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Putting Writing to the Test

When I tutored executives on communications, they wanted to know how to talk people into things.  They were always surprised when I gave them practice in listening.  I mean, what does that have to do with communications, anyway?

Most writers know that, ultimately, it isn’t about just putting words on paper and being read.  It’s also about hearing what the readers have to say.  Did they have tears in their eyes?  Did they laugh?  Did it change their lives?  Did they get it?

There are intrinsic problems with this.  Most of a writer’s acquaintances will never actually read what they write (even if it is very short — too many distractions).  Most readers do not ever communicate with authors.  Most responses are along the lines of I liked/didn’t like it.  Even “I like it” responses may be just polite.

So writers join together in groups to read each others work and provide feedback.  This can be somewhat helpful or it can be a disaster.  Under the best of circumstances, fellow writers can provide a encouragement or a sense that something (not always something specific) has gone wrong.  I’ve gotten beaten up on my beginning to Warriors by an online group and a face-to-face group and I think with two complete rewrites I’ve made improvements.  But most of the criticism was diametrically opposed.  If I were younger and fainter of heart, I might have chucked it all.  As it was, I groused, grumbled, cursed the gods and otherwise spread gloom with more effectiveness than a flu patient on a red-eye flight.

On Innovation Passport, I had four readers with specific recommendations and editors with even more.  It wasn’t always pleasant, but it was a certain way to get rid of flabby prose and anything that was not clear.  I’m looking at a request from the editor to cut 1000 words from the 6800 word “Civil Complaint,” but he also has some suggestions for me to follow up on.  I’m hoping for a better story, and I think that has happened along the way with other short stories.  Sending short fiction to magazines in one of the best ways to put your writing to the test, especially if the overall quality of your writing encourages editors to comment.

What about novels?  How in the world do you get a critical mass (so to speak) of feedback on a work of 50-100 thousand words?  If you can find a reader out there who actually knows the genre (thanks, Janet!), will take the time and can be articulate, you are truly blessed.  For two novels I wrote, the only comments I ever got were from my agent of the time and from one reader (who said “I liked it”).  Luck and someone who makes 10% may not be enough to get the feedback needed to avoid foolish mistakes and to become a better writer, but I’ve stumbled upon another possibility — contests.

Consider if you will the wonderful Writing Contests page of Ms. Stephie Smith.  At a glance, you get a sense of what contests are out there and what they require.  Each of these also has links so that you can get into the details of submissions.  It is an elegant and useful page, and I recommend Ms. Smith for canonization.  I’m sure she’ll get the requisite miracles in no time.

The first important point: you will not get rich from the winnings in these contest.  Almost without exception, the prizes are miniscule.  But all of them will get at least a portion of your novel in front of a judge, and, provided you rise to the top, your work will get read by a real agent and/or editor.  These people have piles of manuscripts on their desks, and the contests provide a way to cut the line and show your stuff, so this is no small thing.  And these are people who can actually help you by taking you under their wings or buying the work.  (The sales records for finalists and winners of these contests are posted in many cases and are impressive.)  But even if they don’t, you’ll get their comments back.  More on the benefits below.

The second important point: most of these contest are for romance novels.  For many people, this is an immediate problem since they don’t write romances.  If this is a concern, allow me to point you toward the Golden Heart Award page of the Romance Writers of America.  The honors here are essentially for best first novels, but lets take a look at the categories and how they’ve changed.  When the Golden Heart was established in 1983, the categories were Contemporary, Historical and Young Adult (with some attention to “series” aspects, essentially the length of works).  But look at the genres that have joined the party since then: Inspirational (’85), Suspense (’89), Paranormal (’92), and Strong Romantic Elements (’04).  This year was the first for Suspense/Adventure.  (Don’t ask me how this differs from Suspense.)  My point here is if you write mainstream, science fiction, horror, fantasy, thriller or novels about people being saved, there’s a place for you in “romance.”  Just make sure you have a love story.  (But you had one anyway, didn’t you?)  None of this should be surprising since most fiction novels — of any sort — sold are sold to women.  The romance houses have, to a large extent, just acknowledged that.  Think of them as the Borg of stories.

