Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Excercise Part X

If your stories are stand-alones:

You are sitting here, staring at five revised stories. Re-read them again, with fresh eyes, for one last revision.

Now, pick the top market for each story (make sure it’s a different market for each, even if sometimes you have to make the first pitch to the second one on your list).

This week, you will write a template for your query letter (or, if it’s an editor who wants a full submission, you’ll include the full submission).

The letter should contain the following:

The hook (what’s unique about the story)
One or two sentences about the story, including its title and word count.
Your credits, why you’re the best writer for the project, and why this magazine is the perfect match.

It should run no more than a page, and remember to include a SASE if you’re sending it via snail mail (some writers no longer send SASEs; having worked in publishing, I know that plenty of houses don’t read the material without one. But now, some houses request that one doesn’t send a SASE – as always, read the guidelines thoroughly).

Run the letter past other writers. Tighten it and make it as active as you can. Get rid of any passive terminology and keep it exciting.

Now, make the adjustment for each individual market and write an individual letter.

Read over each story again before putting it in the envelope – you don’t want to send out something with errors.

Put them in the envelope with the letter and SASE, seal, stamp, mail.

Keep track in your Submission log when you sent it (and make a note as to how long each market’s guidelines take to respond).

You now have five stories circulating. And, if any of them should return unhomed, you have a list of places so that you can run a clean copy, type up a fresh letter to the new market, and send it right back out.

If you’re doing a larger piece:

Keep the tips on query letters from the above section. It will come in handy when you’re ready to market your piece.

You should have a rough of the beginning and middle. This week, you take the last four scenes and connect them to each other and the previous section.

If you’re working on a novella, you’ll be almost finished with a first draft. If it’s a full-length novel, you’ll need to continue working in this vein for the next few months, until you have your entire draft. Construct scenes, connect them, move on.

Put your draft away. I suggest at least 2 weeks – 2 months, where you don’t even look at it, but work on something completely different. You need the distance, especially when you’ve immersed yourself in a large piece of work.

Do as many revisions as it needs, until it’s the best it can possibly be under your hands.

Research your markets.

Craft query letters along the lines of the information given about.

Create a log line, one paragraph summary, and outline/synopsis (more on that in “The Literary Athlete” column of The Scruffy Dog Review over the next few months).

Have all of that done BEFORE you start submissions, so you can run off a copy of any variation as needed.

Since agents and editors usually prefer a query before requesting a partial or a full manuscript, I send out my queries in batches of ten.

Keep track of everything.

Your work is now out there, finding a home.


Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Exercise Part IX

How are you doing over the course of these weeks? Are you working on separate pieces or do you have one overall piece that calls to you? I’d like to know.

If your stories are stand-alones:

You have four revised short stories and four market lists. This week, take the fifth and longest story. Revise it, and create its market list.

We’re still not sending them out. I know you’re impatient, but don’t send them out of the gate before the bell goes off.

If your stories are part of a bigger piece:

Take the next four scenes and write the scenes/bridges between them, including the bridge between the first set of scenes.

My own examples:

“Suppositions” became “Apriorism” in revisions. It still needs some more work, including a new title.

The first person piece, through the eyes of Alexandra Hill, a main character in “Apriorism” who confronts Mitch Keegan (the politician character from the very first story, “Not My Vote”) is still without a title and still needs work. I will work on it in tandem with working on the long piece this week.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Exercise Part VIII

At this point, the exercises have branched off into two separate paths: Those whose five stories are stand-alones, and those whose stories are related as part of a bigger piece. We’ll keep going down each path over the next few weeks.

If the stories are stand-alones:

Last week, you revised the two shortest stories and researched markets for them. You now have two completed stories and a list of potential markets for each.

This week, you will do the same thing with the next stories, leaving the longest of the five for last.

By now, you’ve found a rhythm and system for market lists, and that shouldn’t take long.

Please do not submit anything yet. There’s more ground to cover with them.

If the stories are part of a bigger piece:

In the past week, you’ve written at least one scene per day on the piece. Now, spread out all of your scenes – you should have a total of twelve – and take a look at them. Rearrange them. Get a feel for the looks, the characters, the themes, the connections. Make notes. If something doesn’t work one way, rearrange it. See what other scenes you need to make this work. Do you have a novella? Or are you going for novel-length?

Even if you’re not an outliner, try this technique and see how it gives you a new perspective on your process.

Over the next week, take the four scenes you decided are at the beginning, and write the scenes and/or bridges between them.

My examples:

My two shortest stories are from the two first exercises. However, as I worked on them, I found that they took on a life of their own.

“Not My Vote” was originally the shortest of the bunch, designated as the flash fiction piece. It was inspired by the article about GIs charged for their hospital care, and how some of the accounts are turned over to collection agencies and the GIs lost everything. As I did the revisions, keeping it at 500 words was a disservice to the piece. Through the course of several revisions, it stands at 878 words.

