Tuesday, November 24, 2009

WRT: Your Publishing Horizon - Hey, isn't that it right there?

I see so many beginning writers making the same mistake: holding totally unrealistic expectations regarding their journey to publication. The problem is not one of misinformation -- that would imply the writer has bothered to imform herself beforehand. No, it seems more an issue of mass disillusionment, and it's shared by anyone who hasn't traveled some fair distance down that road. For example, friends and family who ask me how long I've been writing fiction for publication (7 years off and on; 2.5 years nearly full time; all stemming from a lifelong fascination with the art) always seem so surprised to hear it's taken so long. I realize it's the same naivete I once held, thinking my first children's picture book text would be available for the Christmas rush the year I finished it.

That was six years ago. Who knew there wasn't a market for flatulent frogs?

A published friend of mine once remarked to me that oftentimes a rookie writer can't see the horizon they're working toward because of all the dips and hills they must traverse to get to it. They mistake the first crest for the finish line.

I disagree. While I see his point, I don't think most beginning writers even know about the hills and valleys. That's because we often forget to map out the trip in any meaningful way. Or, if we do, we're in denial about those obstacles. We fool ourselves into thinking we'll somehow be lucky enough to find a way around them. But you might as well wish upon a star. There are no shortcuts or secret backroads to hasten the journey for beginner writers.

Let me repeat that: There are no shortcuts or secret backroads to hasten the journey for beginner writers.

What is the source of this disillusionment?

It's complicated:

First, it doesn't help that writer's mags and other sources recount the exceptional stories of successful first-time authors whose journeys were short, sweet, and swift. It doesn't help to be reminded of Chris Paolini's story. Or others like him. But part of the blame is our own, stemming from our own self-deception. We've all heard about how J. K. Rowling struggled, but we choose to forget that. We only remember her success. At times like these, it helps to remember one definition for "exceptional" is rare.

It's also easy to forget the difficulty of the journey whenever we're taken in by the siren song of a well-written book. Invisible to us are the years of toil, the revisions and re-revisions, the queries and rejections. And rejections. And rejections. Back to revisions. And how many times does this cycle have to repeat itself, dammit?

In the coming weeks, I'll be talking in more detail about the publishing jouney, about mapping it out fully in the beginning writer's mind, about having realistic expectations for where your horizon is. Why? Because there's nothing worse than seeing a writer lose hope. I've been there. It's not a nice place to be. But it can be much more easily avoided with a little realistic mental preparation.

Writing is a solitary endeavor, but the writer's journey doesn't have to be.

In the meantime, happy roadtripping.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Starbucks versus Duncan Donuts: Are you a grammatical snob?

I have something to confess: I’ve been a grammatical snob all my life. I liken it to being a coffee snob. What? Not Starbucks? Don’t try to sell me that DD crap.

I know, hard to believe. It’s true. I don’t want to be a snob; I just can’t help it. I’m a hopeless self-critic, an endless reviser. I can’t be satisfied with a piece until every last bit of voice has been extracted out of it, every linguistic twitch beaten into submission. It’s an excruciating process, if only because what you get after all that is something excruciatingly boring to read.

But isn’t the writing supposed to hum soundlessly, invisibly in the background?

I’ve had more than one literati tell me my writing’s as bland as, to paraphrase, decaffeinated Folgiers.

I blame my third grade teacher, Mrs. Hansen, and all the rules she hammered into my head.

I blame Strunk and White.

I blame S. I. Hayakawa.

Most of all, I blame myself for taking these geniuses so… so literally.

The solution? Have you read Arthur Plotnik’s Spunk and Bite? It's a good start.

You can’t imagine the pain I felt the first time I finished a manuscript that actually contained (No!) sentence fragments, (My God!) run-ons, and (Egads!) a slew of other grammatical no-no’s. It was all I could do not to go back and fix things in the dark of the night.

Guess what? It was good!

Okay, maybe not Colombian blend good. Not just yet. But definitely getting there.

It’s hard. If there were a 12-step program for recovering revisionists I’d be stuck somewhere between steps three and four. Yeah, that’s a lot of steps left to go.

Repent. Repent.

Once, on a business trip in Seattle (you see where this is going, right?), my colleague insisted he wouldn’t drink another cup of Starbucks if his life depended on it. (Does everyone take their coffee this seriously?) We ended up driving seventeen blocks before we tracked down a Duncan Donuts that was open. This guy was like the anti-snob of coffee connoisseurs. But, you know what? DD coffee isn’t half bad.

On the writer’s journey, aren’t there more important things to worry about than getting sentence structure and spellings exactly right? Sure, they're important, because you want to know when you're breaking the conventions. So you can break them consistently.

But, dammit, go out on a limb. Forget your past notions. Hey, try the java from Mickey D’s. Or 7-Eleven. Or even (horror of horrors) Der Wienerschnitzel. You never know, hot dog flavored mocha might be the next big craze. At least it’ll taste like something.

Oh, and happy roadtripping.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

WRT Inaugural Post: How do you roadtrip?

Writing is a journey. Always.
Of patience, usually.
Of endurance, absolutely.
Of self-discovery, unquestionably.

In my carefree days after leaving home and before starting college (several years later), roadtrips were a frequent distraction from my army enlistment and the routine of low-wage jobs that followed. I trawled the East Coast from North Carolina to Maine this way, on a half tank of gas, ten bucks in my wallet and a sleeping bag sharing the back seat with Pringles, Pop Tarts and a case of Mountain Dew. Just jumped in after work and headed off in one compass direction with a vague notion of how far I wanted to go. Heck, I explored half of Europe this way too, now that I think about it. Now, while I wouldn't trade in those roadtrips for anything, I can see now how they could have been so much more meaningful.

Anyone who has ever taken an impromptu roadtrip will tell you, almost without exception, that they never got where they thought they were going when they set out. If, indeed, there was a destination to begin with, as was often the case for me. Too many distractions along the way. Poor planning. Not enough Pringles. Whatever the reason, chance defines such endeavors.

To write with this mentality is fine, as long as you have the right expectations. That is, none other than personal satisfaction. Exploratory exposition can be very healthy for the mind and the soul. Yes, you may be lucky enough to find, when you get to end of the road, that the trip yielded something of value. And not just to yourself but to the world. But it's unlikely.

As writers for publication, there has to be a destination. Otherwise, we're simply, well, wandering.

How we, as writers, set off on that journey will mark how the quickly we get to our destination.

Do you plan your writing roadtrips? Or do you just jump right in and hope the high of junkfood gets you someplace worthwhile?