Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Blogging, Branding, and Vampire Blood

Another two months gone without a post to this blog. I think it's safe to assume, at least for this extended moment of passage, that I am not a social media creature. Again I ponder what I have to say that would matter. I struggle with the notion of creating "a brand" of myself. Hell, I only recently found that the novel I've danced with long after the ball ended isn't paranormal, which never felt right to me, but more probably science fiction. Well shut my mouth. If I can't even peg the genre in which I've wallowed for these many years, how can I advise anyone else about things writerly? Simple: I don't.

I read on others' blogs on social networking and building platform that one shouldn't set out to build a platform or create a brand for one's self. One should simply identify who his target audience is and write to them. Target audience for the novel that I'd be pitching, should I ever land an agent or publisher? That assumes that the audience for that novel would be the same audience for future works and for the random digressions, wanderings down dark hallways of the mind, that make up the blog posts or tweets. Yikes. Somehow those short 140 character things seems more daunting than full posts, so much more ripe with likelihood of instant dismissal. What the fuck is he talking about? 

So who would be my desired audience? They'd be people who love to delve into the mysteries of the common threads that tie together the hidden (dare I say occult?) knowledge of the working of the universe that runs through all religions and is pretty much equally distorted by all of them. People who are willing to believe, but don't necessarily believe. Everything is possible. Nothing is absolutely true. But mostly, I want to talk to people who can go there and laugh about it, and laugh at themselves. 

Above all, they say, be funny. I can be funny, but I don't write funny, and the kind of humor I like best leans heavily toward the dark and twisted side. Erotic. Profane. Quentin Tarantino. I haven't figured out how to address that in blog posts, especially ones about writing, the writer's journey, querying, and all those things that every other person in the publishing world writes about. 

What do I write about then? What kinds of things would I want to toss around with kindred souls? Let's get irreverent. Was the archangel who came to Mary of Biblical fame really an alien visitor? Was her son, the famous one, really the offspring of a human/alien mating? Are the creatures of the night, the ones of legend, vampires, werewolves, goblins, all alien beings playing on our superstitions, giving us what we are afraid of? Are miracles a simple matter of high-level manipulation of what we perceive as reality? Can we laugh at all those possibilities fooling with us, scaring us, and, alternatively, raising us up? After all, alien doesn't necessarily mean from another planet. Just another place. And just because they might exist and operate on a different level of perceived reality from us, mightn't they be just as prone to extremes of good and evil, whatever those are on whatever scale is used to measure them?

See, there just aren't viable tweets there. Or even posts. Do I believe all that shit? Bwa ha ha. No. Well, maybe. Why not? Could be. What was that wheel within the wheel? Sure is one hell of a lot more likely than humans and dinosaurs sharing the planet together after a seven day splurge of creation. No shortage of scared, desperate hopefuls willing to buy the snake oil. How about a vial of blood instead?

Friday, September 23, 2011

Many thanks to Angie for her invitation to talk about what inspires my writing.

Short answer: the magic of words.

 I began reading early, and early discovered the power of words to transport me, to show me the world in new ways, to take me to places unknown. I didn't begin churning out stories as a kid, as many seem to do. I absorbed and observed. I read, not just for the stories, but for the magic of the words themselves.

I've always read slowly. To me, a joy of reading is in the rhythm and color of beautifully constructed sentences, of images that startle me with their clarity, that cause me to read a sentence or paragraph over again just to immerse myself in it. I always will stop to smell the roses.

My early years as the son of a Presbyterian minister whose father had been a missionary to Korea, where my father was born, exposed me to a world of music, art, and spirituality. I played piano, and later, guitar and other folk instruments. I learned the power of art in its many forms to move people. And I learned, as I grew through school, that I had a talent with words.

For a brief time, I taught high school English, and my greatest reward (maybe the only one) came from seeing my kids awaken to their own power with words. I assigned controversial topics for essays and drew stories out of them. Convince me, I said. Make me believe.

Somewhere along the way, in college (isn't that where it always happens?) I began to question dogma.  New possibilities, worlds beyond worlds, unseen forces teased me to look, to wonder.

