Revise and Resubmit Letters

After last Tuesday’s big news, I’ve had a couple of friends ask me what “revise and resubmit” means, and whether it isn’t just a “soft rejection.” The thought process is that anything that isn’t an enthusiastic yes is a no.  While this is a good guideline for sexual consent, the same guideline doesn’t apply in the world of novel submissions.

Still, it’s not a stupid misconception. I certainly didn’t know what an R&R letter was before I got serious about writing. What nonwriters seem to think (and what I thought when I was a nonwriter) was that stories are either accepted as-is, with no suggested changes, or rejected outright.

This is very far from the truth. Writing is in a sense a collaborative process, and the process involves a lot of feedback and response, from alpha/beta readers, critique partners, and hopefully some day agents and publishers. A huge amount of revision happens between a rough draft and a final product. That’s just the business of writing if you’re going the traditional (or even the indie) publishing route.

As Carly Watters, a super cool agent I met at a writing conference, has explained: agents don’t ask to see more of something that they’re not interested in.  The fact that an agent wants to see more of my work means that she could see herself representing it. If the agent had wanted to reject me, it would have been a lot easier to do that instead of asking for a revised work.

In this case, after reading the suggestions, I agree with the deficiencies the agent identified. So I let her know that I intended to do a revision. Yes, in a sense this is putting a lot more work in without any promise that it will pay off.

But I’ve been writing for years with no promise that it will pay off. The nine months that I already put into the Plague Novel? There was no guarantee that anyone would be interested in it! Even if the agent decides to represent the novel? There’s no guarantee any publisher will want to buy it! At the end of the day, there are no guarantees. Period. There are only probabilities and chances, and the R&R letter makes it a lot more probable that this story will eventually be published.

Besides, regardless of whether she ultimately decides to pick up the Plague Novel or not, this is extremely valuable feedback that will result in me having a better, more sellable work.

So the idea that an R&R is a “soft rejection” is wrong. Understandable, but wrong. This is an “almost yes” that tells me I’m on the right track. My excitement is strong and legitimate.

Cycles

I wrote a little bit about perseverance a couple weeks ago, and that got me thinking about how long I’ve actually been at this.  I can’t really count the stories I wrote as a kid because I wasn’t serious about making writing a second career back then, but even not counting my childhood forays into writing, I’ve just now realized that I’ve been a writer for years.  I’ve been writing regularly since some time before 2012, because 2012 is when I submitted my first short story.  It’s now 2016 and I’ve been actively submitting for four years.  I’ve even had this blog for over a year, now.  In August that will be multiple years.

My mind is basically blown.

My life as a writer seems to be always changing, but since I’ve gotten serious about it, there’s a rough schedule that I follow.  It’s broken down loosely into periods of active writing (where I’m working on the rough draft of a new manuscript) and doing other writing-related tasks (where I’m revising old manuscripts or working on submissions).  But like with most things that operate in cycles, as each new cycle turns, you can lose track of how long you’ve been rolling around in the wheel.

Actively writing is the most fun part of being a writer for me, followed shortly by prewriting.  I don’t really mind revisions—they’re pretty easy for me, since I do them for my day job, and I can get excited at the measurable progress that moving through each chapter represents.  But I actively hate submissions.  The amount I enjoy something is about inversely proportional to the amount of time I spend actually doing it as a writer: I’ll actively write for a month or two, prewrite for two or three months, revise for six, and submit for years.

Basically, I’ve been doing a thing I hate for years because the unbelievable high of completing a story or manuscript outweighs the constant low-grade pain of the submission/rejection drudgery.

That’s all I have for you this week.  Nothing snappy, nothing seriously introspective, nothing about my process or tools I use or anything like that.  Just this little insight into how crazy I actually am.

Prewriting Tools

Since I’m in the planning stage of book 3 (which is tentatively known as the Touchdown novel, so far), I’ve been thinking a lot about my prewriting process. As I alluded to in a recent progress update, my prewriting process continues to evolve.

It started with how I never used to do outline. And how I never used to finish anything.

I have the beginnings of several books written, artifacts of past ideas tucked into drawers and saved on archaic floppy disks. My process used to be that I’d get really excited about an idea and write a few chapters as the character’s voice took me. I’d eventually peter out, get frustrated, convince myself that I could never be a writer, and put the book in the drawer, where it would stay indefinitely and be forgotten when the next idea hit.

