Wednesday, December 31, 2008

A New Year

Some say there's bad news on the publishing front, that publishing houses are dropping like flies in a cloud of insecticide. Maybe, but then again, maybe not. Even during the Great Depression of the 1930's, books continued to be published and read. Authors like Faulkner and Fitzgerald, Hemingway and Wharton turned out some of their greatest work during those terrible years.

As for the new writer, me for instance, dreams never die no matter how hard the times. Even on this New Year's Eve, I'm hard at it, working to perfect my second novel, beta-ing my crit partners projects, and thinking about the plot line for the third book. Somewhere in the back of my den, the television is blaring with the Times Square celebration. Revelers are shivering in the cold (something like 16 degrees) while they wait for the mighty ball to fall. Not me. I'm safe at home, a fire roaring in my fireplace, and I'm working, working toward the dream.

My dream is to land an agent in 2009 and to have that agent sell one of my novels. No, not a dream. "As a man speaketh, so he is," the Bible says. I am speaking into the cosmos this New Year's Eve, speaking as if the dream isn't a dream at all, speaking as if the dream is a reality. This is my year, my year to become an agented and published author. This is the year my name finally appears in print.

Before that can happen, of course, I must edit and revise the second novel and finish the current work in progress. Time. It's all about time, the time it takes to do the job, the time it takes to redo the job, and the time it takes to get an agent or editor to read my work. Of course, don't forget the time it takes to have the crit partner read and the writing group read.

New years offer new times. New times means more time. Time is the key. Take the time to create the best work you can. While I work within the element of time, I wish you good times: a good year, good fellowship, and most of all good writing. Happy New Year.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Back Home

The day-job requirements, all that grading, are now complete. The fall semester over, I can return to my writing in full force, at least for a few weeks. Now what? What happens when you've separated yourself from that hot streak and you're suddenly back in the saddle, to coin a phrase?

While I was on my hot streak, plot flowed from my fingers like the current in a river. Now, after some time away, I must go back, read what I've written, and try desperately to feel the flow of that river current once again. Easier said than done.

Does this need to flow cause anguish? You betcha, but separation is also a good thing. When I advise my students about revising a written work, I say, "Don't try to revise the day you think you're finished. Wait at least twenty-four hours and then re-read, re-vision the work. While things are fresh in your mind, while you still remember what you meant, your brain can't see the problems."

You heard me right. What you meant to say and what you really said jumble themselves together like kittens sleeping in a basket. They become so intertwined that it's almost impossible to separate one from the other. Immediate revision lends itself to failure because our brain reads what we meant to say rather than what we said. From simple grammatical errors to confused and awkward sentence structure to failed plotlines, the process of quick revision doesn't work.

As I return to that glorious third novel, I've noticed things. What I thought of as clever quips are really dry prose and deviations from character and plot. What I felt worked toward character development appears to be nothing more than exercises in description. I've used forty words in some places to say what one good word would have said more eloquently and more effectively. Distance from that work in progress stimulates more real progress than forcing that thousand words out each day. Because I've had some time away, my brain is reading the new novel as if I just picked it up off the bookstore shelf. My revisions are more objective. I see where the author, in this case 'me,' is pushing herself into the work rather than letting the work stand alone.

Do I feel bad that I didn't notice these things while I furiously revised each day? No. It's not a sign that I'm a bad writer. It's just the normal function of the brain. For instance, if I were to stare at a lightbulb then close my eyes, the image of that bulb would remain on the back of my eyelids as just a bright light with no real form. The same is true with words. If you stare long enough and hard enough at a manuscript, the image of the words linger like that lightbulb, but the image and reality may be two different things.

The difference? The image is what I thought I said. The reality is what I really said, how I really put the plot together, how I really managed a character. Distance does make the heart grow fonder, and it makes your writing stronger. Victory comes from strength. Distance helps strengthen the piece and leads the work toward that great victory: publication.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008


When a cow suddenly stops giving milk, the farmer tells his wife, "Bossy's gone dry."

Bossy's internal systems may need a tweak or maybe, she's getting ready to give birth. Either way, there's no viable milk to be had. Right now, due to a variety of reasons, my writing life is dry. The two thousand or so words I was able to crank out last week don't have a two-thousand-twin this week. For a very long time, I pushed for a thousand words per day. Now, I'm lucky if one hundred words make it from my fingers through the keyboard and onto the screen.

Some time ago, I wrote about writer's block, a condition that some believe to be non-existant. I'm not blocked, not now. Right now, I'm covered up with words, the words of the one hundred and fifty or so students who fill the desks in my university classroom. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, it's that old end-of-the-semester grading crunch that all teachers everywhere dread. I dread it more than most. Some might say that I truly hate it.

It's that day-job thing. Just like the would-be actress who waits tables while waiting for a full-time acting job, I languish in a day-job. I teach composition and American literature while I wait for the agent, the super-intuitive agent, who'll see the merit in my fiction.

