Friday, October 15, 2010

Imagine a writer, fingers poised above the keyboard, mind snapping away at whatever morsel of plot is defying description at that particular moment. Well, that's pretty much me, every day, or at least, what I would like to be doing every day. You see, I have this "day" job: college instructor. I emphasize the word "day" because no teaching job simply relegates itself to daylight hours. As a matter of fact, some of the most difficult parts of teaching occur at dusk. Yes, the teaching demons fear the light and like tiny vampires simply suck the life right out of educational practitioners. Those vampires try to destroy my love of teaching by forcing me to grade horrendous essays in which students continually confuse the meanings of words like "your" and "you're" or "there" and "their."

Yes, I knew the job was dangerous when I took it; I knew that teaching takes more hours per day than say, plumbing. I knew the hours spent in "teaching" pursuits would reduce available writing hours; however, the longer I teach, it seems, the fewer hours I have available for writing. You'd think that by now, I'd be able to grade a paper in no time flat and then serve up a new chapter in the WIP before clearing the north forty. The truth is: students coming from today's public school systems are, for the most part, woefully unprepared for college level writing and have little to no formal training in grammar and mechanics, the popular theory of education being that students learn said grammar and mechanics from reading. Given this unpreparedness, it takes much more time to grade than it did twenty years ago. Education in grammar primarily comes from copious comments that explain why the student's comma usage is flawed or the difference between the meanings of "defiantly" and "definitely." More time grading equals less time available for writing.

At least I can say I have a job, something that 9.6% of the American population can't say, and that's not taking into account the vast number of I'm-so-tired-of-looking-for-a-job-that-I'm-not-looking-any-longer individuals or those PhD's who've been reduced to bagging groceries at the Kroger. I can't complain about being employed, but I'm allowed to miss the writing hours I once enjoyed

I keep telling myself I should sacrifice sleep or time with the grandchildren, but the use of the word "sacrifice" usually implies unpleasantness on some level. In the past, my writing time just popped up like the lovely jingle announcing the arrival of the ice cream truck on a hot summer's day. How utterly pleasant! I'd finish one task, take a peek at my clock, and suddenly discover I had an hour or so before I was due to attack the next chore of the day. I'd rush to the keyboard and read what I'd last written. Then I'd think, "Oh, what would (fill in a character's name here) do if that happened to her/him?" Words would come, ideas would flow, and I would be in writer's Heaven. Not so these days.

These days I spend time plying my trade, not writing but teaching to write. I've heard the old addage, "Those who can't teach." Well, I suppose that's true, but not always for the reason the addage implies.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

So Close

I'm so close to being finished with volume one of the two-part series that I can smell the words "the end." In a way, it's sort of sad, leaving my main character for a while so I can beta then query the first book. Although I think it stands alone (emphasis on I think. We'll see what the Dawg Pack thinks), somehow I still feel it's one book not two. I find the concept of dividing a life slightly disturbing. Does that sound stupid or what?!

Speaking in terms of word count, a life that say spans fifty years would take a lot of words. Add that three score and seven Biblical thingy and Va-zoom! Multiply that fifty-year-old's life-words by 6.5. That's even more words. Are there limits on the number of words used in a novel? Sort of.

One agent won't look at a first-novel with less than 85,000 words or more than 110,000. Words count. (Pardon the pun.) Not all agents are that particular, but if even one would toss your work in the circular file over word count, then word count must be watched closely.

Some authors might disagree, even published authors, saying word count doesn't count as long as you submit quality work. I suppose there's some truth in that argument. In a perfect world, a good book is a good book no matter how many words appear between the words "chapter one" and "the end." However, the lack of perfection in this world is one of its most endearing characteristics.

