Querying Literary Agents, or How I Slowly Lost My Mind and My Confidence In My Ability to Tell a Story

This has been a pretty quiet blog for several months. Truth be told, I have had a number of things to focus on, not least of which was finishing up a new book and getting the queries ready. If you’re an author, published or not, you can attest to how grinding the process of querying can be.

If you’re not an author, then I’ll try to give you some understanding of what it’s like.

The book I’m currently querying for is called “Skin Trade”. It’s a hard-boiled crime novel that I started about four and a half years ago. By way of some background, I had been reading a lot of Robert B Parker, among others, when I decided I wanted to write a book like this. Parker’s Spenser series is a lot of fun, and having lived in Massachusetts for nearly twenty years, I felt like I understood it in a way I never could have before I moved north. And I hadn’t yet come across a crime novel set in Worcester, MA, and I felt like it was time to try and change that. In addition to Parker, I had been reading works like the Travis McGee series by John MacDonald, and the Parker series by Richard Stark (a.k.a. Donald Westlake). This isn’t a comprehensive reading list, mind you, and there are still giants of the genre with whom I have only scratched the surface. But it should give you a sense of the type of book I was interested in writing.

I started with a simple premise, a man whose family is the victim of a mob hit gone wrong, and he seeks revenge. Plain enough, no? Well, like all things, the final product ended up being wildly different from the original concept.

Fast forward about three years. Nine revisions later, I had a book I thought was complete. I liked the book, I thought it was solid, and I started querying. Back then it was titled “Fighting Traffic”, a title I absolutely hated, but I couldn’t come up with anything better. (In the interest of full disclosure, I’m not overly fond of “Skin Trade” either, but it’s the best I’ve come up with to date.) I ran through AgentQuery and compiled a list of agents for crime/mystery in a spreadsheet (of course I did) and started sending them out. I queried forty agent and got thirty-nine rejections. I had one request for the full manuscript, which I got back six months later as a rejection, but with some very helpful notes and an invitation to resubmit upon revision.

Sadly, that revision took me a year and a half. In that time, I worked with two editors, one great, one not. The first one was an author who does side work as an editor. She had a few helpful suggestions, but her communication style was blunt to the point of rude and when I had additional questions, they went unanswered. (Since we hadn’t fully discussed payment, she was never paid for her effort, but it was never a complete effort, so my feeling is that payment was never warranted.) The second editor was amazing (and happens to be the wife of an old friend of mine) and showed me what can happen to a work in progress when the right editor comes along.

There was, however, one interesting tidbit I took away from the first editor. I told her I had forty submissions and thirty-nine rejects. Her response was “If you’ve submitted forty times and gotten thirty-nine rejections, there’s something wrong with your book, your query, or both.”

Fast forward to now. I’ve retitled my book “Skin Trade” and it’s gone through the hands of a professional editor, who also helped with my query. I’m addition, I worked up three different versions of my query and sent them to a number of friends for a bit. The one that grabbed them the most was nearly a unanimous decision. I’ve also moved on from spreadsheets to using QueryTracker, which is a fantastic way of tracking your progress. Yes, it costs money as a subscription service, but it’s been totally worth it.

So how am I doing?

I’ve sent 110 queries, and have received (so far) sixty rejections or “no response”.

So, in a word, lousy.

What does all this mean? I’m not sure. When you’re a writer (or a bookseller) you hear countless stories about the number of rejections famous authors got. You hear that you need to be stubborn, to be patient, and to keep writing. You hear that it just takes your book to resonate with one agent–the right agent–to get an offer of representation.

But the process is an awful one for a writer’s state of mind. You send out five or ten queries a week and just want a response. You figure, how hard is it to read through a three or four paragraph query and give it a yes or no. It should be easy, right? But it’s not that easy, and you have to wait four to eight weeks, sometimes even twelve weeks, before you can go through your list and cross off yet another name that never responded. And with each crossed line, you ask yourself again and again, “Why am I even bothering?” You begin to think about alternatives, which these days really starts and ends with self-publishing on Kindle and Smashwords. You think that you’re own writing is not good enough, or perhaps is t good enough isn’t a strong enough statement. Perhaps your writing downright sucks. Even when you’ve put forth the best effort you possibly can, even with the help of a professional editor who made it even better than you thought it could be, you start to feel that nothing you try will ever be good enough for someone to pick up. As one blogger I read once put it, you eat your head.

