Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Sending the Dogs Out to Hunt

By Martha Reed

Writing is a curious endeavor. You spend hours sitting in a room by yourself, muttering to the walls and hoping something fantastic will connect. Every writer has a different way of getting started: I start my day by massaging the previous day’s pages as a warm-up, flexing my mental fingers and then digging in and trying to push the storyline forward. I average about a page a day. Sometimes I leap too far ahead and then I have to go back and fill in a transitional gap, but usually I find that just writing slow and steady and reworking and retyping the sentences as I go along works best for me.

I’ve mentioned writerly superstitions on the Working Stiffs blog before and I recently turned up another one that I like to call: Sending the Dogs Out to Hunt.

When I’m working on a novel, and I know I’m going to have to put in a couple of years crafting 80,000 words in the right order, the sheer size of the task can get overwhelming and daunting, so I came up with a subterfuge, a cunning ploy that cuts my fear of finishing the project right off at the knees. I always keep a short story, something small - around 7,000 words - in current play. That way, as I slog around the 100 page quarter turn and enter my new novel’s backstretch, I can think of my short little sprinter piece way out there somewhere in front of me and hope that it crosses the finish line before I do. Thinking of my short story out there hunting for a new home keeps me hopeful whenever I take a break to check the mail and every once in awhile it surprises me and finishes first.

This little trick is how I keep my writer’s balance, by keeping something fresh and active out there, and I found myself pulled up short last month when my last story got unexpectedly accepted and I had nothing else to send out. I shrugged and thought I would be okay with that – after all, I was still writing – but I was wrong, and as I started losing sleep and experiencing separation anxiety I knew I needed to come up with a replacement story pretty fast. In a near panic I dug through my very, very, very old hopeful short story folder looking for a scrap of something I had already started that I could craft into something finished and new.

(This is exactly why I tell new writers to not throw anything out – you may not need it now, you might not even like what you wrote now, but who’s to say you might not change your mind in a decade?)

I retrieved a couple of faded paragraphs that still had the power to make me laugh out loud and I started writing furiously, putting in twelve hours a day and not coming up for anything but my day job and food. After a back-to-back set of working weekends, I had two new stories eagerly waiting in the starting gate and I was ready to re-establish my balance. A quick trip to the post office and ahhh…they’re off! Now it’s time to go back to my novel and wait for the self-addressed stamped envelopes to arrive in the mail.

Good dog. Fetch. Bring it home.

PS. I love this picture but look into the dog’s eyes. That dog is not smiling.


Annette said...

I hear ya, Martha. I'm working on getting a few sprinters pulled together to send out into the world, too. My goal at the beginning of the year was one submission a month. That worked for a while (the same one kept getting rejected rather quickly, so I just sent it back out), but now I've fallen off the wagon and need to get something else out there.

Thanks for the reminder to quit thinking about it and JUST DO IT.

Tory said...

Great idea, Martha!

And I love the thought of a couple pages I wrote ten years ago inspiring me once again.

Sort of like refurbishing the old shopping mall from Annette's blog? :-)

Martha Reed said...

And it makes for something nice in the mail besides discount flyers and bills!

Annette said...

I don't think of rejection letters as nice. Sigh. ;-)

Joyce said...

I like email rejections better. Fast. Kind of like ripping off the Band-Aid with one quick yelp instead of slowly peeling it off.

JennieB said...

I still can't write short. Wish I could. My second manuscript ended up at 90,000 words just like my first one. All the others have been around 87,000-88,000. (Those are the ones that are making the rounds for me. The unsold books.) And while I know the guidelines for writing short stories, somehow I don't 'get' it. I can't seem to think small. Any suggestions?

Good post, Martha! No, that's not a happy dog.

Joyce said...

JB, I never thought I could write a short story either, but I recently wrote one that's 1000 words. It was a lot of fun!

Cathy said...

Your dedication is wonderful, but this year "The World Is Too Much with Me" (see previous blog). Maybe next year I'll get organized. It's just important to do what you can do whenever you can do it and don't give up.

Enjoyed your blog, Martha.