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December 25, 2010

The Belly of the Dragon

December 22, 2010

Rejection and Recovery

"Fall down 8 times, get up 9"
                                           -Traditional Buddhist saying

Learning to accept rejection is imperative for any writer. Most writers realize this quickly. Or they make the mistake of self-publishing (guilty as charged). But one important aspect of rejection that many do not consider is recovery, which I learned about through physical fitness.

In cardio fitness, such as running or biking, performance is not only measured in how well one's heart rate performs, but also how quickly the heart rate returns to normal. This rate of recovery after the sprint or interval is considered just as important as the heart's performance during the activity itself.

About a year ago, my manuscript was submitted to a top agency, and I was waiting to hear back. There were a lot of positive indicators pointing at an offer of representation, and I allowed myself to get my hopes up: the agent reviewing the material had asked me for more material, wanted to know more about me...

This was the farthest I had ever been towards obtaining representation, and I was naturally excited.

When I got the call, I pulled my car to the side of the road to give the agent my full attention. I was  rejected, and I took it hard, as one might expect, but for the first time in my life I witnessed my own process of recovery, and it was a crucial, vital lesson. As I got back on the road and drove off, I felt my dashed hopes of representation slowly transition back to the love of my material. I was startled by how quickly this transition took place in me, having expected to deal with it for days. But it was gone, and I was back on the road.

I realized that, much like the professional athlete training to push himself farther and farther, I had pushed my heart harder, by dealing with a bigger possibilitiy/dream than I had ever experienced before. My heart not only dealt with the bigger opportunity--and the hopes and dreams that came with it--it also recovered from it. This moment of recovery struck me as a key moment in my development as a professional writer.

If you can't recover from  rejection, you won't be able to handle the next opportunities or possibilities that come/are coming down the road, in the same way that athlete wouldn't be able to sprint if he doesn't recover. Recovery is just as crucial on the other, positive end of rejection: success and acceptance. If you don't recover from success--if you don't get back to a state of preparing for the next great sprint--there won't be chances for greater, higher success.

December 15, 2010

Writing Wisdom from Grad School

Treat research like procrastination
It's necessary, but so is laundry, errands, and all the other stuff we do to avoid writing. At the end of the day, anything that isn't writing is keeping you from getting those pages out.

After suggesting this on some of the forums, I got a lot of push-back. Research is a crucial part of storytelling, it has been said, and I can't disagree with it entirely. Maybe the middle road is to hit the research after your first draft, when research won't inhibit your creativity or keep you from knocking out that crucial  draft.

Great places to write are rarely great places to write
One of my professors once said that the best place to write is a small cramped room with no windows and nothing on the walls. Having a view of the ocean from your desk or writing at a hip cafe with great atmosphere seems wonderful, but at the end of the day it's just another distraction.

"Just don't bore your audience"
On the last day of class,  another professor  said, 'whatever you do, just don't bore your audience.' I write all about it here.

December 12, 2010

Manuscript Word Count Tool

Download it in the tools section of my website.

If you have an outline, you can use this to estimate how long your manuscript is tracking. You enter the word counts for your outline, your samples (sections of manuscript completed) and number of samples, and wind up with some estimates that some would call completely irellevent and not worth considering.

But it sure is a fun away to procrastinate and track your progress.

UPDATE (01/18/2011): If you're weary of downloading a file from someone's website, you can access the GoogleDoc here.

December 08, 2010

How to Backup Your Manuscript

1. One file, and only one file

The biggest mistake I ever made as a first time writer was creating separate files for every chapter. It is totally unnecessary and certain to cause confusion. Use section breaks to separate chapters. I also include my outline and research at the end of the doc.

2. Set Microsoft Word to autosave every minute

You can set Word Preferences to automatically save a file as .doc, so you don't have to select "save as .doc" every time. This is a good thing to know when using multiple computers to write your drafts

3. Email: the secret backup tool

Emailing your manuscript to yourself is the fastest and easiest way to backup your work. It is always 'in the cloud' so you'll still have your draft if your house burns down or your computer melts.

When sending the file, use a standardized code in the subject line for easy searching. I use the initials of my title, followed by a suffix that indicates which location I am backing up from. So if your title is Harry Potter, you would attach the manuscript to your email and write "HP Laptop" or "HP Desktop" or "HP Sally's Computer" in the subject line. This keeps you from mixing things up when you forget where you were last working on your manuscript.

If you have multiple email accounts, send the file to all of them--the more places it lives online, the safer you are.

Email yourself the file every time you leave your computer

December 06, 2010

Boredom and Confusion in Magic

Boredom and the confusion are two of the magician's greatest enemies, but they are a distant second to the magician's most obvious danger: revelation of his secret. Nevertheless, I've seen magicians lose their audience because they grew bored and confused. It happens to me all the time. Confusion is a close sibling of the revelation of a secret, because it is almost as bad: both fail to provide the illusion of magic. Boredom is a close cousin, since there might be some magic, but it isn't compelling enough to engage an audience.