I wrote songs. Love songs. Songs of social protest. I used the power of words to influence, to move, and to entertain. I wrote poetry, unstudied, free, spontaneous, and the world around me became a live canvas from which to draw.

I'm moved to write because I can. Because the world is a huge, fascinating, terrifying place. A place of ecstasy and sorrow, of heroism and cowardice, of generosity and love and cold, hard malice.  And I've come to feel that we who write have a power to inspire the better aspects of our humanity while seeing all the colors and shying from none. We can entertain. We can offer distraction from pain. We can paint with words. We can show the strength of love in the unlikeliest circumstances.

If, with my use of words, I can transport a reader to a new place, make her look up from the page in an "oh, wow" moment, or cringe in horror, or laugh, or cry, then I've worked a bit of magic.

The pen may well be mightier than the sword. In good hands, it's a magician's wand.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Writer, Do Your Work

Just write. Summer's over, I told myself. Get back in that saddle. Back in the literary social network groove. Engage, crit, comment. Review agents to query. Wait. Go back and look at that query again first. Maybe farther back, to the synopsis. (Or maybe just move on.) But do your work.

So I pulled out an old short I started months ago and made myself sit my ass in the chair and keep going, and I added about 700 words in an afternoon of writing. And I revised my last post here. I did write. Some. Didn't get back to that query yet, though.

Needing to re-engage in the aforementioned social network, I started again reading queries on the wonderful Agent Query Connect site. Most I couldn't comment on. If you don't have anything nice to say… Why oh why do new members (not all, mind you) come on board, say they've lurked and read and are so nervous about putting their work out there (who isn't?), and then prove in their first lines that they haven't done even the most basic research on query writing? There are SO many available resources and guides, and yeah, they often disagree and differ, but there are so many basics, it's amazing that these writers jump into what is a professional place only to prove their complete lack of professionalism.  

I have ranted about this onsite, and plenty of members added their comments. We want to be helpful, supportive, and AQC is all that and more. But what can you say to someone whose opener, the first line a prospective agent will see, is a run-on sentence? A hypothetical question that begs a sarcastic answer? A complete non-hook statement of theme. Telling what the book is about rather that showing enough of the main character to make a reader care and enough conflict to make said reader want to read more?

Querying rules? Discussions aplenty on them-- There are none. They're made to be broken. Stay in the mold and be mediocre. All true (usually.) But as with the craft of writing itself, first you have to know the rules, divergent as they are. Know the accepted conventions. Then make the piece your own, in your voice, in the voice of the novel. Be bold, be original.

 Does the hook have to open the query, or the genre/word count? I'm of the hook-first school, but many successful authors are not, and since I'm not among that group, I have no authority. But the importance of the first line comes home when you are reading through queries as they come in by email. By far the largest number lose me in the first line. If I were an agent, that's an instant rejection. Sometimes it's the subject. I'm not a huge YA reader, and while I was a horror movie freak as a kid, vampires to me are the Dracula type, not Edward Cullen. If I see one more opening with a teen werewolf, fallen angel, or demon, grab the barf bag. That said, grab me with a strong lead (lede) and I'll follow you anywhere. But if I see the writing itself is bad grammatically, why read on? I don't.

Pay attention to your craft, writers. Every phase of it is craft. Craft can and must be learned, or you can never be taken seriously. Even if you do learn the craft, the rough truth is you still may not be. But if you can't take the time to learn, to self-edit, to polish, there isn't much to offer you in the way of guidance. I'm no expert. We're all always still learning. Do your work. It will pay off.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Writing the Bronc

It's been a long and brutal winter, a cold, wet spring, a stifling summer, and writing was forced to the back seat. February it turns out, proved not to be the most difficult month. March brought not only more bleak cold but an unwelcome diagnosis for my partner. A hell of a birthday present for him. Consultations and decisions followed, and time moved on. It always does.

Then the rains came. Days, weeks of it. Cold rain, flooding fields until long after the sowing season. Stuck indoors, I completed another complete revision of The Guardian at the Gateway, my sidekick for longer than many marriages. At last, a few days of perfect Spring weather allowed planting of patio pots and some weeding of the bountiful crop of weeds the rains had encouraged. But before all that could be finished, swamp-like heat settled in, precluding any further outdoor activity except sitting outdoors of an evening with adult beverages, pretending that it was just lovely here on the bayou.