That’s where I am right now. No, this is not a plea for pity, all writers who submit end up here. I’m just commenting on state of mind. For now I’m stuck in limbo, waiting. I still have nearly fifty queries outstanding, and the right agent may still come along and say “I’ve been waiting for this book for my whole career.” In the meantime, I continue to try and write, picking away at things that I can’t quite get my head or heart around. But that’s what you do if you want to be a writer. You keep writing.

Keep writing.

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Harry Potter at 20

Quite a lot can happen in twenty years. When I think back on my own life in the last two decades, I marvel how much it’s changed. In the last twenty years, the following has happened: I got married, moved to a different state, bought a condo, had two kids, sold the condo and bought a house, changed companies six times, gone through half dozen cars, lost two cats, gained one dog, written several first drafts of novels, self-published one, and read an untold number of books. 

Seven of those books were the Harry Potter books. 

The last twenty years were not quiet for J. K. Rowling, Jo to her friends, celebrated author of the Harry Potter books. From that fertile mind sprung seven books of the Harry Potter story, which in turn spawned eight feature films, at least three side books such as Tales of Beedle the Bard, one of which has now spawned a new feature film, which is the first of a planned five, plus a two-part play that is essentially the eight Harry Potter book, not to mention a copious amount of ancillary writing that appears on the official Harry Potter website, Pottermore. Hundreds of characters, dozens of locations, scores of magical spells, potions, charms, and encantations, all in the course of twenty years. 

And then there’s that little thing about Rowling getting married and raising a family. 

I was in books when Harry Potter emerged on the scene. At the time of the first book release in the US, there was little to no fanfare. It was just a book. I worked for Borders Books & Music back then, and our initial stock of the Sorcerer’s Stone was a whooping three units. But despite the fact that there wasn’t the worldwide media buzz that all things Harry Potter generates today, you could still tell that there was something special happening. Those three units were always sold out. Without fail, when someone would request it, a quick search for the book in our database would show that, yes, once again, the book was out of stock. It came up in morning team meetings, and then in emails from the corporate headquarters. Something was happening. 

It wasn’t long before the publishing phenomenon that became the full Harry Potter franchise was in full bloom. Bookstores were hosting wizarding parties, and opening at midnight for the release of each new book. By the time the releases hit the mega frenzy they would become, I was out of the book industry, and working my way through corporate America. But I went back to the bookstore for those release parties. Not to buy the book, mind you, though of course I did. No, my interest was drawn far more by the crowd and the excitement and anticipation and overwhelming exhilaration a buyer displayed when they got the book in their hot little hands. There was the sense that you were witnessing something special that would not be matched again for a very, very long time, if ever. 

It’s hard to overstate the impact Harry Potter, and J. K. Rowling had on the publishing world. Certainly, there had been huge publishing successes, and books that sold out in record numbers despite anyone’s expectations. Books like The Bridges of Madison County and Angela’s Ashes stayed on bestseller lists for years. But Harry Potter was different somehow. The way I saw it was in the children. Kids, who otherwise might not be interested in reading, were picking up Harry Potter books willingly. It was not uncommon to see a child with a Harry Potter book plunked down in the middle of the Children’s Section, plowing through page after page, while their parents continued to shop. These same children would be a quarter of the way through the book before it had even made it to the cash register. Harry Potter, perhaps more than any set of books before it, got children reading. Willingly. 

And why not? Who doesn’t want to feel special the way Harry did? Who doesn’t want to think, when they are young, that the hospital made some kind of awful mistake, and that the people who are raising us that we call “mom” and “dad” are not really our parents, but that we are the scions of extraordinary people, and that we are called on to do extraordinary things? Literature is full of these stories. From Little Orphan Annie to Frodo Baggins, from Ender to Sparrowhawk of Earthsea, across the spectrum, literature of all kinds is filled with instances of outcasts reaching for something higher. 