“Needed” was based on the 20-somethings who can’t (and choose not to learn) to change light bulbs in their overindulged New York City luxury apartments. As it went through revisions, 1200 words was too much for it, and, after the revision process, it stands at 838 words.

I’ve created a list of 14 markets for each story. Twelve of the fourteen are paying markets. I’m confident enough in my track record to reach for them first. Several are markets that I know like my work; some are new and desired stretches. I’m especially confident in “Not My Vote”. Two of the markets are not paying, but I know they like my work, I like working with them, and I want to keep working with them.

Next week’s exercise will mean revising “Suppositions”, the 1500 word piece that has Mitch Keegan, the politician character from “Not My Vote”, and the as-yet untitled piece in the first person, through Alexandra Hills’s eyes. Alexandra is a character Mitch met in “Suppositions.”

Even though “Not My Vote”, “Suppositions” and the unnamed first person piece share some characters, at this stage, I believe they are linked stories rather than a novel.

However, we still have a few weeks, and that could change.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Happy vs. Sad

"When I'm at my most miserable--that's when I write my best poetry."--Anonymous.

Ah, the dilemma. When do we, as writers, do our "best" writing? Is it when we're happy and life is going our way? Or is it when we're depressed or grief-stricken?

Perhaps it would depend on your genre. A well-known horror writer claimed he'd written his best stuff while he was in a mental black hole and wasted out of his mind.
Another well-known romance writer has said she has to be in a happy state, (with her Celtic music playing softly in the background, no less) in order for the Muse to acquiesce.

When have you churned out your best writing? I like to think of it as the Devil vs. Angel Muse. You know how in movies and cartoons people have a "shoulder angel" on one side and a "shoulder devil" on the other, telling them what to do, and oftentimes clashing.

Well, apply that to your muse. Do you have a Happy muse or a Sad muse? I myself must have a Sad muse--when I was stuck in a certain place (that for now shall remain nameless) and I felt like I had no friends and wanted to just sleep all day, well, THAT'S when I churned out one of my best novels ever--in less than 30 days.

Take Individual A: When he/she's happy, they find they tend to neglect their writing. Sure, the ideas are constantly flowing in, like the tide (as it happens with most writers) but the motivation to get the words out onto paper (the writing process) seems forced, unnatural.
This individual finds that only when he/she is in the "depths of despair," they are able to write and write and write and write.

Then there's Individual B: who writes their best only when Life is Good, and no other time.

A great many writers in history fall into the "A" category. (Then there's always the nasty joke about "suicidal poets," which we won't get into here.)

I prefer to ask the question: Why is it that when we are feeling emotions the most, whether sadness or elation, the Muse is at its best?

Food for thought.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Exercise Part VII

Take a look back at the stories you’ve written over the past week. You should have five completed pieces:

* The 500 word flash fiction on the first article you pulled;
* The 1200 word piece on the second article you chose;
* The 1500 word piece on the third article left, with a character from one of the first two stories making an appearance;
* A story combining elements of the remaining three articles, up to 5000 words;
* A first person story from one of the characters in any of the previous stories.

Are there any corresponding themes to them, or is each piece a stand alone? Do you have material you’d like to combine for a larger project, or do you want to send each piece on its own way?

You have a selection of pieces in a variety of lengths. Now, you have to go back and polish them.

If you’ve decided the pieces are stand-alones:

Take the two shortest stories and work on revisions this week. Talk to other writers about them; polish them; revisit Strunk and White’s Elements of Style. Turn these two pieces into the best they can be. If it needs several revisions, keep going. Work and work and work. Put it away for two days, and then take another look.

Simultaneously, research markets. Get out the Writers’ Market or go online and research magazines. You’re not going to submit quite yet --- please be patient and work with me on this – but you’re doing your background work.

Put the title of each story on the top of a sheet of paper, and list potential markets for it. It’s not about where you’d like to be published – think of yourself as a matchmaker, trying to find the soul mate for your story.

Once the entire list is written, for each story, go back and decide which publication is your first choice, second choice, etc. If you’ve made your list on the computer, you can re-sort it; if you’ve handwritten it, just number each market clearly so that you can follow your list, or rewrite the list.

If you’ve decided all the stories are related and are part of a bigger piece:

Now is the time for you to build your foundation, in order to build the piece. Look at the stories; find the connecting themes. Figure out who your protagonists and antagonists are. If you like to do character sketches, do them now. Figure out, loosely, where each of these five events takes place in your overall narrative. Figure out what else you want in the narrative. The stories are no longer stories, but scenes or series of scenes. Sit down and write at least one more scene per day, even if you’re not quite sure yet where to put it.