Going with the Flow

As I said last week, my initial foray into writing fiction was flawed. In the science fiction market, the genre for my first novel, acceptable manuscript word count tops out at around 120K as a maximum for a first-time author; mine was greater than 800K and still going with no signs of ending any time soon. But I’m pretty sure it was a launch problem, not a design problem. I’m still convinced the story itself has real potential.

See, writing fiction has power—power over its audience, surely (hopefully!), but also over its writer. The ability to design my own world(s), plots, character-driven and plot-driven crises and resolutions or lacks thereof, even the research I did to make the scenarios realistic, as well as the opportunity to say something worthwhile within my storyline, rooted in me so deeply I didn’t give the rules much thought, if I even knew what they were. I just wrote.

And wrote.

And wrote.

At the time, I told people, “I hear voices in my head. They’re going to make me rich.” (Yeah, experienced writers. Laugh. You know you want to.)

Apparently, in the world of professional fiction writing, there are “plotters” and “pantsers.” Plotters map out their entire story from beginning to end, knowing where every detail will happen and how it will affect the scenes to follow, as well as where the crisis points will take place and how it will all end. Pantsers sit at the other end of the spectrum, winging every single scene, handing the reins over to their characters and their plot and the worlds they’ve built and saying to themselves (and their agents), “Let’s see where this goes.” I was (past tense) definitely in the second camp, so far to that end that I had no idea how or even if the darn thing would end. My characters would dictate story so loud that I sometimes had trouble sleeping, and so fast that my fingers could barely keep up. I was as surprised by what they did as anyone who read my work. Every time I finished a chapter, a small crew would gather to hear it read aloud, then offer their critiques and comments. It was great fun, and a wild ride, but that was only the beginning.

Most writers, I’m told, fall somewhere in the middle of those extremes, plotting the major points while allowing some degree of creative flexibility in the plan; their characters are given some leeway to drive the engine along controlled segues and side-streets, as long as the whole train ends up at a reasonable and believable juncture in the end. I think that’s where I’ve landed, at least so far. I have no illusions about coming to rest on any particular process this early in my writing career. My education continues.

I still hear the characters in my head, just not all at once. The crowd has thinned, so to speak. Those other characters, the ones I don’t hear so often any more, haven’t left the building. They’re just in another room, waiting their turn. The secret I had to discover is that one book should be about one protagonist, two at most, and the prevailing conflict that separates her from what she wants. I started working with an editor (hi Paula!), whose brutal guidance assured me that I had to cut out 75% of my content, and focus what was left. Two years and four drafts later, she finally e-mailed the words that prompted my happy-dance: “It’s ready to pitch.” My current draft sits at 119K words, and is awaiting an agent’s attention.

It’s not perfect, not yet. But I think it’s ready for representation. Books two and three (that’s where some of those other characters will get their shot) are in the planning stage; if book one takes off and my agent thinks it would make a good series, I can move forward on them. Otherwise, they can become stories in their own rights for later books. In any event, I continue to learn and grow into this craft. Because yes—writing is a craft. It takes guidance, education and practice, practice, practice to get it right (or is that “write”?).

Letting My Inside Voice Out

Nobody takes fiction writers seriously.

That’s what I used to think. As a volunteer journalist and editor on a small non-profit press for more than ten years, I snorted at the suggestion I should write fiction. Why, if I wrote something as superficial as a novel, no one would ever buy my non-fiction books, which simmered happily on the back burner of my creative imagination. (Still do, actually.)

Then our family income level dropped, and I had to go back to work. Standing for 6-8 hours behind a register in a retail chain clothing store has its charm, I’m sure, but it was completely lost on me. After more than a year of dealing with thoughtless, sometimes even hostile customers on a daily basis, I revisited the idea of fiction. Maybe I could write a short story. I knew absolutely nothing about writing fiction or, more importantly, what it took to get my work to market; but if I could get one published, it would be a small income. Then I could write and publish others. Repeat as necessary. Really, how hard could it be?

If you’re a writer, you’re probably laughing your tuchis off right about now. How hard indeed.

That little short story became the manuscript that ate New York. Running about 800,000 words, it would still be going if someone—an agent at a writer’s conference who, to her credit, did not laugh in my face when I quoted my word count—hadn’t stopped me. I’ll talk more about that in a later post.

My point is that the fiction bug infected me with its fiery allure and ardent expression, because let’s face it; you can’t write good fiction if you aren’t passionate about what you’re doing. My characters came alive in my mind, spoke often and loud about what “they” wanted to happen, and endeared themselves to me almost as much as the “real” people in my life. I understand from other writers that this is common; fictional characters, especially protagonists and antagonists that drive the story, demand your focus. If you don’t give them 100% of your attention, they can’t fully manifest into three-dimensional beings that live and breathe in the reader’s imagination. Who would buy a novel without that?

I sat down to write that “short story” in 2008. Here it is, early in the year 2017. I’m not yet published, but I’m so much closer than I was, and what a ride it’s been! Just as with any newbie, I devoured one book after another about story structure, publishing, and the art of writing in general. I sought advice from one advisor after another. I attended classes and conferences in an effort to find the “right” way to write. What I’ve discovered so far is that everyone has an opinion, sometimes at opposite ends of the spectrum, and most of them insist theirs is the only “right” way.

I’ve come to believe that ultimately it’s up to the writer. As long as our methods work for us, and we’re able to get our work out there to our readers, I’m not sure it matters whether we follow methods of a writing guru or create our own path to success. Besides, with so many ways to publish these days, options are unlimited. I’m currently trying the traditional route. We’ll see where it goes.

But hey, like I said, I’m new to this business, learning as I go. Who am I to say what will or won’t work for you? (I’m not even sure what works for me, yet.) I’m sure I’ll hear comments from both sides of the argument on that score. I will say that most agents I’ve heard from tell me that publishing is a very subjective business, that what works for one agent or publisher won’t work for another, and that you should keep trying and don’t get discouraged.

Never give up, never surrender!

My adventures in writing have all proven educational; I don’t look for that to change any time soon. Now that I have a website and am seriously querying and branching out in my writing endeavors, I want to journal about them here, so that you can follow along, if you wish. Keep in mind as you read that I am a new writer, and am writing from limited personal experience. Your mileage may vary, and I encourage you to share your own constructive or helpful input here in the comments.

So come along for the ride! I hope to share my discoveries so far, as well as my ongoing adventures into the realm of traditional publishing (as they occur) in coming posts. Stay with me, and we’ll find out what happens together!