Searching for an (Honest) Author Web Site

Bleak.  Dismal.  Vapid.  Why is it an authors who can make you turn pages so quickly you get windburn have such awful Web sites?  I understand that the obligatory stuff has to be there: Bio, Contacts, Books, How to Buy the Books.  But can anyone present this boilerplate in a new way?  (And I don’t mean with crawls, flashing text or typographical excess.)

I’ve been looking at author Web sites out of pure hubris.  Somehow I got it into my head that my fiction would sell.  And the word is that you gotta have a Web site.

To be fair, Scott Turow has a site worth looking at.  Neat.  Clean.  Easy to navigate.  The only problem is that it is very stingy.  Way back when when I was an editor of the “fun” IBM sites, I had an ironclad rule.  The page must be worth the click.  Not the case here.

It is the case with the best overall site I found, Theresa Meyers.  I’ve never read any of her books, but I imagine that her fans are delighted by the excerpts (which are more than the few paragraphs doled out in most author sites), FAQs (that sound like real questions from fans) and her bio (not a resume, for once — the best part of the site).  I’m willing to bet that her site actually sells more books than those who blast their readers with book covers and blurbs.

I do like one site that offers postcards based on the covers.  Another author will provide personally signed bookplates upon request.  I don’t think she even asks for the postage.  These are nice touches for fans.

Many have blogs.  Most are worse than the Web sites.  But, while I can’t say much for her Web site or the design of her blog, I think Monica Burns does the job with her blog.  It don’t plan to follow it myself, but it looks like those who read her books get what they come for.  She actually talks about life as a writer, which is pretty much an exception.  (Though I’ll admit that the one that talked about dipping bras in imported beer caught my attention.)

The best feature on author Web pages, when it is there, is “inspiration.”  This is like the “making of” tracks on DVDs.  It is fun to see the creative process exposed, where problems cropped up, the tenuous connections between characters and real people and the research into locales, professions, etc.  I suspect I like this stuff mostly because I write, but I guess fans like it, too.

It takes a lot of effort to write a book.  Every one of these writers, I’m sure, wants readers (and, yes, probably some fame and fortune).  What a shame it is when the book does not find its audience.  You used to have some chance that the publisher would promote the work effectively, but I think this is more and more in the hands of the author.  Until a career is rolling in a Stephen King way (his site is not terrific, btw), these Web sites (and similar venues) are really essential, so it is a distressing that most are disappointing.

Occasionally, you find a podcast (and YouTube has some nice examples to look at), but where is the interactivity?  I’d like to see some real reader questions, a bulletin board that is active, opportunities to chat with the author.  Do any authors have wikis?  Do the blogs actually cite other blogs?  (Okay, I’m guilty here, too.)  The most I see are pictures of strangers from signing.

Overall, the Amazon pages beat most author Web sites.  I hope to do better.

(If you have favorite sites or parts of sites, please let me know.  Great examples should be honored and shared.)

Notes on what’s up

BIG mistake, my talking about finishing Lucky Numbers.  I’ve been accused since of taking a vacation.  So it is not done, okay?  I still have a two-page epilogue.  And that won’t be written until the last minute, I promise.

I got the full cover proof for Innovation Passport this week.  The back leads with the generous quote by Greg Dawson (which is also on the About Peter Andrews page).  The “rough cut” electronic version is already available via Safari Books.  And folks in India can buy it for 1,530 rupees.  I’m anticipating good things.

Drama took a good turn (at last).  I got some kudos for the dialogue in a piece presented on Monday.  I also got a free bowl of soup for some script doctoring.

…and, the work on the Zeitgeist Rangers graphic novel is developing in a way that pleases me.  I’ve done character descriptions, titled sections and even done some world building.  Enormously challenging, but fun.

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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.

Keeping Writing Fun

Martyrdom appeals to me.  I grew up with the toxic combination of Irish nuns and Puritan self-sacrifice.  I still grab the oldest food in the refrigerator for my lunch.  The good news out of this is a strong work ethic and a measure of endurance.  But, for the writing itself, it can be bad.

