Thursday, December 16, 2010

A New Approach

This must be what a sheer-rock climber feels. I'm working on a novel without an outline. I may give in to my organizational obsession soon, and I haven't quashed the story arc growing in my head. But I've got no detailed outline. Let the chips fall where they may. It's an experiment, and it can always be fixed if it turns out as a great, soupy mess. Chapter 1 is pretty tight, though.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

I'm Embarrassed to Admit This, But...

I've got an unfinished novel gathering dust in a drawer. Okay, it's a series of computer files, but that doesn't have the same ring to it.

It's an albatross, this novel, so personal, quirky, and long that it may never be marketable. Yet it was what started me writing fiction. I also happen to love it. Those close to me who've read the first two thirds are very enthusiastic, but that isn't related to actually selling the thing.

Occasionally I prepare for the battle: "I'll revamp it," I declare. "I'll rework the first part into its own novel." "I'll change basic elements of the premise so it's more accessible."

But I never actually do that. It's my first born, albeit specially challenged, and it's beautiful to me just the way it is. Still, I'd like it to be able to grow up and have a life of its own someday outside of my hard drive...

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Argos the Reader

In ancient Greek mythology, Argos is the original peacock, a creature with hundreds of eyes on his tail. Athena put them there so he could watch over her treasure. Recently I found a new job for Argos: as a story draft-reader.

I'd read my new story over and over, of course. Then I sent it to some of my trusty guinea pigs to see what they thought. I'm blessed with a cadre of smart, literate folks with good critical skills whom I can call on to look at my stuff. Three of them read my story and loved it, just catching a couple of typos. I was ready to send the story out. Then reader number four sent an email.

"This character seems to be a split personality. He has two different names."

Sure enough, in my indecision, I had named one character twice with two similar names. I'd used those names alternately throughout the story. No one else had caught it!

So, friends, be sure you have an Argos of a reading team, with as many eyes as possible looking from all different angles. You'll be amazed what they can see.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Frankly Cosmic

I hearby dedicate this micron of cyberspace as a digital shrine to Frank Cottrell Boyce. He is the ideal children's novelist. His whimsy verges on madness, his jokes ring true, and the tear-jerking love realized by his characters is deeply warm and never sappy.

Come, pilgrim, and join the Sect of FCB. Jump in feet first by reading Cosmic, and you'll never be the right way round again.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Prithee, Why?

I just aborted an attempt to read a novel (which I shall not name) based in "Medieval Germany." No century was specified. Seriously? By the most conservative reckoning, the Middle Ages lasted 600 years. Shouldn't a historical fiction novelist narrow it down a bit?

And then there was the typical problem of language. The novelist had the main character speaking (and thinking, since it was first-person POV) in a kind of Shakespearean knock-off. Remind me, what part of the Middle Ages did Shakespeare live in?

One of the issues my, er, purported publisher has with my medieval mystery novel is that its language is too modern. I have tried to impress upon him that, in early 13th-century England, people weren't speaking modern English at all, but Middle English, the language of Chaucer. And it didn't sound precious and exotic to the 12-year-olds of the time, but as slang-filled and modern as our own language sounds to us. And it certainly wasn't the language of Shakespeare.

I stand by my belief that, so long as historical periods are presented as esoteric instead of normal to the people who live in them, we will limit the way kids can relate to the past and recognize themselves in it.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Happily Out of Focus

I just learned that my first-ever read-aloud story for for little kids will be published in the relaunch issue of Stories for Children Magazine. They're the experts on that age group, not me. Although I liked the story, I wasn't expecting much. Even my former ICL tutor thought that the plot of "Slug and Snail" was too mundane to sell. I'm just delighted to find that I've crafted it into something worth publishing.

While this is good for my self-esteem, it's not very good for my focus. Now I'm wondering whether I should write more for the youngest readers or listeners. Oh, well. One story at at time. (Okay, six stories at a time...)

Friday, November 5, 2010

Absent Laughter

I just read Ursula K. Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness and was, as ever, knocked out by her layered sensitivity to the human character and the endless depth of detail in the worlds she creates. Yet I noticed once again an element missing from her work: humor. This is not to say that every novel I read must make me laugh, only that I am aware of the seriousness, the earnestness of Le Guin's writing.