But what if you’re a guy — like me?  I looked through the hundreds of winners of the Golden Heart, and I found a dozen ambiguous names (Kit, Robin (2), Tracy, Pat, Kim, Bronwyn, Sandy, Angel, Jackie, Laron and Kris) in 27 years.  There was one clearly male name, Vince Brach, and this intrepid man does not appear to have published a book under his own name.  Does this mean that those with a Y chromosome should walk away?  No.  Just as for many years women who wrote SF and other genres where men predominated wrote under pseudonyms, I suspect that there are a lot of men out there writing romances under the cover of female names.  Mr. Brach became, at least for awhile, Fran Vincent, presumably without any surgery or hormone treatments.  However, for the purposes of the discussion here, this is interesting but unimportant.  Virtually all the contests Saint Stephie lists require that the authors be anonymous.  So if you keep a female audience in mind, there shouldn’t be a problem.

Aside from the direct benefits of good readers for your novel (usually just a piece, admittedly) and making a publishing connection, these contests are wonderfully diverse in their requirements, and this leads to some lessons.  Want to enter the Ohio contest?  You better learn how to write a query letter.  (And your letter will become text for all those agent queries you’ll be writing.)  If the Maine competition is interesting to you, there is only one way to win: write a dynamite synopsis.  (Again, agents and editors will demand this.  Here’s a chance to get the piece done.)  Can you grab a reader in 15 pages (Gotcha)? Or 3 (Hudson Valley)?  Want to put your first kiss up (New England) against what others can do or hook folks into a romantic comedy (New York City)?  There’s a contest out there for you.

One last important point: when they say only unpublished writers are eligible, don’t give up.  Romance writers in my experience are a nice bunch.  There are competitive types, of course, but the culture is more nurturing than that of most cadres of writers.  Yes, most of the competitions for unpublished works are “closed” to published writers, but they provide wiggle room.  For many of these contests, you get your virginity back if you have not published in five years (and sometimes three).  And if you just happen to have a contract in hand for a Romantic Suspense, this usually is not an impediment to entering a Young Adult or a Paranormal.  It ‘s like being an Olympics amateur today instead of in 1960.

If nothing else, all these contests provide deadlines.  Lots of deadlines that tell writers, when no one else is marking up their calendars, that the work has to be done by a specific day.  My own deadline is a shrinking bank account, but perhaps contests deadlines will be incentive for some of you.

What Goes into a Short Story?

Short stories are a blast.  A world, a character and an event are created in about 1-5K words.  People read them in one sitting, so they’d better create a strong emotion or at least a lingering mood.

With Ice Parrots of the Himalayas, I sat down with the title and started typing.  Every twist and turn was a surprise for me, but the driving force was the first paragraph that put me into a Rudyard Kipling world of strangers and fools.  (We turned into the pass, and the wind stopped. I caught myself listening. For what? )  I knew things would not end well — for the characters, not for me.  I knew I’d have some fun.

Waverley was different.  I had a snatch of a dream to work with, but the main character really drove it.  He told the story, and I listened.  The strangest thing is that I knew nothing about the town or similar towns, but I was convinced that everything about the setting was true.  I still believe that the time and the place are authentic, and even the reactions of the townspeople to fantastic circumstances feel right to me.  This story was one where I got a visit from the muse and sat down and wrote for many hours straight.  It’s one of my favorites even though it was a hard one to sell.

When I wrote Crossing the Blood Brain Barrier, I was in a toxic mood.  My bad waking dream was transferred to paper with a lot of keyboard pounding and snarling.  The whole experience was fueled by emotion.  The original draft was relentlessly grim, like Night of the Living Dead.  Rewriting made it more accessible and humane, but it still is the creepiest thing I’ve put on paper (at least for me).

