Monday, January 31, 2011

Pre-writing Schme-writing

So, it was pretty cool of Tahereh Mafi to host a bloglinkapalooza, huh? It’s been great seeing the many different approaches to doing this blogging thing. I found a bunch of new interesting, funny, clever folks to follow, as well as gained some new interesting, funny, clever readers (hello and welcome! I’ll try not to suck as a blogger!). I’m not even halfway through the list yet, but I’m determined to get all the way to through to the last blog because this has been a great opportunity to see who else is out there!

On to today’s topic!

I've never been a fan of pre-writing. It never seemed as fun to be as, you know, writing writing. Besides, any discoveries that I could have made while pre-writing can just as easily be made during writing writing, and then I just have to go back and adjust the manuscript as needed.

Yeah, well, when the thing you realize is a your characters’ wants, needs, and motivations – and you’ve already written the entire novel – going back and adjusting everything from the beginning turns out to be a lot of work. A lot more than pre-writing probably would have been. (That’s not to say that there won’t be things to discover along the way even after doing pre-writing.)

So this time around, as I regain interest in a WIP I started and then stopped writing months ago, I thought that maybe I’d give some of this pre-writing business a go. Tentatively. Not like it’ll kill me or anything. Right?

I’ve found myself gravitating toward articles about plot—and as you may already know, many folks have had much to say on the subject. I lean towards the school of thought that plot comes out of character. Learning about plot structures can be helpful, but is only half the job if I don’t consider who my characters are and how what they want effects what they do.

Thusly, ergo, concordantly, vis-à-vis, for my first official voluntarily-embarked-upon-pre-writing exercise in a really long time, I decided to start by asking myself: What does your MC want? From there I could ask myself what he would do to get it and that in turn would help me discover what should be happening in my story.

Way back when I started writing this particular story (and got 20,000 words into it), had I even asked myself what my MC wants?

Apparently, I was waiting ‘til I got to the end of the manuscript to find out.

Well, when I finally got around to asking myself that question, the answer was pretty obvious. But then I had a new problem. The thing he wants is not just out of his reach, it is as out of his control as anything can be. Fate, it seems, is the only thing that would land him his want. How does a character actively pursue something that is basically like pre-destined only no one knows who is pre-destined for it until it’s like “BAM! Congrats! You’re invited to the party?” He can’t! That’s how!!


Or, I guess I can try and see if there’s anything he can do about it. Since I’m already kinda invested in this.

So I continued my questions, typing my questions and answers out as they came to mind. After “What does my character want?” cameIs there anything he can do to make that happen? Why not? So what the next best thing?” and more from there.

I think I was going a little easy on myself as an interviewer. Barbara or Oprah would have asked better questions. Wendy Williams would have been more invasive. I'll have to work on channeling them next time.

But actually, my questioning sent me on a nice little winding road. If I couldn’t think of a question to prod things along, I fell back to “Then what?” and “What’s the worse that can happen?” This exercise took me places that had very little or nothing at all to do directly with his want, but since it came out of his want (bad decisions bring about certain consequences) I figured that was okay.

Soon I started a second document and started with the same four questions, but thought of a new answer as to what the “next best thing” might be. That sent me off on a whole other adventure. Then I had to open another new document because I thought, What if he hears a rumor that there is a way to trick fate into giving him what he wants? What would the rumor say he had to do? What’s the worse thing the rumor could say he had to do? What if he goes though all that and finds out the rumor isn’t even a little bit true? What if the rumor is true?

Maybe I’ll try this out on some other wants and some other characters. Potentially I’ll have like a gazillion strands of plot and I can let their powers combine to create some kind of super awesome plot mutant with rainbow powers of engaging the reader!

And this is before I’ve entered the possibility of how the antagonist may complicate things. Suddenly I’m wandering through a garden of forking paths (bonus points for literary reference!). Or I can use a door analogy.

Okay, maybe that last reference was a little forced, but Will Ferrell is just so funny!

While I may not put everything that comes from this exercise into my WIP, it has certainly given me a lot to think about. Maybe there is something to this pre-writing stuff after all, eh?

So, pre-writing. Do you do it? Got a favorite exercise?

Monday, January 24, 2011

I Maybe Am Not Completely Inept

I believe it when agents say they are busy people. Whether they are constant bloggers or not, I understand that I don’t understand all that goes into their job. I also understand that agents are people, and may want to spend time with other people doing some of the non-work things people like to do.