It only took several years of doing this same process over and over again for me to realize that the process wasn’t working. But I had also tried outlining, and that whole process seemed to suck the life out of my enthusiasm before I even got words on the page. What was I to do?

So when I hit the point where my enthusiasm waned with the plague novel, I despaired of ever finishing it.

Until I realized that my enthusiasm was dead anyway, so why not outline to the end?

It worked! I managed to finish the novel and, after the course of many rewrites, it turned into something I’m very proud of. Even though no one has bought it (yet), I can look at the novel and know that I actually accomplished something that’s a pretty big deal. That happened almost solely because I decided to experiment with my process.

I learned something by experimenting: no amount of enthusiasm is going to carry me the entire way through a book, and I need to be willing to compromise between how I think writing should go and how it actually goes.

That experience has led to the hybrid process I use now. For the Fight novel, I wrote a test chapter to find my characters and then outlined from there. I’m pretty sure the test chapter isn’t going to make it into the finished book, but that’s okay. It got me excited about writing. And the outline only increased that enthusiasm instead of took it away.

For the Touchdown novel, I’m trying to do something completely different. I have the concept, the core idea that keeps me excited, in my head. And instead of writing that as a test chapter, I’m trying to write my way into the characters with first-person backgrounds instead. I’m not sure how this process will work in the end. I might go back to the process that I used for the Flight novel.

But willingness to play around with process is how I’ve finished two manuscripts. At this point, I think the possible benefits from trying new things far outweighs the possible drawbacks of wasting time.

Thanks, February

Happy first Monday in March.

I’ve struggled with depression since I was in middle school. February is a brutal month for living with depression in the Midwest. We get no sun, it seems like winter had gone on forever with no respite, and it’s difficult to go anywhere or do anything because the roads are covered in snow if you’re lucky and ice if you’re not.

For obvious reasons, this has been affecting my writing. My mandatory two hours a day has fallen by the wayside in the past week. Instead of writing, I mostly just stare at Scrivener and feel like it’s pointless because I’ll never amount to anything and other such cognitive distortion. Or if I’m really feeling bad, I’ll play a video game because I know that I can’t actually make myself work so I might as well not make myself feel worse.

If this goes on into March, I’ll talk to my doctor again. I know what she’ll say: diet (hard to do when you swing between nausea and eating everything salt/fat/sugar without care), exercise (at least I haven’t cut myself off from this, even though I’ve cut back), and better sleep (lololol I’m tired all the time but can’t shut off my brain, routine be damned, I’d love better sleep if I can get it without pills). And if that doesn’t improve it, medication.

I hate taking medication of any kind, even the inhalers that keep my lungs working like lungs instead of sticky bricks, and my reaction to the thought of another daily medication is just “how about nope.” Especially a medication where skipping days creates it’s own unique problems. The good news is that counseling had given me amazing tools for self-awareness, being able to recognize which thoughts and feelings are backed by evidence and which are just my depressed brain being depressed. As long as I’m functional. And I have loved ones who I trust to tell me if I’m not.

Meanwhile, I’m pretty sure my motivation and feelings will come back with the sun. I’m going to try to keep writing until then, but I also know I can’t force it. I can make myself sit in my chair with my keyboard at the ready, waiting for my mind to start working on technical problems of setting and characterization, and the fact it’s hard will make me question my talents and all the hard work I’ve put in. I can take a break and do “market research” (aka reading), and accept that it’s going to make me slip into serious professional envy. I can do these things, and I have been doing these things, because going through the motions is better than staring off into space. But I can’t make the words and excitement come.

In good news, March will be better. This will pass. It always does.

Writing Different Things

I have two completed manuscripts.  My friends know that the plague novel is intended to be the first book in a three-book series and that I actually have books two and three roughly outlined.  But when I finished it, I put it aside and started writing something completely different.  So why, then, did I go on to write the Flight Novel (different characters, different setting, different genre) instead of writing the second and third books in the Plague Novel series?

Because I wanted to try different genres.  My short stories are all over the place (fantasy, urban fantasy, horror, science fiction, I just go with whatever idea pulls me in), and I don’t want to be the writer doing horror novels only to later discover that not only do I love writing fantasy, I’m actually better at it than I am at writing horror.  So now I have a horror novel and a fantasy novel.  And book three is a science-fiction novel.  Because why not.  These are the genres I read.

