Are your characters your own? (Writing Tip No. 5)

“Curiouser and curiouser.”

Are your characters your own? (Writing Tip No. 5)

What happens to a dream deferred?

Son of a bitch, Langston, how the hell should I know? My whole life has been about pursuing the ever-elusive literary peach. I think that in recent months I have actually crawled much closer to the answer than ever before. But that still leaves me wilting here, contemplating inspirations. I’ve been writing like a freshly born madman for weeks. Some of it has been solid but most of it has been, um, not. I figure that’s okay because it is better to have written and lost than to not have written at all. Can I share a secret with you?

Yesterday, as my fingers were tapping away at some nonsensical jargon, I happened upon a new character. He just popped up unawares, completely out of the blue. He said, “Oh hello, I am in your story now.” What could I do but welcome him with open arms? Sometimes, as writers, we really have no choice in the matter. At any rate, he seems to be a nice man. He is an artist. He’s not well known and I doubt he ever will be but he has passion and he has style and (let’s not hold this against him, please!) he is French.

His name is Gustav Plonchet and if you steal him from me I swear I will hunt you down and I will murder your entire hard drive while you are sleeping! But here is the funny thing… I know very little of the art world. Truth be told, I wish I knew much more. But as I was writing this scene and Gustav, an amateur painter on the rise, forced himself upon me from virtually out of nowhere (as far as I could ascertain), I let him introduce himself for a bit before something inside me said, “What kind of a name is this?” I knew that he was 100% a figment of my imagination but his moniker sounded real. I actually believed that such a man could exist. His name, to me, sounded as if he was familiar, as if I may have met him on the street 8 or 15 years prior. Naturally, I had to Google him.

No!!

Listen – This is wrong. The rest of this story is extremely coherent and circumstantial. I regret not the fact that I took some time to research my own imaginary character; what I do regret, however, is that I took the time to research him mid-flow. I tweeted about this recently when I was busy thinking unrelated thoughts: Writing is hard. Distractions are easy. Make like a hard-at-work poet and re-verse it.

In a nutshell, don’t get distracted! No matter what! This is such hard advice to follow. Look at me! I’m proof. I am as addicted to the internerd as the next person. In everyday life, there is absolutely nothing wrong with this. But while you are writing, you should remain, as much as you possibly can, completely and utterly within yourself. Let your story and your characters be your guide. If, by some chance, you feel an irresistible urge to jump on the world wide whatever and go star gazing for nonsense, stow it away for some other day. It’s only going to lead you astray.

You understand.

What is the moral of the story? Here it is: Right smack in the middle of my scene, just after I had introduced this new character I called Gustav Plochet—I had given him a face and a height and a mustache and a few other idiosyncrasies—I decided to put down my pen (ie. minimize MS Word) and, just for shits and giggles, Google him. My train of thought was broken, the scene was broken, and I was taken out of it. In those regards, all was awry. HOWEVER… as it turns out, when I googled “Gustav Plonchet” the aliens in the machine asked me if I meant “Gustave Planche?” Ok, sure why not? So I clicked on that dude’s name and lo and effing behold… guess what? Jean Baptiste Gustave Planche was a literary and art critic in France during the early 19th century. Of course this is absolutely fascinating to me and I have to find out as much about this guy as I possibly can so I can inject part of him into my character. But as I’m doing this, as I’m learning about the real Jean Baptiste Gustave Planche, more and more time is going by and I’m starting to veer further and further away from whoever my own Gustav Plonchet was supposed to be! And the longer I am away from my story, the more I am learning about history—which is good! but not good for storytelling.

All good sense aside though, how cool is it that my Gustav is almost a real dude from like… history? Ha! Anyway, I thought that was pretty righteous. Who knows if, on some level, I knew that and my brain pulled it up as I was just type type typing away. Does it matter? I guess the point is that since all this happened, I have yet to go back to that scene. And that’s partially because I’m afraid that the real Gustave Planche may become my Gustav Plonchet. And is that ok? It’s kind of a mindfuck.

Long story short: save the internerd for the after party.

Write now. Write well. Write on.

-LW

Great books come from okay first drafts (Writing Tip No. 4)

I haven’t read a good book in awhile. I’m listening to Stephen King’s latest “11/22/63″ on my long commute to work every day. Does that count? I’ve just been so busy setting up my web site for my freelance writing/editorial business that may or may not be taking off soon. I’m also running like a madman (I’m training for a marathon), and most importantly, I’m writing my YA book. I gave myself a deadline to have the rough draft finished by March 10 in order to apply for a Work-In-Progress Grant from the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators (SCBWI) before the deadline. My current writing goal for this is to put down 2,000 words a day. I’m about 8,000 words behind since I set my goal a couple weeks ago. The words keep piling up day after day! It’s an insane amount of work to slam out in a very short amount of time that rivals the 1,666 words a day challenge of NaNoWriMo each November. I tried NaNoWriMo twice before. I got close both times. About halfway. That’s close, right?

