Saturday, January 26, 2013

A Trip Around the Block

I've only had a few, blessedly short, interludes of writer's block, but they are no less depressing for being short.  When it  happens you are filled with this dread feeling of inadequacy, of a failure of mind, that whatever  little literary talent I once had has dissipated, never to return.  Panic ensues, which seems to make the lack of progress on the WIP ever worse.  I stare at the screen or paper for hours, unable to think of what comes next in the story, much less write the next paragraph, sentence or word. My brain seems paralyzed - even befuddlement would be preferable to this mindless state. What to do? What to do?

I believe that "Writer's block" is another way of your brain telling itself to take a short rest break. This inability to move forward on a project isn't usually caused by just one thing but results from a cascade of competing and often conflicting priorities within the work.  There might be an unresolved plot turn that you cannot resolve, an unforeseen turn in the arc, or even something "wrong" with the way you want the story to go.  Sometimes these conflicts reach a point where the decision making executive of the brain says "stop being creative for while and concentrate on something more important than pandering to some pennies-a-word editor!"

I've learned that the best way around the block is to stop beating my head against the wall, but to go off to do other, more important things.  Usually, while I am otherwise occupied the writer part of my brain stays busily at work; sifting alternatives, weighing consequences, and juggling memories maniacally, unbothered by the body's need to pee, drink coffee, pet cats, eat, or socialize with the spouse.  In other words, it is doing a muse's work in the background.

The amount of time spent away from writing is dependent on my ability to resist obsessing on the project and time-dependent on my tolerance for keyboard withdrawal.  Eventually, when I put my fingers back to work, I discover that whatever factor was blocking my progress has either disappeared or I realize that the project was not capable of being saved. In those cases, I move on to something else because, as a writer, I can do nothing else.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Reading vs Writing

Back in the days of my innocence I read voraciously, sometimes consuming two or three books a week.   Even after life got complicated I ticked along at a book a week, plus magazines.  Graduate school and work cut me back to two books a month.  Then I decided to start writing and saw my reading decline almost to nonexistence.

It seems strange that the act of creating stories out of whole cloth would diminish the need for reading, but it's more an issue of time management than desire.  Oh, I still read books and magazines, but only when I get blocked in my writing or something particularly interesting comes along - like a dedicated copy from another writer, which is sort of an obligation.  It seems that the more I write the less I read.  In the last year I've barely finished a few novels, which is less than I start because I abandon many after the first fifty pages.  I also have to be careful about reading my favorite writers fearing I'd unconsciously adopt their style. That would not necessarily be bad, but it's not what I want.

Each year, around this time of year the Hugo and Nebula nominations are requested and I realize how far behind I have gotten.  This guilt kicks off an orgy of reading one novel or short after another. This requires trips to the local libraries, bookstores, and, if a con is nearby, the dealer's room.  Yes, and it is also time to attack the pile of books and magazines that accumulate on my bookshelves over months of neglect.  Inevitably, my writing suffers when I give so much time to reading, to considering so many novel ideas, to enjoy so many and varied voices.  But while I wail at the loss of writing time, I revel in the vistas revealed, the concepts presented by writers with greater imaginations and skill than my own, and submerge myself in wonder. At the same time, I despair at the Herculean effort it would take to clean out the Augean stables' of unread backlog.  There is never enough time to keep up with the literary output of this genre, let along the larger market.

Eventually I feel the irresistible, burning need to return to writing, despite the vast amount of untouched fiction.  I don't regret the time taken for reading, thinking it a worthwhile tradeoff and vow to stay current in the future.

As I have every year.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Keeping Track

I thought reposting this old article might be a good way to start the year.

Why isn't the "Destination, Mars" manuscript back yet?

Who was it that I sent it to? Oh lord; I can't even remember when I mailed the damn thing! WHEN did I send it? Panic time!!

