Category Archives: Writing fiction

I have always thought of myself, first and foremost, as a writer. It’s time to get real about it.

I have to write a bible

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Exploding head

This did not happen to me, but it was a close call.

Well, my head didn’t explode, so that’s good, but I had to skip most of the evening sessions and the whole of Sunday at the PNWA Writer’s Conference, or it might have. It was intense and I learned so much! And something about being immersed in an imaginarium of writers got my creative juices squirting so hard they darn near flooded me out of my own brain.

So, anyway, here is what I know: My book sucks. I have to go back to the beginning and start again.

On the other hand, I have learned things that will help me get it right. I will now share some of what I learned for the edification of fellow wannabe-serious-writers.

  1. Amazon is amazing. It has a bazillion (free!!!) platforms for different types of writing. Terry Persun, who gave a detailed presentation about marketing writing through Amazon, is a writer, not an Amazon employee, and by the time he was done he had me thinking “Pah! Self-publishing is clearly the way to go – I don’t even need a publisher, much less an agent!”
  2. Agents and publishers still regard self-published authors with suspicion. They acknowledge that times have changed, but by damn they’re taking a stand for traditional values!
  3. It is possible to be hungry and distracted and psyched up enough to pay $8.00 for a bottle of water and a banana. I know this because it happened to me at the hotel where the conference was held. Needless to say, I stayed a mile or two down the road at a hotel that didn’t serve bananas or bottled water at any price.
  4. It is also possible to be stuck with a bill for $27.00 for five hours of parking.
  5. Riding the bus is a relaxing and efficient way to get a mile or two down the road.
  6. Back story is key, and you have to write it down in something called a “bible”. This contains everything you know about every character – and when it comes to main characters, you’d better know everything – when they were born, where they went to school, that weird birthmark, sexual proclivities, number of earrings, favorite flower, verbal tics, wishes, fears and dreams – it all gets written down, and as the characters reveal themselves to you during the course of writing the book, you keep updating the bible. The bible also contains maps of any locale where any action happens, building plans, timelines – in other words, anything you could conceivably need to remember 50,000 words into the book.
  7. You don’t start your story with a giant dump of the main character’s entire back story. You dribble out tiny crumbs of information as you lead your reader through the forest to the witch’s house. This means that, to create believable characters, you have to do a shitload of writing that no reader will ever actually see. (How could I not know this? I did know it, but I forgot, and my first two chapters are just this giant blurghh.)
  8. Some things give away a person’s nationality even better than accent. For instance, I was oblivious to Cherry Adair’s South African accent, but when she mentioned  Linda Goodman’s Sun Signs I had a flashback to my university days, playing glassy-glassy (aka ouija) with my friends and spending hours researching my perfect mate (as outlined in Sun Signs) while ignoring the fact that I was not, as advertised, a tall, slender, green-eyed blond. Then she talked about how all her characters have lots of hot monkey sex, but it’s important for them to have a solid back story, so that the novel isn’t just a sex book, and even though I still wasn’t sure of her accent I knew she had to be South African, because Americans don’t talk about monkeys in the context of hot sex. Anyway, apparently when Ms Adair is getting to know a character, she gives them a birthday and then looks it up in her old copy of Sun Signs, and that tells her everything about the character that she needs to know. (She figures out the sex stuff on her own.)
  9. According to an agent who gave a talk on “How to Hook an Agent”, it’s not that hard to hook an agent, but if they don’t pick you it’s not because your book is no good – it’s because … something about going to a supermarket to buy a snack and even though the chocolate looks delicious you walk past it because what you really want just then is popcorn. Seriously – who would do that? I didn’t get to tell him about my book, so I don’t know whether he’s a chocolate or popcorn guy. The point is, don’t feel rejected, just keep doing your chocolate (or popcorn) thing until someone eats you.
  10. There are many different ways to write a series, but you’ll be sorry if you try to do it without a bible.

What else? Oh – I had my first experience of meeting a blogger I follow face-to-face, so that was cool! Lynn Price of Behler Blog is an excellent resource for us wannabes, so go check her out.

