Back On the Horse

When I was a teenager, we lived several miles outside a town in Africa, in an area where most of the properties were farms. The farm next door was a favorite haunt of mine, because it contained two teenage girls and five horses. The girls had both qualified as riding instructors in Scotland, and were eager to teach me how to jump.

The prospect of jumping on a horse simultaneously thrilled and terrified me. They put me on the horse they felt was the most reliable jumper, a gelding named Brandy. Brandy and I cantered right up to the jump and then Brandy changed his mind quite suddenly, as horses are wont to do. He stopped abruptly and I kept going, sailing gracefully through the air before landing in the dirt with a thud.

Were my friends concerned about me? Not at all. All they cared about was that I get right back on the horse and attempt the jump again, for both our sakes. If Brandy thought he could get away with throwing his rider, they’d have no end of trouble ahead of them. And if I was allowed to freak out for even a few minutes, I might not get up the courage to try again.

So I had to climb right back into the saddle and try again. I was thrown again, a little less violently. And yes, it was right back into the saddle for the third attempt. This time Brandy and I made it over the jump together. After two failures, the successful jump was exhilarating.

In my writing life, I’m still waiting for that successful jump. My recent submission has already been rejected. No specific criticisms, other than that they just didn’t “connect” with the story. Of course they were right to reject it. No one wants their book published by someone who is lukewarm about it. The search continues for someone who DOES connect with my stories. Rather than wait months to submit again, I’m trying to make a priority of getting right back in that saddle . . .

When Star Trek Drops a Truth Bomb

My husband and I are watching through the Star Trek: Voyager series (again) with our sixteen-year-old son, who had never seen it before. It has been an enjoyable experience, especially as we come to our favorite episodes.

Currently we are in Season Five, and last night’s episode was “The Fight,” where aliens attempt to communicate with Chakotay using boxing as a frame of reference. Boxing is a sport in which I have less than zero interest. However,  during one scene, Chakotay’s trainer says this to him: “It all comes down to the heart. Do you have the heart for this? That’s the contest. It’s not against him [your opponent], it’s against your own natural human desire not to get hurt. That’s the real fight.”

I have seen this episode at least a couple of times before (not one of my favorites), but this time the trainer’s words stopped me dead in my tracks, because they are so applicable to writing. Once you’ve written something, and you want to get it published, you find out that you are in for a world of pain (unless you are very unusual).

I get looks of disbelief from those in the industry when I admit that I have completed seven novels but still haven’t sold a single one. The reality I’ve been forced to admit is that this is due in large part to my natural human desire to not get hurt. Every time I mentally strap on my guns and gird up my loins for another round of submissions, I find out yet again that I’m just not “enough.” Over the last ten years, editors and agents have told me the following:

  • You’re not special enough.
  • You’re not funny enough.
  • You’re not Christian enough.
  • You’re not quirky enough.
  • You’re not creative enough.
  • You’re not contemporary enough.
  • You’re not American enough (my personal favorite).

After the first few years, it’s harder and harder to go back and knock on more doors, knowing that you will most likely get the same types of rejections, and knowing that your writing has improved dramatically but will most likely not be given a chance. This would be easier to take if my test readers were lukewarm about my stories, but almost all of them have really loved my stories.

The amount of resolve required increases exponentially when no one in your life believes you will ever succeed, and when you face ongoing disapproval for your dogged determination to keep trying. So my natural human desire to not get hurt has led to my neglecting the “selling” side of writing. Instead I’ve focused on writing more and better stories—but of course those stories will never see the light of day if I don’t keep sending them out.

In a little over a week, I’ll be attending a new writers’ conference in Dallas. These days, I can only afford the cheapest of conferences, and this one looks like a great value. And, despite my natural human desire to not get hurt, I have signed up to pitch one of my books to a newly-formed small press. I no longer have any expectation of success, but I am increasingly aware that failure is guaranteed if I continue to do nothing.

It brings to mind another movie quote, this time from Chariots of Fire, when Harold Abrams whines to his girlfriend, “I won’t run if I can’t win.” And she comes back with, “You can’t win if you don’t run.”

True words.

