Sharing the morning with Hemingway, Heinlein

“When I am working on a book or a story I write every morning as soon after first light as possible. There is no one to disturb you and it is cool or cold and you come to your work and warm as you write.” Hemingway in his Paris Review interview with George Plimpton.

There was a short period of time a few years ago when I woke up every morning an hour early to work on my memoir. There was another blessed period when I timed myself for 15 minutes daily and forced myself to write for at least that long (typically longer). The timed writing happened mostly in the evening. Both periods were very rewarding. I invariably feel better about my life and my future when I take the time to write. I like Hemingway’s notion of slowly warming to your work first thing in the morning. Proceeding from dream mind to creative mind to immersed mind with the new day. I might start slow and just wake up 15 minutes earlier than planned to work on new writing this week.

I’m also newly fascinated with Heinlein’s five rules for writing. There’s a lot of coverage of these rules, embracing or discrediting aspects of them. But the simplicity is alluring:

1. You must write.
2. You must finish what you write.
3. You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order.
4. You must put the work on the market.
5. You must keep the work on the market until it is sold.

1-5: Each and every one of these steps is a huge leap, a major requirement, and has a ton of embedded assumptions.

1. Obviously, writing is a requirement of writing. It’s a verb, it requires action. I’m trying to be more deliberate about making time.

2. Action is nice. Completed action is better. Finishing. Finishing is one of many things I struggle with. I try to balance out Stephen King’s advice to let a completed work lie fallow for a period of time before you take it up again with another reported quote by Hemingway I keep around to keep me going: ““Write every day and finish what you start.”  Should I keep at it until I’m done, or give it time to rest? I have done both. Each approach has its frustrations.

3. Refrain from rewriting–that’s assuming my story works. That’s assuming I’ve found a satisfying tone, structure, plot, narrator and dialogue. That’s assuming my metaphors are doing good work. I think it’s a “refrain from tinkering once you have reached the end.” Reaching the end is another matter.

4. Put to market–this is great advice–but it’s totally insufficient to the reality. I’ve just started becoming a little bit better about sending stories out to editors. I have a lovely compilation of rejections, and a (very) small number of acceptances. But my rejections are getting perkier. They’re trickling in slowly, and slowly getting more positive. Editors are letting me know my work is making final editorial rounds, and I’m being encouraged to resubmit in the future. I must be maturing as an author. I’m just not quite ripe fruit yet. At least I have a notion of forward movement–reasons to keep at it. While very few publishers provide feedback, occasionally I get lucky and an editor provides interesting insights that help me with my rewrite.

5. Keep the work on the market until published/sold–I see each round of submissions/rejections as a new opportunity to edit.  My work does get better with each iteration.

Lessons percolating. I think Hemingway, besides being a brilliant (and sexist) author, had the leisure of writing in another age. There were probably fewer aspiring writers sending out their submissions, and there wasn’t Submittable to power instant gratification for those seeking to submit, or the New Yorker’s online submissions option. Mixed blessings, all. I feel for the editors wading through the oceans of random submissions by writers of all stripes and levels of proofreading, let alone writing, ability.

Even as I work to re-master disciplined daily writing, I’m going to remind myself that there is an end goal. I need not only to write, not only to finish, but to publish, and that specific quest has its own set of hazards and opportunities–more on that later.

Undiscouraged

Now that I’m more diligent about sending pieces out, I’m getting volumes of rejections–several a week in fact. Most don’t say much, but a few say things like, “We enjoyed reading and discussing your work; in fact, it made it to the final tier of the editorial process. Although we are going to have to pass this time around, please don’t let that discourage you.”

Relative to the typical rejection letter, this note is great. But what’s missing is the information I need as a writer. What did my story do or fail to do? How can I make it better? (Okay, I’ll concede that making my work better is my job, but still, I thought I had it worked out or I wouldn’t have sent it–obviously, outside help is needed!)

In fact, I’m getting so many rejections that my tape-rejections-to-the-wall project had to be discontinued because the sheer weight of the paper was making the pile crumble down the wall onto my printer.

I’m full of hope though. I still haven’t heard from 40% of the places I sent the piece–this means my story still has a shot. I’m also learning, again and again, that the editorial review process needs must occur at geological speeds. I’m hearing in late June about stories I sent out in early January.  Imagine how many life changes I could make in six to ten months! I could have mastered a new hobby, like knitting, by the time the last rejection for my January submission gets to me.

