Month-end wrap-up and August goals

Just spent two hours trying to something that should have taken a few minutes: find and print two pictures of my kids to put in a frame in the hall. It's now 10:55, about an hour and a half later than I intended to start working. Ah well.

The DSL was down for a week. It's back, and therefore so am I. FM folks: I missed you guys.

At the end of every month I review what I've accomplished in my writing, and set goals for the next month (which are often revised as needed.) This helps me to feel like I've actually done something, because most of the time I feel like a complete slacker. I read Zette and Holly's blogs – Holly writes 6000 words a day come hell or high water, and Zette produces something like a novel a month, plus short stories, plus edits Vision and has her own imprint to run, and I think my god, I am *such* a loser, I am *never* going to make it in this business. The monthly assessments help to counter that. I didn't do what they did, but at least I did *something.*

Today is the last day of the month, so here goes.

In July, I:

  • Finished an incredibly painful edit of Sweetwater Kill
  • Received the rejection of an earlier draft of SWK from Black Gate
  • Gave SWK to a trusted friend for a last pass, and reviewed her critique over lunch (she was dead on, and I am SO glad that I gave it to her)
  • Critiqued part of Camilla's novel (not as much as I intended but I'll catch up this week)
  • Withdrew my submission of The Welcome Dark from Publisher Who Shall Not Be Named
  • Figured out what was wrong with Devotions and started over – AGAIN
  • Wrote twenty-two pages (longhand) of prewriting for 2005 NaNovel
  • Read 200 pages of 2004 NaNovel, in preparation for August
  • Attended the SBWC post-conference debriefing meeting (yesterday)
  • Started working on my vocabulary again (The Scar really stretched me – I became reaquainted with the dictionary while reading it)

Not bad. Not great – note the lack of word count produced in July. But I'm going to let that go, because June was *such* a rough month (that was Conference month, the Confidence Crusher) that I needed the down time to recover. But it is forward motion.

August goals:

  • Complete 2004 NaNovel – 40-50k words to go
  • Final – I mean it this time! – draft of SWK
  • Critique a minimum of 100 pages for Camilla
  • Submit SWK to Scifiction
  • Submit TWD to Wicked Hollow
  • Study up on POV for 2005 NaNovel (this includes rereading things like Character and Viewpoint and also taking apart favorite novels that have a flavor similar to what I'm aiming for in November.)
  • Continue prewriting for 2005 NaNovel
  • Begin research for proposed panel for SBWC 2006 (I *had* to open my big, fat mouth, didn't I?)

I'm insane. There is absolutely no way that I'll get all of that done. Not a chance.

*sigh*

Well, maybe.

The worst that can happen is that some of it gets rolled into September. I have a very convenient business trip this week that will give me lots of alone time – I plan to use it to work on the critique and the 2004 NaNovel.

How about you? What did you accomplish in July, and what are your goals for August?

Useful editing tips

Pat Holt's Ten Mistakes Writers Don't See (But Can Easily Fix When They Do), by way of Paperback Writer's blog (an excellent daily read, btw, by someone who writes full-time in five different genres.)

#1, coincidentally, is about overused words, which the author calls “crutch words.” Ms. Holt makes the point that they're most often simple words, but in cases where it's a unique word – a real 50-dollar word – you should only use it *once.* She then goes on to document the overuse of a couple of words by specific authors.

I wonder, if I were to go through The Scar with a highlighter, how many uses of “ossify” and “puissant” I would find. I'm guessing dozens of each.

This is one of those things that I do notice in other people's writing, and *sometimes* catch in my own. My novelist friend used “illuminate” twice in two pages and I marked it up. I caught a couple of overuses in Sweetwater Kill the last time I went throught it (can't remember what they were, though.)

Pat Holt makes useful suggestions here. (Those Empty Adverbs definitely creep into my writing.) I'll add it to my arsenal of editing tools. My writing will be better for it.

By the way, I don't want my little gripe about those words to put anyone off reading the book. I recommend it highly, and I will soon buy everything else Mieville has written. (Forgive me for being too lazy to find the proper code to produce the accented 'e' in his name.)

Big pond, small fish

Brilliant post over at Agent 007's blog, which gently puts the smackdown on whiney writers who don't feel they get a fair shake from editors and agents. Go read it.

Are you back? Excellent.

I don't get to the bookstore very often (the nearest one that has enough stocked that I don't have to special order is an hour away,) but last week I did. I went in not really sure what I wanted – I was considering looking for some books on architecture (a new interest for me) and then remembered that someone at the conference had recommended China Mieville as someone I'd enjoy reading. So off to Sci-fi/Fantasy I went, and found one, choosing the title more or less at random. I chose The Scar – the title didn't do much for me, but the cover is right up my alley. (Note to cover designers: While our mothers told us not to judge a book by its cover, we do anyway.)

