Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Gesundheit !

Dear Friends:

I have fallen victim to mother of all head colds. I’m thinking of suggesting sneezing as a new Pilates core ab routine. I know my midsection feels firmer. Of course, that could be because I haven’t had anything to eat except Earl Grey tea since Friday. My nephew calls me a booger factory. That’s a pretty accurate description coming from a 12 year old.

Since I’m feeling about as creative as a chipped cinderblock, I pulled a Q&A out of my files for your perusal. I think the answers I gave are honest, and hopefully they may help explain this writer’s world just a bit.

Stay well!


1.) How do you write? Do you set aside a certain time every day or just write when you have time? How do you juggle the demands of daily life with writing, a separate world in itself?

I try to write every day but it's difficult juggling that with working a full time job. I get up every day at 6AM to write for 1.5 hours, basically editing the block of manuscript text I've written the previous weekend. Weekends are key for me. I still get up early, around 7AM and write until Noon or 1PM on Saturday and Sunday. Monday holidays are a dream but I usually end up painting then, not writing. I write a chapter each weekend in draft form and then spend the following weekday morning revising. However, each writer develops their own schedule. I can tell you that you will never finish anything if you only write when you have the time! You have to make the time and then priortize your writing, constructing your 'real life' around it. It took me years to train my family to not call me on the weekend mornings, unless it was an emergency.

2.) How did you first get published? Did you have to send your manuscript to multiple publishers? How many times did you get rejected before getting accepted?

I first got published via short story and that's my advice to anyone starting out. Shorts are due able; it's very easy to get lost in a novel and discouraged because they take years to finish. For example, I started the novel I'm currently working on 12 years ago and it's just now getting done. But in the meantime I've had 3 short stories and another novel published. Publishing shouldn't be your focus; good storytelling is. Focus on your story and squeeze all the enjoyment out of it. The actually act of publishing only lasts six months or so. It's a lot of work if you don't enjoy doing it!

The novel that got published is a story in itself. I had an agent and he submitted it to Penguin/Putnam but they wanted some seriously absurd changes including changing the Nantucket location to Arizona since they already had a series based on Martha's Vineyard. Get used to this, publishers are business people (so they say) and they don't really care about the writing - they want a story they can sell. You'll have to decide on your own - as we all do - where you will draw the line. Some writers write one book a decade; others come out with 3 books a year. Long story short, I fired my agent and self-published using Booklocker and Print on Demand (POD). Did quite well, and won an Independent Publishers Honorable Mention for Mid-Atlantic Best Regional Fiction in 2006. But for my next one, I'm going back to the traditional route. This time I want to earn some money. Crass, but true.

As for rejection, I'm still getting them. Alfred Hitchcock's magazine just rejected one of my new favorites. They shouldn't have done that. It's really good and someday they'll be sorry when my new novel hits the NYT best seller list and I'll remind them they said no. : ) In the meantime, I don't take it personally (you can't). I just soldier on.

3.) Do you only write mysteries or other novels as well? How about other genres (nonfiction, poetry, etc.) or freelance writing? What do you think the outlook is for these genres?

I write mysteries because I like reading them. Someday I may try another genre if that's the form that best fits the story. It keeps coming back to that. What is the best way to tell the story?

I tried business freelance and hated it. I don't have time right now for freelance non-fiction. Poetry is hard for me because it's the opposite of creative prose. I love to use a lot of words and poetry almost seems like singing to me; I don't get it. Outlook for all the genres: right now I'd say invest in Kindle!

4.) How do you maintain motivation when writing? My problem is I'll start something and never finish it. How do you keep going?

It's simple; I have to. It's a compulsion. If I go for more than a couple of days without writing I get cranky. Sure, sometimes I put it down to think it over, but I always know where it is when I come back. Sometimes you have to put one thing down and give it time to simmer; the story isn't ready to be told yet. Sometimes you have to wait for something to happen in your life so you can use it in your story. I have some weird ideas about where I think the stories come from, but I'll save that for later.

5.) Do you plan your books from beginning to end, or do you sometimes have to improvise? Do you think having detailed plot and character lines before beginning a book is the only way to finish it?