Wait a second; I know that I wrote something down on my file copy, maybe that was where I wrote the editor's name too. Now, where did I put the file copy? It has to be around here . . . somewhere . . . Don't panic! I'm pretty certain that it's about time I should be hearing about "Destination." It was my best work to date. Oh, where the hell is that manuscript copy? Maybe I'd better look through the desk drawers one more time . . . No, did that last night, or was it the night before? Hmmmm, maybe I didn't write the date on the file copy after all, maybe I wrote it on an envelope, . . . or one of those yellow sticky thingees, . . . or something else . . . maybe. I'm not going to go through this again! No sir, next time I'm going to be organized.

Sound familiar? Are confusion, forgetfulness, and general disorder too much a part of your writing life? Do you desperately wait at the mailbox with your stomach in knots, praying for the letter containing almost certain acceptance - and not know for sure if it is due or not? Do you chew the days off the calendar and greet the mailman with horrid anticipation every single day, not knowing what he will bring? Or when?

Given the review cycles of most editors, there will be a delay of sixty to ninety days (sometimes more) as your manuscript gradually works its way to the top of the slush pile, into some reviewer's hands, and, if you are extremely lucky or gifted, into the final selection pile. This is valuable time, time you should be using to produce more manuscripts, time that should be used in perfecting failed pieces, and time in which you should be putting any rejections back into the mail in search of another review.

Harlan Elison, one of the best-known and most successful science fiction writers, contended that serious writers should keep their work in circulation until it either sells or the ink wears off. If you follow his precept then the number of your manuscripts will soon grow beyond your limited capacity to remember them all. Given that deficiency, you could lose a manuscript and not even realize it! Worse, you might forget to send a gem that's been languishing in the file drawer, buried under a pile of drafts. You might even-- horror of horrors - suffer the embarrassment of sending something back to an editor who already read and rejected it.
Editors HATE it when a writer returns the scene of the crime!

What's a poor scribbler to do? 
The answer is to keep good and complete records on everything you write. Your writing must be handled as a business and that means tracking every effort to its ultimate disposition, which could be either acceptance or the dreaded bottom file drawer among the other dead soldiers.
Most writing professionals stay on top of their business activities by keeping track of their correspondence, manuscripts, and other materials that represent future income, by using some easily applied techniques and tools. These range from simple card files and file folders to using the same computer that cranks out their undying manuscripts. You only have to pick one that suits your temperament and income.

The original Science Fiction Handbook recommended a simple index card for each manuscript. This card contained the complete history of the manuscript from its inception to its final sale (should you be so lucky). Since that article there have been regrettably few lines of guidance devoted to this aspect of the writer's trade. Let's examine what information might be needed in these records.

The secret of decent records is to decide in advance everything you might want to know about your manuscript at some far future time. A well designed record will provide a wealth of data from which you can make marketing decisions. For those who have pretensions of immortality, these records could provide your biographer with a valuable source of information on your works.
The key idea is to document when each piece was originated, when it achieved its final, releasable form and, if necessary, when it was subsequently revised. These facts can easily become confused and forgotten when you have several drafts in progress. One quickly loses track of which came first, which finished first, et cetera and so forth. Robert Heinlein, a very prolific science fiction writer, once suggested assigning an Opus number to each piece that you start and using a one-up numbering system; that is, the first manuscript your produce would be Opus #1, the second Opus # 2, and so forth. It's your choice as to how carefully you want to track your output.

A second key idea is know the location of the manuscript at any moment in time. Editors sometimes lose manuscripts, mail does occasionally go astray, and even fragile memory fades over time. Write it down the instant something changes in the status! You will not regret the effort.
An added benefit of tracking locations and dates is that it prevents those accidental and embarrassing repeat submissions to an editor, which-- as the old Russian saying about teaching a pig to whistle goes --merely frustrates you and annoys the pig.

Next in importance is recording the submission date. Simple math will tell you how long it's been gone and, given that you have had the foresight to research the normal review period for each editor, when you can expect its return. You might choose to pencil the latter date in as well - that will tell you when to start bothering your mail person about being on time. It will also tell you when it is necessary to send the dreaded Inquiry Letter to the editor saying, politely, of course, "Where the hell is my manuscript?" (This letter will invariably cross your SASE in the mail.)

