Lessons from NaNoWriMo 2017

Every year I write a first draft in November and every year I try to learn something new while doing it. This year’s first draft was a straightish crime novel with the working title Project Cecil. The name doesn’t mean anything I just had to call it something and one thing I’ve learned in previous years is that I suck at titles.

This year’s big lesson is that I can write a novel without relying on fantasy, science fiction, or the supernatural. I’m just not entirely sure I want to. It’s really too early to tell if the story is any good. That wasn’t the point. A first draft doesn’t have to be good, it just has to be written. But I am starting to question the logic of writing it.

I wrote a straight crime novel because a friend challenged me to write it. She challenged me because my attempts to get an agent or a publisher are hampered by the kind of stories I normally write. It’s not that they’re bad it’s just that they’re hard to market because they don’t fit easily into any single genre. My friend suggested that if I could write a regular crime novel I would have more chance of getting an agent or publisher interested and once I have something published I might have more luck with my weirder books.

My friend might be right. But I’m starting to think about the long game. My ultimate aim isn’t to get a single book published or even to get paid for a couple of manuscripts. My aim is a career as a writer and to do that I need to concentrate on the books I actually want to write. I like the story I’ve been telling but it’s not representative of most of the stories that I want to tell.

Of course it might still be worth taking this novel to Bloody Scotland next year and pitching it. Even if it doesn’t lead to the career I want it might at least lead to enough money to pay to self publish the other stories well enough to build a career that way.

This doesn’t mean I regret this experiment though. I’ve met some interesting characters while writing this story and I think I’ll probably come back to them at some point and finish telling their stories properly.


Genre Woes

Today’s displacement activity is obsessing about genre. Again.

I should be writing or querying. Instead I’m obsessing about which genre I should be describing my completed novel as.

I know that the books that it most closely resembles are usually described as urban fantasy or contemporary urban fantasy. Except for when they’re magical realism but there’s at least two contradictory definitions for that. The urban fantasy thing isn’t quite right because the magic in my books is too subtle and I also have some weird science. There’s some alternative history but it’s not alternative history because it’s set in the present. There’s some advanced technology but not enough to make it science fiction. It’s quite dark but I don’t think it’s dark enough to call it horror.

The opening paragraph of a query letter should tell the agent you’re querying what genre the work is. How do I describe my weird, dark, slightly magical, detective thriller so that the right agent will actually read it?

None of which solves the problem of finding the right agent in the first place. They say that if you think an agent is right for your novel you should query them regardless of their stated genre preferences. Ok. I could do that. How would I find that out? I only have so many hours in the day. I’m not stalking every agent in the English speaking world until one of them expresses a fondness for ghosts and detectives and demons and magic and artificial intelligence all in the same book.

So, obviously, I should employ the scattergun approach and just query every agent in the English speaking world because I’ll eventually find the right agent that way. Right? Except you’re supposed to tailor the query to the agent. And tell the agent what genre you’re querying.

Why can’t I just be a sensible writer and write in a sensible genre?

??? Profit!

The title of this post comes from my favourite episode of South Park. It comes from the Underpants Gnomes and their three point business plan.

  1. Collect underpants
  2. ?
  3. Profit

As a writer I understand the Underpants Gnomes on a deep, spiritual level. For a long time I wasn’t a writer but I kind of, sort of, wanted to be one. I thought that I was smart enough and good enough with words but I didn’t feel like I had anything to say. I thought that if I just had a story that I wanted to tell then maybe I could be a writer.

Like everyone else who isn’t a writer I thought that the idea bit must be the hardest bit. Or maybe the actually sitting down and writing. I knew that there were a lot more people talking about writing than actually writing, therefore the writing bit must be really tough, but I also thought that it was probably easier if you had a really good idea.

In the time before being a writer I did write. I wrote in my diaries when I couldn’t not write. I wrote forum posts. I wrote on usenet (does anyone else remember usenet or was it all a fever dream). I wasn’t a writer yet but I was practicing to be one.

I got a lot of practice writing journals for my therapist. It drove me nuts that every week I would sit down in his room and he would ask me how I was and I would say… “Fine.” I was not fine but when there was actually someone there asking me to talk about all the ways in which I was not fine I couldn’t find the words. So I wrote in my journals whenever things were going badly and I took them with me and he would read a week’s worth of misery while I was making coffee and tea.

One source of misery was the feeling of not knowing what I should be doing with my life. My therapist would hint that he thought I had a talent that I should pursue and that it was obvious to him what it was but that he wasn’t going to tell me what I should be doing because it wasn’t his choice. I’m pretty sure now that he meant writing.

But the thing about writing is that it’s kind of like the Underpants Gnomes. Sooner or later you run into the big question mark.