I’m not too worried about the daily writing goal. I wish that my only job was writing. I’ll bet Stephen King laughs in the face of 2,000 words/day. Have you seen the hardcover version of “11/22/63″? You could kill a brontosaurus with it! That is, if you found some kind of rabbit hole in the back of a small town diner, stepped into it, went back in time carrying King’s latest novel, blew past the assassination of JFK all the way to the mesozoic, met a brontosaurs, raised the book and… oh my God, how could you do that? They’re so cute! What’s wrong with you? Gosh.

You may be wondering: how much of my new YA novel is actually good? Well… I’d say about half of it. That’s pretty good! When you’re writing a rough draft, I don’t think you should necessarily put too much emphasis on quality. Did he really just say that? Listen, if your first draft makes you want to puke and die, you might want to reconsider a few plot points. I’m not saying you should strive toward mediocrity (although look at how successful Stephenie Meyer is – oh snap!), but don’t dwell on making it perfect the first time out of the gates either. For me, a first draft is just about getting it down, pouring it out, and moving through the story. Occasionally, I do find myself editing a certain paragraph over and over again. When that happens I try my best to pull away from it, maybe highlight it first, save some notes on it for later. But move along, son. Nothing to see here.

It’s a good philosophy. Works for me, anyway. I once read an interview Tom Robbins (one of my favorite writers, but he hasn’t written anything in awhile has he? What’s up with that?). In the interview, Robbins said that when he writes, he has a general idea of where his story is going to go but he perfects every single sentence in the novel one by one. He writes the opening line, stares at it, re-writes it, re-writes-it, tweaks it, re-writes it again, makes it amazing, then moves on to his second sentence. He works this way through his entire book! I could never do that. I gotta just write, man. Robbins’ way seems like it would give me an ulcer by Chapter Two. But then again, read his opening line to Another Roadside Attraction: The magician’s underwear has just been found in a cardboard suitcase floating in a stagnant pond on the outskirts of Miami.

The man may be on to something.

Ready to Query? How to know for certain. (Writing Tip No. 2)

I finished writing my novel over this past weekend. No parade was held in my honor. The mayor of literature did not give me the key to Imagination City. Not one congratulatory blimp flew over my town and no fireworks were shot into the sky in my honor. What did happen was more restrained. I went out to dinner with my girlfriend and together, we drank a nice Caymus cabernet sauvignon and ate steak. The funny thing is that we had previously made a bet where, if I did not finish writing my novel by a date in late December, I would take her out to this nice steakhouse in our area. The irony is that I lost the bet and did not finish in time. I booked the dinner three weeks ago and, during the course of those weeks, I did finish my manuscript to a point where I am 92% satisfied with it overall. In fact, I finished editing the final chapter (the epilogue) the morning of our big steakhouse date. So take that, Fate.

I have been working on this novel for a little over two years now. And when I say “working,” I mean that I have been sporadically writing it, playing with different chapters and ideas, re-writing, and taking long, guilt-ridden breaks from the work. Writing is hard, folks. But it is an art form that should not be rushed. Nor should it be ignored. I’m just so happy today to report that, after being more or less obsessed with my protagonist for so long, I have finally come to the other end of it and I can see him clearly, I understand his arc and his journey, and again, I am at a 92% satisfaction rate. I gotta figure that’s pretty good.

And so, I am now in the process of looking at different agents, studying up on who might be best to send a query email to. My 2012 Writer’s Market Deluxe Edition arrived last week and I have had several moments to both peruse and read certain articles in the mammoth book as well as begin to start looking at the various listings. It’s a godsend of a resource. I can tell you that right now. I will most likely be doing more thorough reviews in the future but to start, I will just say that I am loving what little I’ve taken in already. But more on that later.

What we want to know right now is this: Is a 92% overall satisfaction rate with your book an acceptable time to start querying literary agents. To each his own, but I say yes! Every agent is different of course, and you really should do your research on what they want to receive and how they want to receive it before just blindly sending your work out there with one general query for all. No no no no no. That just won’t do. When shopping out your work, you want to do so with finesse. You’ve taken the time and probably lived through a lot of heartache and joys as you exercised your creativity and passion to get to where you are right now. It would be ludicrous to take any less of a steadfast, directed approach to seeking representation for your efforts, for your story. Your words deserve the best, do they not?

