Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Weeding Out the Crap

I spent the weekend weeding in my new yard. Because it rained recently, the softer ground made it easier to yank out all varieties of flora. The overcast skies were also ideal for working outside each morning. It didn’t get too hot, and the only thing I had to worry about was making sure I didn’t push my lower back too hard.

The previous owners had done a good job with the landscaping, but in the time it took for us to close and move in, Mother Nature was slowly but surely trying to reclaim the property for herself. Pruning the overgrown branches was easy enough, same with cleaning out the opportunistic weeds that popped up between the bushes.

But in a handful of planter beds, it was unclear which plants were weeds and which ones were actually supposed to be there. So I started by tackling the ones I thought were weeds. The path of least resistance, so to speak. This also happens when I’m revising my work. I’ll start with the easy stuff: breaking up compound sentences into two or smooshing two short sentences into one, adding in commas for readability or taking them out, simplifying prepositional phrases, refining adjectives, and eliminating adverbs.

These techniques are supposed to result in leaner, meaner prose. And it usually works. Once I clear away all the distracting verbiage, I am better able to see how the story works together as a whole. Then I can get my hands dirty dealing with more fundamental issues.

But sometimes, even after tackling all the easy stuff, I take a look at what I’m left with and it’s not good. Like when I was weeding. By the time I excavated the larger plants and looked them over, I decided many of them just weren’t worth saving. (It didn’t help that I couldn’t identify many of them either.) So I ended up chucking them, thinking it would just be easier to start over come spring.

And sometimes that is what we have to do with our WIPs. After we’ve made all the cuts we can, sometimes we will still be left with misshapen plots and stillborn characters. Nothing we can do but start all over again.

Except we don’t always have to start from scratch. I found a cluster of rosemary that had been nearly strangled by all the weeds in one of the planter beds. I was thrilled because I wanted to plant rosemary, and here it was, already with a tenuous foothold in my new yard. Now that rosemary will set the tone for my gardening plans for the rest of the property.

And to think I had almost missed it in my zeal of pulling every last bit of green out of the planters. I was so engrossed in what to eliminate, I forgot to examine the possibilities each plant could offer. I’ll be more careful when I tackle another section of the yard next weekend. But this also brings up a good point when you’re revising too. You want to tighten things up and cut the fat, but you don’t want to be so heavy-handed with your edits you destroy something useful.

Ready to revise your WIP? Check out Kim Blank’s Wordiness, Wordiness, Wordiness List  and ensure your work is as lean as possible. Then see if your prose passes the Waistline Test, which I originally found through India Drummond’s site. But be careful not to strip out everything... you still want to keep your work yours.

Happy weeding!

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Submissions Blitz

If you told me six months ago I’d be in the midst of a submissions blitz, I would have laughed. But I’m not laughing now. Instead, I’m just trying to keep all my balls in the air while not losing my momentum.

In the past three days I’ve sent off:
  • Two microfiction entries for my local alt weekly’s annual flash fiction contest
  • A SciFi short story to a bona fide literary venue
  • The first 50 pages of my historical romance for the Golden Rose contest

And just last month, I sent out a query to two agents and another short story.

So what gives? I’ve been doing more polishing and submitting than actual writing, and it’s a strange feeling. But, here’s what I’ve learned so far.

Apologies in advance for the epicness of this post, but I found it helpful for me to get all this stuff down.

Know when your work is ready.

This is so hard. So hard. And I still wonder every time I send something out if I’m deluding myself. Even though I know I’ve revised my work for hours, shared it with others, and have been actively working to improve my craft, I still doubt.

For a long time, that doubt was paralyzing. But I’ve made some head way and had enough small victories here and there to assure me that I’m not crazy for wanting to write and ultimately see my work published. So although I’m ready (and this blog is a testament to that), it’s harder for me to evaluate my different stories and novel-length projects to determine their readiness.

For some projects -- like the SciFi short story and the literary short I’ve submitted – I felt really good about them from inception to completion. Members of my critique groups responded to them positively. They’ve been pretty positive about most of my work, but there was something more encouraging, perhaps more genuine, about their reactions to these particular pieces. So I went with that feeling, found appropriate venues for the stories, and sent them off before I lost my nerve.

