Since You Didn’t Ask…

No one wants advice–only corroboration. –John Steinbeck

One of the biggest problems with the business of writing and submitting short fiction for publication is the fact that there are few editors who are able to provide useful feedback on a rejected manuscript. They don’t have time. Who would, given the dozens of manuscripts writers tend to submit? Additionally, those editors don’t want to be bothered with writers who take constructive criticism as a personal attack, or as permission to submit a rewrite. Therefore, most editors simply say "this is not for me" and let it go while writers proceed through many a trial and error and beta audience before they ultimately give up or figure out on their own the answer to the burning question: "What’s wrong with my story?"

Recently, I spent a week furiously writing and polishing a horror story that I thought was pretty good, perhaps even the best I’ve written in a long time. Without giving myself a couple of days to let the finished work cool in my mind, I rushed it off in an e-mail to a bestselling author who is compiling stories of such types for a new anthology. Turns out that was a mistake. Well, sort of.

It was a mistake for me to not review the story with my own critical eye before submitting it. However, it was not a mistake to submit it, because the feedback I received on it was perhaps the most valuable I’ve ever received from an editor.

The verdict was that the story was ok but way over-written, meaning that in the process of developing the piece I’d pretty much thrown in the kitchen sink, showing and telling and describing to the reader every little piece of information that popped into my head. The result was a 9,100-word work of short fiction about a murder in a fast food restaurant’s men’s room that could have easily been told in a fraction of that space.

Did I feel the sting of rejection when I received that editor’s e-mail reply? You bet. I think any writer who receives genuine constructive feedback upon rejection would and should feel that sting. It’s the prick of the needle of truth. You only feel it when you know the reader is without a doubt correct in his or her assessment. Besides, if every manuscript you’ve ever cranked out receives nothing but positive feedback, you’re really only reading it to yourself in the mirror.

That sting is important. It doesn’t need to be nasty or unfriendly. It just needs to be honest. As for me, I spent a day licking my wounds and reconsidering my life. Then I went back to the manuscript and started cutting. Upon reviewing my first couple of paragraphs, I knew immediately that the editor had been right. A scene in the beginning of that story was originally four pages long. It is now approximately one page. 

In her Authors@Google talk last week, bestselling author Anne Rice discussed how she gets through writer’s block. She does it in the exact same way I wrote the restroom murder story. She sits and she writes and she writes until something appears. The big difference between what she does and what I do is that she knows how to throw away the unnecessary stuff. Until now, I was apparently just leaving it in.

Travels Through Time

I hope people are reading my work in the future. I hope I have done more than frightened a couple of generations. I hope I’ve inspired a few people one way or another. –Richard Matheson

I have a confession. Until very recently I had never in my life sat down and read a Richard Matheson novel.

That’s not to say I was unfamiliar with his work. Matheson’s 1954 vampire novel I Am Legend  inspired the films Night of the Living Dead, Omega Man, and, of course, 2007’s I Am Legend. His novel Bid Time Return became the cult classic film Somewhere In Time. Hell House naturally became The Legend of Hell House. He also penned the teleplays for many of my favorite episodes of The Twilight Zone. Therefore, I was familiar with Matheson’s work for the screen, but not especially with his prose. For that, I am deeply regretful.

I am now a Richard Matheson fan.

Stephen King, of whom I’m also a fan, has stated that Matheson’s work was influential on his own. Upon reading I Am Legend, I can see that. King’s narrative style is quite similar to Matheson’s, particularly in the early works of King’s career (The Shining, Salem’s Lot, The Dead Zone).

For me, dusting off and finally cracking that copy of I Am Legend was like finding an early unread King story crammed behind the volumes of his other works on my bookshelf, or like traveling back in time to when I first discovered King’s work. I Am Legend stirred the same page-turning excitement in me that I experienced from King back then, an effect that has not been reproduced in me by King’s post-1980s work (although Bag of Bones is an exception).

