Tag Archives: Manuscripts

Day of Infamy

Pearl Harbor Day will be observed this week. In the bustle and chaos of the end of this semester’s classes, my rush to wrap up a book project, Christmas shopping/decorating, and hauling my geriatric dog to the vet’s office for expensive testing, I nearly had forgotten all about it. But this afternoon, the radio station was tuned to old radio classics and it was broadcasting a famous speech about the day that will live in infamy when Hawaii was attacked without warning by a foreign power. And with a jolt, I realized that this is a time to pause and remember.

Firstly, to remember those people who lost their lives in the attack on Pearl Harbor. That attack galvanized the USA to enter World War II. We had wanted to stay out of it. We wanted to be left alone. We wanted to remain isolated.

On December 7, 1941, the world for Americans changed forever. We continue today to live with the effects of that war. Because of it, we roused ourselves from a semi-rural nation into a worldwide powerhouse and leader. Because of it, our industrial, scientific, and productive gears spun into overdrive, and we have been a consumer-driven country ever since. Because of it, we developed nuclear power and clawed our way into outer space. Because of it, our customs changed and our population shifted. There aren’t many veterans of WWII still living now, but I honor those who served–including some of my uncles–risking their lives and throwing their hearts and courage on the line to preserve us from domination. And as an American, enjoying the privileges of living in this free nation, I give thanks for the sacrifices and bravery our military expended then for the generations to come.

But secondly, I have to remember a different Pearl Harbor Day … December 7, 1977. I was a college senior, majoring in Professional Writing at the University of Oklahoma. And I was enrolled in the novel course, required for my major coursework. That class was the sole reason I moved out of state and attended OU. I wanted to be a novelist, and I wanted to take the novel class more than life itself. I’d wanted desperately to take it as a freshman, and it was agonizing to wait until I was a senior to enroll. But that’s the way the requirements fell.

It was a semester I might refer to–stealing a book title from Irving Stone–as The Agony and the Ecstasy. The ecstasy was that finally I was receiving the training I’d longed for since my childhood decision to become a writer. The agony was that the instructor, Jack Bickham, was intimidating, terrifying, strict, exacting, and tough. He was the kind of teacher that pulled no punches and took no prisoners. When you entered that course, you could psychologically identify with the warriors of ancient Sparta–told by their wives to come home with their shields or on them.

Jack didn’t believe in praise. Or encouragement. He issued a single assignment for the class, which was to submit a novel manuscript at the end of the semester. He always chose Pearl Harbor Day as the due date. With a rather evil chuckle, he said it was appropriate because many of us students were headed to destruction. (It was not a remark to inspire confidence.) We had no rewrites, no second chances. One assignment and one grade for a semester’s worth of hard work.

Was he just a sadistic old coot? The kind of jaded, cynical college professor that enjoyed tormenting the young?

No.

It was a writing boot camp designed to make us tough, resilient, and determined to survive. It was to prepare us for the ruthless arena of the publishing industry. He knew in his wisdom and experience that to coddle us and pamper us, to wrap us in praise before we were ready, would be to send us off to be trampled by editors–if we even got that far.  And so, somewhat like a Marine drill sergeant, he scared us and set the bar of achievement high, weeding out the weak, lazy, untalented, and foolish as best he could.

Pearl Harbor Day–a date when a sleepy, naive nation awoke and showed the world what it could do when roused to action. Pearl Harbor Day–a date when I turned in a completed novel manuscript despite fear, shyness, and a dinky portable typewriter that wore out along the way.

America won its war. And my manuscript (THE SIGN OF THE OWL) went onward through more revisions to find eventual publication and a national award.

 

 

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Old Rituals

For many years, immediately following the completion of many book manuscripts, it was my custom to clear off my desk and clean out my office once the latest effort was in the mail to New York.