And, of course, with success come critics. They come in all forms and flavors, from those with legitimate gripes to those who are simply after a money-grab. There was the person who sued Rowling for supposedly stealing the idea of “muggle” for use in Harry Potter. There was Ursula K. Le Guin, who didn’t decry Harry Potter but didn’t think it was all that original, wishing Rowling had done more to acknowledge those who came before. It was a fair gripe, considering her own fantasy series had an orphan wizard learning how to live in his world predated Harry Potter by decades. But while there’s certainly merit to the idea that Harry had progenitors, but it cannot be said that Harry Potter was derivative. There is simply too much packed into the million plus amount of words to describe it as derivative. Some critics had nothing better to do than to bash it for being simply commercial escapism and not aspiring to something higher. Those critics are full of stuffing. They spend countless hours and wasted breaths decrying the wasted opportunities of the written word, yet are incapable of contributing anything worthwhile to the very body of literature they deem themselves experts in. They can, proverbially, pound sand. And what would a book about witches and wizards be without concerned parent groups having those books banned, ostensibly because of concerns their children would become wiccans or satanists?

I was not without criticisms of Harry Potter as I read it. From some unimaginative descriptions in the early works (the “deluminator” was, in the first book, described awkwardly as a “light put-outer”), to the speed of some of the action scenes that I had to read again because they went too fast for me to take it all in (of course, that could be, I sheepishly admit, my issue), to the editorial largess that crept into the fourth book and continued to until the end, to the unpleasant read that was The Order of the Phoenix, I certainly had my own issues with aspects of the narratives. In the case of The Order of the Phoenix, watching Harry go through that awkward, hormone-driven, mopey, unpleasant teenage period was simply not fun. I realize all teens go through it, and if you’re charting a story arc that starts when the boy is eleven and continues until he is eighteen, you are required to deal with it. But I didn’t really care to read it. 

However, these things are minor annoyances in a grand, monumental achievement. When taken as whole, the world, story, characters, and villains are some of the most memorable in all of literature. I still maintain that Dolores Umbridge is most insidious villain in the last fifty years of literature. She is the Nurse Ratchet of the wizard of world and she’s absolutely horrifying. It is no mean feat to create such memorable moments such as the kind found in nearly every chapter in every single volume. 

Twenty years goes by fast and slow. For Jo Rowling, the time spent crafting the Harry Potter works must have been both a great toil and positively a blur. I can state from experience that waiting for each one to be released was a toil, and reading was a blur. But, looking back, I can say that I witnessed something incredible, something, yes indeed, magical. For many writers, Rowling is the embodiment of the “unicorn”. A struggling, single mother, writing in cafes in Edinburgh to keep warm, strikes it big with a sweeping epic magical fantasy that turns her into the most beloved children’s author since Mother Goose. The real life story is a magical epic in and of itself, one in which any author, especially those still struggling, would use the Cruciatus Curse to be in. But while we can’t all share in that kind of success, we can say we were witness to something that we may never see again in the publishing world. And that’s okay. Because, while the anxious eagerness of the wait for each new book may never come again, the joy of discovering the magic for the first time will never leave. And few things were more enjoyable than watching my own eleven year old devour the books, one right after another, with the same hungry anticipation that we all had we began the journey Jo Rowling set forth for us twenty years ago. 

NaNoWriMo: The Kids’ Edition

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I feel very fortunate because this year, my younger daughter Maggie is doing NaNoWriMo with me. There is an entire young writer’s program for NaNoWriMo that kids can sign up for. Maggie is going to do it, and so are most of the kids in her class. And that’s my fault.

During the annual open house/back to school night that school holds for the parents of students, I got to talking with Maggie’s teacher, Patty, about people who come in and volunteer and get the kids interested in something that pertains to the lesson plan. At some point in the conversation, NaNoWriMo came up. One of the Patty’s former students participated in NaNoWriMo last year. She mentioned how she would love to get some of her kids to do that again.