With my historical romance novel, I’ve been a bit more cautious about sending it off into the world (and I’ve addressed this before). Because it’s a much bigger project than a short story or piece of flash fiction, I figure I need to be a bit more strategic in how I handle it. A stalling tactic, a self-defense mechanism, perhaps, but I still think it’s reasonable to want to tread carefully with a work of this magnitude. Hence the contests, the constant revisions, and the postponement of a massive query flurry. But I’m getting closer. I just received my critique sheet back from one of the contests I entered and was encouraged by the evaluation. I'm getting there, slowly but surely.

And then there are stories that are as good as they’re gonna get before the deadline. Like my microfiction entries for the local alt weekly contest. I participated last year and found it to be a challenging exercise at a time when I was just buckling down with this whole writing seriously thing. I knew I wanted to enter this year, and of course the timing of my big move hampered that a bit. But I made the deadline and was satisfied with my work. The experience also gave me the chance to look over my entry from last year, and I felt there was a marked improvement in my writing since. So regardless of the outcome for this particular contest, I already feel validated.

The more you submit, the easier it gets.

Submitting is scary. Working up the nerve to get your stuff out there can take a while. And we as writers are guilty of filling up the blogosphere with all our self-doubts and the oft-repeated publishing myths of evil agents and frustrated editors who like nothing more than to crush our dreams.

Knowing the ins and outs of submission requirements is essential. But I’ve also made enough mistakes to know that it won’t be the end of the world if something goes wrong. Some venues are more forgiving than others. That’s the way of things. I recently had an agent contact me to let me know my attachment didn’t come through. I was thrilled she took the time to let me resend. Given all the mythology around editors and agents, I had no reason to expect this second chance. But I took it and moved on.

Sending out your work does get easier over time. I know that just in the short time I’ve been sending out my work, my process has become a little more formalized after each submission. My mental submission checklist grows longer each time I click send. The thought of a query no longer sends me running for the hills. I think it’s really owning the professional part of writing for publication that has done it for me. I want to be a professional writer; hence, the need for professionalism in all things. I am now better able to separate myself from my work by embracing the professional – not the personal – aspects of writing when submitting.

And I’ve had help getting past the me in my writing. Blogging, writing groups, open-mics… all these activities have helped me to not only practice writing, but have also helped me get used to getting my work out there. Putting myself on the line. I’ve learned about accountability and ways to settle my nerves. And the more you do it, the less terrifying it becomes.

Relish that period of time between clicking send and getting a rejection response.

It’s heady. Sending your writing off into the world. Once you’re sure you’ve attached the right file or included the proper salutation, that is. Then you’re full of optimism that maybe, just maybe, something good will come out of all this. After all, as of this moment, you work hasn’t been rejected yet. Anything is possible.

Sure it’s possible that the pieces I’ve sent out in the last few weeks can be accepted for publication or selected as Numero Uno in a contest. And until I get rejected, there’s no reason to think otherwise. Why? Because I need that positive thinking to propel me into a new project or to revisit a previously stalled WIP. I can’t be wallowing in self-doubt if I expect to be productive. It’s done. My work is out there. And all I can do is pick up the pen and move on.

The fallout will come. The odds tell me that much. Despite all that I’ve learned about craft, how attentive I’ve been to my work, I may get a form rejection tomorrow, a week from now, next month, who knows… but I’m just getting closer to yes, right?

Have a contingency plan.

With the exception of the microfiction, I know where I’m sending my different stories next if and when those pieces are rejected. I have a contingency plan for each one. I have to. I care too much about these stories to let them languish if they are not accepted on the first try.

There’s always another venue. Aim high, yes. I am certainly doing that. Targeting the best agents instead of defaulting to an e-publisher. The literary venue with the pro-rates instead of the online ‘zine run by frustrated MFA rejects. But what if you’re left with rejection after rejection, even after scraping the bottom of the barrel of possible outlets? That is what I fear the most.