 

Changing Rules

Over the last couple of years, I have occasionally been chided by critique partners for writing sentences that were too long. The limit, I’ve been told, is two lines. If I write a sentence that is over two lines long, I should split it into two. Sometimes I kind of balk at this, because there are occasions when a three-line sentence is really much more elegant than two or three shorter sentences.

So I had to laugh the other night when I read the following sentence. It was written by Captain Frederick Marryat in 1937 and quoted by Mark Twain in Life on the Mississippi:

“Pouring its impetuous waters through wild tracts covered with trees of little value except for firewood, it sweeps down whole forests in its course, which disappear in tumultuous confusion, whirled away by the stream now loaded with the masses of soil which nourished their roots, often blocking up and changing for a time the channel of the river, which, as if in anger at its being opposed, inundates and devastates the whole country round; and as soon as it forces its way through its former channel, plants in every direction the uprooted monarchs of the forest (upon whose branches the bird will never again perch, or the raccoon, the opossum, or the squirrel climb) as traps to the adventurous navigators of its waters by steam, who, borne down by these concealed dangers which pierce through the planks, very often have not time to steer for and gain the shore before they sink to the bottom.”

Eleven lines long! Those Victorians were so verbose. And let’s be real: Marryat was a rank amateur compared to Victor Hugo.

 

When Does the “Law of Diminishing Returns” Kick In?

A couple of days ago, I finished a project I had been working on all summer. I had taken it into my head to revise one of my earlier (unpublished) novels. It had finished going through the critique process but I hadn’t kept up with all the critique suggestions, so that was my first task.

Meanwhile, I believe I have actually increased my writing skills considerably this summer, thanks to a new critique partner who has pushed me hard. As a result, what I thought would be a two or three-week project ended up taking the entire summer. Hours upon hours of scrutinizing every line, every word.

I hardly believe this story is now “perfected,” but it is certainly better-written than it was, and I derive some satisfaction from knowing that, even if it never gets published.

But this experience brings up an interesting point. At the same time I was working on the revisions of my “old” novel, I was and am continuing revisions on my newest novel. This one started off in better shape and this first round of revisions is taking it to a higher level than any of my “old” work.

So, I have started revising another older story. This story has also been through the critique process, yet I am finding plenty of ways to improve the writing. But at what point do you say, “Well, I’m done with this and I’m going to send it out and stop revising it.”

I can easily see this turning into a never-ending process. As my skills increase (assuming they do increase) I just keep subjecting all my novels to another round of revisions and upgrades. Of course, unlike some writers, I do keep producing new material—which just means that each round of revisions would take longer than the one before it!

What I’m asking myself now is this: at what point do further revisions become a bad investment of my time? I’m not changing any of my stories in any substantial way. I believe the stories themselves are pretty good. But I’m going through and eliminating pointless words and passive constructions and “telling” and unnecessary dialog tags. None of these things would bother the average reader if they were interested in the story. However, all of these things are very important to the gatekeepers: agents and editors, and I am much better at finding and fixing them now.

So the conclusion I’ve reached at the moment is that my skills have probably increased enough to make another round of edits worth the time and effort before I start querying again. I still am very anxious to start two new stories, though, so I may have to play a game with myself, where I reward myself with “new” writing for various milestones in my revisions.

The Passive Aggressive Poem Post

When I was fourteen, I wrote a poem. It is not a particularly good poem, even for a fourteen-year-old. However, I have a relative who likes it and who thinks I should have included it in my memoir, because the poem deals primarily with my years at Sakeji School, as does the memoir.

Then last week when I posted on my personal blog about the fiftieth anniversary of my arrival at Sakeji, I got another reminder that this too would have been a good time to share my mediocre poem with the world. So I’m giving in. Since I wrote it (albeit as a very immature teenager) I am posting it here on my writing blog. I will try to remember to also add it to my website.

Memories of Childhood

by Linda Moran (aged 14)

I like to remember the feel

Of my bare feet in the mud:

Splashing in the oozy mud,

Nice and wet and deep and cool—

Lovely mud, brown mud

On the playground at school.

And I like to remember

The climbing of the trees,

And the swimming in the river,

And the skinning of my knees,

And the riding of my bike,

And the eating of candy,

And the playing of “Adventures—“

Oh, childhood was dandy!

Memories, too, I have

Of sitting in a classroom:

A big white classroom

With small brown desks.