I remain, yours, undiscouraged. (Furthermore, nine days from now my summer classes will have ended and I will finally take up writing again.)

How to Get Published

After years of hemming and hawing, of feeling inadequate, ambivalent, worried, anxious and excited about the notion of being published, I finally this year, in my 40s, have gotten my act together enough to submit some of my long-lingering work for publication. Since the beginning of the year, I have submitted three stories, and I have gotten two stories accepted for publication. This makes me feel quite optimistic.

Here are some (fairly obvious) “secrets”:

1. Guaranteed: You will Never get published if you don’t send your material out into the world. (My first 30 some years of writing related behavior prove this.)

2. Good Likelihood: The more venues to which you submit your stories, the more likely your stories will eventually be accepted for publication. This doesn’t mean be indiscriminate, but as I’ve learned from Writer’s Relief, you should send every story out to at least 25 appropriate publications.

3. Inevitably: The editorial review and response process takes time–I’m just hearing in June about stories I submitted in January. For the first time in my life, I had one story accepted in two different publications, a slightly painful but exciting turn of events.

4. Definitely. If an editor sends you encouraging feedback, follow up! Try to build dialogue, invite additional feedback, figure out if something else in your portfolio might be more suitable. That’s how I got Rosamonde Wakes published.

In short, send out your stories! The pieces that make you shake with excitement will provide enjoyment to others as well. Do your best at writing, then take a deep breath and submit!

Small Compliments & Small Signs of Progress

One of my coworkers took a look at me today and was like “you’re losing weight.”

I was like, “thanks for noticing.” In fact, I’m not losing weight, but I am losing width–the exercise is making a difference. Sporadic small bits of encouragement keep me motivated, and get me thinking, “Hey, if I actually put more energy into this health initiative of mine, I might get more noticeable results.”

I have been a bit of a slacker since my delicious trip to France, but it’s nice to be reminded that change is possible, incremental, and there will be some results.  Occasionally, the casual bystander will gaze at you and remark upon a change you’ve been trying to enact.

In a similar, not quite success but better than the alternative, vein–I’m getting a lot of semi positive rejection notices. The tone of the rejections is changing, for example this closing: “However, we are intrigued and would be interested in seeing more of your work in the future. Onward with the battle!”

So I’m going to put this development also in my small signs of progress column. And pick up that motto: Onward with the battle!

New Editing Eyes, Old Writing Sins

here’s a quick list of my writing sins (likely incomplete):

  • I say all cool things I think of twice, or more.
  • My narrative pacing requires tuning–I either rush or linger too long
  • My plots (do they exist?)
  • I underwrite certain key points, or bury them
  • I leave awkward phrasing lying around
  • I like ideas and have too many extraneous bits

and here’s a quick list of my fixes (still under development):

  • I have to pick my favorite image (sometimes, I just toss a coin)
  • I’m cutting down that which does not move the story forward
  • I focus on introducing conflict, or at least suspense, and unforeseen developments into the story
  • I try to make evident the central point(s) of the story
  • I read and reread and make others read out loud, each iteration, so I can figure out what language is confusing or awkward
  • By having a storyline, and focusing on momentum in the beginning and end, I can kill the extras

I’ve massively revised three stories in ten days. It’s been a luxurious stretch — I’ve been indulging in a slight, but growing feeling of mastery over my words and storytelling. Ladies and gentlemen, this is as exciting as writing gets.

Here’s a bonsai metaphor–as a writer, you keep trimming and guiding the growing thing and you hope you don’t end up with a horrifying shapeless garbled web of a bush, and you try not to trim down until you have a stick, but both are tempting avenues. The big trick is to somehow visualize the emerging shape before it’s actually there and then encourage its emergence — on paper. [You have to imagine a ghost of a story into being.] (You have to terrify the page into surrender.) I’ll stop my metaphors here, but you get the picture: Gardener, warrior, Voodoo priest, these are the components of authorship. Let’s throw in monastic novice as well, because although this post is lofty, my writing experience is one of extreme humility and short lived aha moments.

