Saturday, February 27, 2010

How Serious Are You?

In a recent conversation, the issue of persistence came up, though it was being applied to a topic totally unrelated to writing. As I thought about the word and its implications, I made an interesting connection to my efforts at self-improvement in several areas (including writing, photography, and pursuit of joyous adventure).

It seems clear to me that the measure of your persistence in the pursuit of a given goal is a really solid way of asking the question “How serious are you?”

As I sat down to begin my current novel--and when I reassess my progress at various stages throughout--my overriding goal was and remains to produce a completed novel that makes me happy within a given timeframe.

My dream is, of course, much bigger than that. Publication, best-sellerdom, financial independence, and an an active fan club come to mind. But my goals--the things I can fully command--only extend to the writing of a book that makes me happy and doing everything in my power to put it in front of someone who will likely publish it.

The extension of that goal is to, with hard-nosed determination, make any changes indicated by the responses I get from the publishing world when I begin my pursuit of an agent and publisher.

The easy distillation of these goals is to say I’m looking to prove my willingness to persist.

Throughout my younger life, I rarely proved either a willingness or an ability to persist. That failure cost me dearly. I didn’t fail in this regard due to laziness. Instead, I failed because of a fundamental lack of confidence.

At a certain point, I came to realize that, on the rare occasion that I did demonstrate something approaching a hard-nosed persistence, the world didn’t often refuse me. But in the far-too-common case in which I showed too little persistence, the world was happy to thumb its nose at me.

I hadn’t in the end proven myself to be serious, so why should the world bother to reward me?

But I'm a different person now, a different man. And I have learned the lessons I wish I'd learned long ago. I am very serious, and I will persist.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Rewriting and Snow Play

I'm on a brief hiatus from blogging and should be back to my regular ramblings by 2/26.

I will be exercising the red pen on the novel and hurling snowballs, though not sure what the balance of those two activities will be.

With any luck, and a tiny bit of discipline, I should have a few nice photos to show, too.

Come back soon.

The Weaver

One of the more interesting parts of the rewrite of my novel as I near the end is the work required to make the story feel like it's of a piece, to make it feel like the purpose that guided it had a coherence from the beginning.

What I've just said is way too vague to be useful, I'm sure.

What I mean is that, for a story to feel crafted, for a reader to feel like she's in the hands of a storyteller with a clue, a story needs many threads, some big and some small, that wind back on themselves, that interleave with each other. Items, even small items, that presented themselves in one scene come back to be given more meaning later.

A couple examples will likely clarify. In my book, a pair of mallards shows up early on. I pay enough attention to them in one scene that I have, in effect, made a promise to the reader that these ducks matter. So I must come back to them. Must give them their own story that flows through the main plot in some coherent way.

As a second example, the star character in my book proves to have a talent for drawing and painting. I cannot have this skill appear from nowhere the first time it proves useful to the plot. Instead, I have to back up in the story and lay the seeds.

The exercise of weaving both of these plot threads through the novel is fun and challenging. It's easy to break plot while injecting new stuff, and it's frightfully easy to have the new material stand out like a badly-done room addition to a house, with a great thunking lump on the threshold.*

One other risk is that of having the new threads show up too aggressively. They are supposed to be invisible. You aren't supposed, as a reader, to discern the coherence they give a story. It's all meant to be magic.

If readers are ooh-ing and ah-ing (or boo-ing and bah!-ing) at the vibrance of one particular thread of the story, I've blown it.

*I know I'm mixing metaphors here--house-builders aren't weavers, after all, and neither are farmers (and as you continue the paragraph, it only gets worse!)--but I'm gonna run with it.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Next Phase

I'm still busy writing new material and re-writing old on the novel. I am, in fact, still waiting on feedback from several reviewers of the first eighty pages.

But I decided a couple days ago to begin the process of hunting for an appropriate agent. So yesterday I spent a couple hours at the library, poring over The Literary Marketplace, which--I believe--is the definitive listing for agents, publishers, book printers, and the like. It provides not only names and addresses, but gives you vital information about their requirements, the kinds of books they represent, and whether they charge a reading fee (which, in my book, disqualifies them immediately).

