The Mother/Daughter Artist’s Retreat Returns; Writer’s Block, Why the Novel is Like a Lover, and Conclusive Research Demonstrates that Walking on the Beach does not Solve your Problems

Since Friday, I’ve been in Morro Bay, California, on our annual mother-daughter artist’s retreat, in which I try to write and Scarlett paints and draws. On the one hand, we’ve been having a great time. On the other hand, as I’ve noted in the past, going on a writer’s retreat doesn’t always result in getting everything done you hoped for.

The truth is, I’ve been struggling with the rewrite of my WIP that was indicated by my last bit of agent feedback. I know I have to revise again, but it’s the very last thing I want to do. I’d rather do anything, whether it’s walk on the beach, make sandwiches and tea, take a nap, or ride bikes across town, than revise. And now, thanks to using my best discipline, I’m on page 144 out of 320 pages and I’m sick of it.

Sick of it.

Sick of it.

This book is awful! I think to myself. Awful. What did I ever see in it?

I read Alexander Chee’s essay, 100 Things about Writing a Novel, and it helps. The novel wants to be written. It’s not a thing, it’s a character in your life. It’s like a lover you’ve had a fight with. It argues, it cajoles. It takes up more of your time than you wanted to give. It is an interloper, an interruption.

It will not be shut up. You have to finish it or you will not have any peace. You can go walk on the beach but that will not get it written any faster, it will just keep you from writing for the time you were on the beach.

Alexander Chee: The conclusion to 100 Things About Writing A Novel.

Writer biographies I read talk about this: the taking of time you don’t want to take. The discipline to write when you don’t want to. Hemingway dealt with this, it’s why he said you should always stop somewhere when you know what happens next so that you can start again the next day.

Yet in the end Hemingway was brought to despair by writer’s block.

I write a poem about horses. I submit some shorts I wrote last year to literary magazines. I look at the novel itself. It rises like Morro Rock in front of me. I believe it can be finished. I must show up to the computer. I can do this.

Morro Bay at twilight last night.

How Much Revision is Enough, Anyway?

It was while reading some literary journal or another — I read so many of them, doing research for submissions, that I can’t remember where — that I discovered Bernard Malamud revised the novel The Natural 50 times.

The idea of revising so compulsively is intimidating. What if I only revise twenty-five times, will it be enough?

It was Hemingway who said “A writer who is not going all the way up can make all the mistakes he wants. None of it matters. He doesn’t matter … As soon as you read one page by anyone you can tell whether it matters or not. So don’t make any mistakes.”

OMG. “Don’t make any mistakes?” This reminds me of a professor telling the story of James Joyce walking all over Dublin one afternoon thinking, and when asked by a friend what was so absorbing, replying that he was concerned about the position of two words in a sentence.

How many times have I revised the WIP? I know it’s more than ten. But the truth is, I often revise one chapter at a time, so some have been revised more than others.

It’s clear from these notes on other well-known writers that revising is something that goes on for a long long time. And it’s hard to keep revising.

I did a writer’s workshop for fourth graders at school before Christmas break. At the end, when all of the 25 kids in the class had finished their project, going through three drafts including the steps of brainstorming, drafting, revising, editing, and publishing (we published by reading the works aloud to the class) I asked the class what they had learned.

One boy raised his hand. “Doing good writing takes a long time,” he said. I have been thinking of that ever since. Few truer words have been spoken by a 4th grader in my hearing. These days it seems a lifetime is barely enough to get the words right.

The WIP: The beginning 50 pages, and the rest of it

I was getting ready to make a pie for my son, and as I was standing in the kitchen peeling apples, I reflected that three agents have seen the full of my novel, and that I’m not sure whether they got past the first 50 pages or not. 

But it’s worse than that: I was reading at at and found that here, too, the first fifty pages of the novel were the focus of a class taking 6 weeks, in which instructor Sandra Novak posted “if those first 50 pages, which lay the groundwork for the entire plot, aren’t working, more problems will often mount up … “

The whole thing is a concern.  And while, I would argue, for the type of book that changes the world, the first fifty pages are rarely the focus (ever heard anyone claim that “that first fifty pages in War and Peace, without it, the book wouldn’t be the same) nevertheless, books which never get published never become the Great American (or Great Anything) novel. Thus, the first fifty pages merit special consideration. 

So what did I do?  Started rewriting my first fifty pages.  I wasn’t sure about taking the class (the temptation to do so was tempered by the $360 price tag) but I stored the possibility of the class as something that could be purchased with my Christmas money.

As for the rest of the novel, the last 250 pages, well … it’s better than the first part.  I don’t know if this is typical and I don’t know if it’s good or  bad.  But I knew this already, from when the book went through the workshop.  So … the goal is to get the first 50 pages up to the speed of the rest of the book.  And start submitting again. 

The Submissions Challenge Month Four, in which I get more positive overall results. A list of four things I’ve learned so far through this process.