A mood, a voice or an emotion can pull the writer through a short story and the reader has little choice but to follow (if the execution is right).  But is it possible to coldly calculate a short story?  Can one be stick built rather than grown?  I think it can, but it isn’t easy.

Peter’s Shell, just published, has rational, left brain origins.  (If you haven’t read it, take a look before continuing with the blog.  I’ll wait.)  I wanted to write an inverted story, and I chose a favorite, Edgar Alan Poe’s Cask of Amontillado, as the basis.  Most stories cannot be inverted.  The plot and the structure need to be almost perfect or it turns to mush.

The best example of an inverted story is “It’s a Wonderful Life.”  The basis of that script is Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol.”  Instead of a miser wanting to save his life, we have a generous man wanting to commit suicide.  Another reversal: the main character is poor in money and rich in friends.  Instead of being shown the error of his ways, he’s shown the virtue.  Etc.

Given a strong story, most people could go through the intellectual exercise of turning everything upside down.  Peter’s Shell features lovers, not enemies.  The intent isn’t murder, it is enhanced life.  The characters move toward the clouds, not deeper into the ground.  The journey is not toward disease, but toward health.  Etc.

I had all of that worked out, literally for years, before the story was finished.  If you read the odd numbered sections of the story, you can see the essential inverted version of Poe’s story.  (It even includes a bottle of Amontillado.)  The left brain had created half of the story that exists now, and it made sense.  But it wasn’t a short story.

I picked it up and read it a dozen or more times, convinced that something was there, but lost on how to take it forward.  What Peter’s Shell needed was Wendy’s Shell — the even numbered sections.  While Poe’s narrator could handle a complete story, Peter just couldn’t.

Wendy does not narrate.  I wanted readers to experience her, but not from the inside.  She’s a magical character (reversing the roles of Peter Pan), so the narration is third person.  She builds her spell with bits and pieces, and I did the same.  The child’s voodoo she practices even before she finds the shell comes from what my daughter Carol did at a similar age.  The Funny Buck (added to liven up Peter’s bit) in the lighthouse references a short story that got me into Clarion.  I walked past the sculpture shop in Manhattan on a day I was working on the story, and I grabbed what I saw.  As a kid, I used to drag Pick-Up-Sticks over the ridges of shells and listen to the music.  Etc.

I seeded the story with these experiences, emotions and responses.  I wrote snatches of Wendy’s Shell, and I found bits to play off of in Peter’s Shell.  The picture started to come together, but it wasn’t there yet.  I had to knit Peter’s Shell together with Wendy’s Shell in a way that carried the reader along.  Essentially, I did this by creating (or discovering) the kind of cliffhangers used in novels to end chapters.

When a writer does that, the next step is usually rationalization.  Parts brought together need to make some sort of sense.  Normally, this is done in a cold-blooded fashion, but I took a different route.  I put my characters in charge.  Peter’s voice and Wendy’s intuitive choices finished the sections.  When I went back to see if it made sense and was true to the original vision, I was satisfied.  I also found that the piece as a whole created a mood, a whole body affect, of exhilaration/anticipation that is both familiar and strange.  It is the feeling I have at the beginning of things, when I feel most creative.  And this inverts the feeling of Poe’s story in exactly the way I wanted it to.

Can the left brain create a short story?  The answer is no, but it can start one.  And since a good right brain story usually needs to get shaped up by some left brain logic, there is a nice symmetry here.  It is good to have many ways to get to a short story.  The important thing is to make sure it delivers the experience for the reader.  If they don’t have a blast, what’s the point?

Finishing the First Draft of a Novel

If you are the typical mystery writer or JK Rowling, you write the ending first.  Finishing a novel is all about cutting and pasting the last few pages onto the manuscript and then printing it out.  But even if you are a “seat of the pants” writer, many elements may be fixed.

I’m not giving anything away by saying that, because Lucky Numbers is a love story.  Somewhere, the heroine will go through ritual death, feeling she has totally messed up the objectives she’s had (including finding love).  But the couple will get together and profess their undying love within the last few pages.  The bad guy will get his come-uppings.