After having gone through perhaps half the listings, I came away with 18 names of potential candidates. I had landed on 15 as a good starting place for a first round of query letters, but may cut that back to 10 on the first pass.

Now, interleaved with the work on the novel, I'll begin work on a query letter. I've promised myself I won't send it out until I'm thoroughly happy with the book, but I plan to take my time with it, to work it over 'til it shines.

Putting postage to those envelopes (or pressing Send for the electronic types), will be a huge moment, indeed.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Rose In Window

A Different Set of Challenges

I've started to get feedback on the opening of my book (with about half of the precincts reporting).

Of course, what a part of any writer really wants at this stage is for everyone to tell you they plan to sing the praises of your book to the heavens, and for one of them to mention in a hushed hallway conversation that their first phone call will be to their twin sister, who heads up McMillan Publishing.

But the smart, feet-on-the-ground part of you wants real, hard criticism. And beyond that, you hope for consistency--in the good and the bad--of response. This simplifies your direction as a writer. It may not make the correction easy, but it does define one aspect of the path clearly.

The early responses to the opening my book have been consistent in one area ("Richard's a jerk and I don't want to read about him") and inconsistent in another (the main character's personal injury, and her timidity, bother some people but not others).

I can fix Richard's malfunction. And I know, based on readers' consistent response to him, that I should. It's not their responses alone that convince me. My decision would be far more challenging if I disagreed strongly with what they were saying.

But the jury's still out on how to handle the main character. For now, I wait out the rest of the outstanding readers and see if they bring any consistency to the story. For now, I try not to overreact, not to do unnecessary surgery. For now, I hold my breath and sit on my typing hands.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Real Progess

Just hit the 50,000 word mark (even after deleting several scenes) in the current novel. The final word count will wind up somewhere around 57,000.

Through some very difficult personal times, I've managed to plod along. I'm proud of my continued, if too-slow, progress, and I'm excited to type 'The End' on a novel that makes me proud. I'm not quite there yet; there are some reads and rewrites to come. But I can see 'The End' from here.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

### ICK!!! ###

When I'm making notes to myself in a draft of any piece of writing, I've taken to using three hash marks front and back to make it stand out.

After one particularly pungent, overwritten phrase in my novel, I wrote
'### ICK!!! ###' and simply moved on.

I find that the more willing I am to do that, to note my dissatisfaction and then charge on with the work, the more work I get done.

'Well, duh!' you might say. But the story's a little more complicated than that. It's not simply that I write more words, but that, in the end, I write better words, too.

This gets back to the point I've made in a couple other posts that it's necessary, if I want to actually get something done, to allow myself to write utter crap. The more freedom I give myself to do that, the more I write and the more good stuff I write.

This works from two angles. The first centers on the fact that you can come back and rewrite (and you will be re-writing, no matter how brilliant the first pass feels to you). The second is that fact that, as a writer freed from his overbearing internal editor, I give myself a chance to write more freely, a chance to have better stuff come out the first time.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Not Even a Goodbye

I just found out yesterday that a very good friend of mine, Marilyn D'Andrea, died unexpectedly recently. She was a lover of writers and writing, books and reading.

Over the years, she'd been a valuable friend when I was most in need. We met in a writing class, transitioned to a critique group, and through years of further transitions stayed loosely in touch.

Just last year, she said the most generous things to me that anyone's ever said. And she sent me a novel, Blindspot, in a smiling Amazon package. It was the last of many meaningful gifts over the years. I haven't read it yet and am actually glad of the fact. For as long as it takes me to read that novel, she will, in a sense, still be here.

In the wake of official discovery yesterday, I went to Starbucks and wrote. The words came easily and, not surprisingly, carried real emotion. My novel was a project that already carried some urgency for me, but my friend's death has turned that urgency into a different, more insistent drive.

One of the last things she said to me, after being impressed by one my recent short stories, was, "I pray to God you're working on a novel."

Marilyn's death is just another reminder (sad that we still seem to need reminders) that not one of us knows which of the days of the calendar will be our last. And the big question hanging in the air is, Will I make the most of all the days between now and then? Will I deliver on the promise this magnificent gift of days that I've been given?

All I can say is, I will try.

