Posts Tagged ‘Writing’

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The Intersection Between Life and Fiction

February 3, 2010

I planned to write a somewhat snarky post about the latest trend working my last nerve. And then I came home from a freelance gig to find my building crawling with cops because a neighbor blew his brains out.

That kind of gets things in perspective.

I did not know this person, except by sight, but still, it’s incredibly sad. Add that to the fact that this is the second death in the same section of the building in six months, and it’s a little disconcerting.

It also provides a wonderful premise for fiction. There are at least a half a dozen fascinating scenarios set on the foundation of two deaths in neighboring apartments within six months. It could be an urban fantasy, a conspiracy theory, a contemporary drama, a mystery, a paranormal. Each of those choices would take the facts and use imagination to lead them in a different direction.

To those outside of writing and acting, that seems cold. But for those of us within this particular work, it’s the norm. Everything we experience, on every level, becomes material. That doesn’t mean we walk up to the grieving family and start telling our tales. But it means that, even with the personal response we have to a situation like this, the dis-ease and the sympathy we feel for the families of those involved, a part of us stands separate, as the observer. It’s integral to the work, and the work is integral to who we are.

That doesn’t mean we stand on the sidelines. If we see an accident, we are just as likely and have just as much responsibility to jump in and take action as anyone else. Chances are, we’re more likely to jump in and take action in a crisis, rather than turn our heads and walk away. We’re hardwired to see experience from the outside, absorb it into ourselves and understand it from the inside. Therefore, if we see someone in trouble, we’re more likely to actively help than many others.

But we’re also storing the experience for later use.

The next question then becomes, such as in the above situation, how much actual, factual information does the writer gather, and when? If I know what ACTUALLY happened in those two deaths, will it help or hurt the fictional scenarios I’m spinning?

When I was a less experienced writer, it hurt. The actual facts intruded on the story. Now, I’m able to separate the strands of fact and fiction with a more dispassionate eye, and I’d rather have the facts for my own personal closure, knowing I can still spin as many different and hopefully interesting stories out of it as I wish.

Sometimes a situation, however upsetting, sparks an idea that must be written down instantly. Other times, it takes years to absorb different elements, let it take shape, and emerge as a piece. Sometimes, it won’t even be recognizable as being connected to the original inspiration. In fact, the more experience you have as a writer, the more willing you are to let your characters and the situation evolve in an organic direction away from the original inspiration. You can always tell the newbies in a writing workshop. They put together a sloppy piece, full of emotion but no structure or foundation, and when you point out the flaws, they say, “But that’s how it happened.” “How it happened” doesn’t make it entertaining drama (or comedy or whatever) and yur job as a fiction writer is to take “what happened” and make it more interesting. Otherwise, you’re a journalist (unless you work for some of these so-called “news” organizations that actually create fiction and pass it off to the ignorant as fact) or a documentarian. And that’s a whole different issue with a different set of challenges. And, inside, the writer always remembers what sparks the creation.

That’s why genuine writers and artists are never bored. Because EVERYTHING is experience, no matter how frightening, irritating, or mundane. And everything can come out in the work, if you know how and are willing to process it.

–Devon Ellington is a full-time writer who publishes under a half a dozen names in both fiction and non-fiction. Follow the daily ups and downs of her writer’s life on Ink in My Coffee.

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Setting Up for a Successful 2010

January 20, 2010

If you have systems in place, your writing life will run more smoothly in the coming year. It means those snatched moments you give to your writing will be given over to writing, not organization.

Take some time to organize your emails, to set up folders in your computer for various projects or publications for whom you regularly work.

Make sure your clip files are up to date, both electronically and on paper, so that when you have to send clips with your pitches or queries, they are ready to go, and you don’t lose hours hunting them down, making copies, scanning, etc. Keep at least 10 hard copies of each article in your file, ready to go; when you get down to 2-3 copies, take a few minutes to make another 10 photocopies. Make sure you’ve got your electronic clips saved in .doc. .rtf, and, best of all .pdf.

Set up Submission Logs, Pitch Logs, and, if you’re submitting novels, a Query Tracker for each novel. Yes, there’s some crossover between these, but it’s well worth it.

Here’s how I set them up. If it works for you, great; if not, keep playing with the format until you find something that does.

Pitch Log:
This document keeps track of all the pitches and queries I send out in a particular year, and the follow-ups.

At the left margin, I have the date.

I tab in a few times, then put in the email address, name of specific individual, name of publication or company. I space once or twice, and write what job/article/assignment I pitched, and if any materials were sent (i.e., resume, clips, etc.)