Finally you should write notes to yourself about each piece. Sometimes a thought will occur immediately after submission, something that you might want to revise before it goes to another market, or, if you are very fortunate, that you might want to revise before it gets into print.  In another file you may find it wise to keep a little bit of information handy on editorial preferences. A few rejections and some slight research into each editor's magazines will make their individual preferences, foibles, and biases quite evident. In this file you should note little facts e.g. Analog Science Fiction does not accept outright fantasy or horror stories and that it is therefore not a viable market for such. A good set of editorial records will allow you to sharpen your marketing focus and improve your odds of a sale.

As your writing ouevre grows and develops you will find that the files of your works will grow and grow. Finally, they will become substantial enough to warm you on some cold winter's night as you sit, going over your past failures one by one, savoring each rejection and the looong times the editors held it for review, regretting the time consumed in bringing that piece from painful creation to brilliant completion, adding up your total of unsold words - and the warmth will grow as you feed the old manuscripts, page by page, into the fireplace, cackling with glee the while.

The simplest, incredibly cheap file is a pack of index cards. This type of file is the most direct and easily implemented method of record keeping. I used a set of 3X5 cards for years until computer data bases made the job of record keeping immensely easier. The advantage of the card file was its portability and ease of use (and yes, I do know about notebooks and tables and clouds, thank you.)

Your manuscript card should have the name of the piece across the top (the Opus number is optional.) Just below the title you should put the dates of conception, completion, and/or revision (be sure to leave enough space.) Below that you should write in the word and/or line count. Then draw a thick line. Below this line you should enter the first market you are sending it to, the date sent, and the date expected back (in pencil). When each piece is returned ink in that date of return and whether it was accepted (happy days) or rejected (gloom, doom, and despair.) Below this you do the same for the next market. Repeat this until the piece is accepted or as many times as you can stand, whichever comes first. Some of your pieces may require more than one card, depending on the size of your handwriting and the thickness of your skin.

For the sake of security and peace of mind you might also consider doing a little double entry bookkeeping. For each editor you might have a record of your submissions. When something goes out write the entry on the manuscript's card AND the editor's card. This way you can track which pieces are at which editor. If you also put the dates in the editor's record then it will be easier to determine the average return time independently and decide if you want to continue to submit to that lazy, good-for nothing, time-waster, or not.

So don't wait, get your inventory of manuscripts together today and start record keeping as an integral part of your writing schedule. A good set of records will reward you, and perhaps that far future biographer, beyond measure.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Post Holiday Fatigue

It happens every year, the sudden disappearance of house guests and visitors bearing good will, the deconstruction of the decorative holiday themes, the storage of seasonal treasures, and, sadly, the results of too many rich foods and drinks.  The weather turns to grim gray days and long cold nights. brighteannual arrival of the seed catalogs and their promise of  bountiful spring and summer. The holiday season is truly over when the annual arrival of the seed catalogs and their promise of  bountiful spring and summer arrive in profusion to brighten the mail.

But the end of holidays now means that we have to get back to living our chosen lives, struggling to write despite difficulties, frustrations, and setbacks.  That work set aside for the holidays is now back, demanding attention, forcing the mind to grasp the thread of plot, the characters' foibles, and however the devil you intended for it to end.  Only gradually, does the mental fog dissipate and reveal the way forward. Slowly you bring back the thread and hunker down to progress and, hopefully, finish.

The arrival of the new year is a time to plan, to make promises to yourself. Each  year I pledge to have at least five pieces published and to write at least twice that many.  Usually I do the latter, but fail on the former, although that is usually made up in the long haul when a sale of only four is followed by a year, such as 2012, where I can place six pieces in publications.  I probably write a novel's worth of words in any year, spread over fifteen to twenty finished pieces of various lengths.  Some are parts of longer works I plan, those that are complete stories fail to find a willing editor, and most are in continual circulation ever seeking a receptive audience.

As ever I enter the year with high hopes, working against the tide of time, doing what I want, and at a pace I can maintain over the long haul.