Archive for the ‘Write Help’ Category
The process of Stranger Will: from done, to done, to really done, to seriously done, to “I’ve got to write another one?!”
This is a guest post by Caleb J Ross as part of his Stranger Will Tour for Strange blog tour. He will be guest-posting beginning with the release of his novel Stranger Will in March 2011 to the release of his second novel, I Didn’t Mean to Be Kevin and novella, As a Machine and Parts, in November 2011. If you have connections to a lit blog of any type, professional journal or personal site, please contact him. To be a groupie and follow this tour, subscribe to the Caleb J Ross blog RSS feed. Follow him on Twitter: @calebjross.com. Friend him on Facebook: Facebook.com/rosscaleb
As a writer, I genuinely appreciate Simon’s transparency here at The Write Place. Novel writing, if anything, is a constantly questioned process. From the simple fanboy questions of “where do you get your ideas” to the tricks-and-tips questions about how to get a novel published, the affirmation of mystery never stops. One thing a lot of beginning writers don’t accept is that there truly are as many appropriate responses to these questions as there are writers willing to answer them. The process from conception to publication (and then on to promotion and career strategizing, which are all-too-neglected factors of the equation) is rarely repeated from one writer to the next. There is no degree program on becoming a professional novelist. There are no tutorials. There is no work-study program. Being a novelist is wading through an unmapped feces trench; no one can really guide you through it, and only you know how much it can stink. As you can probably tell by that terrible metaphor, I am still in the process of becoming a true professional novelist.
For my novel, Stranger Will, the process was fairly straightforward, I think. This being my first published novel (to be followed by my second in November), I don’t have much of a frame of reference other than a close association with many, many writers who have been through this process.
- Stranger Will is finished. Well, what I thought at the time was finished. More on the flexibility of the term “finished” below.
- Sent queries to many, many agents and publishers. Received some feedback, a few requests for full manuscripts, but was never offered a contract.
- Put Stranger Will on hold while I wrote two other novels. Forgetting Stranger Will was surprisingly easier than one might think. I was at a time in my life where I had more ideas than I knew what to do with, so abandoning the first novel in favor of the second and third was pretty easy, actually.
- I learned about the necessity for a platform. At the time (this was back in 2004 or so), blogging wasn’t as common as it is now, so building a platform simply wasn’t as easy (not that it is easy now). I wrote stories for a lot of online lit magazines. I joined a few online writing forums. I wrote reviews and conducted interviews for various online and print magazines. Basically, the way I built a platform was to first establish credibility within the writing community and later leverage those relationships to extend credibility to the reading community. I don’t think these steps can be reversed; it would be hard to build credibility with readers if you don’t yet have anything for them to read.
- Cried for a few months because I finally realized what a piece of garbage my Stranger Will manuscript was at the time. Think of all those agents and publishers I already exhausted with that early draft. IMPORTANT: DON’T SUBMIT YOUR MANUSCRIPT UNTIL IT IS TRULY FINISHED. There are a finite number of agents and publishers out there, and none of them will re-read something they already passed on, no matter how much you insist it has been revised.
- Rewrote Stranger Will from page one (during this time, I was querying agents and publishers for my other manuscripts).
- Got a short story chapbook, Charactered Pieces, published (OW Press). I recognize this publication as both a product of my extensive platform building (I met the editor who published the chapbook while doing editorial work at Outsider Writers Collective) and as an extension of my platform. Charactered Pieces, in my mind, was mostly a way to get some attention for Stranger Will.
- Whored the goddamn ovaries out of Charactered Pieces. For an incomplete collection of my promotional efforts, go to the Charactered Pieces Blog Tour page at my website.
- Celebrated wildly as my friend and fellow writer, Richard Thomas, landed a book deal through start-up press Otherworld Publications. Shortly thereafter, I celebrated again as Nik Korpon also managed a deal. Both of these people I met through my earlier platform building (at writing forums). This is important, because a few months later…
- I got a book deal for Stranger Will from the same publisher.