This struck me, I imagine, because I've been disturbed by a dichotomy in my own writing. I can either write funny fiction or I can write historical fiction. For all my background in history and love of research, I can't lighten up much when I'm re-creating a historical world. But when I'm not burdened with that task and am writing about a contemporary setting, I can let loose with some attitude and raise a chuckle.

Eventually I need to figure out how to combine these skills.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

A Fictional Commitment

Looking back on old posts, I see that I struggled to walk away from non-fiction work. Since non-fiction is what I have by far the most experience in, it was tempting to turn to writing articles in hopes of getting published.

But now I no longer get that urge. I'm a writer of fiction. That's what I do and, when I'm lucky, that's what I publish.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Cover Evolution

I always hated the Dick and Jane books, in part because I was too advanced a reader by the time we got them in school, and in part because of their illustrations. It is particularly the memory of their covers that gives me a queasy feeling even today.

Like fiction prose, book illustration also follows changing fashion. These two pictures show covers of excellent middle-grade novels. They have the same publisher, but are from two different eras. The cover for Hiaasen's more recent Hoot is streamlined and neutral, yet intriguing. The older one, Snyder's Witches of Worm, has many problems: it's too busy, it misrepresents a serious psychological study of a girl as a mystery romp, and it gives away part of the ending (the girl and the boy aren't speaking for most of the story).

Of course, what a middle-grade novelist really wants is a movie still on the cover, since that means she's sold her story as a screenplay!

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Poison Pen

Is my literary touch poison? I have an uncanny ability to attach myself to doomed projects. At the risk of seeming solipsistic, I feel sometimes that my very interest blows in the breath of doom. Magazines go under, anthologies get scrapped, projects lose their funding, just as I've become devoted to contributing to them. Does this happen to everyone with such alarming frequency?

Thursday, October 7, 2010

And the Winner Is...

I'm surprised to find myself ready to enter two fiction contests and contemplating a third. Up to now I have avoided contests, discouraged by picturing myself as a needle in a haystack. Then I realized that every submission to a potential publisher has dismal odds, and getting my work seen by an editor is good no matter what. Any unsolicited submission is, in effect, an entry in a fiction contest.

Of course I'm being careful to avoid scams, and would never pay an entrance fee unless it actually paid for a subscription to the sponsoring zine.

Regarding this third contest I'm considering, the question arises whether it's worth being a needle in that particular haystack. Since the contest has a theme and it's not inspiring me, I'd probably be offering myself as a dull, bent needle, lost before I even enter. To have any kind of a chance, the gladiator should at least stride into the arena waving a bright, shiny sense of self.

Friday, October 1, 2010

The "Duh" Twist

Kudos---a Greek word that is singular, not plural, my friends---to Joe Haldeman, who wins my Best Novel Ending Award for The Accidental Time Machine. It's a brand new award, which is why you haven't heard about it. Very low key ceremony, no need to rent a tux.

Obviously, I can't tell you the book's conclusion. But it's the rare twist ending that is clever yet somehow inevitable. Once you read it, you think, "Well, yeah. I suppose that had to happen." Yet it's not what you've been expecting for the last third of the book. Let's call it the "duh" twist. Skilled!

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Stories of Old

Unroll your parchment. Dig out your quill pen. Dust off your IBM Selectric. Pick your favorite historical period and write about it for fame, glory, and untold wealth. Children's Writer is sponsoring a contest for a 1500-word historical fiction short story targeted at 13-year-olds. Check out the complete rules at Historical Fiction Writing Contest. Deadline is October 30, 2010, so there's still plenty of time to conjure up the past.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Possibilites in Plausibility

I can't count the number of novels, plays, and movies ruined for me because I'm so picky about plausibility. "Wait, why would he do that?" I ask myself so loudly, it drowns out the story's own dialog. "Why didn't the CIA notice that?" "Where did she get that rope?"

Rarely would I raise this complaint about 007 movies, say, which routinely defy the laws of physics (let alone the probability that a trained marksman will hit his target) in the name of escapist entertainment. That said, the eternal question of "where does the Highlander stash his sword when he rides his motorcycle?" is, over time, wearying.

The problem mainly bothers me in more serious, introspective, or supposedly frightening works, where a deus (or simply a res) ex machina and downright magical luck can sever my connection to the narrative and my belief in the characters. Being picky is a curse, but many curses can be re-conceived as blessings.  My duty, then, is to use my overactive incongruity sensor to improve the details of the plots I write.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Mysteries of Creation

Don't misunderstand: I claim no godlike skill. But I must insist the creation of a plot is a thing of wonder, an inexplicable thing. If I am so amazed at my own meager ability to make a story where there was none before, imagine the electrification felt by a genius at work. No wonder so many of them drink.