The fourth month’s challenge, in which I decided to submit 30 stories in 30 days, was the most intense of all the challenges yet.  I can now report the stats:

I submitted 21 pieces to journals of various types.

Also, I submitted my novel query to 11 agents.

My results:

One literary journal acceptance! Also:  one agent request for a full of my manuscript.

Nine rejections, four with kind notes or invitations to resubmit.  Twenty items from the challenge remain in submission, along with a dozen or more previous subs.  The full of my manuscript was rejected after two weeks. However, the agent gave me some helpful advice and was quite cordial.

How do I feel?  I feel like I’m getting somewhere.

I went back and read my entire #submissionschallenge thread.  Seeing that I’ve gotten faster and stronger on submitting is really encouraging.  Important learnings in the last four months:

1) Sources for markets:  submittable, literistic, duotrope, and blogs which list magazines winning the Pushcart Prize such as this linked post at TheJohnFox.

2) You might want to consider paying for submissions since the economics of the situation have changed.  Then again, maybe not that often.

3) Multiple submissions, yes. It’s okay, really. If a piece isn’t submitted to four markets, the process of submitting, for me, is not complete.

4) Editors and agents are real people and they love literature as much as you do.  And yes, they are reading what you send them.  Perhaps the best introduction you can give as a new writer is that you know of their work and respect it.  I found this out by including what I appreciated about the literary magazines I was researching and by including details gleaned largely from @twitter in manuscript queries, particularly the #MSWL thread. 

Should he give up writing? Not so fast, colleague …

ABC_man_overboard_cruise_ship_sr_140116_16x9_992I was reading Twitter last night when an unusual tweet showed up on my stream.  It was a cry of despair, it appeared, and reading it, I had the sensation of a being passenger standing at the rail of on an ocean liner, looking out over the sea and seeing someone in the water, waving frantically to be seen before it was too late.  The tweet was:

“See you later everyone. I’m giving up writing officially. It’s going nowhere. As a hobby it’s a waste of my time if I can’t survive off of it. I’ll be around for another fifteen minutes before I delete my Twitter … “

Man overboard! I thought.  I tweeted back, “I hope you’re kidding … ”

“Nope. It’s a complete waste of my time. No one besides my mom, my brother and two other people (hyperbole) have read my book or cares … “

Oh my gosh.  Yeah, I know.  It’s tough, the rejection, the indifference, the feeling that what you’re doing *ought*  to be getting more attention than it is.

I know. My ego, too, has at times been pulverized, my self-image, regularly diminished.  And yet.

I replied: “I understand.” I wrote:

“Just tonight, I was wondering: what if I just publish a couple short stories, and nothing else, what then? And I thought: well, what else was I going to do with my time? Knit socks? Ride horses? “

I mean, writing is easy and cheap compared to riding horses.  And I prefer, on average, writers as good-time companions to riders.

I tell myself I have to adjust my perspective. Writing is a lifelong journey.  I think most of us intellectually accept that there are no guarantees, in writing as in elsewhere in life, but we have to accept this emotionally as well. I have a vision of the work I want to complete, but I don’t get a guarantee that my vision will be fulfilled.  I wonder every day if by wanting to be a novelist and see my book read by thousands, I am not suffering from grandiosity of a clinical nature.

I said to my daughter, “I want everyone to fall in love with Carl (my WIP’s hero).”

She didn’t say “You’re out of your mind,” but I think her eyebrows did rise a bit. Meanwhile, I vacillate between confidence and self-doubt. A year ago I told my husband, Leo, that I was in despair because I wasn’t sure I could ever be the Writer I Dreamed of Being.

Leo, who has again and again in my life given me good answers to seemingly intractable questions, said “Look, you write, you always write, whether you journal or you direct your energy towards publication. So why not work to realize your vision? You’ll be writing anyway. Try to make something of it.”

He then went on to tell me the story of Nietzsche, the great German philosopher and classicist, who was rejected by the professors of his day because his ideas were, let us say, a little too progressive. He came up with, among other things, the idea of the Ubermensch and the Death of God, which while controversial have become worldwide philosophical koans after his death. But Nietzsche didn’t live to see his work become canonical. He never made any money out of it.  When he died, his books were published in vanity press editions only. No paying editor would touch them. There was just one professor in the entire world who was teaching Nietzsche’s philosophy.  That one man told him he was a genius but the rest of his colleagues said he was an idiot, or worse, irrelevant.

This discussion with Leo made such a mark on me that I can remember it a year later, and since then I have never stopped trying to be the writer I dream of.  I have also come to believe, as I look at the world, that as education expands, and the world expands, there are more readers than ever before, and therefore, there is room for more writers than ever before.  So I think that as I do not allow myself to quit, my twitter friend should not quit, and neither should the readers of this modest blog, almost all of whom, I think, are writers as well.