Ritual? Ceremony? Whatever the label, it marked an occasion. My manuscript notes and drafts were tidied away. I saw the surface of my desk again. In effect, I was clearing away one story and cast of characters to open the gate for new ideas to come through.

This January, I completed book 3 of THE FAELIN CHRONICLES and emailed it to my editor. These three YA novels moved me fully into the electronic age. This is the first contract I’ve ever worked on that didn’t involve a paper copy of my manuscript, usually a ream or more of pages neatly printed and stacked in a manuscript box, prepped for mailing.

On the positive side, I’ve saved a big chunk of money on paper, printer ink, and flat-rate postage.

On the negative side, the ritual of cleaning out the office hasn’t happened in quite a while. Not, in fact, since I moved to this house. Of course the move itself was a scramble, a seemingly Herculean effort in 100+ degree heat, and it put me so behind on my deadline that I crawled into this house, left the boxes untouched, and wrote like the furies.

But instead of parading to the post office and waving bon voyage to a heavy stack of paper, I clicked a button. The ritual was lost, sucked into the ether of the Internet.

Something important in my writing routine is now lacking. Two novels have been produced in this office that I’m barely acquainted with. I can’t remember when I’ve seen the top of my desk. My files have yet to be organized. My manuscript notes lie in chaos. My reference books are scrambled and stacked in hazardous heaps.

How can a new idea possibly enter this environment? The gates are grown over with the vines of clutter, saying (in effect), “New Idea, you’re not welcome here.”

It’s time to regain the ritual. I’ll have to create a new ceremony to replace the preparation of the manuscript box. I need the closure. It will force me to resume the good habits of cleaning and clearing.

And it will remind me that my months of hard work on each book have culminated in a tangible result, of which I can be proud.

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Writing Ergonomics: the Desk

A few years ago, I assigned a novel from my Nether fantasy series as class reading. One comment from a student surprised me: “Why does nearly every character in this book have a hurt shoulder?”

When I wrote that novel, I happened to be undergoing physical therapy for a frozen shoulder–a truly painful condition. I hadn’t made the connection until my student asked that question.

Of all the myriad distractions that can afflict writers, pain is one that affects your writing far more than you may realize.

Once upon a time, I had a very pretty new house. It featured a study at the front, with a tall window overlooking the street. I wanted very pretty office furniture to go in it.  Suddenly my old gray, steel-and-Formica computer desk looked too ugly for its new surroundings. I also needed a tax write-off at the time, so I invested in a dark cherry-veneered computer desk, file, and bookcase. It looked stunning. When I entered the study to work on my book, I felt successful. But after several weeks, I noticed sharp pains in my neck and shoulders during writing sessions. Investigation led to the discovery that the desk was too tall for comfortable computer work. It set my monitor at a height that was causing the muscle strain. Furthermore, the keyboard was at the wrong height, too.

Enduring those discomforts, I finished my manuscript in progress and started the editing/revision process. Normally I write fairly clean drafts, with few spelling and grammatical errors. But in this instance, the manuscript was littered with spelling mistakes and poor punctuation. I had been so physically miserable at my new desk that the effects had crept into my writing.

At that point, I hauled the ugly old computer desk in from the garage and put the pretty office furniture elsewhere.

Old Steel-and-Formica was constructed when personal computers were first being marketed to the public in the mid-1980s. It’s made at a lower height (28 or 29″) that allows the monitor to stand where it should. Because the desk top is lower than a standard desk height (30″), the keyboard drawer is also lower (27″). This means I can sit in my chair with my feet flat on the floor; my forearms are level and parallel to the floor; and I don’t have to skew my neck to a strange angle in order to work. I avoid neck strain and carpal tunnel problems in my wrists and hands.

Of course, although I’ll be forever grateful that I didn’t get rid of it, I still think old Steel-and-Formica is ugly. After my cherry wood furniture debacle, I set out on a mission to find a pretty computer desk at the proper height.

