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The Places We Write

I was at a meeting of the Niagara Branch of the Canadian Authors Association last week. It was a good meeting — that branch, although it has had a few doubts about its longevity from time to time, has got a lot going for it. I’m very confident in their new president and I’m looking forward to seeing what comes out of the branch in the next year or two!

However, the topic came up once or twice about how some writers, myself of course included, like to write outside of the house, often in coffee shops, cafes, and the like. It’s something that’s been bouncing around my head for a while, and that night, it clicked.

As I drove home from the meeting — about 45 minutes’ drive plus some extra time out of respect for the rain that was falling — I started to think about a website where we writers can build a listing of good places to write. Insider information, too, things like whether there are outlets for laptops, what the noise level is like, and whether the staff starts to get antsy around your third hour of nursing that coffee.

And better yet, that site should have a map; that way, if I’m going to be somewhere in the country — say, in Grand Bend for a conference — I can find somewhere to sit for a while and work.

Finally, it’s a neat way to build a community among our insular little writer selves; even if we only ever chat in the comments on the site, it’s a way of knowing there are others out there, like you.

So I took a few hours, invested in a bit of web hosting, and ta-da! The site is built.

Unfortunately, it’s not ready for public consumption just yet. But I’m working on it. Feel like being a beta tester for it? Drop me a line!

Today: 600 words

(I’ve decided to start crossposting my wordcount reports from r/wordcount.)

Another day of writing with a crappy pen. Well, an okay pen, but not the one I like. Sigh!

Anyhow, I got through a good chunk of the current chapter and I am pleased that the outlining I did paid off. Lots of nice little opportunities for humour I think. (Will anyone else find anything in this book funny? No idea. Time will tell I guess.)

I stopped today thinking that I had finished a chapter; I knew it was going to be a shorter chapter but I realized that it was really short, something like half the length of the other chapters in the book. While that’s not a problem nearer the end — I sometimes shorten the chapters to increase the impression of the pace of the book — here in the middle, right after a shorter, very intense, very important chapter, I didn’t think this was right.

Then I consulted my outline. There is a whole scene I haven’t written yet! And now, knowing that I need to write this scene, I can also add a bunch of new stuff that stems from the stuff I wrote today, to reinforce what I’ve developed in the chapter already.

I’m sure it’s all very vague-sounding since I haven’t told anyone what this book is about. I guess the summary is, not a bad day of writing today. Hopefully there will be more over the weekend.

El Presidente

So it seems that some misguided souls have seen fit to make me king of all I survey president of the Canadian Authors Association.

This has little bearing on my writing (other than giving me less time to work on it), but it’s nice to put on a business card… speaking of which, I wonder if I’m getting business cards?

On Submissions

I don’t know how many times new writers need to be told that they need to follow submission guidelines, but I’ve heard from multiple editors in the last two weeks about how many submissions they just throw away because the submitters just didn’t follow the rules. These were editors speaking at a recent conference, as well as in a couple of podcasts (notably Lee Harris of Angry Robot Books, as interviewed on I Should Be Writing).

In discussing this, a friend of mine commented:

Not every editor/publisher explains what they want in plain terms. I’m looking at set of guidelines and they want three things electronically, but don’t specify how they want them. In the body of the email? As one attachment? As three attachments? What format?

I’m afraid to submit anything to them in case I’m dismissed for failing to follow the guidelines! Or maybe I’m just overthinking it.

It’s very true, what she says about vague submission guidelines. I always like when I find publishers with long, detailed guidelines; I even kind of enjoy reading them. The vague ones are unsettling, as my friend pointed out.

My approach is to assume that if the guidelines don’t state something specifically, then the editors don’t care how the submitter handles it. If they don’t say how they want the three things, then attach them the way you would normally attach them in a business context (probably as three separate attachments).