This isn't a joke. I am amazed every time I can come up with a story. A topic comes to mind, a setting, a main character, a basic conflict. That, in and of itself, is heartening. But what really astounds me is how, every time I sit down with this story, more details come to me. Plato believed that there was no real learning or experience; it was all recognition from past lives. I have to admit, curmudgeonly skeptic that I am, that I feel like I am remembering stories when I write them. As each layer of detail gets added on, I have the sensation that my memory has simply become clearer.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Less Thrilling Thriller

In reading my first Frederick Forsyth novel, I cannot quash unfavorable comparisons to John Le Carre. I'm a long-time fan of Le Carre's baroque style, resplendent with detail yet deeply emotional.

Forsyth's research on every subject he touches leaves one breathless, but in the sense of a happy geek, not a satisfied novel-reader. There's a dispassionate nature to the reams of information, often sickeningly graphic yet frigid. I also notice an unusually small amount of dialog. That alone might quantify the difference between these two authors. "Show, don't tell," as they say. I'm outside, watching things happen rather than living them.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Unfashionably Pedantic

Virginia Hamilton probably ran into serious resistance when she began her career in the 1960s, specializing in mid-grade novels about African Americans. In honor of her her courage alone I was excited to read The House of Dies Drear, a paranormal mystery novel featuring ghosts of slaves along the Underground Railroad.

Having read just half that novel (in more than the amount of time it should have taken me to finish it), I am sorely disappointed. It's not the brave subject matter, nor even the story itself or the depth of characterization that's the problem. What's miring my progress has more to do with changing taste in children's writing than with Ms. Hamilton in particular.

Her prose is detached. There is a determination to force great quantities of history upon the reader, with the result that a textbook veneer covers over the storytelling. With every paragraph I get more annoyed at the lifelessness of the writing.

Let this be a lesson to me: the details of one's research must not overshadow the fiction and motion in historical novels, especially for children. The desire to teach must be subsumed under the desire to entertain and even thrill.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Who Am I, Peter Jackson?

There have been a lot of articles in writers' newletters recently on the topic of book trailers. It seems, in these tough and competitive times, that authors are expected to produce short videos promoting their own books, to be shown on YouTube, Amazon, or blogs like this one. I mean scenes acted out by live or animated characters, or at least a voice-over ("In a world...").

Don't bother watching this space for that sort of entertainment, dear reader. The more I read about this, the more inane and rife with nightmares such a project sounds. Besides the obvious production problems of finding affordable professional-level actors, animators, and videographers, there are also myriad legal issues. An essay in the new SCBWI Bulletin mentions how copyrights on music and images might get you into trouble, not to mention the fact that some author's contracts prohibit the use of one's own text for this purpose.

Let me know when book trailers are out of beta phase and maybe I'll test the waters.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Vestigial Inflection

As Middle English morphed into Modern, its Germanic word-endings dropped off like fly wings. No longer did a word show its part of speech. Grammatical inflection became a matter of traditional usage and guessed context, with declension and number no longer in evidence. Even before that, European writing in general had lost the intricacies of Latin grammar, clause buried in clause. These disrupted fragments, even before the advent of commas, worked because the parts of speech were visible on the words, so they could be reconstructed and reconnected like puzzle pieces.

But a few writers of Modern English are historicists, stalwartly harking back to a better and more complicated time in the history of language. Please enjoy parsing this bit of mastery from Anthony Burgess' Enderby Outside, featuring three distinct grammatical roles for a most unlikely noun:

"Then, instead of expensive mouthwash, he had breathed on Hogg-Enderby bafflingly (for no banquet would serve, because of the known redolence of onions, onions) onions."

And cherish with me, friends, the layering of the clauses, not unlike the concentric levels of ... an onion!

Monday, August 9, 2010

Tripping Over the First Step

I'm beginning to understand why, once he's completed a novel, Richard Peck summarily tosses out his first chapter and rewrites it. I'm at that stage of revision now, and find that my first chapter does not have the strength to support the rest of the story.

I don't seem to have the nerve to throw the entire opening chapter in the trash, but I'm very willing to do some serious surgery on it. Here's hoping the bone structure will hold the new shape.