The heroine of my newest work in progress had just been assaulted when I left her. She's waiting, too, waiting for the resolution to her problem. I really want to help her escape her tormenter, but the day-job thing is in the way, blocking my efforts to bring her to safety. Sometimes while I'm in the midst of determining whether or not that strange quotation is properly documented, she knocks on the door to my hindbrain saying, "Hey, remember me? His hands are still around my throat. I can't breathe. I feel the pressure of his fingers tightening around my larynx."

I tell her that the cavalry's coming, that she's not going to die. After all, I've only written the first five or six chapters. She can't go yet. I try not to tell her that my view of her situation matches the President-elect's view of the current U.S. economic crisis, that it'll get worse before it gets better. I try to leave her behind the hindbrain's door and focus on the task at hand, the completion of the final grades, but sometimes, I find myself writing the story in my head, formulating, creating, moving her from point A to point B.

"One job at a time," I tell myself. "Finish grading. There'll be time to lift her from her dire circumstances."

One job at a time. That's the key. We're back to patience, that illusive character trait that's so highly tauted. My late father had a saying, "It's all in paying attention." Details. Pay attention to the details even though, the details of living interfere with the details of dreaming. I dream of becoming a published author. Until the dream is realized, I'm a teacher, and a teacher must conform to the parameters of her job. She must teach and ergo grade. On that note, I leave you, dear friends. I leave you so that I may attend to the details of living. To paraphrase Langston Hughes, my dream must be deferred, at least until the grading crunch is ended.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Nobody's Perfect

Yep. You heard me. Nobody's perfect. Oh, some might claim perfection, some might see themselves as perfect at one thing or the other, but that, my friends, is a delusion. The words 'perfect' and 'human' cannot be used in the same sentence.

Even the mighty William Faulkner, that bastian of American literature, failed to meet the mark of perfection. In 1955, he won The National Book Award for A Fable, his arrogant retelling of Christ's passion using a French, WWI soldier as the model for Christ. In 1955, Faulkner was considered the 'great man of letters,' and the fact that he produced a novel, any novel, seemed noteworthy to the committee making the selection. His acceptance speech turned into a long, rambling, almost incoherent series of sage advice and self aggrandizement. Faulkner wasn't perfect. Maybe he knew that. Maybe he didn't.

If Faulkner could fall short of perfection, if Ernest Hemingway needed to revise The Old Man and the Sea over one hundred times before he got it right, what should we fledgling authors expect from ourselves? Often, we expect agents to pound down our doors just to get a shot at that wonderful first novel. Often we can't understand why that publisher gave a thumbs down on the opportunity to have their house and our work joined on the shelves of the local bookstore. What we should understand is that it takes time, it takes thousands of words, thousands of failed efforts to finally reach the point where our work meets the standards of the industry.

Recently, a fourth-grader submitted a 'how-to' book to an agent. To be precise: How to Talk to Girls. The advent of this new author caused ripples in the writing community, especially among those who've been trudging along for years trying to get the attention that this child received so readily. Even I felt a pang, but I soon realized that the 'oddity' of the submission got the attention, not the talent or wisdom of the author. The boy may be the author of the book, but is he a writer? No. He's an oddity like the elephant painter on YouTube or the guy who has the longest fingernails in the world, someone or something that goes against the norm.

To all those talented, would-be writers out there, I send this message. Don't put down your pens in disgust. I haven't. I need to write like I need to drink water. The sudden and unmerited success of a fourth-grader doesn't mean that I won't reach my goal, that I won't finally put in the time and effort it takes to meet the industry standards, get an agent, and see my name in print. I can't say that my ego isn't suffering some bruising over the recent turn of events, but I can say that before Faulkner and The National Book Award committee made the 'great man' a laughing stock, he managed to write The Sound and the Fury. I cling to the hope that our fourth-grader is more fury than sound, that like all oddities he will fade into oblivion, and that soon I'll be interviewed because of a Pulitzer nomination or that National Book Award.

Monday, December 8, 2008

My Story

I recently beta-ed for a friend, an excellent writer who is a regular contributor to a gardening magazine. An amateur gardener myself, I find her work fascinating. Most of the time, she writes touching vignettes about the gardening life: those plants that survive no matter what you do to terminate them, the unexpected gardeners like little squirrels who plant things in the oddest places. My gardening friend is a meticulous writer who seldom makes an error, so I often find it difficult to find anything to criticize. The combinations of subject and excellence make my job as critique partner a breeze.

I make a distinction here between the writing group I speak of so often and my critique partner. The gardener reads my work as I go along, as I do hers. She sends a chapter or two for my perusal, and I send her a few chapters for her review. We work in tandem to find those places where a reader of the potential finished product might find a non-sequitur or scratch their heads if a the heroine of the piece seems to do something out of character. We check each other's spelling and grammar. We strike and bold words and phrases that clutter up the story. We ask questions about where one or the other of us are going with a storyline, whether that beautiful descriptive passage really advances our plot.

