Category Archives: Revision Work

Rejection, with a side of Acceptance

Believe it or not, rejection is an important part of every writer’s life. No one is immune. I was reminded of this recently when I read the editor’s column in the July 2018 issue of The Writer. Nicki Porter described the reality of writing submissions, whether the submission is to a magazine editor, a literary agent, or an editor at a publishing house, the mathematics are much the same. Each receives hundreds of submissions a week. Porter wrote: “The amount of manuscripts a typical agent receives in a year could fill three train cars, but the amount she accepts will fill a tidy desk drawer — and she’ll successfully sell even less.” Rejection, then, is an important part of every writer’s life no matter if the writer is a beginner, experienced, or an award-winning author.

I tend to look at rejections the same way I look at mistakes: they are opportunities for learning, for improvement. Yes, each rejection hurts initially, but I learned a long time ago that the rejection is never about me personally. In fact, the rejection might not even be about my writing. Sometimes it’s about an editor who has already scheduled to publish a story similar to mine in theme or story. Or it could be that despite my research into the publication, my story just doesn’t fit it. Once, I even encountered the reason that the publication had changed hands and editors with an entire new approach to the magazine.

When I suspect the rejection is about my writing, that’s an opportunity to go through the story with a more objective eye, an editor’s eye, and revise and tighten it as needed. If an editor takes the time to write a note, I pay close attention to what the editor says in that note. There was one time, however, that I dismissed the note — it was from a young literary agent writing about Perceval’s Secret that I’d submitted to his agency for consideration. The agent expressed interest, but wanted me to change Evan Quinn, the protagonist of the novel (and the subsequent 4 novels in the series), to a woman because female protagonists were “hot” and it would be easier for him to sell to a publisher. The agent didn’t say that the character didn’t work as a male, or even ask me anything about my decision to make Evan a male, or any other comment specifically about Evan Quinn or the story. No. It was what I considered an extremely shallow comment that totally ignored the amount of work already put into the book and the amount of work what would be required to change the gender of the protagonist, not to mention how the gender would radically change the story itself. Needless to say, after politely declining to consider the change, I moved on.

Photo: aliyasking.com

So, how can a writer increase his chances that his submission will be accepted for publication or representation? Here are three essential tips I see over and over in articles about gaining acceptance of one’s literary work:

  • Follow submission guidelines to the letter. The guidelines are not there to amuse or frustrate you. The agent or editor has created them to make his or her job easier for processing submissions. I judge scholarship essays every year, and it never fails to astonish me that 25% of the submissions never make it through the first cut because those writers failed to follow the guidelines.
  • Submit polished writing. Never submit first drafts. Just don’t. It takes at a minimum 3 revisions — and often far more — to get a piece of writing into publishable shape. Do ask for help in the form of first readers or members of your writing group to give you relevant and intelligent feedback about your piece. Do not rely on spellcheck or grammar check. Read your piece out loud. That is hands down the best way to catch grammar and syntax issues as well as word choice issues. When you submit polished writing, you are also showing that you are willing to do the work necessary to make your writing the best it can be.
  • Be a respectful professional. Forget the gimmicks. Follow the submission guidelines. Provide a succinct cover letter that includes what the editor or agent requests – nothing more, nothing less. If you receive a rejection, resist the temptation to fire off an angry or derisive e-mail in response. Doing that marks you as a disrespectful amateur. Every submission is like a job interview for your writing.

Each writer possesses a unique view of the world, a unique writing style, and unique stories to tell. Be true to the process and honor your own uniqueness by writing what you are compelled to write in your own voice. And while you’re at it, forget what other writers are producing or how other writers’ careers are progressing and focus on your own writing life and work. After all, that’s where you are.

Where I write

 

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Revision Work, or, Now the Fun Begins!

Two weekends ago, I finished the first draft of the Aanora novella. I printed it out, tucked it into the working file, and there it has remained and will remain for at least another 2 weeks. Last weekend, I worked on my short story “Light the Way,” tweaking certain parts and checking on the use of language in it. I think this story is about ready for submission, and my next task for it is to develop a list of publications for it. This weekend, my plan is to tackle another short story that needs far more work. It has been drifting through several rewrites because I can’t seem to settle on what the main character is truly about. This morning, while getting dressed, I was thinking that maybe I needed to give her more vulnerability than I have in previous drafts.

