Thursday, April 30, 2009
There was an article in the Wall Street Journal Wednesday about the rejection letters students have received from colleges. Due to the large number of applicants, more students than ever are being rejected by the schools of their choice. Rejected students have even created a "rejection wall" on a message board. Colleges are rated on how harsh or how compassionate the rejections are.
Rejections ranged from harsh "The deans were obliged to select from among candidates who clearly could do sound work at Bates" (Bates College), to the very nice "Past experience suggests that the particular college a student attends is far less important than what the student does to develop his or her strengths and talents over the next four years" (Harvard). Stanford tells students that appeals will not be considered. Duke wants rejectees to know that they'll "find an institution at which you will be happy."
I couldn't help but see the parallels between these letters and the rejection letters most writers have seen at some point in their careers. Come to think of it, looking for an agent is a lot like searching for that perfect college. Students pore over college websites checking out majors, course requirements and activities. Writers spend hours researching agents to see what they represent, who their clients are and how many sales they've made. Students spend weeks working on the application package and essay, while writers agonize over the perfect hook and query letter.
The rejections are similar, too. Some are harsh, like the one from Bates College. I once had one that said, "I thought it would be better." Ouch. Others are kind, "while I liked this a lot, it's just not right for my list, but please think of me for your next project." Some agents say that you'll surely find another agent who will love it.
Although rejection isn't easy, I think it's healthy for these students to learn to deal with it. Rejection is a part of life, whether it's not getting accepted to the school of one's choice, or getting turned down for the perfect job.
And if the student plans to be a writer someday, well, they'd better get used to it.
Anyone have any rejections they'd like to share? What was your most memorable rejection--either good or bad?
Wednesday, April 29, 2009
Conference season is upon us. Namely the Pennwriters annual conference is right around the corner. (Annette, don't panic. You still have two whole weeks.) Some of us have attended this conference dozens of times; some have been once or twice; others have never attended. This post is for all of us.
Before the conference
*Spend time researching the agents who will be there. Not sure what agent represents your genre? Think she does, but you're not sure? Is she currently open to submissions? What are her submissions guidelines? Who are her clients? What was her most recent sale? Find out as much as you can beforehand, and you won't be wasting anyone's time. Especially your own.
*After you've learned as much as you can about the agent(s), don't query before the conference. Sign up for a pitch appointment instead. Go to agent Jessica Faust's March 31, 2008 post on why.
*Go over the program schedule. Plan now what workshops/classes/events you'll attend. Have a plan, and then be flexible. Schedule changes happen. Know that now. It's no one's fault.
*Internet weather maps are useful tools. Know ahead of time what the weather will be like. Pack and dress accordingly. Of course, you'll be spending much of the time inside the hotel and you'll want to be comfortable there as well. Some hotel Web sites have floor plans available–how much walking will you be doing getting from one room to the next?
*Give yourself plenty of travel time, especially if you're driving and this is your first time. You don't want to arrive frazzled!
During the conference
*Afraid of the crowd? Does it seem like everyone else knows each other? Lots of hugs and kisses among all these strangers? Once upon a time we didn't know each other. We've become friends because we were brave enough to introduce ourselves. You can and will meet lifelong friends. Old-timers, reach out and meet that new person.
*Network. This ties in with the above, but I'm keeping it separate to expand a bit. There are times and places when it's just not appropriate to approach an agent or editor. Let common sense be your guide. Have you heard the story of the idiot who shoved her manuscript under the bathroom stall? Don't become the next new idiot. Be polite. Don't barge in on what may be a private meeting. Ask before joining in on the conversation.
*There are no stupid questions. However, don't hog any Q&A period seeking the answer you want to hear. For Pennwriters Read & Critique sessions, agent/editor appointments: there are set time limits. If you're given ten minutes, use them wisely. Don't abuse the schedule. A lot of work has gone into planning these events, and in order to run smoothly it's imperative they run on time.
After the conference
Ready to dash off that query to the willing and seemingly interested agent you met? Slow down. Take another look at your manuscript. Is it ready? Is your query the best it can possibly be? Have you looked over your copious notes from the conference? What little nugget did you learn that can be used to improve the manuscript and/or the query?
If you're still not prepared to send the query, do what you love. Start reading one of the many books you bought at the conference. You did buy some books, right?
Most important tip: Relax and have fun.