What are we really? We're waxers. Before anything can have that final buffing, that application of craft that makes it shine, it has to be waxed. While waxing, we remove blemishes or nicks that might mar the final shine, the polish that comes when the writing group gets their hands on it.

My crit partner belongs to a writing group not unlike The Dawg Pack. Her group meets locally, occasionally having the luxury of holding readings for the public. My group meets, but over the internet connection. My friend knows what members of her group look like and sound like. Which is better? The virtual group or the group who's physically present? There is no 'better' in this case.

The trick to receiving constructive criticism, whether face to face or through virtual contact, is simply this: be willing to reconstruct your product based on the input of others. Just like me, my crit partner quivers in fear when she gives the copies of her pieces to her writing group so they can mull them over. She waits to hear what the next meeting will bring, whether she gets a thumbs up or thumbs down. Her anxious nail-biting is no different than my own. However, when members of the group offer their criticism, we both take it on the chin. Sometimes, we find things to smile about, but sometimes, the group leaves us with our eyes firmly pointed toward the floor or our noses bleeding from the battering. Either way, we go home, hit the keyboard, and work, honing the product based on criticism.

Every writer needs a crit partner. I found mine on Absolute Write, an internet community of writers. My friend found her writing group connected to a book club she felt the urge to join. Like any group with a common interest, writers tend to find each other. BUT (notice that's a big but) the important thing when claiming a crit partner is to find someone who's willing to give constructive criticism, someone who's not afraid to say, "Hey, I don't think that works." A crit partner isn't Cousin Millie who raves about your work or that friend who's too kind to tell you that 'in tact' is really 'intact.' Test a would-be partner. Don't rest in a nest of laurels created by flattery. Flattery won't make you grow. As my gardening friend says, crit partners water your roots.

Friday, December 5, 2008


Last night, I read an article in On the Premises, an on-line newsletter for writers. The article, One Thing I Would Tell Writers, was the product of best-selling author Jodi Thomas. What she essentially said was "be prepared to fall." Oh, Ms. Thomas wasn't talking about that slip on the ice or tripping over that toy that Junior left in the kitchen floor. No. She was talking about moving on.

What does it mean to move on. According to Thomas, it means burying corpses. I have one corpse already buried, a manuscript that was obliterated from my document files long ago. There were no sad songs, no tears, no mournful cries. I looked up the title, hit delete, answered the question my computer asked regarding my serious intent. I seriously intended to forget the manuscript was ever written. I can't. I remember the title and the premise. That Clark Boy, my deceased first effort as a novelist, is dead. Good riddance.

I have another novel, what I lovingly call my real first effort, that may very well suffer the same fate. I'm not one of those writers who can't move on to another book if the first one fails to get the attention of an agent or publisher. Maybe it's because that 'real first effort' did get some attention that keeps it in the document files and not relegated to a dusty, floppy disc in the attic. It may be, however, that all I got from the months of painstaking work that ultimately resulted in that manuscript is an understanding of how to get a little attention. I learned that eighty percent of attention comes from the query letter.

In my writing group, I'm called "Query Dawg." Odd title, isn't it? Not so odd when you think about the attention I garnered for my first 'real effort.' After several rounds of querying, I received multiple requests for partial and full manuscripts. True, some of the requests came from questionable agents whose business offices were in BFE, Kansas, but some came from the most reputable agencies in New York and California. I did okay for a beginner.

I'm a firm believer that all things happen for a reason, that our associations and efforts are somehow guided from above, and that all we're asked to do in our lives is interpret the signs. Our job, our true input to our own successes and failures, comes solely from our ability to recognize true opportunity when it finally knocks. It always knocks, but we sometimes fail to answer the door. My ailing manuscript came to fruition for two reasons: 1)It taught me that I could write a novel and wasn't just a wishful thinker when it came to becoming an author. 2)I learned the query is the thing to catch the eye of the agent who, in turn, will catch the eye of the publisher. In that regard, I also learned how to write a query that might tantalize a prospective agent into taking at least a quick look at what an author has to offer. Ergo: I am "Query Dawg," and am frequently asked to take a quick look at queries from other would-be authors.

Jodi Thomas's advice is worthy of following. "Be prepared to fall," she says. I agree. If the goal is to become published, then you have to accept the idea that everything you write isn't worthy of that goal. Sometimes, no matter how long and how hard you've worked on a manuscript, you have to bury it on that floppy disc in the attic. I'm not saying that there won't be tears for words lost. What I am saying is that you must wipe your eyes, throw the tissue in the trash, and go back and try again. Find the right combination of story and words, of plot and action, and start the process all over again.

