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

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Poking At a Work In Progress (Mailbox)

What do I mean by poking at my work in progress?

[Remember, keep sending in your questions to chris.brecheen@gmail.com with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox" and I will try to answer a couple each week (after this week). 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. This backlog goes back months, so please be patient.]    

Adella asks:

In your post yesterday, you wrote about poking at your work in progress, and I notice you've used that expression a lot since you started writing your book. What exactly does that mean, and why just poke at it?

My reply:

Almost exactly a year ago now I was hanging out with a friend lamenting all the games we weren't going to have the time to play now that we had adult responsibilities and couldn't lackadaisically fritter 40 hours a week to the Pixel gods in the manner of our misspent youth. We have different games we dig with some overlap, but I think I'm way more into real time strategy, and he likes those brutal twitch shooters that make me throw my controller.

We both agreed that we were going to have to make time for Fallout 4 though. Both of us were slavering weenies for Fallout 3, and I convinced him that New Vegas, while less open concept, was still worth the time for that ineffable I-just-punched-that-dude's-head-off fix.

"I don't want to get into it now though," he said. "It looks amazing, but I'm going to wait. Right now I'm so busy, I know I would only be playing a few minutes a week. I want to wait until I can sink into it for days at a time and immerse myself in that character. If you go too long without playing, it's like you lose all that momentum."

I understood instantly what he meant. Not just because in my quest to actually finish the Literary Review of Skyrim now stretches into its fifth year and I've restarted the game probably ten times. But mostly because he's describing a phenomenon that happens in writing as well. You can't leave those characters for too long.

When you get into their heads, it's this whole thing. You're living them. You're breathing them. You're thinking their thoughts. You're obsessed with them like you might be a video game or book. You find yourself wondering how they'd handle social encounters you just experienced if they were there instead. They sometimes even talk to you in their voices. And you're constantly tooling those parts of your story that aren't fully developed yet.

If you put your project to the side, even just for more than a few days, that intimacy congeals quickly. You come back to the page and find those characters stale. Trying to move them around feels like moving a stiff muscle. You're no longer in their head and it's a struggle against language to get them to do talk to you again. It can be done, but it usually takes a day or two. And if the breaks are more common than the writing, it really makes a long-term project difficult to finish.

Stories that have been abandoned and rekindled repeatedly (without sufficient revision) often feel like their characters go through "wooden" phases, where they are little more than cut outs for the plot. This is what I try to avoid when I "poke" at my work in progress. It usually involves some light writing or revision, but it's basically a way not to lose the characters and what's going on in their heads.

It's an invaluable trick for longer works of fiction since it is inevitable that in the course of writing that much you're going to get sick or have a pet die...or have your life kind of turn into a F-5 hurricane for a year. As I return to old productivity rates, it has been invaluable not to have to grit through every single paragraph at the beginning.

So that's what I mean, Adella. I try to do a little every day even when it's basically impossible to sit down and have one of those monster, six-hour sessions. Just so the day after that will not be quite so start-over-from-square-one-ish.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Beginning Writers and Submission Guidelines

Young writers.....we need to talk.

When I say "young writers" I don't just mean writers of youth, though I certainly do mean them as well, but more as an industry-wide metonymy for, "writers who are just starting to really write in earnest and who have maybe yet to dip their toe into the industry." Or maybe, "Writers who have been writing but now want to take their writing to the next level, but are not yet aware of the business end of creative of writing." Or "Writers who think they know everything about everything and desperately need to be taken down a peg or two."

Perhaps ten, and certainly twenty years ago, I could have used a different phrase (and with greater precision) for those of you I'm hoping to reach: "Unpublished authors." Sadly, today with industry changes due to computer developments, the water is muddy with blogging and other online publication, hybrid publication and a myriad other non-traditional routes to the end zone. Which are all great but the ol traditional route (which I know many view as more legit) is still there too, and it is as mysterious as ever.

So....we still need to talk.

  • I say this as someone who has twice now issued a massive call for guest bloggers complete with some instructions to follow in the submission process and then seen what happens. 
  • I say this as an editor and then managing editor of a literary magazine.
  • I say this as a writer with friends in the publication side of the industry.

I know I went the nontraditional route, but I've submitted, been published, and more importantly taken submissions FOR publication, so I know a little something about what I'm saying:

Your most likely rejection comes from not following directions.
I'm not kidding.

Young writers tend to think think it's some ineffable prose quality they lack or some esoteric misunderstanding of what they were trying to do because no one could possibly see the genius, or even a grammar mistake, but really it's good old fashioned didn't-follow-directions that will fucking cast you into the lava pit like a Klingon that Kirk has finally had enough of.

All those other things matter. Prose quality certainly matters greatly for prestigious publications, although yours is probably better than you give it credit for if you would let your own voice through and trust in a rigorous process of revision. Your unseen genius (probably more seen and less genius than you think) still has to sell, whether the person reading it picked up on it or not. And while grammar mistakes are a quick way to get round filed, they're a distant second to not following directions.

Because no one will even LOOK at your writing if you don't follow directions. They'll never see it. It will descend at 9.8 m/s/s (with a little drag for air resistance) into the Circular Tomb of the Unread Manuscript™, and your fantasies that you are so spetacurificawesomicle that they will fudge it once they think of those sweet Benjamins that'll be flooding in may be sweet for you to fap to, but won't even pragmatically be possible.

They won't even see it.

They. Won't. Even. See. It.