Improvise! It's all about improvisation but then again every writer is different depending on the story they want to tell and it's been different for me depending on whether I'm writing a short or not. Short stories are all about surprise - they surprise me when I write them; I don't plot them out. A novel is a different animal and it requires some skeleton. I've learned, and I continue to learn, that everything will change before I'm done. EVERYTHING WILL CHANGE BEFORE YOU'RE DONE. Detailed characters, yes, the more you know about them before you start the better, although that will change along the way as you get to know them better. Why would you want to know everything about them and/or everything that is going to happen before you start? Where's the fun, the excitement, in that? If you knew everything there is to know, would you want to write it? Then it would seem like a tedious homework assignment to me. The most important thing is to just get started! Jump in with both feet. It's all going to change. Let the story take you there!

6.) How do you avoid making your writing cliched or overly sentimental?

You will edit out cliches. If your characters are real, they won't use cliches or get overly sentimental unless that is an aspect of their character. It sounds like you still believe you're going to write it - you won't. You are going to have to learn to step out of the way so that your characters will fill the stage. They will be the ones telling the story. If your story is human, if it is real, it won't be cliched.

7.) Do you have an agent and/or an editor? If so, how did you get them? Can you be your own editor?

I'm doing what everyone else is doing - sending out query letters and no, you can't be your own editor. You need a second pair of eyes so make sure you get the best pair you can. I've learned to keep my ear to the ground in the industry and I've ferreted out a couple of really good editors that I want to work with. I'm not going to give you their names; you need to have a fully completed manuscript first before you even try to find an agent or an editor. Don't have any illusions; these are business people too. No one is interested in ideas or hope. They want great words on paper.

8.) Once a writer is published, I'm assuming it gets easier to be published a second time. Is that true? How do contracts work?

Ha. Ha-ha. Nothing about publishing gets easier. Keep your eyes open. It's a tough marketplace and it's only going to get tougher. In the last decade the major publishing houses have consolidated into 5 imprints and we're all competing for a piece of that pie. Now, Amazon has introduced Kindle so that may change things even more. I don't have a crystal ball, I wish I did. I only know that you keep trying and that it appears that consistent effort works. Contracts are very complicated, and I'm not qualified to discuss them. You might try to google it. I'm sure there's alot of comment about them out there.

9.) What type of writing do you think is in demand right now?

That's the funny thing about the writing market. If you try to time it you'll always be late. Write your best story and hope for the best. You can't time the market.

10.) I'm considering buying the book Writers' Marketplace, which lists publishing companies and the genres of writing that they accept. Do you know anything about this book? I'm wondering if it would be a worthy investment? (I'm thinking yes.)

I know it's a good reference. I think it's expensive, though, around $90? You may find the same information online for free.

11.) Any other advice at all for an aspiring writer!

Never give up, never surrender. (My nephews favorite line from Galaxy Quest). Remember it's not about publishing or making money (or maybe it is, and good luck to you). Living a writing life is about adding richness to your life, not riches. Once you start writing, you'll become a better human being. That's what it's really about. Writing will help you live a better life. Maybe, if you're honest about it, you'll get to share your story with the world. If not, that's OK too.

And listen and don't listen to what people tell you. As a writer, you'll need to learn to move your ego out of the way in pursuit of the story (that's listening) but be on guard and protect yourself from negativity (don't listen). There are some horrific critique groups out there and you may get involved with one of them. Don't close yourself off to learning everything there is to know about writing but also don't be afraid to walk away. You are the judge of your own best work. Trust your instincts. Study life. Read Stephen King's On Writing and Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird. Memorize Rainer Maria Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet. You will have to be fearless, and honest, and kind. That's what it's all about.


Pat Remick said...

Thanks Martha for that inside look into your reading world, and hope you feel better soon!
Write more, sneeze less....

Anonymous said...

Oh, Martha, hope the worst of the cold is over by now. As for the writing experiences you shared, it's heartening to see that we all have pretty much the same problems. Thanks for that!
Sandy C.