alisa alering

Writer of fantasy and other fictions


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How I Learned to Love Rejection Letters

When I first started writing short stories, the process went something like this:

  1. Finish story
  2. Send to ONE market
  3. Check mailbox obsessively & envision glorious success
  4. Receive rejection letter
  5. Pitch headfirst down stairs of mortification into basement of self-loathing
  6. Give up on story

 

The Basement of Recrimination.  (Photo: Library of Congress)

The Basement of Recrimination.
(Photo: Library of Congress)

Seriously, those rejections were like acid baths that I soaked in for weeks. I’d eventually start to recover and then, like suddenly remembering a nightmare where you’ve accidentally stabbed your mother and drowned a basket of kittens, the pain would come rushing back. I’d remember the cruel words of the rejection, and my unbelievable presumption in sending the story out—what made me think I could write, anyways?–and sink back into the pit.

Your bath is ready, madam.

Your bath is ready, madam. Photo by Iain Browne, via Flickr (CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Fast forward a few—well, actually a lot of—years. Somewhere along the way, I hardened my carapace. Rejections became….just one of those things. Part of the business of being a writer. Submit->reject, submit->reject, submit->reject is a background rhythm that means I’m participating in the publishing world. I’ll (probably) even sell the story in the end.

But for the last twelve months, I’ve been focused on novels. Sometime around January 2014, I sold the last finished story I had in my inventory. And that’s when things got tricky. Let’s try a little quiz:

Question: What happens when you aren’t sending stories out?
Answer #1: You don’t get any acceptances.
Answer #2: You don’t get any rejections.

You might not think #2 is much of a problem. But here I am, spending hours at my writing everyday with absolutely nothing to show for it. I’m just typing away, day after day, on some project that no one has read, that maybe no one will ever see, that might not even exist. It’s like one of those quiet Sunday mornings when you go outside and there are no people and no cars and you worry just for a second that overnight everyone decamped in the flying saucer and neglected to tell you.

Where did everybody go?

Where did everybody go?

This was when it was really tempting to turn my focus back to short stories, just to try to prove that I was vital, relevant, active, that I was doing something. But that was wrong, I knew it in my gut. My writing home is in novels, that’s where my happiness lies.

My solution? A novelist’s support group. I had friends from Kij Johnson’s workshop who were also working on novels. What if we got together and cheered each other on? What if we had a place to remind each other of our goals and to complain about our problems and encourage each other?

So we did. We don’t critique. We don’t give feedback. We mostly acknowledge. About once a week, we check-in and say, “Hey, you’re out there working on a novel. I am too.” And “This shit is hard. But we can totally do it.” I swear, this is the best kind of writer’s group I have ever belonged to. Noveling is a long lonely road, and the group is a pair of flip-flops and a handful of trail mix.

The more I work on novels, the more I think that the really truly ONLY skill you must possess in order to write a novel isn’t a mastery of plot structure, brilliant prose, or intense worldbuilding. It’s just the ability to eat your heart out every day and KEEP GOING. If you can do this, you can write a novel. That’s the only single talent required.

And the support of likeminded friends can help get you there.


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90 Days of Writing Bliss

The Fountain of Love, by François Boucher [1748]

What my life is like now that I’ve discovered The 90-Day-Novel
(The Fountain of Love, François Boucher, 1748)

WARNING: This post contains little to no objectivity.

I am in love. With The 90-Day-Novel by Alan Watt.

Because The 90-Day-Novel loves me just the way I am.

After I came home from Clarion West in 2011, I have been hunched over my desk with a gimlet eye, struggling to improve my writing. I critique my peers, I read the pros, and I work hard to identify my weaknesses, correct or patch them, and produce good stories.

Structure and plot are repeat performers in the parade of Things I Do Wrong. I’m a woolly thinker, the sort of person who has to say something (two or three times, usually) in order to find out what I want to say. That makes crisp plot turns tough.

I’ve tried LOTS of writing books and instructive internet articles. I’ve read about The Snowflake MethodGMC, and 7-point Story Structure. I’ve checked out the examples from popular books and movies and noted how they match the analysis perfectly. It all makes sense. My head nods in understanding. Got it, I think. This time I won’t go down one of those weird rabbit holes my brain is always finding. I’m going to keep it simple, stick to the structure, and just do this.