I didn’t say anything at the time because I felt like I wanted to think that through. Patty had no idea I had written and self publish book (insert shameless marketing plug here) or that I had done NaNoWriMo last year. I sat on it for a bit, wondering if I wanted to mention this and offer to help lead the class in a NaNoWriMo charge. I’m not a teacher and have no training in classroom management skills. I didn’t know if I’d be a good fit to come in.

In a phone conversation I was having with Patty one night about something else, I decided to mention it, and offered to come into the class and talk about what the NaNoWriMo challenge is, and see if there are any kids who were interested. Her response was unbelievably enthusiastic, and so, last week I found myself in Maggie’s classroom talking to her classmates all about NaNoWriMo, writing, and storytelling.

I have to tell you, it was a metric ton of fun. The class is great, excited about the project, and from what Patty tells me, chockablock full of writers.

I talked about what NaNoWriMo is, and what a novel is. I talked about the kinds of ways you could write a novel, from typing right into a computer to writing it all long hand. I had one person ask if the novel could be dictated to someone, or into a into a software program. Hey, if it was good enough for Paradise Lost, it’s good enough for NaNoWriMo. I talked about the process writers use to write: some write in the morning, some in the evening, some in their bedroom, some at the dining room table, some even in the kitchen. We talked about the kinds of books the kids are currently reading, and what their favorite novels are. We talked about the Inner Editor, which I dubbed the “Evil Inner Editor”, who constantly whispers in your ear telling you to stop, or slow down, or do things differently. One of the exercises from the Young Writers Program is to draw the Inner Editor on a worksheet. Once drawn, the kids are encouraged to hide him/her away so they can’t work their evil spells. We did that in the classroom and some of the kids’ Inner Editors turned out really well.

As I said, it was a ton of fun.

Patty had already come up with the word count she is hoping the kids will hit. She’s shooting for them to complete 250 words per day, which is about one page per day. That means that the kids will end up writing a 7,500 “novel” by the time it’s finished.

I’m headed back into the classroom in the middle of November to check in with the kids and see how they’re doing. I’ll be giving them tips, most of which will be plucked from the wisdom of the NaNoWriMo community. We’ll talk about the challenges they’re having and see if we can’t find ways to working around them. Most importantly, I’ll be giving them the encouragement to keep on truckin’, and to keep ignoring the “Evil Inner Editor”!

After that, I’ll head back into the classroom sometime in December to find out how they did. There is a program NaNoWriMo has this year with FastPencil, which will help kids publish their finished work. Hopefully, at the end of the month, and maybe by the end of December, there’ll be enough kids that finish and publish that Patty will have a whole new library.

After the class was over, tweets were tweeted:

 

NaNoWriMo: 2015 Edition

Shield-Nano-Side-Blue-Brown-RGB-HiResIt’s November 1st. That means it’s time to kick off NaNoWriMo. And once again, I’m participating. And new this year, so is my nine year old, Maggie!

Throughout the month I’ll post various updates on the progress for both of us. Tomorrow I’ll explain how I got Maggie, and her whole 4th grade class, involved.

But for now, it’s time to write. NaNoWriMo has begun.

Aaaannnnnddddd GO!

The Problem with “Game of Thrones”

 There’s a joke I read online somewhere that starts this post beautifully: “GRR Martin, JJ Abrams, and Joss Whedon walk into a bar, and everyone you’ve ever loved dies.” Yeah, that sounds about right.

The Emmys were on a few weeks ago. “Game of Thrones” won big with a capital B. And I couldn’t help but think “why?” When I finished the past season, I sat back and wondered whether I would watch it anymore. The end of every season always finds the internet all atwitter with the various “shocking” deaths of certain characters. Why anybody is shocked by a character death, or at least maiming, in this show by now is beyond me. George RR Martin makes a regular habit of killing of whatever character strikes his fancy.  So I knew what was coming when I finally watched the finale of season five.

Was I shocked by the deaths? Not really. I’ve come to expect it. I’ve come to expect that any character that I might grow fond of is probably going to get the ax (figuratively and literally). And that illustrates the fundamental problem with “Game of Thrones” the show and “A Song of Fire and Ice” the book series.

