The Low-Budget Writing Program: Part 4 When the Manuscript Goes in the Garbage…

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When the manuscript is going to the garbage can, what do you save?

I’ve been lucky enough to have writer friends who will loan me books they think will be helpful to me. It’s amazing how timely these incidents can be. My observations of synchronicity in my own life make me more aware when my instincts tell me to do things–random things–even when I don’t know why.  Even if I will never know why.

So, I am going to insert a passage from a book I’ve just read, and I’m not going to tell you who the author is, or what the title is, yet.  Just play along, as if it’s your manuscript…

On impulse, I held up her manuscript.  “Okay,” I said.  “We both know there’s a problem and we don’t know how to fix it.  Let’s pretend for a minute that I’m going to throw this manuscript into the garbage.”

She leaned forward in her seat, hands gripping the arms of her chair.  I dropped the manuscript onto the floor beside me.

“It’s gone.  Into the garbage.  You’re never going to be able to write it now.  You’ll never see the characters again.  I want you to think about that.”

I could feel her thinking.

“If you could reach in and pick out just one part of that story, just one thing you don’t want to let go of, what would it be?”

Did you come up with anything?  Instinctually, did you grab for something in your own WIP?  I sure did. Hold on to that thought.

The book I got that from?  “Writing Romance” (Self-Counsel Press, Bellingham, WA 1997) by Vanessa Grant.  It’s written in the workbook style and full of helpful information, and I have found it far more useful than I thought I should.  Since it is nearly twenty years old some of the information is outdated because publishing and the internet has changed, but the Romance genre still has a lot of the same expectations.  Vanessa Grant has a soothing but insightful way of picking apart what makes a good, satisfying story.  She cautions, throughout her book, that anything not working for the entire story must be cut.  (My Sci-fi Romance has some issues I can’t afford to ignore.)

But tucked into that genre specific writing book was THAT little gem.  The Vanessa Grant Garbage Can Test.  Brilliant.   There is a formal exercise included in the book, but I found the narrative  of the original incident far more helpful.  Since my blog is geared for newer writers, like myself, I couldn’t help but pass on that little bit of insight.

WHY are you writing your particular story?  You need to know.  If you lose what is important to you, how can you hope to make it important to a reader?  Anything that doesn’t serve the core of the story will be cut out (and filed away for another story).

Anyway, my own copy of this book will go into the permanent collection of my after-the-rough-draft revision guides.  The rest of the books in that helpful collection are in this article, safely tucked next to the rescued manuscripts that took part in the above nerve-wracking photo shoot.

Back to my revisions.  Good luck with your own WIP.

Triggers and Knee-jerk Reactions

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Have you ever caught yourself ranting about a topic that you didn’t think you felt strongly about?  I have.  (Not about last week’s post; I’ve been stewing in that topic for a while. Don’t silence the writers!)

Did you stop yourself mid-rant, or blunder ahead, full of piss and vinegar?  Did you observe yourself?  Take notes, mentally or physically?  Observe others and their reactions?  Did it spark story ideas?  (I am SO putting this jerk in my next book!)

Since this blog is mostly about my painful and exhilarating journey through writing and self-publishing, I’m assuming most of you are writers of some type.  It’s fairly common for writers to observe the world around them.  Some of us even use ourselves as guinea pigs, just for the chance to observe life from the inside.  I’m not sure if that’s a sane choice, but writers are not known for their sanity.  Our working conditions make us the mad hatters of the modern world.

A lot of people use food to self soothe after a trauma. (Show me on the taco where your feelings were hurt.)  Some people use mind altering substances, both the legal and illegal types.  (I don’t have a joke for that; the results are too depressing.)  People also use therapy, in the form of a friend’s shoulder or even a professional shoulder.  (Would ‘Professional Shoulder’ look good on a business card?)