When I get a response, I note it in the log. If I land the assignment, the finished assignment is then entered in to the Submission Log, which also contains payment information.

Every month, I look over the log to see what needs to be followed up, or if any potential clients who couldn’t use me in my initial pitch, but suggested I keep in touch need a check-in. For instance, in April, I follow up on all unanswered January pitches, in May I follow up on February’s, etc. I note the date of the follow-up and whether or not there was a response.

Craig’s List addresses are usually good for only two weeks, so they aren’t worth following up. And, since I no longer write project-specific samples without payment for them, I don’t have to worry that work will show up somewhere unpaid. If the potential client wants a sample, they can get a clip or they can pay me a specially-negotiated rate for a project-specific sample. Far too many uncouth “clients” try to get writers to write samples for free, then tell the writer he/she wasn’t hired for the job. The initial site disappears, the “client” sets up a new site under a different name and uses content for which he did not pay the writer. A legitimate employer is savvy enough to tell from a previously published clip if you have the style he needs, and ethical enough to negotiate a special sample rate, complete with a separate agreement and a deposit, if he needs you to write a project-specific sample to get the job. Stay away from the others.

Many writers believe it’s best to do all follow up within two weeks. In some cases, that’s true, but for most of the types of work I pitch, it takes the potential client longer to work through the applicants, and the squeakiest wheel is more likely to be dumped than considered. Clients don’t like to be nagged. Especially not early in the courtship process.

The Pitch Log is also useful to keep track of clients who responded that they’d like to work with you maybe/someday. If you keep in touch every three months or so, chances are you’ll get the work. I have about a 25% success rate with maybe-someday follow-up. Not bad, when you consider direct mail response considers 1% return good.

Submission Log:
Here’s where I keep track of actual submissions and contracted work.

These sheets are set up in the Landscape Orientation (feel free to do any of these in Excel or Keynote or any form that works for you).

At the left margin, I have the title of the piece. Under that is the byline (I publish under a half a dozen names). Under that is what type of piece it is, such as “short story”, “article”, etc.

I tab over a few bits and the next few lines contain the editor’s name, the publication name, the address, the email, and how the piece was submitted. Sometimes I note how long an editor sets in guidelines before follow-up. If an editor clearly states in the guidelines that you will hear back in 4 months and you contact said editor in two weeks, you’re headed for the reject pile, because there are several thousand writers just as good as you are who don’t nag and respect the guidelines.

Tab over and insert the date sent.

Tab over for the response.

When I get a response, I put it in. If it’s a rejection, I enter the date and any specifics. If it’s an acceptance, I enter that, contract date, publication date, payment date. Once the piece is paid, I enter the payment. Once it’s published, I confirm that it’s been published.

Again, regularly checking the log lets you know what’s out where and keeps you from making careless mistakes in the submission process. It helps you follow up, it will reveal patterns in publication history, and help you make decisions on future publications to which to submit, or where to stop submitting.

Query Tracker
I think there are sites set up for this, but I keep a separate query tracker for every novel.

It contains the date, the name of the agent or editor, the name of the house, the address, the email address, what was sent (i.e. “query”, “query and first page”, “query and synopsis”, “synopsis and first 3 chapter”).

The response and the date of the response is noted. If additional materials are requested, that is also noted, along with the date the request was fulfilled (in general, fulfill requests for additional materials within 48 hours — writing back and saying you need more time to finish/polish a piece brands you as an amateur and there’s no reason for them to sign you. You should have the entire manuscript ready to go in an instant BEFORE you start the query process, not query as you’re revising. Once you have a solid publication record, there’s more wiggle room, but then you’ve already got the agent in place).

If you get a contract and still have submissions out, the tracker also helps you know who to contact to officially withdraw your work from consideration. Once you sign a contract, you must officially withdraw from all the other places to which you’ve submitted, even if you haven’t heard back and assume they’re not interested. Even if the agent or editor doesn’t have the courtesy to respond to your query in a timely manner (or considers non-response an acceptable form of rejection), it is up to you to maintain high standards of professionalism and courtesy.

Of course, none of these organizational tools are of any use if you don’t use them. If you set them up, but don’t keep the information up-to-date, it’s a waste of time.

And if you don’t sit down and write the best book, story, or article you can write in the first place, there’s no need to set them up in the first place.

–Devon Ellington publishes under a half a dozen names in both fiction and non-fiction. You can keep up with her exploits on Ink in My Coffee.