  1. Have an idea
  2. Write a first draft
  3. Tidy up the first draft
  4. Throw out most of the first draft
  5. Write a second draft.
  6. And possibly a third
  7. Find a Beta reader
  8. Find another Beta reader
  9. And possibly a third
  10. Discover massive hole in the plot
  11. Write a bunch of new scenes to fill the hole
  12. Tidy up the scenes
  13. Find a new Beta reader to look at this latest version
  14. Tidy it up some more
  15. Declare it finished
  16. Start pitching
  17. Start querying
  18. ?
  19. Profit

I know what in theory there’s a bunch of steps that fit where that question mark is. Either you pitch and query till you get an agent and they get you a publisher or you get the publisher yourself or you cut out both of them and publish it yourself. But how?

How do you keep going in the face of silence or rejection? How do you find agents and publishers that actually want the thing you’ve written? People talk as if self-publishing is easy but even self-publishing badly is a lot more than hitting the print button and doing it well requires money and skills that I just don’t have.

My other half self-published 8 short stories last year and saw less than $2.00 in return. That doesn’t sound like profit to me.

Change of plans

I have decided that maybe it’s time to give my completed novel a rest for a bit. Maybe it’s the wrong work to query? Maybe I was thinking too big, too long, or too crazy?

I’m going to concentrate on another story. As it stands it’s a complete first draft of a novella but I think it could be more. I think it could be a short novel. It’s smaller in scope than the novel I was querying though I think it will get a bit bigger as I expand it. Maybe it’s more what agents are looking for as a first novel? I know that the setting will be easier to pitch to Scottish publishers and easier for them to sell to readers.

Of course it’s probably displacement activity. It’s easier to write another novel than it is to query the finished one. The novel has to be finished before someone can reject it and, by extension, me. Writing is the bit that I know I’m good at. Well, think I’m good at. Most of the time.

It’s something a bit different for me. The narrator character is disabled. Writing stuff that’s too close to home is something I usually shy away from. It feels like cheating somehow. But I keep seeing agents and publishers asking for diverse storytelling and diverse characters. Maybe they actually mean it. And if they don’t I’ve got this other story I can whip out when they tell me that they can’t sell a locked room mystery set in Aberdeen where the central character is an unglamorous disabled woman.

Back down to earth

During November I write. I create new stories and I give myself permission not to care if they’re good, or commercial, or even publishable. Then December comes around again and suddenly I have to care about that again.

I’m not going to look at this year’s first draft yet. I’m still too close to it to know if it’s worth working on. I’ll leave that until the new year. And this isn’t the time to go back to the novel I was working on before. I need time to switch gear.

This is the time to get back to the job of getting my finished novel published. And I don’t know how to do that.

My mind is full of fog and cotton wool and I can’t see a clear path through it. Maybe I’m just tired? Maybe it’s just the Fibromyalgia? Maybe it’s just this bloody awful year affecting me? Whatever it is I feel paralysed with indecision.

In theory it should be simple, though not easy. I should just send a query or submission to every agent I can find contact details for. In practice though that doesn’t seem to be such a good idea. Every approach to an agent will have to be tailored to that agent. They all have slightly different guidelines. And there’s no point wasting energy in approaching agents that don’t represent the kind of novels that I write. Even if they like the novel they would still reject it because they wouldn’t know what to do with it.

The more I think about this the more I hear the voice of my father from when I was growing up saying, “Why can’t you just be normal?” As an adult I know that’s a bullshit question. I know there’s no such thing as normal. Or at least normal as he meant it. But there is such a thing as mainstream and that is not what I am.

I can’t help how my imagination works. If I try to get it to perform to order it might stop working completely. So I’m stuck with a novel that apparently belongs to the red-headed step-child of genres. There’s nothing wrong with Contemporary Urban Fantasy except that it requires a specialist. I’ve already heard from a couple of publishers that they like my novel but they wouldn’t have the first idea to sell it.

All of which means that I have a problem. I have to find the agents who know how to find the publishers who know how to sell my novel. And then I have to persuade those agents to read my novel. And then they have to like it.

I know this isn’t impossible. It can’t be. I’m not the only person writing in this weird genre. So I tracked down the agents of the writers I most admired. And they’ve already turned me down.

What next? How do I find someone who’s going to be willing to take a chance on my novel? I’ve got nothing going for me except the novel and it’s pretty weird. Why can’t it just be mainstream? Why can’t I just be normal?

Not everyone is going to like everything

Yes it’s another post about rejection. If I have to suffer through multiple rejections so do the rest of you.

One of the problems with making any kind of art is that the maker is usually too close to it to tell if it’s any good. So you need to look to others for feedback. But if other people don’t like it then it might be because this is not the sort of thing they like or it might be because your art is not very good. And if they do like it then they might be lying, or have terrible taste or low standards.