Meanwhile, the day job picked up ridiculously (a good thing, considering the state of real estate today) as the regimen of daily treatments proceeded for my partner, and my writing and critiquing stalled out. I haven't restarted querying since my last two revisions. I've become less confident, or more unsure, since much of my reading during this time has been the constant chatter on the Internet about the rapidly changing world of publishing. With the growing importance of e-books, e-readers (I don't have one—yet), and e-publishing, the traditional routes are being challenged, new ones being explored and developed, and fewer and fewer traditional publishers are willing to take on any but already-known authors or personalities. We unknowns must consider self-pubbing, small independent houses, going digital and going it virtually (pun intended) alone. One must dive into social media and develop their own fanbase. Blog. Tweet. Network.

I suck at it. Key factor: consistency. Every six months or so? I don't think so.

Here's the thing. I see people I "know" from writers' sites who've landed an agent (or not) almost frantically blogging and tweeting about their blog posts to drive others to friend (when did friend become a verb?) or follow them. Some are quite good, but now there are a gazillion blogging writers, agents, and other literary types all talking about the same things with slightly different angles or takes. Who could possibly read them all, get their own done, and still find the time to write? Obviously some do. But not me. At least not this Winter-Spring-Summer. Not yet.

So I question whether I really want what the writing life entails these days. No longer can a writer rely on their agent and publisher to be the primary marketer of their work, if they want it out there. Writers have always had a responsibility to promote their own work. Now they must become the primary person doing that, devoting countless hours to blogging, guest blogging, anything to build interest in them as writers and in their work, in their unique voice. Be funny. Be relevant. Be interesting. Be different. And, oh yeah, be writing that next novel. No one wants a writer who isn't writing.

Well, what fun would it all be without challenge? Do I want to have to do all that? Make myself heard above the chatter?  Do I just want to write, to express myself, to tell stories, draw images, move hearts and minds? Or do I want to be a writer? Am I up to the job? Cowboy up, bucko.

How do you ride the bronc?

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Surviving February

Another month gone by, sliding into and past midwinter, and what a joy. The storm blew in, stayed a couple days, and created a deadly fairyland of ice-covered everything. After the power went out, and the heat, with all the candles lit, we sat in the quiet and listened to the craaack of huge branches, weighted down with ice, falling into yards, houses, and the streets. A house without heat, lit by candles, may look oh so romantic in a period English drawing room drama, but it's a lot less so. Still, we bundled and sat by the fireless fireplace and read. Luckily, we only had one night to imagine always living that way. Many are still without power, their homes getting colder and colder.

But, unable to stay home, disconnected from the world and freezing, we went to a local coffee house, which was full with others plugging in and escaping their own freezing homes. Quite convivial, actually, and not a bad way to spend the day. After checking my work and personal e-mail, I pulled my manuscript out of the cloud and resumed this edit. (Note previous posts about the never-ending process.) This one is going much more slowly than the last, mainly because of the astute eye and ear of a fellow writer who steered me to looking at the writing with both more distance and a sharper scalpel. In my cutting away anything that didn't drive the story forward, I'd sacrificed some motivation that remained in my head not on the page. We do need to know what's driving our characters, don't we? And knowing it, let the reader in on it as well. In short, the reader needs to care about the characters and understand them as much and as well as we do. But then the other side of that blade edge is the paring away of superfluous details, where, in our attempting to put the reader in the scene, we've felt it necessary to show every item on the breakfast plate. So, I've gone over the ever-important first paragraph, first page, first chapter, first three or four chapters, up to 50 pages (these being the order of importance in grabbing and holding the reader) and gone over them again. I had gone farther, but kept coming back and finding more honing needed.