And, of course, I mustn’t forget to mention the main reason I went to the con. On Saturday morning I pitched my book to three agents and two editors. The way it worked was, about an hour before the pitch session they let those who had booked for the session into a special room. (Security was tighter than it is at the airport – there was no way anyone got in without the special ticket.) I was one of the first in line (I was early for practically the whole conference!) so I got to sit in the front row of seats. Five minutes before the session started they opened the door, and every author present released their inner buffalo and stampeded for the pitch room. (Sometimes it helps to be on the wider side of chubby – I simply stuck out my elbows and didn’t let anyone pass me.)

The agents and editors were lined up in alphabetical order behind tables, about two feet apart…

A pride of lions soaking up the mid-day sun. Serengeti National Park, Tanzania

They looked like this, only more lions and less grass. (Source)

… and we lined up in front of them, behind a strip of tape. A buzzer went off and the first writer in line scurried forward, sat down, and started talking really fast. Four minutes later the buzzer went off again and if they didn’t get their butt out of that chair immediately a volunteer came up and “persuaded” them, and then the next writer plopped down, while the seat was still warm. This went on for an hour and a half and then they kicked us out, and those who could still walk went and got drunk.

I’ll get the really embarrassing one out of the way first. Delegates got a list of all the editors and agents and what they were looking for, and on Friday morning there was a forum, where each editor/agent talked about what mattered to them and we wannabes frantically took notes. That’s what we used to figure out whom to pitch to. But in the middle of all this figuring out and lining up and scurrying forward to grab a warm seat and talking fast, I got a couple of the agents confused. Consequently, I sat down in front of a sweet lady who listened to the first half of my pitch and then said, “Ermmm … Is this a YA book? Because I do books for children and young adults.” I should have got up and walked away then, but instead I blinked, swallowed, and pitched her a YA book I haven’t looked at for about a decade because … lots of reasons; anyway, it is so not ready for publication. This time she didn’t interrupt me, but when I ran out of words she said, apologetically, “Ermmm … it sounds like a fantasy. I don’t do fantasy.”

So yeah, someone gave me a pity pitch.

The others went better. One agent wants to see a written proposal and 20 pages, another agent and an editor each want 50 pages, and an editor with purple hair wants the entire manuscript.

And it sucks so much!!! I feel like a con artist! Please note: this is not a request for Encouraging Words. This is real, but it’s okay. I confessed to the purple editor that the book needed a little work, and she said as long as she had it within six to eight weeks that would be okay. I’m going to assume the same is true for the others. So now all I have to do is write a novel in six weeks.

That sounds doable. No pressure. I’ll start work on the bible tomorrow.

What lifelong dreams are you getting ready to unleash? Is it scary for you too?

 

What if no one likes it?

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Three days from right now will be half a day into the first day of the 2017 Pacific Northwest Writer’s Conference. I am not ready.

Early this year I decided, “If I finish my first draft in time to book the early bird special, I can go.” Then I decided, “I’m going to book because I can’t miss this opportunity and I want to grab the early bird special, but I have to finish the first draft before the con.”

Two months ago this looked totally achievable. Now? Let’s just say that to meet that goal I have to write approximated 25,000 words in two days and … Honey, that ain’t gonna happen.

Even if I hadn’t spent yesterday and today in a complete funk, it wouldn’t have happened.

The main reason I’m going to the conference is to pitch this book, and in fact the whole planned series. I’m set up to pitch to 21 (TWENTY-ONE!!!) agents and editors, 14 of whom are specifically looking for this kind of fiction. And I know very well that none of them is going to ask for a full manuscript right off the bat. If I am lucky they may ask for a written proposal. If I am very lucky they may ask for a sample chapter or three.

But.

What the fuck is wrong with me, that I have this … this thing that I want to do more than anything else in the world, that I’ve wanted to do all my life, that I know I can do, and I have this patient and supportive guy in my corner, and I have a laptop that works and a desk to put it on and a view from my desk that inspires, and if I need a change of scenery I have coffee shops or a library to go to or a car to sit in next to the river or at the top of a mountain…

And I now even have meds that make my brain work better, so that when I sit down to write the words just roll out of my fingers and onto the screen…

Bad evil men pointing at stressed woman sitting in a boxAnd I still have whole days in which fear sticks its hand in my chest and squeeeeeezes. Fear of what, you ask? Damfino. Failure, mainly. Rejection too. Mainly I’m just scared of sucking.