Then I went looking for something that I'd never heard of, but that sounded good. I found one, and I can't even remember who it's by or what the title is, but I know that based on title, cover, and back cover summary it sounded unique enough that I was willing to spend seven bucks for it. I also picked up a book of Kelly Link's short stories, and then put it back, because I felt like it was closer to required reading – and therefore work – than reading for pleasure. But that's another story.

I'm almost done with The Scar, and it's the best thing I've read in a long, long time. I keep backtracking to see how he handled certain things. The only things that bother me are his unconventional use of space breaks, and his overuse of two words (and all of their forms): ossify and puissant. Those words have become stumbling blocks in my reading now. I'm hoping that they thin out in these last few pages. (I had the same problem with Anne Rice's use of “preternatural.” I grew to hate the word so much that I will go to great lengths to not use it, and as far as I know I have successfully avoided using it except to bitch about her use of it.)

Anyway, Agent 007's point is that editors and agents choose books in much the same way that readers choose books. Based on a title, a cover (letter), and a summary (synopsis, or outline maybe) they decide whether or not it sounds like the same old thing (see Miss Snark's blog) or something interesting enough to read.

And we must remember – they don't just have to *like* it. They have to *love* it. They have to love it enough, and believe in it enough, to put all of their energy behind it. 'Good' doesn't cut it. 'Well written' doesn't cut it. We have to be absolutely brilliant and fresh. Our grammar has to be spot-on, our style consistent, our voice strong and engaging. And our story has to be perfectly suited to the agent or editor's unique, personal, subjective taste. That's on *us.* They do not have to be accomodating. They do not have to read the whole thing to know that it doesn't suit them, any more than I have to know that a book with a dragon on the cover is not coming home with me. (Sorry. It's probably a really good book. I just don't like dragons.)

They do not choose based on whether they think someone, somewhere will buy it if it's published. They choose based on whether they think *they* would buy it.

And it *is* fair.

Other posts from agents do indicate that there are exceptions, such as the Celebrity Memoire/ Sure Thing. We're not celebrities, though, so that exception does not apply to us.

During the last three years I have spent a lot of time reading as much as I can from people in all aspects of the industry. I wanted to go into this with my eyes wide open, with my artistic self-indulgence already shed, and a clear idea of how big the pond is and how to avoid the sharks (freshwater sharks?) I knew what I thought a writer was, and what an agent was, and how books get made. I was dead wrong about all of it. Forward Motion and Holly Lisle's posts were my first dose of reality, and since then I've added dozens of other voices of reason and experience to the chorus in my head.

I do not expect to succeed. Does that sound strange? Self-defeating? Maybe. I think it's also practical. I *hope* to succeed, some day, but I'm aware that I am far from the level I need to reach for it to even become a possibility.

Voices like Agent 007 keep me grounded. I don't consider it at all discouraging to read things like that. I feel like I'm ahead of the game, because I have the information I need to make my work better, and to understand the business as best I can.

Read, Write, Execute

Part of being a writer is reading. I read non-fiction for research and ideas, and fiction for industry education and — of course — sheer pleasure.

And for those of us starting out, we read each other's work and critique it. We learn from it, and try to help each other make our work as good as it can be. Of course we're limited in this task by our own skill level, but we do our best.

I've been a member of two online critique groups: Critters.org and Hatrack.com writers' groups. Both were good experiences. Both ate up a ton of time and left very little for me to spend writing my own work. I quit each of them after a few months, when my turn to submit came up and I had nothing to send. That told me that it was taking too much of my time.

When I read to critique I spend a *lot* of time. If something catches my attention, or doesn't read well, I will spend whatever amount of time it takes to figure out *why* and then convey that back to the writer. There is usually a lot of red on the page when I'm done, and it's usually story stuff rather than punctuation and grammar — contradictions, believability problems, characterization, logic problems. Lots of passive voice stuff, usually, too. But it takes *so long.*

So the critique groups didn't work out for me. Now I take on one or two projects at a time and try to get loose, comfy timelines. To date I've only critiqued short stories, or a couple of chapters of a novel.

And then a couple of days ago that changed, and I took on a 140k-word novel by a friend in Forward Motion. I totally want to do this critique – with my own novel scheduled to be finished at the end of August I want the experience of working with something that long. And she's been so helpful to me on two different projects, I definitely owe her.

I got started last night, and soon discovered that my method of critique is not going to work for something this size. She wouldn't get this thing back for a year. So I had to come up with something else. It won't be as thorough as I'd like – much more topical, with general comments at the bottom. It won't be the kind of line editing that I like to do. But I'll learn something from it, and I hope that it will be valuable to my friend.

