Showing posts with label Writer Unboxed. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Writer Unboxed. Show all posts

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Taking the Fermata

Adventures in Logophilia, No. 207:


In music, a fermata is a pause on a note or a rest - its length determined by the conductor or the musician, usually to close a piece.  This bird's eye symbol is known as an extended rest.  It is from the Italian verb fermare, meaning "to stop."

Extended Rest
Extended Rest by Mike Corpus

I began the morning with another insightful post from Writer Unboxed, written by Barbara O'Neal on "Boundaries and Burnout." She reminds us about the importance of resting in the midst of our work, allowing ourselves to play, our minds to wander and relax.  There is a lot of pressure out there for writers to write-write-write, amping up word counts and producing book after book after book.  Which is one reason I shy away from (well-intenioned) Twitter advice these days - they tell me that once I've begun sending query letters to agents on my novel, I need to dive RIGHT AWAY into a new project.  There is a sense of immediacy in this world - to WASTE NO TIME, to be the early bird catching that worm, or a tireless writer, with stories pouring out right and left.  As if story-dehydration, or burn-out, is no real problem.  But it's been a good four months since I began the querying journey, and the second novel has informed me that on no certain terms will he (yes, he) be rushed.  Am I a failure for listening to the needs of this novel?  Am I using it an excuse to "goof off"?

No.  I'm not goofing off.  I'm resting.  Believe me, I am forming the internal structure of novel no. 2 and asking deep (and sometimes difficult) questions about the direction this story will go.  I don't call that idleness.  Also, I've taken the time to absorb novels - particularly those in my own genre - to identify passages that move me, taking notes, articulating to myself why this or that works or doesn't work.  I allow myself to get swept away in soundtrack music to chase the daydream of what my novel could be.  (By the way, if you've never heard Two Steps from Hell, you're missing out: awesome movie trailer soundtrack music, not heavy metal.)  In this case, work is play.

But rest is more than simply allowing a story to incubate and letting it cook on its own.  Resting in everyday life is helpful with the writing aspect of it.  For example, I hate going to the Y.  I hate exercising.  The idea of making an appointment with a piece of equipment in a noisy building full of sweaty (sometimes loud) people doesn't always appeal, even if the elliptical is a cardio wonder machine.  Walking quietly and at my own pace is restful and healthy - a sort of exercise that is not a shock to the system, but a sustained movement that helps the thinking process.  I've started learning yoga, as well, because it's an interesting balance of endurance and rest - clearing the mind as well as folding and flexing the body.

In the midst of this fermata, I read and walk, brainstorm, make plans to plant a little indoor garden using eggshells (and figuring out how to hollow out an egg and poke drain holes in the bottom without the thing breaking apart).  I sleep in on Saturdays and enjoy it.  I'm clearing out my older no-longer-me clothes from my wardrobe and investing in red heels, changing my hair style, trying new recipes, playing with the cat, watching the occasional Dickensian mini-series, reading what I've never read before, getting swept up in spring fever.  In this time, I feel that my wings are growing and extending, not shrinking.  So instead of freaking out because I didn't meet a word-count quota or have gone "no where" with this novel, I am breathing deeply and feeling my way forward.  There is no need to feel any guilt or panic because there is no deadline.  There is no one breathing down my neck.  There is just the story and getting to know him better everyday, forming a friendship with this living thing that will be with me for the next 2-3 years. 

So here I am, still coming down from osana.  I'll stay here until it's time to get up again. 


Friday, February 1, 2013

Something New (j)

I begin February with a question - obvious, yet compelling - that has been hanging over me for a while now.  What exactly is a novel?  

This is the 143rd word of my logophiliac adventures:

A novel is a fictional prose narrative of book length, typically representing character and action with some degree of realism.  The word comes from the Italian term novella storia , for "new story." (Novella being the feminine of novello and the Latin word novellus for "new".) The word was also utilized from Middle English to the eighteenth century in the sense of "a novelty, a piece of news, from the Old French word novelle.  This gives way to the adjective use of novel which means interestingly new or unusual.