Does this make my job easier?  No.  Not at all.  If I just do a paint-by-numbers (no pun intended), I’ll be bored and so will the reader.  And, yet, I can’t go too far off the mark.

How do I, as a writer, with the end of the journey in sight, keep engaged?

First, I give myself permission to go off track.  Whatever is written can be cut or rewritten.  So, within limits, I can pretend I don’t have limits. (Get it?)

Second (and this may be a corollary to the first), I give my characters permission to do whatever they want to.  If the bad guy wants to run away and avoid facing the good guy, he can try.  (But the good guy may go after him.)  If the heroine feels neglected or angry, so be it.  If the hero makes a wrong turn on the way to the rescue because he trusts his GPS system, that’s tough.  I expect and hope for surprises, even if they end up in the bit bucket.

Third, every scene must have emotion.  This has been true throughout.  I don’t know how you can engage your reader emotionally if you, the writer, aren’t.  But the words flow too easily when you know what is coming next.  I have had to come to a full stop repeatedly as I’ve been writing the last few scenes.  This writing in stops and starts is a bit like being on a restricted diet.  I feel like I am tempting writer’s block every time I wrench myself away from the keyboard, but I’m convinced that it is the right thing to do.

I’ve also made a point in these last few chapter of walking away from the day’s work mid-scene or even mid-paragraph.  That way, I don’t go at it cold the next day.  And one more thing on finishing this up.  As much as I want to rush to the end, I also want to slow down.  I’ve come to like the characters.  I’m reluctant to say goodbye to them.  And, even though I’ll have them in rewrite, they’ll never again be as fresh and alive to me.

Notes on what else is up.

I just finished the last pages of the galley for my nonfiction book, Innovation Passport.  Blurbs are on About Peter Andrews page.  Galleys have to be about the most tedious thing in the world.  Reading for those typos, poor phrases and inconsistencies for the fifth or sixth time.  Negotiating one more time with my coauthor.  Seeing pieces that could be better (but it’s too late).

Blurbs, on the other hand, are fun.  By definition, they are all positive, so it’s like asking folks for compliments you can put in print.  Even better (for me), several people said nice things beyond the quotable blurbs.  And the time so many people dedicated to the reading and evaluation really humbles me.  I am immensely grateful.

Drama has gone down the tubes.  I have been totally rejected by four consecutive festivals.  (And the readings I’ve had with my two drama groups have made me want to apologize to the actors.)

On the other hand, I’ve sold another short story, one of my favorites, Peter’s Shell.  This puts me into double digits in my current foray into SF and fantasy.  In fact, with a bit of tuning, I’ve been able to sell almost everything I have written in recent times.  It puts the pressure on to finish some material that has been yelling at me from the sidelines.  Art Nerds is now on my to-do list.

Finally, an unexpected consequence of using a dictation program.  For my current work, I’ve had to edit out, “oof! ouch! hey!” and other expletives.  No.  I am not writing for DC Comics.  The problem is that the smaller cat, Kyoko, has decided that my dictation is an invitation to get close.  In the middle of a paragraph, she’ll jump into my lap (oof!).  Unpredictably, the claws will come out (ouch!).  Or she’ll decide to poke me with sharp paws (hey!).  All this is dutifully captured by MacSpeech, in one form or another.  Now it is not as bad as when I failed to turn the mic off when I got a call from a salesman, but it is pretty weird all the same.

A short story gets accepted and…

I searched on “story accepted!” and found a number of instances of jubilant authors. Exhibits A, B, C and D.  Everybody is happy and they want you to read their stories.  That’s cool.  We write to be read, right?  And we all want to be accepted.  I’ve had my own little victory dances here.  But what does it really mean to have a story “accepted”?  Does it matter who accepts it?  If money comes along?  If anyone reads the thing or reviews it?  If it wins an award?