Annette, that goes double for you.
Tuesday, April 28, 2009
Okay, I know I occasionally go out on a limb and start to discuss a topic that might be a little bit, well, ‘out there’ but an idea started to germinate in my head over a dinner conversation and I can’t stop thinking about it. The original questions were perennial ones for writers: “Where do you get your ideas? and “How do you make stuff up?” and I think I’m on to something.
Bear with me on this one, it goes deep.
The conversation started with the idea that we should raise the national drinking age to 21 because young adults haven’t yet developed the frontal lobe part of their brains enough to recognize the difference between sensible and damaging behavior which has the tragically unfortunate result of binge drinking and death by alcohol poisoning.
A member of the party mentioned a study where teenagers were given CAT scans and then shown a photograph of a cheeseburger, French fries and a shake. Evidently the back half of the teenage brain lit up at the image and the brain registered: I WANT THAT. When a plugged in adult was shown the same picture only the frontal lobe lit up which was supposed to mean that adults know enough to want the bad things but the frontal lobe is there to remind us: WE SHOULDN’T HAVE THAT IT’S BAD FOR US.
Because the conversation mentioned brains and frontal lobes, I started thinking about the research I’ve been doing about serial killers and psychopaths who had experienced damage to their frontal lobes as children and the idea that the damage might have contributed to their development as remorseless killers. The SHOULDN’T DO THAT part never developed. Then I tried to imagine what it might feel like not to use my frontal lobe and that’s when I realized that when I go into my creative writing state it almost feels like I am using a different part of my brain. Here’s a for example: as I write this sentence I feel like I’m using the frontal lobe part of my brain from temple to temple but if I try to access my creative writing mode using my full imagination I feel like I have to set back a bit and use the part of my brain that’s located more centrally between my ears.
I warned you this was going to sound weird.
When I realized that I thought: well, maybe that’s what I do when I write? Have I trained myself as a writer to somehow switch off my frontal lobe to access all my life experiences stored in the back I WANT THAT part of my brain? If I’ve trained the intuitive part of my brain to work in harness, that would explain how I gather my ideas from my life experiences (and all my reading) and then pull it forward into the recognition pattern in my frontal lobe where it all begins to suddenly ‘make sense’. That would also explain why sometimes my characters surprise me the writer with their actions – I didn’t actually ‘think’ of it but at the same time the action makes ‘sense’ because it comes from the plausible background history already stored in my noggin.
Another argument to support this idea is when I’m deep in my writing and the phone rings and I have to answer it – I actually feel like I have to ‘switch gears’ to respond.
I’ve also had people ask me if I’m channeling when I write and I have to answer ‘no’ – mostly because Shirley Maclaine already cornered that market but I have to admit it does sometimes feel like my story already exists and all I’m doing is writing it down. This would be true if the parts of the story were already stored in my backlog of experience or memory and then my brain pieces the ideas together to the point I pull it forward and recognize it as ‘true’. I’ve heard this creative description before from musical composers and oddly enough, mathematicians. I wonder if we’re all doing the same thing: accessing the same trained brain mechanism from different creative perspectives?
LEFT BRAIN FUNCTIONS
words and language
present and past
math and science
knows object name
RIGHT BRAIN FUNCTIONS
"big picture" oriented
symbols and images
present and future
philosophy & religion
can "get it" (i.e. meaning)
knows object function
Anyway, that’s enough of a brain drain for this hour of the morning. Now it’s time for a little fun. Have you tried the Dancer Brain Test yet? I swear, with a little practice, you can make her turn from clockwise to counter-clockwise and back again. Here’s the link, sorry, you'll have to paste it into your browser:
If you see her turning clockwise, then you use more of the right side of the brain and vice versa. Most of us would see the dancer turning counter-clockwise though you can try to focus and change the direction; see if you can do it!
Monday, April 27, 2009
Does anybody else remember Sidney J. Harris? He was a newspaper columnist many years ago who would sometimes write about "things I learned while looking up other things." I felt a kinship with him while preparing this post because, while I never did find the information I was looking for, I did find some other strange and interesting tidbits.
I had intended to write about charity walks, a subject fresh in my mind because I spend part of Sunday morning walking to raise money for the Multiple Sclerosis Society. It was one of those events in which volunteers walk/run/bike/grow beards/sit in an imitation jail cell, or engage in some other activity wholey unrelated to the sponsoring charity. This behavior is supposed to motivate other people to contribute money. Oddly enough, it works.