But what should this "newness" look like?  The novel has become an incredibly versatile literary vehicle since Daniel Defoe, Charlotte Smith and Jane Austen gave it a solid form at the end of the eighteenth century.  When I first set out to create my own novels, I thought of the form as a long, extended story of someone's journey... like a good Dickensian bildungsroman (a coming of age novel like David Copperfield or Nicholas Nickleby).  Since then I've realized that the newness is not just a matter of introducing and following new characters and exploring a new setting, but in the way we tell our stories: non-linear, in braided narratives, from an unusual character's point of view, in the present tense, in the second person, in an otherwise impossible situation, etc.  Novels are experiments for testing new angles in story telling, and even if the story itself might be similar to something that's been read before, the telling makes it new.

Personal example. I finished a novel last year and have embarked on a sequel.  Granted, there is a certain amount of uncertainty that comes with such a decision - after all, I'm waiting to hear back from agents, and there is no guarantee that any one will want to represent it, or to publish it.  Whether or not it was the wise decision to go ahead with the sequel, I've found some pretty good reasons to do it.  

1.) Novel #1 (let's call it W1), isn't actually finished in the sense that it has not gone through the publishing process - has not encountered agents or editors.  When it is, somewhere down the line, accepted by a publishing company, there will be more changes to be made.  It is simply the way the process works.

2.) At this point, not knowing what those changes will be a year, two, five or ten years from now, I know there is room for improvement.  Writing the sequel (W2) will open up new doors and help me address questions that I couldn't answer (or even think to ask) about my characters in the first novel - a challenge in many ways.  How? 

3.) I've always wanted W2 to be it's own novel, with its own set of eccentricities, patterns and nuances - not just an expansion of W1.  I decided that W2 would be from a different character's point of view.  The narrative main character in W1 is a young woman (let's call her S) trying to decide whether or not to take vows in a quasi-monastic order.  The narrative main character in W2 is her romantic interest, a man who at 126 years old doesn't age and has a caustic, jaded personality (let's call him D).  D is going to be a challenge because his perspective is at a completely different angle from what I'm used to.  In this way, learning about the inner workings of D in W2 will help me to see S in a new light (from his eyes) and apply that newness to the revisions for W1.

4.)   I have ideas for a W3 and a possible W4 as well, although nothing is set in stone.  If they do emerge, they will be their own novels, as well; W3 being made of journal entries from both D and S, and W4 from the point of view of a character who has not yet been born.  Whether or not these ideas will ever come about, they're already bearing fruit in my daily experiments, and that fruit is in W1 and W2. 

5.)  There is no way to lose with this model (disorganized-jumble-of-ideas is more like it).  Yes, my dreams and prayers right now are bent on getting W1 published. And though there's a chance (as with every creative endeavor) that it won't catch the attention of an agent or a publisher, the story is still mine and it is worth writing.  

Worst case scenario: W1 and W2 aren't published, and I embark on a completely different project (oh yes, I have one), which is eventually published.  Once established in the business, I can go back to W1 and W2, improve them and try again.  It might take ten or fifteen years, but even this brood of brain children are worth that wait.  It may feel like a defeat at first, but with the right amount of audacity and devotion, this can be turned into an opportunity.  Look at Stephen King and the years it took to flesh out The Dark Tower and to re-release The Stand in its truest edition.  (Many.)  Time is not an adequate excuse to stop the experiment.  If we can't be "novel" or versatile with the strange ebbs and flows of the publishing industry in addition to our own creative challenges, we might not make it.  That is my theory, anyway, but a hopeful one.

Today, Sarah Callender wrote for Writer Unboxed in a similar vein "The Writer as an Inventor," which I found to be helpful and encouraging.  She emphasizes adopting the habits and mind-sets of inventors to better craft our stories through passionate curiosity, obsessive focus, loyalty to our project, to embrace a healthy balance of fear and foolishness, among other things. 