If you’re a fan of early King and have never read any of Matheson’s work, I highly recommend that you pick up a copy of I Am Legend or download the recently released eBook. As for me, I’m ready to step back in time again, to experience those old familiar creepy sensations of horror that only works like these can produce. I’ll be adding more Matheson to my library.

The Long Stall

You need not expect to get your book right the first time. Go to work and revamp or rewrite it. God only exhibits his thunder and lightning at intervals, and so they always command attention. These are God’s adjectives. You thunder and lightning too much; the reader ceases to get under the bed, by and by.
–Mark Twain

Writers, according to tradition, are notorious procrastinators. We are especially adept at finding distractions to prevent ourselves from typing those first few new words on the screen, those words that inevitably lead to sentences, which lead to descriptive narrative, which leads to active narrative, which leads to a completed work of literature. We’ll daydream about publication. We’ll dream up possible book cover designs, even though we’re not graphic designers. We’ll consider catchy marketing copy. We’ll ponder how we can use social media to sell the work.

In the end, nothing about that process gets a manuscript from the first draft stage to completion.

Nearly two years ago, I finished the first draft of my novel. I planned on taking a six-week vacation from it before I began the rewrite process, hopeful that I would have a completed second draft within a span of three months. Seven months later, I hadn’t even reread the first draft, much less performed any editing or rewrites. Finally, I forced myself to begin the rewrite process, and I was overjoyed to discover that I once again became completely immersed in the world I had created in the first draft. After a month of work, I had rewritten and edited nearly one-third of the manuscript. The plot thickened and tightened as I wrote. I scrapped some elements of the story entirely. Others, I explored in more detail.

Then life happened, as it is prone to do, and the writing stopped again.

I am sorry to say that I have not returned to the novel rewrite process since, although I have taken time out to complete work on a few smaller projects. I do hope to circle back to it soon. Occassionally a voice calls out to me from that world I was writing about, and the urge hits me to revisit it, to carve on it a little more.


I Just Wrote a Novel

After nearly two years of intermittent work on it, I have completed the first draft of my novel. It’s been a very long road, fraught with frustration over finding time to write, overflowing with joy over putting words on the screen, and replete with discovery as I learned more about the writing process, even at this stage in my experience.

In the end, I have a 405-page double-spaced manuscript with 1-inch margins all around, and typed in 12-point Courier. I chose Courier just because it’s the closest I could come to the way old-fashioned typed manuscripts were formatted, and it made the old-fashioned manuscript word count process (250 words per page) easier to track. I realize that style of word count isn’t as important in publishing as it once was, but it did make my math easier as I wrote and kept track of the size of my manuscript versus the length of the book when it’s eventually typeset.

All-in-all, I feel rewarded by having completed this process. And I will be rewarding myself by taking a few weeks off from the novel before I begin the rewrite process, which, as any would-be novelist learns, is the part of the process where the story really comes together and all the nuts and bolts are tightened. It is my hope that the time away from the manuscript will refresh my perspective on it, and help me polish it into the most perfect novel it can be when the process is complete.

I think it will ultimately be a couple of days before I can actually put the manuscript out of my mind completely for this break. I can’t seem to prevent these three words from cycling through my brain right now: "I did it!"

‘The Lost Symbol’ Doesn’t Herald a New Age for eBooks After All

Discovered via Victoria Strauss:

Even Dan Brown can’t break the e-book 5% rule

When Dan Brown’s "The Lost Symbol" was released on Sept. 15, Amazon’s rankings revealed that Kindle sales outstripped sales of the hardcover. This led some ebook enthusiasts to herald the dawning of a new era. FastCompany asked, "Could Dan Brown’s new book be heralding the e-book age?" CNet wrote: "The possibility that the Kindle version of ‘The Lost Symbol’ — which follows Brown’s wildly popular ‘Da Vinci Code’ and ‘Angels & Demons’ — is outselling hard copies on Amazon could be a monumental moment in the e-book industry."