For those reasons, I can easily accept form rejections on queries. I can accept waiting longer than the agent’s self-posted average response time, especially when said agent suggests sending a follow-up email if that happens. Not hearing back from an agent when they say specifically in their guidelines that they don’t respond to queries unless they’re interested doesn’t bother me either. Not hearing back from an agent who says they respond to every query bothers me a little, but I send a follow-up email and/or get over it. If I never hear from them, maybe that agent just wasn’t for me.

That said, in the midst of form rejections, I received a pleasant surprise. This particular agent didn’t respond in the time specified on his website so I sent a follow-up email. After a big chunk of time passed, I figured I wouldn’t be hearing from him, but lo and behold a response came. There was something different about this form rejection… could it be that it wasn’t a form rejection at all?

Rather than the usual “doesn’t fit my list at the time” or something similar, which is what I’ve come to expect in a rejection letter, this agent (or his assistant?) wrote that he was “intrigued by the premise” but that the sample pages didn’t draw him in. He even gave a reason why the writing didn’t engage him!

What really caught my attention was one phrase. Intrigued by the premise? Intrigued by the premise! *Gasp* Dare I think it?

I think I dare…

My query letter might not suck!!!

I’ve come a long way.

Okay, yeah, there’s that little problem of my sample pages not being engaging, but do you know what’s harder than re-writing an entire novel? Writing a good freakin’ query letter! I literally have seventeen pages of query re-writes. (And I do mean literally). Let’s not even add to that how many query re-writes I’ve done for my second novel. I’ve written so many queries for my two complete manuscripts that I’ve given certain Word documents names like “Query Omnibus.”

I’ve thought that maybe this agent has several forms of form rejections. Form rejection A for situation A. Form rejection B for situation B, and so on. I've also thought that maybe I'm reading too much into into this. But I've pushed those thoughts aside. Why burst my own bubble?

I don’t know if this agent realized I’d find encouragement in his seven-sentence response email and I didn’t write back to tell him I appreciated his opinion because I didn’t want to clutter up his inbox, but I appreciate his efforts just the same.

As I move forward into a new round of querying, I’m submitting a different project. One that has seen almost as many revisions as its query letter. I don’t suddenly expect non-form rejections from every agent I reach out to (actually, I’m hoping to get no rejections and to finally make it past the querying stage), but I did want to take a moment to thank those agents*who take the time to blog, grant interviews, and do so much to make it easy for writers to find information about this whole query process (and beyond). I’ve learned a lot from you.

*Not to slight the writers, editors, and other industry professionals who are also awesome in their giving of helpful information.** I thank you, too. But you know, when you have a theme and stuff going you gotta roll with it.

**Or who just make me laugh:

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Random Tandem Wednesdays: VHS Cassettes and Other Things of My Youth

Going into this blogging thing, I told myself, “Cacy, don’t be random. Embrace focus.” Alas and alack, to be focused is not my nature. It was only a matter of time before my randomness broke through and I diverged from topics relating to writing and books. I can try to say, hey, this random thing relates to writing-slash-books because of XYZ, but I decided not to lie to myself, or you. Sometimes, you just gotta let yourself be random—I’ll at least try to relegate it to Wednesdays.

So this weekend, I was reading my six-year-old niece the story of Beauty and the Beast from this big book of fairy tales. I had to explain to her that there are a lot of different versions of the story because she kept comparing it to the Disney movie. She went further to say, “We used to watch it on…What do you call it? The black thing.”

“Black thing?” I said.

“You know, it’s black and it has the white circles.” She traced shapes in the air.

“Oh. A video tape.”

“Yeah. We used to watch the video tape, but the thing you put it in broke.”

“You mean a VCR.”

“Yeah, a VCR.”

As an experiment, just to double check, I pointed to the entertainment center across from us and asked, “What do you call that thing?”

She looked at me like I was weird. “A DVD player.”

“And what do you put inside one of those.”

“A DVD.”

It is the end of an era, people. Goodbye, VHS and VCR. I knew you well. Yeah, okay, so they’ve been out of the picture for a while, but there’s nothing like a conversation with the generation who are going to forget that the technology of your youth ever existed to really drive the point home.

Although I do need to find myself a functioning VCR. Cleaning out the garage a few months ago, I found a video tape labeled “Cacy’s Cartoons.” Pull it out of its cardboard case, and there’s a second label (written on in pink marker) that reads, “Don’t record over! This means you!!! Cartoons only!!! With Cacy’s permission!!! So stop if you’re thinking about it!!!”

I meant business. You could tell by all the exclamation points. I need to find out what’s on it. It could be the Spiderman series from the 90s (which was my favorite) or some of the shows from ABC’s One Saturday Morning Block (Pepper Anne, Bump in the Night maybe even - dare I think it - REBOOT!). Though I’m hoping it will contain some of the really random and obscure cartoons that I’m sure no one but me remembers even though I can still sing their theme songs (Ned’s Newt, Stickin’ Around, Science Court).