Cute but dangerous

Cute but dangerous

But what seems so simple when I’m reading about it becomes so impossible, so ineffable, when I try to carry it out. I go back and forth from the examples to my story and don’t understand how I could possibly mess up something so obvious and clear. Am I really this stupid? I think.

I’m forced to conclude that I probably am. And then I don’t feel so good. Because I’m me and pigheaded, I keep writing anyways. Spend days hammering at things that made me feel sick and sinking.

A few weeks back, I started writing a new novel. I wasn’t prepared, but I needed to get started, so I jumped in without a plan. I had a genre, two characters, a setting, and a situation. I figured I would just pants my way through an 80,000 word zero draft and worry about it later. I told myself it was a learning experience–though what I would be learning was unclear.

Someone (sorry, I can’t remember who) mentioned The 90-Day-Novel to me because they liked the questions for pre-writing. I put in a request at the library, but I wasn’t too excited. By now I had learned that anything promising 5 Easy Steps or 7 Essential Rules—basically, anything with a number in the title—was bad news.

My precious

My precious

But it wasn’t. The 90-Day-Novel is the how-to book written Just For Me.

I was two weeks into my draft when I finally got my copy. I read the introduction and did the exercises. Just as, you know, an experiment. When I came out the other side, I had tons of new material. And a realization that I needed more of this. It was an incredibly hard decision to throw away the 10,000 words I had already written and start over. It put my schedule for finishing back by almost a month. And it was the best writing decision I’ve ever made.

I can’t tell you what a relief it is to be working from a plan that works with the way my mind already works instead of against it. Here are some of my favorite themes from the process that I find most restorative:

  • Story isn’t logical.
  • Our idea of the story is not the whole story.
  • The moment we force it, or fear that we’re getting it wrong, we’re out of our story.
  • It is not your job to figure it out. Trust that your subconscious will find a way to resolve it.
  • The story already lives fully and completely within us.

Honestly, working with the 90-Day process, I feel like I could write a novel about anything. Any topic, any structure, no matter how complex or challenging. I can’t wait to finish the current novel and get started finding out what Novel #3 is going to hold. Because with a process like this, it’s going to be good stuff!


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How to Survive an Octopus Attack

That Sinking Feeling

That Sinking Feeling

My novel-writing journey has taken an unexpected turn. Last month, I sent my completed novel draft to four beta-readers, including Barbara J. Webb, co-instructor at the CSSF Novel Writers Workshop I attended in June 2013.

Barbara and I had a Skype call a few weeks ago to talk about my manuscript. She praised me for “paying attention during the workshop,” agreed that yes, 88,000 words is too long, pointed out the many other things I had done wrong, and then she dropped the bombshell:

“My main recommendation is set this book down. Write a new book before you come back to this.”

But I was going to submit that baby to an agent!

But I was going to submit that baby to an agent!

My plan, my very existence, for the next few months was founded on the notion that I’d be whipping this thing into shape and sending it out to agents by autumn. But now she wants me to take (at least!) 3-4 months off and write a whole new novel first? And she was very clear: time off doing nothing wouldn’t count, and neither would spending that time writing short stories. It had to be a new novel, from scratch.

The first thing I did was panic. The second thing I did was check with my neighborhood writing confidant Ashley Pérez–was this Barbara woman out of her mind? But Ashley said no, she thought I should take her advice. Since she’s published two novels and contracted a third, I conceded she might know a thing or two about it.

Problem is, since I was planning on revising this story, I hadn’t been giving a lot of brain space to what I wanted to write next. And now I needed to start a new novel. Preferably tomorrow! (Well, okay, in a week or two.) What to do?

Enter prewriting. According to David Farland, “Prewriting is that time you spend imagining what you’re going to write.”

There are lots of ways to pre-write a novel, including some that don’t involve any writing at all.

Margo Lanagan's  Sea Hearts  scrapbook

Margo Lanagan’s Sea Hearts scrapbook

If you’re not feeling visual, there are other ways of pre-writing, such as freewriting and asking yourself questions about the nebulous story mass wobbling around in your brain case.  Holly Lisle has a really good list of intriguing questions here.

Now it’s time for me to put on my smock and get out the scissors and glue, because I’ve got a lot of imagining to do. Wish me luck!–And let me know if you have any tried-and-true prewriting techniques.