Saturday, November 29, 2008


The big question? Does this advance the story? Sometimes, a writer lends his or herself opportunities to explore the profound, to wax eloquent, if you will. The temptation to offer up great pearls of wisdom or beautiful passages is always there, lurking somewhere under the lines. On occasion, these would-be beautiful passages work. Most of the time, they don't. Lately I've been tempted a lot, tempted to deviate just a bit, an iota, and allow myself the luxury of that eloquence. I fight that urge with every fiber of my being, but now and again, I give in only to have to remove those lovely words during a revision cycle.

On one occasion, even my crit partner recognized such an opportunity. In the story, a man was bitten by a rabid fox. "Oh!" my partner exclaimed. "Think of what you could do with that one!" I thought about it. A grown man, writhing and twisting, unable to swallow and foaming at the mouth. Man turned to raging beast, snarling, de-evoloution at its best. I caught myself before I indulged in the passage. Big Dawg and Mumsy Dawg's voices rang in my head: "Does this advance the story?" they asked.

The truth of the matter was that it didn't advance the story. I could have gone on for paragraph after paragraph, lending my readers a vision of the horrible, the twisted, but I didn't. I snapped a quick overview and moved on. The story wasn't about rabies. The story was about the youthful nurse who tried desperately not to dispel the hope of recovery after the initial bite. "Focus," I said to myself. "Focus on the story."

The novel that holds that particular snippet is still making its way among the Dawg Pack. I haven't heard how far it's gotten, but I'm sure it'll be back from Mumsy pretty soon, covered in her indigenous purple marker. Then it'll go to the Big Dawg and finally to our sweet, little pup, a woman known only as the Master Slasher. She works in red.

Now, the new work-in-progress is formulating in my files. Taking shape. Growing those embryonic legs I talked about. The bud of the story will soon blossom, and the hindbrain will force my fingers to work faster, harder, longer, until I write the words 'the end.' During the process of development, my crit partner will receive snippets, pieces of the story. She'll sniff out things I should have seen myself. She'll say things like, "I don't think so-and-so (insert character name) would say this or do this." I'll agree mostly, because if my first reader doesn't think something holds true to character, then my second and third reader probably won't either.

Advancing. It's all about advancing the story, keeping characters true to themselves, killing those darling passages that make you feel like a real writer but do nothing to push the plot. Maintaining action. Keeping the reader with you instead of sending them off to skim through so they can say they made it to the end. The words 'the end' should never make the reader feel relief. They should never make a reader feel like they've reached the top of Everest. The words 'the end' should be reached with regret. The reader should say, 'I hate to leave' rather than 'than God it's over.'

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Giving Up

Long ago, country music star Tanya Tucker, sang, "If it don't come easy, let it go." Of course, she was referring to a doomed love affair, but the advice holds true for writers. I've been struggling with a work in progress, trying desperately to get a foothold, but continually failing. So, I let it go. Another idea lay hidden in the folds of my cerebellum. I only found it the other day, resting somewhere between the thought that I might become a medical professional and the decision about who not to invite to dinner. I picked it up, dusted it off, and thought, "Ahhh, not so bad."

I started work and in less than thirty minutes, I had about a thousand words, good words. I didn't start the story too soon, one of my failings, I didn't lose interest around the five hundred word mark, and I didn't find myself struggling to get just the right images on the page. Like old Tanya said, it came easy so I didn't let it go.

The other work in progress has changed position. It's been relegated to the bottom of my document files and may or may not be resurrected. The new WIP is coming along nicely. The only problem I've had is deciding on chapter breaks. The story exits my fingertips with such rapidity that I have to go back and make those chapter divisions as a part of revision.

With the hindbrain firmly in charge, I'm desperately trying to stay out of my own way. Another of my problems. According to the betas, I stand squarely between my writing and any possibility of getting an agent. What does that mean, you ask?

That means that I make my own life difficult. I allow myself to filter in, telling the audience what's happening and not simply showing them. I over describe, my love of words obscuring the meanings of the words themselves. I use forty words to say what one well chosen term might say as well if not better. In other words, I try too hard. A newbie mistake, I know, but the first step in solving any problem is admitting it's there. The second step, STOP! Stop standing in the way of the story. Let the words breathe, something that's a lot harder to do than you might imagine.

One of my biggest problems is those darned creative writing courses I took in college. I've talked about their one genre focus before. I'm not saying don't take a writing course. I'm just suggesting that each writing course should be viewed from the perspective of 'will this work for me.' Not every professor is truly an expert, in that some don't have the publishing credits that a good creative writing teacher needs in order to help a future author toward the goal of seeing his/her book on the shelf.

Well, Hindbrain is calling. I must comply with its request that I return to the new WIP. Wish me luck. I'll need it. This new novel has a long way to go before it hits the beta trail.

Saturday, November 22, 2008


Last night during a discussion with the Big Dawg, I asked a question that involved the adverb "When." Much growling and snarling ensued. The 'when' word is apparently a serious no-no, even if it doesn't involve your own work. When is bad, no matter whose work you're talking about. No when's. Just patience and the willingness to wait.

