On March 23, 2013, as part of the Virginia Festival of the Book, I moderated a panel called “How to Make Writing Pay,” with freelance writers and professional authors (from left) Don Fry, Leslie Truex, Edie Eckman, and Gabe Goldberg. The panelists shared a wealth of insights from their many collective years of experience earning money as writers. The podcast is available here for a listen.
Why is it that the last ten percent of anything requires ninety percent of the effort? Finishing any project, whether it’s writing or something else, threatens to nullify everything I’ve done up to that point. A reader isn’t interested in a story that’s extremely close to being done; nor would a friend be excited about wearing a hand-knitted sweater with three-quarters of a left sleeve. If I don’t finish, I’ve wasted the other ninety percent. So here I sit, with a handful of short stories that are just about there, only not quite. Why is it so difficult to finish?
Sometimes I run out of time. When I start something like a thorough house cleaning in advance of guests’ arrival, I’m often overambitious, tackling the woodwork and the dust on the crystal droplets of the chandelier. At some point, after admiring my reflection in the streak-free bathroom mirror, I look at the clock and realize there’s still clutter covering the kitchen counters. TIme to start throwing things in drawers. Some stories feel like that too. I’ve set my sights on sending a story to a contest. As the hours tick toward the deadline, the loose pieces of the story start getting thrown in metaphorical drawers. Hitting the “submit” button brings closure and a sense of relief, but rarely first prize. I end up editing the story yet again before submitting it elsewhere.
Sometimes I’m just bored, tired of going over the same paragraphs, the same sentences, and feeling they just aren’t going anywhere. There was something in the story that made me want to write it in the first place, but I can’t seem to find the level of enthusiasm to sustain me until the end. A couple of times I’ve tried to go back to the inspiration for the story, to see if I could throw out everything else and start again. For some reason, that hasn’t worked. My mind wants to travel back down the same path. So I set aside that story and start a new one. I have an inventory of “set aside” stories that I like and want to finish polishing, get them just the way I want them, but my attention span just isn’t that good anymore. Too much distraction, too accustomed to instant gratification. The way we live now isn’t conducive to sticking with one thing through to the end.
Today I’m determined to finish rewriting a story I wrote at Writers in the Heartland September 2011. It’s been through a few drafts and two or three workshops. It’s been rejected by three journals. I love the characters and the themes. I really want the story to be published. Somehow I need to push through the last ten percent. Today’s the day. I need to do it. It’s simple as that. Today I want it more than I did yesterday.
If you’ve come here from my WriterHouse blog post, I am truly embarrassed at how long it’s been since I’ve updated this blog. Please forgive my neglect. Consider this the equivalent of the cute little “Under Construction” graphic that used to show up on the home page of so many web sites in the early days.
Friday March 23 I was the moderator for a panel at the 2012 Virginia Festival of the Book sponsored by WriterHouse, an organization of which I am a founding member. This was a panel I initiated, after hearing that Margot Livesey’s new book, The Flight of Gemma Hardy, was a reimagining of Jane Eyre. I had also read Hillary Jordan’s book, When She Woke, and knew that it was a reimagining of The Scarlet Letter, so a vision for a panel began to form. When I heard Sharyn McCrumb would be coming to the festival with her latest book, The Ballad of Tom Dooley, an Appalachian version of Wuthering Heights, I knew we had a winner.
We had a lively discussion, with a standing-room-only crowd in the McIntire Room of the Jefferson-Madison Regional Library main branch. Some of the topics of discussion: retelling vs. reimagining, what is it about classic tales that make them grist for retelling, how each author navigated the question of how close to stick to the original story (Sharyn McCrumb included actual dialogue from Wuthering Heights, Hillary Jordan’s characters’ names are very close to those in the Scarlet Letter, Margot Livesey used the broad plot outline of Jane Eyre with some rearranging of characters and relationships).
Responding to a discussion about archetypes in classic stories, Margot Livesey characterized her novel as an orphan story and a pilgrimage story. Hillary Jordan described her book as an outsider story and a pilgrimage. Sharyn McCrumb’s book is a meticulously researched account of a true historical event. When describing the difference between writing history and historical nonfiction, she said nonfiction writers can “walk” through the events, where, as a novelist, she must “dance.”