Very few publishing houses accept unrepresented manuscripts. Why? Because their slush piles of "to read" became so tall it seemed there was no room for desks and copiers and the like. Today, in order to get the eye of a legitimate publisher, the piece must be represented. If a would-be author takes a peek at a site displaying the names of literary agents, it seems the world is filled with potential representation. However, that would-be author must be careful because not all who claim the title "agent" are true author representatives. Some are more interested in representing themselves and will charge innumerable "fees" to Mr./Ms. Would-Be while the now "represented" novel languishes on some dusty desk.

Just like any other industry based on dreams, there are people who choose to use the dreams of others to promote themselves, to pilfer a dollar at a time until dreams die and artists who might have had some measure of success with the right guidance toss their keyboards into whatever waterway is at hand. Dreams are like apples to some people, just something ripe for the picking. Writer beware.

How do I know this? Me? An unrepresented author? I've made it my business to know. How? Researching. Asking questions. Reading blogs. Talking to authors who are represented. Checking out on-line contracts. Searching who and what agents have represented in the past. What's their track record? The business end of writing. If the business end includes advice on word count, I listen. If the business end includes the requirements of certain legitimate agents, I comply. It's business, the business of dreams.

I'm not by nature a woman of business. I'm a little flighty and a lot disorganized. I often lose my car keys or can't remember exactly where I parked. My desk is riddled with papers, pens, and folders while my file cabinets are barren. I over-check and overeat. I'm a mess, but I've listened carefully to others. I'm a member of Absolute Write Water Cooler (one of the best writers' boards). I read comments. I check out threads that offer warnings issued from other authors.

In my life, I've been fooled. After all, I've been married three times: once to a cop, once to a criminal, and finally, to a psychologist so I could figure out why I married a cop and a criminal. That pretty much says it all. My dreams? Well, that's a different story. I treasure them, coddle them, nurture them. My work as a writer? Very much like children, my children, and I won't have my children misused. That's the truth of it.

I'll seek representation, but I'll be wary as we all should be. I'll keep asking questions and looking to the experience of others. When I query, I'll query agents who've had successes with books like my own. I'll make sure I've identified the genre correctly, and I'll make sure that the Dawg Pack has hounded the piece thoroughly before I send the first letter to a would-be agent.

There endeth the sermon for the day.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Discouragement

Do writers get discouraged? You betcha. The need to write comes with a deep need for approval. I suppose that's true with plumbers or electricians or any profession, but practitioners of the arts seem to require more "ointment of appreciation" than do most. Yep! I'm guilty. I sometimes allow friends to read my work for the sole purpose of having someone, anyone, say, "Hey, you're pretty good at this."

One of the greatest compliments I ever received came from my sainted mother. After reading one of my partial manuscripts, she said, "It's like it was written by a real author." From some perspectives, a comment like that might be vaguely insulting; however, to hear it from one of my hardest critics? Well, I'll remember that moment for a long time. Compliments are part of the salve required to soothe the nerves of a would-be author, but there are more important things.

Constructive criticism from people the writer respects is like gold in the pocket. One of my betas (people who read and suggest revision to manuscripts) is tough, really tough. She doesn't sugarcoat anything. She doesn't pick and choose words to avoid wounded egos or injured psyches. She, to coin a tried yet true phrase, "tells it like it is." If a piece has problems, she's quick to point them out without the encumbrance of euphemistic terminology. "This sucks" are words she might use or perhaps, "I stopped reading here because it was terrible and I couldn't force myself to go on." Hard to hear? Again, yes, but each time I drag my deflated ego to the keyboard after one of her betas, my work gets better, so much so that even I can see the difference.