“Productive” writing can overshadow inspiration.  I rush pieces that need time.  My left brain jumps in with outlines, logical story developments and summary paragraphs when it should just get out of the way.  I feel guilty about every unfinished piece and wasted word.

Of course, having no discipline is not the answer.  Let people know you’re a writer, and you’ll find out about all the wannabes who have a novel in them that never sees the light of day.  Or the obsessive journal keepers and rewriters who will finish a piece “someday.”  (Many of these people have real talent, and it is painful to see them caught in webs of distractions, insecurity and sloth.)

But here’s the problem with the suffering artist, those who martyr themselves for their vision: they aren’t much fun.  And the work isn’t usually much fun.  All work and no play makes everything dull.

When I was in the business world, I used time on planes to whittle down my to-do lists.  This lists were epic, covering many pages, and, on each trip, my goal was always to eliminate two thirds of the items forever.  It was one of those great time management practices.  But it wasn’t very satisfying.  And a few years ago, I got the idea to circle the items on the list (at least a half dozen) that were fun and protect them from logic, duty and self-sacrifice.  That was one of the best decisions of my life.  Everything became more fun.  I also believe that the quality of all that I did got better.

Play is a sign of health.  Joy is a whisper in your ear that you’re doing the right thing.  Fun is a twinkle, a connection and a subversive attack on everything that is stultifying about modern life.

Back to writing… Is it always fun?  No.  There will be parts of any job that are just necessary.  (Isn’t that part of original sin?  Or is it just thermodynamics.)  I don’t like rewriting.  I don’t like writing transitions.  I don’t like writing summaries.  I don’t like going back (in a long piece) to see what I said earlier.  But none of this amounts to ten percent of the investment in writing.  (I’m reminded that the part about movies that Hitchcock found tedious was filming them.  He had the story and every shot worked out before he ever called “action.”  And that was the fun part for him.)

Writing is fun for me most of the time.  And I strongly suspect that those for whom it is a chore should not be writing.

A word on what I mean by fun.  I don’t mean that the work itself is always giddy and upbeat.  I don’t even mean that all the emotions I feel as I write are positive.  Things can get creepy and sad and fierce and heartrending.  This may not sound like fun, but think of the movies and books that have meant the most to you.  Don’t they have strong emotions of all types, both positive and negative?  The experience of writing is complex, but (and forgive me if I’m stretching things here), when it is meaningful, it is fun.  And the sense of accomplishment — even when I complete a painful scene — provides a rush of endorphins.  I’m not an extreme athlete, but I’m willing to bet that the body objects painfully after a triatholon, but the brain provides rewards in terms of chemicals, memories and confidence.  I think writing is about the same.  Without the cardiovascular benefits.

So how do you keep writing fun?  If you are like me, you have a list of projects.  Not all of them are fun (though any can grow to be).  Hold on to the ones that are, and make sure one of them is worked on every day.  Make projects more fun by engaging your curiosity.  Plenty of questions and quirky answers — as long as you avoid dry, footnote referencing — will always leave you with lots to write about.

Avoid discounting the work by talking about it before it’s done.  With rare exceptions, telling the story rather than handing over a manuscript, provides the rewards prematurely.  It makes typing the story in a chore rather than an adventure.  (This is why I avoid plotting.  I want my muse to surprise me.)

Write at the right time for you.  I find it easiest to do creative work in the morning.  That’s when my energy is highest and my brain is clearest.  Next to writing every day, I think writing at the best time of day is the most powerful advantage for writers.

Don’t be afraid to vary your approach.  I write on the computer; I dictate; I scribble things out in longhand.  I write sequentially and I jump around.  I write scenes as silent movies and I interview my characters to find out what’s on their minds.  I don’t do any of these laboriously, as a matter of obligation.  I do them as the spirit takes me.  I allow myself to be spontaneous.  (One author I know acts out everything, even providing distinct voices and accents for each character.  It may seem crazy, but it works for him.)

