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Eating Your Vegetables

The editing process is attacking me again.

I've always, always said that if a book is like a meal, writing it is the main course. It's the part you spend the most time on, it takes the most work, it does the most for you. Reading it is like the dessert. It's not particularly the best thing for you to be doing (why read your own books, shouldn't you be writing more?), but it's fun to do, and it's probably the thing others enjoy the most, too. But in the five-course meal that is a complete novel, editing is eating your vegetables.

I didn't eat my vegetables as a kid. Even as an adult, I have to smother my veggies in the rest of the food so I can barely taste it. (I like most things that go in a salad; I neither like nor dislike corn; I think beans are all I need to make a case for the presence of evil in the world.) I sat at the table long after my parents were done, toying with whatever vegetables my mom decided I needed in my system that evening. I would ask how many bites I needed to eat before I could be excused; I would negotiate, trying to get an exact measurement for a bite (is it any wonder I'm essentially a pre-law student in college?); I would beg, plead, and get theatrical, but I wasn't allowed to get up from the table until I ate those vegetables.

It's the same with writing. I love writing. It's such an essential part of myself that everything else I do in life is incidental; my life is reckoned in terms of my writing. And, as uncomfortable as it makes me at first, I love letting people read what I write. Why else do I write it? I get quite a lot out of the written word, I want to try and emulate that and give that to others. But the only way to get from writing something to letting others read it is that bane of my existence, editing.

Editing is difficult. I don't like to do it. I cringe whenever I come across a particularly bad sentence. It's unsettling to come across word choice that upsets the rhythm and flow of my work. I waffle on tenses; should I use he was sitting in the chair to make it seem more immediate or he sat in the chair to make it more emphatic? I trace threads of the plot from where they were first laid out to where they fizzle because I forgot about them, I pick them up and reconnect them, I gut whole sections of the novel, sometimes completely eradicating a character from the storyline... (There's a pernicious figure who had nothing more than a cameo appearance in Seafear whose role didn't expand in Stormsong, so he'll have to go the way of Old Yeller. It's a shame, I kind of liked him and that means there's at least 30 pages I need to completely rewrite.)

I don't like to edit. But I want people to read my book. And they can't read my book until I edit it. So onward I plow, trying to make this thing fit for human consumption. Er, reading. Whatever.

Don't eat my books, please.

Il Est Fini

At 466 pages and 103,868 words, the first draft of Seaquel is complete.

The actual title, for the record, is Stormsong.

I'll let you lot mull that over, I have printing to do.

The Importance of a Clear Head

I got another rejection letter the other day, but this one was (moderately) personalized, not just a form. Unfortunately, the message essentially said "This isn't what publishers are buying right now, sorry."

That really got to me. Actually, let me rephrase that: That is really getting to me, because it's a perfect articulation of the nagging doubts that have been lurking in the back corners of my skull. Though the word "unsellable" was never once said, my brain took that idea and ran with it, extrapolating on it. "This isn't what publishers are buying" turned into "this is unsellable" turned into "my writing isn't any good, nobody would ever pay for it."

It's left me hypercritical of my own writing, to the point where I feel physically ill when I even glance at a few words thrown together. "That's too sparse. That's too wordy. Who the hell thought those words should sit next to each other?" One of the benefits of being a writer is this: You are so connected to the words, to the language, that you automatically know when something sounds right and when something is... off. I have a pretty decent sense for this when I'm writing first drafts and editing them for second ones; I can tell when something works and when something doesn't.

But not now. Now, all that I see is a jumbled mishmash of broken sentences and incomplete thoughts, immature imagery, too many adverbs, and an incoherent storyline. I see any of my made up words and my stomach contracts, nausea courses through my body and I want to go do something else.

I haven't touched Seaquel in two weeks. I was going to get around to finishing Chapter Fourteen, but in the period between finishing Chapter Thirteen and starting Chapter Fourteen, I've gotten five rejection letters. It's enough to put a damper in anyone's ego and drive, and it's left me, as I've said, hypercritical.