Before we go on, let’s be up front, shall we? There WILL be spoilers below. Oh yes, there will be spoilers.

You’ve been warned.

Let’s get the problem on the table right now. GRR Martin has left us with nearly no character with which to emphasize. Every time we begin to get close to a character, that character meets and untimely and often ugly end. Let’s recap everybody who got killed off in the last episode of season five, shall we?

  • Selyse Baratheon, who hangs herself with guilt of what she let her husband Stannis do to their daughter
  • Stannis Baratheon, defeated in battle by Lord Bolton, and, after fleeing to the nearby wood, is discovered by Brienne of Tarth, who avenges her former sworn lord, Stannis’s brother Renly, whom Stannis killed
  • Myrcella, Lannister or Baratheon, depending on your allegiance, the young daughter of Queen Cersei who was sent to Dorn to be betrothed to a Dornish prince, but who is murdered by poison by the vengeful consort of another Dornish prince, who himself was killed by a man of the Lannisters
  • Jon Snow, Commander of the Night Watch (and fan favorite and apparently the biggest shock of the night, though I don’t know why since he meets this fate at the end of the fifth book)

That’s four major characters in a single episode. So major that two of these deaths, Stannis and Selyes, effectively close off an entire subplot, with Stannis’s effort to claim the throne for himself ending in utter bloody defeat.

I don’t mention Arya Stark, youngest surviving daughter of Ned Stark, (Ned, who you might remember was beheaded by Joffery in an act of malicious cruelty that Joffery reveled in). In the finale, she kills a man out of vengeance for that man’s killing of her first sword master. She’s been training to become a Faceless Man, which is akin to a ninja, a stealthy assassin that does his work then disappears. Except she didn’t have permission to kill the man she killed, so her punishment is…blindness.

This doesn’t begin to cover the other deaths that happened this season, the most brutal of which was the death of Shireen, Stannis’s daughter. Stannis, in a moment of blind faith to the new god he worships, sacrifices his only daughter by burning her at the stake, believing the sacrifice of king’s blood will bring him victory. Did I mention that Shireen is (was) eleven, maybe twelve?

Are you catching all of this?

It’s insane. And this is just the show. The books have a far greater number of characters. It’s a cast of well over a thousand characters. It’s a huge amazing epic that I’m not sure has ever been attempted in modern fantasy novel/series history.

And I won’t bother to read it.

And by the way, I might be done with the show as well.

Why? Because as I watched the season five finale, it dawned on my why I’ve felt less and less interested in investing time into this brilliantly complex story. It’s all about empathy.

Let’s baseline a little bit before we go on. What is the primary purpose of a character driven story? To make you empathize with the protagonist so that you care what happens to him/her. Think Harry Potter. There was another large series, lots of characters, several deaths (though rather bloodless compared to “Game of Thrones”). Kids, and adults, gobbled these books up. They would pick them up at midnight on release night and swallow them whole, unhinging their jaws like starving python. Why? Empathy.

The simple fact is that Martin, in his sprawling epic, has repeatedly given us characters for which he elicits from us empathy. He lets us get close to these characters, let’s us see their struggles, gives us a brief amount of hope that they will persevere…then he kills them. Sometimes gruesomely.

(Oh, who are we kidding? Most times its gruesome.)

I understand that Martin is basing a fantasy series of a real-world morals. The War of the Roses was the initial basis for the first war we see in GoT. Yorks versus Lancasters in England became a template for Starks versus Lannisters in GoT. It’s not that hard a stretch. In England, the Lancasters won, and so in Westros the Lannisters won. So I get it. High fantasy without the clear cut definition of black and white, good and evil. This is not the Lord of the Rings.

And yet, without some character around with whom the audience can rally and put their hopes for a win for the good guys, what are we left with? We’re left with twists and turns and plot yanks that no one sees coming, to the often fatal demise of its characters. We’re left with maybe two characters for whom we can empathize, Daenerys and Tyrion. For now. There’s no guarantee that they’ll survive the series. In whom should we out our feelings? Who will be left at the end of this sprawling epic, and will we even care? As all others perish, so too does our patience and interest. Why should we continue to invest in a show that promises us nothing but pain and misery? So we can talk about it over the watercooler the next day?