Writers use those techniques, too, but I find the most soothing thing is to write about trauma.  We go where the discomfort is and prod it, because that’s where the best stories hide.  Written inside out and upside down, taken apart, put back together, then stuffed into a ill fitting costume.  Then I let it go.  Frankenstein’s monster lurches down to the village, once again, making everyone uncomfortable.  (He sits at your table, even when there are plenty of empty tables in the coffeehouse. Or something.)

I believe that is a writer’s job, to help us see other points of view.  Entertain us, yes!  But also teach us something about the world.  Something we haven’t considered before.  Open our minds. Give us something to believe in, or show us something we feverently hope will never come to pass. Story telling shouldn’t be safe. Help us find our boundaries, our line in the sand.  True north on our moral compass.  Help us to find a place to stand firm, where we can say, “No. You move.”  (Can you guess my favorite superhero?)

I’ve been adding people to my Facebook page–writers mostly–and not often those I agree with. At this point in an election year, I would normally be nose down in books, avoiding commercials and social media like it’s… well, anything related to politics and socializing.  Instead, I’m sponging it up, spongingly spongelike, yellow and absorbent, bits of the scrubby pad wearing off, and starting to smell a bit.  It’s been educational.  In some posts the tiniest disagreement on syntax can start a flame war, accruing hundreds of hateful comments, while the actual topic gets ignored.  Other posts are a think-tank, with ideas and disagreements being examined rationally and with great thought. Most posts–of course–fall somewhere in between.

Is there a point to this blog?  Perhaps it’s just a continuation of last week’s rant.  Perhaps I’m filling the space, avoiding that future post about helpful grammar books. Perhaps I should take a chance and post one of those uncomfortable Franken-fiction stories.  I’m not sure.  I think I’m just squeezing out a bit of the excess moisture.

Happy writing, and don’t be silenced!

The Writer’s Road: Potholes and Roadblocks

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Despite not blogging for two months, I am still here.  I’m struggling with several things, in writing and in life, the most prominent of which is imposter syndrome.  Funny thing is…

(Ok, not funny. Sad and depressing, maybe.)

…IS that knowing WHAT you are struggling with is not the same as being able to overcome it.  This is not the first time I’ve been tempted to give up on writing, nor is it likely to be the last.  For now, I am firm in resolution to be a writer. Publishing is optional. Social media presence is optional. Good reviews and sales are optional. Writing is not optional.  Writing is not optional. Writing is not optional.

(Ok, now those words have lost all meaning.  <sigh>)

I have many reasons to give up and so does everyone else who is trying to get published.  I’m not an idiot.  My chances of writerly fame are miniscule.  It is no surprise that the post that stopped me dead in my tracks is the one about grammar.  I keep telling myself that I’m writing a helpful blog series for new writers like me. I’m just pointing out some books that helped me, and that I am not setting myself up as any kind of authority.  That thought is not quite sinking in.  You will know when it has, because you will see the grammar post.  I WILL continue that helpful series.

(Cue writer montage. Furious scribbling, frantic re-reading of source material, and then frenzied keyboarding fueled by coffee and uplifting power-cord heavy song of your liking. “Eye of the Tiger” or “I Will Survive” will suffice.)

For now, I will try to write creatively every day, continue to edit, learn about publishing, screw around on Facebook, try to figure out Twitter and the other platforms, blog about other things, and enjoy the lovely people I have connected with. Some of them are writers, and some are people who have retained some level of sanity.  I’m greatly enjoying both types.

(Hmmm.  Should I block the weird political ranting person, or use them in my next story?  I better observe them some more…)

I am on a road with pot holes and roadblocks, but they will not stop me. I will move forward, dodge left and right, move fast and slow, but always forward.  I hope you will, too.

(Dodge, duck, dip, dive, and dodge. Right?  Who knew the five D’s of Dodgeball would be so helpful.)

If you need encouragement, please, drop me a line. Helping others always keeps me moving, too.

The Low-Budget Writing Program: Part 3 Take Over the Literary World!

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This is a short post since it’s my vacation week, and there aren’t many writers tackling how to take over the literary world.

