I Must Be Crazy: I Signed up for NaNoWriMo

I signed up for NaNoWriMo. In case you haven’t seen it, that’s a mashup of National Novel Writing Month, and it’s a thing among some writers (usually the ambitious ones). The idea is to write like a maniac for 30 days. And you “win” if you get 50,000 words written.

But damn, that’s a lot of words. If you do the math — and this is one time when writers will — it works out to 1,667 words a day. That’s about seven pages a day, for 30 straight days.

I don’t expect to “win.” I’ve got a full-time job, as well as a part-time job as a dad/husband/dish-doer/errand-runner/math-homework-helper.

Also, I’ve tried not sleeping. It hasn’t worked out too well. I’d also like have my wife not divorce me.

So why go through all the trouble? Because it’s there! Also because I’ve been dipping my toe in a new project, and this gives me the institutional excuse to dive into the deep end. And because the things I regret are usually things I said no to.

Besides, writing is easy! As Gene Folwer (or someone else) once said, “All you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.”

So, starting in 90 minutes, it’s November. And I’ll be cranking.

PS – You can see my progress on the widget on the right (because I know you have nothing better to do). And should it come to pass, I expect the widget will also show my lack of progress.

If you want to know more, check out their site. Or Nathan Bransford’s post about NaNoWriMo resources.

Scenes from a Sunday

My son is in second grade, which is an exciting time because his literacy is exploding. A while back, he narrated a day when we were packing up to leave his grandma’s house. He must have then decided one of the pages wasn’t worth keeping, since it wound up in the recycling.

I decided it was worth keeping. Here’s the first page (I’ll try and transcribe it below, correcting only capitalization):

My dog is Barking. wer going back to ore house. We wend te Grand-ma and grand-pas house. My parents are packing up all the things. My grand-pa has his cane with him. He has his jacket onto. Now my dog is just staring at me. My brother is playing with his Bucky Balles.

Here’s the second page:

This one’s a little harder to transcribe, because some of his letters got cropped off on the other side of the perforation, but here goes:

Am borde. All I hav to do is sit. sit. Sits. My dog is ling down. Now am lukin ate three wudin do to have colore and w isall wud. Let roc and roll! We hit t(he) rode ate 50 miles per hour. Am puting on shoose. My brother stuck his hed awt t(he) window to say good by. My brother mac a tree awt of Bucky B(alls).

The Social Contract

As a writer who submits and someone who works with social media, I’ve been following a recent Twitter spat with some interest.

At the risk of stumping for Twitter, I think all writers serious about getting published should be on it. I’ve met writers, had literary agents answer questions, participated in contests, and been exposed to a lot of great information about writing and publishing. It’s like a perpetual writers’ conference and kaffeeklatsch.

I’ve also seen agents use Twitter to publicly react to queries in real time. Because Twitter messages are can’t exceed 140 characters, the query, book and writer remain anonymous. Most of those were one-day experiments. Then along came @InternAmie, an account where an intern at a literary agency reacted to queries and submissions as she read them, using the hashtag #queryfest. Here’s a two-part example:

“Memoir-lover that I am, I almost cried when this otherwise stunning memoir opened with an intense scene, but then … Nope–nevermind. The women’s fiction started out great, but major plot inconsistencies would’ve made agent frown & pass.”

The @InternAmie account is now closed, apparently a result of an online backlash. Afterwards the opinions were mixed:

theborderlord I found #queryfest incredibly helpful – it gave a rare insight into how the query system really works. Shame @internamie has vanished.

Tessasblurb If you have a problem with people judging your writing surely you’re in the wrong business… #writing #queryfest

yabreviewed Anonymous as it is #queryfest makes me more nervous about sending mine. To have it end up being a topic of discussion on twitter? No thanks.

Writers of fiction spend hours creating imaginary situations, but it’s nearly impossible for them to picture their work sitting in a huge pile along with hundreds of other submissions. This is @theborderlord’s point: @InternAmie was reading and reacting to submissions objectively, andoutlining the reasons she did or didn’t think they were working. In other words, she was an unbiased beta reader that didn’t sugar-coat things. (If you ever get a beta reader that does this for you, consider yourself very, very lucky.)