I started to wonder, though, where this idea originated. Who came up with it?
I turned to the internet and tried searching "Origin of Charity Walks." After a few hours, I had no idea how the charity walk idea originated. I did, however, find that this query will bring up such disparate information as Origin of Providence Hospital as an Insane Asylum: http://www.chelationtherapyonline.com/articles/p215.htm and Wyandot Popcorn Museum: http://www.wyandotpopcornmus.com/hmuseum.htm.
My favorite, though, was the Detroit Zombie Walk, which collected 1,018 pounds of nonperishable food. I couldn't help but wonder who accepted that food though, since the same web page proclaims, "Brains are yummy."
How about you? What strange and interesting things have you learned while looking up other things?
Friday, April 24, 2009
It looks like our scheduled Friday blogger is MIA, so I thought I'd fill in the blank space. The problem is I don't really have anything planned. I could talk about writing, but that's what everyone else does. So let's just chat.
My "baby" graduates summa cum laude from the University of Pittsburgh this weekend (although I couldn't talk him into going to the ceremony). His degree is in neuroscience with minors in chemistry and music. He's going to work for a year or so at the brain imaging lab where he was an undergrad assistant until he decides if he wants to go to medical school or graduate school. I have a feeling he's leaning more toward grad school because he likes the research aspects of what he's doing.
What else can I talk about? Let's see. Hubby built a desk for our older son and we're going to deliver it to him around the end of May. Here are a couple of pictures of the desk.
My older son lives in Virginia and works at the US Capitol. He has an M.A. in History from Kent State University and he gets to tell visitors all about the history of the Capitol building. A good thing since two of his favorite things are history and talking (after beer, of course).
I think I've run out of things to say. What do you guys want to talk about?
And just for fun--a final picture. Just because it's cute. And it's writing related. Sort of.
Thursday, April 23, 2009
by Pat Gulley
It is not like living on a boat. There’s nothing different about living in a floating home from living in a land house, same kind of rooms, floors, staircases and kitchen equipment. The differences are mostly in the care and maintenance, and definitely the lifestyle. Categorically, no more lawn mowers or rakes; gardening is done in pots (every size imaginable) and between logs if you want to grow water plants. Several of my neighbors have water iris gardens. I tried it, the geese and ducks wrecked it. (More about @#%$&# water fowl later.)
Many of my neighbors have boats and park them along side their houses, or have garages built in. There is space between the rows that allow for boats to move in and out, and quite often, boaters traveling my slough will pull in to take a look. During the summer and in high wind storms are the only times you will feel any movement. When the river is low, we may occasionally bounce against the bottom. It doesn’t do any damage as the houses float on many squares of wrapped float. See picture. The house sits on stringers, they sit on logs, and the logs rest on the float. In the summer when there is a lot of traffic on the river, we may rock a little bit if a boat is traveling too fast. Several residents have bull horns to tell those guys about the 5-mile-an-hour speed limit on our slough.
Deck parties are a summer staple and they can move from deck to deck if it’s an open party, and not a family thing.
During the winter you have to watch the temperature closely. If it drops below freezing, water must be trickled from one or more indoor faucets to keep the pipes from freezing. All sewer and water lines run outside. You are attached to the sewer line with a honeypot. It requires yearly maintenance to make sure it doesn’t have any leaks. I’m a row captain in our 17-row moorage, and once a year I go around with a bottle of dye and get my neighbors to flush some down the toilet so I can watch their honeypot pump and make sure nothing flows into the river. BIG fines if a state inspector comes along and catches that happening. Waste and toilet paper are the only things that can be flushed down a toilet. Guests using my downstairs bathroom are confronted with a sign instructing them on flushables.
Oh, and there is no procrastination over shoveling snow. It’s not a matter of worrying about someone slipping on the walk; it’s a matter of not wanting your house to sink from the weight. Not that the house would totally sink, but enough so that water could find a way into the house.
I wish someone would have taken a picture of me and my neighbors during our huge snow and ice storm last December. There I was, hanging out my bedroom window bashing away at the hard layer of ice that had formed over the snow on the back porch roof, while my neighbor was up on a ladder shoveling it off. The ladder sat on the back deck and he had to throw the snow on to it, while his wife shoveled it off the deck. Several houses during that storm tilted to one side and several outer ends of decks lifted out of the water from the weight of the snow.