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Plodding and Spurting

January 6, 2010

Wow, that title sounds like a little too much information, doesn’t it? Especially for the first post of the new year and the new decade.

Don’t worry, I’m not writing about gastrointestinal distress. I’m referring to the way one’s writing often works in waves.

Leading in to the holiday season, I wanted, very badly, to create some holiday-themed stories. I wanted to have one as a small, beautifully printed edition to send to family and friends, and one as a free digital download for the readers.

Should I have started this process, say, last February? Of course. At the very least, I should have concentrated on it in July. But last year was a flurry of writing enough to pay all the bills, and far too many projects fell by the wayside.

I didn’t start work until autumn. I could look back through my diary entries and find out the exact day, but I didn’t.

The plan was for each of the two stories to run about 1500 words. Maybe the one for friends and family would run a bit longer.

The first idea was a quiet, gentle piece set in Victorian times in a snowy city based on Saratoga Springs, NY, at a place inspired by the Adelphi Hotel. I’ve spent time in Saratoga and used it both as itself and as the inspiration for other settings in my work. As I started this story, I was lucky enough to get up to Saratoga for a day during two consecutive weeks, so I could photograph it and reacquaint myself with the areas that were the jumping off point. I collected books on the Victorian era, digging up books from my previous research and adding in some new ones. I wanted it light, sweet, and warm-hearted.

I wrote my faithful 1500 words every morning, first thing.

It grew and grew and darkened and started to hold commentary on the social justice (and lack thereof) of the time.

It’s will be a good story, someday. But it wasn’t going to cut it for this Christmas.

I thought perhaps I’d try something lighter and funnier. And contemporary, so I wouldn’t have to keep stopping to do research. I put aside the Victorian piece and started on something more contemporary, my 1500 words every morning, going back to it here and there and . . .it grew into a relationship piece about parents and children.

That wasn’t going to work, either.

In the meantime, I received two calls for anthology submissions, both of which intrigued me, so I tried to figure out how to fit them in.

We were past Thanksgiving by this time.

I put aside the parent/child relationship piece and started another one, with the intent to keep it light and fast-moving.

It turned into a contemporary adult relationship piece.

I was pretty frustrated by this point. Plenty of writers would say, “Well, just sit down and MAKE it do what you want it to do.” Unfortunately, for me, stories and characters have lives of their own which reveal themselves to me, either in the outline or during the writing process. I had loose ideas of these pieces when I started, rather than outlining. Basically, I blank-paged. Sometimes that works; often, when one is on a tight deadline, it does not.

So, I put that aside, and, either in the shower or driving to the grocery store (where I get the bulk of my ideas), the idea for a light, fantastical, holiday-themed romantic comedy hit me. So I sat down to write “Just Jump in and Fly” (under the Ava Dunne name). It flowed well, and I wrote the first draft in just a few days. It wasn’t 1500 words — it came in just under 10,000 words.

Because of its late start and late finish, I could not put it aside for two weeks (which I like to do for shorter pieces) before editing. I had to jump in and edit right away. I still tried to distance myself from it and edit it as though someone else wrote it. I edited, designed, uploaded, and it was available for free download on Christmas Eve.

Much to my surprise and amusement, it also contained elements of the two anthology stories on which I worked concurrently (one was finished, edited, polished, and submitted; the other could not be completed by deadline and will go to a different market).

That’s cutting it far too close.

But it was the RIGHT story for the parameters, even though it was longer than I initially wanted. And it flowed well. I got it done.

Do I leave those other stories abandoned?

No. Unfinished projects drain creative energy. They choke you and prevent you from moving forward and growing in your work. Somehow, they will be slotted in throughout the year, in and around other scheduled, contracted projects.

In this particular case, I had to temporarily put them aside, not because I was stuck on them, but because they morphed into something that did not fit the needs of the goal.

Sometimes, when you start plodding, it means you’re not being true to the story. Sometimes, it’s the wrong story to be working on at that particular time. Step away, reassess, ask yourself if the piece really doesn’t work, or if you’re just getting in your own way. If you stop every time you run into trouble, you won’t get anything done. You need the plodding times, or else the wildly creative spurts become fewer and farther between until they disappear altogether. Good writing is not necessarily easy, although it also doesn’t have to be painful. It’s about integrity to the work, adherence to the craft, and an eye on the long-term goal for the piece.

There will be time when the work flows. When it does, ride that wave for as long as you can. Let the laundry pile up and leave the vacuuming for another day. Better yet, delegate them both to someone else in the house while you write. When you feel stuck or “written out”, that’s the time to devote to household tasks. I find there’s nothing like working out plot points while cleaning out cupboards or folding laundry to get me through the tough spots and drive me back to the page.