But at some point, regardless of whether I sell the plague novel, I’m going to have to go back and write books two and three.  As much as I enjoy exploring different characters and settings and ideas, I don’t want to be the writer who can only write first books.  You know the writer who writes the first chapter over and over is and now very good at writing first chapters but not good at writing anything else?  I don’t want to be the author who is only good at writing first books and not good at writing second and third books.  The second book in a series is going to need to have a different structure than the first book in a series, and the third book in the series is going to be a different creature than a second book.  The only way to get good at something is to practice.  I’m going to have to practice writing second and third books.

So I’m not going to go back to the Flight novel until after I’ve written the Touchdown novel, which I’m preparing now.  I don’t know when that will be.  After I finish plotting out Touchdown, I’ll probably go back and start revising Flight.  Touchdown might not get written until Nanowrimo of this year, so the second Plague novel book might not happen until some time in 2017.

Of course, all of this will go out the window if querying the Plague novel actually ends up in an offer of representation.  If an agent wants to pick up the Plague novel and says hey, do you have anything else in this series, my answer will be OMG YES let me show you the outline and also let me start writing on it right away so we can market this as a series.  In the end, all plans are just that–plans.

Why I Write Short Stories

Someone recently asked me why I still write short stories, even though I’ve finished a couple of novel-length manuscripts.

Uh, because I like to write them?

What a mind-boggling question. I’m not really sure what kind of answer he was expecting.

But there does seem to be this cultural expectation that short stories are training wheels to novels. I suppose in some ways it can be true. It’s a lot easier to focus on learning one aspect of something in a shorter format, like how to structure a scene or how to get the character’s voice into dialogue or how to stick and ending. But that isn’t the only thing short stories are good for. And they are in a lot of ways completely different from writing novels. Not all of the skills seem to translate.

I like to write short fiction because I like to read it, and I like to read short fiction for a variety of reasons. To be dropped into a story when I don’t want to invest time, or when I want to read something in a different genre or from a new author and I don’t know if I’ll like it, or to read a story that just wouldn’t work in long form, like the last scene of a dying woman or the single event that shakes up the placid life of an elderly man. They tend to pack a lot more emotional punch for my investment.

I also like to write short-stories as test-chapters for longer works. They help my figure out if a setting calls to me, or if I want to keep exploring a certain character. Short stories are also where my discovery writer comes out to play, because I rarely outline them in advance. There is no point–I can hold everything in my head all at once, and I usually do the first draft in a single sitting. Sometimes I just want to sit down and free-write.

Query Letters

Lately, I’ve been gearing up to trying to find an agent to represent me as I try to sell Surviving the Plague.  What I’m going to do after I finish my NaNo novel is to take my beta reader feedback, do a third draft of the novel, and then start looking for an agent.

Querying agents is as foreign and terrifying to me as the initial thought of submitting my short stories was.  So I’m going my usual route to compensate for a lack of confidence–extensive research!

One of the most helpful things for me when I was thinking about this process was the Writing Excuses podcast in which Dan Wells and his agent talked about why his query letter stood out to her.  Clearly, different agents have different likes and dislikes, but it always helps me to have a template to work from when I’m trying to do my own thing.

I’ve been practicing a lot of query letters, and I think I finally have a solid pitch down.  I have a short list of five really great YA agents that I intend to send it to first.  I know that five is a very low number (my novelist first judge sent queries to over 100 agents, for instance), but I feel very similar to how I feel about my short stories.  I want to be represented by someone I have confidence in or I don’t want to be represented at all.  I’d rather wait and do it right than rush into something I’m unsure of.

Besides, I know that I’ll probably want to tweak my letter if I don’t get any interest back at all in the first batch.  And the same would go for a second batch, or a third batch, and so on.

I also have a page in my submissions spreadsheet set up to track responses.  That makes it feel real to me.  The page looks at me and tells me that I AM going to do this.  I can’t chicken out now, not when I’ve come so far.

Language Structures

One of the most valuable things that I learned from my first judicial boss, who happened to also be a novelist, is that it’s important to think about the way that your sentence structures affect what you are trying to communicate.  With him, the lesson was in the context of writing persuasive briefs and judicial opinions, but I’ve found that the basic lessons work the same for creative writing as well.

For instance, short and active sentences are more persuasive and powerful.  If you want to de-emphasize something, you should put it in the middle of a paragraph, preferably in a complex sentence.  Snappy writing has a lot of white space, while writing gets skimmed when it doesn’t have many paragraph breaks.