Friday, August 6, 2010

The Sound of Silence

I haven't been at this fiction thing long, but I'm already noticing a changing trend: overwhelmed magazines. At least, I like to believe that's what's causing the utter silence, month after month, from publisher after publisher. No rejections, no response to status queries. Just nothing.

I was grateful the other day to get a form letter from an editor who admitted he was overwhelmed, offering me the option to remove my story from his endless queue. I left my story there, of course, thus adding to his burden.

Monday, July 26, 2010

The Dangerous Lull

One big project is drafted. Revisions and packaging lie in the immediate future. My brain continues to formulate new stories, so I pick one to start on. There's outlining and research to be done. The various stages of the creative process swim along.

But what's missing is actual writing, the daily production of prose. After I'd drafted my first novel, it took months to get back into that phase because of the needs of planning the new thing before writing it. Do those synapses crystalize with disuse over time, or will they stay oiled and retain the heat of experience?

Many writers write something, anything, every day, just for the sake of exercise. My attempts at that have left me disgusted by insufficient quality and longing for real, goal-oriented writing.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

A Little Celebration

Nothing deep or pensive today. I just finished drafting the final chapter of the new novel. Within a few weeks, Ebenezer's Locker will start making the rounds. Wish us luck!

Thursday, July 1, 2010

The Presence of Present

I got nearly halfway through Gennifer Choldenko's novel "Al Capone Does My Shirts" before I realized it was in first-person present rather than past. That's one of the hardest combinations of POV and tense to pull off in a large-scale work. Smooooooth!

Friday, June 25, 2010

I Have Very Little to Say on the Subject...

...except that I am not accustomed to being called "ridiculous" by my professional colleagues.

Publishing, alas, has as many petty personalities as academia does. I already knew that about non-fiction, but I was mad enough to hope that the fiction scene would be better.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Eye of I

Award-winning children's novelist Richard Peck cheats at first person. There's no other way to put it. Sometimes the first-person protagonist describes the thoughts or feelings of another character as if it were known fact. In lesser hands, these oversteps would be circled in red by the editor as careless errors of Point of View.

The more I think about Peck's cheating, the craftier it becomes. His first-person protagonist can't see inside everyone's mind, just a few people very close to her. To test this approach's viability, I consider my own life. Often I can tell by the face and body language of my husband or a parent what he or she is thinking, no matter what he or she actually says.  So it's true: for people with whom the main character is very close, a limited first-person omniscience is arguably correct.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Delicate Force-Feeding

This new novel was supposed to be a fluffy, silly romp. Needless to say, I'm now doing all kinds of arcane historical research to strengthen and enrich the book. Two issues have surfaced out of this to destabilize my confidence:

First, I'm stymied by the prospect of dribbling a touch of this research into the novel without alienating or boring the reader. In my last novel, I jumped in knowing it was historical fiction for gifted kids. This one was meant to have a broader audience, so I must proceed with great caution.

Second is the timing of my research viz-a-viz the progress of my writing. I was keeping to a strict schedule of drafting two chapters per week before I realized I wanted more historical background. Doing secondary reading and digesting enough info to help the story is a distracting matter. Plus, I really can't write more until I have this research done and organized. So much for two chapters per week.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The Autonomy of Fictional Lives

Some novelists advocate intense exercises to pre-determine a character's personality before one starts to write. These explorations get down to such details as the character's favorite color, food, and music. For me, this approach is too abstract and artificial.

I find that my characters reveal their personalities to me scene by scene, just as one gets to know a person over time in real life. Somehow, the people I invent are not entirely controlled by me, but develop as they are faced with (or cause!) new situations in the plot. The way they constantly surprise me is a wondrous, miraculous thing.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Two for the Show

During my many hours on the subway each week, I often stare at print ads for novels. Mind you, these are almost always GC  (publisher of Nicholas Sparks and other zillionnaire best-sellers). The lurid ad text makes you yearn to read the thing on your Kindle before you get to work. I mention the publisher to make clear that these are not literary masterpieces. They are hugely viable commercial monsters. They are closer to TV shows than books.

Many of these ads are for two-authored novels. Think of it. Two people writing the same novel. The concept fascinates me. It really is more like the procedure for a screenplay.