Gosh, I love cartoons.

Speaking of which, are Saturday morning cartoons a thing of the past? On cable there’s Cartoon Network, Nick Toons, Toon Disney, Boomerang, and what seems to be a plethora of channels that allow 24/7 access to cartoons. I was a dedicated Saturday-morning-cartooner. I was up before the sun to catch those cartoons no one else watched because they only aired at 5am on Saturday (Sky Dancers, Dragon Ball – that’s Dragon Ball, not Dragon Ball Z, Pokemon before it got all popular and moved to a later time that conflicted with my other shows so I had to be like, sorry Pokemon, I choose Spiderman.)

I even watched the lesser Sunday morning cartoons that came on the one channel that thought they could carve a niche for themselves by putting their kid’s programming on Sundays instead of Saturdays. (I remember something about teens who turned into cars to fight evil. It wasn’t very good, but I watched it.)

My cartoon watching wasn’t just a weekend hobby. Oh no, I had my before school cartoons (The Mask, Sailor Moon, Mummies Alive <--AWESOMENESS!). I had my after school cartoons (Gummy Bears, Darkwing Duck – look out! – TaleSpin, Gargoyles), even though I wasn’t allowed to watch TV after school because I was supposed to be doing my homework. But when you have a passion you do what you have to.

When I got to high school, and none of my friends watched cartoons anymore, I was still committed and the cartoons were still awesome (Recess, Powerpuff Girls, Invader Zim, Batman Beyond, Invasion America – where’s book two, Spielberg!?! Where is book two!?!).

I didn’t realize what to call my love affair with cartoons until I was in college and a creative writing teacher wanted the class to do presentations on what we were obsessed with. The night before my turn to present, I honestly and truly thought I had nothing to call an obsession. Until, well after midnight, I looked around my room. I had stuff like this taped to my headboard:

(I can’t believe I still have that, by the way.)

And stuff like this on my wall:

(Click here to make your own Powerpuff Girl! or Guy–which would technically be a Rowdyruff Boy, I guess.)

And my bed looked like this:

(Boy, sometimes I forget what a big dork I am until I dig up a picture like this.)

And on my TV was Cartoon Network/Adult Swim, which was the station my TV was on about 50% of the time. (It was on Nickelodeon and Disney Channel, another 30%). Needless to say, I realized what I should do my presentation on.

I miss the days when network television offered a wide variety of cartoons (in the allotted time spots). These days, if you don't have cable it's like cartoons don't exist anymore. I don't have cable. I'm not so up-to-date on the latest in animated television, but I still love cartoons. I was so excited to hear that Genndy Tartakovsky (almost spelled it right without having to look it up!) had a new series that I got the season pass on itunes. I cannot wait for Nick's new Avatar series (and my family and friends had to endure a two-year tirade from me on how bad the movie was going to be--it started the moment I found out Shyamalan was writing, directing and producing it). I think a Venture Bros movie would be too much awesome for one screen and I'll be first in line to see it. And look what my sister got me for Christmas:

I’m starting to think I’ll never grow up.

Quote of the Week:

“It’s pink, and it stinks like cake!” – My six-year-old niece.

Why is this the Quote of the Week? Because it sounds like something Invader Zim would say. (In case you couldn't tell, I'm something of a fan...)

Monday, January 17, 2011

I’m a Maniac, Maniac in Word

And I’m cutting words like I’ve never cut them before!

I’m so incredibly excited that I’m on the verge of putting on that song from Flashdance really loud and dancing around the house to it.

Do you know how, at least on a Mac, your Word document’s word count appears at the bottom of the window? Do you know how after you’ve surpassed 100,000 words, that word count just ups and disappears?

Well, mine came back!



Hello old friend!

Now when I send out my query letters, I can say that my word count is approx. 99,000 and it won’t even be like I’m rounding down from 99,999 (Not that I would ever really do that...*shifty eye, shifty eye*). It is honestly and truly well under 100,000. Mischief Managed! I think I deserve a cookie.

You know what? I’m buying myself a box of cookies.

Or maybe a bunch of cupcakes eating a bunch of cookies...

Monday, January 10, 2011

Reading About Writing

At some point in recent history, I decided I should probably read more books on the topic of writing. Even as I made the decision, I groaned inwardly. I don’t have a great history with books on writing. I the past, I haven’t been one to even finish them. I expected to have the same problem now, but I vowed to buckle down and get her done. I didn’t consider a key difference between the me of a couple of years ago (when the last time I made an attempt) and the me of now. The difference was I had completed two book-length manuscripts.

