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.