I know it's all baloney when it boils down. I know this is all something in my head. Though I am quite often a keen judge of my own work, I've let this spate of rejection -- especially the last one -- get to me, get under my skin, to the point where I've lost my stuff. I'm sprawled on the floor next to my broken ego, and though it's still there, waiting to be put back together, I can't quite force myself to go forward with anything right now.

Once my head clears, everything will be fine.

Same Old Song and Dance

I thought I'd go through my list of rejection letters today (those that I still have around -- the responses via snail mail were long ago trashed) and look at the reasoning for my rejection thus far. Let's go!
  1. "I don’t feel it is one for me."
  2. "We’re afraid your project does not seem right for our list."
  3. "I suspect I wouldn't be the best fit."
  4. "I’m afraid this isn’t for me."
  5. "Unfortunately your book does not seem like one we could successfully represent at this time."
  6. "I'm afraid your work is not the right fit for us at this time, and we encourage you to continue editing and querying other agencies."
  7. "I’m sorry to say that we didn’t think it was the right fit for our list, so we have decided to pass." (This one came from an agent who read the full thing, too.)
  8. "I don't think I'd be the best match in this instance."
  9. "We can assure you that your query was given every consideration, however, we are unable to offer representation at this time."
  10. "Unfortunately, however, this project doesn’t sound right for me."
  11. "After careful review, I have decided that the book you propose is not one I feel I could successfully represent, and thus, I will not be able to work with you on this project."
  12. "I read and consider each query carefully and while yours is not exactly what I am looking for,  I would certainly encourage you  keep trying."
  13. "It is not a good fit for me, but I wish you the best of luck."
  14. "I regret to say that I don’t feel that I’m the most appropriate agent for your work."
Almost all of these were followed up with "This is a highly subjective business, and this is only one opinion. Good luck, send out more letters, etc., etc."

I only had one response -- which I'm not going to print in full here -- that had anything helpful to say.

It almost seems unfair that we labor over a project for however long it takes to write it (two years in my case), and then spend a significant chunk of time researching literary agents and finding out about their tastes, pet peeves, favorite colors, the alignment of the stars at the precise moment of their birth, and their preferred letter of the Cyrillic alphabet, only to be dismissed with the exact same response 95% of the time.

I absolutely recognize that we only have one project to worry about while agents have 15,000 per year to consider. I completely understand that they are only one person dealing with a deluge of email, and that there's often just one X factor about the novel that's not clicking for them. I know this, I understand this, I sympathize with the amount of work they have to do -- but my book is not just a number to me. I wish it were treated more than that sometimes.

The Slog

There is a reason why most writers don't keep a blog while they're in the process of writing a book. Neil Gaiman said it best when he explained the reasoning behind starting a blog after his novel, American Gods, was finished:
"It was a bit like wrestling a bear. Some days I was on top. Most days, the bear was on top. So you missed watching an author staring in bafflement as the manuscript got longer and longer, and the deadlines flew about like dry leaves in a gale, and the book remained unfinished."
Boy, do I know the feeling, Neil.

I've set myself a quasi-impossible goal for Seaquel. I turn 21 in 22 days; I want to finish Seaquel on September 8th, so I get to brag about how I wrote three novels before I turned 21. Is that greedy? I can already say I wrote two novels before I turned 20. Let's round it off with three before 21.

Of course, that means I have 22 days to write the last third of Seaquel. It's not impossible. I wrote the second half of Seafear in three weeks, in a fit of creative energy. I wrote 100 pages of Seaquel in about three days last month. It can be done, and now's the best time for that -- I don't have school until September 1, and unless I get a phone call in the next few weeks from one of the jobs I applied for, I'll be completely free.