I’m not saying that people who haven’t completed or started a manuscript won’t be able to get something out of reading about writing. I have a friend who thinks he’s an expert on writing because he’s read some articles, so obviously it works for some people.

Everyone learns in different ways: by seeing, by reading, by listening, by doing. (Did I get them all? Add one or two?). I am definitely a learn-by-doing type. Theories on how something is done just kind of evaporate from my head, but once I’ve put my hands and mind to the task, I get it. Or at least get a feel for it. The same goes for novel writing, even though I got my B.A. in creative writing. Working on short stories in school taught me a lot about the different elements of writing, but novel writing is a challenge that presents the author with it’s own unique hurtles. To really understand what those were, I had to leap and stumble my way through the process for myself. (I’m sure I’m not alone on that.)

When reading about writing a novel before I wrote a novel, everything in that book was too theoretical. The analogy of trying to build a house on sand comes to mind. But when I read about writing a novel after I had completed and been thinking about how to improve my own manuscripts, that’s when the lessons really sank in. I was able to compare what I read with my own experiences, my successes and failings.

Now when I say to myself that I’m going to read more books on writing, it’s sans the inward groan. In fact, I’m practically bubbling with excitement. I decided to start with the books that seem to come up all the time when writers suggest book on writing. I’ve already read (and loved) Writing the Breakout by Donald Maass and I just picked up Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. I think I might go with Stephen King’s On Writing next.

Every time I read a novel that blows me away, I’m left with the feeling (again) that I need to become a better writer. I must then ask myself, what am I actively doing to improve not just my current manuscript, but my understanding of writing as a craft. I don’t know if it’s my learn-by-doing-ness specifically or my hippie-esque go-with-the-flow, type-B personality in general, but I think I sometimes rely too much on instincts and only ever put “just enough” effort into analysis and understanding. So this is me giving the latter a go. Wish me luck.

Monday, January 3, 2011

The Future’s So Bright I Wear My Sunglass At Night

It’s a bright and shiny new year! And in case you can’t tell, I’ve got my optimistic-(delusional?)-colored glasses on! Woo! (You have to imagine the little kick and fist in the air that accompanies that “woo!” because there is definitely a little kick and fist in the air that accompanies it.)

The plan for this year? Get an agent! And of course, everything is going to go according to plan… (Here’s where you might want to mental insert a manic smile.)

I’ve waited out the holidays and shall soon be querying. (Beware select agents: EXTREME AWESOMENESSS will be coming to an inbox near you!!) First though, I must finish cutting down my word count. I know, I know. I started this a million years ago. Shouldn’t I be finished already? How long does it take to cut 3,000 words? Well, it takes a while when one is carefully considering every word of their manuscript backwards page by page. And also when you have Christmas, Second Christmas and anime binges to see to.

At the start of the year, it’s hard not to look back at where I was this time last year or the year before. Writing, re-writing, waiting for rejections from agents… everything takes time! What is up with that? It’s seems like it takes forever to make progress. That why I like to look back. I’m able to say, “Hey, take a gander at that. I did reach milestone or two.”

January 2010: I’d been at the bookstore a few months and other then the part where I had to recommend certain books whether I liked them or not (Thank God they put an end to that program!), I quite liked it there!

As far as writing, I’d started querying (prematurely) in the fall, having finished two manuscripts after eighteen months of dedicated and (let’s call it) focused writing. Little did I realize I’d be spending the next year working on re-write after re-write, after re-write. (Alas and alack, I was so young and naive then.) In fact, as I write this I’m looking at date that I’d sent out my first query and I’m thinking to myself, “Really? Just a year ago?”

January 2009: I was at a job that was so wrong for me that every morning I secretly wished I’d get hit by at car so I’d have an excuse not to go into the office. Not a bad accident that required broken limbs or, you know, death. I just wanted to get hit enough. I wanted to be able to call in and say, “I got hit by a car. I’m not coming in.” without it being a lie.

As far as the bestselling novels I was working on (my strategy from the beginning has been that if I call them bestselling then by way of self-fulfilling prophesy, one day they’d have to become just that), I was writing regularly, if not everyday. I’d set a daily writing goal in relation to how many words/pages I thought I had left to write. Some days I was under, but other days I was way over so I figured it averaged out. Even if it didn’t, the point was I was always writing.

January 2008: I had just finished college the month before. I had a job lined up (see 2009) and I told myself that I was going to pick one of my novel ideas and see it through to a complete manuscript. After a few months, that turned into: I’m going to pick two story ideas and see them through to complete manuscripts.

And so here we are in 2011. I don’t know about you, but I’ve got my stunna shades on.