The Hardest Thing About Writing…

So.  After months, or even years, spent in daily/nightly toil on your book or screenplay, you’ve gotten it all polished and spiffy and the best it possibly can be. Perhaps you’ve spent many sleepless nights writing and rewriting it, sweating every word and switching passages or scenes around to make it all come together, and now you’ve done it.  You’ve finished the damn thing.

Now what?

Well, maybe you want to try to get it published, or made into a movie.  You want some kind of representation by way of an agent or a manager. Or perhaps you want to bypass those guys altogether and go straight for indie publishing, or pitching your concept to a producer, or raising funds to make the film yourself.  No matter which path you choose, you’re going to have to market yourself in the end.  And that’s the hard part. 

Is it because that’s a particularly difficult process?  Nope.  Or perhaps because agents, publishers, producers and the like are ogres just waiting to stomp on your dreams?  Naw, most of them are nice, albeit overworked folks.   No, the Sisyphus-like ordeal of finding your way to success is due primarily to that very thing that gives you a writer’s disposition in the first place: your introversion.

That’s the paradox.  Something none of us artsy-fartsy folks can escape because it’s essential to our own natures.  All writers of fiction and/or screenplays are imaginative, inward-looking folks, which means of course that we’re much more comfortable exploring the contents of our own heads than we are schmoozing at cocktail parties, lobbying the pow’rs-that-be for attention and favors, or drafting many versions of the same letter in order to find that one perfect pitch, like a verbal dog whistle, that only an agent or producer can hear.   Heck, I’d rather spend a couple of years writing a 400-page novel than sending out the necessary query letters in a quest for representation.

But you know what?  I’ve come to realize, fairly recently at that, that not only is a willingness to put myself “out there” a necessary component of getting my stuff read, it also represents a personal challenge for me to overcome my innate shyness and reticence in pursuit of something that I believe is worthwhile. 

So although I face that part of the process with sweaty palms and teeth clenched in anticipation of a slammed door hitting my nose, it’s something I have to do.  As a motivator, I reward myself with the thought that after that’s done and I’ve either hit a dead end or taken that next step toward success, I get to re-experience the joy of writing something else. 

And after I finish it?  Well, I try not to focus on that.

Fiction, Literary Criticism, and the Writing Thereof

A couple of days ago I had a conversation with a literature professor about writing in which he maintained that literary criticism is every bit as “creative” as the crafting of fiction.   I understood his point.   To take a text and tease meaning from it that perhaps no one else has gleaned, and then shape a well-conceived argument supported by threads of evidence not only from the text itself but also from related works, does require a certain talent for inventive thought.   Having written literary criticism myself (though it’s been many years since I did so), I understand first-hand the almost mathematical deductive aptitude and gift for intellectual organization required for that kind of writing.  There’s no question in my mind that the writing of literary criticism is a creative act.

However. . .

If there’s any kind of writing that falls into the category of undiluted creativity, i.e. the making of something from nothing but the writer’s inner landscape and imagination, fiction gets my vote.

Here’s why:  Essay writing, criticism, and non-fiction works all derive from something that already exists; an idea, ideology, or socio-cultural trope, a piece of art, literature or music.  Something must have been put in place before the essayist, critic or non-fiction writer can comment upon it.  That kind of writing therefore is dependent upon historical forces or inspired works that came before it, the latter often though not always the handiwork of the creative writer.  However much ingenuity necessarily goes into fashioning non-fiction, criticism or otherwise, it is not purely creative.  That is the realm of the craftsman and of the artist.

Literary criticism and other non-fiction writing also differ from fiction writing in the ways in which the writers structure their creative ideas.  Because their foundational purpose is to persuade the reader to a point-of-view, to see a work of fiction or a slice of the world through a particular lens, criticism must be intellectually precise and detailed in every respect, from conception to execution.  Its appeal, however complex the edifice, is always to the audience’s reason.  If his points are to convince, the critic has to look logically at his subject from every possible angle, anticipate arguments and counter-arguments and address them accordingly.  Well-executed works of expository writing often are breathtaking in their formulation and implementation.