Difference. Improvement. Polish. These are all words that go toward publication. My few and far between moments of publication are partly due to the fact that I submit very little work to potential publishers, but without voracious betas, even those few moments would be non-existant. In very short order, I'll be sending part one of my two part series off to be beta-ed, and I'm hoping to recieve the hard-hitting, ego-splitting responses that usually come my way. Discouraging? Sometimes more so than others. Helpful? More often than not, and help is what every would-be writer needs. Criticism works toward strenghtening any piece of writing as long as the author learns the value of that criticism. The publishing climate is always stormy and the stronger the manuscript the easier it is for the good ship "Get-Me-An-Agent" to find safe harbor.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Love, Sex, and Writing

Okay. So I'm not so good when it comes to writing love scenes. It's not that I haven't had a few 'love scenes' of my own. After all, I've been married three times. (That, however, is truly another story.) It's just that I don't feel comfortable writing sex scenes. I realize there's a difference between sex and love, but somehow, one seems to follow the other. Mostly, I just fade to black since I can't write a scene where music swells and the reader sees a field of daffodils.

Maybe it's my fundamentalist upbringing or maybe it's simply not my forte. Either way, when the heroine falls in love, somethings got to give and usually, it's her. I'd be interested to know how other authors deal with this problem. I can write tender. Tender's not so hard, literally and figuratively. My characters brush a cheek with their fingertips. They stroke the hair of a weeping partner. They look deeply into someone else's eyes. I got the hang of tender long ago.

I can't write down and dirty, that pulsing thump-thump, that sweat beading on the forehead, that heat beating its drum between the thighs stuff. Just as if I were in middle-school again, that stuff makes me giggle. I feel a tinge of guilt, a flash of fear, and then the heat stops beating its drum and I'm left with characters unfulfilled. Bad for them and bad for my work.

Needless to say, my writer friends think of me as a prude. Maybe I am. Who knows? I, personally, don't think of myself that way. I'm a modern woman, albeit some of my ideas about how to live life run toward the archaic by 21st century, American standards. I've always thought a reader felt the burn from a hint more than from a club over the head. But let's face it, sex sells.

From Suzanne Summers stint on Three's Company down to Beau and Hope between the sheets on Days of Our Lives, most people in charge of television programming believe that without a few naked bodies, the modern viewer would flick channels faster than Elizabeth Taylor flipped Eddie Fisher for Richard Burton. To make that clearer to the younger crowd, just substitute Jessica Simpson or Paris Hilton and their personal flavor of the weeks for Liz and her paramours of the past. I'm afraid the written word is no different. One very famous writer in my circle of acquaintances wrote a wonderful historical novel. He sold it to an agent who subsequently sold it to a publisher. The editor wasn't happy with the work as my friend had written it. The editor asked for the infusion of a love story, complete with that hot-and-bothered love scene. My friend complied with the editor's request, as do all clever writers, and $3.5 mil later, my friend no longer spends his days as a teacher. He's usually on the golf course or writing the next tome.

I've read many steamy scenes in other authors' works. I've read steamy scenes in the books of yester-year. I've watched ... well, I've watched movies noted for those scenes, but I still get giggles, guilt, and gut-wrenching fear of my inadequacies as a writer. I'm hoping all good things come with practice, practice, and more practice. Who knows? Some day I might venture into the world of Anne Rampling/ Rice. It could happen. Right?

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Once More into the Breach

Okay, so tomorrow is it....tomorrow is the first day of fall semester. I'm teaching three sections of Freshmen Comp...It's time to be afraid, very afraid. They're coming to my classroom and what will ensue only God knows.

As each year begins, I've got another set of headaches. Most of the students are woefully unprepared for college level writing. It's not really their fault. Actually, it's the fault of all those hippies (I confess. I was one for a while) who grew up to change the structure of education in America. I can remember hearing someone say that all children could learn but each child learns at a different rate. What my generation failed to take into account is the basic laziness of ALL humans. We take the easy way out from the time we walk to the time we become a boxed lunch for the worms. That's right. From the cradle to the grave, we strive to do as little as possible.

That little-as-possible thingy holds true. I've even experimented with the prospect, and I always come up with lazy as a result. There are a few students, very few, who contradict the principle, but their diligence is overshadowed by the majority of their peers. Learning stations, relaxed grading systems, re-vamped tests that "dumb down" the requirements for graduation and college admission...it all comes down to taking the easy way out. If a child resists learning, then by all means, make it easier for that child to pass so his/her parents won't be upset, so the statistics for a particular school look good on paper. You guessed it! This stuff really pisses me off!