Goodbye, Marilyn. It came and went much too fast.

Friday, February 05, 2010

My Latest Short Story Effort

I recently entered the short story contest at Reading Writers (results here). The prompt was "Snow" with a line drawing of a cabin with a snowman in the foreground. The word count limit was 500.

I had relatively high hopes for my story but didn't win or even get an honorable mention.

This is my favorite contest for multiple reasons. It's the first I ever entered, the first I ever placed in (an honorable mention), and the first I ever won. Even better, the judging typically makes sense to me. I'm not generally confused too terribly by the results.

Check out the winner and perhaps consider giving the next iteration of this long-running contest a try.

And see my entry below.


A Withering Cold
by Trevor Hambric

I’ll soon be a snowman.

I didn’t expect it to end quite this way. Snow in September, me sitting under a pine tree, miserably shivering. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned in the last three months, it’s that life has infinite capacity for painful surprises.

Was it really only June that Lori found guilt and said goodbye? It seems so much longer. So many waves of pain since.

I have a nine-year-old son and wife at home. I’ve come to these mountains so they won’t be the ones to find me. My son, particularly, I want to protect from my weakness. The years ahead, alone with his mom, will be hard enough.

My suffering isn’t for Lori, exactly. It is for our relationship, for what she and I were together, what it said about the world’s offerings.

Who could guess, as I sit here, minutes from eternity, that I was at my happiest only four months ago? That life had started to blossom as the world opened up and began to make sense.

One day, I heard ‘I love you’ in the throes of lovemaking three times in as many breaths.

Two days later, when Lori found guilt, we were done.

I tried not to be broken by her pronouncement. Tried to stand up like nothing had happened.
But for the first time in my life, real trying proved worthless.

Now, having failed my calling to strength, I watch my tears fall to the snow, watch them darken a small circular patch in front of me. It’s an impressive flow, more tears than I cried in the twenty years before I met this woman.

I waited this long to say goodbye to the world--stood up and pretended recovery--to give me time to prepare the way for my son, time to know that I had--financially, at least--stood strong for him.

But it occurs to me now, as I feel my numbed body begin to sag, that my son will soon hear that I am dead. That his life will be broken in a very specific way. I see his face turn, tears welling.

It’s not an image I’ve allowed myself to conjure so directly until now. In all the time leading up to me stepping into the snow with a bottle of pills, I simply thought, He will suffer. But I never allowed myself to see his face.

I realize that I’ve dropped the now-empty pill bottle somewhere nearby.

It matters, I suppose, because I’m deciding, as the cold blossoms in me, that I have to get up and go back inside. Have to dispose of that bottle somehow.

My son needs me. He needs his father.

I attempt to prop myself up on one arm, attempt to lift myself from the crippling cold.

But it’s too late. Standing is impossible.

In the end--I now know--I’m an ill-formed snowman. And my days of standing are done.


Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Santa Ana River

Addendum to Time For Feedback

I forgot to mention that I think it best to save the reading of your story to some kind of MP3 player and go listen to it somewhere away from your computer, somewhere that you can sit, uninterrupted, and pay serious attention to the read alone.

Time for Feedback

I'm at a stage in the novel I'm working on that I want to hear feedback from a handful of readers.

But first, before I embarrass myself, I need to read and hear it for myself.

Occasionally, in the past, I've recorded my own reading of a short story. But, for now, I won't take the time to read 15,000 words aloud. Instead, I just took the first 75 pages of the novel and, using Automator on the Mac, had the machine record a reading.

Hearing your own writing read to you like this is immensely helpful. Make no mistake, even with modern technology, standard computers with off-the-shelf software do not read well. They do, however, do a good enough job to get some sense of rhythm and a very good sense of things like unintended repeated words.

Within the first few minutes of listening, I made note of half-a-dozen spots that needed something for rhythm. And this is true after having read the first couple chapters countless times during the early editing process.

Hearing it aloud is just plain different.

It's been a while since I did any of this kind of work with a Windows machine. But I know they are as capable (perhaps with a little bit more inconvenience) of reading/recording your material for you.

Give it a try and see if it doesn't help you spot problems in your writing that you would otherwise miss.