Oh yes, those ducks and geese! Try thinking of a band of roving dogs constantly barking and pooping in your yard. We’re like a condo group in our moorage, we each own our house and slip, and we collectively own the whole moorage, which consists of the strip of land along the bank of the river and the walkways. The state owns the water, and we lease it from them in 20 year increments. We have a rule in the regulations that asks the membership to please not feed anything: beavers, raccoons, ducks, and geese because it attracts mice and rats and sometimes seagulls. But you know how some people feel about animals. Bread and seed go out by the handfuls. Anyway, several geese and ducks have taken to lounging on the end of my back deck and some exposed under logs I have there. Well, the whole area looks like a toilet. No amount of banging on the window or shouting out the windows scares them one bit anymore. They just squawk and poop all the more. Not even my darling Hugo, a blue heron, who lives in the moorage and comes to visit occasionally, makes me think good thoughts about water fowl.
Wednesday, April 22, 2009
By Annette Dashofy
Twenty-three days until the conference. I have moments of calm knowing that my responsibilities will soon be over followed by panic attacks because things need to be done and I don’t have the time to do it all.
But of course I do. The thing about panic attacks is they aren’t rational.
In the past week, I’ve discovered a perk to being conference coordinator. Meetings. Okay, the meeting itself isn’t a perk. The food that comes with it, however, is.
First I met with the hotel’s catering and detailing managers. Michelle and Katie are lovely gals who bend over backward to accommodate our needs. We got together for lunch in the Marriott’s restaurant. Let me tell you, the Marriott has an EXCELLENT restaurant. And since the hotel was picking up the tab, it was all that much better. We covered a lot of ground and a lot of calories. Chocolate crème brulee, anyone?
Two days later, I had a meeting with my critique buddies. It had absolutely nothing to do with the conference, but we ate just the same. Spinach and cheese omelet sandwich. Calories dripping with fat. Yum.
Next came the final conference planning committee meeting. And with it, a venti white chocolate mocha (no whip cream, skim milk, please) and a slice of chocolate cheesecake. Kind of like ordering a large hot fudge sundae with a diet cola.
Lastly, I had lunch with one of the committee members who couldn’t make the meeting. I behaved myself and had a salad. A very LARGE salad with lots of black olives.
Don’t anyone tell me to relax and everything will be fine. I need to fret away all those extra calories I’ve picked up at these meetings.
Tuesday, April 21, 2009
“Truth is stranger than fiction because fiction has to make sense.”
So reads one of the writing-related sayings scattered around my office and today, the anniversary of my brother’s birth, it seems more relevant than usual.
Writers know well how real life can be stranger than fiction. All around us we see and experience things that, with just the right twist, could become kernels of great novels, plots for intriguing mysteries or the seeds of unforgettable short stories.
But the realities we observe do not always make sense. An editor might say they need a better beginning or a stronger finish. Or we may never understand the true motivation of the “characters” involved. In fiction, we can correct such things. Unfortunately, we cannot always do the same in life.
For example, someone would have to create the opening chapter of my brother’s story. The first time I saw him was the day my parents traveled to a meeting at Catholic Charities to discuss adoption and unexpectedly returned with a baby son.
Today he is a father, grandfather, successful businessman and respected member of his community. But for much of his life, his origins have been mostly a mystery that only recently he has wanted to solve. What little he’s learned is so compelling that the writer part of me could easily turn it into the plot of a novel.
As a fiction writer, it’s also easy to play the “what if” game. What if his birth mother had not given him up for adoption in what we now know was a supreme act of love? What if she had come looking for him? What if his birth parents had learned what a fine man he has become? What if he had not been so strong in his belief that his true parents are the people who loved and raised him, not those who created him? Each of our stories would have changed and every answer to a "what if" would have propelled our lives in different directions.
Even today, many of the circumstances surrounding his birth remain unknown. His birth certificate was recently unsealed, but it does not list his birth father’s name. He has been told his birth mother’s immediate family is dead. So it’s unlikely there ever will be a denouement, or unraveling of the complexities of his beginnings.