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Naps, Salted Chocolate, and Divining Your Dream Agent

On February 3rd, four lucky friends received a special email from me. An email containing 77,000 words or so.

Yep, that’s right. For the first time, I sent a completed novel draft to beta-readers. I’ve threatened to write a novel twice before, and even “finished” the second one, but didn’t have the courage or knowledge to take the next step. By sending the manuscript to readers and asking for feedback, I’m already closer to publication than I’ve ever been before.

Hopefully I’ll be hearing back from my readers soon and–when I get done breathing into a paper bag–I’ll bring out the garden tools and start trying to make the story better, pruning back that pesky fast-growing exposition and tenderly watering and fertilizing the exciting bits in the hope that they will take over the whole damn garden.

But in the meantime: What have I been doing all month?

Well, first I slept a lot. And complained about the cold. Then I went climbing, and made salted chocolate rye cookies. I also read a short story* every day while slurping defrosted frozen mangoes for breakfast.

Reading short stories at breakfast. Everybody likes the electric blanket. (Bonus points if you can find the dog in this picture.)

Reading short stories at breakfast. Everybody likes the electric blanket. (Bonus points if you can find the dog in this picture.)

I wasn’t entirely unproductive. I wrote some flash fiction and entered it in a contest. I revisited some old projects. I practiced for a public reading coming up in early March. And I started researching agents. If all goes according to plan, I’m going to turn up with a finished novel later this year, and that means I’m (probably) going to need an agent.

So, how do you get an agent?

Research, research, research!

You might hear that Agent Morton T. HotDealz is THE BEST AGENT EVER ZOMG! Maybe it’s even true. But what if he represents military thrillers and you’re writing a cozy Southern mystery with recipes? Surely your manuscript is the best Southern cozy ever, and if you just send it to him along with a beautifully wrapped box of your divine pralines, then he’s bound to make an exception, right?

Er, no. And you don’t want him to. You want someone who knows the market for YOUR book. My current project is fantasy/horror YA, and it’s nice to daydream about being repped by Barry Goldblatt Literary (Rumor has it they host annual retreats for their authors!). But! I have to think about my whole career. Goldblatt Literary only reps YA, and I have plans for other genres (primarily historical romance). Ideally, I’m looking for an agent that can represent both.

So, how do you find the agent that will be your One True Love?

  1. Look for books like yours, and find out who represents the authors. Check the Acknowledgments, the author’s web site, or just google [Author Name] + agent.
  2. Publisher’s Marketplace has information pages for many agents. [See sidebar for the top ten]
  3. For YA & Children’s, Literary Rambles does an in-depth Agent Spotlight, often with links to interviews with the agent on other sites.
  4. If you have friends (or even acquaintances) with agents, ask how they like them.

Also recommended:

Once you have a list of agents that look and feel like a good fit, then you can start thinking about your submission package (which will be slightly different for each agent). Usually this includes a query letter, synopsis, and the first five pages of your manuscript. But that’s a whole other can of worms.

Mmmm, worms.  Photo by Nick Cross, via Flickr CC-BY-SA 2.0

Mmmm, worms.
Photo by Nick Cross, via Flickr CC-BY-SA 2.0

*Turns out some of those breakfast stories have since been nominated for Nebula awards. They are:
–Chris Barzak’s “Paranormal Romance” (Lighspeed)
–Sarah Pinksker’s “In Joy, Knowing the Abyss Behind” (Strange Horizons)
They’re good stories. You should check them out.


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The Memory Maze

Photo by IM Seongbin via Flickr

Photo by IM Seongbin via Flickr

I’m on the elventh month and third-ish draft of this whole ‘Let’s Write A Novel’ project, and I’ve come to one glaringly obvious conclusion. Novels are big. REALLY BIG. With all these bits that branch and then branch again and again, and if you follow the branches sometimes you come to the ONE THING THAT WILL SAVE YOUR NOVEL and sometimes your face bounces off a prickly green wall and you have to turn around and start all over again. But then you come back to that same intersection and you think, “Left had the angry bees at the end, so I should go right.” Except, maybe it was right that had the booby trap and left is the safe way. Or was that the turn before? But your face is all swollen with hives and you think you might be going into anaphylactic shock and you feel all trembly and why is everything going dark and….CLONK.