Right now I'm being dogged by the existential questions I assume every other unpublished writer deals with: Is this really what I'm meant to do? How do I know this book is good enough? I submitted my 28th query letter tonight, so I now have six agents from whom I'm waiting to hear. I'm 300 pages into the sequel of a book for which I haven't yet found representation; it could all end up being a monumental waste of time.

Except it's not, because I'm not doing it, in the long run, to get published. Yes, it's been a dream of mine for as long as I can remember to pull my own books off the shelf at a bookstore, to be a published author, to have readers -- God, I can't even attract readers to my blog, how can I get people reading my book? -- and to have a fancy-dancy author website. Every time I go into a bookstore, I find myself wandering over to the YA section, spotting the "Smiths," and looking for where my books could one day be. But I'm not doing it for that; I'm doing it because I love to tell stories, and I love to write, and this is a story that I very much want to tell.

It's a slog, and it's hard to explain to people who aren't writers. I sound crazy when I talk about it to my friends now: "Oh no, I'm not a published writer at all, I don't have representation. What's that? Yes, this will be the third book I've written." And good God, a lot of people don't even like to read. When I'm meeting new people with my best friend, and the topic of hobbies comes up, I say I like to write and that I've written two books; he says he break dances. Everyone thinks his hobby is cooler. I can't even get my own parents to read my book, but for some reason, I keep on doing it. I write, and I keep on trying to get published. I try my damndest, because I can't not write.

I don't know if that makes me stupid or if it makes me admirable. There's a fine line between the two.

One Year

A year ago, I began submitting Seafear to literary agents for potential representation.

In that time span, I have written to 27 different literary agents, most of them based in New York City. I have heard back from 14 agents, most of them with form rejections. Two agents, one based in New York and one based in San Diego, requested the full manuscript of my book. Only one had anything helpful to say about it, the other just said it wasn't "right" for his list.

It has been an incredibly frustrating slog. It has drained my confidence; there are days when I doubt my book is up to anything resembling snuff. It has left me feeling more elated than I've ever really felt in my life -- the first time an agent asked to read my full manuscript, I felt like I might just be doing something right.

I've sometimes felt like I have no support in this endeavor. My parents, though they fostered my immense love of reading and books, seem to regard my writing as a distraction from my studies in college and my potential future as a lawyer. I gave them one of the two hard copies of Seafear I have, back in May, and they haven't been bothered to read it yet. That certainly hurts.

I've had friends ask me what my book is about, get interested, and then suddenly stop caring when I show them the manuscript. That hurts, too; insincerity is frustrating. But I've also had friends -- a sizable group of them, actually -- who have read Seafear, have told me what they liked and what they didn't, and have been genuinely enthused about what I'm trying to do.

I've been told I should try and write something "more publishable," or that I should stop "pretending to be J.K. Rowling or James Patterson" and write something "more original." I've been told I've written a Pirates of the Caribbean rip-off, I've been told I've written a good book, I've been told I've written a great book.

And still I go on. I am 65,000 words into a sequel to Seafear; this is a story I want to tell, this is the story I am telling. I have lived with these characters and this world for two years now, and I'm not willing to give it up. I've put too much of myself into this, and I believe I've written a good read. No, it's not going to be put in the great Western Canon; I am not by any stretch of the words a superb writer. But I'm decent, decent enough to attract some attention, and I'm not going to give that up.

This novel will get published.


50,000 Words

It seems silly, but every time I hit the 50,000 word mark in a project, I breathe a sigh of relief and know that I'm probably going to finish it. 50,000 words isn't particularly long, and those 50,000 aren't particularly any good, but I feel phenomenal.

Part of it has to do with NaNoWriMo -- National Novel Writing Month. The goal in that is to write a 50,000 word novel in the month of November. When I first heard of that, 50,000 words seemed like a good length for a novel, and it's generally when a book is no longer classified as a novella and starts to be understood for what it is, a novel.