The most important thing is to get to the page, even for a few minutes every day, whether you feel like it or not. You’re exercising your literary muscles. Like any other muscle, they atrophy when not used regularly. If the times between writing periods are too long, it gets harder and harder to get back into the writing. If you spend even a few minutes at the page every day, whether it’s writing in your journal or writing a few paragraphs of a WIP, you keep those creative muscles loose. Soon, it becomes easier and easier for those snatched creative minutes to go directly into your work as soon as you sit down. You’ll find less and less time spent staring at a blank page.

I started a new novella just before the end of the year (on the waxing moon, to give it a boost). It’s flowing. It’s outlined. May I continue at this pace until it’s done.

–Devon Ellington publishes under a half a dozen names in both fiction and non-fiction. Visit her almost-daily blog Ink in My Coffee to keep up with her projects. Today is the last day you can download “Just Jump in and Fly” under the Ava Dunne name here.

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Nano and Real Life

November 18, 2009

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I spent the past four years doing Nano, the last three of them as a mentor. Hitting 50K wasn’t a problem in any of those years. Last year, I did Nano although life was a challenge due to an illness and subsequent death in the family. While I am very fond of the piece I worked on, and it will be rewritten enough to start the submission process early next year, I didn’t get out of the experience what I wanted and needed.

This year, I decided to make the sane choice and not to Nano. It was great Personal Drama for me, but I made the decision and stuck to it anyway. I’m juggling numerous deadlines and contracts, and I travelled every week in the entire month. There’s no way I could keep that kind of commitment to myself and my work without a major meltdown. Rather than setting myself up for frustration and failure from the outset, I passed.

The first few days I felt sulky and left out. I mean, thousands of people are writing in community, and here I was on the sidelines. I have very strong opinions about either you do Nano or you don’t. The parameters of Nano are that you start a new project and write 50K of new material for it in 30 days. You don’t use a current WIP and you don’t revise. There’s nothing wrong with writing in tandem with Nano and riding the energy wave of so much focused attention on the page, but unless you honor the premise of it, you’re not doing it. So, even though I wrote A LOT, I wasn’t doing Nano, and I didn’t pretend I was.

The further into the month we got, not only was I writing a lot, but I missed it less. That made me sit down and assess the pros and cons of Nano. Those who love Nano swear by it; those who hate it say you can’t write a real, publishable piece of work in 30 days.

I believe you can learn a lot during the process that, if you are serious about your writing, you can apply to your regular writing life.

Cons:
–Quantity over Quality. The point of Nano is to spit out 50K of a first draft. You’re not supposed to go back and edit or slow down or anything else. Since each novel has its own innate rhythm, this can sometimes be counterproductive. Some novels just aren’t meant to be written at breakneck pace over a concentrated period of time.

–Creative Vampires. Whether it’s a Mentee who doesn’t respect you enough to keep his/her end of the commitment, or the person on the board whining about how hard it is or making excuses, a large percentage of Nanoers are trying to find shortcuts, easy ways, or suck the energy out of those who are sitting down and doing it.

–You have to be a Time Management Pro. Nano happens in November. That means the holiday season’s already started and will continue into the New Year. Thanksgiving falls in the month, along with pageants, exams, bad weather, and a myriad of other life challenges. If you suck at time management, you have two options: Learn to manage your time better or fail. Yes, life can and will throw some curve balls, and there will be times when a massive life emergency happens and Nano has to go on the backburner. There’s nothing wrong with that. And there’s always next year. But if you don’t learn to make writing a priority for the mere 30 days, you won’t be able to achieve Nano.

–By December 1, You’re so Burned out, the very Thought of Your Manuscript Makes You Want to Puke. Very few novels can be sold at 50K. You have to finish the manuscript. Unfinished manuscripts hang like albatrosses around your neck. They weigh you down and hurt your future work. Even if you decide to put the manuscript in the drawer for years once the draft is done, make sure the draft is DONE. That’s really tough after a month of breakneck writing. You can choose to either continue the pace into December until the manuscript is done (which, with holiday madness, could land you in the rubber room), or you can cut back your daily quota back to what feels like the novel’s natural rhythm. For me, that’s usually 1000-1500 words a day, although sometimes a piece only lets me write 500 words/day on it. Whatever it is, keep going until the draft is done, even if you’re burned out. If you’re serious about being a contracted, paid writer, you will have to write and meet your contract deadlines whether you feel like it or not. This is good training.