It's a hard thing to do, sending your work off to other people to be picked apart. As writers we want validation, not criticism. I believe that it's a rite of passage for new writers to submit their work for critique. It's courageous and demonstrates a seriousness about the craft.

The truth is that we don't often receive validation. The nice things are always — ALWAYS — followed by a “but.” Even glowing comments in the context of a critique are followed by — well, the critique. Egos are bruised, confidence is slaughtered, will to live can get a little iffy.

The ultimate validation, the brass ring, the one that we all want and that I have not yet had is — of course — publication. Not “pretty good,” not “very good,” — good enough to print. That's the validation that I want, and my friend wants. We can't provide that to each other, unfortunately, because we are not editors. But we'll try to help each other along the way, to increase the odds that some day we *will* get it.

I was talking about reading, wasn't I. Before I sign off, here's some more reading for all of you self-learners out there: MIT's OpenCourseWare, where they've made the course work available for more than a 1000 (their number, I didn't count them) undergraduate classes. I'm going to drool over these course listings and hope that some day I'll find the time to work my way through a few of them. I think I'm going to start with “Imagining the Future.”

Have at it.

Spinning wheels

I haven't blogged since the conference. I haven't had anything to say.

Well, that's probably not true, but it would have been a bunch of negativity, and who wants that?

This year's conference had the same effect that last year's did: complete loss of confidence. It left me raw and uncertain. There was a point at which I wondered if I should even go back next year. And there have been other points during the last three weeks when I've wondered if I should continue writing at all.

In the weeks between then and now I have made some changes to Sweetwater Kill that were suggested by the codirector of the conference. It was an exercise in acceptance. Some of his points I completely agreed with; some of them seemed off-base until I understood that they were the result of ambiguity in my writing; and others made me gnash my teeth and seethe internally. The changes in that last group didn't get made, for the most part. I made small concessions here and there, but some of them would have changed the meaning of the story and the nature of the characters.

I have to thank the Forward Motion crew once again for seeing me through the two weeks it took to get that draft done – in particular Ann, Moosey, Paul, Empath, and Camilla (there are probably others who helped. If you're one of them, thank you, and I'm sorry that I didn't remember when I wrote this.) I bounced several of the changes off of them and got great feedback. They supported me through the teeth-gnashing, and told me when I was wrong.

I figured it would be like working with an editor, and in that sense was good practice.

I finished the draft a week ago, and then gave it to a trusted friend to copy edit before I give it to anyone. I was able to discuss some of the things that had come up during the last draft – things about the MC's character and whether that was coming across clearly enough (it's not) and how to tone down or eliminate a theme that had emerged and that I do *not* want. So there will be an eighth draft. *sigh* And then, so help me, I'm abandoning it to the editors. If anyone wants me to change it again, they're going to have to pay me to do it.

Because I'm spinning my wheels. I've been writing and rewriting and submitting the same two stories over and over, and it's taking time away from new work. Every time I think I'm done with them, someone reads them and comes back with more changes – some valid, some not. But I can't ignore the valid ones. They eat at me. So I write another draft.

I need to increase my body of *submitted* work. I have a few complete first drafts, but I need complete *second* drafts, and some submitted *third* drafts. I need to increase my chance of success by increasing the numbers.

For the past week I've been working on the second draft of Devotions, and with a little discipline I think I can have it done by the end of the weekend. It won't be cringe-free, but it should be critiquable. And then I have the choice of either Red Carpet (which needs so much rework I'm afraid to look at it) or Locks.

I'm also reading what I have of Pages, which was my 2004 NaNovel. I never finished it. But November is coming up quickly, and I don't want this one hanging over my head. So I'm reading it, catching up with my characters, and figuring out what needs to happen next – and then August will be spent finishing it. I was surprised to find that it's not complete crap. The writing is bad, but I can fix bad writing. I was worried that the story wouldn't be there – but it is. It's not a perfect story, but I think the bones are good. That was a pleasant surprise.

Well, that's my catch-up blog. There will be more to write about soon – like my older daughter's foray into fan fiction, and the fact that my fifteen-year-old sister is writing her *second* novel now.

If either of them publish before me I will be forced to commit hare kare to preserve my honor.

Cheers.

SBWC – Day 1

I spent most of today smiling.

I love hanging out with writers. A lot. I don't get to do it often so it is absolute joy for me to immerse myself in the company of writers for a week.

Spec fic writers are even better. There is a fair sized contingent of us, all a little off, all a little bit broken. As I said, joy.