As inventor-creators, we strive to answer pressing questions about ourselves... even if we don't know how to ask those questions, they're still worth striving for, reinventing and examining in new angles, through different lenses (telescope, microscope - whatever is required) until we know.  It's by no means an exact science, but writing is novel... and it's our job to make sure it always will be.  I think we're up for that challenge.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The Sisyphean Synopsis (Jillian)

I mentioned Sisyphus this morning right?  He was the man with the impossible task of rolling a boulder up a hill only to have it go rolling down again - eternal punishment for something he did to the chagrin of the gods. 

Since I've completed my novel and intend to send it to agents - the starting point for any novelist hoping to publish - there have been the inevitable tasks to complete, ends to sew up tightly, advice to be read and heeded.  It was quite a strange transition to make from one day being immersed in a world of words to the next when I was on my own again, orbiting that world instead of walking it.  The tasks are writing the dreaded query letter and writing a synopsis.  Ick.  Double ick.

The query letter is a basic, basic, basic letter no more than one page long.  It is the piece of writing one emails/mails to an agent, selling one's book in a matter of two (sometimes three) well-crafted paragraphs... in other words, just a handful of sentences to grab his/her attention.  The first paragraph involves the hook sentence much like that on a book jacket that encapsulates the novel's story, essence and selling-potential in one go.  The next paragraph is a slightly bigger expansion or synopsis of that hook paragraph.  The third is a discussion of one's credentials.  Etcetera.

Somehow I wrote it, rewrote it, embellished, pared down, expanded, pared down, cut, cut, cut, until the thing was the epitome of professional succinctness and naunce.  It is not easy, I tell you, to "say more with less" but it can be done.  After all, writing 125,000 words is a lot easier than 500 or 300: greater margin for error, for one thing. I think if one comes out of the process with a satisfactory query letter one doesn't mind showing to friends and complete strangers, one has grown as a writer.

The synopsis is my present onus.  This is a 1-2 page summary of the book, written dryly with all the facts about the story more or less revealed in sequence.  I didn't realize I needed one until I began to look at submission requirements to particular agencies and did a little subsequent research.  Luckily, Chuck Sambuchino of Writer Unboxed posted some advice on this very thing months ago, of which I found helpful.  One of the things I learned is that a synopsis is very important in genre fiction (sci-fi, fantasy, mystery, bla, bla) so that agents can easily follow whether or not one's novel has Acts I, III and III in the right places and in the right proportions.  It makes perfect sense, and yet it seems hopelessly Sisyphean.

Of course, my novel is science fiction, and I realized there is no way around this thing.  "One to two pages?" I asked aloud.  No one heard but the cat, who thinks I'm a nut anyway. "Double spaced?  How can I implode an entire 125,000 word novel into two pages?" The camel through the needle's eye... sort of...

When my panic wore off, I had to remind myself that I thought the exact same thing for the query.  Then, the reaction had been, "An entire novel in one paragraph?  Can't do it!" Obviously, I could and did, but it took me a while.  I'm in the process of reminding myself that the synopsis is really just a bit bigger than the query itself, another expansion of the details presented in those little paragraphs.  But slogging through it in the meantime is utter torture.

Advice to self (and others):

1.) Work on the synopsis a little every day, just like the query letter, then put it away and work on something else.  The first versions will stink, but first drafts of anything usually do.  If you don't have a first draft, how else can you write a better second draft and a good third draft?

2.) Patience.  When I'm on roll - having just finished a project or otherwise blindsided with enthusiasm and overconfidence - I often get the delusion that I can send out the query letter or the entire submission inside of a week if I just work hard enough on it.  This is unrealistic thinking.  Better to take time on something like a query or a synopsis than to send something off that it is rough around the edges.  Remember that you don't have a deadline yet.  That will come later.  Above all: no self-deprecations!

3.) Simplify, simplify, simplify, as Mr. Thoreau said.

4.) In the hours spent away from the query or synopsis, write something from the heart - get back into a routine.  Otherwise, you may feel drained and blocked for no reason.  Writing a query letter or a synopsis does not preclude you from going ahead with new stories.  This is for your sanity.

5.) Read lots of advice on formatting, etc.  Don't ignore it.

6.) Remember that you are doing this for your novel, your brainchild.  It is worth the torture.  And it might not nearly be as bad it seemed at the end.

All right.  Back to the boulder up the hill...


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