And Then All Hell Broke Loose

Last night, I passed the 92,000-word mark on the first draft of my novel. I have written eleven chapters so far. I have one final chapter to complete. Interestingly, the last two chapters have come along much more rapidly than the middle of the story. I’m not exactly sure why that is, except that I have developed a quirky new habit about my work while I’m plotting chapters and scenes.

Every night, when I’ve ended my final new sentence for the evening, I start a new paragraph and type the words "And then all hell broke loose."

When I begin writing again the next night, the first thing I see is that sentence: "And then all hell broke loose." It spurs me on to ratchet the story up a notch higher than I had the night before. As a result, my writing is more productive and I feel better about the work I’ve already completed.

I don’t know where I developed that habit, or even if it’s original to me. I suspect that it is not my invention. I will say, however, that it works when I’m worried about where the story is going and whether I’m keeping things moving at a good clip in terms of advancing the story.

Try it sometime in your own work.

85,000 Words and Counting

It’s been a long road, and I still have a couple of miles to go. Last night, though, I achieved a milestone that is only 3,000 words shy of my original goal of an 88,000-word first draft novel. In the end, the first draft seems like it’s going to be significantly longer than I had anticipated.

Over time, of course, the story has changed. The characters have taken on lives of their own and have altered the path and meaning of their collective journey in ways I couldn’t have possibly conceived when I started this project in earnest a year and a half ago.

I have planned and outlined two final chapters for this draft, the first of which I will begin authoring tomorrow night. If all goes well, I hope to take the month of October as an opportunity to take a break from crafting this story–to get some fresh perspective–before the revision and editing process must begin.

The more I look back at this process and what it has wrought, the more excited I am about completing this phase. And the more excited I get about completing this phase of the novel, the more I anticipate the next phase. Truly, the act of novel writing is a joyful process of discovery for me.

Why did I wait so long to do it?

Making Time

I’m close. So close.

After writing just three more chapters, I will become one of the storied 8 percent of would-be novelists who ever actually completes a first draft. I do not know from where that figure comes, nor am I particularly inclined to research it just now. But it does feel good to think that I am almost to a place where I can count myself among those who have had the spark of inspiration for writing a novel, and then gone on to actually do the work of writing it.

The past week has been a particularly devastating one in terms of making time to sit down and type on a keyboard outside of work. Bad news, sad news, illness, accidents, and simply life in general can all step in front of a writer’s "me" time, which is the time he uses to physically put those thoughts and ideas that have been rolling around like boulders in his head all day into narrative form in a word processor. The past week, for me, has been a doozy.

Fortunately, we are still near the beginning of the long Labor Day weekend here in the United States. And, after building some shelves in my garage this afternoon and doing some other maintenance around the house, I plan to spend a great chunk of some "me" time working on my third-to-last chapter for the novel I started back in 2008 (or 2004, if you count the 1,500 words I initially wrote while on vacation for a week in Myrtle Beach).

I can’t wait to write the last chapter, so I can find out what happens.

The Future of Entertainment Is…Mixed Bag?

CSI creator Anthony Zuiker thinks mixing a novel with a website and a film might at least give the book publishing industry a creative new means of boosting revenue. My question: will a novel produced using this format ever have the longevity of say, Dracula, which is still being read and enjoyed more than 100 years after its first printing? With an integrated format that changes as rapidly as the web, it’s worth asking.

Read more of Zuicker’s interesting comments after the jump.

From Yahoo News:

"Just doing one thing great is not going to sustain business," he said. "The future of business in terms of entertainment will have to be the convergence of different mediums. So we did that — publishing, movies and a website."

He said he did not believe the digi-novel would ever replace traditional publishing, but said the business did need a shot in the arm.

"They need content creators like myself to come in the industry and say, ‘Hey, let’s try things this way,’" he said.

Zuiker put together a 60-page outline for the novel, which was written by Duane Swierczynski, and wrote and directed the "cyber-bridges." He said the book could be read without watching the "cyber-bridges."