Another year, another book to burn.

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Last year, I burned one of my own unpublished books to close out the year. It was meant as a way to put the book behind me and move forward. A way to force myself not mope or wallow in self-pity at an accomplishment that revealed itself to be a failure. This year, I’ve decided to do the same, and for much the same reasons. What I didn’t expect was that it was a bit more painful the second time around. No, I didn’t burn myself, and it’s not that it’s exactly hard to burn a bit of paper, after all, it’s just wood-pulp and people have been burning shit like that for a million years or something. Hell, people are so good at burning stuff, we do it accidentally all the time. In any case, as difficult as it was to close out this year’s writing efforts, I expect closing out 2018 will be worse yet, but I’ve got an entire year to fret over it.

The good news for 2017 was that I managed to finish full drafts of two books and write about half of a third. It’s a pretty good showing, considering my first book took over ten years to finish. What I learned with my first book and second books, however, was that once done you have two options, revise/edit/publish or don’t. And to call them options is a little more than generous. In general, most of us get stuck in the revise/edit stage and never make it beyond. A writer could revise a book for their entire whole life and never get it to the point where a publisher will never take it and self-publishing just seems silly. Hell, a ton of authors do just that – churn away to no end. And this is why I’ve started to burn them.

This fall, at the writer’s conference, an author was asked for some general advice for writers, without a breath of hesitation she said, in a South African drawl, “Write the damn book.”  (Yes, it’s a direct quote, she even put that shit on SWAG pens.) Then she elaborated, saying something to the effect that if you’ve been working on a book for longer than a year, put it in a box and shove it under your bed or just burn the damn thing. This is hard advice to swallow when you look at people like JK Rowling who reportedly took 6 years to write Harry Potter, and don’t even get me started on the long awaited books from Rothfuss and Martin, but those folks are a sort of magic writing unicorn the rest of us aren’t. The rest of us have to keep moving and improving and trying new things, if we don’t then we remain stuck in a rut retreading the same old ground for years, burning countless hours of creativity and time on a project that is clearly struggling.

Even though I hadn’t yet heard this advice, that was what I was thinking when I burned Wine Bottles last year. It was very much on my mind this year, as I burned Deep Space Helpdesk … And yes, that was the one I got very positive feedback from an agent on. However, I’ve spent the past month and a half revising the first quarter of the book and I’m still not satisfied. Honestly, I think I’ve lost the thread of the story. The soul went out of it some time ago. I could have burned Dark Queen of Darkness too, it was the other book I finished this year and after the trashing I got from an agent, I probably should have done. Fear not, Hexe will get her chance on the flames next year, no doubt, and if I work very hard I might get to burn two next year.

If you’ve even read this far, you may be thinking: “Dave, you’re giving up, don’t give up, I thought you were more stubborn than that?”

It does feel like giving up. We make these things and want them to go on, be re-told and enjoyed. And I’d be lying if I said that this whole thing didn’t make me upset. The reality is that it doesn’t necessarily work that way. Either the concept works and you go with it or it doesn’t and you move on.

In this case, all I can say is that I’m not giving up as much as I’m moving on. There are other stories that will not be written or seen if I continue spending my few precious writing hours banging away on a book that simply fails to pull together a coherent theme and compelling plot. Perhaps, someday, I’ll return to the concept and give it another go, time will have passed and maybe I can re-imagine the concept into something that does work, but I know that the time is not now.

So, going into 2018, without Deep Space Helpdesk around my neck, I’ve got just the one book to revise and that leaves me mental and creative freedom to move forward with new projects. Maybe I’ll even get that break out novel, whatever it is, finished this year. Who knows? But I’m going to find out.

Happy new year, and happy writing, friends.

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REALITY CHECK – Getting a one-on-one agent review

It’s no secret that writers have big egos. Even when invited to eviscerate someone’s work, I don’t want to do it because while I want to help them, I don’t want to hurt them. Usually, though, the worst ego-bruising events have to do with rejections. I mean, we all get to the point where we’ve finished something and send it off to an agent only to have a short, terse, message come back with some version of “no,” provided we get anything back at all. Normally, these things come without context or explanation. What you rarely get though, on an unsolicited query, is anything more than that. However, if you did, I promise, your ego would be harmed beyond merely ‘bruised’.