And afterward, there were many books to sign.
I just received this in the mail from an ebay seller. It’s a postcard from a hotel where I worked in 1980, which is the model for the setting of my second novel, tentatively entitled The Sea View Hotel. It’s not a great title, I know, but I’m not going to worry too much about that now. I say it’s the “model for the setting” because it’s not the exact setting. The setting is my memory of the place with some embellishments. I’ve messed with the geography and the name and a lot of other details in order to make the place fit the story. But it’s nice to have this tangible memory-jog while I’m writing. These photos were taken long before I worked there, but it didn’t change much during that period.
I’ve been thinking about other talismans that I might like to have while revising this novel. We used to have some really crummy white plastic ballpoint pens with the company logo on them. It would be fun to find one of those. I found an old matchbook on ebay, but it was from a much older era with an older logo. I could probably download some music from 1980. These things aren’t absolutely necessary, but they help put me in the right frame of mind.
I’m in the midst of massive revisions right now, and hoping to have something complete enough to enter in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award for 2012. That will require some focus and discipline. Since the month of December should be fairly quiet around here, I have a decent shot at it. Wish me luck.
I’m currently at VCCA (The Virginia Center for Creative Arts) in Amherst, Virginia, working on my second novel and a couple of short stories. The idea of a residency is to allow writers (and other artists) to take a break from their everyday responsibilities and focus on their creative work for a concentrated period of time. This works extremely well, except for the wireless internet. The other day when I was not getting anywhere on my novel I realized I was wasting a lot of time online. Then I decided, since I wasn’t getting anything done anyway, I would create a wiki for writing residencies.
A wiki (like wikipedia) is a crowdsourced information repository–a website that can be edited by anyone. If you’ve ever been to a residency, please add your .02 to the listings there. There’s also a discussion page for each residency program, in case you want to start an argument.
Spent today at James River Writers’ Conference. Highlights:
- First page critiques with literary agents Michelle Brower, April Eberhardt, and Becca Stumpf
- Short story panel with Leona Wisoker, Michael Parker and Belle Boggs
- Imagery and language panel with Kathleen Graber, Lucia St. Clair Robson and Irene Ziegler
- State of the industry talk by agent April Eberhardt
I will try to find time this week to report more fully about what I learned from these panels. Looking forward to day 2.
I’m staying away from the silent auction. Last time I was near one I discovered that alcohol causes reckless bidding.
My contributors copies of Crab Orchard Review arrived in the mail while I was away at Writers in the Heartland. When I got home, it was exciting to see my name on the back with at least one other I recognized (poet Erika Meitner). This story is excerpted from my novel, A USEFUL LIFE. Here’s hoping its publication will generate some interest in the novel.
I’ve had several conversations lately about comic/satirical novels and found myself wanting to recommend some of my favorites, but struggling to remember titles and authors. So, I thought I’d compile a list of the ones I’ve really enjoyed over the years. Next time I have that conversation I can point people toward this list. Keep in mind that by “comic” I mean “darkly comic.”
I’ll try to keep adding to the list as I think of more. Comment below if you have suggestions for titles to add.
I’ve written a novel. It’s not published (yet), but I’ve written it. So have a boatload of other people. Some of them have been published, and I’m Facebook friends with a number of them. I meet authors through my volunteer job as president and author event organizer for WriterHouse (a nonprofit writing community center), organizing and moderating panels at the annual Virginia Festival of the Book, and at places like the Sewanee Writers’ Conference.
When my Facebook friend list reached some critical mass of authors connected to other authors, I started getting a lot of suggested friends that were pretty famous. Now almost all the suggestions I get are people that I wouldn’t in a million years presume to ask to be my Facebook friend unless I were in a position to meet them sometime. Apparently all authors are connected to all other authors by not that many degrees of separation.
I wonder, do other professions/arts work the same way? If you’re an aspiring musician, does Facebook suggest you “friend” Elton John? What’s your experience of the connectedness of your global community?