According to Big Dawg, 'when' instills additional anguish in whoever you're talking to. Publishing and agenting are businesses. Business. Nothing more. It's about product, supply and demand, about giving the customer what he/she wants. When your work leaves your hands and goes to the selling floor, it's not yours anymore. That book you nurtured, the one you healed through revision, is not your baby any longer. It's just a product on the shelf. Hard to accept, huh?

After much whining from this old Query Dawg, I have to admit that Big Dawg's right. (Shhh! Don't tell, okay?) A book is very much like the child of the author. After all, just like that blastula that lodges in the walls of the female uterus, a book is a part of its creator.

An author experiences a moment of great passion, if you will. That passion is the desire to write. The idea for a subject emerges, sometimes in a burst of excitement, sometimes as the result of partial ideas merging into one. Zygote! That cell of a thought moves to the author's hindbrain and rests comfortably there until the writer formulates how to best tell the zygote's story. Time passes. With each stroke of the keyboard, the story develops, growing arms and legs, taking form. Eventually, the last stroke of the author's fingers manages a 'the end.' The story's fully developed and ready to make its entrance into the agenting world. All it needs is a little introduction.

Big Dawg says, that's where the child ends and the product begins. Once the idea and the author's talents are sold to an agent and/or publishing house, you've given your baby up for adoption. It no longer belongs to you. It's no longer a part of the family of documents in your personal files. It's product, making its way through the assembly line and heading for retail shelves everywhere. The better the product, the more often the creator of said product will be asked to produce more.

No matter how eloquent the producer is, no matter how in love with the embryonic idea, no matter what, ultimately any writer becomes Henry Ford. In the end, the goal is to create product that so entices the reader that the producer can earn a living through their creation. In other words, so that you can become a full time writer instead of a part time teacher or waiter or insurance salesman.

Art as product. We sometimes fail to believe that those singular, one of a kind creations are just shelf stuffing, but they are. Whether you're Gauguin or Grisham, art is product. If you're lucky, you don't give your babies away, you make a very good deal with Random House.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

The Quandry

The only way for a writer to learn how to write IS to write. Okay, so I can't come up with a novel idea (in more ways than one) every day. It's not like pulling a rabbit out of a hat. Some writers have thousands of would-be manuscripts floating up there in their memory files. Others, like me, don't. I have what might best be described as the occasional epiphany. That is, out of the hundreds of possible scenarios that float through my brain in any given twenty-four hour period, there might be one that sparks my creative juices. Then again, none of those ideas might seem like something I'd want to spend weeks or months mulling over.

I envy the writers who grab onto one of the hundreds of ideas that flicker in their cerebellum and turn it into over one hundred thousand words or so. I've been working on the third book, but no matter what I try or how many times I start and restart, the words on the page look up at me through dead eyes and yawn. I have no desire to write a sleeper, or rather, to write a book that puts me and will inevitably put an agent to sleep.

While I was driving my granddaughter to school today, something flickered dimly. Ah! Cervical cancer, not my own but one of my characters. I smiled. This is it, I thought. Then I dropped the kiddie at the front door of her kindergarten and headed home. By the time, I'd made the left out of the school parking lot, the flicker went completely dead and the smile faded. I've had cervical cancer and I have no desire to revisit the surgeries and chemicals related to the disease. Write what you know, but some things you know are better left buried inside your brain.

Finally, it occurred to me that I could actually write about a whole, sane person. For me, that's an epiphany. By the time I reached my own driveway, the story I currently have in those dusty old document files had mutated into a lively, feisty woman fighting her way through the horrors of nature. There's the ticket, the ticket to the third addition to my persistent hope that one day I'll be published. The third book might work, if number one and number two don't garner the attention of an agent. Book two is far better than book one. If I hold true to form, book three will top two.

Pray for me, brothers and sisters. Pray for me.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Winter of My Discontent

It's snowing, just a skiff, but snow nonetheless. I do my best work in winter. Before I started writing in earnest, I never considered myself to be seasonal. Now, I know I am. As I reread my work, I've discovered that summer, or rather, stories I set in the summer months, don't work as well as stories that include the bitter weather of winter. Why? Who knows. Maybe I've got some kind of internal descriptive clock that only ticks in high gear when it's cold.

My first novel happens during a week in July. Good guys chase bad guys. Good guys catch bad guys. Bad guys suffer justified but horrible fate. Basic stuff. The Big Dawg in the writer's group has always liked the premise. I mean who can go wrong with good triumphs over evil? Apparently, I can.

Big Dawg says that the only characters who seem real are the bad guys. The good guys? Stick figures. Two dimensional. And the reader? The reader doesn't seem to care if any of those good guys live or die. Although I accept the blame for this failed attempt, right now I'm personally blaming it on summer. The story has been trunked to rise from the dust another day, a cold day like today when the snow is covering my back deck and I'm locked in for twenty-four hours.