To date I have only found John Warner, the master of the fake famous writer quote, in the form of his helpful “Fondling Your Muse” (Writer’s Digest Books, Cincinnati 2005).  From the confusing dedication to the ridiculous blurbs on the back of the book, it’s packed with awful rules-to-live-by and terrible advice. He explains how and why to write your Manifesto, the place you alternately smash all writers who have come before AND promise to be the light in a dark, sewer-like world.  He also touches on the importance of preparing your Acceptance speech for all those awards you are going to receive.  Don’t miss the quiz, “So You Want To Be A Writer,” that proves only a self-destructive ego-maniac would choose to be a writer.  There is also some stuff about writing, like plot, character, and point of view and such nonsense.  I wasn’t paying attention.  I was envisioning the life of wealthy ease he promised if I followed his path to writerly fame.

Seriously, if you need to share in venting about the ridiculous contradictions of a writer’s life, or you just need a break from Serious Writer Stuff, pick it up and enjoy.

If you missed last week’s post, “The Monster in My Manuscript,” it was about books that will help you analyze and revise your rough draft.

Next week I will start in on the topic of syntax and grammar, in “How to Slay the Many-Headed Grammar Hydra!” [OR, I will keep putting that blog off, in a state of numb panic over my inexperience, and next post about putting your manuscript in the garbage.]

The Low-Budget Writing Program: Part 2 The Monster in My Manuscript

Just when I think there may be some breathing room between culture crises, along comes another one.  Now, almost everyone I know or follow is pointing fingers at one issue or group as being the sum of all the world’s problems.  I think the biggest problem is too many people are screaming their opinions and not taking the time to listen to the real problems.  There is some big picture stuff happening in our culture, but we only see the symptoms.  It’s like those Magic Eye pictures, you have to step back and change your focus, then you see the three-dimensional shark.  Time to wake up, people!

Meanwhile, I will stay in my book-lined safe space and tell you about the “How to” writing books that helped me to understand that the very raw first drafts I scribbled were worth developing into manuscripts, and how I was able to approach revision.

The first of these, and the book I consider the benchmark for storytelling, is “The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers” (Michael Wiese Productions, Studio City, CA 1998) by Christopher Vogler.  It analyzes Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey theory, one of the most basic story structures, from the point of view of a veteran story consultant and scriptwriter.  Vogler really delves into why this kind of story speaks to humans, and cites plenty of examples to help you to understand the concepts.  He even gives workbook questions at the end of each chapter to help you apply the concepts to your favorite stories.  If you read through it, with your own finished rough draft in mind, I think you can’t help but see ways to improve your work.  Vogler admits that any and all of the guideline he presents can be broken, sometimes to great effect, but it’s easier to be a breakout writer if you already know what is expected and actually works. [Since posting this, I have had a chance to read the third edition (2007) of this book.  Vogler goes much deeper and broader into the theory, and you really shouldn’t miss it!]

Because of the popularity of  writing stories from the woman’s point-of-view, usually more introspective and self-creative than the Hero’s Journey, many articles are being written to accommodate this shift of focus.  Personally, I haven’t found any of these articles to be half as effective as “The Virgin’s Promise” (Michael Wiese Productions, Studio City, CA 2009) by Kim Hudson.  This book maps out the journey stages of self-awareness found in many Fairy Tales, and the mythical princess breaking out of her tower plotline.  It is similar to the Hero’s Journey in some ways, but widely different in others.  Don’t assume this it is only for female characters, because it is about the idea of growing beyond the role society has placed on you.  In my current work-in-progress it is the male antagonist/love interest who is firmly on this path, and it was easier to understand him once I knew this.