The turning point was watching a brilliant editor, in my case Ellen Parker of FRiGG Magazine, edit down my sleeping beauty story–she helped me increase the narrative speed, cleared the brush of unnecessary ideas, and unburied the ending. It was great observing someone else at work on my text. It liberated me to rework my other texts. Her approach to polishing my story gave me insight into my writing sins and how to move beyond them. I’ve been frantically practicing these skills, and now school starts again.

 

Blank Envelope

Some beautiful messaging from the universe happened tonight. I came home to find one of my SASE envelopes, dutifully addressed to and from me, with a Love (forever) stamp on the face, empty. The envelope, carefully addressed, posted and returned to my attention was empty. The seal had broken, so the contained missive had slipped into the great limbo for untraceable generic notes in some post office nook.I would never receive the standard language rejection notice Carolina Quarterly had intended for my reading. Somehow a stamp from the sender had ended up on the envelope, and that was the only third party mark on it.

There are at least two readings of this non-event available to me. (Let’s clarify the facts first: how do I know it was a rejection slip? I know because if a publication likes you, it contacts you directly in personal ways via cell or email.)

Reading One: the envelope is empty, all that has been given back to me was mine in the first place. All that you send out into the universe returns to you in its own special way.

Reading Two: the envelope is empty, that is all the information necessary to convey the rejection message clearly. The emptiness is the message. Some blank spaces hold the power to evoke meaning.

I like both readings. The empty envelope is now taped to my wall, with all my other rejection slip trophies.

PS: I am undaunted. I will continue to submit to my writings to literary outlets and provide labeled and stamped SASE envelopes to my correspondents so they can reject me with minimal effort.

Prayers Answered

Life is very exciting in these parts. I just tackled my second memoir chapter rewrite, and it felt downright successful. That’s two pleasurable chapter rewrites in a row. Inconceivable. (“Are you sure that word means what you think it means?”). Miraculous.

The experience is good because I can read feedback on particular chapters that tell me I’m currently failing and take the critique in stride, and when I re-read the chapters, my X-ray editor/writer vision is in full force. I can see when this empress has no clothes. And I have the gumption to make my own cloak and fix the problem. This is a very empowering process. I can be pointed to a problem, and I can tackle it. Oh sweet rewrite siren, how sweetly you sing.

Tonight, I also rewrote my intro to my book using language that I first plunked here. It’s been tweaked, but it’s still good and evocative (thanks Blog!). I also started re-organizing the order of the memoir chapters. The memoir order is not exactly chronological, but it’s now more thematic. Kind of.

I have to do homework, so i have to leave well enough alone for now, but I may have found a new technique: I get an hour (on nights when I have five hour homework stretches in front of me) to work on my memoir (timer and everything) and then I have to attend to homework. This creates a positive kind of force. I am compelled to face my fears, write, and be efficient, because my precious minutes are tick-tocking away. Oh the precious!

And with that. Good night.

Between Done and 25 pages of comments

I was reading the done manifesto, which encourages you (me) to wrap things up and move on, in acceptance that everything is a draft, and mistakes will naturally creep into the process if you’re highly productive (paraphrasing). I like the idea of getting things done, of course, and maybe I should embrace the 20 minute productivity burst ethos that led to the creation of the manifesto to begin with.

I am however in possession of four thoughtful people’s comments on my memoir draft, which adds up to 25 pages of feedback. That’s 25 pages of editing suggestions to synthesize. I’m excited and pleased and slightly dismayed because I agree with most of the comments and they represent a huge amount of potential work. If I try really hard, I might just get to squeeze in 20 minutes a day of manuscript editing.

That’s like being told to build a highrise during your regular job smoke breaks.

I guess my new approach is to aim to get one story edited a week, and in half a year or so, I’ll have my next memoir draft. I better start carrying the weekly story to edit with me at all times. Commitment requires sacrifice, overcommitment requires sacrifice And sustained strategies.

This week, my sustained strategy was to declare an all out war on stress. I had several tactics: get homework that was making me feel bad done, throw some acupuncture at my back to keep it from seizing up from all the sitting, get a massage to remind myself what feeling good feels like, get a haircut because honestly I’m getting quite scraggly, and have a support session with a new school friend so we can compare coping techniques in the flood of new responsibilities. But what really needs to get done: learning to let go, and learning to be where I am, without the racing monkey mind of guilt and confusion.

I want to get things done, but to do it with grace, and in a happy way. That’s the trick.