And returning for a second year is SO much better than going the first year. Last year I was scared to death, intimidated by pretty much everyone, and felt completely inadequate as a writer. I've come a long way in the past twelve months, though, and knowing a few people helped a lot. At dinner and orientation I got to reconnect with some of my favorite people from last year: Award Winning Writer A. Zayne Tawil (TM), Soon-To-Be Best Selling Children's Author Maureen Seifert, and Imminently Fabulously Successful YA Author Steve Kenton, all of whom deserve gold-plated publishing contracts with enormous advances. You editors out there just don't know what you're missing.

If you're ever going into a strange situation that you know will be uncomfortable and you don't know anyone, *volunteer.* By the end of the day I had met dozens and dozens of people, including a couple of agents and an editor for Writer's Digest. I spent the day at the Agents Day sign-up table, helping with the scheduling. It's a first for the conference, and so far appears to be a success. The litmus test will be on Tuesday, when people actually meet with the agents. There were a few unhappy attendees who didn't arrive in time to get slots with their agent of choice. I predict that there will be a few more unhappy people who don't get instant representation on Tuesday. It's kind of strange to learn how people *think* it works.

Barnaby Conrad, Founder Extraordinaire, mentioned that in his opening speech tonight. Some people honestly believe that the only thing standing between them and best-sellerdom is their lack of an agent, when in reality their writing isn't publishable yet.

This is all a little disjointed – sorry about that. It was a long day.

The conference is held at the Westmont College campus in Montecito, the posh southerly neighbor of Santa Barbara. The Westmont campus is amazing – all gorgeous architecture and manicured gardens. The sun broke through the traditional Santa Barbara June Gloom just in time for dinner in the garden. We could even see the Channel Islands off the coast. It's a beautiful setting. The whole experience is grand.

The one negative note of the day was that my PDA appears to have a battery drain – I charged it all night and it wouldn't turn on this afternoon. I bought it (and the keyboard) specifically so that I wouldn't have to take my laptop this year. Alas.

Tomorrow the workshops begin, and in the evening there is the Tribute to Ray Bradbury. As a volunteer I received an invitation to the pre-party, where in theory I should be able to actually meet Ray Bradbury. I confess to being completely star-struck, and will probably vomit on his shoes out of nervousness. I will take my camera but anticipate that I will be too self-conscious to use it.

That's it for today. Gonna relax for a little bit and then head off to sleep. Tomorrow will be another long day. Cheers.

Day before conference.

Panic.

No, wait – there's nothing to panic about. I finished the edit of Red Carpet last night, and I won't have a chance to workshop it until Saturday, so that still leaves me one night to rewrite the outline and another to write the first six pages of the second draft.

Sweetwater Kill is as ready as it's going to get, so that's not an issue.

I have clothes to wear to the pre-party for the Tribute to Ray Bradbury, at which I hope to actually meet Mr. Bradbury himself.

My PDA is updated with my down-to-the-minute schedule for the entire conference, with alarms going off ten minutes before I have to be anywhere. I got my WIPs into WordSmith so I can work on them during downtime. I need to get used to writing on the PDA, I've avoided it for too long. I'm sure by the end of the week I'll be a pro.

It all seems to be coming together. I still have to print off copies of everything. Things are going so smoothly that I'm sure to run out of printer ink after the third page of the first manuscript.

I also wrote 1000 words of the second draft of an essay I've been working on for a while. It felt good to sit down and knock out some pages. It needs a couple more drafts, though, and I need to refine my thinking before it will say what I want it to say.

There's a lot to get done around the house, and I'll need to cram my family full of vegetables tonight because I know they'll eat nothing but cheese pizza for the next seven days.

I'm excited.

A blog in need of a purpose.

When I created my website (http://www.christie-johnson.com) it was with the thinking that a) some day I would need one and when the time came I would be ready, and b) that I could blog a bit about what's actually involved (for me) in working toward the goal of being published. I know I'm not the first, nor will I be the last. I read a *lot* of blogs by published authors and unpublished writers. I've found a lot of help in those blogs. But I'm not sure that I have a lot to add to the body of blogged experience, and frankly I'm not making progress quickly enough to make the subject interesting.

I can certainly blog about the Santa Barbara Writers' Conference, (http://www.sbwc.org) and the workshops that happen throughout the year. But I'm not a journalist, so I don't know how well I'll do. I'll give it a shot though.

Aside from that – SBWC and the trials of an unpublished writer – I'm not sure what I have to say. I don't want to talk about my personal life here. It's lovely, but happy people aren't all of that interesting, and my domestic commentary probably wouldn't be useful to anyone.

My other interests include first amendment rights, evolutionary science, skepticism/rational thought, and other secular humanist subjects, but I'm not an expert in any of those things – just a student. They might creep in here and there in the form of recommendations and links.

I'll think about it for a couple of days and see what I come up with. By then the conference will have started and I'll have plenty to talk about for at least a week.