Updates: pain, writing, pitching, querying

Keeping you all up to date on the things that I’m doing.

Pain

I’m continuing to experiment with vaping CBD oil for pain management. I’ve had two problems. The disposable vape pen I was using started to leak and I’ve had a major pain flare up.

Fortunately CBDlife* dealt with my complaint in a speedy fashion. I was going to buy a reusable vape pen anyway and they offered me a free oil cartridge as a replacement for the leaking pen and delivered the order the next day.

The pain flare up is a semi-regular thing where I get a muscle spasm in my upper back or neck that spreads to my arm (usually the left one). It’s horrifically painful and requires several days of painkillers, exercise and not using my arm for anything other than the special exercises. The CBD oil does seem to be helping with the pain so that’s something.

Writing

I’ve been working on one of the sequels to the novel I’ve been querying. I’ve now finished draft 1.5 and I’m going back and writing the extra scenes that I’ve realised I need. I reckon I have maybe 20,000 words of extra scenes plus one entirely new character that needs to be added.

Pitching

My friend,Vanessa Robertson, has persuaded me to enter the pitch perfect competition at Bloody Scotland. I’ve been working on a 100 word pitch for the ‘finished’** novel. There’s a part of me that thinks it’s a bad idea because I can’t stick to a single genre and Bloody Scotland is for crime writing. She pointed out that I have nothing to lose and that my novel does have crime in it.

Querying

Querying has stalled because most agents are on holiday. However I do have my sights on two agents that I intend to query in the autumn. Both are as a result of personal recommendations.

I also recently got some idea of how steep the mountain ahead of me is. Vanessa was recently offered representation by an agent and she told me what the numbers are like. In a single year her agent will receive thousands but take on only a handful of new clients.

Can someone remind me why I ever thought writing was a good idea?

 

*If you use that link to buy stuff I will get a percentage back as store credit. 

**I’ve decided to start calling the novel ‘finished’ because it can’t really be finished until it’s ready to be published. It’s currently as finished as I can get it without help from someone who knows more about editing than me.

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Advice to a Young Writer Part 2

This is based on some advice that I came up with to help my daughter. She loves telling stories and writes poems and fan fics but she’s having trouble finishing things. If there’s one thing I’m good it it’s helping people finish things.

This is part 2. Part one is here. There will be more parts. Each one will include homework.

The commandments of Writing

  1. Start your story
  2. Finish your story
  3. Make your story better
  4. Repeat

Writers can have trouble with each one of these and the trouble is nearly always caused by some combination of these:

  • The illusion of perfection
  • Shiney new ideas
  • Fear of failure
  • Fear of rejection
  • Fear of success
  • Prioritizing other things

Some aspiring writers are full of wonderful ideas. They imagine beautiful plots and glorious character arcs and their characters have names and backstories and sassy dialogue but they never write any of it down. In their heads the story is perfect but they’re scared of spoiling the idea by pinning it down on paper.

Some writers start the story but then stall almost immediately. The more they write the more they hate the story. It’s not the way they imagined it. It’s not perfect

Destroy the illusion of perfection. Perfect is the enemy of good. And a story can’t be good until it’s finished. Go farther than that. Kill the idea of good or bad writing. Give yourself permission to suck. Start with a rough first draft or an outline. They don’t have to be good they just have to be written. You’re just finding the shape of the story. An outline is like an artist’s sketch. A rough first draft is like the Alpha build of a computer game. Once you have the shape of the story you can fill in the colour and the light and the shade.

During NaNoWriMo we have to deal with a phenomenon known as the week two wall. To write 50,000 words in 30 days it’s recommended to keep up a pace of at least 1667 words a day. Every year we see people keep up that pace with ease. They surprise themselves. They’re actually having fun. And then some time in the middle of week two it stops being fun. If they don’t keep pushing through the wall the writing stops completely. Some people give up at this point, some slow down but keep going. Some people decide that the problem is that the story is no good.They start a new one and then hit the wall two weeks later.

The wall happens because the thrill of the shiny new idea wears off. After more than a week of thinking about the same story it starts to seem boring. The writer loses faith in the idea. And then other ideas start to distract them. Newer ideas, shinier ideas, ideas that haven’t had a chance to get boring yet. Ideas that are still perfect.

The best way to deal with the lure of the new idea is to make a few notes about the new idea and then back to working on the current thing. By making notes you are making a promise to yourself that you’re not abandoning this new idea. You’re just putting it to one side for now.

Fear of failure can get in the way at every stage of writing. It makes some aspiring writers terrified of the blank page. Some get near the end but then can’t finish for fear of messing the story up. Some others can finish a first draft but then don’t dare to face it so they never edit.

Hold on to the idea that there is no failure in trying a thing and then that thing not working out like you hoped. That’s not failure that’s learning. If you write the story and the story sucks then you’ve learned one way not to tell that story. Your effort wasn’t wasted. It was practice. It was research.