I try to imagine the roles of these two authors. One guy writes while the other guy sleeps, so it's a 24-hour factory? That would explain the proliferation of such books. One guy plans the story and the other guy writes it? One guy writes the dialog and the other guy sews it together with "he said,"  "she remarked," "the girl blubbered"? One guy writes a draft in longhand and the other guy types and revises? One guy writes while the other guy does a Starbucks run?

For someone who (like most novelists, I feel safe in guessing) thinks of writing as blissfully solitary work, the collaborative novel seems as ineffectual as two people driving the same car at the same time.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

The Bloom of Impatience

I wait. I hear nothing. Then a rejection. Then nothing. I send out another work. I check my submissions log. A legitimate zine that says it will respond in three weeks hasn't responded in six. For another, it's been three months. For yet another, four. An editor loves my story but has no room; she's filing it. I have a book contract and no release date. I wait.

There is no way to control that end of this process. The only control I have is over my own output. I can do a lot of writing and make it the best quality I can. Everything else is up to the fates, working in their own sweet time. Didn't Confucious say something like that, or was it some bodhisattva? He was right, whoever it was, even if he wasn't talking about writing fiction.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

An Addled or an Agile Mind

I have a file full of story ideas. I have five or six novels in at least partial outline, some with chapter drafts. I can't choose which to work on, although I know which is the most logical to work on given my career goals.

How does one turn off one's fountain of ideas? Should one? At some point, I must get something done, not just get more things started. As in most cases, discipline needs to rein in creativity, focus it, keep it on a path. Otherwise, it's fruitless.

This post turned out rather like a prayer, but that just might be appropriate.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010


The German composer Paul Hindemith promoted a concept called Gebrauchsmusik (Useful music) in the 1930s. This was the tenet that music should be an activity for everyone to enjoy listening to; it was a reaction against the tendency of music to be highly learned, mathematical, and elitist.

I'm beginning to feel this way about fiction. Over and over I find publishing markets that take only "literary fiction," and will refuse even to read "genre fiction." If it's fun, it's apparently not art.

I made the choice to stop working on my PhD dissertation partly because I wanted to write things that lots of people would enjoy reading. To stay true to that philosophy, I feel I must fight the elitist condescension I often find aimed at genre fiction.

All hail fun reading!

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Try, Try Again, Then Stop for a While

I have a personal rule that, after five rejections, a piece should be shelved.  That doesn't mean it will never see the light of day, but it does indicate to me that something is fundamentally wrong with the work and will need rethinking after it's lain fallow for a time. I find (to my surprise) that I'm not too proud to do a gut-renovation on a story.

The number five is arbitrary, but has felt right so far.  By five rejections, I've usually figured out what's wrong, if not exactly how to repair it, thanks to my own contemplation and the comments of editors when I'm lucky enough to get any.

I may be making an exception soon, however, to the rule of five. One story that's been making the rounds keeps coming back with reactions along the lines of, "We really enjoyed your story. Good luck publishing it elsewhere." Everyone likes it, so I can't imagine how to fix it.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Not for the Faint of Finger

I'm puzzled by the number and depth of hand-holding blogs for writers.  I shall not name any, but they're not hard to find.  It raises what strikes me as a moral question:  should people so timid and clueless that they need to be told "it's okay" ten times a day be encouraged to be the new generation of writers?  How will someone so artistically uninspired and undriven that she needs another person's blog for courage ever roar through with an original voice?

I'm just askin.'  What do I know? But it seems unfair to expect that person to live the necessarily frightening life of a creative artist. You can't 12-step through this one, it seems to me.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

The Beautiful Scene is Empty

When is a story not really a story? When nothing happens.  Indeed, that's the traditional wisdom, but surely there are exceptions.

Look at Edmund White (if you dare).  Seriously, this man cannot craft a story.  You never once wonder what will happen next because nothing ever happens.  Yet he's one of my most admired authors because of his uncanny gift of description.  You know exactly where the characters are, and the minutiae of people's movements, emotions, and sensations, even if all that occurs are the minutiae. It's awe-inspiring.

Nevertheless, it takes me six months to get through a book by White, since there's no plot to keep me going.  It's like looking at someone's exquisite stamp collection.

Monday, April 5, 2010

The Long Way

Never mind all the time one is expected to spend marketing one's own books, looking for new places to submit, finding out what editors are seeking, etc.  Never mind.  Let's talk about the act of book-writing itself.