What if it’s no good? Actually … that’s not really what’s worrying me. That’s not arrogance; it’s plain good sense – if I didn’t think I could write, and specifically that I could write this book, I’d be doing something easier and more fun, like gardening or training my dog. It’s not great literature and it needs some hefty pummeling by both me and beta readers, but it’s a fun little story about something that should appeal to quite a wide readership base.

What if I’m no good? What if these agents and editors look at me – my overdue-for-a-cut-and-color hair, my caftans and flat sandals, my foreignness and fatness – and simply don’t believe someone like me can have anything of interest to say to people like them? What if I accidentally say something wildly inappropriate and they think I’m too weird to work with? What if they listen to my pitch about an alphabet series – 26 books, two per year – and think, “Yeah, right, it’s taken you over half a century to produce half a first draft of A is for Aussie and you want us to believe you can do 25 more full books in 13 years? You’re old, bitch – you probably won’t even live that long!”

What if I get to the con, and pitch to all these agents and editors, and none of them likes it? Sometime in the past 36 hours I asked the Hubbit this question. He said, “Well, you know it’s tough to break into writing. So if that happens we’ll simply self-publish.”

We.

Such a huge, magnificent word. I thought about it for a moment, after he said it, and thanked him. And then I crawled back into my funk.

So now it’s Monday evening. I have two days to prepare. But it’s okay – I have a plan.

  • Tonight I will pack my suitcase. Packing tonight will mean I won’t have to fly out of here on Thursday morning, running late and with insufficient underwear.
  • Tomorrow and Wednesday I will write my two-minute pitch and written proposal, and edit the crap out of the first three chapters, and I will print copies. I’m not sure how many copies … but some.
  • magic bookThursday I will attend a training session on How To Pitch Your Novel.
  • Friday I will deploy all the best words and enchant the shit out of those people (Yes, they are people, not demonic or heavenly powers.)
  • Saturday I will do whatever’s on the schedule that I can’t care about right now, and I will not obsessively replay whatever insane thing blurted out of my mouth during my most promising pitch session on Friday.
  • Sunday I will unroll that “we” like a magic carpet, and come back home.

And then we’ll see.

So how is your book going? And will you be at the con? Let’s meet for coffee!

A Day in the Life of a Wannabe Writer … or, NaNo Ate My Brain

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Yes, I am procrastinating. I am also, by writing down whatever random thoughts happen to free-associate within my wrinkled brain, getting those old creative juices flowing in preparation for doing some serious work on The Novel. (Note: wrinkles are widely regarded as desirable in a brain.)

It occurs to me that the novel-writing process is a bit like knitting a sweater. And when I say that I am referring very specifically to the sweater (aka “jersey”, because this happened in South Africa) I knitted attempted to knit when I was in seventh grade (aka Standard Five, because that’s what we called it 44 years ago … Good grief, how did that happen? That was in Historical Times, y’all!)

Back then, Home Economics (aka Domestic Science) was compulsory for all girls. We learned essential skills like how to bathe a baby, sew a layette, maintain a sewing machine, set a table for a formal dinner, and prepare the simpler elements of such a dinner.

I totally sucked at all of it. I desperately wanted to be with the boys, learning woodwork and car maintenance, but back in the early Seventies in South Africa that was absolutely not an option. (I need to explain this to Himself. He is regularly baffled by my inability to remember the significance of fluids vis-a-vis a vehicle engine. I must tell him that it’s Not My Fault! I wanted to learn that stuff, but the system was against me!)

So anyway, one of our projects was to knit a sweater jersey. I chose the prettiest shade of soft, pale pink wool, and my mother cast on for me (yeah, I know, but good parenting is about compromise), and at the end of the term in which we “learned to knit” she sent me to stay with my grandmother, who kept me knitting out on the stoep while we listened to the radio. For hour upon hour. Because there was a deadline, you see – I had to be able to wear the bloody thing in time for my first Domestic Science class of the next term.