I think @Tessasblurb makes a good point, too. After I’d been working as a journalist and freelancer for years, I went back to get an MA in creative writing. Journalism schools understand that their degree is vocational, so getting out there and working is part of the process. But unlike J-school, submitting pieces is optional in an MA.

My MA program was full of people who desperately wanted an authority figure proclaim them Good Enough to Be Published, as if this were some absolute, like knighthood. So these writers worked in a fretful vacuum, like kids from the suburbs afraid of going downtown. I wanted to see them submit, over and over again, until they learned that rejection and having people dislike your stuff isn’t the end of the world–it’s a necessary part of being a writer.

That said, I agree most with yabreviewed. Querying is the first step of a business relationship, which works when both parties operate in good faith. But if a stranger discloses details of your query or pages (even if they can’t be traced back to you), that disclosure violates one of the evolving tenets of social media, which is to ask permission to use other people’s stuff.

Imagine an agent’s website with a submission form containing a checkbox and this: “I agree to have my work paraphrased, excerpted, and possibly commented by an anonymous party online for all to see.” Would you agree to that? I wouldn’t.

I’m not sure what the final chapter of the InternAmie saga will be. I hope she’s still reading submissions, since I want everyone reading my submissions will be like her, turning to the next query in the hopes it will be great.

I also hope the publishing community learns from what happened, instead of pointing fingers. But there are still agents who make sport out of the slush pile (such as Slush Pile Hell, which I find terribly unprofessional), just as there are writers who excerpt from agents’ e-mails, or snipe about them on forums.

In other words, social media is a little like publishing: What you post on a blog, or as a comment, or in a forum, or on Twitter is widely accessible and will be around for a long time. So you don’t want to use other people’s stuff without asking, and you want to make sure what you said isn’t something you’ll regret later.

I Write Like … Well, Lots of People

My writer friends all atwitter about I Write Like, a “statistical analysis tool, which analyzes your word choice and writing style and compares them to those of the famous writers.”

People who get results that they write like James Joyce, or Chuck Palahniuk? Excellent! People who write like Dan Brown? Bummer. (Unless they cash his checks, I wager.)

Anyhow, we’ve all been giving it a whirl. I put in the first page of the last book I wrote, and got Margaret Atwood. Excellent! Poet, novelist, winner of the Booker Prize — and even Canadian. Not too shabby, eh?

But then I had to check. Does Margaret Atwood write like Margaret Atwood? I copied a bit of The Blind Assassin into the text box, and … yes. OK, good. (And Dan Brown writes like Dan Brown, in case you were wondering.)

I stress-tested a little more. A friend who got the Dan Brown Bummer Result said “at least it wasn’t Edward Bulwer-Lytton” (he of “dark and stormy night” infamy, as well as having a famous bad-writing contest named after him). So who does Edward Bulwer-Lytton write like? Charles Dickens.

Obviously it’s not perfect, and not every writer with a famous style is represented. For example, Hemingway’s so distinctive that for years there’s been a “Bad Hemingway Contest.” Yet when I put in a page of “The Old Man and the Sea,” I got James Joyce.

But it’s still fun to play with. A thriller writer I know writes like Ian Fleming, a crime writer I know writes like Nabokov, and a romance writer I know writes like Bram Stoker (huh?)

What’s also cool is that the same writer can get different results. I wrote a satirical short story that came back as James Joyce, not Atwood.

And the text of this blog post? H.P. Lovecraft.

Go figure.

Textual Interventions

Last week the Toronto Star announced it was going to sack about 100 in-house editors, and replace them with editors from somewhere else.

Today the Torontoist blog is running  an internal memo to Star staffers from the publisher. What’s interesting about it is that a Star editor took a none-too-kind red pen to the letter, showing all the big and little ways the memo falls short as a piece of writing.

Toronto Star publisher memoI love this bit of contested narrative, especially the beginning of paragraph three, where the text says “we are today launching a Voluntary Separation Program, to provide staff with additional choices.” The editor’s comment: “additional to what? haven’t named any others. please explain.”

On the very same day, a blog called she is too fond of books (yes, the hed is written downstyle) invited its readers to write a collaborative story: “I’ll start with a sentence, and everyone who comments will grow the story by adding a sentence of their own.”