–January, the Edit Month, is Too Soon. The biggest mistake aspiring writers make is to finish their novels and immediately go into edits. Unless you’re on a contracted deadline and are behind, put it away for AT LEAST two months. Four to six months is often even better. When you go back to rewrite, revise, and edit, you MUST be able to look at it objectively, as though someone else wrote it. Finish the draft, even if it takes you into the following calendar year. And then put it away for a few months.

–What You Write During Nano Needs More Revision/Rewriting/Editing. This goes back to quantity over quality. Everything I’ve ever done for Nano needed far more drafts than work done outside of the Nano process in order to make it submissible. Again, that’ why time and distance before revision is so important.

–Do NOT Mention It was Written During Nano During the Query Process. That’s a major turn-off to editors and agents. They don’t want something slapped together in 30 days. They wanted a well-crafted book. Once you hit bestseller lists, the demands change, and they want more from you faster, but at the outset, keep your mouth shut. Let the info drop in post-publication interviews.

–More than 50K. I realized that I regularly write more than 50K in any given month, but it’s not all on one project. If I didn’t write a lot and across a wide variety of projects, I couldn’t pay the bills. And no, I do not churn out quick articles for content mills — they can’t afford me. I write quality pieces, but I do write a lot in any given month. Definitely more than 50K. Adding a 50K novel into that sometimes simply doesn’t make sense (like this year).

Pros:
–Quantity over Quality. Huh? Wasn’t that also one of the Cons? Yup. But this is a first draft, and the point is to get words on paper. If you don’t get them on paper, you don’t have anything to revise. Those who claim they can’t finish anything because they’re perfectionists are lying to us and to themselves. It’s not about perfection, it’s about fear. Nano helps you let go of a lot of fear.

–Learning Your Novel’s Pace. Again, as I stated above, every novel has its own innate rhythm. Some of them aren’t right for Nano. You have to learn to choose a project that has a quick rhythm (which is different from a quickly-paced novel, which sometimes takes longer to write than a slower-paced-to-read novel that can be written more quickly). You learn to suit the project to the parameters, which is useful if you plan to hire out to anthologies or series or package deals or anything else.

–Riding the Energy Wave. Writing in community is often a great spur to creativity. You can tap in to the energy of thousands of other people whose goal is to write. You have built-in brainstorming groups, and you can attend write-ins and meetings if you choose. Just knowing there are a lot of other people out there going through similar experiences is often very helpful in getting you to the page each day.

–No room for Martyrs. No one cares about your excuses for not writing. You either write or you don’t write. The people who are writing are too busy writing to feel sorry for you.

–Learning about Scheduling and Personal Rhythms. Because I always go away for Thanksgiving, I like to front load Nano. If you plan an even writing rhythm every day, you only need to write 1667 words per day, about 7 pages. I commit to writing 2500 words per day, with an eye to hitting the 50K before Thanksgiving, and anything beyond that, is, pardon the pun, gravy. This way, if I have a bad day or something happens, I have words in the bank and don’t need to panic. I also learned that my best and most creative time is early in the morning, after yoga but before doing anything else. That is something I can carry over into my daily writing life, and is one of the ways I’ve applied Nano techniques successfully into my full time writing career. If someone else’s best time is late at night — go for it. There are always a few things you can rearrange in your schedule to leave you an hour or two of writing time when you’re at your best.

-Learning When to Outline and When to Fly. When I’m committed to writing 2500 words first thing every morning, it’s much easier for me to outline. I pull out my outline when I sit at the desk and I know what comes next. I don’t have to stare at a blank page. If, however, during the writing of a scene, I find a tangent, it’s the perfect opportunity to explore it. You’re upping your word count, and, if it doesn’t work, you can cut it later.

–You Learn To Treat Your Writing Time With Respect. You should already be doing this, but far too many people think if they rush around “doing for” others, it will be appreciated and, in return, the aspiring writer will be given the gift of writing time. Not going to happen. You have to set boundaries and make it clear that this is important for you. It’s often easier to do that during Nano because it’s a concentrated period of time and thousands of people around the world are doing it. If you’re with someone who doesn’t support your dreams or sabotages them, you’re with the wrong person, and you better get out now, because that kind of abuse only gets worse over time.

–You Have 50,000 More Words On a Single Project Than You Had a Month Ago. What you do with them is up to you, but you’ve got them!

Go forth and enjoy!

Devon Ellington publishes under a half a dozen names in both fiction and non-fiction. Keep up with her on the blog Ink in My Coffee.