Total time from conception to publication: about 10 years. Now, that may sound pathetic, but keep in mind that also during that time I wrote three other novels, two novellas, many short stories, reviews and interviews galore, and continued to build my platform. Maybe one day I’ll be “author” enough to only have to write books.
Photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/17657816@N05/
Another interview for you to take a look at, this time with yours truly. I was approached by Craig Wallwork a while back (a talented writer with a penchant for oddness like myself) to see if I’d like to be interviewed, and, flattered, I of course said yes. You can have read of it here if you like. There are one or two tips on writing and some more insight into the inspiration for Gaia’s Engine.
Richard Thomas: the manâ€™s a machine! Look in Wikipedia at the name Richard Thomas and apart from some references to the Waltons, a priest, a musician and a politician (yes, I did look), you may well find that this name means â€œI donâ€™t know when to stopâ€. I mean, seriously, he has a string of short stories, interviews, articles and what-not against his name, and as if to underline his penchant for productivity, he even made sure that his two kids were born at the same time!
So, who is that man? Well, heâ€™s a fellow writer – another novelist I had the privilege to get to know over at Write Club. He too has managed to wedge his foot in the door that leads to book sales; his book Transubstantiate published by Otherworld Publications has recently been released.
And why I have I drawn your attention to him? Simple â€“ we can learn a thing or two from this writer and I thought it would be a good idea to pick his brains a bit. Anyway, enough with the procrastination, hereâ€™s what he had to say.
SWB: You have at least 6 characters taking the stage in Transubstantiate, each with a unique voice. Can you tell me a little bit about that? How do you keep each of them distinct and consistent?
RT: It wasn’t easy. These narratives, as you know, developed out of the first exercise I had at The Cult workshop I did with Max Barry. So, those four came out of the idea that I’d write four openings to four different novels – fantasy, horror, noir, and literary. I think right from the beginning, that helped to create the voices, mood and setting for each of those. The passages ended up being Jacob (Chapter 1), X (Chapter Two), X (Chapter 5), and Gordon (Chapter 3). Once I had those four, and Marcy developed out of the X Chapter 5, I added in Marcy’s son, Roland, and then Assigned, the ghost in the machine, and then Jimmy. In the beginning, Jimmy is the only one on the mainland, so his POV, his setting was different for a long time. Part of what kept them consistent, was going back and re-reading the previous chapter to remind myself of the voice. I kept picturing each of them, and in my head I could see the actors I’d picked for each of them: Jacob (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Marcy (Ali Larter), Jimmy (Viggo Mortensen), X (Rodrigo Santoro), Gordon (Daniel Craig), Assigned
(HAL 9000), and Roland (Shia LeBouf). Also, they are based on the seven deadly sins, so that helped to keep them separate and distinct as well.
SWB: Were there any parts of the story that you had to edit out that you were really attached to?
RT: Actually, nothing that I can think of. I debated on some of the more fantastical stuff, with Bast, the white snow beast, and Raymond the chipmunk. In the end, no, I kept it all. Hard to believe
SWB: Iâ€™m an obsessive plot outliner myself, but how do you build your stories? Do you let the characters drive everything or do you keep them on a tight leash? Or do you have a secret recipe?
RT: Â I do not plot. And for this book, I find it kind of hard to believe that I kept it together (or maybe I didn’t).But I did a lot of re-reading, reminding myself where I left off. So I always knew where every character was (in the story, emotionally, geographically, and in time). I use the whole “headlights of the car” metaphor, and only see as far ahead into the darkness as those lights will allow me. I find it much more exciting when I don’t know what is going to come next, and I simply start with a character and a certain history, experiences, baggage, and have them act as they should. For example, in Transubstantiate, I’d expect Gordon, the assassin, to react differently (often with violence) than, for example, Jacob, who is a bit of a wimp, a reluctant hero. And then I play against type, having the killer find soft, gentle moments, and have the weakling struggle to find that inner and outer strength.
SWB: Â Which part of Transubstantiate did you enjoy writing the most and why?