This might have been what I was aiming for.  (Pic lifted from LL Bean website)

This might have been what I was aiming for.
(Pic lifted from LL Bean website)

I don’t remember how long the visit lasted, but I suspect my granny finally gave up and sent me home. Or maybe the month-long July (winter!) school vacation holiday ended. All I really remember is that after approximately seven years of knitting and unraveling and reknitting, it was the night before the Fashion Show, when all the girls in my Domestic Science class were to model their jerseys.

I had maybe six inches of used-to-be-pink-but-now-badly-needs-a-wash knitted matter … which my mother cast off and stitched into place around a wooden coat-hanger, while I made two very artistic and beautiful pompoms to attach below the hook.

Coat hanger cover

Like the one second from the bottom, only with grime and pompoms. (Pic found on Pinterest. Can you believe these are still a Thing???)

Hey – if I’d been allowed to make a birdhouse like the boys, I would totally have rocked it!

Anyway, that’s kind of how this whole NaNo thing has been going for me. I’m progressing stits and farts, as my dear Marmeee has been known to say in less demure moments. Take today.

First off, Himself woke at some non-existent hour and needed to read himself back to sleep. While he was doing this, various dogs needed out. Himself being contentedly oblivious to their need, I stumbled out of bed to take care of them. I don’t open my eyes when I do this, being convinced that as long as my eyes are shut I am still experiencing shut-eye regardless of what the rest of my body is doing, and can therefore hope to be reasonably functional when daylight strikes. Unfortunately, because my eyes were shut, I failed to notice that all the dogs had come back in while I sat waiting for them, shivering gently and planning Himself’s demise.

Eventually pried eyes open and wandered through the house, counting dogs. After counting to six three times I was able to believe that everyone was safe inside and not in any imminent danger of becoming a pupsicle, so I climbed back into bed, just as Himself turned his light off and snuggled, still contentedly, under the covers.

By now I was wide awake and too pissed to sleep, so I flipped open my laptop and churned out about 600 words of the most ghastly drivel, before deciding that “Henrietta Gurdy’s Lost and Found” was the single most boring, pointless book ever not to be written, and pulled a pillow over my face went back to sleep.

Woke late, and spent the day gnashing my teeth over my hopeless future as a writer-to-be-taken-seriously.

Decided to take myself and my laptop off to Barnes and Noble and immerse myself in latte fumes and works of brilliance and stay there until I had figured out what was wrong with the damn book and fixed it.

Went out to feed the chickens before leaving, and noticed that one hen was sick. Spent 25 minutes trying to catch her. Tottered into the house clutching her, faintly clucking, to my heaving bosom with one hand, while fending the dogs off with the other, just as Himself headed through the door to pick up something or other he found on Craigslist.

Said, “Screw this,” and dumped chicken inside large dog crate in bedroom, with food and water and blanket slung over the top. So fine, our bedroom now smells like a chicken. Read my lips: I Do Not Care!

Realized that, with Himself gone, (a) the house is quiet, and (b) there is no one here to comment on my decision to fuel my creative urge with the whole tub of Ben & Jerry’s Cherry Garcia I found in the freezer. (Come on, those tubs are small!) Plus it was getting dark. And it’s friggin’ cold. And anyway, somehow in the course of all the frothing and fuming I’d been doing – or maybe it was A Gift From The Chicken – I’d figured out what I wanted to do about Henrietta Gurdy. So I got myself all set up in a corner of the living room…

Aaand ... GO!

Aaand … GO!

… and I sat down and wrote this blog post.

I can always rely on Argos for help...

I can always rely on Argos for help…

And then Himself came home and started making weird beeping noises on his computer … and pretty soon the dogs will want to be fed.

I wonder whether I can count these words toward my NaNo tally? Because I have only 10,067 down, guys, and only 12 days in which to churn out the balance of the 50,000!

Oh well. At least I know how to fix the darn thing now. So there’s that.