A similar case is when the guidelines as for a cover letter but don’t say what they expect to get out of it. I just send a version of my standard, general cover letter that provides a bit of a bio, and a description of the piece and why I’m sending it to them. If they are looking for something specific, and say so, then I make sure that’s included (and obviously included) in the letter.

And you’ve got to be a little fatalistic too, I think — don’t overthink it, just send, record that you’ve sent it, and move on. If you have inadvertently violated their unwritten rules, not much you can do about it; and better to have submitted and lost than not to have submitted at all. As they say.

Whether it’s just 3 people or a crowd of 9 people…

From the “humour so funny it hurts” category:

With publishing houses slashing their marketing budgets, it often falls to writers themselves to make the most of every reading opportunity, from cozy gatherings of just a few fans at smaller booksellers to major events at chain stores that can draw upwards of 10 people.

Compliments, of course, of The Onion.

Two interesting tips

Screenwriting Tips, You Hack is a fantastic blog — over 600 tips for screenwriters and counting, all of them about one sentence long. I read it regularly because the tips are almost always relevant to any writer of stories. The same principles apply.

Two great tips posted there this week:

#603 – There’s no need to point out what you’re doing for the slow readers, i.e. ‘the opulence of the hotel room contrasts sharply with the street outside’, or ‘now Bob is in control — the exact opposite of the last scene’.

This is really a version of “show, don’t tell.” You, as the writer, are responsible for making the connections clear to the reader; if you have to tell the reader explicitly that a relationship exists between two things, you’re not doing your job. (In fact, I plan to search my writing for the word “contrast” to see whether I’ve done this myself.)

#605 – Characters accidentally getting other characters’ names wrong (or ‘accidentally’, when trying to insult/exclude them) is overused, not hugely funny and stands a good chance of confusing the reader.

That’s just a very sound tip, right there.

I wonder why there are no good blogs like this for novelists?

La Nouvelle

I’m finally done with my damned sequel novel — at least, for now. I’m done with it to the point where I’m sending it to my agent. Only six months after I said I’d get it to her… luckily she remembered me.

I probably added about 1,000 new words but the net wordcount from the first draft is down by at least 6,000. Most of my work has been chopping out pretty big sections of text. One of the problems with writing longhand, and not writing from a well-drawn-up outline, is that you write your way down some unexpected paths. Sometimes they pay off, but more often they just create inconsistencies and “what’s happened to that storyline?” kinds of moments. And there was a lot of plain old redundancy and boringness that needed to be chopped too. Out it went!

Anyhow, I’m going to put this damned book aside for the moment and get to work on some other stuff. And to that end — I’ve put together a non-fiction proposal today, too. So off that goes. And my post title becomes even more inaccurate, but I can’t think how to improve on it, so suck it up, inconsistency mavens.

So if it weren’t already apparent, a martini or two or three is in order to mark this austere occasion. I haven’t had anything to drink in the last two or three weeks and tonight, I feel pretty strongly that I deserve said martinae.

Good luck, little manuscripts. I’ll see you when you return, battered and bruised by the responses of the first critical eyes set upon you…

A Good Rejection

A couple of months ago, I submitted my short story, “Unrest Among the Smart Cows”, to the online literary journal Electric Literature.  In early March, they sent me a note to say that my story had passed the first round of reviews–not yet accepted but closer. Then last Friday I got a form rejection e-mail. The rejection was followed by this personal note:

Matthew,

I just wanted to let you know that we really enjoyed reading your story. We found the conceit to be extremely original, and admired your command of language and use of irony. Thank you for sharing your work with us.

Best of luck, [editor]

I’ve had a tough time placing this story; I think that it’s too science fiction for mainstream literary journals, but too mainstream for science fiction journals. I’ve received personalized rejections from The New Quarterly and On Spec, so I know it’s on the right track, but it just hasn’t hit the right note with anyone yet.

That said, it’s really encouraging to get praise like this, even in the context of a rejection. I’m happy with that for now.