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Germination: Using Submission Calls as Inspiraton

November 5, 2009

Writers are constantly asked from where their ideas come. My response usually is: Everywhere. As a writer, nothing is ever wasted. Nothing you see, hear, taste, touch, observe, smell, or experience is ever wasted. It’s all material. Genuine writers are never bored, because they’re constantly transforming even the most mundane, rote experience into something interesting.

In the past few weeks, I grew aware of another source of inspiration: Calls for submission. I’m going to use a recent experience as an example, with the hope that you can find it useful.

The submission call I found particularly notable was for an anthology. I received it with about a month’s notice to create, revise, polish and submit. The call had been out there for several months, but it only came to my attention with a month of the deadline.

The premise had to do with water; the word count limit was 5000 words.

I’m a Pisces; I’m drawn to water, especially ocean. Writing about water comes fairly naturally. The 5000K word count is easy to hit. Using my first 1K of the day, I should be able to come up with the first draft in five days. Plenty of time to edit and polish.

I puttered and pondered and came up with a character who loved to swim and spend time in the water. She encounters a frightening creature under the ocean on one of her swims, but manages to evade it. When she surfaces, her foster brother tells her they have visitors, and the visitors seem extraordinarily interested in her. So was born “Be The Monster.” I knew where the piece started. I knew a couple of events that it needed to hit on the water, and the place where I wanted to stop the tale for the purposes of the anthology submission. My character was clearly defined in my head. So were the reasons for her being sent to foster care, her retrieval at this moment, her training, and the training she sought out in secret, not realizing it had something to do with her destiny. As I percolated and wrote and wrote, her circumstances came more clearly into focus, as did both her obstacles and her antagonists. Because not all of her obstacles ARE antagonists — some of the obstacles are there to prepare her for The Life-Changing Confrontation I knew an adventure on the way to The Life-Changing Confrontation, where she’d wind up with an unlikely ally in the form of a pirate who winds up having a connection to her Life-Changing Confrontation that neither of them could have suspected. The love and support developed in her foster family create a lot of her strength to face down her antagonist, even though she always felt somewhat like a misfit. It also gave me a chance to explore bonds of created families and bonds of blood families.

That’s a lot to pack into a short story. But that was this particular character’s story.

When I hit 4000 words and she hadn’t even gotten on the boat to encounter the pirate and leave for The Life-Changing Confrontation, AND one of her biggest tests took place on land, I knew I was in trouble.

Here, I was faced with several choices. Choice 1 was to cut out any scene that didn’t fit the parameters of the anthology guidelines and then make sure it was only 5K. It also meant cutting out one of the sections at sea with the pirate. Too much was lost in character and story development, in my opinion. It did not serve the piece’s innate rhythm OR my vision for the overall piece. Choice 2 was to choose an important scene or series of scenes from the bigger piece and rework them as a short story. Had I already written 12-15K, that would have made sense. With only 4K written, and still in the developmental process in tandem with the writing process, it didn’t make sense. Choice 3 was to make notes so I didn’t lose the scenes I envisioned and the ever-growing ensemble of characters that was starting to feel somewhat Shakespearean in scope (hey, if you’re going to have a mentor, it may as well be the best), put it aside and try another story. Now that I’d written my way a bit into “Be the Monster”, I could also see that I needed to do some world-building in tandem with the writing. That takes time, and can’t necessarily be stuffed into the deadline period.

I chose #3.

I put aside “Be the Monster” and wondered what else I could write. As I thought about the future of “Be the Monster”, I also started making a mental list of submission possibilities, one if it wound up as a novella, one if it wound up as a novel. But what to write now? Something involving Capt. Kit Erskine and the crew of my popular Merry’s Dalliance seemed to make sense — pirates in a fantasy world could encounter any kind of threat at sea. I started spinning ideas.

I’d driven past a lake surrounded by beautiful trees turning gorgeous colors in the autumn, with a rather lovely, spooky mist rising from it. A day or two later, I overheard a pre-teen trying to talk his aunt into chaperoning a school camping trip. We’re also in the season of ghost stories, and doesn’t one always tell ghost stories on a camping trip?

The anthology guidelines stated it could take place on a lake. It just had to be scary and have the lake as an important part of the piece.

“Lake Justice” was born. Aunt turned into godmother, the kids were a special class of gifted teenagers, no one was exactly who they seemed, toss in a serial killer. bunch of ghosts, and some humor and we’re good to go. It went along swimmingly, no pun intended.

