It's the end of the world as we know it

In the face of economic crisis, war, and swine flu (not to mention a thousand other horrible things), life can get pretty depressing. 2009 is kind of a bleak year, don't you think?  I personally know three people who've lost their jobs.  And another two who are very, very sick.  Our house isn't even worth what we bought it for eight months ago.  It's hard not to get down about it.  Some days the only way I can cope is by burying my head in the sand for a while – not because it solves anything, but because it's necessary to decompress.

My version of the sandbox is a good book.  Steve's is a good movie.  Both provide a good way to escape a crappy day.

I'm a writer, so clearly I'm biased, but I think books beat movies any day of the week. Because books allow me to invest a piece of myself.  I can put any face I want to the characters.  I can choose the way their voices sound in my head.  I can put together my own soundtrack depending on the mood I'm in.

It's rare that I'll ever see a movie based on a book I've read and think the movie was better.  (Except maybe for Interview with a Vampire.  And the Shawshank Redemption, which was originally a short story.)

There are books I'll read over and over again because I get something different from them every time.  Stephen King's IT, for instance.  (This is blog post #9 – are you getting that I'm huge Stephen King fan yet?).  I read that book every other year without fail, and I started when I was twelve.  Each time it's different.  When I was kid, I completely related to the kids in the book (who are eleven years old).  I understood their fears, their friendships, their wants.  Then they grew up – as did I – and now I relate to the story on a completely new level.

I've read Pet Sematary a dozen times, too.   Same with Misery.  What can I say, they're my comfort books.  Why?  Maybe because no matter how shitty a day I'm having, something worse always happens to one of King's characters.  Nobody tortures their characters more than King does.... and what can I say, it's comforting.

Because as bad as the economic crisis is, wouldn't it be worse if a psycho nurse kidnapped you and chopped off your foot merely for acting like a cockadoodie brat?  If your beloved pet got run over by a truck... then came back from the dead EVIL?  If a photo of clown came to life and tried to kill you?

Nothing cheers me up like a good horror novel.

So tell me, what are YOUR comfort books?

Pieces of you

Disclaimer, as printed in the novel I just read:

This is a work of fiction. All of the characters portrayed in this novel are the product of the author's imagination and any similarities are coincidental.

Liar liar pants on fire!

Come on now.  As a writer there's NO WAY that parts of my characters aren't borrowed – or at the very least inspired – from people I know in real life.  My girlfriend thinks she resembles someone from my current book.  Um, maybe.  Okay, sorta.  All right, yeah, but only certain parts.  I swear.  Please don't sue me.

Yes, I "borrow".  For example, I eavesdrop on people's conversations all the time.  I remember just about everything anyone's ever told me, right down to the way their face looked when they said it.  Because the things people actually say in real life make the best book dialogue.  Consider the following:

Overheard at Wal-Mart:
"One of my boobs hangs lower than the other, but Carl doesn't mind so long as I keep my bra on."

Overheard at Starbucks:
"Who do you think would win in a fight between a midget and a retard?"

Overheard through a thin bedroom wall when I was an overnight guest in someone's house:
Man: "You stink."
Woman: "Where?  Down there?"
Man: "Yeah.  There too."

I could make this stuff up, but frankly, I don't need to.  I can rip it from real life.  All or one of these lines may end up in a book someday.  So yeah, if you say something to me, it could be used as material.  Just a heads up.

I'm not saying all my characters are reincarnations of friends and family.  They're not.  I just work in bits and pieces to help keep things authentic.  In my as-yet-unfinished third novel, the main character is a sales rep (thanks, Steve) who's afraid to commit (thanks, guys I've dated before Steve) to his lovely hard-working Financial Aid officer girlfriend (thanks, people I worked with at the University of Waterloo).

I also take bits of myself, too.  Like marital arguments (those are always good), or the funny things that happen during sex (those are even better).  I'll never tell you what came from where, but if you read something I wrote and can relate to it on any level, then I'd say it was worth the theft.

I am Victor Frankenstein and I'd like to introduce you to my monsters.

Please don't sue us.  Seriously.  We mean no harm.

Wipeout

I just realized I've been writing every day for fourteen days straight, for about five hours a day.  And I had bronchitis for thirteen of those days.  Is there something the matter with me?

Oh wait, I know.  It doesn't feel like work.

It doesn't pay like work, either.   :)

I'm normally quite proud of my stamina, but I think I'm burned out tonight.  Finally.  I didn't figure this out until a full hour had passed and I realized I'd only changed two words in a paragraph that needs a complete overhaul.

So I'm going to watch Dexter until I fall asleep, and live to write another day.

And try to convince myself that it's okay to take a day off.

(Insert guilt here.)

A little less conversation

The first draft of my current novel clocks in at 135,105 words.  Anyone who's written a novel knows exactly what this means just by looking at this number, but to give my non-writer pals some perspective, this translates to 468 pages using double-spaced Times New Roman 12-point font.  Almost one full ream of paper.