I’m at the point with many of my stories where I’m just not sure what more I could be doing with them. I’ve polished them on my own, shared them with my critique group, entered contests, revised some more, and then what? The only way to move forward is to submit your stuff and see what happens. It’s terrifying and exhilarating all at once, make no mistake. But oh-so-necessary as well.

Rejections are fuzzy. A rejection could mean your work didn’t fit the venue. Or it just might mean your work sucks. And until you have a decent enough sample of rejections, it’s difficult to know whether you need to work harder at craft or just work harder at finding the right fit for your story. I won’t know where I’m at until I get some feedback, even the form rejection kind. But I like to think I’m ready for it.

The balls are in the air. Let’s see where they land.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Letting Go

Thankfully I survived what I’m affectionately calling the move from hell. Without internet for nearly a week, without time to think, let alone write, after carloads upon carloads of boxes, my husband and I are now officially moved into our new home. After getting the kitchen and computer set up, I immediately focused my efforts on the bedroom we’d be using as an office. Naturally.

I had boxed up all my books from the apartment and I had four Rubbermaid tubs full of books from my childhood home that I picked up on my road trip back in April. And now, with the new home, I had a dedicated space for everything. I sorted, stacked, and reminisced as I pulled out tomes ranging from Dr. Seuss to Claude Levi-Strauss.

In the bottom of one of the tubs from my dad’s house, I had stashed a bunch of notebooks from high school and college. I’ve already confessed to being a packrat, and in true form, I’ve kept all my school notes, reports, what-have-you from about eighth grade through college.

I’m not exactly sure where the compulsion to do so came from. Maybe I liked having tangible evidence of everything I learned in school. Or maybe it was just the reassurance of being able to refer to their contents later on. At some point I decided I was holding onto those materials just in case. In case I needed them as fodder for the stories I’d write one day. Last week as I leafed through the faded materials, tracked my handwriting across the years, I realized I didn’t need to hold onto these things any longer.

I pulled out a few handouts, kept a couple of sections of notes, but what I deemed worth keeping was only a fraction of what I’ve collected over the years. The rest of the stuff will be unceremoniously dumped in the trash. But I have to ask myself why now. Why was I able to let go of these materials now? A couple of years ago the mere thought of discarding these items would have sent me into conniptions. So what is it about this point in my life?

I think it’s because I’m writing now instead of just dreaming about it. For example, I’ve kept every book I’ve bought or been gifted. Now that I’m writing seriously, I’ve revisited old favorites and analyzed others with new, writerly eyes. I also collected notebooks for years, but never wrote in them. Once I started taking myself seriously, suddenly it was ok for me to write on the hallowed pages.

And I think the same thing has happened with my old school materials. They were my security blanket, my just in case. I kept everything because I didn’t know what would be useful to me in the future. Now, though I understand better what resources I do and don’t need.

I don’t need them to help me in research as I’m confident in my abilities to find the information I need without digging through decades of school materials. Thanks, internet.

I don’t need my old notes for inspiration. I have that in spades from other sources.

And I don’t need them to hold onto the past. Not anymore.

I’m moving on.

What kind of things have you been holding onto in anticipation of following your dreams? What's your just in case and the tools you need for it?

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The Joys of Home Ownership

(or Writing Life, Interrupted)

My husband and I closed on our first home last Wednesday. Then, before we had a chance to let that thought sink in, my sister and her fiancĂ© came to town for Fourth of July – a four-day weekend of wine, fine dining, and sightseeing.

When I returned to my apartment yesterday after dropping them off at the airport, I wanted to collapse in my chair and take a nap. Or pull out that short story I needed to edit. Or keep hammering away at my SciFi novel. All the writing activities I couldn’t do while my sister was in town. But as I looked around my apartment, it was clear that the only thing I should do was pack.

So I assembled boxes, filled them, and humped them over to the new house. That barely scratched the surface, and I’ll need to repeat the process every day this week. Friday I’m borrowing a truck from a friend to speed things along, and Saturday we have reservations for a moving van to transport all the furniture and appliances. Sunday the apartment needs to be cleaned and vacated. It's only Wednesday and I’m already tired.