Did you know that if a prospective teacher doesn't have an education degree but wishes to take a job in public education and if that teacher took SAT's before 1990 and scored above 1000, then the prospective teacher doesn't have to take the first of the two exams required for state licensure. Since 1990, the SAT test has been revised to accommodate the weaker students graduating high school in the 21st Century. The tougher test of the 20th Century go a long way. Sad. Very sad.

AS for writing...very few college freshmen can write a research paper. Heck, very few can write a cohesive paragraph. They have no understanding of basic grammar because the new pedagogy re-enforces the concept that grammar doesn't have to be taught. Students simply absorb grammar rules via osmosis as they write and read. Read? My experience tells me that they only read what they're forced to read with the exception of instructions on video games.

I'm going into the breach once more, packing up my book bag, searching for things that my students might find interesting, and thinking of presentations that won't cause (as it did on one occasion..honest!) students to stand up and question my right to ask them to read a book. I'm teaching a class called "Literature in context of Culture." So far, 10 students have signed up. If I'm lucky, that's the cut-off number and my class will make. If I'm really lucky, all 10 students will know who Hemingway is and will have read more than the back of a cereal box.

Whew! Glad I got that off my chest!

Sunday, August 22, 2010

As Always

As always happens, my writer's mind has begun its usual diversionary track. Yep! While revising and expanding my work in progress, a new work or maybe a new series has reared its ugly head. Characters are begging me to create them, scenes are appearing in dreams, imagination is putting together settings, and I'm struggling to keep my mind on the task at hand.

Some writers can handle multiple projects at one time. I can't. I'm a writer in focus. In other words, if I'm not in focus, not zeroing in on one piece, then nothing really gets finished. I may write character profiles for this new piece, and I most likely will attempt a general outline (something I never really adhere to).

Outlines work for some but not for me. It seems that my stories begin and then write themselves, each scene appearing on the inside of my eyelids and then transferring through my keyboard onto the screen in front of me. I usually know how the story is going to end, but I seldom know how it'll get from point A to point B. If I outline, it is very general, meaning it has a few character names, where or if those characters survive to the end of the novel, and how the story climaxes. That's it. Nothing more.

This burgeoning thing that is trying to distract me, as is true in all my stories, is founded in personal experience. I live in a region of the country served by the regional electric service monopoly known as AEP. AEP serves the general Appalachian region most associated with "mountain folk" as defined by popular, national opinion. Nevermind that these "folk" earn almost 50% less than people living in urban areas. Nevermind that these "folk" have fewer job opportunities, cannot access public transportation, and are bereft of some of the services available in other areas like public water and sewage, trash pick up, and zoning. Regardless of these facts, AEP has raised their electric service distribution prices almost 100% in the last 5 years. That's right. Cost of electric service has DOUBLED! Needless to say, the villain in my new book will be an electric company, a thinly disguised version of my nemesis, AEP.

That's all I'm telling right now. BUT my two-book series, WIP MUST COME FIRST. I can't trunk it again, not while I'm making headway in character development and plot line. This is when it usually happens...when I begin to rush toward the end, effectively disjointing the storyline and leaving my characters to perform deeds that seem foreign to the character I developed early in the story. This is when that virtue, patience, must take hold. Jumping from an unfinished novel into another not-yet-written piece will jumble my feeble brain and make both endeavors fruitless.

Writer know thyself. That's been a little hard for me. I've learned about me and about how I write over time. I know that if I hurry to finish the WIP, then the story will feel rushed and choppy. If I leave the WIP to move to another story that is bubbling up through the curly strands of my brain, then the work in progress (a good story by all accounts) might never be finished.