And then I hit 4K, and, once again, realized I had too much story to fit into the 5K word count. Again, cutting did not serve the story.

That’s frustrating for me, because I LOVE to cut material. The Red Machete is my best friend.

I was still spinning the Kit Erskine story, but it seemed overly complicated. I had hoped to submit the Kit Erskine story AND a second story to the anthology. But now, I knew “Lake Justice” wasn’t going to be it. However, I found another potential market for “Lake Justice” whose deadline was the same as the anthology, AND about a half a dozen other potential markets for it. So work on “Lake Justice” continued.

At this point, I had less than a week to finish, revise, polish and submit “Lake Justice” AND draft, revise, polish and submit the Kit Erskine story, which I had yet to start. Add to that the fact we’re in one of my busiest times of the year, with Samhain coming up and I was going to be out of town for two of the five days before the deadline. AND had two grant proposals due on the same day as the story deadlines.

What’s also interesting is that “The Merry’s Dalliance” – the original story featuring Kit and her pirate crew — was inspired by an anthology call. However, the more I read material by that publisher, the more it struck me they published comic book-style fiction for boys (no matter their chronological ages) who were intimidated by strong and intelligent women. There was no way in hell that this group would accept, much less publish a story with a strong female protagonist unless she wound up raped and/or dead. I crossed them off my list and, instead, submitted the tale to NEW MYTHS, who loved it and published it. Yet another example of the submission call being the catalyst to the story.

I suddenly had an epiphany for the Kit Erskine story, a way to simplify it and maybe bring it in well UNDER the 5K word count (Okay, so after cuts, editing, and refashioning, it came in at 4999 — but it was still under 5K). I thought up a great title for it in the shower, but didn’t write it down immediately and forgot it by the time I was dressed. I should have kept repeating it to myself, and didn’t.

I managed to complete, polish, and send out the Kit Erskine story to the anthology – while still knowing, if they did not accept it, I had at least a half a dozen places that would be interested. I even managed to get it in the day before the deadline.

So I turned my attention back to “Lake Justice.” And then realized I had spent the last 1500 words or so writing myself and my characters into a corner that, had I continued in that direction, just made them look stupid. I had no idea what to do, and was hours from deadline.

I took a shower, and the solution came to mind. I jumped out of the shower, dried off (so I wouldn’t drip onto the computer), made the cut and the change. I finished the story, did a quick edit, and got it out only 40 minutes under deadline.

Not the way I prefer to work. I like to let pieces sit for a few days before I edit them. Or a few months, if it’s novel-length.

But it’s important to meet deadlines. That’s part of the job. Sometimes, you won’t produce your best work in time for a deadline. It will come back, you will revise, and it will either be accepted upon revision at the original house, or you’ll find a better home for it.

But you still have a piece of writing that’s out in the world, finding its place. Which, if you missed the deadline and let it sit partially-cooked, you wouldn’t.

If you have the urge to write, but don’t know WHAT to write, take a look at the calls for various anthologies. See if something sparks your imagination. Even if it winds up in a publication different from the anthology, that submission call will have been your catalyst. Hunt down these calls — they’re listed on legitimate posting sites such as FUNDS FOR WRITERS and WRITERS’ WEEKLY. Anthology calls are also listed on publishers’ sites under “guidelines.” In other words, if you’ve read an anthology by a particular house, you like it and think, “I could do that”, check their site every few weeks. When a call comes out — answer.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, a friend sent me a call for a steampunk anthology and these characters started talking . . .

–Devon Ellington publishes under a half a dozen names in both fiction and nonfiction. Visit her blog, Ink in My Coffee, and her website. She also writes “The Literary Athlete” column for THE SCRUFFY DOG REVIEW.

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Reading To Write

October 20, 2009

There’s no way around it. If you want to be a successful author, the best way to apprentice yourself is to write every day, without excuses and to read everything you can get your hands on, in as many genres as possible.

In order to land a contract, you need to bother to learn the craft of building a story, grammar, spelling, punctuation. You also needs to learn what works in telling a story, and learn how to apply it to the stories you want to tell.

The best way to do that is to read, read, read, read. Read in genres that you usually don’t, because you’ll start spotting universal craft principles that apply across the board.

What moves you as a reader? What distances you from the character and the story? What creates physical sensations as you read, good or bad?

You can learn just as much, or even more, from a book you don’t like as you can from one you love. Also, re-reading old favorites is useful, because a timeless book will teach you something new every time you read it.