It doesn’t exist. By the 1990s, established desk manufacturers had taken over the fledgling computer furniture makers. To save money, they left the desks they’d always made at the same height they’d always been (30″) and simply attached keyboard drawers. Trouble is, the 30″ height works best for hand writing and is too tall for computers.

No one’s going to retool the factories.

Is there any correlation between incorrectly sized furniture and the rise of carpal-tunnel injuries during the last two decades?

So I cling to Steel-and-Formica. The old desk’s a rarity. It’s functional. It saves me a lot of grief. I pretend not to see it, and most of the time I can’t because its surface is piled with manuscripts and books. I will keep it forever, and when I move–as I do fairly often–the new abode must have a writing room large enough to hold it.

Best of all, when I write at it, I don’t hurt.

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Being Tough; Being Kind

One of the tightropes a writer must walk is knowing when to be tough on yourself and when to give yourself a break.

Toughness means having the guts to challenge your ideas, to examine them for holes and contrivance, to see if they can withstand scrutiny or whether they’ll crumble, etc.

Kindness means testing your ideas without killing them. Giving them a chance to bounce back. Letting them grow without grinding them to dust.

Toughness means pushing through the writing of your rough draft until you have it completed. It means not surrendering, not quitting until that task is done. Fatigue, worry, doubt, and interruptions must be withstood in order to keep going.

Kindness means understanding that you will lose your way at times but you’ll always find it again. It means knowing that it’s natural to become tired. That’s nothing to beat yourself up about.

Toughness means facing your mistakes, even when it means jettisoning a scene, chapter, or maybe 100 pages.

Kindness means being glad you found the error and can fix it, and not calling yourself stupid for having erred in the first place.

Toughness means writing the best story and characters you can.

Kindness means knowing that we aren’t machines. Some of our stories will be better than others, and that’s just the way things are.

Walk the rope, friends.

Walk the rope.

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Rejection, Thy Name is Pain

When marketing your copy, which is worse:  to be rejected or to be ignored?

Hard to say.  They both hurt.  Of the two, I’d rather be rejected.  I like closure.  I like to know where I stand.  I am not patient.  Do not, editors of the world, waste my time.  Tell me quickly.  Let me heal, cope, select another market, and move on.  Don’t, please, leave me lingering in limbo, unsure of whether you hate my idea and are too lazy to tell me so or whether you’re actually considering it in an acquisitions meeting.

As Inigo Montoya says in The Princess Bride, “I hate waiting.”

So … let’s say the rejection comes.  The email is tweet-brief:  “No thanks.”

Informative?  No!

Helpful?  No!

Why?  No clue.

Can we find a larger source of writer frustration than this enigmatic terseness?  Because if I knew why my query was turned down, I could fix it.  Yes, I could.  I really could.  Maybe the editor would then like it.  Maybe it just needs trimming or there’s a different quote I could insert.  Let me try.  Let me try.  Let me try!

“No thanks.”  About as communicative as Detective Cho on The Mentalist.

Editors are under no obligation to explain their decisions to us.  Hard for writers to swallow, but that’s just the way things are.  Also, they don’t have the time.  If they did have the time and the inclination to throw us that tiny bone of “If you’d just written a tighter page four” they fear the floodgates will open, and they’ll be hit with a revision that they don’t want either.

Dr. Phil would say, “Tell me, Writer.  What part of ‘no’ don’t you understand?”

A big part.  A huge part.  What does this “no” mean?

I don’t want it.  I can’t use it.  We just bought one better than yours.  My budget is blown for the rest of the year.

If the editor said any of those things it would keep me from imagining — with typical writer histrionics — that my writing stinks!

Instead, I’m left with nothing but my aching ego and some teeth-gritted determination to sell the manuscript despite you, Editor One.  I’ll try another market, another editor.  I’m certain Editor Two has more perspicacity and kindness and money than you anyway.  Editor Two will love what I’ve written.

I hope.

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