So, to start this, in my opinion, dreariest, most difficult month of the year (yeah, Valentine's Day. Right), I decided to throw my first paragraph into an annual contest held by Nathan Bransford, an author, blogger, and, until recently, a literary agent at a top agency. He maintains a great blog full of incredibly useful information for writers about writing and about the publishing industry, and he has a huge following. Over 1,500 writers submitted their first paragraphs, so I thought my chances of being noticed were slim at best, but why not. Just before the storm hit, he posted his selection of finalists (the winner to be selected by vote by readers of his blog.) No, I wasn't a finalist. He chose 6 for that honor. But my paragraph was selected as one of the 11 honorable mentions. Okay, that's not going to buy me anything or even land me an agent or get me closer to selling this baby, but it sure as hell is nice to get a nod of validation from someone whose livelihood was reading queries and first paragraphs. Out of 1,500 first paragraphs. It helped get me through the storm. And, you know, they say writing is a lonely job, but I have to say that there are others out there who, in this age of electronic networking, make it far less lonely. I freely, humbly, and with gratitude, admit that my paragraph would not have been there without some really good collaborative reading and suggestions. Huge thanks to those eyes and ears (and the humans they belong to) for their comradeship and generosity.

Sometime it would fun to go back and count, through the many many revisions, how many different "first paragraphs" this story has had. It's a big number, I know. But now, while business is slow and winter is settled in, it's time to move forward, not back, with purpose. The ice outside is metling now, and the late afternoon sun is creating brilliant, dripping diamonds lining all the branches and shrubs, and I have a manuscript to get through, again. But hey, someone really cool thought my writing was worth a mention. I want to live up to that.

For anyone who cares to read that paragraph, by the way, look here:

Monday, January 3, 2011

Another Year: Moving On

Another month gone, and with it, another year. So do we pause to look back or to look forward, or just pause? (With a month between posts, pausing doesn't seem to be one of my major challenges.)

I look at the past year the way I always hope to look back at an airplane flight, that is, uneventful in a good way. We made it through what has not been the best of times for anyone relatively unscathed. We had no highlights, no trips, no vacations, but we also had no traumas, no tragedies, and all the storms that hit all around us even had the good grace to pretty much pass us by. My garden flourished and it was sweet to watch it grow (never mind the forest of weeds.)

I seem to have been on hiatus from the pursuit of the professional writing life, although not entirely. As reported, I sent out a few queries, gathered an equal number of rejections, and returned to hone the manuscript again. I said all that before. Yet, it is amazing me how going through again is showing me so many places where I read what I thought was polished and shake my head. Perhaps my destiny in this life is not to be a published author, but a constant craft-worker and mentor, reader for other writers. I find as much satisfaction helping other writers as I do in my own work. Or could it be that it's just easier? I do know I will go through the manuscript to the end, again, and then I'll send out more queries, and more. But I also know that I might never see this picked up, and that's okay, too. I'll work on something else, or not.

In the writers' community of a particular website, a question was raised about throwing in the towel--does anyone ever feel that way. Of course there were many variations on the fairly consistent answer, which is "NO, NEVER." Or "Well, I feel like it, sometimes, of course, but never could." "I'm obsessed." "I can't NOT write." Funny, but throwing in the towel, giving up, sounds to me like there's a fight involved that one might give up on. A fight to what? Get published? (Yes, for many.) To just keep writing? (Yes, for most, in the face of rejection.) Maybe I'm lacking a fighting gene, but I just don't feel that. I write because I like to, just as I read because I like to. It's a beautiful craft. Sometimes it's even art. I would paint, if I could, or compose a choral symphony. But I write, and while I've done it my entire life, and continue to do it, I don't feel I MUST, or I HAVE to. I'm not compelled (though I do take it seriously, approach it as a professional, and would be ready to meet the deadlines and commitments, should the project find a home with someone who believes in it as I do.) I can waste hours happily on TV, the Internet. And then I write. Give up? When swimming, if I stop to float on my back and look up and the clouds or stars, am I giving up on swimming? I'll turn over and do more laps, just to feel the surge, the body mechanics of the breast stroke. Or, wait, have I then given up on floating to watch the sky? No, no giving up. But no fighting, either. No towel to throw in. Just do. (Thank you, Yoda.)

Oh, and Happy New Year.