This has come in very handy.  If I’m trying to foreshadow something but I don’t want it to leap right out at the reader, I should bury it in a list of mid-paragraph.  And I should always put the most prominent parts of a description, the things that should really stand out, at the beginnings and ends of paragraphs.

You’d think I would have learned this stuff in school, but I think that a lot of what I learned didn’t have any mental scaffolding to stick to.  Or maybe I did learn them, but simply forgot.  At one point I could passably speak German, after all.  Maybe that’s why doing actual writing on a regular basis, both fiction and nonfiction, has helped me become a better writer.

Scrivener

Several of my writing friends, including some who actually get paid to write, use Scrivener for drafting.  Various people have tried to convince me to try it, but I had a variety of excuses at hand.  Things like “my word processor works fine” and “I don’t want to start something new in the middle of a project” and “but how can I justify paying for something when I’m not making any money at writing.”

Shortly after my writing break, I decided to give the free trial of Scrivener a try.  I figured that it couldn’t hurt to look into it while I was getting all geared up for NaNoWriMo, and if I really liked it, I’ve spent $40 on video games that I’ve only played for a few hours and surely I could justify the price of one piece of helpful software.  But I would REALLY have to like it.

It turns out that I really like it.  I did the entire tutorial to explore the features, and I have to say that I was almost sold at that point.  Splittable windows is something I can do on my two monitors already, but splittable windows where I can lock one in (like my draft or outline) while easily clicking through my research and notes in the other to reference what I need without having to distract myself by leaving the program and digging around?  I stated salivating.

But the ability to link things like a wiki is what really sold me.  Until this point I’ve been using separate systems of a free, crappy wiki and physical paper notes.  Having the wiki-like ability in the program itself is golden.  And it has turned into a great way to organize my paper notes. I have a scanner at home, and I can easily scan and import stuff.  I still remember the time I lost a whole handwritten chapter of the Plague Novel somewhere.  I’m pretty sure I can avoid that, now.

As far as downsides, I sometimes get lost in the interface.  It’s this odd combination of way too simple for me to easily do what I want, but also way too complicated for me not to get distracted while trying to find what I need.  It’s somewhat intuitive, just not enough for someone that gets easily frustrated by technology (like me).  The sheer amount of organizational features can also get distracting, but that’s mostly because it encourages me to be way more organized than I am by default.  I think when the shiny newness wears off of those, I’ll have picked up a few habits that actually save me time.

Right now I’m mostly glad I purchased it, but I’ll give it a fuller review when I’m done with NaNoWriMo.  After 50k words and two months, it should be pretty broken-in.

Short Story Writing Process, Part 3

I’ve been posting the last couple of weeks about my short story writing process.  But of course, having a final draft of a short story isn’t even close to the end of the battle.  The third part of the short story writing process for me is submissions.

Once I have a story that I’m proud of, I like to send it to a couple of people to read for me.  It’s actually pretty hard to find people to read stories critically.  A lot of people that read my stories fall into one of two categories: they say they’ll read it but they don’t, or they read it and say it’s wonderful and fabulous and I should try to sell it.  Of course, occasionally I come across a reader who is actually helpful.  This fabulous person reads my story critically and tells me what needs improvement.

After that, I’ll review any helpful comments that I receive and decide whether they can be applied to my final draft.  I’ll read through one more time for minor adjustments, spelling, and grammar.  Then I shift the draft into manuscript format, if it isn’t there already.  I’ll spend a few days (or weeks) working myself up to the confidence level that I need to submit and get on a website that’s going to help me find places to submit to.

My favorite is The Grinder.  It’s free and I find the interface very helpful.  Because the only point of submitting for me is to get paid for doing something that I enjoy, I usually search for places paying at least semiprofessional rates.  I don’t feel like I should undervalue my writing by doing anything less.  If it’s good enough, I’ll get paid, if it’s not, I’ve enjoyed writing it anyway.  Once I’ve found a few candidates, I’ll read their websites.  If the magazine or webzine has free content, I’ll read a couple of existing short stories so that I can get a feel for what they like.

Once I’ve narrowed my possible submissions down to the likeliest place, I’ll read their submission policies a couple of times through.  I’ll make sure my manuscript is in whatever format they need it to be (this is the closest thing to taking a standardized test as I get these days), then I’ll mail off the submission.  After a few quick updates to my submissions spreadsheet, I find myself playing the rejection-waiting-game.

Some day I’m going to get accepted somewhere!  That day just hasn’t happened yet.