Personally, I look at a rejection and wonder, but why? What was the reason that this has been rejected? How can I improve if all I ever get is no?

This fall, I had the opportunity to get a one-on-one review of my work by a big-time New York agent with a big publishing house. To be clear, I paid for this. I thought that having this review would finally get me to the answer of “but why did you reject this?” The goal was to find a compass bearing on the improvement process. Maybe I’d even get a sense of whether or not I was writing things that could be marketable.

Spoiler alert: I didn’t come away with an improvement strategy as much as a recommendation to be a completely different writer. I also cried. And if you’re looking for a reason to ugly cry with sort of minimal collateral damage, this is a really good strategy.

The first piece we looked at was Deep Space. I read about half of the prologue in a group setting. At the time, and especially now, I regard this piece as thoroughly unfinished. Not ready for submission and not ready for beta-readers or in-depth critiques beyond perhaps that first bit. I received the very, very favorable feedback of “That’s fun, I’d read more of that” This comment was followed by some commentary on the contents and structure which I generally regard as productive, but indicates much re-writing. This was 100% in-line with expectations, except for the bit where he handed me his card and invited me to query him O_o. Best case scenario right? (well, yes, but there’s more). After having my ego so rapidly and enormously inflated, what came next was painful and, to be perfectly honest, a little bit humiliating.

The next day, at my appointed time, I went in for a one-on-one on Hexe – at the time, this one was drafted and out for early readers to come back and tell me what’s wrong. Most definitely ready for critique, in any case. I am (was) proud of this work, even after nearly trashing it this spring. It’s got some good humor, it’s got a light fun tone and the characters are memorable. So memorable that my daughter was trying to make Hexe’s castle in minecraft – high praise from her, I can tell you. So, what was my feedback do you think? I have to paraphrase this one, because we spent twenty minutes covering the same ground. “This is really, not very good. It’s solidly one-note and I couldn’t imagine reading this for… How long is it? 120K? no, cut that down to 75K, max…” and it went on. The bits of feedback can be summarized in the following bullets:

– It’s one-note

– Play it straight

– Get there faster, shorten it up

– Make the main character more likable

– and (INFURIATINGLY) The writing itself is pretty good, can’t fault that.

He then spent the last few minutes asking why the hell I hadn’t given him deep space. I told him it wasn’t ready yet, I really wanted the feedback on this one. After hearing the review of Hexe, I realized that even if I sent him Deep Space to have a look at, certainly as it was then, he was going to shake his head and say, ‘nope’. The humor and approach are really similar. I was so certain, actually, that I told him as much right there. He repeated his advice in the bullets above, and reiterated that he wanted to see more.

I feel like this is the worst spot to leave a writer. I don’t even know what to do with the comments. I mean, sure, shorten it up makes sense, but play it straight? That was a choice I made specifically to support the humor and, in fact, to give the satire a little more punch. And one-note? – I’ve been thinking about this for weeks now and still don’t know what it means or how to fix it. What’s more, I walked away with the idea that I’m not very good and that the writer’s voice I’ve finally found isn’t either. To be successful, I have to write like someone I’m not.

The same agent who’d reviewed my work pointed out that there are many millions of manuscripts written every year, and only a small percentage of those ever get to print with fewer yet making it into bookstores. Not only is this environment competitive, the odds of having a story, no matter how good, make it into print and even on to the shelf at the bookstore are a million to one against.

A rejection letter without context is a kindness. The reality is that if you knew the agent’s full reasons for not requesting more, there’s a very good chance you’d throw your laptop into the ocean and never think about writing again. So, next time you get a rejection and ask “but why?” just assume they didn’t like the concept, and keep going. If you hit the point where there is nobody else to query, maybe write something else or simply self-publish then write something else. The real, honest truth is, on average, becoming published traditionally is simply not going to happen. In a lot of ways, it’s the best and most compelling argument for self-publishing I’ve run across yet.