Although the agent who read the first novel and requested some changes is still waiting, logic dictates that he'll have to wait for a few, long months. Rather than rush a less than adequate tale to his computer screen, it's best to let it swelter in the trunk than lose overall. Another lesson in patience. Damn that patience! He's a hard lesson to learn. Necessary but hard.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Block or Burn

A few days ago, I made much about starting the new novel. I did start, sort of. My problem? Block. That's the clever title some long-ago writer gave to explain a total loss of words. Yeah. I'm at a loss for words. For those who know me, that seems totally contradictory to my personality. I'm the one with the clever quips, the philosophical ramblings, the one who's always ready with an opinion or question. Writer's block isn't about any of those things.

Writer's block doesn't eliminate words from your brain. Those words are still there and the writer is still able to make clever comments, introduce theories and attitudes about life, and to offer an opinion on any subject. They're able to do that in conversation, but when it comes to advancing a story, developing a character, or defining a plot line? Ker-plooey! Nada. Zilch. The transfer of words from the brain through the fingertips and onto the computer screen just ain't happening, if you know what I mean.

It's not that I don't have any words under the heading "Chapter 1." I do. More than a thousand or so as a matter of fact. It's that when I reached that thousand or so, nothing I tried seemed to work. If you take a long listen to a weatherman, he'll inevitably use the phrase "intermittent showers" when talking about the iffy possibility of rain. That's what writer's block is like. It's the occasional spattering of words. They come in short bursts like a quickly passing shower or they just drizzle out, a few at a time. And like the weatherman, those drizzled words feel untrustworthy.

When block comes early on, I ask myself, "Is this the book I should be writing?" or "Is my hindbrain trying to tell me to move on to greener word pastures?" Who knows? Maybe. Mostly I think that writers are convinced that daily output is more important than quality output. I've just finished a re-write and I've written an entirely new book. My output is fine, sometimes reaching nearly 15,000 words per week. But that was the last book, and this is the current work in progress. Albeit progressing slowly.

Some writers, say Nora Roberts, can produce a new tome every two weeks or so. Some writers like Harper Lee produce one valuable book in a lifetime. I think I'm somewhere in between. Oh, I've got a short story brewing, and I write poetry. In fact, a poet friend of mind once told me that I was the most prolific poet she knew and at the same time, the most ardent revisionist.

I never thought of blogs as therapeutic, but as I write this, I'm beginning to understand the problem. My mind is still back on the second novel, thinking about what will happen when the Dawg Pack finishes their betas. Maybe I don't have block. Maybe I have temporary burnout.

Saturday, November 8, 2008


I'm starting the third book. At least, I keep telling myself I'm starting. So far, I've written almost 5,000 words and I've deleted more than half of them. Starting a book is like starting a car with an engine defect. You know those cars that grrr and grumble, the engine hinting that it might turn over more than twice but taking its own good time doing it.

I always begin with a gimmick. Never works. Then I try another gimmick. That doesn't work either. Finally, in desperation I might make it to the story, but I always seem to start too soon. I know agents prefer that sudden jolt that draws attention, but I seem to be stuck in the era when authors took time to set the stage before bringing all the actors on. I get over it eventually but only after hours of anguish. It's those false starts that kill me.

I actually started this book long before I finished the second novel. At 30,000 words, I sent it to one of my betas who absolutely hated it. I revised and sent it again, but she still hated it. I put it on the shelf to gather dust for a while and picked up something that had been floating around in my mind. I put that on the page and then took a fifteenth look at my previous effort. The beta, as always, was right. It sucked, so I deleted it (except for some very good stuff that I thought I might use in the future) and began afresh with a new title and a new premise. Only the names of the characters remained.

I will get started. I know that, but that first hump is the biggest and most difficult to maneuver. It's not as easy as saying, "Once upon a time," but believe me that's exactly how I'd like to start. I suppose my tenacity is what makes me a writer, that unfailing unwillingness to just let things lay. Without it, I'd be one of the thousands who keep saying, "One day, I'm going to write a novel." I've written a novel. In fact, I've written two and the third, well the third may actually be on its way.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Writing...What a Life!

Well, I did it. I finished the second manuscript. As I often say, not bad for a beginner. That's two down, and hopefully, fifty or sixty to go. That is, fifty or sixty to go should I actually find an agent and a publisher.

Writing...what a life! To paraphrase Renee DeCarte, I write; therefore, I am. Sounds silly, doesn't it? A writer, a true writer, can't keep the story off the page. Whether they get published or not, they just keep hacking at it. Stories form inside their heads during the night. Potential plots swirl around their cerebellum while they drive to work or watch television. They read, honing their craft, and all the while think, I wish I'd written that or I could have written this so much better. Although those thoughts sound a bit arrogant, in reality it's the genes talking.