Fear of rejection plagues writers when the work nears completion. If you finish a story then you have to show it to people and what if they don’t like it? For some writers the fear of rejection changes how they write. They pull their punches. The don’t write the story that is in their heart because they think people will judge them for it. Some writers don’t fear the rejection of their writing but the rejection of their identity as a writer. Sometimes people will hide that they even write. Historically some women writers concealed their writing. They pretended that they were sewing, or writing letters and they published under male pen-names.

Fear of success is usually a late stage writing problem. It makes writers avoid putting the final polish on their words. It’s why sometimes a writer will hesitate to call a work finished. It’s why some writers hold onto finished manuscripts and never show them to people. You might wonder why success would be scary. Didn’t I just say that writers fear failure and rejection? Why would success be scary too? Because when you succeed at something you sort of have to keep doing it. And now there’s an expectation of success. Success is a kind of responsibility.

Prioritizing other things is also known as “I don’t have time to write.” Almost everyone has time to write. It might not seem like that because your time is fully booked. That’s because it’s not natural for a human being to do nothing at all for more than a few minutes. We get uncomfortable if we are not occupied in some way. That’s why we all hate waiting so much. That’s why we have a word for boredom.

Right now all of your time is occupied in some way. It might be social media, or computer games, or dancing around your bedroom listening to loud music, or watching the same episode of your favourite show for the fourth time but it’s how you are choosing to use your time. Maybe that’s more important to you than writing. And that’s ok. People need to spend their time in the way that makes them happiest. But maybe writing would make you happier. Only you know. It’s up to you to decide if writing is a high enough priority to sacrifice the time that you are currently using for something else.

Homework

Your task is to name the problem. Which of the Commandments of Writing are you having trouble with? Is it just one? Is it all of them? Is it some more than others? What do you think is causing the trouble? Is it one of the causes that I pointed out?  Is it several? Is it something else entirely?

Your previous homework was to research how your favourite writers deal with the problem of finishing things. Go back and look at that again and see if your favourite writers are dealing with the same problems as you. Remember that every writer is different so what works for them might not work for you. But it is a place to start. And if it doesn’t work then there are many other writers with many other solutions.

A request for readers

I have a small favour to ask. I have two novels to choose between. One as close to finished as I can get it and one that needs a couple of scenes and then editing. I need to know which one I should be focusing on.

I’m suspicious that the finished novel might be the wrong one to query. The nature of the story means that it takes longer to hook the reader. Maybe the finished one would make a better second novel? Maybe the other one has a better opening?

I need people willing to read the first 30 or so pages of both and tell me which one they’re more desperate to read the rest of. So I’m looking for people with the time and inclination to read 60 pages of thrilling urban fantasy stories. You don’t even need to give me detailed feedback if you don’t want to.

??? 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.

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.

Strange Brain Days

Having fallen down the rabbit hole of one of my own novels I am now experiencing weird brain things. It’s starting to feel like I’m stuck inside the story. I don’t mean that I think it’s real, or that I’m losing touch with reality. I mean that I’m always thinking about it and that I keep being driven back to it.

I write because I have to write but that doesn’t normally force me to keep coming back to a tricky novel and writing 4000 words or more day after day when I don’t have a deadline. I think I maybe just really want to find out what it’s going to be like when it’s finished. But even that doesn’t explain why it’s taking up so much brain space.

This story wont leave me alone. It’s taken up permanent residence in my subconscious and it’s using run-time my brain would normally devote to things like keeping tack of money and what day it is and remembering to eat.

Anyone who knows me will know that I do not forget to eat. Nothing puts me off my food. Well almost nothing. My appetite kind of disappeared for a while soon after meeting the man who is now my husband. Am I in love with my book?

Things I hate about writing: Timelines

Why must my characters be limited by the bounds of time and space? Why? Why can’t they just teleport from A to B? Why do I need to find time for my villain to do his/her villainy? Why can’t they just nip away while the hero is in the loo? Why can’t a task take as long as it needs to take in order for it to finish just as my hero arrives?

Of course this is pure hypocrisy. I’m the first to shake my fist at the sky and scream, “My immersion!” whenever I see people riding from Dover to Nottingham in two hours or when the killer is someone who’s never been out of sight or when Jack Bauer fights a continuous running battle for 24 hours without ever stopping to urinate.

In real life stuff takes as long as it takes. It’s easy to miss that when you’re writing.  When you’re telling a story things have to happen in a certain order or there’s no story. That means some things are happening simultaneously but you can’t write them simultaneously. You can only write one scene at a time.

In my current work in progress that means:

  • The person who steals the mobile morgue (and all the red herring characters) had better not be in full view of other characters during the short time between the body being put in the freezer and the morgue being stolen.
  • The amount of time for my protagonist to drive to the hospital, visit the wounded and come back to confront his boss must be believably less than the time it takes for the experts summoned before he left to arrive.
  • Therefore the hospital now has to be inside the M25.
  • Therefore the Tower of London is now a less powerful magical beacon than I thought.

A better organised writer would have written the Timeline at the start of the process. But how can you do that if you don’t know what the story is yet? I can only write the way that I can write an that means that now, with the story three quarters plotted, and half the scenes written, I have to stop and work out exactly how many hours between a spy waking up next to a headless body and an epic battle for the soul of an ancient goddess.