Wednesday, April 29, 2009

I Need a Plan

I tried. I really did. People have told me for years. “Be more of a pantser,” they’d say. “Don’t plot so much. Surprise yourself.”

I knew I couldn’t sit down to write not knowing what would happen that day. Endings of stories often come to me immediately after the beginnings, sometimes right after the premise. Once the ending actually came first. I thought the “headlights” system would be a good compromise: plot only a few chapters ahead. (I call it the “headlights” system in deference to Patricia Highsmith, from whom I stole it. She used to plot that way, and used the analogy of a car’s headlights. You can only ever see a little bit ahead, but follow them and you’ll get all the way to where you’re going.)

I’m 21 chapters into the WIP. Three more are plotted. It’s an unholy mess. The time line is off. One subplot is missing. I’m trying to introduce it after the fact, but this requires going into already drafted chapters to insert information that should have been there in the first place.

I hate writing first drafts. I only get through them by building momentum and letting the narrative take over as I go, so I’m essentially typing up a story that is already fully formed in my head. All that’s left is the manner of telling. The events are already there. Writing without a definite plan of where I’m going is like trying to tie my shoes wearing mittens.

Tonight I’m getting out the index cards and capturing what has happened so far. Tomorrow I’ll start working on what comes next. The general form of the story is in my head, as well as where it has to wind up. I’m going back into my comfort zone.

I wish I could write something longer than a few thousand words without a detailed plan, but it’s time to admit I can’t. Thanks to everyone who encouraged me to give it a try. I can see why you enjoy it. I can even see how some stories probably should be written that way.

Just not by me.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

It's That Time Again

I terminated the agreement with my agent over thirty days ago, and she didn’t want to represent my most recently completed book, anyway. I compiled a list of publishers who will accept unagented submissions. I prioritized the list. I chose six who will accept simultaneous submissions to query first. I created a table of all the documents I need for the submissions, and who gets what. (Queries alone go to A,B, and C; bios go to B and D: D wants the first 100 pages; F wants the first three chapters; D, E and F want synopses, each of different lengths.)

I’ve found every conceivably justifiable reason to put off actually writing the query and the synopsis and the bio. Now I’m actually going to have to do them.


Wednesday, April 15, 2009

How Much is Too Much?

I recently parted ways with an agent and have begun trying to place a novel with a publisher on my own. The process is as tedious and frustrating as I remember it, and could be used as a tool for AAR to encourage writers to hire agents. If creating a law can be compared to making a sausage, wading through what’s involved to find a publisher is like having to find and kill the required animals, butcher them yourself, and then make the sausage.

I’m not complaining, though it probably sounds a lot like it. (When I complain, you’ll know.) This is my decision, and I’m good with it. I had an agent, but over time she and I came to have different visions of where my books should be marketed. Now it’s on me, and that’s fine. I don’t ever want to wonder if I didn’t get published because an agent only wanted to approach big publishers, even if the book was better suited for a smaller house. Now it doesn’t matter if the fault lies with the book, or with the approach: it’s on me either way. I’m good with that.

Here’s what’s hard. I was researching small publishing houses last night and found one I thought worth submitting to, until I read their guidelines. They want the whole manuscript via e-mail. Fine. They’ll need it for four to six months, unless it requires a second reading, which will take longer. Not so fine, but what can you do? They also will not notify me if they don’t want the book, only if they do, and, by the way, don’t even think of calling for a status update.

Well, then, they can kiss my ass. I don’t think it’s asking too much to send a e-mail rejection. “Dear Sir or Madam: No thank you,” would be sufficient. I’ve seen short story markets that do this, but they have definite end dates on their windows: if you haven’t heard back by March 15, we’re not interested. That I can live with.

I realize I’ve just crossed a potential publisher off of a list that’s tight to begin with. That’s okay. I think their approach is unprofessional and patronizing, no matter what they say about wanting to find and promote new writers. I’m also willing to admit I’m a hard ass from time to time, and it sometimes is not in my best interest.

How much jerking around will you allow a publisher to do before you say enough, particularly when they aren’t paying you (yet)?

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Laura Lippman and Tess Monaghan

I finished reading Laura Lippman’s What the Dead Know last night. It deserved all the awards it won last year. Tightly written, well paced, with exceptional character development and a nice twist at the end.

Last fall I read Hardly Knew Her, a collection of Lippman’s short stories. It, too, was excellent, though, as with all anthologies, some stories were better than others. The stories showed great flair and style, and were a lot of fun to read, a chance to watch a master (mistress?) at work.

Fortunately, I was asked to review Hardly Knew Her, or I would likely not have read it. Why not? Because my previous exposure to Lippman’s work was through one of her Tess Monaghan books, which, quite frankly, I could have lived without. The story was fine, but to me the characters and voice were nothing special. Mainstream boilerplate, safely written.

I have a Tess tome on my bookshelf, so I’ll give her another try, but even her stories in the anthology seemed bland compared to their peers. Laura Lippman is a big deal, and deservedly so. She made her name with the Tess Monaghan series. Am I the only person who feels these stories aren’t her strongest work?

Don’t worry about offending me with your responses. I’m twice divorced.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Serial Cheaters

Ancient Greek playwrights had a simple way to get themselves out of any corner they’d written themselves into: some god, even more bored than usual with immortality, would kill a few minutes by intervening in the mortal drama below. (I have an impression of the gods acting like twelve-year-old buys with a magnifying glass, watching an anthill, wondering what catastrophe they can think up next.) God in the machine (Deus en machina) is largely discredited today as a fictional device.

Humans haven’t changed all that much since sapiens became our last name. We’re taller, better groomed, and less prone to be killed and eaten by the same creature we hoped to kill and eat ourselves. Aside from that, most changes to human life have been technological, not evolutionary. Fire, the wheel, sliced bread. Stuff like that. Modern writers still need a way to get out of self-inflicted traps. I’m too middlebrow to say how literary writers do it (assuming they have any story in their book at all), but I know what’s popular with mystery writers:

Serial killers.

Not sure now to explain the villain’s motivations? Make him a serial killer. Serial killers are by definition broken, so you don’t really have to explain them. Maybe they were abused as children. Maybe not. Maybe they’re just fucked up. Doesn’t matter. No one really understands what makes a serial killer; they have some things in common, but nothing definitive. True, there’s the triad of things shrinks look for after the fact: bed wetting, setting fires, and animal abuse, but even all three of those don’t always mean someone will become a serial killer.

I recently read an acclaimed book that, while I didn’t care much for it, had many admirable aspects. The author wrapped me up in an improbable situation until I really wanted to see how he resolved it. Then he dumped it all on a serial killer who preyed on women and then committed suicide, which allowed to evade writing about what came after the heroes figured out who it was, which can be as involved as the actual detection. It was a huge letdown, and I think it colored my acceptance—or lack thereof—of the rest of the book..

Serial killers are a cheat. They typically prey on women (they’re nuts, not stupid; a man might kick their ass), which is another trick to add suspense, as danger to women is tried and true way to add some cheap thrills to a suspense story.

There have probably been more fictional serial killers created in the last thirty years than have existed in all of human history, if we distinguish serial killers from people who just happen to kill a lot. What is the fascination? Why are writers—and, apparently, readers—drawn to them? They’re the most formulaic element in the formula for a “breakout” novel: they raise the stakes. Place the hero, or someone close to the hero, in ever mounting jeopardy. How many more trees have to die before people get tired of being jerked around like this?