One time, while performing a card routine at a party, I looked up at the girl I'd been performing for and she said. "I have no idea what you just did." Usually this is a complement, as in, "that was so amazing I have no idea what you did to accomplish what I saw," but this time it was clear that she simply didn't know what I was even trying to make it look like I was doing. After practicing the routine so many times, I had forgotten what the audience was supposed to be seeing. Real magic happens when the magician is not only aware of what the audience is supposed to see, but sees it himself, leaving the technique to subconscious, instinctual reaction that does not have to distract either himself or the audience from the presentation of the impossible.

A confused audience will quickly become a bored one.

Being an engaging, entertaining performer with great patter will always help avoid boredom, and there are a lot of magicians who use very simple effects as a means of showing this off. On the other hand, there are other magicians who never bore anyone because their magic speaks for itself. Boredom is often the result of an effect that simply isn't amazing enough. There are a lot of magicians who still use material from the past that today's modern audiences have either seen already or no longer find impressive. 

December 01, 2010

How to Incorporate Feedback

Specifically from a writer's group

You've spent hours/days/weeks/months coming up with a sample. A chapter, a few pages, whatever. Your writer's group is on the calendar. Here's what to do before, during, and after.

1. Send it.

Put your name and the date in the file name.
Remember to follow standard manuscript formatting guidelines.
Put your name on every page.

2. Go to your group.

Surprisingly, I never bring a copy of my sample.  It's better to have a blank notebook in front of you. Your group mates will bring their own and will write on your draft for you. You should focus on writing down NEW ideas that come up in group.

Collect all copies of your sample at the end of your critique. Stack them up and stick them in your notebook with those notes you took.

After group, go home and throw the stack/notes on your desk and try not to think about it.

2. The following day

Look at the stack of copies/notes. Ask yourself if you're ready to deal with it. If you aren't, allow yourself a day to recover. You deserve it after all that ego bashing.

3. When you're ready

Put the stack of copies in front of your keyboard. Beside it, your notes.
Open up your master file
Go through each and every page of each and every copy of your draft, inserting a comment in your master doc for every note you see on the sample. Every note receives a comment, even if it's the same note from different readers. This is very important: the quantity of identical comments will affect your decision process in the next phase.
Once that's done, stack up the copies and put them near the trash. You're finished with them, but keep them around in case you missed something or need to refer to them.
Look at your written notes from group. Add them to the comments wherever they belong. If the comments cover a specific note, cross it off. Once they are all crossed off, you don't need your notes any more.

4. Congratulations, everything is in the master doc. Now comes the second hardest part (the hardest part is receiving criticism)

Go through each comment, and decide what to use and what not to use. You do this by applying democratic principles. Each comment gets a vote, and you get a vote as well. If there is only one comment for a specific item, it means only one person in your group is pointing out a possible issue. In this case, you get to decide to address it or not. If you don't think it's necessary to address, erase the comment. Once you do this, you are left with identical comments addressing the same issue. If there is more than one comment addressing the same issue, you must address it, because it means more than one person independently noticed an issue. Condense each of these comments into one comment for each issue, combining all notes, comments, and ideas.

5. For each comment, determine which category the note/issues falls into:

Overarching note: these are the hardest, and must be dealt with first--something like "the character doesn't feel real" or "I don't see where the story is going." In these situations, you need to step back and decide if you need to reapproach the whole sample. This is difficult, and if you decide to address the note with a reapproach, you might want to start with a blank page or go back to your outline and see what isn't working.

HOWEVER, this is what you do if you decide to address an overarching note in your draft:

Go through the draft/manuscript and find every example of the problem. Hilite it and copy the comment. Now you have comments that can be dealt with like the remaining specific comments. Decide to cut it, change it, or add to it.

CUT IT: Don't erase it yet, but rather strike through the text. Make sure the writing flows naturally without the writing you're going to cut.

CHANGE IT: Cut and paste the writing to be changed into the comment. In the draft, put something like: INSERT CHANGED TEXT THAT SOLVES THE PROBLEM BY MAKING IT MORE WHATEVER.

ADD TO IT: Write notes where you need to add something in caps and/or hilighted, like: INSERT MORE DESCRIPTION HERE

Okay, save your doc, back it up, and leave it for a while.

6. You are now ready to  address your feedback in manageable, bite-size portions. 

Sometimes I print out pages with comments and work on the changes/additions with pen and paper, because it's fun and we seldom get to use pen and paper any more. Also, a lot of these bite-size notes can be addressed with less than a page of writing, so you can work on them when you're in the waiting room, on the bus...whatever.

Delete each comment once you are finished with it. Move the cut strike-through text into a comment in case you want to go back to it or if there's  a gem of writing that you had to give up for now. The first time I saw a writer do this, a team of comedy writers put unused jokes into comments and said, "Ahh, comments. Where jokes go to die."

It's kind of true.