The Fossil Record

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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.


Learning to Embrace Rejection As A Writer

One of my writing goals for 2012 has been to conquer my fear of rejection. How exactly am I attempting to do this?

Submitting a lot — and keeping track. Before, the prospect of rejection felt so terrifying that I would submit short stories to only one or two literary journals per year. I figured I could handle at most a couple rejections each year without risking a shattered heart. At that rate, though, it could take decades to get even one acceptance. So I challenged myself to up the ante.

Since December 30, 2011, I have logged 31 short story submissions. That many submissions requires keeping good track of which story is pending at which journal and for how long. I began by using a word document that serves as both a current submissions list and future submissions planner. Then I discovered Duotrope.

Duotrope is an amazing resource that serves as a real-time database to log your submissions, rejections, and acceptances. The site maintains individual listings for thousands of literary markets — including print and online journals. Duotrope also aggregates users’ submission stats (while still maintaining users’ privacy) so you can see how many submissions are pending at each literary magazine, average response times, and average acceptance and rejection rates among submissions reported by Duotrope users. Combined, Duotrope and my word document enable me to feel like a have a firm grasp of my current submissions and my next steps.

Acknowledging that rejection is a part of the writing process. I don’t fall in love with every book I read. So not every reader or editor will fall in love with every piece I write. Even the most amazingly brilliant piece of fiction will be rejected by someone. I try to think of accumulating rejections in the same way as adding to my word count — a sign of progress.

Pretending that it doesn’t hurt (too much). There’s no way around it — rejection hurts. You pour your heart and your mind and your time into a piece of fiction, make it as good as you possibly can, send it out into the world — and it comes back to you with a big NO. That stings. And in the past, I’ve let that sting reach deep into my self-confidence and enthusiasm for writing. Which only makes it hurt more. This year, I decided to pretend that rejection doesn’t hurt, with the thought that if I pretend that rejection doesn’t hurt, perhaps in time it won’t.

Reminding myself that I’m not alone. Whenever a rejection does get me down, I head on over to the blog Literary Rejections on Display or LROD. If you want concrete evidence that you’re not alone in getting rejected, LROD is the place to go. LROD includes hundreds of real rejection letters received by the blog’s author and readers with personal information removed. LROD takes literary rejection — which is so personal and painful — and makes it a shared experience. With snarky commentary about the rejections themselves, the blog encourages us to laugh about rejection — which is something I can definitely get behind.

Using rejection as inspiration. Every author gets rejected at some point in their lives. Some more than others. On a fundamental level, the difference between those we get to read in print and those we don’t is simple — persistence.

When I get a rejection now, I immediately prepare myself to resubmit. If it’s a personal rejection with suggestions for what worked and what didn’t in the piece I go ahead and, where applicable, revise. If it’s a form rejection, or I think the piece is still ready “as is,” then I pick the next potential good fit and submit away.

So far, out of my 31 submissions since December 30, 2011, I have received 17 rejections — including one where my piece was a finalist in a contest. But the most recent response I received — number 18 — was an acceptance. My first ever acceptance from a literary magazine. My short story The Girl Who Flew will be published in an upcoming issue of CALYX Journal. And the most important part is, I never could have gotten the acceptance had I continued to be so terrified of rejection that I barely submitted. In order to get that one acceptance, I had to embrace a whole lot of rejection.