I'm told this is too long for a debut novel.  But hey, no worries.  To quote Hemingway: The first draft of anything is shit.

So I've been cutting.

I got the second draft down to 120,860 words (or 413 pages).  It wasn't nearly as hard as I thought it would be.   All the cuts I made were big picture stuff.  I eliminated a small sub-plot that went nowhere.  Removed a character who added nothing to the story.  Deleted backstory (background info) that no reader would care about.

I gleefully killed my darlings.  Some writers mourn this loss.  I think it's freakin' awesome.

I'm now ten chapters into the third draft, and so far I've cut another 2,500 words.  Small picture stuff this time.  Conversations that droned on too long.  Excessive adverbs.  Lengthy, boring descriptions.  And you know what?  Woo hoo!  Cutting is FUN!  It's addictive!  What else can I cut?  Bring me the scissors!

When all is said and done, I'd like to end up close to 100,000 words.  That should put me smack in the middle of the 'sweet spot' for a first novel.  And yes, I'm aiming for this.   I'm constantly checking the bottom left side of my computer screen for the updated word count.  The smaller that number gets, the better I feel.   It's actually kind of cathartic... that is, until I'm forced to cut something I actually care about to hit my goal.

So I can't help but wonder.  Is it not ridiculous to be so focused on word count? Isn't it the story that matters?  As a reader, I love a big, fat, juicy novel that can double as a doorstop.  And I'm an artist, dammit.  The story should have as many words as it needs – no more, no less.  Right?

Wrong.

I can be as artistic as I want, but ultimately, publishing is a business and it costs money to print books.  The longer the book is, the more money it costs to produce.  It's a huge risk for the publisher to print a doorstop that might not sell through.  Unless your name is Stephen King.  Or J.K. Rowling.  Or Stephenie Meyer.

For an unknown like me, word count matters.  There's no room in my fledgling career for artistic ego.

Snip snip.

Fake plastic trees

What's a nice girl like you doing write crap like that?

You don't say it, but I know some of you are thinking it.

You're probably thinking:   If you're going to spend all that time writing and writing and writing, why not at least TRY and write something meaningful?  Thought-provoking? Something that might win awards and be studied in school?  What's with the pulp fiction?

The answer is, I don't know.

I don't know why I write what I write.   I get a seed of an idea.  I start writing.   Sometimes it grows into something, sometimes it doesn't.  Sometimes it grows branches, sprouts buds.  Sometimes it dries up halfway and dies.

All I know is you can't force what comes out.   If you force it, it's fake.

I love dancing to Lady Gaga.  I love watching Criminal Minds.  And I love my commercially-driven fiction.

With a little help from my friends

I got inspiration for another post after making a comment to my Aunt Peggy.

Writer needs editors.  But do writers need workshops?  And if so, how much workshopping is too much?

I've taken two writing workshops so far, one that focused on short stories and one that focused on novels.  Altogether, thirty-two writers have read my stuff, at various stages of completion.

Critiques widely differ.  The purpose of a workshop is to keep poking at a piece to find its weaknesses, and poke we did.  Everyone discussed everyone's work.  We questioned each other's character motivation, plot structure, prose.  We gleefully pointed out clichés and called each other out on being lazy writers when too many were used.  We obsessed over dialogue tags (said Jimmy? or Jimmy said?) and whether a piece worked better in first person or third.  Past tense or present.  When to show and when to tell.

There was one lady in my class, let's call her Andrea, who wrote an ambitious piece.  It was an historical action/adventure love story (how's that for genre blending?).  Her first draft was a helluva fun read, but pretty raw, and we jumped all over it like sharks who smelled blood in the water.   It got ripped apart.

She resubmitted the same piece when her turn came around again a few weeks later.  Andrea had taken our feedback to heart and the second draft was much cleaner.  Tighter.  But there were still imperfections, and so we picked and picked and picked.

Her third draft was perfect. Hardly any of us could find flaws.  Compliments abounded – Andrea had finally succeeded!  She'd proved she was good at taking direction, that she was hard-working, humble, devoid of ego.  In other words, the perfect workshop participant.

But that final draft?  It was... bland.  Generic.  It made everybody happy, sure, but it was missing the edge and rawness that had made it so much fun to read in the first place.  It totally.  Lacked.  Style.

It was the work of 16 people, not Andrea.  I can't imagine she'll ever get it published.  It reads like a college essay.  (Okay, I exaggerate, but you get the idea.)

In hindsight, she shouldn't have listened to us.   She should have told us to take a flying leap off a tall bridge.  (Ha!  Cliché!)  Because in the end, we didn't do her any favors.  We took away her voice.

And a writer with no voice is not a writer.

Andrea should have waited till her piece was closer to completion, and then asked us for feedback.  Only she knew what her intentions were for the story, and by then, she would have known what advice to take and what to throw away.

Editors, yes.