One more thing, and this may sound odd.  The best way to make writing fun is to make it honest.  It is entirely possible to create pages of counterfeit prose.  (I know; I’ve done it.)  The first answer and the easy emotion can get you over a hump, but they don’t take you where you need to go.  The place they lead to is dull and flat and familiar.  Coasting through that landscape is no fun.  The specific, the authentic and the real only come with effort.  (And, forgive me, a bit of self sacrifice.)  When I find myself doing things on the cheap, I actually jump up and pace around.  I mutter.  My face will twist in weird and frightening ways.  The cats will flee.

Sometimes the theatrics get me back on track.  Sometimes I need to conjure up emotion or sense memory (see Stanislavski).  Often I need to start all over.  I don’t push until something breaks.  I hop around until I land in the right space.

I believe that having fun creates works that deliver fun.  Emotion, meaning and authenticity do not come from elaborate blueprints, blood or clenched teeth.  Usually.

Are we having fun yet?

The Facts Get in the Way

Facts are the potato chips of life for me.  I crunch down on one after another.  I test out assorted dips.  I eat until the bowl is empty.

What does this mean as far as fiction is concerned?  Everything and nothing.  Despite what most readers think, my stories are not transcripting of the wonderful/horrible events of my life.  Neither are they (consciously) therapy.  I am appalled by some of my characters.  Others have courage and conviction that I, too often, lack.  I actually have a great affection for many authors whose work is thinly disguised autobiography, but that isn’t me.

For me, facts in fiction are the road away from truth.  The truth is rich and compelling and emotional.  The facts get in the way.  I am not of the “live it, write it” Hemingway school.

This does not mean that I don’t take notes on my life.  I do.  But just as journalism is the rough draft of history, journalism (for me) is the rough draft of fiction.  (Or the rough draft of the rough draft.)  Notes on the agonies and joys of life, whether written in loving detail (with a specific audience in mind) or simply thought through in detail are essential to holding onto moments.  Algis Budrys told me years ago that an unarticulated memory was soon lost, and I believe that’s mostly true.  So I consciously work through any event with emotion content.  But none of this makes it into fiction verbatim from notes.

How do facts, the facts of my life, make it into my fiction?  The primary route for me is via an actor’s approach.  I hit a place in a story where I know the character is in an important emotional space.  For instance, I had a character who, to save her life, needed a real experience of closeness with her mother.  I shuffled through several with my own mother.  And this may sound weird, but I shared them with my character.  One provoked a memory she had.  And, as she told it to me, I took it down.  It was fresh and full of an amazing mix of hurt and wonder.  She was telling me the truth.  It went into the story.

And that is how I use the facts, the pieces of my life, in fiction.  Of course, I love historical facts and scientific facts.  I marble my work with all the little nuggets I pick up regularly, especially the weird and the wonderful.  But the emotionally lade facts of my life do not get transcribed.

In fact, each one is aged.  For me, as I put together my work, the more immediate the experience, the less likely that I can deal with it effectively.  This is because the things that haunt me at the moment are intricately attached to larger contexts that I take for granted.  Ever have anyone tell you their dreams?  Usually, it is not a pleasant experience.  This isn’t because the person telling you lacks passion — that’s alway evident.  It’s precisely because every image they share is embedded in a complete, unexamined and (to them) obvious world of associations.  Only a true genius can take these, distill them out in realtime, and re-present them to an audience.  I don’t have that talent.  So I consciously avoid taking memories that are too fresh and using them in fiction.  (And I rarely talk about my dreams, no matter how excited I am about them.)

One more thing (and this I learned from speechwriting).  The facts of my life emerge, they aren’t referenced.  That is, I don’t say, “good place for a life experience — what’s in the notebooks?”  I only use experiences that come readily to mind.  Why?  Because otherwise they lack authenticity.  I think I was the only speechwriter I know (of dozens) who did not have a book of quotations on his/her desk.  I only used quotes if they occured to me as I wrote.  I did not find good quotes and insert them into speeches.  And I bet that I could find the latter in any speech.  They show up all the time on TV, saying “look at me!”  Such quotes are distracting.  They are phoney.  No thanks.  So, no thanks to the inserted memory.  Ugh.

The facts, for me, come out of conversations with my characters.  They are all aged so that I can provide the proper contexts.  And they all emerge from the situation.  No insertions.