No, thank you. I think I’m watercoolered out.

NaNoWriMo – The Lessons Learned

Winner-2014-Twitter-Profile
Let’s start off with this brief summary of my participation in this year’s NaNoWriMo:

I WON!

Yes, that’s right, I won the NaNoWriMo contest this year, where anyone who hits the 50,000 word mark in a brand-new-never-having-written-a-word-of-your-NaNoWriMo-novel inside of thirty days wins. What do we win? The ability to say we won. That’s it. No cash, no prizes, though there are some nifty T-shirts you can buy. So, in short, you win bragging rights.

Which is saying a lot for a free contest where there are thousands of winners.

That out of the way, I want to reflect on the lessons I learned from cranking out 50k words in a month’s time.

1) You are not alone. There are lots of people out there willing to lend encouragement and good thoughts and happy vibes and whatever else they feel like throwing your way for support. There are communities out there supporting writers, there are meet ups where you can all sit down together and write and lend an actual hand for someone to hold if they need it. There are professional writers who have lent their voices in encouragement, and there is no end to the number of people tweeting about NaNoWriMo on a daily basis.

2) You are absolutely alone. No one can write this thing for you. It’s you by yourself, mano-e-mano, man versus machine versus calendar. It’s a gnarly threeway brawl that you and you alone must fight. Nobody else can jump in. This isn’t the WWE. You can’t tag somebody else in if you feel like you’re fading. You are the only one who can write your book. Otherwise you fail the contest.

3) You are not alone. Think your special? Just because you did it? Just because you hit your daily word count? Get in line. There are thousands and thousands of people who jumped into NaNoWriMo and have hit their daily word counts. Thousands have hit their word counts sooner, faster, higher than you have. Take that in, realize this, take a big deep breath…then let it go. You can’t get caught up in how far ahead or behind you are in reference to anybody else. To do that invites disaster. If you start doing some sort of comparison project with your fellow writers, you’ll get into a mine-is-bigger-than-yours mentality that is at best a complete waste of time, and at worst mojo-wrecking. If you’ve got your mojo working, who cares if your mojo is better than somebody else’s? Who you trying to impress with that shit?

4) Write as much as you can as early as you can. Cause you never know when your gonna get an injury that requires you to be carted off the field. My goal was to finish my word count by Thanksgiving (which I did, by the way). I wanted to get it done so that I could enjoy my holiday, maybe spend the day picking at some words but not feel forced to hit a daily number. Besides, the food coma was gonna be epic this year, man, epic.

You know what I enjoyed most on Thanksgiving? Pedialyte. Thursday morning I got a case of the stomach flu and that was all she (or in my case, he) wrote. For two days my colon sounds like the French countryside in 1944. By Saturday I was finally starting to feel better, but it was slow going. I didn’t have a lot of energy since I hadn’t had a decent calorie in two days. By Sunday I felt well enough to open up the laptop, type in one paragraph, and that was it.

5) When the month ends, the motivation does too. It’s good to feel the pressure of the deadline. It makes you work for it, forces you to make time for writing. Even if you’re just picking up the story, writing 200 words for the fifteen minutes you have leftover from your lunch break, and closing it again. The deadline manhandles you into writing during any snippets of free time you have.

When the deadline has passed, the pressure goes with it. Now you’re not up against a wall, trying to squeeze words in, desperate to hit a daily word count. Now you start to think “Well, I couldn’t quite get to it today, I’ll just pick it back up tomorrow.” WRONG! You will not! Stop kidding yourself. If your motivation for writing starts to flag, then so does the writing, then it’s six months after the end of NaNoWriMo and you’re sitting on 55k words instead of 50k. Stop that shit! Open up your laptop and lay down some magic!