Fiction writers execute their craft differently.  Logic is important here, too, but good fiction can make the reader feel in the same way that all art does, within both the heart and the soul of the reader.   The best fiction not only tells a story but engages the reader below the level of conscious thought so that she picks up the writer’s underlying meaning without her necessarily being aware of it in an intellectual sense.

The reader of a novel or short story must be able to identify implicitly with the protagonist’s humanity.  By definition then, the appeal is not only to the audience’s reason — the story and the characters who inhabit it must make sense within context —  but to their emotions.  That is accomplished both by what the author writes and perhaps more importantly what he does not write, in the spaces between the words where the deepest meaning often is found.  It is within those spaces, where the human mind processes information and comprehends subliminally, that art functions in ways which transcend reason.   Fiction writers therefore have to create simultaneously on more than one level, both explicitly with regards to story and within those hidden, empty spaces between the words.  And before they even set pen to paper, they must be able to think in two (or more) dimensions at the same time; in the realm of day and of night, of waking consciousness and of dreamtime. 

Fiction is the work of the shaman as well as the craftsman, and there’s no creativity more pristine than magic.

Painting With Words

Many years ago when I was a university undergraduate, one of my roommates happened to be an art student.  Living in an apartment littered with paintbrushes, canvasses and other paraphenalia gave me an up-close appreciation of how an artist actually works, that was miles apart from the detached overview of humanity’s long progression through the visual arts that I learned from my art history classes.

One important, foundational idea that I soon recognized as relevant to my creative writing, was that not all of an artist’s subjects require the same approach and tools, but are dependent upon what meaning she is trying to communicate.   Sometimes she uses oils, sometimes acrylics or chalk or charcoal.   A complex subject might require a lot of detail and color, while something simple can be depicted with a few judiciously applied strokes.   The artist’s creative vision, what he intends to convey to the viewer, and how effectively that is achieved, are subject to the style he uses and the tools he implements.

Fiction is like that, too.  Just as all stories are different — some are innately novels, others short stories or novellas, still others screenplays — their successful executions require techniques specifically tailored to their uniquely individual natures.

For example, my novel about Joan of Arc, An Army of Angels, is a vast, sweeping epic filled with color and elaborate detail, a real cast-of-thousands historical novel on the scale of a vintage Cecil B. deMille movie.  The subject required nothing less, so that was the approach I took.  On the other hand, V-Squad, a character-driven vampire adventure set during World War II, is lighter in tone, evocative rather than painstakingly detailed, and much, much shorter.  Given its setting in the recent past and the relative familiarity of that time to the contemporary reader, it wasn’t necessary for me to apply a lot of text toward immersing my audience in that world. 

So, using the visual arts analogy, if An Army of Angels is comparable in size and tone to one of those busy, wall-sized 19th century paintings that you might find in the Louvre or Washington DC’s National Gallery of Art — say, something like this —V-Squad‘s narrative is simpler, more stylized, and employs cleaner lines, like this.

As a novelist, I always try to stretch myself and write something unlike anything I’ve attempted before.  Currently in front of me are six short stories related to and featuring characters from V-Squad.  Their common source notwithstanding, every one is different from both the novel and each other. 

The story I’ve been working on for about four months now consists of a spare narrative that suggests physical context without a reliance on extended description.  There’s very little internal monologue on the part of the protagonist; his psyche and emotional reactions to the world around him are reflected via his experiences and interactions with others, and not the other way around.  If this were visual art, it would be done in charcoal using simple line drawings.

Each of the other stories is equally unique and written according to its individual character.  One is broad farce; another, somber and emotionally moving; yet another, erotic.  And for the first time (which is saying something, given that I’ve been writing on and off for almost fifty years), I’m trying my hand at an out-and-out horror story reminiscent of a tale from The Twilight Zone

As I have found over time, every story worth telling has its own color, tone, and style.  So when I dip into my metaphorical toolbox, I always look forward to learning something new about the writer’s craft.  For me, there’s nothing more rewarding than painting with words.