Finding the Tension

It’s always hard to write fiction if you’ve never done it before. I guess it’s also hard to make bread if you’ve never done it before, but at least you can get it over with in three hours or so, and the results are usually pretty conclusive — if you can toast it and butter it and eat it, it’s bread, and otherwise, you’d better take another read through the steps in your Purity Cookbook and see what you did wrong.

Not so with fiction. With good fiction, with the very best fiction, there’s something compelling, something worth investing in for a reader. That thing is tension.

Tension is the question that needs to be answered, but isn’t easy to answer. Should I kill this guy? Assuming you’re part of civil society, probably not. But he killed my father — I think — my dad’s ghost told me so — but he’s praying — but he married my mom — but — but — that’s some real good tension you got going there.

And what about this one. A guy starts up a relationship with a female police officer; she pulls him over to give him a ticket, but she’s charmed by him somehow, and she asks him to meet her for coffee instead. And it turns out they’re made for each other — same sense of humour, same taste in everything, just the perfect relationship.

But he’s unsettled by the way she automatically assumes the dominant role in the relationship. She’s a cop, after all, and that brings with it a certain approach to life — everything is definite, controlled. He really likes her, but as their relationship develops, he can’t figure out how he’s supposed to fit into it. There are the traditional gender roles, and there’s just the feeling that he’s not quite her equal. Should he keep trying, or just get out? Is there a way to figure it out so that they’re both satisfied, or will he just give up on her, potentially giving up the person he wants to be with? It’s tough to answer that question.

That question led to the first novel I completed. It wasn’t a good novel — no, no, it certainly was not — but it was the first one I ever finished, after many, many false starts. And the thing that made it possible, the thing that kept the energy and plot and characters all together through the whole thing, was that tension.

Even now, having finished a handful of these novel things and developed some skills in story-telling, the tension is still the most important thing in any of the fiction I write. I’ve got a book in mind — I’ve had it in mind for several years, in fact — but I can’t get it started until I know for sure what the tension will be. Until then, this book is just a bunch of incidents, people bumbling around and doing stuff (and also some loud, fast music). Without the tension, it’s not a story, it’s just stuff. If anyone else is going to care enough to read it, it needs a story.

If I can find the tension, I can use it as the energy that drives the story forward. That will make the book-idea into a good book. In the meantime, I’m still searching.

Chapter Length

When I wrote LMF, the chapters varied wildly in length. Part of that was because I had a ten-chapter structure in mind, with two alternating timeframes; the parts of the story that those ten pieces would cover could be short or long. And I could use shorter, tense chapters to offset the longer chapters that dealt with larger parts of the main character’s journey.

When I started writing The Famiglia, though, intending it to be for a more popular audience, I settled on chapters of about 2000 words each. It’s a good length — enough for two or three scenes, not so long as to be boring but long enough to fit almost any sequence of action.

Having a standard chapter length in mind also helped to pace the novel. I tend to write in shorter bursts — usually on my lunch break — of 500 to 1000 words. Although the last third of The Famiglia was written in one solid week, the pacing was well set by then. Knowing how long a chapter should be helps to determine the length of each scene, and which scenes fit together.

The sequel to The Famiglia, On the Heat, uses the same standard chapter length. It’s been useful not only in writing and pacing the book, but also in finding scenes that are extraneous and can be cut. This was most clearly shown when a reader pointed out that two chapters covered almost all the same ground, meaning one could be cut nearly completely. As I finish the editing process with that book, I expect to have a few chapters cut down and combined with others as well.

One of the reasons it’s been easy to achieve a regular pace in those books, though, is that they’re all from one character’s point of view. In my new project, there are four major point of view characters, and that makes things much, much trickier. Because I have to expend more time than I want to with a single character, sometimes, just to get through a relatively simple plot point.

I’m finding, as I progress through these novels, that I’m favouring shorter and shorter chapters. I tend towards 1600-1800 words per chapter instead of 2000-2200. I don’t think I’m going to become Dan Brown any time soon, but it’s interesting to see the patterns that develop over time.