The “fixer” part of me aches to help make sense of this. Unfortunately, it is a gift I cannot offer. It is, however, a reminder that life’s chapters are often not as complete or as detailed as we’d like. Maybe that’s one reason why writing fiction can be so satisfying. It allows us to choose the beginning and the ending, and try to create a world that makes sense in between.
Sunday, April 19, 2009
Linda and I with Pilot Joyce and Jack
Yes, having the doors off created a breezy trip and a little scary at first, but the scary stuff happened a little later. So, we found ourselves winging our way to the volcano with nothing between us and a thousand foot drop but a standard lap belt. Things were going pretty good. It was windy, cool and wild. We flew straight to the spot where Kiluea is pouring lava into the ocean with great fury. Steam boiled out of the ocean and we even got a glimpse of the RED lava.
Next we found out the hard way that you shouldn’t get in the way of Mother Nature. Jack found that out too. Who is Jack, you ask? Jack (pictured above) is a guy that built his dream home in a subdivision on the southern slope of Kiluea. We landed the helicopter in front of Jack's house and took a hike Jack.
Jack's house looks nice and peaceful, however, if you could pan back a bit, you'd see that this little oasis is surrounded by miles of lava. Some time ago, Kiluea threw the residents of Jack's subdivision a curve ball and lava started spewing from a new vent, sending countless tons of molten lava right through the subdivision, destroying all the homes except Jack's. As beautiful as it looks, Jack is cut off from the world; no utilities, no road and a 3 1/2 mile hike across the razor sharp lava fields to where he parks his car to go to town for supplies. His home has a small generator to power his television, a few lights and his satellite dish and small bottles of propane gas to cook with.
After spending 20 minutes on the ground with Jack, we hopped back into the Hugh's helicopter while Joyce revved it up. Just when the rotors started spinning, a buzzer sounded and Joyce wound it down. Three tries later, she announced that it was here first day in this chopper (something I really didn't need to know) and we were grounded with a broken helicopter. I got out and asked Jack for a pair of jumper cables and just as quick he replied that he had cables, but his car was 3 1/2 miles away. I asked him what was for dinner. As linda and I prepared ourselves for a long walk, Steve came to the rescue. Steve was another helicopter pilot with a working chopper and he took us on the rest of our tour. Steve showed us a few sky vents where the crust had broken and you could see molten lava flowing beneath.
The caldera of Kiluea. Madam Pele's home.
The Rift Zone
After a nice landing, Steve dropped us off and picked up the passengers he left at Jack's house for the rest of their trip. Linda and I headed for the end of the road. Lava recently covered Highway 130 45 minutes south of Hilo. When the trade winds shift to blow the VOG (hazardous volcanic atmosphere out to sea the viewing area opens and you can drive a mile or so across a makeshift one lane road laid over the lava flow to a parking area then hike a half mile to the viewing area where the lava flows into the sea. After the sun sets, the view is spectacular with 2000 degree lave violently clashing with the cold ocean spewing steam and glowing lava chunks a hundred feet in the air. Unfortunately, with my little camera, I couldn't get a decent picture.
That dark 3 hour drive on winding steep mist covered roads back to the Kohala Coast was a bit nervewracking, but we did make it back to the Hapuna Prince Resort where we planned another thing we had to do before leaving for Maui.
The Hapuna Prince
A few days later, we headed for the Kona Airport to find some grafitti, Hawaiian style.
Sometimes you wonder where traditions begin. Many traditions help to form who we are and others become memories of times gone by. Here on the Big Island of Hawaii, there are many traditions. Hawaiians are proud of their heritage and keep up with the traditions so as not to lose touch with who they are as a people. Of course there are Luaus’ and Hula, and then there’s Madam Pele.
I’m really not sure if you’d call it tradition or superstition, but of course you NEVER bring home lava. There are all kinds of stories about bad luck following those people whoo have dared to bring home a chunk of lava in their suitcases. There are many stories of people mailing the lava back to Volcano’s State Park to try to stem the tide of bad luck.
But this blog is about a tradition that must have been started by tourists visiting the island and it’s been going on for years. For miles (roughly 15 miles) along the stretch of Highway 19 near the Kona Airport, there is what can only be described as Hawaiian Graffiti. I can only imagine that once, long ago, some savvy traveler noticed the slate of midnight black lava that covers the landscape. No doubt they had visions of chalkboards from their school days. They probably saw the plentiful water worn white coral that splashes up with the waves on some of the black sand beaches and got an idea. An idea to memorialize their visit to the Big Island and leave their mark. You will find all kinds of messages; love, death, words of wit and just plain names and initials. There are many memorials built to loved ones who have passed.
