The Fossil Record

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The Waiting

Waiting. That’s where we are at the moment. Camellia revised a short story, researched a list of journals to send it to, and submitted the piece. I revised my novel, found a new title (more on that later), and submitted it to my agent. Our deadlines met, now the waiting begins. What to do? Get back to work, of course. Because, as Alexander Chee wrote in his new essay in The Awl, to tell yourself that when you’re not engaged in the process of writing, you’re thinking about writing, therefore you are writing, is one of those lies writers tell themselves.

But what about the waiting? How do you deal with that? Let’s face it, waiting months to learn if your story got accepted at a literary journal is no picnic. Neither is waiting to hear back from your agent. The not knowing is a difficult part of the process. You have to remind yourself everyday, people need to time to read your work and to make a decision about it. Literary journals are notoriously understaffed. Agents have, yes, other authors they represent. In other words, you can’t dwell on the fate of your work, you’ll just get stuck in a holding pattern. Easier said than done. We discussed this recently, and it went something like this:

Camellia: One part of writing I will never be prepared for is the waiting. Waiting to hear back from readers, waiting to hear back from agents, waiting to hear back from editors. You would think it gets easier with experience. You would be wrong.

Marco: Let’s talk about something else. Like boardgames. Let’s play War of the Ring

Camellia: Hmm…so you’re suggesting avoidance as a strategy to cope with the anxiety of waiting?

Marco: Not avoidance, no. The thing is you can’t make your life about the thing you’re waiting on.

Camellia: What are some strategies you’re using to deal with the waiting that you’re going through right now? Besides trying to convince me to spend an entire weekend kicking your ass again as Sauron in War of the Ring. *

Camellia makes strategies and charts and lists. That’s part of her process. It works for her. I don’t operate in that way. But she is right—avoidance is a part of my process for dealing with waiting.  Right now, I’m reading all six books in the hardcover reprinting of Alan Moore’s Saga of the Swamp Thing. I’ll know when I’m ready to get back to work. It will become the thing I can no longer avoid.

Eventually, you run out of ways and places to hide from yourself. Writing is just a part who you are. And when that happens, it’s like meeting up with old friends. You start inhabiting that place again where you’re listening to these other people, the characters in your new novel or short story. Soon, you find that you can’t stop. What they have to tell you is too important. Their lives depend on you listening. All you have to do is write everything down.

And if, while you’re waiting to hear back from your agent, you find yourself worrying about getting that six figure book deal? Don’t.

Do they think money’s everything? The only yardstick that life’s quality is measured by? Yes, yes, they do, and that is why they are so very poor.

—Alan Moore, Saga of The Swamp Thing.

* It really does take an entire weekend to play War of the Ring. And, for the record, we’re 2 for 2.


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Juggling Multiple Writing Projects or I know I put that plot thread around here somewhere…

We recently sent our revised projects out into the world, and now it’s time to get back to the work of writing (as opposed to revising and submitting). So, now we’re confronted with the quandary of getting reacquainted with the characters and settings and plot points of our other novels-in-progress.

In the September 2012 Writer’s Digest, Pamela Redmond Satran, wrote about the importance — and preferability — of juggling multiple writing projects. But the real question is how — especially for those of us who have full time non-writing jobs or family responsibilities or chronic illnesses.

Our current system for juggling multiple projects is a little ad-hoc, and honestly, not necessarily the most efficient. In general, we each tend to work on only one project at a time — rewriting a novel one month, followed by editing a short story the next month. In between each project, we spend time trying to remember where we left off on our last project and what it was that our characters were going to do next. In the interest of finding a better way to keep engaged and productive on multiple projects, we set out upon a research project to see how other writers tackled this juggling act.

Strategies for picking up that plot thread:

Maintain momentum on multiple projects: Pamela Redmond Satran’s Writer’s Digest article focused on the challenge of balancing time spent on paid nonfiction writing with work on a novel. “In the morning I wrote only fiction, and in the afternoon only nonfiction. To make myself switch, I set an alarm clock for noon. I hated the ringing of that alarm, but I discovered unexpected benefits. Rather than blazing through 20 pages of my novel and then letting it lie fallow for so long that I’d forgotten what my characters were named and what was supposed to happen to them, I now found that the pages started piling up, more slowly but more surely.” What might this look like in practice: Trying this strategy means we would work on multiple active projects each writing day or session — i.e. write a couple pages of a novel and then switch to editing a short story or even another novel — with the goal of maintaining momentum on both pieces.

