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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?

Friday, September 13, 2013

The Mailbox: Fits and Starts

This kind of feels like writer's block, but not exactly.  Also where do I publish?

[Remember, keep sending in your questions to chris.brecheen@gmail.com with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox" and I will answer each Friday.  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.  Also, smaller than an opus would be good.]  

A caveat to today's question, and a warning for future questions: you probably want to keep your questions on the short side.  The internet is a fickle place and I already write entries that are WAY too long for the average surfer's attention span.  I now get more questions than I can handle, so it's probably time to start picking and choosing.  One factor that may influence that decision is the length of a question.

Or I may, as I did in Cassandra's case below, make some cuts if your question gets a bit rambly.  In the past I have even summarized questions that were way too long.  So if you're hoping to see your words in print, best to stay brief.

Cassandra Writes

I am writing a novel.  I know what happens in the story.  I know about the characters.  I see how the story is supposed to progress.  I have dialogue scenes written out.  I have, for the last few months, sat in front of my computer and wrote something in order to stay in the habit of writing.  I have read voraciously (as if you could stop me) in my chosen field (fantasy-esque).  I have tried skipping ahead to parts of the story that I have staged, so that it least I'm making progress on the story. So why is my story coming in such fits and starts?

I have used writing exercise sheets from online.  I've tried taking a break about once a week to write other things.  I have tried ignoring everything in my life until I have had a set number of words per day and still very little useable writing.  I have been at this for about 3 months, and yet I have come up with a to-date count of only 36.5 pages.

This isn't writer's block.  To me, this feels more like I have a huge reservoir of water called "story" but instead of rushing out fire-hose like, it's the angry little stream of water you get with a blocked sink in crappy apartments that frustrate you every time you try to brush your teeth because it ends up on the floor instead of your tooth-brush.  I know on your blog that you suggest that classes aren't better than just writing a lot, but is this a situation where they would give me needed direction? Is it a problem with my story- have I decided to try something too complicated for my first story?  Is the story just too terrible for words? This story has been irritating me for a while now, and I'd really like to get it out of my head, but it might be possible that I should try meditation or liquor instead.

Question 2: where would be a good place to try and submit my short stories?  The anthologies that I read short stories from seem to be mostly for already established writers, and I'm not familiar with magazines or anthologies that consider neophyte work.  I don't even know enough about where to get started to even google for the information on where to get started.  

My reply:

So you've really given me quite a bit to reply to.  I have a few theories and a few suggestions.  Let me try to take things a piece at a time.

I am writing a novel.  I know what happens in the story.  I know about the characters.  I see how the story is supposed to progress.  I have dialogue scenes written out.  I have, for the last few months, sat in front of my computer and wrote something in order to stay in the habit of writing.  I have read voraciously (as if you could stop me) in my chosen field (fantasy-esque).  I have tried skipping ahead to parts of the story that I have staged, so that it least I'm making progress on the story. So why is my story coming in such fits and starts?
My first question about your writing coming in fits and starts would be to wonder if this is your first real attempt at writing.  I'm not trying to be an anal sphincter when I ask that question, and I don't mean that you haven't been writing for years or even generated a few stories in the past, but that this is your first genuine crack at sitting down every day to write something for months at a time.  If this is the case, the most comforting thing that I can tell you is that the "fits and starts" thing is never really going to go away.  (Isn't that just so fucking comforting?)  That is just how the creative process works.  But, if you keep sitting down every day (at roughly the same time) you will find that the ups and downs become more like gently rolling hills instead of the latest Six Flags thrill ride and that even when you aren't gushing with inspiration, you can at least get some work done. So if this is all still very new to you, Cassandra, I would suggest you just keep sitting down and forcing yourself to write something and have faith that it will get better.  Trust your Uncle Chris on this one. It might help you to switch to (and stick with) a word count goal.  Even if you just write about how your characters ate cheese and crackers, played Connect Four, and made sexual innuendos about the Teletubbies. Write it just to write something even if you KNOW that you're going to cut it later.