Of course there are no rules other than common sense, but etiquette says not to disturb the messages others have taken the time and effort to build. And I’ll tell you, it is a chore to bring coral from the sea in enough quantity and then either stoop and build or try to sit gently on the razor sharp lava to complete your works of art.
Way back in 2000, nine years ago, I happened to be on a business trip with two environmental consultants and good friends, Simon Wakin and Pam Hesterberg. We had business on every island and I didn’t have my wife Linda with me. SO, being the romantic type, I noticed all these messages and thought how cool it would be to leave a message for Linda and take a picture. So, with my friends at my side (they were off the official payroll as consultants and you can only ask friends to help you toil away like that), we found a lot of loose coral and a nice clean slate on the Pa Hoi Hoi (smooth lava) and went to work. I took pictures and my wife loved me. In the biblical sense.
Two years later, Linda and I returned and hunted for her memorial. With a relatively fresh memory it wasn’t hard to find though we were rather shocked to see it intact after two years. Okay, so here it is 2009; nine years after it was built and seven year after the last time I saw it. Memories were dim of location, but we had to find out. Could this delicate message have withstood seven years of wind, rain and tourism?
A few days ago, Linda and I left the Hapuna Prince Resort and headed south on Highway 19. I called my friends Simon and Pam hoping they could refresh my memory of where we had built it. There are few landmarks to use as reference as Simon reminded me. Pam only knew it was near the airport. SO we drove, as slowly as I could considering traffic. With the speed limit of 55 MPH, those messages are just blurs. My eyes were occupied with the road and my wife’s eyes are not as good as they were. For near fifteen miles we searched and then, some visual stimulus hit me. I slowed the car and made the statement, “It’s right in here. I’m sure of it.”
Well, the first pass by we missed it, so I turned around and went back, this time parking on the side of the road and the half mile stretch of smooth lava. It took about ten minutes and I saw it. The “L” was a little disheveled and the “A” had fallen asunder, but there it was. Linda’s Big Island memorial. We took a half hour for some well needed maintenance and viola, my beautiful wife’s memorial is ready for another ten years or more.
We took another thirty minutes to work on another project. No, we didn’t build a memorial to our children, Kelly, Kristen and Kaitlin. We worked on a tribute to the hard work I’ve been doing the past four years. You’ll have to see it below.
A few days later, the next surprise came along. We went to the Kona Airport for our flight on Pacific Wings to Maui. Now I knew I booked a small plane, but I wasn't prepared for just how small. We got dropped off at the "Air Tours" section of the airport where we sat outside with our luggage until a small plane sputtered up. The pilot jumped out, started weighing us and our luggage. Then told us to drag the luggage at the chain link fince gate where we waited for the pilot to punch in the code to let us in. No TSA, no metal detectors, no xray. The plane was a Cessana Caravan. Reminded me of a Dodge Caravan. Kind of road like one too, especially in the unexpected 40 knot winds.
I have to tell you, when we rounded Haleakala on Maui, we hit the winds and the plane dropped 30 to 50 feet in a micro-second. I watched as the pilot wrestled the yoke as the wings diped and the plane bounced all the way to the runway. Quite the experience.
Instead of boring you with the details of Maui, I'll leave you with pictures of whales, dolphins, snorkling, sunsets, rainbows and two happy people.
Scenes from our 3 whale watching excursions.
Spinner Dolphins off the coast of Lanai, from above in our 28 foot raft and below with my cheap underwater disposable camera.
Some of my snorkling pictures. The turtle was off the coast of the Big Island.
Rainbows, sunsets, the gorgeous wife and I and me on top of Haleakula Volcano on Maui. BTW, the ride up is one of the greatest elevation changes you can take an automobile on. It goes from 0 feet to over 10,000 feet. Pikes peak for example goes from 8,000 feet to 12,500 or so. Only about 5,ooo foot change.
And I'll leave you with a little self promotion. This trip really was "A REASON FOR LIVING."
Friday, April 17, 2009
Many writers think a first draft of a novel has to be crappy. Anne Lamott in her nonfiction book about writing, Bird by Bird, has a chapter called Shitty First Drafts. A recent Murderati blog post was titled, “Your first draft is always going to suck.”