Bulwer-Lytton Contest 2011

For fans of really bad writing:  Every year since 1982, the faculty of the Department of English at San Jose State University in California have sponsored the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest. Edward Bulwer-Lytton, you might recall, was the author of the 1830 novel Paul Clifford, which gave the world the famous (or infamous) opening line, “It was a dark and stormy night…”

Anyway, the contest challenges writers to come up with a deliberately inept opening sentence of a phony novel in the style of Paul Clifford. The best, i.e. most effective, piece of bad writing earns immortality on the BLFC’s web site. Here are the “winners” and runners-up for 2011.

Blank Spaces Between the Words

Every time I sit down to work on my fiction, I learn something about the craft of writing.  Some years back, a pleasing thought occurred to me in one of those lightbulb-in-the-head moments: that there are blank spaces between the words in prose fiction, gaps that the human mind automatically rushes to fill.  Recently a friend complimented me for something I’d written by exclaiming, “You described it so well that I felt that I was actually there!”  That made me smile, because my more recent writing tends to be somewhat lean.  I pointed out that there really was very little description in what she’d read, but that her mind had seized upon key words to create the images that were not in fact in the text.  Those images that lay in the blank spaces between the words.

So, What Is It?

Every once in a while, I rouse myself to expand my options from the indie scene that I currently inhabit by a return to traditional publishing, so I send off another couple of query letters to literary agents on behalf of V-Squad. So far, no takers. Most haven’t responded at all (something I have no problem with, since I’m aware that that is standard policy when an agent just isn’t interested; I’m also aware of the current turmoil in the publishing industry), but one or two have praised the writing while still declining my queries. I suspect that their hesitance is due to the book’s hard-to-classify nature, a condition that perhaps makes it all the more difficult to pitch to the traditional houses.

It’s easier to talk about what it isn’t than what it is. It isn’t Steampunk. It isn’t Horror. It isn’t Romance. It isn’t High Fantasy, or Sci-Fi. It’s not a Graphic Novel (though it would make a good one). It’s not, strictly speaking, Historical Fiction, since I have taken some liberties with real history, especially in the flashback scenes that go to the heart of the protagonist’s motivations. I suppose that you could make a case for Action-Adventure except that it contains passages of quiet character development that you don’t usually find in that genre. It has elements of Literary Fiction, given that there’s a lot going on beneath the surface, but purists no doubt would dispute that, too.

It just is what it is. Hard to define though it may be, readers apparently like it, and that is gratifying indeed.

Now Available: V-SQUAD!

I’m very happy to announce the arrival of my new e-novel, V-Squad, to digital bookstores where it is now on sale for the Amazon Kindle, the Barnes and Noble Nook, Apple’s iBook for the iPod/iPhone and iPad, and at Smashwords.com.

A vampire novel set in World War II, V-Squad is more character-driven than a roller-coaster action adventure.  And although a real departure from traditional horror fiction, it has little in common with the Sookie Stackhouse books and even less with Twilight‘s fey vampires.  At the same time, it is evocative of both literary and film genres that readers will find familiar.  I like to think of it as Dracula-meets-The Dirty Dozen-meets-Ivanhoe — co-starring ninjas.

For a more detailed description, go here, and here for an excerpt.  You can also download the first thirty pages for free on the Smashwords site.

A Good Day to Write

I have the rest of the week off from my regular job so I’m working on my short stories today, four in all, thematically linked to one another and to my new e-novel, V-Squad, each set in a different time period and location.  This collection gives me a chance to explore a common theme and write about history (my favorite subject) at the same time.  So I’m really excited about having the chance to work on them today.

It’s a little slow-going, though.  I’ve been sweating over the first paragraph of one story for the past month, and still can’t seem to get it right.  Knowing what I want to say is one thing, but finding the perfect words to bring that about is a different matter.  It’s not enough to simply describe the scene visually; the real challenge is to evoke the emotional landscape of the characters in such a way that it immediately resonates within the reader.  And that’s where I’m feeling stuck.  Maybe writing about it here will help.

Writers certainly know what I’m talking about.  Sometimes the words just flow effortlessly from one’s brain to the keyboard; and in fact there are occasions when the writer can barely keep up with that inner voice as it sprints headlong in its haste to communicate.  Those times are rare, however, at least they are for me.

Most of the time I — and I suspect that this is true for the majority of writers everywhere — have to labor over every word in my quest to find the ideal term that will describe what’s in my head and my imagination.  So I write, then rewrite, and rewrite some more, and change things around, then disliking what that has wrought, start all over again.  That’s where I am today.