Another way to check your rough draft is to run it past Noah Lukeman, a prominent New York literary agent, in the form of his book, “The Plot Thickens: 8 Ways to Bring Fiction to Life” ( St. Martins Griffin, New York 2002).  It is written in a crisp, insightful way developed from his many years of reading manuscripts.  (Over fifty thousand in five years.  Yikes!) The first two chapters are full of questions you had better have an answer to, before you send your work to an agent or publisher.  Probably the biggest impression I got from his advice was Don’t Bore The Reader!  Boredom equals an unfinished or discarded book; a book that doesn’t get recommended, and word-of-mouth is the best promotional tool for a writer.  I personally love his Sahara-dry wit and no-nonsense advice.  Mr. Lukeman also has another book high on my reading list called “The First Five Pages” that I suspect will be just as important to read, since that is where you hook your reader into the whole story.

“How to Write a Damn Good Novel” (St. Martin’s Press, New York, 1987) by James N. Frey is another excellent resource you can use to refine your story.  He covers the usual topics of character, conflict, plot, climax, voice, etc… in a very readable and engaging way, but also covers such in-depth topics as theme, premise, and symbolism in a way that makes sense to the writer and satisfies the reader (and how to not over-use these hidden gems).  The age of this book makes it a bit out of date in the current e-book and internet savvy world, but you should still be able to wield those skills he tries so hard to instill. I won’t re-read it after every first draft, but once a year or so might be a good idea.

Another important book, if the sheer number of sticky paper tags sprouting from the closed book is any indication, is “By Cunning & Craft” (Writer’s Digest Books, Cincinnati 2007) by Peter Selgin.  He covers many of the same topics as the other books, but everyone has their own spin on the way to address and analyze the questions EVERY writer asks themselves when trying to tell a story.  Mr. Selgin has a deeply insightful way of choosing the tone and style of a particular story, and–more importantly–why.  The subtle nuances of storytelling are his to command, and he will show you by example.  He also encourages you to be as true as possible to your voice, as a writer, while still producing a marketable book.  The chapter on Revision is a well written pat on the head, a tight hug, and some wise words as you are sent on your way.

My internal conflict between the writer’s voice and marketability prompted me to grab onto “The Joy of Writing Sex” (Story Press, Cincinnati 1996) by Elizabeth Benedict with both hands when I found it by chance in a used book store, and to not let go until I had it home.  It was one of very few books that addressed this topic when it was published and completely novel in its approach, although now her advice is the standard model for mainstream novels.  Current trends in off-mainstream books have shifted away from “Less is more” and graphic detail is standard for some sub-genres, especially the many bastard children of Romance and all of the other Speculative Fiction genres, not to mention the increasing popularity of Erotica.  Still, I got a lot out of her examples of restrained detail, along with a greatly increased reading list.  And even this main proponent of “less is more” nearly tittered in horrified fascination as she gave a few examples of the bolder, more graphic writers of her time.  My biggest take away from her book was to be subtle if you can, but if you can’t… go all out!

These are the books I have kept as valued hard copies on my book shelf, and I have saved them for going back to if stuck or confused about my writing.  This is a tiny sample of what is available, so please, feel free to add any books I haven’t mentioned in the comments.  What helped YOU on the road to becoming a writer?  It may just be the one book that will help the next writer coming along.

If you missed it, last week the blog was about “Butt in Chair” and getting the first draft finished.  Next week will be something about how to “Take Over the Literary World!”

“What if?” Genre and the Storyteller

“What if?”

“What if dragons existed?”  If you are a writer, you have probably written Fantasy.  “What if we could genetically engineer dragons?” Now you’re edging to Sci-Fi.  “What if someone was secretly making dragons?” Sounds like a Mystery.  “What if they killed to protect that secret?” Ok, a Murder Mystery. “What if that dragon was also part human?”  Paranormal.  “What if the chip implanted in the dragon’s brain controlled the change?” Cyberpunk.  “What if it was funny how it was always the worst timing?”  Humor.  “What if I fell in love with that dragon-human?”  Romance.  “What if the sex was…”  Ok, now were looking at Erotica.  (Somehow, I always end up there.)