I respectfully disagree. Of course, no first draft is publishable as is, but it doesn’t have to suck either. There’s no reason a novelist can’t craft a readable first draft that needs only minor revisions in the second round. Every writer has his/her own style, but my personal belief is that if you start your journey with a good road map and a tangible destination, you won’t get lost.
In other words, I believe I write decent first drafts. Which saves me a lot of time and trouble. How do I do it? With a lot of advance planning. These ideas may only be workable for crime fiction, but here’s how I craft a great first draft without any gaping holes or illogical twists:
1. Create an outline. Once I have a basic story idea (comprised of an exciting incident, major plot developments, and overview ending), I start filling in the details. I structure my outline by days (Tuesday, Wed., etc.), then outline the basic events/scenes that happen on each day, noting which POV the section will be told from. For police procedurals (and most mysteries), in which everything happens in a very short period of time, this seems essential. Some people (like Stephen King) tell you not to outline, that it ruins creativity. Again, I disagree. So I fill in as much detail as I can at this point, especially for the first ten chapters and/or plot developments.
2. Write out the story logic. In a mystery/suspense novel, much of what happens before and during the story timeline is off page — actions by the perpetrators that the detective and reader learn of after the fact. Many of these events and/or motives are not revealed until the end of the story. I worry that I won’t be able to convey to readers how and why it all happened. So I map it out—all the connections, events, and motivations that take place on and off the page. Bad guy Bob knows bad guy Ray from prison. Bob meets young girl at homeless shelter. Young girl tells Bob about the money she found . . .
3. Beef up the outline. As I write the first 50 pages or so, new ideas come to me and I fill in the rest of outline as I go along. I continue adding to the outline, and by about the middle of the story, I have it completed.
4. Create a timeline. A lot happens in my stories, which usually take place in about six to ten days. I keep the timeline filled in as I write the story. This way I can always look at my timeline and know exactly when an important event took place (Monday, 8 a.m.: Jackson interrogates Gorman in the jail). It’s much faster to check the timeline than scroll through a 350-page Word document. The timeline also keeps me from writing an impossible number of events into a 24-hour day.
5. Keep an idea/problem journal. I constantly get ideas for other parts of the story or realize things I need to change, so I enter these notes into a Word file as I think of them. (Ryan needs to see Lexa earlier in the story, where?). I keep this file open as I write. Some ideas never get used, but some prove to be crucial. Eventually, all the problems get resolved as well. I use the Notebook layout feature in Word for this so I can keep the outline, timeline, notes, problems, and evidence all in the same file, using different tabs. I love this feature.
6. Keep an evidence file. This idea won’t apply to romance novels, but for crime stories, it’s useful. I make note of every piece of evidence that I introduce and every idea I get for evidence that I want to introduce. I refer to this file regularly as I write, so that I’m sure to process and/or explain all the evidence before the story ends. In my first novel (The Sex Club) , a pair of orange panties didn’t make it into the file or the wrap up, and sure enough, a book club discussion leader asked me who they belonged to.
7. Update my character database. It took me a few stories to finally put all my character information into one database, but it was a worthwhile effort. Now, as I write, I enter each character name (even throwaway people who never come up again) into the database, including their function, any physical description, or any other information such as phone number, address, type of car, or favorite music. Now, when I need to know what I named someone earlier in the story or in a previous novel, it’s right there in my Excel database (Zeke Palmers; morgue assistant; short, with gray ponytail). For information about how to set up a file like this, see How to Create a Character Database.
As a general rule, I like to get the whole story down on the page before I do much rewriting, but I’ve learned to stop at 50 pages for two reasons. One, I like to go back and polish the first chunk of the story in case an agent or editor asks to see it. Two, I usually give this first chunk to a few beta readers to see if I’m on the right track. So far, I have been.
Do your first drafts suck? What’s the worst problem you’ve encountered in a first draft?
L.J. Sellers is an award-winning journalist, editor, novelist, and occasional standup comic based in Eugene, Oregon. She is the author of the highly praised mystery/suspense novel, The Sex Club, and has a second Detective Jackson story, Secrets to Die For, coming out in September. When not plotting murders, Sellers enjoys cycling through the Willamette Valley, hanging out with her extended family, and editing fiction manuscripts.