Anyhow, that’s what I’ve got. I’m headed back into my existential funk and clean the kitchen, which will also be critiqued and found wanting. Cheers.

Puttering around in the garden

I saw a picture on twitter yesterday that got me thinking. Not thinking in any sort of productive way, but that way that writers start thinking, as in: There’s a story here and I’m going to find it. So, here is the story. It’s not well edited or polished, but here it is. 

To say Samantha loved her garden would paint a dramatically understated picture of bright days filled with every shade of green complimented by brilliant flowers in every color of the rainbow. She luxuriated in the smell of damp earth and gentle buzzing of a thousand types of insects. It was her one sanctuary from the hectic bustle of domestic demands, and a job that would make even Einstein’s brain hurt.
On a day as perfect as any she could recall, she went back into her garden, eyeing a big, horribly bland patch of grass. That patch of grass had been on her landscaping shit list for entirely too long. Sure, lawn was nice, but it was boring. She wanted more color, more vegetables, more greens, and most importantly, less grass to mow. She took out her shovel, she took out her hoe, she took out her gloves, and she faced the grass. 

Armed with the tools to convert a perfectly good lawn into a far better garden, she set to it. First, she removed the sod, then began turning black dirty digging ever deeper. With each shovel, she got the satisfying shuck of the shovel sinking into the earth. Then, a resounding clang rattled the shovel handle. 

Samantha frowned. Rocks of any notable size weren’t common in this area. The topsoil should go for many feet, not just a few inches. It certainly did in the rest of her garden. She tapped the bit of rock with her shovel and found it was, indeed, a substantial obstacle. It was deep enough that she could have left it, but leaving it would bother her. She got down on her hands and knees and set to finding the edges of the rock so she could move it.

A few minutes with her hands in the dirt and she uncovered not a rock, but a perfectly round metal object some sixteen inches in diameter. She continued to remove the dirt until she revealed an old rusted car wheel rim. It was absolutely embedded in the ground and wouldn’t so much as wiggle. More digging revealed the entire rim. It sat neatly in the hole as if she might just be able to pick it up and move it, yet it still wouldn’t budge. She pulled it, she kicked it, she even jammed the shovel under it and tried to pry, but nothing seems to help. It was almost as if it were still attached to the car. The thought made her feel cold, as if a great curtian of rain clouds had rolled over the perfect blue sky and quenched the sun.

In an attempt to reassure herself that this silly bit of debris was not still attached to a vehicle, she cleared yet more dirt from further around the rim. It took little time before she struck something else. This time, she hit what proved to be a fender. She nearly stopped and covered the whole mess, but curiosity pressed her on. Who would bury and entire car? 

As the morning wore on to afternoon and threatened to become evening, Samantha revealed more and more of the car, finally coming to the driver’s side door window. She tapped it with her shovel once, then twice, and on the third tap it shattered. It was so sudden and unexpected that she let out a little scream. Then she looked around to make sure nobody had noticed. They hadn’t, she was quite alone. The kids were with dad at soccer practice. 

Curiosity continued to push her, so she took her shovel and pushed it in through the broken window. She tentatively poked the interior of the car. The shovel stopped. Something pulled on it. She pulled back, but the shovel wouldn’t come free, then it shot clean out of her hands. She stared, absolutely dumbfounded and more than a little frozen by fear, staring at the broken window where her shovel had disappeared. 

A skeletal hand reached out of the window. Samantha screamed and turned to run, but something grabbed her leg. She screamed all the harder as she fell to the ground and something pulled her inexorably toward the broken car window. No matter how hard she grabbed at the grass and thrashed about, she kept moving until she reached the very edge of the car window. Then, she felt more bony fingers grasp her legs, pulling her yet hard, and in one very hard, swift yank, she was in darkness.

When her husband and children returned from soccer practice, they found a shovel, and a hoe, and a pair of gloves laying next to a small hole where an old car rim sat partially covered in dirt.