RT: Â Wow, great question. I don’t think I’ve been asked that before. I really enjoyed writing all of this book, because each character is different. I got to be a killer, a woman, a boy again, a machine, they were all a lot of fun. I think Assigned was at times the most difficult, but some of those scenes were really rewarding. Actually, now that I think about it, the end. I loved the ending, my fingers could hardly keep up with my head, the voices spilling out of me. I didn’t know where it was going, who would live and who would die, and it was intense. When things fell in place, I knew it was right, the way Gordon acted, his thoughts and decisions, and the final words, in the epilogue, that really was the exclamation point. It all felt right, felt done. It was a great feeling, my first novel, first successful novel, I think.
SWB: Â Tell us about the days where you felt demotivated (every writer has that at some point right?) How did you keep the words flowing?
RT: Â That’s tough. There certainly were times like that. For me, I really fell in love with my characters. You get a bit of a God complex creating these worlds, these people. They’re all just thinly veiled depictions of ourselves, right? Our family, old lovers, people we hate, jerks, assholes, women that have screwed us over. It’s all in there. We get to exact revenge, we get to right wrongs, and we get to live in the heads of these people for years, as we create them. I was sad when this book ended, because I was, in many ways, ending that relationship there. That’s why, I think, there could really be a part two, the way I left it open. I kept a regular schedule, every day on my lunch hour I would write behind a closed office door, Monday was Jacob, Tuesday was Marcy, etc. So by limiting my involvement, only 30-40 minutes, by the time each day rolled around, I was really eager to put down my thoughts, to continue the story, and see what happened next. Because I felt that whole “body without organs” experience, being in “the zone” so often with Transubstantiate, I felt like I was having success, it was working. I think most of us KNOW when we’re writing crap, and when we’re writing something special. It can be one line, a scene, an idea, but we know when it feels right, and since this was the first novel I wrote that felt that way, I was always excited to get back to it.
SWB: Â For budding writers just starting on the road, whatâ€™s your strongest advice?
RT: Â Read. All the time. Read in your genre, especially. Read the masters in every other genre – the best from horror, SF, fantasy, literary, mystery, short stories, you name it. They all have something to give you, something you can learn about. It will seep into your pores and in time, you will recognize when a sentence, a scene, a chapter is working, because you’ve been reading great fiction. And beyond that – see great films, listen to music, and live your life – have lots of sex, go see plays, get out there and play tennis, do whatever you need to do to feel alive. As for craft, start short, and find your voice. I know what my voice is now, but I didn’t four years ago. People know what to expect when they see “Richard Thomas Fiction” now. It will be dark (neo-noir) and it will be heavy on setting and emotion, it will probably be tactile and sexual, on the body, in the moment, and it will deal with broken, fractured people in situations that require the true self to be revealed. I can’t write like King or Franzen or Bradbury or Pynchon. I can only write like me. And I’m okay with that. And you should be too. Find yourself, 500 words, then 1,000 words, then 3,000 words, and then in time, when you are ready, go for the big book, the novel, 50-80,000 words. It’s a beast, but if it’s in you, let it out.
SWB: Â How do you feel about critiquing? Getting good objective feedback is essential for whatever youâ€™re writing and to help you develop as a writer, but do you look for any specific type of feedback?
RT: Â It’s hard. If you can find maybe a half dozen people that you trust, whose work you really enjoy, then count yourself lucky, and work with them. I have that, in Write Club. You are one of those people, as are a lot of other people, especially the people that I’ve known the longest, those closest to my own genre as well – Caleb Ross, Nik Korpon, Christopher Dwyer, Axel Taiari, Mlaz Corbier. They know what I do well,and they don’t let me off the hook, none of you do. I’ve been lucky this year as well, to get to know MIchael Gonzalez, Pela Via, and David Bodensteiner better as well, and they’ve all had a big hand in shaping my next book, Disintegration. You have to be honest with people, give it hard and don’t flinch, while finding the gold as well. It is not easy. But it’s exciting. Seeing books that I worked on with people like Nik, with Stay God, finally come out, it’s rewarding. I know that it is a fantastic book, and to be able to help shape it, make it better, it’s very cool. I like feedback that tells me what is working, and also, where it falls short. I like to know when the emotions are working, when people are sucked into the moment, and how I can make it better. And in the end, I fight to keep my voice strong, my vision intact, while applying whatever advice I can.