I concluded my communication with a tweet that for me is the end of the discussion:

“At the end of the day I think the majority of the joy is in the writing itself not being published.” I should qualify that by pointing out that I’ve had work published — short form only, not books — hundreds of times.  So I’m not guessing.

Now that does not mean that I don’t do everything I can to write work that will satisfy my greater vision. It does mean that I understand that as Mr. Spock said, “No man can summon the future,” and I can’t force a solution.

I noticed that this morning my fellow writer who had neared despair was back at work and wrote that he had composed another 1000 words.  I commend all writers on their many journeys. May you all be read, and far more and far longer than you expect in your darkest moments.

Nietzsche certainly was.



Online Memoir Summit from Village Writing School: Going on now, and it’s free!!!

All right, if you don’t have something to do this weekend, and you’re interested in Memoir and Creative Nonfiction, or you just want to listen to  some very cool and inspirational writing videos by some knowledgeable and admirably-published writers, MFA teachers, and industry insiders, here’s your gig.  And you don’t even have to pay for it.  Unbelievable.

What: Village Writing School Memoir Summit

When:  This weekend

Where: Your home computer

How: By Youtube video

Why: Because it’s the exact same type of presentation you get from going to a writer’s conference, without the travel time and the price tag of $100 to $400.

Write a synopsis: 7 prominent bloggers tell you how

The empty page is even scarier when starting a synopsis …

Just when I thought it was smooth sailing to get starting on pitching agents about my novel, I realized that there was one step I had so far skipped: rewriting the synopsis.  My heart fell to my very shoes.  Dusting off my old synopsis for this WIP, I quickly realized it wasn’t very good.  So, off to the blogs:  Thank God, my writer colleagues were there waiting to help me. And they’re there for you too, if you’re so inclined.


1. How to Write a Synopsis for your Novel I put Graeme Shimmin’s post about writing a synopsis first because he gets it with humor: this writing thing is as emotionally fraught as it is all-consuming. Finding out that after you’ve finished your novel that you’ve got to write a synopsis is not just bad news, it’s downright painful.  His linked blog on archetypes, based on the famous writer’s tome Hero’s Journey, is also useful reading.

2. Jane Friedman is building on all that: The synopsis is probably the single most despised document you might be asked to prepare.  Make sure you detail the character’s motives and emotions. This is what really drives your story.  She gives a detailed list of what to include and what to avoid.  And a list of links on how to write the synopsis, including to Miss Snark’s 100 synopsis archive.

3. How to Write a Novel Synopsis with An Example Jericho Writers.  Well this has some indispensable formatting nuts and bolts, such as: Bold your character name. Write your synopsis from the bones up, from the novel’s structure. Tell what plot developments mean for your protag, what’s at stake, people! Comes with Agent Submissions Builder pop-up, which I can’t vouch for because I didn’t do it. You might take these people a little more seriously if I told you:  They’re from Oxford, UK. Real deep intellectual country.

4. Agent Carly Watters: How to Write a Book Synopsis  Five steps to writing your synopsis, and remember the character arc:  “A one dimensional main character will suck the air out of your manuscript’s tires.” Well said.

5.  How to Write a Synopsis of Your Novel  by Glen C. Strathy.  (OMG he spells his name the same as my ex husband, but I’ll put his blog in here anyway.)  Go ahead and rush past the intro to the meat of this blog post, which details various elements including plot, character, relationship, and theme that your synopsis must have, and then continues to tell how to make a set of index cards which will, if not write your synopsis for you, make it significantly easier.

6. How to Write a Novel Synopsis According to novelist Pearl Luke, ” what you present must be a stirring distillation that leaves readers eager for more.”  Okay, I look at my own personal synopsis and think, I may not be there yet.  But there’s hope. Luke provides you with a very detailed plan, including writing a “major synopsis” (my term) 20 pages long that she says will be useful later in the marketing of your book, before whittling to a “minor synopsis” of less than five pages.  Also includes detailed formatting notes.  If you refer to this one and number 3 above you should have a pretty sound idea of how to format.

7. Learn how to write a synopsis like a pro by Courtney Carpenter.  No roundup of blogs about how to do anything writing would be complete without an entry from the venerable Writer’s Digest, which has been advising writers since before print went decisively digital.  This brief blog will give you critical synopsis vocabulary, and also a quick list of what to avoid. Unfortunately, just before they actually tell you how to write the synopsis, they instead recommend you buy a course for $79, by Jane Friedman, to get the pertinent details.  Jane Friedman’s blog post on the same topic, of course, is #2 on this list.  Having read quite a bit of Jane’s blog, I admit I would wholeheartedly like to see that webinar.  But given that my budget for writing development for November would be wholly subsumed in the purchase, and would leave nothing left for and contest entry fees, I will have to mortify my curiosity, and just write my synopsis based on the blog posts I’ve summarized.