Tag Archives: writers_life

Writer Seeks Commitment

Six novels, two scripts and seven nonfiction books.  That’s what I have in development right now.  Let me tell you, it is eating every day at a cafeteria.  Too much to choose from and real doubts about nutrition.

The summer was great.  I was able to handle Lucky Numbers (and later Charm Offensive), plus a series of nonfiction projects.  Sit down.  Do a thousand words of fiction.  Open a new file.  Do a thousand words of nonfiction.  No questions about what to do next.  It was a routine I thrived on.

Things are more complicated as I head into the winter.  It isn’t clear which of the projects has the most claim on my time.  And, making things more complicated, I’m not just filling pages.  I’m also rewriting and analyzing.  And responding to critiques that come online, on paper, via email and face-to-face.

After months of knocking my characters off balance, they are desperately competing for my attention.  Their shouting, buttonholing and acting out is so vigorous that it’s hard for me to put things in order.  Is this the writing life?  Or just a symptom of attention deficit?

I’m making the projects stand in line now.  No more than two will claim my efforts on any given day, and I’m putting criteria in place.  Those with deadlines come first.  Usually, this is for contests, and my ordering is around the probability of my getting something out of the contest (such as a good, needed critique or an opportunity to get my prose in front of an editor or agent).  After that, I’m looking at chances to complete work — a proposal, a short story, an article.  Partial works suck up energy.  Completed works (even as drafts) generate energy.

Fun still comes in and one of my criteria.  My rationale is that 1) if I’m not having any fun, the reader isn’t likely to, and 2) if writing becomes a drag most of the time, I might as well find another vocation that pays better.

Have I solved my problem?  Of course not.  But I think that I am entering into a new, more balanced routine for full-time writing.  The next change will come when I start to get some contracts in place — real commitments, not ones I can change at a whim.  That will create a whole new dynamic and force me to once again reevaluate how I put together my days.  I’m looking forward to new adventures.

Odds and ends…  Finally, a bit of recognition.  In one competition, I had a synopsis come in third.  Not exactly the Nobel Prize in Literature, but encouragement is good at this stage.  Next week will be crazy, with results back on six entries in three writing contests.


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.

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.