The blogger started it like this:

“Ugh, Monday again!” I thought, as I rolled over and hit, literally hit, the snooze button on the clock-radio.

(Starting a story with a character waking up is a cliché, but whatever, no one is pinning their hopes on this group of monkeys writing a masterpiece.) It continues:

Why was I feeling so aggressive this morning? Then the gut-wrenching horrors of yesterday came flooding back.

Not even wishful thinking could make the sight of my husband in the arms of my best friend a dream. Losing both of my best friends in one fell swoop was simply not a good way to start a week.

But, hey, it’s not like I didn’t know it was coming; I’ve been fooling myself for quite some time.

What interesting creatures we humans are, able to see so much, or so little, depending on our psychological needs.

I’d convinced myself the perfume I smelt on his shirts was just the cheap kind counter girls attacked shoppers with, to be fair it probably was, Sandra had a cheap streak.

(We could quibble about so much interior monologue so early in the story, but no matter. Besides, infidelity and a cheap tart named Sandra? Things are looking up!)

Forget about the snooze button – I reached out again and turned off the alarm. The last thing I wanted to do was get out of bed, but it was pretty unlikely that I’d fall asleep again now…although that was the ONLY thing I wanted to do.

Well, not the only thing, but castration was frowned upon in my small town.

Hmm. Funny line, but a little troubling if you’re a man. I figured was time for me to play along. Besides, as a guy, I thought the story needed more action, and less tiresome ruminating about how lovely it was to stay in bed. So I added something along the lines of…

My husband tottered to a stop at the side of the bed, his ankles wobbling on high heel shoes, his chest hair billowing out of the bodice of a dress — Sandra’s dress.

A new character! AND a plot point! That, I figured, would propel the story in a really interesting direction.

I figured wrong.

And then it hit me, glue was what I needed — the horrible once-it-comes-in-contact-with-the-skin kind that’s impossible to remove without surgery. I closed my eyes and smiled.

OK, well, maybe glue was an interesting direction, especially if we got into huffing, or affixing wigs to the cross-dressing husband. But no, the glue was just non sequitur foreshadowing for this:

I listened as my husband turned on the shower in our newly renovated, completely decadent bath/spa/suite, a project which had gone well beyond our original budget by far, and which we had just started to enjoy last week. This room had become an all consuming project in the last year. The shower was amazing, with multiple-positioned shower heads and a marble bench, a japanese soaking tub (which was well worth the $8000 we had spent on it), heated floors, towel racks and a sauna. This room had a majestic view of the Malibu coastline, with floor to ceiling windows which had to be installed via an enormous construction crane. Our neighbors would probably not be speaking to us any time soon. Not that we cared.

WTF? It was supposed to be one sentence, not six, and more important, we’re adding digressive back-story about a “completely decadent bath/spa/suite” that includes an $8,000 Japanese soaking tub and a snarky bit about how the couple was so selfish they had alienated their neighbors?

Ever faithful to the plot, I bent the rules and added a second post, wherein the husband returns and admonishes the wife for wasting everyone’s time and good will on her embarrassing and long-winded home-porn back-story.

… and then it fell apart.

The blogger deleted my two comments, and added an update that said, “I reserve the right to edit anything that I wouldn’t write (anything I wouldn’t want my kids to read), and to delete attempts to shanghai the storyline for a personal agenda.”

That caveat wasn’t in the original instructions. (Though the shanghai the storyline for a personal agenda phrase is rich with irony, since we all got soaked by that motherfucking $8,000 Japanese tub.)

Plus, the castration comment made it in, so what was wrong with a cross-dressing husband who bickers with his wife for spending obscene amounts of money on soaking tubs, multiple-positioned shower heads and marble benches, and then blathering on about them ad nauseam?

I mean … cross-dressing? Come on. A UK psychotherapist and general practicioner wrote this in an article about it:

Men who cross-dress are not mentally ill. Indeed, psychologists in the USA have decided that cross-dressing comes within the normal range of male sexuality unless it becomes a compulsive obsession.

The husband is a benefit! He’s colorful! He’s out of bed and dressed before his deadbeat wife! He even speeds up the action in an otherwise sluggish story! In my humble opinion, he’s a much more compelling character than his irritating, bourgeois wife.

