to start here when the sun goes down. (Hopefully it's at least the more recent ones.) And of course losing power for a few hours is inconvenient. Losing it for several days is life-disrupting.

And I live along a corridor where I could drive ten minutes in either direction and get power. I'm honestly worried about folks who are stuck and way out on their own.

Everything is taking so much longer. It's not just about power (although it is about spending an hour trying to figure out where you're going to go once they shut it off). It's about spending forty-five minutes out of a regular day making arrangements with friends in Oakland to not to lose everything in the freezer. It's about having a shower routine that takes twice as long because you're working out of your travel bag. It's about being nickeled and dimed until you sit down to write and realize you have only one and a half hours until you have to tag in at job two.

Perhaps I could have weathered this if power loss were the only thing happening. It's not. I've been building towards a table flip for a while. This week has been filled with extra nanny hours and I've been working more like 70-75 hours instead of 60 and six days a week for months. The table flip may even go back to the vacation that wasn't particularly relaxing, or perhaps even further to a strange grief-stricken few days and a loss of sleep so acute that I'm STILL working on it.

The online landscape I usually inhabit seems particularly fraught too. Is it just me or are people being a little extra mean lately? I mean of course there's the news. There's ALWAYS the news these days. But there's also friends responding to this whole days-without-power fiasco by charging in on their worried, frustrated, and upset friends to defend the poor maligned multi-billion dollar corporation with what sure looks a lot like shiny PR-firm-generated talking points. Nationally we now have an executive branch that has decided the separation of powers (upon which the framework of our government is built) is for chumps. We appear to be at one of those moments where little Chrises in history class say, "But Mister Ballard, why would they throw away democracy? It just doesn't make SENSE."

I shouldn't say that everything has gone wrong because then my computer will burst into flames and I will collapse in agony as another kidney stone rips its way out of me. But that's it. I'm done. Life can have this round.

I'm out for the weekend and I'll keep the memes coming on the Facebook page, but I renounce the end of this week. I forsake it! I excommunicate today and tomorrow from my blogging life.

Hopefully by Tuesday (Monday is a holiday and I will be on a long drive home anyway) I will have had a good night's sleep, my freezer will work, and I will be able to put in a day of writing without first spending an hour figuring out when and where I might be able to do so.

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Poll: Best Horror (Time to Vote!)

What is the very best horror written by Stephen King genre book (or series)?  

Our latest poll is live!  Come vote!

Our poll was pulled from your nominations, and that means I just have to shut up and love it that one author is thrice represented while some other giants (even classics like Dracula) didn't even get a nod. Currently I'm running away from PG&E blackouts, and trying to write six days worth of work in three days so I can go to Disneyland this weekend and not be racked with guilt on Mr. Toad's Wild Ride.

Let me just make ONE caveat. This poll is about BOOKS. It's about writing. If you thought the new It movie was a masterpiece of CGI and suspense but found the book to be endless in its rambling tangents, then please do not vote for the book.

The actual poll is on the left hand side at the bottom, beneath the "About The Author" section. Mobile viewers will have to go aaaaaaall to the very bottom of their page and switch to "Webview" in order to access the poll.

Everyone will get three (3) votes.

There is no way to rank votes, so please consider that every vote beyond the first "dilutes" the power of your initial vote and use as few as you can stand to use.

This poll will be up until October 31st. On Halloween, we tally the results.

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Emergency Post

I pretty much live in the dead center of this blob shape.
Hi everyone,

I'm writing tonight to let you all know that our update schedule might get a little borked over the next couple of days, but I will do my best. Where I live in California is right in the middle of one of the areas that PG&E has said they will be turning off power to starting....well in about two and a half hours.

There's a whole story to this that would make for a great chapter in the So What's So Bad About Capitalism Anyway book, but I'll spare you. The end result is that I may be without power for FIVE DAYS.  (And while I wasn't likely to be around this weekend anyway, that's going to mess up EVERYTHING between now and Friday.) The local stores are out of everything and people are already acting like it's Lord of the Fucking Flies up in here.

My clients live in a place that should have power, and are pretty cool about my being there in a pinch, even if I'm not watching the kids, so I will probably have SOME options for WiFi and charging my computer. I've got everything plugged in that can be, including mobile batteries. (Honestly, it looks like the worst part logistically is likely to be the freezer food. Of course there's no ice for fifty miles.)

So blog posts might be at weird times or go up this weekend or next week or who even knows. It's all going to depend on things that are out of my control. But I'll do my best.

Which reminds me (since you're all here anyway).....
I'm giving you one extra day to fill out the nominations on the horror poll.

Currently these are the only titles that have enough "seconds" (two or more) to go on to the poll.

The Shining
Pet Semetery 
Heart Shaped Box Joe Hill
House of Leaves Mark Z. Danielewski
The Haunting of Hill House S. Jackson

I'm NOT going to run a poll with four measly titles. (And EVERYTHING that got a second would make for too many choices.) I need at least two, but preferably four more titles to get another second. And if they don't, I'll play kingmaker with a few of my personal favorites.

I'd rather YOU all did it.