Truth is what we read fiction for, but it is emotional truth, not (usually) the sequential facts of personal experiences.

Being really mean to your characters

Do you have a mean streak?  Do you seek revenge, revel in mayhem and luxuriate in shadenfreude?  Do you laugh when other people fall down and get hurt?  Congratulations!  You may be a complete failure as a human being, but you have what it takes to be a good writer.

This week, I put one of my characters in the hospital, and I feel awful about it.  Susan asked for more danger in the novel, and fists flew, accusations were made, evil plots unfolded and more than egos were bruised.  She is happy; I feel guilty.  But I’ll get over it.

I was born with no tact (and haven’t overcome that), but I think I’m naturally a gentle person.  I don’t want to terrorize, bedevil or hurt my characters, even the villains.  And when I’ve put mayhem in a story, it has tended to be cerebral.  And cerebral doesn’t work in fiction.  Hearts are more important than minds.  We read first for the emotional experience, don’t we?

So my conflict is often muted.  Characters tell each other off in very polite terms.  Richard Pryor did some great bits where he pretended to be angry white people.  Even when they were cursing, they were ridiculous.  My characters can be a bit like that.

But real anger crept into my writing this week.  And it will only get worse.  It may make me feel bad, but the story is more interesting.  Where did my mean streak come from?

Well, I definitely have a villain who scares the crap out of me.  Writing from his point of view is like donning Ku Klux Klan robes.  Not that he’s a bigot.  He’s just pathological.  I’ve only really met one person who was like him, and thirty years later, I’m still unsettled.  The hero scares me, too.  His intentions are good, but he can cross the line when he sees a reason to or he just loses control.

Just losing control.  In the moment.  As you write.  Makes for a better story.  Susan calls me a “pantser,” meaning I write by the seat of my pants.  (I used to outline everything.)  This has nudged me into new emotional territories in the last few years, and it has made me happier with my fiction.  But being mean is something I’m just learning.  So far, here’s what’s helping:

  • Get permission.  Susan gave me that (make it more dangerous).  I need to give it to myself.
  • Create a villain who is real.  (My characters talk to me all day long, so living with this one is a pain.  Suffer for art.  Yeah.)
  • Let the characters do the dirty work.   (Once the villain got meaner, the hero got more interesting.  And meaner.  Why am I surprised?)
  • Go to extremes.  (Still working on this.  I don’t want to take what comes naturally and amp it up.  I want the extremes to come first, and possibly be toned down.  I think honesty is the way.  The shower scene in Psycho is not the most disturbing Hitchcock image for me.  Torn Curtain has the worst, where Paul Newman needs to kill a man.  It is extended, desperate and horrible.  Hitchcock wanted to honestly portray how hard it was to kill a man, and he succeeded brilliantly.)

Anyway, that’s what I’ve been learning this week.  I hope I don’t develop a taste for being mean (except in fiction).

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.

Lucky Numbers Goes to Where?

The proposal for suspense/romance Susan and I have been working on went into the mail today.  Where will it take us?  That remains to be seen.  It was terrific fun to write.  In fact, I already have most of chapters 4 and 5, which were not required for the proposal, done.  Our daughter Carol came down and claimed that when we have the characters tease each other, we are really using them as proxies.  Perhaps.

We actually went out a day late since Susan got nervous about the synopsis.  Getting a summary to the right length and making it a good read is tricky.  It requires a lot of abstraction.  My advice is to find ones you like on the Web and actually type in Once Upon a Time in your first draft.  I also did some other things, mentioned in a previous post.  Yesterday, Susan revisited the synopsis with “peril” in mind.  She did this before we went off for a faculty dinner.  During dinner, she kept turning to me and saying “doubt and heat.”  When we came home, some hours later, she inserted plenty of heroine doubt and a bit of romantic lead heat.  Nice stuff now, and it is closer to what actually emerged in the chapter we wrote.

The title above, by the way, is a gratuitous nod to the WWII ad campaign of Lucky Strike cigarettes, “Lucky Strike Goes to War.”  The military needed a chemical used for their distinctive red circle logo.  It became a  green circle logo for the duration.  This has nothing to do with our novel, but I’ll make up a rationale if anyone wants me to.