Acceptance for readers mean they get access to the story.  They hope that the stories that will move them and stick in their memories will somehow find their way to them.  (For some readers, finding the writer becomes possible after they’ve seen the name a few times.  I sought out Harlan Ellison, Philip K Dick and, most recently, Ron Carlson, after bumping into their stories from time to time and saying wow.  Readers also seek writers’ stories after engaging reviews or recommendations from friends.)

So acceptances that ultimately bring a story to a reader are successful if the story entertains or transforms the person who reads the words.  But what do acceptances mean to an author?

  • Encouragement — Hey!  Somebody likes what I wrote!  I’m not the only one!  Writing is a lonely business.  Almost by definition, it means long hours spent by yourself typing out words with only yourself as an audience.  During this time, any sane person has doubts.  Even an insane person like myself, who claims he can sell anything, has doubts.  (Just ask me about my current anxieties about bring the worst playwright in New York.)  When someone, often someone who reject over 90% of what they are offered, says yes, there is a validation of sorts.  I do believe that any worthwhile artist needs to be self-validating, but that does not diminish the good feeling of an acceptance.
  • Proof points — Editors are as nervous and anxiety-ridden as writers.  Maybe more so.  If you show them that anyone has taken a chance on you, I believe it reduces the fear of accepting something that will make them look foolish or diminish their publications.  I list recent pubs that have accepted my stories in every cover letter.  As the list has grown, I’ve gotten nicer responses.  (Of course, this could be because the stories are getting better, but I have my doubts.)  My last two rejections notices came with virtual apologies and assurances that the stories would sell somewhere.
  • Money — I do not disparage those who get free copies or just have their story added to an e-publication that does not pay.  I’ve been there.  It is a good starting point.  It is an exceptional starting point if you end up in a little magazine that is read for “best of” anthologies.  But the currency of our culture is… well… currency.  If you get a little money, it means someone put that much extra into validating you.  Get a nice check and you don’t feel as guilty for all that money put into writing books, courses and stamps.  Get a really nice check, and maybe you can dream about doing this full time.  Sometimes I turn the money back to the pub if I feel it is the right thing to do, but I don’t give any of my stories away for free anymore.
  • Prestige — You can be mocked for selling a short story or for selling anything in a genre that is disparaged by the New York Review of Books (virtually anything I write falls into that category).  You will also run into a lot of people who have never written more than a piece they got a A in high school composition for who will think selling a story is no big deal.  They could do the same thing if they wanted to.  These folks can discourage the faint of heart, but their barbs won’t touch me.  For most people, the news of a sale brings on honor to the author.  Oftentimes to an embarrassing extent, people will get excited and even brag about you.  You can become “the writer” among your peers, who will send their aspiring children to you for advice or ask you to look at their letters to the electric company.  This is helpful.  Writers need to have their identities as writers reinforced in every way.  (Just don’t expect friends, family or colleagues to read any fiction you wrote.  That rarely happens, even if you write short shorts.)
  • Bragging rights — Yes, writers like to brag.  They like to compare.  They like to count.  And selling a story gives you something to talk about on Facebook or at a class reunion.
  • Exposure — Unsold stories are not usually eligible for awards or anthologies.  They do not get reviewed and do not get read by agents.
  • Feedback — On occasion, a sold story leads to comments that are helpful.  To be honest, seeing one in typeface in the context of other writing forces me to see where I can do better.
  • The end to a long wait  — See the last blog entry.  You can now exhale.

I should add one more: the fulfillment of the purpose (at least partially) of the work.  Stories are communications.  They are written to be read.  (And one hopes that they will be read by an audience that is exactly right — about which I’ll write in another blog entry.)

Okay, is this a bit more than the usual, “I got accepted!  Yay!  Please read my story!”?  I hope so.

By the way, Zeitgeist Rangers sold to Bards and Sages (Yay!) and should be published by the end of the year.  Please read my story.