I knew a guy once—and by the way, this is totally made-up—who finished writing his magnum opus after 45 years and said to me, he said, “Literary,” cuz that’s my name, see, “Literary, I’m gonna write one query letter and I’m not going to put too much effort into it because I’m too danged exhausted from actually writing my masterpiece over all those decades. I’m just going to slap together some nice How Do You Do and email it off to about 100 different agents and see if any bite. I’m not even going to find out what their names are. My work will stand for itself. They can be happy with a Dear Sirs salutation. That ought to be fine. There are no women working in publishing—it’s still 1955, right? Besides… the work stands for itself! They’ll appreciate it for the genius that it is. They will!”

Well I’ll tell you what, my good (fictional) friend did just that. And do you know how many literary agents wrote him back expressing an interest in his work? That’s right, only 7. And then he went on to sign with one of them and he made a million bigillion dollars and lived happily ever after in a palace somewhere in Egypt. But I like to think he was the exception to the rule.

Do the leg-work, kids! I’m definitely going to, anyway.

Write on.

-LW

Chapter 1 or 7: Moving In Stereo (Writing Tip No. 1)

I am well and deep into the finishing recesses of my book. It’s been two long years of fighting certain aspects of it, not least withstanding periods of sluggishness, but now I am nearing the end. Or perhaps the beginning? Alas (or ha!), I am seriously considering switching the two. I’m currently re-writing the first draft of my epilogue and thinking, well damn if that couldn’t be the Prologue, instead! It’s an interesting thought, I wonder if my story will have the gumption to do it.

Have you ever moved chapters in haphazard or organized ways to see if your story could work differently? You might have to change tenses or turn some chapters into flashback scenes or go completely Boznai bananas and do a killer Pulp Fictiony kind of thing to make the full work make sense as a whole. (Whew.) However you may have done it in the past, I applaud you. It’d be cool to hear your story. Did shifting the timeline of your story improve it? Did your tale reach new heights?

If you haven’t done this, and you don’t think it’s an off-its-nut idea, you should try it. Or, if you don’t have a book to experiment on, if you’re a poet say, I’m sure this idea is not new to you. I’ve dabbled in poetry a great deal in the past and come off with an approximately 20% personal satisfaction rate overall—the rest is 70% drivel (do that math, it’s different than you’d think)—and having dabbled, I do know the great and untarnished joy of taking poetic license (pardon the pun) and dancing your many lines and stanzas from top to bottom to sideways to shelf and back again! It can be, at its finest, a wildly creative ride. Practice it more if it works.

LW

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r6Ksrmbwr1s&w=420&h=215]

I wrote today.

Are there three words in the English language that, when placed side by side by side, are more attractive, alluring, and meaningful than these three words?

I wrote today.

Can you write those words right now and mean it? If you consider yourself a writer, I wish their bliss upon you. My writing, as of late, has largely consisted of editing. The short of it is that I conceived an idea for a novel not quite two years ago (I know the exact date because Google Calendar rules my life). Two years is a long time to be stewing in something. Have you ever done that? Have you ever had a genius of an idea but just sat on it, writing bits and pieces as you go, but never really fully committing to what it could be? Well I’m here to tell you that whatever your idea is, it could be great, if only you would let it. You’re writing for some reason and I assume that reason is because you believe in your story. So why not set it free? What do you have to lose?

I’m actually nearing the end of this particular work and this is how I did it. I dilly-dallied for a long long time. Skip that step if you haven’t already. Take this that I have learned from that wasteful period to heart: write it down. I’ll say it again. Write it down. I’ll expand on that thought. Write it all down. Write it down write it down write it down. And then, when you stop, it’s ok. Take a break. Take a day or a week or a month at most but then come back, and write it down again. Just keep going. Writing is easy. It’s editing that’s hard.

So here I am and I’m editing. The way I do it is I started at the beginning. Chapter One. I went through it and I worked it. I worked the living hell out of it. I rewrote it and I studied it and I rewrote it again. And then I moved on to the flaming heap of crap that was Chapter Two and I did the same meticulous work with that. And so on and so on.

Today, I very proudly finished editing/re-writing Chapter Nine. During my day’s painstaking highs and lows, I have discovered that it is a short chapter and tomorrow, I will fuse it to Chapter Ten making one great big wonderful, polished and supercharged breaker breaker one Niner (did I hear a Niner in there?). I’m so excited I almost don’t want to sleep through the night. But I have to. If, for no other reason than the gross fact that I scratched my cornea with my contact last night and my eyeball is still healing. Eww! Did you just read that right? Why did I write that? I guess because it’s true. And it’s painful. And I wrote like a fucking madman today anyway. I wrote through the pain and I feel all the prouder for it.

I’m going to celebrate by cooking up some beef stir fry, drinking scotch, and donning a homemade eye patch made out of dryer sheets and duct tape.

Yar, matey. (I was kidding about the last part.)