I’m still working on a budget of no less than 10,000 words per week.  Since I am taking two university courses that require lots of writing, some of the words end up in Reflection Papers.  I’ve reflected on how credit cards affect students, the rise of immigrants in the classroom, teaching environmental lessons without bias and more.  Education is facing some disturbing challenges, and I expect that some of what I’m learning and some of the attitudes in fellow students will be grist for more fiction.  But not for a while.  When I was younger, I tried to translate today’s experience into stories immediately.  I’ve learned to let it all ferment for some time and come out in unexpected ways.

I continue to wait for a number of decisions on stories and plays.  Several are overdue, but I did get an early response from one editor.  Her answer was “no.”  She found the ending frustrating.  She also said, “This story will sell, but not to me, sorry.”  Is that a vote of confidence?  I found it amusing.  It’s still one of my favorite pieces.  (Which has meant trouble in the past.)

“The Charisma Plague” is in print, to my delight.  It is a difficult story because it has an unreliable narrator, and I was happy to find an editor who was willing to take a chance on in.  He made an interesting connection to swine flu in the introduction.  That’s something that wouldn’t have occurred to me.

Meanwhile, my hottest piece of fiction is a play, Breaking Momma’s Rules. It’s a one act where I am trying to balance the serious intent with a good amount of humor.  I know how to do this in a short story, more or less, to my satisfaction.  Drama, as I keep learning, is different.  It’s about halfway done, but I need to really study one acts if I’m going to keep doing this.  Elements continue to elude me.

One thing I keep running up against in writing is the temptation to take the easy route.  Some of the demands of story seem to be beyond my capability.  But the most important thing I’ve learned is to give myself permission to fail in trying something new.  It happens. All the time.  And I survive it.  But when I don’t fail something really good happens.

For instance, I hit a point in the novel when the hero was thinking about a wonderful/horrible discussion with the heroine.  One thing I wanted to have happen was for him to have a sense of wonder about what she could do in her job.  I actually wrote some lines that alluded to her magic and did what was necessary to bring the story forward.  But then I pressed myself to actually see some real circumstances where she got people to talk/work across boundaries.  And I was able to express these in moments that, for me, came to life.

A bigger and more critical challenge was the rewrite of chapter one.  Mess up that chapter, and you are dead.  What we had worked fine.  Cutting away the first two paragraphs made it work even better.  (Probably well enough.)  But I wasn’t happy.  And I wasn’t confident that I could make changes that really accomplish what I wanted and still keep Susan happy.  On Saturday morning we chatted about introducing the character, which is what I thought would be key.

The character is talented.  She is also pretty tough.  Could we get past where she was and what she was doing to making her real in far fewer words?  I think we did.  Everything was made more immediate.  We saw our character not just get a small success in the beginning, but celebrate it (right before we plunged her into a nightmare, ha!).  We both were very happy with where it came out, but I would not have bet on the reworking, against a tight deadline, working.  Hope our luck holds.

Hang on a minute — writing is a waiting game

Perhaps somewhere there is a cogent essay by William James or Mark Twain about waiting, but I’ve never seen it. And this seems strange to me because one part of the writer’s life that seems to be a constant is waiting for responses on what has been written. You hear about actors waiting for the phone to ring and how excruciating that can be for them. But consider this: actors, at least when they’re plying their trade and often when they’re auditioning will get feedback in real time. Whether the feedback is positive or negative is another matter. Writers, who often are very private individuals, might not have the courage to get such instant feedback. But if they want it, they don’t get it.  Writers are always waiting for the phone to ring. It is a part of the job, full time.

You write paragraph after paragraph with only an imaginary audience before you. Finish the job, and you may have some private readers who’ll take pity on you and look through the work. If you have a writer’s group,they may look at the prose and get back to you in less than a geological age. But, in my experience, friends and colleagues don’t rush to read your latest draft. You wait for them, sometimes in vain. (Collaborators are a different matter, which is one reason why I’m enjoying novel writing Susan.)