Whatever happens in the life of a writer becomes fodder for the gristmill. Writers, as is often said, write what they know. I know Virginia and its history. I know what it's like to be poor, really poor, eating the same meal night after night: boiled potatoes and beet pickles. I know how to plant a garden, raise chickens, and milk cows. I put all of that into my work, accompanied by an occasional burst of psychology melded with my own personal style.

My genre? I write in the literary genre. Can't help it. I've tried others, many others, especially the paranormal. My writing group doesn't like the paranormal elements I slip into my least, they don't like it so far. As in the first novel, I've had to eliminate the concept of the paranormal: time travel, ghostly visits, second sight. The trouble is that I know that, too.

Am I a psychic? Do I frequently chat with the other side? No. I'm neither a psychic nor am I someone who's had extensive experience chasing down demons and such. I'm from Appalachia. During my childhood, I sat by the old, coal stove and listened, listened to the whispered tales of ghosts and evil spirits, from the Bell Witch to the shadowy figures that lived in local, abandoned houses.

I've wondered at my own inability to translate those ghostly tales into my work, and I think I've come up with a solution. I'm so steeped in the paranormal, that it doesn't frighten me. I'm not afraid of ghosts and ghouls and things that go bump in the night. We can not fear the familiar, and I'm all too familiar with these kinds of stories. Because of my utter lack of fear, I can't make those stories frightening to my readers. They all come out bland and matter of fact. In my work, the sentences, "I ran to the mailbox" and "I saw a ghost" come out with the same sense of tension. No tension, no fear, and without fear, no excitement. I'm one of those people who, when subjected to the eerie sound of disembodied laughter, would just roll over in bed and say, "I wish them haints would shut up. I need to get some sleep."

Maybe someday I'll be able to create the kind of tension required to strike terror in the hearts of a reader. I think I'd like that: a very literary ghostly tale, filled with strange whispers and stranger sights. Till then, I'll simply practice on friends and family and occasionally torture the Dawg Pack.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Keeping On Keeping On

My finished manuscript is with my betas, The Dawg Pack. I'm waiting...waiting...waiting. There are rules within the pack, and so I'm loathe to try to hurry them or to ask when they think they'll be finished. It's certainly bad form because ultimately they're doing me a great favor. It's not like they've borrowed money. They're reading and re-reading the book so it will be pristine by the time I offer the re-submit requested by an agent. I have to be patient. Patience is a virtue, one that doesn't come easy.

What to do when betas are working? Write. Write your little heart out. I'm writing, working on a new manuscript that will probably be finished by the time the betas return my current book. No, they've not had the resubmit for years, just weeks. During that time, I had an idea, polished it, and now I'm almost eighty-nine thousand words along. Do I still want to ask, "Hey, how's it going?" You betcha, but I won't...not anymore.

I tried that. Didn't work. I just got the "patience" thing repeated over and over again. These writers have lives, families, problems, their own work. Battering at their mental doors is not the way to win friends and influence people. It causes tension, unnecessary tension. The second great lesson in working in a writing group? If you pester, your work will fester, become an annoying boil on the (well, you can guess where) of your group members.

When John Keats lay dying from tuberculosis, he wrote his epitath: Here lies a man whose name is writ in water. If Keats had rushed his betas, had denied the concept of favor, those words would probably ring true. He would have received no concrete advice or help, and he would have been forgotten, left to lay beneath the sod, just another would-be writer. Instead, he worked with Byron and others, perfecting his craft. Now, his work is studied in every school and on every campus, and he's classified as one of the six great romantic poets in British history. I'd rather take Keats' route.

John Keats had no way of knowing how important he would become to the literary world, but he did understand the importance of perfecting his craft. That's what working in groups does for any writer. It helps that writer perfect the craft. There's more to writing a book that punching out the story. Craft is equally important, and it's craft that betas teach. Listen to the teachers, hear their words, never lose patience, and one day, you may be able to make a few calls in which you blurt out those all important words, "I just got an agent!"

Monday, October 6, 2008


I find myself setting deadlines, my own deadlines for work to be submitted. Big Dawg (the alpha female in my writing group) does not wag her tail happily when I do this. She bares her teeth and growls.

Artificial deadlines are not conducive to good writing. If you're like me, you say things like: "I want to finish up and get this out by next week." "I'm running behind. I should be finished by now."

The pressures of life are daunting. In the work-a-day world, there's competition for everything from a grocery cart to a job. Traffic lashes at good humor and something at home always seems to need fixing. The kids quarrel. The dog has to go to the vet. Stress. The stress of everyday living. Why add stress to your life?

As much as I hate to admit it, Big Dawg is right. Adding one more stressor to life by setting that artificial deadline doesn't make for successful writing. I've come to realize that if the writer pushes for inspiration, it seldom comes. The thousand words on the pages of that new work in progress must be the right thousand words. Setting deadlines for yourself, dates and times you feel you should be finished and ready to submit, add stress. Worse than that, those deadlines make for dead lines, words that will inevitably be erased during revision and that do nothing to advance your story.