Keep a novel journal: In a recent blog post, Alexander Chee talked about what blogging has taught him about writing novels. “I keep a journal of my novel that is just about the novel–any ideas, questions, thoughts, lines, even just entries like ‘page 77 is still a problem!’ or ‘return to page 13!’ I make the entry, even if it’s just a few lines, every day of work on it as I close the day’s work, and I also put scraps in there, deleted sections and lines I want to save. …When I return to work the next day, I reread that entry first and I return to where I was and what I was thinking about the more quickly.” What might this look like in practice: Actually, pretty straightforward no matter what your writing goals or constraints. As Chee explains: “The journal I call a ‘workjournal’ and it is a MSWord doc, and each new entry is entered at the top of the first page, a method I learned from blogging actually, so that the most recent entry is visible immediately when I open the doc–the oldest entry is at the end.”

Write something, anything: Piers Anthony, in the October 2011 issue of The Writer, explains his strategy for putting down words even when he can’t find the right ones. “Let’s say I’m stalled on a scene, or even on a paragraph. I can’t figure out how to end it, so I got into brackets: [Here’s my problem: I can’t figure out how to conclude this paragraph without seeming abrupt or stupid. What can I do? Maybe I can figure out something that will make my reader laugh, so he won’t notice that I’m not saying much. How? Maybe a spot of self-parody].” What might this look like in practice: While this strategy doesn’t speak directly to the challenges of working on multiple pieces, it could potentially be useful in helping to brush the cobwebs off a piece that might have been left a little too long dormant. By putting text in brackets, the pressure for it to be perfect — or, let’s face it, even passable — is eliminated, perhaps easing the transition back into writing and expanding on a piece of fiction.

As Margaret Atwood, in a September 2012 interview in The Writer magazine, says when comparing writing advice to diets: “You can read tons and tons about diets. But if you don’t actually follow the advice, all that reading won’t make any difference.”

Over the coming weeks and months, we’ll be giving these strategies — and any others we come across — a shot and reporting back on what worked for us, what didn’t, and why.

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You’re Still Writing That Story? You’re Still Writing That Novel?

Yes. We are. Thank you for asking, Mom/Dad/non-writing friend. We’re behind here because we’re on deadlines with our writing. As some of you know, Marco’s novel is out to editors and he’s received some very encouraging responses. This turned a light bulb on over his head about changes to the novel. He called his agent, ran it by her, and she said, Go for it. He has until Labor Day to get his revisions done.

It’s so simple to tell when our radishes are ready to harvest. But our stories and novels — not so much.

For me, I’m working on what must be the 20th rewrite of a short story about a teenage girl and her grandmother who sneak out of an old folks home and run off to Mount Saint Helens. I wrote the first draft of this story eight years ago. That draft was so bad even my mother—my first and kindest reader—described it as “fine” and “not too bad.” Which is basically the equivalent of an F+, if you’re grading on the mom curve. Every couple years I pull that story out and take a stab at rewriting it. The last draft got some great, personal feedback from editors at literary magazines earlier this year, and I made revisions based on that feedback. But now I’m plagued by the same question Marco’s been struggling with: How do you know when it’s done?

Over the years I’ve participated in plenty of writing groups and workshops. I remember many times teachers and students discussing how to tell when a story is done. But I never took them seriously. With youthful bravado I thought, “Um, isn’t it obvious?”

Turns out, it is not always obvious. In the last several weeks as Marco and I have spent many, many hours revising and rewriting, we’ve been astounded by how, when viewed in a certain new slant of light, cracks and needed changes are suddenly revealed in pieces we once thought were “done.”

While sometimes these newly exposed cracks feel like a curse—why can’t the story/novel just be perfect already?—they are actually a gift. At least, that’s what I tell myself. Of course, we all want to be able to churn out brilliant first drafts that are both fun to write and fun to read. But in real life, at least my real life, that doesn’t happen. First drafts—and second drafts and third drafts—are usually painfully bad. But what about 19th drafts?

Several years ago, Marco and I had a conversation over email about just this topic. I suggested he consult an oracle. Which he did. The Oracle (AKA Alexander Chee) had this wisdom to impart:

The answer to the question of knowing when it is done, is that you need to learn at some point the book cannot be perfect but it can be whole. And then it is done.