SWB: Â Getting a novel published goes way beyond just writing the novel, can you tell us a bit about what you had to do to breakthrough? Was there anything that surprised you about the whole process?
RT: Â It’s a mixture of confidence in the face of constant defeat and luck. You have to believe in your novel (in any of your work, really) or why bother. I had to build up to Transubstantiate, and by writing short stories, and then getting them published over time, getting really great feedback and encouragement from people like Craig Clevenger, Monica Drake, and Max Barry, in those intensives, and then sending my work out into the world, and having success, that all adds up. Over 20 stories published online and in print in four years, including my story “Stillness” getting into Shivers VI with Stephen King and Peter Straub. That gave me hope, and confidence, that I knew what I was doing, and that people liked my work, total strangers. Winning that contest at ChiZine, that blew my head off, I really thought “Wow, maybe I can write.” We go through these mood swings, one day we believe that our work is really strong, the next, that we’re hacks. I was actually surprised at the extremes of the publishing world. Some people, presses, agents would blow you off, not a THANK YOU or a SORRY, WE PASS, just nothing. Others, extremely generous and supportive, even big name authors and agents and presses. It’s encouraging. What surprises me is the constant state of flux, the sense that the world, the literary landscape, is expanding and contracting around me, daily. It’s so huge and yet at times, so small. It’s intimidating, and then, nurturing. It’s a great time to be a writer.
SWB: Â Every writer wants to capture a readerâ€™s attention, what techniques did you use in your writing to achieve that goal?
RT: Â I’m a big believer in the narrative hook. This is something I knew about, but was really hammered home at my MFA program at Murray State University with the Pulitzer nominated Dale Ray Phillips. That first sentence is so important. Also, I like to live in the moment, and have the reader be there IN the story, not in the head of a character looking back in time, revisiting memories. I want it to be tactile, visceral, with all five of the senses. I’m a big fan of setting, and it is really important to me to ground the story, the scenes, in reality, before it goes anyplace else. I like to slowly reveal the story, the plot, as well, so that the reader is constantly pushing forward, action happening on every page from a violent crime to a quiet moment over a cup of tea to time travel and sex. Things happen, character is revealed, and you want to keep reading. Hopefully.
SWB: Â Weâ€™re learning all the time. Are there any aspects of your writing that you want to develop? Styles or challenges you want to explore further?
RT: Â Yes. I’m constantly looking at the slipstream writers, those genre-benders, lit-genre writers. I want to keep the language and thought elevated, while keeping the experience and sensations grounded. Luckily, there are a lot of authors out there who stand up for genre fiction, and keep pushing the edges of it all – Brian Evenson, Stephen Graham Jones, Tina May Hall, Holly Goddard Jones, Kyle Minor, so many voices. They can write with aspects of horror or fantasy in a contemporary, educated way, so that we can react on many levels to what they are doing. So, I hope that with my next book, Disintegration, that I’ve evolved and grown. I think it’s my best work to date. Also, I’m hoping to get into some sort of steampunk writing. I love the idea of taking a story so far into the future that technology fails, and society has to revert to basic means of survival – wheels, steam, fire, wind. I like what Stephen King did in The Dark Tower series. I like the surreal and magical realism and contemporary dark fiction that is being put out there. I want to be a part of that movement, and encourage others to do that too. And, I’m looking into graphic fiction, like my story “Victimized” in Murky Depths (UK) in January of 2011. It’s a great way to tell a story, and there is a whole audience out there that I haven’t gotten to yet. I always see my work as visual, even in motion, so I think it will transfer well to a graphic format.
So that’s that.
I hope you enjoyed it.
Just saw this the other day and thought I’d post it up here as it fits in with what I’ve been blogging here recently. Caleb’s been a faithful ctitiquer of my novels over at Write Club for a while now, so I tend to take notice when he offers advice on writing.
It’s a word or two about plotting. Check it out.