6) The choice of word processors makes all the difference. If you’re using a word processor or a typewriter or a pen and paper, that’s your business. I’m not going to tell you you need to use this one over that one. What I am going to tell you is that, no matter what you use, you’ve got to have it handy at a moment’s notice. You never know when you’ll get five minutes to hammer out two really great sentences. With a pen and paper, that’s a lot easier than just about any other writing medium. You can carry them with you anywhere and be ready to write in five seconds flat. With a typewriter, that kind of thing is a lot harder. You can’t really lug a typewrite around with you everywhere you go. I mean, you CAN, but you’ll get a lot of looks that suggest it might be time for the men in the white coats.

My choice of word processor was Google drive. Again, this goes back to the available-at-a-moment’s-notice requirement. Google drive is all cloud based, so your fictional manifesto is available anywhere you have an internet connection.

Using Google Drive, I created the document and was able to access it from any machine I happened to be using at the time. All I needed to do was to log into my Google account and viola! there it was. I could access it from a laptop, or a desktop, or even my phone. How’s that for ubiquitous? It was like having a pen and paper with me at all times. The best part? I didn’t have to type in all the things I had hand-written earlier. Best of both worlds.

7) Finishing feels like the frickin bomb! Nuf said there.

That’s what I learned this go-round. Maybe I’ll learn more next year. Already got the idea forming. Just have to let it stew, do some homework, and, oh yeah, finish the current one I still haven’t finished.

NaNoWriMo 2014 Update

IMG_4281We’re twelve days into NaNoWriMo 2014. How are you doing? Have you cracked under the pressure? Are the words flowing out of you like silver streams of pure literature destined to alter the landscape of fiction as we know it? Are you plowing through your novel, letting the stream of consciousness spill from your mind in an unhinged screed* not fit for human consumption?

(Hint: The answer to all of these could be “yes”.)

For my own foray into NaNoWriMo, things are going well. I passed the halfway point last night. I’m no longer underwater in my word count. As of this writing, I’m closing in on 27,000 words. Basic math tells me I have about 23,000 words to go. (Basic math, by the way, is sometimes a stretch for me–I was an English lit major, after all–but I think I’m on solid footing here.)

Here’s what I’ve uncovered in the twelve days since I’ve started this journey:

* I’m in LOVE with how much this contest forces me to write. I have a terrible habit of being what Stephen “Uncle Stevie” King call a “lazy writer”. When the writing gets tough, I have a tendency to walk away from it and come back a few months later with no clearer way of tackling the problem. Except that, a few months later, my writing muscles have gone unused and have atrophied and my creative mind has grown fat and lethargic. This contest forces me to confront my writing every day, to flex my penmonkey muscles, and make some actual progress.

* A single sentence CAN turn into a novel. Like, quick. The novel I’m writing writing now is called Lost Things. It was based on a single (and perhaps rather long-winded) “what-if” sentence I wrote on the back of a church bulletin. The sentence looked kinda like this:

What if a man helps ferry dead souls to the afterlife by the use of items that show up on his kitchen counter that were personal and special to the deceased, but one day, using one of these “lost things”, he accidentally frees something evil and is then caught in a battle to defeat it?

Yeah, it’s a run-on, I get it. But it’s turned into something special for me. This one (long) sentence has turned into 27,0000 words in twelve days. This short synopsis helps flesh out that “what-if” sentence:

For forty-two years Bill has been dealing with the Lost Things. They appear in the morning on his kitchen counter. Each time they do, he takes them to a local secluded glade and, using an ancient rite, he frees the Lost Things’ owners, for each Lost Thing represents a deceased member of the Bill’s town. Each soul needs help transcending the void. After so many years, Bill is tired. He can feel his own time is near and knows he’ll need a replacement, which is why he agrees to teach Geoff. Geoff is a young man, married to his cancer-stricken wife Mara. But there’s a darker force at work in Bill’s town. A force that drives them to free the soul of a maniac and unleash a monster. Bill, Geoff, and Mara must overcome their fears and stop this evil before it can unleash Hell on earth.

As I plow through the writing, I find the it’s unspooling in my mind, with each day adding a new facet that I can fold into the main story.