The best surrender

I (triumphantly) snuck in some writing tonight because I realized that strictly speaking I didn’t have to do my assigned reading because class was a general assembly lecture. It felt naughty. It felt good. Writing soothes a part of my soul that nothing else can get to. Also, it felt really good to give up on something mandated and grab something else more important (and alluring) to me.

I watched the Steve Jobs Stanford Commencement speech last night, as a memorial, and he discussed his philosophy of looking in the mirror each morning and trying to assess the day in the lens of “what if this were my last day?” If this were my last day, I would definitely want to spend part of it writing. I’m going to have to get more creative about finding time.

Also, it felt great to try to tackle some pointed feedback I had gotten about going with more emotion in my writing, and trying to cover less ground. I was scared, but I opened up my document, printed it, edited, and I started expanding my favorite sections. My rewrite process felt good. I felt focused and lucid, I could clearly see and cut the fat. And I’m proud of the final product. My piece about Frenchness is finally starting to work. Huzzah.

Delicious Rejection

I got instantly gratified, or nearly so, with a rejection two days after submitting my work for consideration. This kind of turnaround in the zine industry is rare stuff. So I’m delighted and honored to know where I stand, at least with this one publication.
I am not however disheartened, probably because the best advice I ever got about writing was to submit often and fearlessly and expect numerous rejections, and count each rejection as taking one step closer to getting something accepted.
The advice giver, my friend Nina, is an abstract painter, so she knows a thing or two about the brutal marketplace of art and esthetics.
So every time I get a rejection slip, I stick it to the wall as a reminder to keep going out into the world. I have my NO pile, nice and thick and chaotic, and my Yes pile, two pages deep. But I’m cool with that. Because I’m not nearly systematic enough about submitting my work. For example, my last rejection came on August 29, and the one before that in May.
People this is a wake up call! I need my work to go out and about into the world. The marketplace of ideas.
Also, I am being held in a lovely cold embrace as I write this post. It’s perking me right up.

two of my favorite things, together

Delicious, nutritious, loving

Writing’s other face: Submitting

So I finally got around to doing what I probably should have been doing all along–tonight I sent in three chapters from my memoir as submissions to literary mags. I can expect resounding rejections, but at least I’m doing what I think I’m supposed to do–which is opening myself to criticism and rejection by letting total strangers read my work. It’s kind of the walking-in-the-park part of being a flasher, if you’ll forgive this tawdry (perhaps unfortunate, but amusing to me) analogy. After spending all the time carefully hand sewing the exact model of my London Fog raincoat (i.e. my body of stories), I am venturing out into the world, displaying my wares, waiting for the horrified screams of bystanders (or their silent equivalent, the form rejection letter). Luckily, I’m happy to say that law enforcement, common morality, and decency rules don’t have to come into the mix of my literary submissions. Has this metaphor gone too far? I’ll let it rest for now.

So there. I’m not doing any major writing, but at least I’m doing the better part of the lazy lady’s alternative: forcing other people to read my writing. Maybe this is the best aspect of Reasonable Girl. I’ve got limited time and patience, but I’m making do with what I’ve got.

Fighting the lure of revision

I’m quite fortunate in that two friends have already given me comments on my memoir collection. (I only distributed my memoir a week ago.) Interestingly, the piece I consider my weakest was rated among the favorites and the least favorites, respectively. The world remains a place of diverse sensibilities.

I’m already faced with a pile of prospective edits, clarifications, corrections, amplifications, amendments, and changes. I’m really tempted to go in and just work on the typos. Even as I consider doing so, it’s clear that it would start innocently enough with typos, and next thing I know I’d be writing and rewriting whole paragraphs.

So I must resist the ultimate editing gateway drug–fixing typos.

Why? Well, I’m trying to let the language cool down. I want to regain a measure of perspective on what I did, both good and bad, and the only way to do that is to leave the text alone for a while. Steven King recommends six months. I’m not possessed of six months of patience. Thus, I’m aiming for a more modest period. A 30 day cooling month.

I have to pray that this time away from my language will allow me to renew my stamina for new edits and rewrites and give me the clarity of vision necessary to move the narrative further along the absurdist humor curve.

Meanwhile I have to live with myself. I’m full of vague regrets and recriminations at all my suspected failures. I had so many (semi articulated) writing goals. It’s going to be a good month for humility.