This is the third time I've hit 50,000 words in a project. I came dangerously close one time, when I was fourteen in the first book I ever tried to write. The first book I did finish passed the 50,000-word mark four months after I started writing it. Seafear hit 50,000 the same month I finished it (I doubled the size of that book in about five weeks, a feat I've yet to duplicate). I started writing Seaquel in earnest in December 2009, and it's July 2010 now, so that's seven months' work right there.

Just wanted to share :)


The Terror of New Beginnings

I tend to plan books far in advance of when I'm going to actually write them. I started taking notes on the first book I completed back in the summer of 2005, and didn't really get started on anything until May 2006. Before that, during my first attempt at writing a novel ever, I started planning it in 1999. Yes, I was ten, and very precocious, but I still used the same world, characters, and general plot that I wanted to use when I started writing in 2003.

When I plan my novels, I like to do chapter-by-chapter outlines, detailing exactly what will happen in each chapter, giving it a title, and trying to shoehorn some character development elements into it. I usually stick to the outlines while I'm writing, occasionally adding a chapter or removing one when I don't feel it's necessary to take the story in that direction.

The one exception to both of these rules was Seafear. Seafear was a kind of fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants novel, which I'd never really done before. I wrote my first notes down for it on August 3, 2008, and I started writing it twelve days later. Yeah, I did an outline for it, but that was abandoned by Chapter Five and I never looked at the outline again until the very ending, when I needed to steal a chapter title. It was a very different experience than what I'd normally done, but it worked out well.

With Seaquel, unlike Seafear, I've been much more strict about adhering to the outline. I already have the bedrock of the first book to build off, so I need to stick to continuity. Seaquel is also the second part of a trilogy (because every debut young adult series needs to be a trilogy is why), so threads that I began to lay in the first book need to be carried through in this one.

With all this in mind, I began plotting out Threequel this weekend (get it?), and it's scaring the bejeesus out of me. If I stick to my outline, this book is going to be a very long one, maybe the length of the sixth Harry Potter book. While overly thick volumes seems to be standard fare for a lot of fantasy series, I've never written anything that crosses over the 100,000-word mark. My longest work was 85,000 words. If Threequel goes as I think it will, it's going to pass 150,000.

That petrifies me and excites me at the same time. Right now I'm focused on Seaquel, but Threequel is going to ultimately be the most difficult, most complex, and hopefully most fulfilling book I'll have written to date. Too bad it won't get written until at least 2011.

Writer's Block

The pithy answer to "What is writer's block?" is "There's no such thing."

This is, ultimately, true. There is no such thing as a disease that prevents you from sitting down and writing. A lot of times, it's a case of lazy. It's when you suddenly realize there are an unlimited number of websites out there, a whole lot of video games to play, friends to talk to, TV to watch, blog posts to write, et cetera, et cetera. Writing on the computer is a dangerous habit, because (for me at least) Facebook inevitably opens.

I've had a hard time making headway in Seaquel lately. (Yes, I'm still being coy about the title. Shut up.) After my last rejection, I've been feeling down about the prospects of Seafear, and it's very hard to force yourself to write when you feel like you can't. I know it's bullshit that I feel that way; both agents who looked at my book said they enjoyed it. But I still worry that it's not going to prove fruitful.

Then I remind myself that I put two years of my life into this thing. On the 25th, the complete manuscript of Seafear will be a year old. On August 15, the story itself turns two. I've put too much into this to be stymied by the inevitable rejection letters that come before that sweet, elusive acceptance letter.

So I'm telling myself I have writer's block right now, because I can't get much done with Seaquel. My poor merry band of pirates have been standing around in a dark corridor for almost two months now, and they really would like to move on with their mission. I'm tantalizingly close to passing 200 pages, which will feel like an accomplishment, so I have reason to write. But I have a severe case of scared and self-doubt (not to mention a little bit of lazy).

The lazy is definitely showing through. After all, there were four seasons of The West Wing to watch when I came home from school, plus plenty of hours to play the Sims 3, and three separate video games that required my immediate and undivided attention.

I need to get back to work. Starting next week, no more nonsense.