I've been reading more and more interviews with successful novelists, and what I see is alarming enough to scare me off the pursuit of success.  One person writes 2000 words per day (that's eight double-spaced pages) come hell or high water.  One writes six drafts of a chapter each week until he has all the chapters, then throws away the first chapter and re-does it, no matter what.  One throws out every chapter as she goes, deleting the file from her hard drive, forcing her to start from scratch with each draft (how is that a draft, anyway?).  One regularly kills off her characters, requiring her to re-think her plot details.

Maybe when I've been at this a while, I, too, will have some writing quirk that makes me look like a workaholic madwoman.  Right now, I don't have the time or energy.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Look It Up or Make It Up?

Lian Hearn is an example of an author who gives historical fiction a freeing twist.  For her Otori novels, which are technically fantasy in genre, she invented a place that's almost samurai-era Japan, but not quite. 

Hearn got a big ol' grant to go live in Japan to do research (kudos, Lian!), but then made up her own reality.  So if certain things in her books weren't really so in history, it didn't matter.  There was no way to call her on it, because it was not intended to be the real Japan.  Yet, because her invented world has so much detail based on research of Japan, it feels very believable to the reader.  This approach also allowed her to add just a tinge of the magical to the stories. Clever, clever!

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Friday, March 26, 2010

No Substitutions

Note to self:  changing my status on Facebook does not count as writing.  What's happening to me?  Yesterday I burrowed into my work like a badger and finished a chapter of the new Harley book.  Today all I can do is stare at the screen and get up frequently to take a nap.

It's not writer's block.  I'm swimming in ideas.  It's old-fashioned laziness, like I somehow earned a day off.  After just one chapter?  Puh-LEEEZE.

Shake it off, Johnson!  Write a measly paragraph! (I really need an agent to give me these pep talks; embarrassing to do it myself...)

Monday, March 22, 2010

Big or little?

Yesterday I got a children's story idea and started to scribble.  Soon, however, I realized that I didn't know whether I was working on a short story or a book.  Should I flesh it out into a 15,000-word chapter book or shear it down into a 1500-word tale?  This particular confusion has not happened to me before.  Then again, I've never written a chapter book, so maybe I just don't know how to recognize a potential one.  Maybe it's time to try.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

And We Wait. And We Wait.

A couple of decades ago, when I worked as an editor at a university book publisher, it was all about galleys.  First galleys, second galleys.  Send 'em to the author.  Hound the author to send 'em back.  Call the author if her corrections were illegible or illogical.

But in my book-writing experience, there have been no galleys.  I turn in my manuscript.  I hear nothing.  I forget about the whole thing and move on to other projects.  Then one day my free copies of the finished book show up at my door (or they don't, as happened once, when I found out two years later that my book had been released).

I miss galleys.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Just When You Think You Know

Rejection after rejection filled my mailbox, both physical and virtual.  It seemed it would be easier to place a phone call to Mars than a short story in a magazine.  Yet, when I submitted my first novel to its first prospective publisher, it was snapped up in five weeks.  Well, says I, I'll write only long works. Clearly that's what I'm better at.

But there's a problem with that course of action that even a novice like me can see. Annie Proulx is on record as saying that she's not sure novels are worth the effort.  They obsess and exhaust you for a year, whereas you can do a good short story in six weeks.

Besides the energy issue, there's the motivational factor.  Sure, you say to yourself, I'll finish a chapter a week.  Even if you do that, you won't have a completed thing for ages.  No chapter can be truly completed until the rest of the novel is drafted.  A short story, on the other hand, is there, it's done, it's over, and you have an item to submit.  And to be rejected multiple times, probably, but still... It's always nice to find a letter in the mailbox.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Know When to Hold 'Em

Kenny Rogers is not usually my role model, but he had it figured out in his song "The Gambler."  I'm still learning when to hold 'em and when to fold 'em in the publishing world. 

Recently I withdrew a story from consideration at a magazine I greatly admire.  Four months after my submission, the editor had said he liked the story but didn't know where to fit it in.  Six months and a status query later, I still had heard nothing, so I withdrew the piece.  Next day comes the email: "But we were going to tell you today that it was scheduled."

It seems that time moves at different speeds depending on which end of the game you're playing.  Now I've learned to be infinitely patient.  I just got one of those "Love it but can't fit it in" emails from another editor, and I'm counting this one as an acceptance.  If she publishes the story while I'm still drawing breath on this earth, that will be fine.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Lure of the Known

Procrastination is an insidious beastie, and can even take the form of hard work on the wrong project. Lately I find my mind filled with the proposing and writing of non-fiction books and articles, work for which experience has prepared me and for which I would certainly get paid.  But the only writing I should be thinking about right now is fiction, an area where still I'm an uncomfortable, unpaid fledgling.