What is a writer to do? In this case, I'm pretty sure I've got a handle on it. I take notes. When the new story bubbles up, I wipe it from my brain by taking notes on possibilities as to how it might turn out. I keep the notes in a safe place. The WIP will be finished, to my satisfaction, and beta-ed by the Dawg Pack. After the pack has howled out its approval or disapproval, after the final edits are done, then I'll query the piece and keep my fingers crossed. While I'm querying, I'll slip out my notes and let all those collected bubbles of possibility breathe again. I'll write the first chapter of the next WIP, then the second chapter, and so on. When the agent who requests the full manuscript of the two-book series calls and says, "I'd like to offer you representation," I can say (after the screaming and fainting and shouting for joy, of course) "You know what? I've got two finished books on the old computer and I'm half way through a new one." Won't I be proud? :D

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Finally!

Okay. I've finally made some great headway. The one thing my beta-readers found unsettling in the one-now-two books I'm working on was character development. It seemed I slacked up a bit when it came to almost everyone in the story. Yep! As Robbie the Robot (oops! dated myself) once said, "Error. Error."

Character development appears in class number one of any writer's workshop. The key to success is to make the reader love at least one of the characters and have strong feelings about the rest, whether they're villains or heroes. When members of my writing group began the book, my main character was spellbinding. Well, that may be a little strong, but hey! They liked her a whole lot. When the book passed the half-way point, I began to hurry, letting my compulsive desire to finish overwhelm the characters, all the characters. Doesn't work. By the end of the book, most readers were glad the read was over, having seen the MC turn from strong and complicated to whiny and overbearing. Not good. Not good at all.

This go around, I'm trying to be more patient, to read the un-trunked volumes with an objective air, and through revisions, to tell readers what I already know: that the main character is indeed complicated, rootless yet strong enough to try to find a place in life to plant herself and grow. I'm hoping that all these revisions will work that magic and that by the time readers close the book, they'll want to open it and start again from the beginning. A good dream if I can pull it off.

Harper Lee did just that in To Kill a Mockingbird. Dare I hope to achieve that success? Well, a girl can hope, but I'd be happy with simply writing a good book and finally have readers other than my long-suffering writing group. Of course, no writer writes just to see hundreds of unsold books stacked in a dusty warehouse. I, like all authors (I sometimes call myself 'author' just so somebody says it), want to be read and often. My name on a bookjacket is a nice thought, but knowing that readers think I actually have something to say is a better idea.

I'd certainly like to think I have something to say, that my work will not only entertain the reader but also offer insight into the human condition. I write literary fiction, so far mostly historical literary fiction. For some reason, looking back at what we've been seems more appealing than looking forward to what we might become. We learn from history, or so I've been told, and history has always shown me a new way to view the present. As a writer, I can re-write history just a bit, hopefully just enough to offer that 20/20 hindsight we've all heard talk about. Some write about a future that we may never see. Their imaginations send us to apocalypse or to a wonderland in which all things evil are overcome by good. A nice place if you can find it.

My late husband was a visionary of sorts, even though, like John Milton, he was legally blind. He enjoyed Star Trek, not so much because of the scifi adventure but because the Trekkie world held cures for all diseases, hope that poverty would be eliminated, and laws that forbid the use of force except at times when Justice had been raped by burgeoning Injustice. Evil was always nipped in the bud, as Barney Fife once said. He liked to learn what visions writers had for the yet-to-come. To those who write futuristically, I doff my hat.

As for me and the 1800 or so words I've added to the WIP, I'm hoping my words give insight to the importance of personal history, to the idea that where we come from does as much to shape who we are as any other component of life. We're built, brick by tragic brick. We don't spring to life fully completed. Like the potter's clay, we're molded and shaped by circumstance, geography, and history, ours and the history of those around us. That's the point. We're born, yes, but then we must become.

My main character is finally becoming. What? Well, should the book be published and if you're interested, you must purchase a copy or otherwise, wait for the movie. :D