One kind of waiting is relatively new for me. I simply avoided it in the past. This is taking a manuscript and putting an aside before revisions. That can’t be a problem if you never do it. And for a long time, I didn’t. What would I see next month that I couldn’t see today? A lot, as it turns out. There really is value to letting a manuscript “cool down.” This self-imposed wait is now part of the mix for me.  I’m still trying not to be grumpy about it.

And consider what happens next: You take that finished manuscript, and you send it out to someone who has the authority to buy it. When I first started writing, there is only one way to deal with this. A self-addressed stamped envelope was the link between writing and feedback. Okay, so we’re talking snail mail. How bad could that be? Pretty bad. I don’t recall ever getting feedback from any editor in less than six weeks. I’d say six months was more the norm.

Today of course, there are some publications (although these don’t tend to include most of the prestige, high paying markets) that will except electronic submissions. There is an improvement here, for sure. The last story I had accepted got a response in 23 minutes. To a writer, this is about as immediate as can be imagined. (I did have one story that was read in a workshop with an editor present. After getting the usual mixed review from my peers, the editor gave a positive response and ended his critique with, “and I’d like to buy it.” That may hold the record for quick feedback for me.)

But although the response in the electronic world can be fast, it usually isn’t. As I look back through my notes, I find that typically I don’t hear back from an editor and less than two months. So the electronic world saves me stamps and a little bit of time, but the experience of waiting for feedback hasn’t much changed.

Nonfiction, of course, is different. Often sales are made on proposals. The promise of a check and seeing your work in print will precede the actual writing. The waiting experience is tied mostly to getting reactions from audiences. With my current book, Innovation Passport, there’s a different layer of waiting. I need to get PR and legal approvals. There’s a special agony associated with that, especially, as is true right now, when PR is saying that perhaps they will block the publication of an 82,000 word manuscript. I’m not sure how common this experience is. I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy.

In any case, fiction involves a similar wait for audience reaction. and I think that the response to fiction is always a mystery. How your story will connect or not connect with readers can’t really be predicted. For my own work, people seem to either like it or hate it. And the same people who really like one story are apt to really dislike another. And vice versa.

Okay. So writers have a lot of opportunity for waiting, waiting, waiting. How do you handle it? The classic answer is to get to work on something else. And I have to say, having a lot of material in the pipeline can be wonderfully distracting. Works in progress, manuscripts “cooling” and the number of pieces in the hands of editors at the same time does help. At the very time that you send out the latest story that you know everyone will love as much as you do, you get a response back about one of your earlier favorites. It hardly matters whether the note from the editor is an acceptance, a rejection or one of those nice letters that tells you that you just missed and they’d love to see more. It’s a reaction, and it really shifts the focus so that a new work can be done.

So, is the secret to overcoming the problem of waiting as simple as this? Not really. it’s just a balm that keeps the itching from driving you crazy. No matter what, I think a writer maintains contact with the works that have gone out into the world.  It’s not much different from being a parent whose thoughts return to the kids every day, even after they’re grown and out of the house. I’m used to this. It’s part of the package. But this last week or so has been one of the toughest for waiting because a number of things hit their due dates almost simultaneously.

By the end of last week, I was supposed to get feedback on a couple of short stories and the four plays. I also had a commitment from PR for an answer on the book, and I only got half an answer, which was tentative. The waiting experience was further exacerbated by purported deadlines in non-writing areas. I was supposed to hear about a job interview and about my admission to some graduate courses. All this was not simultaneous. Deadlines passed in and out like sniper fire. And I wasn’t very good at keeping my head down.

Some of the issues have resolved. Most are still pending, with a few late enough to require my sending out some plaintive e-mail. Waiting, waiting, waiting. For all the groaning about writer’s block, I think this is the worst part of the writer’s life. Ultimately, both waits and blocks are mind games, or rather mind puzzles that it’s up to the professional to solve. It’s humbling to realize, at this late stage of my career, that this is still a problem for me. But it’s good to have articulated it and have a better understanding of what’s in play. One thing’s for sure, I’ll be keeping my eyes open to see how other writers have dealt with the problem of waiting.

Note: Due to popular demand (or dreams thereof), I’ve added a listing of my more recent published/accepted fiction to the About Peter Andrews page.  I’ll put a bit on nonfiction real soon now.