That classroom was a happy place

That smelled of books and ink;

A whitewashed, happy, quiet place

Where one could sit and think.

I remember, childhood, childhood;

Crawling on my hands and knees;

Studying with great intentness

Frogs and snails and ants and bees;

Wading in the shallow river;

Catching tadpoles with my hands;

Picking flowers in the forest;

Reading tales of distant lands;

Sliding down the slimy clay bank;,

Rolling down the grassy hill;

Making mountainous sand-castles;

Throwing away my calcium pill.

I remember, I remember

Spinning roundandroundandround,

Spinning till I got so dizzy

I fell, exhausted, to the ground.

I remember telling stories

To the other girls at night;

I remember playing hopscotch;

Jumping rope with all my might;

Crying over a dead bird’s body;

Laughing at a monkey’s tricks;

Falling, clothed, into the river;

Climbing fences, just for kicks.

I remember lots more things,

Lots more things I’d like to tell;

But now I’m at the end of my paper

Which, I think, is just as well.

 

Note: I think it’s hilarious that at the age of fourteen, I thought I was old enough to “look back” on my childhood!

Revelation & Enlightenment

A few weeks ago, I attended the one-day conference of the East Texas Writers Guild, and after a day focused on writing, I still had writing on my mind during the 45 minute drive home. Driving along, I thought about all the stories I’ve written and about the new one I’m planning.

Then I had one of those light-bulb moments, an insight into my own writing that literally caused me to gasp. (I didn’t go so far as to yell “Eureka!”)

You know how they say all first novels are autobiographical? Well, I’m sure it’s true. I know my first two novels used a lot of details from my own life and background, even though they were very different stories. But as I thought about the other four novels I’ve written, I realized something rather startling: they all share a common theme.

Now please understand, they are all very different stories. Each story has many themes. But there is one  theme that runs through them all and I never recognized it before. All six of my novel-length stories feature a character who must at some point choose between two worlds. All of them.

Huh. How do you suppose that theme managed to sneak into all the stories written by a missionary kid who identified more strongly with her “new” world than she did with her “home” world? And yes, the new story I’m planning, which will have a five-book arc, will also end up with the main character having to make that same choice.

I’m not even sorry. Clearly, this is such an ingrained part of me as a person that I can’t write without referring to it. It’s kind of amusing I never noticed it before now.

Looking Back; Looking Forward

Sorry for my lengthy silence—I have been somewhat overwhelmed with health issues and with revising my first novel manuscript, which is what prompted today’s post.

I have now completed six full-length novels (and one memoir). Along the way I have attended over a dozen writers’ conferences and learned a great deal about writing and publishing. Soon after my first writers’ conference, back in 2009, I gave up on trying to sell my first novel and focused on revising my second one and writing more. Although I felt that first book had a very compelling story, I was told that there would be no market for it because it doesn’t fit into any of the pigeon holes (specific genres) that publishers use to sell books.

At the end of January this year, flush with my success in finishing my sixth novel, I had the bright idea of pulling out that first manuscript to see what kind of revisions it might need after lying neglected for eight years.

The experience was both dismaying and encouraging. You see, when I was working on that book and trying to pitch it, people kept giving me advice about how to improve my writing and I thought I was already doing all those things. It was so frustrating. Despite my English degree, I didn’t know enough to know how to make things better.

This time, as I read through, it was as though the scales had fallen from my eyes. I found that I often slipped into omniscient POV, which is mostly frowned on these days. There were hundreds of unnecessary dialog tags and adverbs. The story, I was relieved to see, is still a powerful one (at least in my humble opinion), but it was not ready for the big leagues back in 2009.

I will no doubt go through it several more times using my “triple sifter” approach, but I don’t think I’ll be pitching it any time soon. It is indeed hard to categorize, and my vague plan is to be famous first and then self-publish this book once I already have legions of adoring fans.

So that was the looking back part. The huge benefit for me was the realization that I have indeed improved as a writer in the last eight years, which means that looking forward, I might have a real chance at finally finding an agent and a publisher.

What I’m trying to say is that relentless self-education does pay off. I’ve learned from writers’ conferences, books, and from my wonderful critique partners. I had three short stories published last year and this year I hope to do better. I now feel somewhat confident that I finally have the skills to pull it off.