Second....knowing nothing else but what is in this letter, my suspicion is that you might be trying too hard.  Your admittedly "run on" sentences (most of which I've edited out of your question above, but which I assure you were in several cases quite....spectacular), and your sense of urgency in trying to write "usable writing" faster point me towards the idea that you might have a sense that if you're not writing something very clever onto the page, you might be holding yourself back.  If this is the case, just relax.  Let yourself write things that aren't perfect--in fact that are absolute crap.  It's just a draft.  If you end up with a main character who spends forty pages in a curio shop in Cambria high as a kite on pot and just looking at his hand (I mean really looking at it), that's okay.  You can always revise it out later.  You have to trust in the full writing process, which includes revision and the ability to make mistakes during the rough draft.

Last, I want to ask about your mention that you skipped ahead to parts you have staged.  You may be experiencing a block because you're trying to shoehorn your characters towards these prefixed moments.  That's actually some "black belt" caliber writing skill to be able to do that without a lot of difficulty and awkwardness.  The difficulty you experience may be from not knowing how you mean to get your characters INTO the position to have those scenes--especially if this feels railroading to your characters and they're working against you.  Most writers either outline their plots pretty extensively or they let their characters drive the plot, but very few do a combination of both where they have some scenes fully developed and a nebulous idea otherwise.

The problem with that is exactly what you're experiencing--GETTING them between the scripted scenes feels clunky and is tough to write.   Writers can do it, but it's often a little too tricky.  A gushy writer might just spend 600 pages of crap in the transition (a problem in its own right), but a trepidatious writer (like I think you might be) would be more inclined to find themselves unsure of how to proceed.

I suggest you not try to write with scatter shot scenes.  Either take your work and extensively outline your plot so that your staged moments fit in neatly with the rest of the arc -OR- go completely the other way, set your staged scene to the side, simply let your characters do what they want to do, even if they run off and have spumoni sandwiches and unprotected group sex.  If you get to a point where you can work your staged scene in, great.  If not, maybe it was not meant to be and you were trying too hard to get there.

I have used writing exercise sheets from online.  I've tried taking a break about once a week to write other things.  I have tried ignoring everything in my life until I have had a set number of words per day and still very little useable writing.  I have been at this for about 3 months, and yet I have come up with a to-date count of only 36.5 pages.
My one cautionary word with what you've said here is that it sounds like you're fracturing your creative energy considerably with breaks and writing exercises.  This can really stymie many writers.  Try focusing just on one project at a time and work on it until you have a draft finished.  A work like a novel should just about consume your soul in an entirely unhealthy way.  If you're not ready to write this novel, wait.  If you are, bury yourself in it.

Mostly though, this kind of reinforces some of the things I said above.  Relax a little.  Have fun with it. Let your characters take the wheel and tell you what they want to do.  Don't be afraid to write something that isn't perfect or that you know you won't keep.  It's okay to have writing that isn't usable.  None of that effort is truly wasted.

Three months is an interesting marker though.  This is the point where, in a whole lot of activities, people start to wonder why they aren't getting better fast enough.  Whether it's a sport, a skill, a hobby, music, or even visual arts, three months is often when the frustration sets in that it isn't as easy as they thought it would be.  This is the moment when we first start to realize how much work it is going to take us to be good at something.  So while it might not be much comfort, it seems like you're right on track for these sorts of questions.  I hope that your soul searching goes well.

Month three: still not the lead guitarist in a death metal band.  Not sure what the problem is.
This isn't writer's block.  To me, this feels more like I have a huge reservoir of water called "story" but instead of rushing out fire-hose like, it's the angry little stream of water you get with a blocked sink in crappy apartments that frustrate you every time you try to brush your teeth because it ends up on the floor instead of your tooth-brush.  I know on your blog that you suggest that classes aren't better than just writing a lot, but is this a situation where they would give me needed direction? Is it a problem with my story- have I decided to try something too complicated for my first story?  Is the story just too terrible for words? This story has been irritating me for a while now, and I'd really like to get it out of my head, but it might be possible that I should try meditation or liquor instead.
Not knowing your story, I can't tell you if it's too ambitious, but I sincerely doubt it is too terrible for words.  The question I can't answer for you is this, though: "Now that you're starting to realize how much work it's going to be, is it still something you want to do?"