My excuse, of course, is that any writing will get my name out there, so I might as well make a few bucks at what I know how to do.  It doesn't wash, though.  That major literary agent or publisher of novels won't care how many books I've written on the fate of polar bears or the watermarks in Mozart manuscripts if I can't prove that I have fiction chops.

So why must I constantly fight to keep focused on mastering fiction, this thing I claim to love?  Well, 'cause it's freakin' scary, is why!

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Cheating or Fair Play

Must a writer have constant, instant access to her complete vocabulary?  Is a nudge or a hint to remind one of the perfect word a sign of weakness?  For many, yes. 

I used to feel that way, too. Then I learned that Stephen Sondheim uses a thesaurus and a rhyming dictionary.  That's Stephen Sondheim, man of the perennially perfect word choice.  Now I proudly reach for (or click on) my thesaurus when things get sticky. 

The rule for the successful thesaurification of a written passage: If you don't already know the word and its nuances, don't use it just because you found it in a thesaurus.  It will never fly.  The reference work must only be a reminder of what you already know. 

Another option, as illustrated above, is simply to make up the word you need.  That's the Dr. Seuss method, so you know it's all right.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Maybe I Wrote It, Maybe Not

I've always felt a strong resistance to using a pseudonym when I write.  But how one feels and the needs of the industry can be incompatible, so now I'm trying to come up with a catchy pen name.  Two, actually.  Let me know if you have suggestions. "Dirk Diggler" is taken.

Because I'm concentrating now on writing for children, I may well want a different name for publishing certain other things.  I've written 3/4 of a novel that's decidedly inappropriate for the 12-year-olds who will read my forthcoming medieval mystery.  Much as it pains me, I'll need to market the adult novel under a pseudonym, or else children's publishers (and the parents of America) will avoid me like carrion.

A live chat with a much-published author at ICL pointed out another reason to pick a second name: prolific and varied output.  If I produce a children's novel per year, a single publishing house might like all of them.  But they're unlikely to be willing to over-saturated their catalog with the works of Anne E. Johnson, lest it look like a one-woman show.  The problem would be fixed if I had another identity for half the books.

How about "Haby S. Corpus"?

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Wait...That Was Fiction?

E.L. Doctorow's novel The Book of Daniel caused an onslaught of discussions on ethics, such as Ron Hansen's essay here:   At issue is whether fiction can cause harm or be libelous when it is too close to a real person's life.  Doctorow has also raised scholarly eyebrows by inventing some of the documents he uses in his books, which he defends by pointing out that the "fiction" part of the term "historical fiction" gives him the right to invent anything he wants.

Fiction can be confusingly factual.  No surprise, then, that it can also work the other way.  I was reminded of this recently in the form of a rejection letter.  I'd written a sentimental, nostalgic essay, remembrances of my grandfather's love of the sea.  Having done careful market research, I sent it to a magazine that specializes in just such touching tidbits.  Frankly, I was feeling like a shoo-in, and it's probably my hubris that got me.  The editor made me wait for four months before replying, "This magazine does not accept fiction."

But it wasn't...but I used the words "essay" and "personal experience" in my cover letter...but...but...

Well, never mind.  I submitted the essay elsewhere and it found a good home.  I was tempted to say that the lesson here is "Avoid writing non-fiction so vivid that it sounds like you're spinning a yarn."  But, in truth, I believe that's exactly what the world needs more of.

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Friday, February 5, 2010

Welcome, gentle reader

My name is Anne E. Johnson, and I'm delighted that you're visiting me.

Over the years, I've written all kinds of non-fiction, from genealogical guides for children to scholarly articles on medieval musicology, but I'm brand new in the fiction world. I can already see that this journey will be quite an adventure. Please join me as I discover the joy and pain of making stuff up and convincing people to read and publish it!  I value your imput and advice, be it on writing, on marketing, or on the development of my blog. 

I must start, of course, with the news that gives me the confidence to announce my career to the world:  I have a publisher for my first novel, a mid-grade medieval mystery.  I'll be reporting on that process as it goes along.

Thanks for stopping by.  Won't you please become a follower of this blog?  Just click the button on the left.  See you soon.