Keep this in mind as you begin to twitch and writhe, believing yourself to be too slow or too late in submitting. If an editor says, "I need these revisions in a week," then that's a real deadline. Do it. If it's the voice in your own head talking, weigh it out. Deadlines or dead lines. Your choice.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Hard At It

So, the first of my three betas gave the revise and resubmit version of my novel the once over. She's a reader more than a writer and has the equivalent of degrees in psychology, history, and God bless her, accounting. (To me, any math is more terrifying than Godzilla, up close and personal.) She cut ALL the paranormal elements in the novel.

Why, you ask? Even though I come from a region of the country that thrives on all things paranormal, Mumsy Dawg thinks that my presentation of things that go bump in the night is cliched. Would I like to believe that what I have to offer is new and fresh? You betcha, but if the first dawg in my pack thinks it's cliched, I have to pay attention.

I write in the literary genre. Can't help it. That's me. My efforts to cross over into the paranormal haven't reached her, haven't caused her to sit up and take notice. I'd like to say that I can write in any genre. Some can. Apparently, I can't. She's a trusted member of my pack, and gosh-darn-it, she's never been wrong before. I read and reread her comments and although I weep copious tears, "Out, OUT, dear darlings."

Mumsy Dawg works in purple. My manuscript is covered in long, deep purple marker. I weep and moan. I grimmace with pain, but I make the cuts. It's still my story, still my book, but a review of the version in which her edits have been made offers a clearer picture and more finely honed dialogue. She was right after all. I loved all those paranormal darlings, but without them, I'm inching toward a real story, what Hemingway called the Iceberg Theory of Literature. It's all there, the clues rising above the waves but the gist of it all floating just beneath the surface.

First lesson in working in groups: Learn to kill your darlings, a phrase often used by the Big Dawg. Keep it in mind. What you love in your work might very well be what's standing in the way of the story, and the story is the thing to grab the conscience of the .... in this case, agent!

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Just Doing the Best I Can

I'm a "newbie," or at least that's what my friends tell me. A "newbie" writer. I started my (ur-um) career as a writer rather late in life, but I'm looking forward to the future. Okay. So it won't be the future from a twenty-one-year-old's perspective, but the future I expected to live when I was that age never panned out anyway.

First, I wanted to join the Peace Corps. They denied my application, saying I had no marketable skills to offer. I was eighteen then and I thought all you had to do was show up. Not. Then I decided to become a special education teacher, but I was too much the professional mother to force anyone to reach their full potential. Then....I got a cop...Need I say anymore? He was from the north. I was from the south, and our own private civil war raged within a tiny New Jersey apartment.

THEN...I decided to become a businesswoman. I did okay, I guess. Paid the bills, albeit sometimes later than my creditors requested. I did the so-so businesswoman thing for a while. Next, I became a medical professional. A dental assistant to be exact. Not my cup of tea as it turned out, although I did meet some very interesting people.

Jobs came and went until I became the domestic traffic controller for an international chemical trading firm. Big title, not so big paycheck. I sold burglar alarms, waited tables, worked a while for Loreal of Paris, and finally went back to my eighteen-year-old missionary bent. I started running not-for-profit agencies. I was pretty good at it. Even won some state recognition.

I earned accreditation as a rehab provider, but I burned out after a few years. The problem? The majority of people who seek rehabilitation do so because some court somewhere forced them to. They're not really interested in getting off the booze or working through the drug issues. Mostly, they want that completion of program certificate. This unfortunate circumstance means that rehabilitation providers, such as myself, seldom really see any success for their efforts. After a multitude of failures, I just threw up my hands and said, "The hell with it."

Then it happened. I suffered the worst personal tragedy imaginable. My ten-year-old daugher was killed. I lost all passion for work of any kind, but I needed to do something, something productive, something that wouldn't cause her to hang her head in shame as she viewed this life from the next. I went back to college, earned my MA in English, and I became a teacher. I kind of like that. In fact, I'm still doing it!

While I slaved away in graduate school, I came to the sudden realization that what I really wanted, wanted more than chocolate or a lottery win (maybe that last thing is an exaggeration), was to become a writer. I started with poetry. You can even google my name and find a few pieces floating around the web. There's more. I found myself longing to tell stories. Big stories. Little stories. All kinds of stories, and I wanted to tell them in print.

I became a "newbie," a wannabe writer looking for guidance and, of course, representation. I've done what ninety percent of wannabe writers never actually do. I've finished my first novel. Okay. So it's not published...YET. But wonders of wonders, I'm now cracking away at my second book. At this point, I figure I've got maybe twenty thousand or so words to go until I can write the two words that really mean something to a book: THE END.