What it sounds to me like your experiencing is an extremely common reaction to the difference between a conceptual story in your head and one you can linguistically articulate onto paper.  This is why most people think writing a book is going to be absolutely no trouble at all until they actually try to do it, and if they do slam a draft out, they can't quite understand why no one thinks it is totes fucking brilliant.  ("But it's a farmer....who fights a dark lord....in space!")  This one of the reasons I asked you if you were a bit newer to the whole writing thing.  Starting writers tend to fall into two categories: those who gush words like inky diarrhea and don't quite get that they need to revise and refine those words and those who sit paralyzed in front of blank paper because they're worried that what they're thinking isn't good enough to write.  (You seem to be more the latter.)  The skill to get thoughts onto the page comes with time and practice, and if you've really only been at it for three months.  It takes TIME not only to develop the linguistic skills to just instantly put an idea into fully formed language, but also to have faith that a crappy first draft will be better on revision, so just getting something on the page really is okay.  Just keep working on it, and you will probably find your dribble begins to turn into a predictable flow.

To be fair to the idea of classes, classes are great when the problems a writer is having are with craft or with quality, or if they are looking to cultivate the quality of writing that programs instill.  They are useful to a writer who has never experienced peer review or really done some close reading to determine what makes good writing good.  They have their place.  It's just most people who sign up for them do so for different reasons.  (Usually because they need help sitting down and actually working.)  Classes can be okay if you need help being told to get to work, but I say this with a caveat.  An assignment deadline is an external motivation and I've seen a lot of good writing occur because of one, but they only exist for as long as they exist.  My main point with this aspect of classes is that eventually a writer has to learn to motivate themselves.  A lot of writers go to school so that they will have the discipline and structure to write, and then find when they're done with their degree, they're back in the same boat they were before they spent a bunch of money getting a degree.  So I think if that is your particular impetus, you could save yourself some money by learning to ride yourself.
Question 2: where would be a good place to try and submit my short stories?  The anthologies that I read short stories from seem to be mostly for already established writers, and I'm not familiar with magazines or anthologies that consider neophyte work.  I don't even know enough about where to get started to even google for the information on where to get started.  
There are more places than I could ever list for submitting work--even as a new author--but I'll give you some quick rules of thumb.

One: Decide early whether you're willing to submit to online publications and how much.  Some writers start with e-media (like zines) and move to print as soon as they have a good cover letter.  Some (like me) think that print is just going to get harder and harder and so try to make a move using strictly e-publishing.  None of these paths is less real, but the way the industry is shaping up, print media is becoming much, MUCH harder for unknowns.  It is also faster and easier to monetize your writing through e-publishing.  However print media is still considered much more prestigious and "serious."

Two: Google.  Your search should be pretty easy.  "Where is a good place to submit [genre] stories." You'll get lots of hits--much of it crap.  Plan to spend a couple hours coming up with a list of half a dozen places that seem like good places to submit.  Zines and e-markets will be easier to find, so you might need to give it a good afternoon if you're dedicated to print media.  I don't recommend buying the latest Writer's Market.  Their information is often obsolete before the book is even published, and you can get a far better feel for the flavor of a publication online.

Three: Follow the publication.  Don't just submit your story blind.  It's considered incredibly tacky, and you aren't likely to know if you're a good fit.  Read some past issues and get an idea if you're what they're looking for. With print media this means you subscribe for a while or find a way to read some recent back issues.

Four: If you're trying to break into print media, follow ALL the rules and play nice.  This is a small, incestuous little industry, people talk like you wouldn't believe, and it's shrinking every day.  This is not the place to get a bad reputation.  If you burn a bridge, it may come back to haunt you, and the last thing you want is an editor who won't even read your story because their friend over at another magazine said you ignored the rules about simultaneous submissions (or something). Follow their guidelines to the letter.  You can be a LITTLE more fast and loose if you're mostly in e-publications, but you still want to keep in mind that your personal reputation will spread much faster than that of your writing if you're a turd.

Once you've been in the industry a while, you'll learn which rules are more flexible with which presses, but best to mind your manners until then.

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