The Beauty of a Good Ending

I just finished watching the series finale of Avatar: The Last Airbender. Although Avatar is a kids’ show, the storytelling in that series is really high quality, a good balance of plot, character, drama, and humor. The story throughout the three seasons is quite well told, and the ending in particular is one of the the most poignant I’ve encountered.

To sum up the basics of the story, the Avatar is the only one in the world of the Four Nations who can manipulate (or bend) all four elements. Aang is the Avatar, and the last Airbender; they were all wiped out by the Fire Lord a century ago, and the war between the Fire Nation and the rest of the world goes on throughout the series. Aang has to master the four elements and defeat the Fire Lord, or else the world will fall out of balance.

Well, obviously, he does that. It is a children’s show, after all, and they’re not going to end it in a Shakespearean fashion. But all the loose ends come together so neatly at the end, and it’s one of the most moving images in the whole series to see Aang, at the end, dressed as a master Airbender, savior of the world — and last of his kind. The ending sticks with me every time I watch it.

Or how about the ending to Harry Potter? I invested three years of my life into Avatar, so I was eagerly anticipating its conclusion, but I started reading Harry Potter on my tenth birthday, in 1999. Not only did I spend eight years of my life waiting to see how all that would turn out, but I essentially grew up with Harry. I started the first book right when I was around his age, and due to the timing of the other books’ publications, I finished it the summer before I turned 18 — Harry Potter is almost my peer.

I don’t think I need to recap the ending of Harry Potter here, but J.K. Rowling also constructed a masterful conclusion to the series. Say what you will about the epilogue (and the beastly names Harry and his friends decided to burden their children with), but after racing through roughly 3,800 pages never sure what exactly would happen, worrying about the lives of fictional characters, it was a relief to see Harry fathering some children and getting some small slice of happiness.

And even before then, there is no better chapter in the entire series than Chapter 36, “The Flaw in the Plan.” Everyone starts off thinking Harry is dead, you see Neville Longbottom show off just why he was sorted into Gryffindor, you see everyone get into a monstrously amazing battle, Molly Weasley screams “NOT MY DAUGHTER, YOU BITCH!” and kills Bellatrix Lestrange, finally culminating in Harry putting the smackdown on Lord Voldemort.

I’m a writer, so I’m naturally moved most by a really good story. For me, what makes a story entirely worth it is the ending. When you experience a story through any medium, you invest a lot of time into it. Waiting for the ending is tantalizing, and if it is good, if it is satisfying, it makes that time worth it. One of my problems with the Twilight series (yes, I read it all) was that the ending just didn’t pay off, not in any of the books, nor in the series as a whole. Yes, Bella and Edward end up with their happily ever after, but that’s never seriously in jeopardy. Breaking Dawn sets up what could be a real impressive feat for the Twilight saga: all these vampires and werewolves are lining up, and getting ready for some final struggle. And then Bella just shows everyone how cute her baby is and they go away. The end.

I’m not saying every story needs to end with a climactic final battle like Avatar or Harry Potter, but to have plot one must have conflict. Conflict is only resolved with a struggle, even if it’s an internal one, like Huckleberry Finn deciding fine, forget everything I know, I’ll go after Jim. They can be external struggles, like Harry versus Lord Voldemort, or Aang versus Fire Lord Ozai. Really good stories (or at least the ones I love) feature a mixture of internal and external conflict.

That strong rush of feelings I got when I finished the last episode of Avatar, the intense emotions I felt upon closing Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — those are times when I really feel alive and the full extent of what being human entails, even if it’s only vicariously experienced. I’m a writer because I want to try and get others to feel that same rush of feelings I do when I finish something really, really good.

So don’t wimp out on an ending. Don’t pull a Twilight and avoid a bloodbath just because you think that would be sad. Be like J.K. Rowling, don’t be afraid to let some important things be lost, so the price of the conflict’s resolution is apparent.

And that is what makes a good ending.