* As this is my first NaNoWriMo, I know that when I go and try doing this again next year, it’s entirely possible that the experience will be the WORST writing experience of my life. I have this thing in my head right now itching to break free. It’s scratching at the inside of my skull with long dirty fingernails, trying to open the cracks. It’s leaking out now, right into my novel, but that’s this year. Next year, I might have the story idea, but it could fight me tooth-and-frickin-nail every day for thirty days.

* Insomuch as there is a community out there to help encourage you to write, what with all the “pep talks” that appear in your NaNoWriMo mailbox, the NaNoWriMo forums, and the NaNoCoach hashtag on Twitter, this journey, this effort, this mountain I’m (and you’re) trying to climb–yeah, well, news flash, you’re climbing it ALONE. No one can help you with it. If it’s climbing a mountain, then all the encouragement is people lining the sides of the mountain trail cheering you on. But none of them can lend a hand or lower a rope or a tree branch or find something useful to…sorry, drifting in a movie quotes for a moment. The point is, YOU are the one writing. YOU are responsible for all 50,000 words. No one else. And while encouragement helps, YOU have to be the one with the intestinal fortitude to soldier on. This is when you learn whether you really can do it.

That’s where I am so far. To date, it’s a really great experience. More than halfway there. If you’re not halfway there, no sweat, you have time. We’re not halfway through the month. You got days to make up some lost words. So let’s keep it going. Time to knuckle under, not lose focus, not stray from the marathon course, and keep going.

I got this.

So do you.

 

* Borrowed this phrase from a friend of mine because I love it.

NaNoWriMo 2014 – Day 2

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I promise not post progress every single day. I think will tend to make people bonkers. But here we are at the end of day two of NaNoWriMo, and I’m just curious: how’s it going?

For myself, I’m just over 6000 words. It’s a nice start, especially since I know that once the work week hits, life returns to its normal state of crazy.

No matter how far you’ve gotten remember that it’s farther than you were. Keep writing!

NaNoWriMo 2014 Commenceth

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NaNoWriMo started today. For those unfamiliar with this term, it stands for National Novel Writing Month. It started 15 years ago in the San Francisco area with 21 people participating. Last year there were over 400,000 people who participated. Not bad for something that started as a tiny idea.

So what is NaNoWriMo? It’s a thirty day month in which you are challenged to write one novel. You might think, hey, banging out a novel in thirty days? No sweat. I can read one in five. How hard can it be to write one? Well, marathon man, you can drive 26.2 miles easy-peasy, but can you run it? Okay then.

Basically, you have one month, the month of November, to write a novel. What constitutes a novel? For the purposes of NaNoWriMo, 50,000 words is a novel. It doesn’t have to be perfect, it’s a given that it’s a first draft. It doesn’t even have to be complete. You might end up writing an Alan Moore length million word gem. As long as you’ve got 50,000 words logged by midnight on November 30th, you win.

What do you win? The ability to say you came to play and play you did. It’s bragging rights. That’s about it. No cash, no prizes, just the right to say you took up the pen and completed the challenge. That said, there are sponsors who put up prizes, and who knows? You post and validate your 50,000 diamond, maybe you’ll win those. But that’s luck of the draw. The main prize is saying you did it.

Cost to participate? Exactly zero dollars. Best. Price. Ever.

Last year I couldn’t participate. I was in the middle of trying to finish the first draft of a crime novel I’ve been writing. This year, despite being in the middle of revising the second draft of said novel, I had an idea and decided to jump in.

This is my first time participating. I’m determined to finish. Rough calculation means I need to crank out about 1600 words per day. This will take me about an hour to hour and a half each day. That’s the goal. Plus, if I write more on the weekends, I can “bank” some words so I’m not as crushed for word count in the middle of the week.

I’ve already got a start and have a little over 3000 words written. I’ll be posting updates on this blog, but if you’re participating this year, you can follow me on NaNoWriMo at this link. I’ll be posting excerpts and looking for ideas and feedback as I go. Obviously I won’t have time to edit just yet, but any constructive feedback is helpful. The more the merrier.

Let’s tackle this beast together! Who’s with me?

Oh yeah, one more thing: the writing has to be legitimate writing. This doesn’t count:

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