Today, as I write this, I’m camped out at the new house (I’m literally sitting on a camp chair in the middle of an empty room), waiting on a roof contractor to inspect the rear porch the previous owner was supposed to have repaired before closing but didn’t. Then there’s the windows guy I need to meet with to review which windows are being replaced. Then the plumber, the painters…

I knew buying a house (a fixer no less) and then all the moving and unpacking and organizing would be time-consuming. Or at least I thought I did. Now that I’m in the thick of things, I realize just how much I underestimated how all consuming this process is. There’s no time for writing, let along blogging.

So if I go MIA for the next few days, you’ll know why. As happy as I am to finally own my own home (and to be able to make it ours), I can’t wait for the dust to settle. I want to be writing. I just have some things to take care of first. A lot of things...

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Version Control

I’m a bit of a packrat. I tend to imbue everyday objects with far more meaning than they probably warrant. I hold onto ticket stubs from concerts and movies, cards I receive on birthdays and other holidays, rocks I find on hikes… And don’t get me started on books – I like to think it’s my responsibility to “save” books from bargain bins, garage sales, Book Crossing waypoints…um, yeah.

And then there’s my writing. I do a lot of my writing by hand, so I hold onto all the notebooks filled with my crabbed penmanship. Stacks of them. Then I usually print out hard copies for editing, and I keep those too. I haven’t quite figured out a good system for organizing them, but now is the time since my husband are moving into our first home next week. His solution would be to get rid of them all, but I simply can’t. What if my laptop dies or is stolen? What if my files are corrupted by an evil virus, and the printouts are the only record of my genius – ahem – stories?

Speaking of electronic files, my writing folder is called “Works in Progress”:

Looks nice and neat, right? But don’t be fooled. Within this folder, entropy is winning out despite my efforts to instill order. “Misc Writing Ideas” is just a catchall for every project not big enough to deserve its own folder. Um, that’s actually not true either – there are some projects far enough along that need their own folder but I haven’t gotten to it yet. Right now, the folder has everything from snippets and abandoned story ideas to “finished” stories. Needless to say it can get a bit scary in there.

Then there’s the “Medieval Book” folder – that’s where my historical romance novel lives in all its various permutations. In other words, there are a lot of files in there. Since I’ve been working on this particular project for so long, my file naming conventions have changed over time, which doesn’t help matters. In addition to at least 10 versions of the full manuscript and an untold number of early partials, I also have a half-dozen documents that are just different versions of Chapter One since it took so many iterations to get my opening right. Not to mention all the primary sources and research tidbits I’ve collected over the years.

Now that I’ve entered a few contests and sent out a couple of queries, there’s even more files to contend with. I have a 4-page and a 2-page synopsis, and I'll need to come up with a one pager at some point as well. There’s a handful of query letters all addressed and tailored for different purposes. I have a bunch of different writing samples too – the first 10 pages, the first chapter, the first 20 pages, the first 30 pages, and the first 50 pages – all of which were required for various submission guidelines for agents and contests.

Since I’m just at the start of my agent search, I need to come up with a better way to keep my submission materials organized. It doesn’t help that I keep refining my story. But for me, it took getting to the agent search phase for this project to realize I’m never going to get to a point where I will be done – there’s no definitive version of my story and probably won’t be until it finds its way into print (fingers crossed). As Oscar Wilde said:

"Books are never finished, they are merely abandoned."

But for now, I keep everything. I’m so terrified that I’ll delete something or make a change in one version of the file only to realize later I want to restore the original wording. Then the difficulty lies in navigating all the old files I’m too stubborn to delete and try to locate the half-remembered phrasing I want to reincorporate. The old wording is rarely merits all this trouble, but I can’t let go of the possibility that one time it will be worth it.

Back when I had a day job, our office would have long meetings about file naming conventions, file folder organization (physical and electronic), and how to perform edits on a document with multiple authors. Those tedious, nitpicky conversations would drive me up the wall. But now that it’s my files, my writing, I want to get it right.

How do you keep your files, be they electronic or physical, organized? What helps you keep different versions of your work straight?

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