I know that some of the things that I like are not very good. There are some films that I’m very fond of that are clearly terrible examples of film making. I also know that there are other things that I don’t like that are clearly very good. I can’t stand the UK version of The Office. It just makes me cringe but I can tell that it’s good.

So when an agent tells me that they didn’t find the concept of my novel compelling enough that leaves me with three options:

  1. This is not the sort of thing they like – nothing I could have done would have made them like the novel.
  2. The concept of the novel is bad and the novel cannot be saved – nothing I can do will make any agent like the novel.
  3. I have failed to properly explain the concept of the novel. The concept is fine I’m just shitty at writing query letters etc.

My instinct is that the concept is awesome but weird and I’m not very good at explaining it. I think that, judging by the other authors represented by this agent, it’s probably not option 1.

I’m dreadfully afraid that it’s option 2. I’ve invested a lot of time into this novel and its sequels. What if it’s just not very good? What if the underlying concept upon which I’ve built an entire series is just terrible and I’m too close to it to see? How would I know?

The whole thing makes me feel like I’ve been presumptuous. How dare I think that I have anything interesting to say? How dare I think that anyone professional would be interested in my shitty little stories?

I can’t be the only writer to feel this way. I just wish there was some way to turn off the internal monologue that is now telling me, over and over again, that I’m an idiot.

The hardest part of writing.

Years and years ago I thought the hardest part of being a writer must be coming up with the ideas. The truly good ones seemed to be so few and far between and how could you ever think up a whole plot and find names for characters and places. Invention seemed like a superpower. I thought that once you had a really good idea the actual writing must flow quite easily.

Later I realised that the hardest part of being a writer must be writing that first draft. Overcoming that fear of the empty page. Daring to risk your ideas not coming out the way you imagined. I thought that once that first draft was over the editing and the polishing must be relatively easy. After all the work was mostly done.

Then I realised that editing both sucks and blows and that you can’t even start polishing until you’ve done all the re-writing. Oh God, the re-writing. Ideas are easy, writing the first draft is fun, editing is like being beaten to death with your own manuscript. But once the thing is done you just have to send it out. How hard could that be?

Turns out – really fucking hard. First you have to find agents/publishers that are willing to admit to an interest in whatever weird combination of genres you’re writing. Then you have to come up with a synopsis of the right length and an extract of however many pages they like in whatever format they prefer. Sometimes they want a CV. And they all need a covering/query letter. How the fuck do you write those? Why can’t I just say “Here’s my novel. I worked really hard. You’ll like it if you like the sort of thing that it is.”?

By now you maybe noticing a pattern. If I ever do attract an agent then it’s going to turn out to be just the start of my troubles. Because here’s the biggest secret about writing. The hardest part is always the part you are doing right now or are about to begin doing. The easy parts are always the part you’ve just finished or the part that’s so far off in the future that it might as well be on another planet.

Woo! Rejection! Again.

After waiting for what seems like years I finally received a rejection e-mail from one of the agents that I sent the finished novel out to. I don’t know if you can tell but I’m feeling a lot less enthusiastic about this rejection. Maybe it’s harder to deal with rejection when you’re in the throws of planning a new novel?

Or maybe it’s just the knowledge that there’s going to be so many more. I know that not everyone can like everything. I know that my writing is weird. But I also know that I’m writing  for a niche market that’s already overcrowded with authors and under-represented by agents.

Or maybe I’m just not very good? I’ve got no way of knowing. I’m the worst person to judge my own work, every writer is. I think my prose is strong and my plot is compelling but of course it seems that way to me. For all I know the plot is completely incomprehensible to anyone who doesn’t already know what it is?

Or maybe I’m just not persuasive enough? Agents are busy. I can’t guarantee that the agent even read the whole submission. They might have taken one look at my query letter or my synopsis and just decided that I was clearly either a lunatic or a hack.

Or maybe I am both a lunatic and a hack.

Brief update

And it has to be brief because my computer is still zombified, I’m still using one that runs about as well as I do and my right arm isn’t working properly.

So it was my birthday. I had a nice day.  I also got a cool new haircut. That’s about all I can say in favour of September so far.

Still no solution to the computer problem. Managed to gum up my mouse with spilled coffee and coffee grounds. Right knee and elbow in open revolt against the republic of me.  Still super broke. Still haven’t heard from any agents. Not really feeling up to sending the novel out to any more agents because the back up computer is so unstable.

Every day that passes without a solution is a day closer to the inevitable day when I flip out and buy a new computer on credit that I almost certainly can’t afford. But I’m going to resist temptation as long as I can, dammit.