Be careful what you read as you write. For instance, I’m currently working on fantasy and paranormal pieces. I’m reading biography and mystery. When, in a few weeks, some mysteries need my attention, I will switch to something else. That way, no one else’s style in the same genre leaks into my work, and I can stay true to my own voice.

You don’t have to set apart your “writing reading” from” pleasure reading” if you approach your pleasure reading with a heightened awareness. Be more sensitive to all the elements of the story. When you surface after losing yourself in a section of the story, think about WHY you were so immersed. What specific elements made you feel a part of the story instead of a voyeur? For me, the best books make me feel like I’m living the story, not standing outside of it, watching. Ask yourself how the author managed to do it, and, without imitating content, how can you apply those techniques to your own story, in your own voice?

Francine Prose wrote a wonderful book called Reading Like a Writer, where she breaks down different aspects of writing such as character, dialogue, narration, and even gesture, and how they are integrated into good writing. Although she offers an impressive reading list, the same ideas can be used on almost anything you read. Not every book will live up to these ideas, and that’s as interesting as the ones that do.

People who say they “don’t have time” to read often also struggle to “have time” to write, and then wonder why they can’t get published. First of all, there will never “be” time to either read or write; you have to “make” time, “steal time”, demand time. Second, you need to apprentice yourself to learn the craft of anything you want to do, whether it’s woodworking or brain surgery or writing. Third, too many people feel that “Art” is the opposite of “craft”, when in reality, successful art seamlessly melds with craft.

Devon Ellington publishes under a half a dozen names in both fiction and non-fiction. She writes “The Literary Athlete” column for The Scruffy Dog Review. Visit her blog, Ink in My Coffee.

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Don’t Assume You Know My Contract

July 30, 2009

Don’t Assume You Know My Contract
by Devon Ellington

Because I speak (and write) out about the right for writers to be paid a fair fee for their work, and about the responsibility of those who call themselves professionals not to hurt everyone in the field by working for content mill sites who pay crap, publish crap, and make lots of money off YOUR work, I get a lot of nasty emails.

Some of those people challenge me based on my resume. “Well, you wrote for so-and-so, and THEY don’t pay.”

As usual, they’re not listening and they’re not gathering facts. You’d think they were pundits and politicians.

First of all, my resume and/or CV contain things I’ve done over the course of many years. I got paid less when I was starting out because I was paying my dues, because a dollar was worth more then, and because I didn’t value my work the way I do now. I didn’t have the skills I do now, either.

I still didn’t work for a mill content site. Even starting out, I had more respect for myself than that.

There’s also a huge difference between doing a freebie for a really good literary magazine or taking on a legitimate pro bono client, such as a non-profit about which you’re passionate. The difference is that you have a good clip that shows your skills placed in publication or written for an organization that is respected, not something that changes its name every fortnight, churns out content, asks you to “rewrite” the same content over and over — and continues to profit from your work without paying you fairly for it.

Also, just because the guidelines say that they don’t pay contributors — it doesn’t mean they don’t pay contributors. If they’ve never heard of you and you pitch over the transom, no, they won’t pay you. If they’ve heard of you and want you badly enough and THEY approach YOU — you can negotiate.

No matter what kind of contract crosses your desk — you can always negotiate. You don’t have to sign the first draft of whatever you’re offered. Decide what you’ll ask for and how far you’re willing to negotiate back BEFORE they send you any paperwork. Also know the point at which you’re ready to walk away from a project, and don’t be afraid so to do.

Several times, I’ve turned down potential clients who tried to haggle my rates down, only to have them come back to me, admitting they made a mistake by going with someone cheaper who couldn’t deliver the goods. I get my rate and more the next time around.

And if you CHOOSE to do a freebie –whether it’s because the editor is a friend, or you really want to break into the publication no matter what or for a reason that’s nobody else’s damned business — do it. You don’t have to justify it to anyone.

Freelancers advise each other on the generalities of the payment scale to help each other get the best rate possible, or to figure out what a fair rate is, or to figure out market rate for their particular region if they’re working with local businesses (I have a wide base of international clients. I don’t adjust based on geography, and don’t have a problem with people trying to change my rate based on where they live). But the actual details of your contract — that’s between you and the client or the publisher or the agent. No one else needs to know them, except, maybe, the IRS. I’m not going to assume I know the details of your contract. Don’t assume you know the details of mine.

–Devon Ellington publishes under a half a dozen names in both fiction and non-fiction. She writes “The Literary Athlete Column” for THE SCRUFFY DOG REVIEW. Her main blog is Ink in My Coffee, and her website is www.devonellingtonwork.com.