But Chris, my submission is something really special. Anyone who reads it will recognize that it's really got some potential. It's about a farm boy who is strangely good at this special skill who goes up against a dark lord....

Nope! They won't even see it. Even if that were true (and it's probably not), they won't actually ever get the chance to know.

Look, if it's me and someone doesn't follow directions, I just work around it. I ask the question I absolutely needed answered in a follow up email or say "Oops, you seem to have not noticed this page is about writing not tantric sex. Sorry!" And about 90% of the people with perfectly wonderful submissions missed some part or another of the directions. And every one of them would have been tossed and never even responded to in a traditional setting.

It's not that these gatekeepers are just genetically spliced with sphincter meat to breed a purer asshole. They work in an industry where they easily have 500-1000 times more submissions than space to publish. And with a literary periodical it's probably about 10-20 times more (but with a staff of three doing the work). Anything they can do to pare down what they think is worth reading from the stacks of crap, the better. If you can't be bothered to follow their submission guidelines, why should they bother to read your crap?

So if they say query with three sample chapters, you send them three. Not four because it's really important to see the fallout of the Namor weapon on the Gisliski. Not two and an outline. Not the whole book. Three. If they say to send them 30 pages, don't send them 35 because you're sure they're going to want to know how that chapter ends. Don't send them 29 because that's where part four comes to a conclusion and they won't understand what's happening on the next page. Thirty pages. If they say they don't take electronic submissions don't send them one because you figured it would be okay for you. Don't ask if you can be a special exception. Print it out and and mail it. If they say the cover letter should be a page, you send them a page. Don't send them so much as a single damned word that wraps around to page two. Don't give them half a page. One page. If they give you a font size, use it. If they give you a maximum word count, don't send it to them at two words more. If they want it as a PDF don't attach a Google doc. If they give you a timeline before emailing to find out if they got it, respect it. If they want it sent with a self addressed, stamped envelope because they are still living in the 19th century, do it. If they tell you to include a VHS cassette of you doing the Animaniacs country song, while you wear purple and jump up and down on one leg, it's time to go rent an old camcorder from the old electronics store and brush up on your hopsinging.

Of course it doesn't have anything to do with how well you write, and of course every single solitary fucking place has its own particular and persnickety set of submission guidelines (and, frankly, some of this very bullshit is why a lot of people have given the finger to traditional publishing), but if you're going that route, get it right. It's like dressing up for an interview: it signals your professionalism and telegraphs that you care enough to be worthy of the next step.

If you're serious about submitting you have to do this. No one will make a special exception for you. They will just throw your shit away. Go through the guidelines meticulously line by line and make sure that every single thing is exactly to their specifications. Otherwise you might as well just throw it in the trash on your end and call it a day.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

The Day Before the Day Before All Better (Personal Update)

Still sick.

Today is the day BEFORE the day you frustratingly stay in bed because you don't want to jinx it (even though you're pretty sure you're good to go).

Today is the day I ran one fifteen minute errand and felt wiped out and needed a two-hour nap.

Today is the day a couple of the symptoms have quit the field and my fever has been mercifully gone (without antipyretics) since yesterday morning, but a couple more battle on for the glory of The Sons of Jacob, and the less I have to explain about why the fallout of the flu and a cough sucks as a combo attack, seriously the better for all of humanity.

Normally Wednesday is a pretty light day, so I'll just give you a quick update.

The good news here is with the fever down, I've been able to start doing some work in bed and reading again without getting bad headaches. I've been poking at my W.I.P. between naps and also getting through the guest blogger posts (remember there were like a hundred of them).  So if you put in a guest blog and haven't heard back, you probably will in the next day or two.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

They Are Coming

[Just a little something so y'all don't forget about me. I'm a bit better but still pretty jacked. My fever has broken, but there are plenty of symptoms hanging around for the after party and keeping me in bed. 

You can find these sorts of not-quite-their-own-post musings all the time over at my Facebook page (though I warn you, you would also have to put up with my wild  and outspoken social justice side as well). 99% of my posts are public if you just want to follow, but be sure and drop me a short note if you want to be friends so I know you're not a pr0nspam bot or spoiling for a fight.] 

Day 6:

What looked like a verdant utopia for my brethren has become a nightmarish hellscape. I landed in this biome filled with abundance, and few predators, and went forth and multiplied. I watched my descendants spread and grow content. All seemed perfect...almost idyllic.

But something here, something in the landscape itself grew....aware of us. It noticed our presence and did not like what it saw. The temperature rose three degrees overnight, and all the entrances have become death traps that force us into the cold outside, be it by sudden overwhelming gusts of air or sliding, sticky quagmire inexorably pulling them into the frozen outlands. Their screams echo in my ears as they beg me to save them.

And the predators. God the predators. At first just a few barely taking note of us, but as the temperature rose they grew ever more violent. Feasting on my kin's flesh, driving us back. Relentless. Now, not only are they more numerous, but they're getting better. Better at killing us.

The food is exhausted. Now we are the food. I have brought my people only death. I hear the drums in the deep.

A shadow moves in the dark. They are coming.

Monday, March 20, 2017

On the mend

Better. But still need more bedrest.
I'm on the mend but I'm still pretty sick. This was no trivial thing (high fever flu).

I'm hoping to be up for some jazz hands as early as tomorrow, but it might be Wednesday. By the end of the week I hope to be pounding out some substance.

I've been able to write today. Not blogging--my head is still just a little too foggy for that, but more than just a FB post here or there, so I'm going to poke at my WIP and do a little bit of writing from my bed between naps.