Revision work. Probably the real work of creative writing.

A recent article in The Writer about something unrelated to revision sparked some ideas for me for this problem story. I realized that I needed to get to know the main character better. She has been a cypher to me really, and I think that’s been a huge problem. Next, I realized yet again that withholding information creates suspense or tension. There’s an element in this story that I think I introduce far to early. One of my early drafts kept this element hidden, with only hints and glimpses through most of the story. I’m thinking that my original impulse regarding that element was probably correct. And third, I’ve always known that the main character was a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, but I’d been waffling, I think, on whether or not she’d accepted that fact of her life and if she had, what was she doing to heal? I’m fascinated by the psychological and behavioral results of untreated PTSD which is often a result of early childhood psychological and physical trauma. So does this character accept American society’s reluctance to face the ugly fact that PTSD is not only something combat veterans and disaster survivors experience, or does she push against that reluctance?

These are good questions. When approaching revision work, questions are a writer’s friends. Questions generate thought and ideas. Questions could have answers or just more questions. The process of working through questions can untangle the worst of a messy draft. The important thing is to open to those questions, let them percolate in the mind (and the imagination), and to be patient. I have a post-it note above my desk that reads: Trust in the process.

The following 4 questions are also on a post-it above my desk and are essential for narrative structure as well as character development:

  • What does the character want in terms of this story?
  • What is the character willing to do to get it?
  • What is the character’s primary emotional vulnerability?
  • What is the character’s biggest fear?

These questions address the main character, but they can also be asked of all the rest of the characters, especially those that are potential or actual obstacles to the main character.

Every writer has his or her own way of approaching the revision process. In my experience, there is no right or wrong way, only the best way for each writer. I need a lot of thinking time, as well as time to noodle around with the questions that I have, time to play with possibilities without feeling I must commit to any one direction. I’ve only just begun thinking about this particular short story this weekend. It will probably take many more weekends before I’m satisfied with the answers that my imagination provides for me.

Evan Quinn has been nagging at me as well. Last weekend I was writing notes for Perceval’s Shadow and thinking about my approach to its revision process. But Evan knows he needs to be patient and let me get this short story revision done first. (With a fulltime job now, it’s impossible for me to be working on more than one writing project at a time.)

 

 

Facing the Blank Page…Again

Every writer I know has trouble writing. — Joseph Heller

The blank page taunts me again. It demands my attention, requires me to make the Big Decision. In order to do what they love, writers make sacrifices. Some writers don’t think of them as sacrifices while others feel guilty about them. Writers also need to really get to know how their minds work in order to survive writing. Curiosity rules the writer’s mind, especially a curiosity of why human beings behave as they do. Trouble writing can be about the writing itself (find the right words, editing, grammar, narrative structure, etc.) or about creating the conditions in a life in order to be able to sit at the desk to write.

Yesterday, a realization seared my mind. The Blank Page was throwing a tantrum in order to get my attention, and when I stopped long enough to pay attention, the thought marched through my mind like a screaming subtitle across the screen of my life: I needed to focus my attention and just do it.

What does that mean? For the rest of the day, I reflected, had discussions with myself in my mind, and finally realized that I’d been giving myself too many free passes. My Attention Butterfly flits from one interest to another, never staying too long in one place before moving on to something else. My imagination latches on to an idea and spins endless variations on it, testing different directions, capturing my attention away from what I know is most important to me in my life. Granted, it’s been a rough year lifewise, and that’s interfered with a lot. But it looks like my life will be settling down and now it’s time to return to my creative process and trust it.

My “Office”

What does that mean? The short answer: I need to laser aim my focus on my writing. I feel a tremendous pressure, both mentally and physically, to stop restlessly wandering and concentrate on my creative process, figure out what I need to do to nurture it now, and then spend the time I need to spend to get down on paper (or the computer screen) all the stories that have been skipping around in my mind lately. I’ve known for a long time that my ravenous curiosity can consume me, and what I need to do is put it on a diet of writing or writing-related food. It’s particularly helpful when I’m doing research for something, and I’ll need to ratchet it up to research questions that have been coming up as I’ve been working on the Aanora story.