“What if?”  The great question every writer has the urge to answer.  I think most people have that question on their mind at times, but it is the storyteller who picks at it, explores it, turns it inside out and upside down. The medium may change; keyboard, paintbrush, instrument, or something completely different.  My current medium is words, and I am still learning the feel of them.  What words will help the reader understand the questions I am asking.

“What if?” is the question.  The only question.  Genre is just the flavoring; an easy handle to sort it, and to quickly find potential readers.  Genre is slippery, and constantly changing, from moment to moment, and person to person.  The words to describe stories have changed their meaning.  You can look them up in the Dictionary (and I have), but the battle to define genres is hot and messy and confusing.  Sub-genres have bread more sub-genres, like bacteria dividing. (How does that song go?)

“What if?” is the catalyst.  The Hero never leaves home without it.  It is the constant companion.  It is the writer’s companion, too.  The part of the mind that can’t resist banging things together to see what happens.  Did you make a hole, a mess, an ending?  Or did you make something new: an idea, an element, or start a brand new person?  “What if it was both?”  The results can be unexpected.  Proceed at your own risk.

“What if?” I could express my worldview in my writing?  It’s joys and sorrows, pain and pleasure, hope and despair.

“What if?”

5 Things I Have Learned About E-Book Reviews

  1. Authors NEED Your Reviews.  Maybe not famous authors (like J.K. Rowling, she’s doing fairly well), but those writing for a small genre e-press or the independent e-publishers really need reviews.  Really, really need those reviews.  If by some chance someone from their social media circle looks their book up, OR they get browsed while someone is swiping through pages and pages of books of a favorite genre, the number and rating of the reviews can make or break that sale.  Most readers learn to shy away from zero to few reviews, or if the reviews are all low stars.  (I’ve learned the hard way that these rough draft monstrosities–typed by a monkey and formatted on LSD–are often not worth the money they’re printed on.  Get it?  Printed?  Sorry.)
  2. Authors Need Hard Numbers.  The numbers game is always changing, and it’s hard to find hard data, but the word on the street is that currently 25 reviews will put an author on the “you might also like” Amazon list.  Fifty puts them in the running for feature exposure and other benefits. Sixty is the minimum rumored for BookBub, often cited as one of the most helpful platforms.  (Personally, already having sixty reviews sounds fairly successful, but I guess it’s just the start of becoming the next big thing.)
  3. Authors Shall Not Engage Their Reviewers.  Thank them, if you wish, on your blog or somewhere else. Don’t get cozy on the review page, you are setting a dangerous precedent.  I think authors get surprised by that first one star review, and jump to defend their work.  Don’t.  Even if it’s a wildly inaccurate review, or even a personal attack.  It is always the author that comes off as unreasonable, and they are the only one with a real stake in the review process.  Goodreads is starting to get a bad reputation for authors getting trashed by other writers and proto-writers, and that includes deliberate catfishing.  Setting your followers on them is probably a bad idea, also.  Mob mentality is particularly nasty in the online world. (Don’t be the orc that whips the trolls into attacking.)
  4. It’s a Review, Not a Book Report.  Keep it short and to the point.  Most people will not bother to read your ten paragraph critique and summary.  A single paragraph, or even a sentence or two, is plenty.  Everybody has things to do, and you can spend the time reading and reviewing another book.  (I also don’t bother with less than a three star review.  For my reasoning check my blog, “Why I Won’t Give a One Star Review.”)
  5. Five Star Reviews Don’t Promise a Good Book.  Sometimes an author has a fan base that is rabid, despite the book being a drug fueled, simian screech pounded into unreadable prose.  Feel free to poke that hornet’s nest with a one star review, but I prefer to back away slowly.  (It’s a tactical withdrawal.  Really.)

I’m still the newcomer to this madhouse of self-publishing, but I’m beginning to find my footing on the black light lit, mattress strewn, maze of contradictions.  My heartfelt thanks go out to those who are helping us noobs, holding our hands and lighting a penlight in the darkness.