Plus, would you want to implicitly condone the behavior of a wife who is selfish and narcissistic, and probably a gold-digger to boot? No, I’d keep my kids miles away from that nasty piece of work, and her construction crane to boot.

Anyhow. Someone wrapped up the story with “I sat up and realized it had been a dream,” and then a little stage business, which the blogger cleaned up a bit for the end of the story.

It was all a dream. Another cliché. How fitting.

So the lesson to learn today, kids, is that you can be as grotesque as you want to your bathroom or your neighbors, but don’t ever ever ever cross-dress. Because in this family-friendly culture, that kind of shit just doesn’t fly.

Attention Writers: Win a Manuscript Critique

Attention all you would-be published writers: a literary agent named Nathan Bransford (he’s with Curtis Brown Ltd.) is offering a critique of a proposal (synopsis and first three chapters).

Nathan Bransford, literary agent

Nathan Bransford, literary agent

Nathan has one of the best publishing blogs out there, which builds community, educates writers, spreads publishing news, preaches the super-important gospel about how to write a non-crap query letter, and a zillion other things besides. He even made newspapers with his blog recently by taking a good idea and running with it: the Be an Agent for a Day Contest.

I mention this because it’s a great blog, and through it (and my other dealings with him) Nathan has proved again and again that he’s a good guy and a straight shooter.

So … how do you get such rare, personal attention from a high-flier such as him? Well all ya gotta do is bid for it. See, Nathan donated said critique to benefit diabetes research.

So tell all your writer friends.

How to Edit Even Goodlier

Ye Olde Bloge has been unusually quiet of late because I’ve been editing. I writ a book, book clunky, book needs revision.

So I reread. Hmm, thinks I. That sucks. I edit. It sucks a little bit less. I edit whole page. Page sucks less, but takes a while. Now I repeat process 387 times. Whole things sucks a bit less, but in a slightly different way. Eyes very glazed.

Yetsomehowduringallthis, I keep stumbling across goodly things about editing.

First, some advice on rewriting:

Next, the (karaoke) experience of rewriting with an editor:

And last but not finally, a word on the the impotence of proofreading (yeah, you read that right)

Why Writers Go Insane, part 46

I’ve been struggling with writing at night recently. After the kids are in bed, the dishes are done, the laundry’s folded, etc. etc, all I can do is stare at the screen through a haze of dumb fatigue.

So I decided to try something different this morning. I got up before dawn, before the heat was on in the house, dressed in the dark and made a cup of coffee, and huddled under a blanket at the computer in the spare bedroom, trying to wake up and keep warm.

But something about having quiet time in a room of one’s own must send out a signal to the children of the universe, who abhor their parents making progress on external pursuits.

The door to the room swung open, and there was my son. Five days a week I have to scrape him out of bed to go to school, but on Saturday he’d willed himself to get up early, and to come down the hall so he could point at the monitor and ask to play his computer game.

What could I do? He was up. I couldn’t ignore him for an hour. I bargained with him and said I needed to finish the paragraph I was working on. The whole time he kept noting how long it was taking.

Total elapsed writing time: 13 minutes.

“Publishers Weekly Shanks One”

If you’re coming in over the transom, I know you won’t know what the hell that means.

So, here ’tis: a month ago, I found out my novel, “Between Clubs,” was selected as a semi-finalist in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel contest. The contest is a way to pick the “best” novel from a bunch of unpublished ones.

The semi-finalists get a three-part reviewing process: customer reviews, an Amazon.com Top Reviewer, and a Publishers Weekly review. The top 100 from the semi-finalists move on … then the top 10, 3, and then they pick a winner.

The PW review of my book is a hatchet job. But it’s also riddled with errors, the kind that you’d only make if you’d skipped about 3/4 of the book. So I finally decided to write a counter-review and post it on my amazon page. The title of the blog post is the title of my review.

shank.jpgIf you’re still not getting it, my book is a golf novel, and a shank (see the pic) is the Lord Voldemort of golf shots, so bad some won’t even utter the word by name.

If you feel so inclined, go give the review and counter-review a read, and let me know what you think.

Meantime, I’ll be humming a few lines from a Billy Bragg song:

I said there is no justice
As they led me out the door
The judge said, “This isn’t a court of justice, son
This is a court of law.”