But workshops?  They're like a pool with no lifeguard.  Swim at your own risk.

The sound of silence

I have to bring my A-game for revisions.  Every time.  Every chapter.  Every sentence. There's no dropping the ball in the third draft.  I've had my fun writing organically (first draft), I've searched for plot holes and inconsistencies in character and pacing (second draft), and now it's all about the damned words.  The words have to be perfect. And for that, I have to concentrate.   I can't be distracted.  I can't listen to music.  I can't have the TV on in the other room just so it doesn't feel like I'm alone in the house.  Because when the TV is on, this is what I write:

"I'm kidding," Ethan said, his eyes showing a hint of amusement.  "Joke, Sheila.  I wouldn't come even if I was invited. Isn't there a hard and fast rule about going to weddings of people you used to fuck?"

She winced at the word.   She had no problem with cursing, but here, in this moment, it sounded unreasonably harsh.

"It's better that it's over anyway."  Ethan ran a hand through his short, mussed hair.  "You should have gone to Freeeeeee Credit!  Report!  Dot!  Com!  I should have seen it coming at me like an atom bomb!"

Stephen King just wrote a great article about earworms in Entertainment Weekly.  (Which I unfortunately read this morning, before I started working.  Thanks for the worm, dude.)   I almost always have one in my head and can usually write regardless, but I can't get away with it now.  Not for a third draft.  I need dead silence, in my house and in my head.

I'm six chapters in.  I have forty-six more to go.  And I'm already exhausted from having to stay so bloody focused.

They monitor your credit and send you email alerts!
So you don't end up selling fish to tourists in t-shirts!

Shut up shut up shut up shut up.

CREEP

Dr. Sheila Tao is one of Seattle's most popular psychology professors.  She's also a closet sex addict.  And when she wakes up chained in the basement of a killer's house, she knows she's hit rock bottom.

When her three-month affair with her teaching assistant ends, Sheila vows to get her life back on track.  She recommits to her twelve-step Sex Addicts Anonymous program.  She says yes when her investment banker boyfriend proposes. She makes wedding plans.

But Ethan Wolfe can't move forward so easily.  He didn't pursue his professor for as long as he did to get dumped for some balding, middle-aged suit.  That's not according to plan, and Ethan doesn't take rejection well.

Most serial killers don't.

Kidnapped by Ethan a week before her wedding, Sheila reels from the revelation that her student and former lover is actually the monster responsible for the murders of several women in the Seattle area.  And now Sheila's own days are numbered, if Ethan's state-of-the-art kill room is any indication.

With her arms and legs bound, Sheila fights back with the only weapon she has: her mind. Using everything she's ever learned as a psychologist, she must peel back the layers of Ethan's façade to find out who he really is – and what drives him – if she hopes to survive long enough for someone to find her.

There's just one glitch:  nobody's looking.  Because nobody thinks she's missing.

Here we go.

So I read somewhere that it's important for every new writer to have a web presence – either a website or a blog – so that potential agents, if they like your query, can just click to find out all about you.   I don't know how comfortable I am with this.  I'm already on Facebook.  If you Google me, you'll find me, thanks to Facebook.  How accessible am I supposed to be?  Will my cute-as-a-button face and weekly rants about how hard it is to write a novel really help me get published?

Um, okay.  If there's an ant's fart chance in hell it will, then yeah, baby.  Bring on the Photoshop and the soapbox!

A good blog is supposed to have a clear topic and a distinctive voice.  Yes, I do read blogs from time to time.  Perez Hilton's is one (shut up, you read it, too).  Nathan Bransford's is another.  Sometimes I come across someone's blog that reads like a diary, filled with posts where the blogger writes about every ordinary thought he had that day.  Yeah, spare me.  Seriously, who cares?  Do I care that you slept in late and are having a bad hair day?  That your cat barfed on your favorite shoes?  Unless you're writing a blog about cats, stay on topic, people!  Save the mundane for Twitter.

Not that I have anything against Twitter.

So this blog will be about my journey as a writer and the long road to publication.  In the cockles of my heart, I believe someday I'll see my work in print.  I've written two novels and started a third.  I don't know whether it will happen with any of these books (certainly not with my first, which I've officially dubbed The Worst Novel Ever Written By An Adult Who Speaks English), but someday, if I work long and hard enough, I believe it will happen. I have to.

10 books or 10 years.

If I write ten books and never get published, I'm pretty fucking sure I'll be half-dead from the rejections and emotionally incapable of trying for an eleventh.  And if I hit the age of 44 with no publication credits to my name, I'm pretty sure Steve will want me to apply at McDonald's so I can pay him back for supporting my ass for an entire decade.

I've called this blog Chasing Publication.  To remind me that it's really about the journey.  Because I love writing novels.  I love making shit up.  I wouldn't do it if I didn't love it. Publication is the destination, but there are no guarantees.  I'd rather enjoy the ride.

Here we go.