The Great Dictator: A secret weapon for words on paper

How do you get 10.000 words on paper in a week?  My answer has been to mix up typing with dictating.  If I just did one or the other (as a friend did), I suspect I’d end up with carpal tunnel or laryngitis.  I’ve been at this now for 10 weeks (100,000 words), so I can say my process works for me.  It may not work for you.

  1. Have something to say every day.  I usually try to work this out at least the day before.  It is always good for a writer to be making notes anyway.  Might as well make sure a few are aimed toward upcoming writing.
  2. Put the outline right in front of you.  For the nonfiction, this is pretty easy.  The structures for essays, articles and books are well known.  If you’ve been at it a long time, the appropriate shape for the outline is second nature.  For the novel I’m doing with Susan, a synopsis was part of the deal.  I didn’t write write a word of the text until we both were happy with what the book would (generally) look like.  I will add that I have reservations about working from an outline with fiction.  I’ve been much happier in recent years “winging it.”  And during this period, I’ve done a number of flash fiction pieces where I started dictating (didn’t type any of them) with only the title in front of me.  But, in each case, it was a title I loved.  BTW, Zombie Chic was just accepted by Bards and Sages.  It will appear in their October issue.
  3. Don’t get hung up with the outline.  It is there to make you productive, not to tie you down.  I never know exactly what I am going to write, even with nonfiction.  With fiction, the characters sometimes take over and make things crazy.  Which is the way I like it.  If they surprise and delight me, they are more apt to do the same for readers.  At least, that’s what I believe.
  4. If it is dictated, look it over as soon as the scene is finished (if your characters don’t dash right into a new scene).  I love my MacSpeech dictate.  I can consistently write, er, speak, five pages an hour.  But these are not perfectly transcribed (even though I have an options window in front of me throughout).  Careful reading right after dictating can save a lot of effort playing Sherlock Holmes with garbled text later.
  5. Do rewriting the old-fashioned way.  Trying to dictate corrections is technically tough.  And I’m suspicious of it anyway.  I think taking on the text with fingers on the keyboard is necessary.  And I’ve never printed out a page without seeing something that got by me on the laptop’s screen.  I still like pencils.

Again, what works for me may not work for you.  But with my 10,000 words on Lucky Numbers drafted and a story placed in the last week, I do have some evidence on my side.  (For those who care, about 7,000 of those words were dictated.  And note one word of this blog was.)

Some odds and ends:

Got a marketing call this week on Innovation Passport, which made it seem more real.  I also did a word count on the ms as a whole.  82,000.  No kidding.  We were shooting for 70,000 and thought that was ambitious.

There was some drama in the drama group.  We heard a reading of the first act of a new play, and all the comments were about the spelling and grammar.   (No kidding.  One attendee, script in hand, counted 70 things that needed correcting.)  We all need to use the tools of language, but it is a waste of a group to just do proofreading.  I made some pointed suggestions (like dump the first scene).  I thought I did so politely.  I hadn’t critiqued this guy before, and I got a lesson when I asked him to read a part in one of my works.  The character is comical with lots going on, including a cheating wife, an alluring neighbor and a battle with a business.  The playwright I’d critiqued can handle humor well, but slumped in his chair and muttered the lines without expression.  Painful.  (Overall, the piece went over well anyway.)

What do you say when a young writer asks for things she “should” read?  Beats me.  I complimented a terrific poem by a woman I’ve known since she was about nine.  I actually was geared up to read it because I’d been captivated by Wilfred Owen all weekend.  (Wonderful stuff I finally got around to reading.)  But what “should” be read?  I’ll need to ask some questions before I can say anything sensible.

With Innovation Passport mostly on its own, I’ll soon be turning my attention to the next nonfiction book, “The Innovation Underground: A Subversive Guide to Grass Roots Innovation.”  I’m excited by this, but dusting off the outline and making sense of it hasn’t been easy.  The experience from Innovation Passport is telling me to remix what I have so it will actually be interesting from page one.  Time to take a deep breath, square my shoulders and pretend I know what I’m doing.

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