So, the “blank page” I’m writing about this time isn’t actually a piece of paper or the computer screen, but the dedication to writing. I have writing projects lined up like planes on a runway. But the control tower isn’t paying attention.

I know what I need to do, and I’m determined to do it again as I have in the past in order to write and write and write, i.e. establish a writing schedule and cut everything else out of my life. A comment by a writer in a magazine yesterday also hit home — the writer was talking about how the more writing a writer does on a consistent schedule, usually daily, the better the writing becomes, the faster it hits the page. I experienced this in 2007 when I edited a draft of Perceval’s Secret, then immediately wrote the first draft of Perceval’s Shadow and half of the first draft of Perceval in Love in about 10 months before life stepped in front of that writing train and stopped it cold.  I would love to get that kind of momentum going again, even with a fulltime job stealing time away from the writing during the work week.

My imagination is ready. My mind is ready. What about yours?

P. S. If you’d like to read my first Facing the Blank Page, it’s here.

When Inspiration Strikes

Dust Sculptures in Rosette Nebula (Photo credit/copyright: John Ebersole

I wrote one of my favorite blog posts, “Inspiration Doesn’t Wait for You,” here almost ten years ago, and as I read it over this morning, I realized that it is the best description of my writing process that I’ve written. However, it doesn’t really describe how, when, or where inspiration can strike when it does strike. So how do I know when to be open to it? I’ve been thinking about this lately because ideas have been popping into my head at the oddest times.

Housecleaning

One large project I’ve been working on (at the same time I’m looking for a fulltime job) is thoroughly cleaning my apartment. It’s not a huge apartment, but the clutter had been accumulating, as it usually does, as well as the dust and dirt. So I’ve been working on the cleaning a little at a time to keep this project manageable and not overwhelming. I detest housework of any kind. But I love it when my living space smells fresh and gleams. To distract myself while I’m doing this onerous task, I usually pick music I love to listen to while I work — could be classical, classic rock, or a Broadway musical.

I’ve just created conditions conducive for my imagination to come out and play. At some point while I’m cleaning, a thought will pop into my head about fiction or an essay that I’m working on. The most recent example occurred while I was cleaning in my bedroom — the thought came to me that my short story Light the Way was as much about different people having different expectations about the same thing as it was about the main character sharing her experience. I wrote a note to myself and finished the cleaning for the day. The next time I worked on that short story, I revised to make clearer the different expectations aspect of the story.

In the Shower

On Sundays, I like to have a relaxing, quiet day, and one of the things I do is take a nice, long, hot shower. My mind wanders all over the place, often thinking about the week ahead, what I accomplished in the past week, and my writing. Or I’ll start daydreaming about traveling or outer space, or being rich. Usually, when I’m almost finished, that’s when the idea will pop into my head. The most recent example of this occurred last Sunday. And the idea came to me with a physical jolt. I needed to rework one section of the Aanora story to add a little trip to another dimension for her to show another character something relevant to him in terms of character development and their relationship. It was one of those things of “Why didn’t I think of that before?” it was so obvious after I thought of it.

My suspicion: inspiration is like a cat stalking me, its prey, and that cat only pounces when she sees that I’m in the perfect position (or state of mind) to be captured. And I do often feel “captured” by a strike of inspiration.

Between Sleep and Wakefulness

Of course, it’s easy to think of inspiration striking while daydreaming or listening to music. That happens to me also, especially when I’m listening to music. But another fertile time occurs in the bleary state between sleep and wakefulness. I feel like I’m rising up or floating up or rocketing up depending on whether my alarm clock has gone off or not. The other morning, as I was slowly coming out of sleep, a sentence popped into my mind. Yep.  Just like that. I heard myself saying the words, and then I realized, oh my god, it’s the first sentence I’ve been seeking for Perceval’s Shadow. Now, I’m not working on the revision of that novel right now. In fact, I haven’t thought much about it because I’ve been trying to finish the short stories I have in progress. So for this gift of a sentence to come to me now is truly magical.