Meanwhile, there’s a gentle rain falling just outside my window, and I can hear the swollen creek rushing through my backyard a little faster than it normally does.  The cool air smells fresh and sweet, and there’s that subtle sense that spring is definitely on its way.  It’s a good day to write.

V-Squad

Coming soon to Smashwords.com, Amazon Kindle, and Apple iPad and iPod:  V-Squad.  A new novel by Pamela Marcantel, author of An Army of Angels: A Novel of Joan of Arc.

August 1943, ten months before D-Day. Vampires in league with the Nazis plan to murder Prime Minister Churchill and the Allied High Command, and the only other person who knows about the plot is 753 years old.

A fresh, character-driven take on the vampire genre that deals with the enduring literary themes of friendship, love, loss, revenge and redemption.

Online Books: 21st Century Publishing

Anyone born before or around 1975 can remember a time when people bought popular music recordings on vinyl records; when moviegoers enjoyed films either exclusively in theaters or in second runs on television; and when book stores were small, ma-and-pa affairs in quaint buildings on or near every town’s Main Street.  All of that changed sometime during the late-1970s and 1980s with the coming of CDs, videotape (followed by DVDs), and corporate mega-booksellers. 

What few noticed at the time was that there was an even larger cultural revolution going on behind the scenes, one that began quietly with then teenager Bill Gates’ study of the BASIC computer language and Steve Jobs’ first employment at Hewlitt-Packard.

Fast forward to 2011.  The ongoing transformation in world culture is leading inexorably to the demise of the way that we traditionally have listened to music, watched movies, bought and read books–and yes, done business.  Almost everyone has a computer, whether a desktop or a laptop, and most of us have a cell phone of some kind or another.  Go into any surviving record or electronics store, and you’ll see that the CD section has shrunk considerably.  DVDs and BluRay discs are still prevalent but they, too, are less so than they were five years ago.  As for books. . .well, Barnes and Noble is still apparently going strong; however, the bookseller powerhouse Borders recently declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy.  We still have music, movies and books, but at an ever-increasing rate they’re relocating online to digital sellers.

At the top of the heap after seventeen years is Amazon.com, which sells all of the above and more, everything from automotive parts and aquariums to golf equipment and computers.  Together with Apple’s iTunes and other mp3/streaming/app-featuring services, Amazon has transformed public consumption of popular culture. 

Amazon’s most revolutionary innovation yet may prove to have been the Kindle reader and the downloadable books it supports; not only because of the device’s compact size and portability, and its books’ relative low prices, but for the imitators it has spawned

Which brings us to the point of this article.  With books going digital, the presence of online publishers has exploded over the past few years.  From the consumers’ point-of-view, books now are cheaper, more portable, and don’t require a trip to the neighborhood book store; all you have to do is point and click your mouse button.  For writers it’s even better.

All of us who write, even those of us who have seen our work published by major houses, have gone through the rejection letter cycle with agents and publishers.  Sometimes it’s because your book doesn’t fit with the commercial demographics the agency or book company caters to; in other instances the work is considered too esoteric, or too traditional, too hard to categorize or not commercial enough–and on and on.  Admittedly, some who submit query letters or manuscripts lack the skill or the experience to create a satisfactory piece of writing.  Whatever the reason, writers traditionally have had to learn a great deal of patience while we wait for the rejections which, on the plus side, compel us to grow thicker skins.

That, too, is changing thanks to the current digital revolution.  More and more writers are choosing to bypass traditional publishing to get their work into virtual book stores where they set their own prices and have more control over their work. 

At the moment it’s kind of like the Wild West in virtual bookland, where anything goes and almost anything at all can be published and sold.  But that’s to be expected in any new industry where standards have yet to be set and the market still hasn’t discovered what there is of value out there and separated it from the incompetently produced.  Time will take care of both, as it always does. 

Whatever happens, whether or not publishing houses bow to the new reality and go exclusively, or primarily, online, or whether they go under altogether, writers will remain.  And as they have ever since the first scribe picked up a crude tool to invent written language, they will continue to find their venues.  Writers are nothing if not adaptable.

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