When an editor says “Show me more”

Last Saturday, with a synopsis and three chapters written, Susan pitched to an editor.  A pitch is all talk, no text, and she only had 10 minutes to get a positive response.  Susan being Susan, she walked away with gold sheet, that is, the editor said, “Show me more.” Then the other shoe, “Pump up the suspense.”

Suspense?  What suspense?  As a coauthor who did not meet with the editor, my interest was not academic.  It turns out that, if you read this editor’s resume, this is her bread and butter.  But… but… but…

Essentially, she was asking for a different book.  New synopsis.  New chapter.  Oh, and get it in by the end of the month.  Interesting challenge, eh?

Neurons fire.  Questions bounce.  Vertigo.  What planet are we on again?  Okay.  Okay.  This is actually good news.  A door is cracked open for a novel, and how often does that happen?  Can I write suspense?  Sure.  I’ve done it many times.  Do I want to write Lucky Numbers as a suspense novel?  I don’t know.  I have to go out, grab new characters and talk to them awhile.  Maybe.  What about Susan?  Looking at other novels the editor had edited (and Susan can read these in about three minutes while it takes me three days — advantage, Susan), Susan pronounced them “grim.”

Grim.  That is, with no opportunity to the strongest card in her hand, humor.  And with the very real danger of causing her to distort her voice and lose all the fun.  (Fun is one of my critical success factors for writing.  It’s not a trivial part of the process.  It’s not just for…. uh… fun.)

Okay, we’ve identified the biggest fear, and I’m filled with remorse for taking her away from a wonderful novel she has been working on solo and redirecting her toward this path that is filled with lions, tigers and bears.  But she is a grown woman.  She wants us to go for it.

Highlighters come out.  Pages get printed.  I slog through text, mouthing each word, demanding more of the moron part of my brain.  Meanwhile, Innovation Passport, my nonfiction book, brings its own demands if it is to make a Sept/Oct pub date.  I make promises to provide a new synopsis the next day, then the next day, then the next day.  I wake up in the middle of the night, hearing Susan’s fingers drumming impatiently.  It is only a dream, but it has become background noise to my imagination.

Then she has a day off.  She doesn’t say much.  Just stares at me.  The way the cats do when it is dinner time.  Okay, Peter.  Be brilliant.  Please.  I promise to provide a synopsis by noon.

I retreat to the study with my highlighted notes, sample synopsis, novels and my copy of Shakespeare for Dummies.  (“Help me, Bill.  You’re my only hope.”)  I press a well-structured but poorly worded synopsis that I found online against my forehead.  I make pencil notes on the lefthand side of my notebook, the side that doesn’t really count.  I have conversations with the new characters and try to find out why I should like them.  I defecate masonry, to clean up a Damon Knight phrase (meaning I put down nouns and verbs).  Click!  It gushes forth.  Right format.  Right graces notes.  Even the right number of pages.  And I drop the pages off at noon exactly.  (Having worked in radio, this is not magic.  Just something I had to do, time and time again.)

Is is good?  Is is something we can work for?  What does Susan have to say?  Wait, where is Susan?

I wait for her to return from parts unknown.  She gets back.  Wonderful news.  Sunday’s adventure with bumper cars + rain = a trunk full of water.  For some reason, this takes precedence over reading the synopsis.  Everything comes out, including the spare tire.  Puddles are wiped up.  And then it’s lunch time.  We don’t want her reading on a full stomach, do we?  (It would be good drama here to claim that I was too nervous to eat.  But no one who knew me would believe it.)

Now, the last synopsis was read with a running commentary.  So continual, I had to leave the room.  This time, there is not a sound.  She is reading, reading, reading.  Is this good news, or bad?

Good as it turns out.  Only one note is added to the text.  And then we talk through the first scene (once I assure her that I can’t simply rewrite the already finished chapters).  So, the adventure continues.  Only 10, 00o words between now and May 31.  Oh, actually May 26, since this has to go out by snail mail.  Piece of cake.

BTW, the cover for Innovation Passport is locked in.

Innovation Passport cover

Innovation Passport cover