Inspiration can be courted but not coerced. Demand what you will from it, but prepare to be disappointed. Inspiration will not be forced. Invite it into your life and then provide welcoming conditions to entice it but don’t just sit around waiting for it to arrive. Do something! Write something everyday, read voraciously, clean house, take a shower, or take a nap….

Photo: Vasillisa/GoodFon.su

Character: Building and Maintaining Relationships

Last week I wrote about creating and sustaining characters through external aspects: the body, speech, and occupation. This morning, a story sparked some ideas about creating and sustaining characters through relationships, i.e. how characters interact with other characters or human behavior through character. This is the part of character creation and development that most writers find the most difficult because it requires knowledge of psychology and human behavior. The more complex the motivations of a character, the more mystery, tension, and interest around that character.

When I’m beginning work on a story, I want to get to know the characters — at least the characters that have appeared to me so far. With Evan Quinn in the Perceval series, I conducted an interview with him to get an idea of how he thought, what was important to him, how he saw himself. The interview was very much like a 60 Minutes interview — a series of questions that I’d written down and used as my guide. This first step led me to digging deeper into his background, his relationships with his father, with Joseph Caine, and with his mother, much like getting to know a good friend. I ended up creating a detailed backstory for him that doesn’t appear at all in any of the series’ novels. It’s like doing research but instead of reading documents online or in libraries and interviewing sources, it’s inviting the information to come forward out of my imagination. I did not write down this backstory in narrative form, but made detailed notes about the most important elements in that backstory that I knew would feed Evan’s motivations during the series. The bonus: this is work that keeps on giving, since the more I work on Evan the character, the more my imagination (and Evan) gives me.

Once I’d done all that work with Evan, I worked on each of the important people in his life: his father, Joseph Caine, his mother, and then the people that he meets in Vienna and who become important to him — Vasia Bartyakov, Klaus Leiner, Bernie Brown, Sofia Karalis, Greta,  Nigel, Woody, and Freda. And there is one character from Evan’s past that makes an appearance, and I needed to do the same with him. Each character was asked: How do you know Evan? What do you want? What will you do to get it? What is your primary emotional vulnerability? What is your biggest fear? The answers to these questions by each character often revealed their importance in the story, and what kind of conflicts or obstacles they would be to Evan. I wrote all the answers down for each character, and keep them in a characters file. For each novel and the new characters that appear in them, I follow much the same process.

Next, it’s time to look at Evan and all these characters in terms of their relationships. What is the relationship? How does it support Evan? How does it challenge Evan? Does Evan want this relationship? If not, why not?  If so, why? Then I turn it around and ask the other characters the same questions to get their perspectives on their relationships with Evan. Sometimes, I have not known the nature of the relationship until I’ve gotten into it (Sofia, for example, or Owen te Kumara), and what I thought it was turned out to be wrong. The relationship then veered off into a direction I had not seen coming.

Meeting people and making friends is relatively easy. Sustaining the relationship presents the challenge. So, even though Evan is drawn to Vasia Bartyakov and sees him as Joseph Caine reincarnated in some way, they often butt heads because they have different beliefs and personalities.  Evan admires and respects Vasia’s musicianship and his talent as a pianist, just as Vasia admires and respects Evan as a musician and conductor. Music is really the glue that holds them together, and they actually become quite close in a short period of time because of it. My challenge in writing this relationship was showing that closeness through their behavior when they’re together as well as how they talk to each other.

Another challenge for me was Sofia Karalis. I had initially thought of her as Evan’s romantic interest until I got to know Evan better. Then I realized that although he may be attracted to her romantically, his background becomes an obstacle to his being able to love her. When this first occurred to me, I was quite disappointed. In fact, Sofia remains in Evan’s life and plays a pivotal role for him on his life journey a couple of times, challenging him to be a better person and man.

Relationships between and among characters offer opportunities not only to reveal character but also to develop character. It’s important to know the characters involved before throwing them together to see what happens.  But then sit back, watch, learn, and enjoy the show!