So, when wending your way through the maze that is your novel, you need strategy. And that strategy is ORGANIZATION. Everybody’s going to do this differently, but there are tools that can help you find your way out before the bees hollow out your alimentary cavity and turn your intestines into a honeycomb.

IMG_20140127_142738

  • I do most of my thinking longhand, which means I’ve already filled 4.5 spiral-bound notebooks and a bunch of looseleaf with thoughts and scenes (And whining. Whining takes up space too.) Reading a novel is (usually) a pretty linear experience. But writing it isn’t. So what happens when you’re working on Part 3, Scene 12 when all of a sudden you’re seized with inspiration that will remake Part 1, Scene 20 in a blaze of literary glory and your brain is firing so fast with this dazzling save that you can barely write fast enough to get it down? YOU WRITE IT DOWN, OF COURSE. But now you need to be able to find it again when it’s useful. Sometimes this is as simple as marking the scene # with a different colored-ink, to make it easy to spot when you’re flipping back through.

Notebook_crop

  • SCRIVENER: I love Scrivener. Not only does it keep all of my scenes and revised scenes and scraps and research and photos in a single file, it also has the excellent “Document Notes” in the right-hand pane. I didn’t use this much when writing short stories, but I love it for a novel. When I finish working on a scene, I write down what things I want to work on in the next draft (“What Needs To Be Done”). I also make notes about scene goals and character motivation to remind me what I’m writing towards.

Screen Shot 2014-01-27 at 3.13.31 PM

  • EVERNOTE: Another genius application that encourages me to be more organized. Bonus: it’s on the web, it’s on my phone, it’s on every computer everywhere. I can ALWAYS put a note in here, tag it, and find it later when I’m writing. I can even make audio notes if I’m seized with inspiration when I’m out and can’t take my hands out of my mittens long enough to type on my dinky phone keyboard. Evernote lets you keep separate notebooks for different topics. My novel notes don’t get mixed up with planning my fantasy escape to some climate where it’s not below zero during the day or recipes for pies I want to bake. Notes are taggable and fully searchable and filterable. I use notes to make lists: of all scenes where a certain secondary character appears, of key moments in character development, of possible character names, of potential setting locations, of scenes I want to include in the next draft. I use notes to type out and save examples: of particularly proficient prose (by other authors), of action well-described, of active setting, of strong voice, of all the best parts of other books that I want to steal for my own.

Screen Shot 2014-01-28 at 2.34.29 PM

So how much do these tricks and tools really help? Well, I’m not finished with the book, so the verdict’s still out. But I think if you pack your explorer’s kit with these handy utensils, you reduce the chances of having to eat your own shoe leather just to stay alive. But the smart adventurer always stays alert—and remember: Keep a sharp eye out for bees.

Photo by quisnovus via Flickr

Photo by quisnovus via Flickr


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Ready to Move Forward with Your Novel? Start by Going Backward

Lost in a dark wood Photo by Lisbeth Salander, via Flickr, CC-BY-NC 2.0

Lost in a dark wood
Photo by Lisbeth Salander, via Flickr, CC-BY-NC 2.0

You know all those fairy tales about being lost in the forest? You start off feeling daring and intrepid and the next thing you know, the sun goes down and the path isn’t where you thought it was and there are scary noises in the trees and ah! what just grabbed my leg?

Revising a novel is kind of like that. You’ve got your main character, and she’s got a goal, and you’ve planned a couple of setbacks for her and maybe a little romantic interest off to one side and….whoa! where did that two-headed plesiosaur come from? I mean, it’s cute the way it flaps its fins and begs for dried squid chips, but your story is supposed to be set in 1950s Vienna. And since when did your heroine start tearing tissues into confetti and weeping at soap commercials? Your character sheet says she’s “strong and capable.”

As all readers of fairy tales know, there is one secret weapon against the fatal forest. The well-prepared adventurer intuits that the forest is not to be trusted and prepares accordingly:

Photo by Chris Campbell via Flickr

Breadcrumbs!
Photo by Chris Campbell via Flickr

When going into that dark wood of an early novel revision, reverse outlining is your trail of breadcrumbs. Plus, you get to play with colored paper and feel massively organized.

What is reverse outlining? For me, it meant going back over every scene I had written in the first draft and writing down the important parts of the scene on the front of the card. On the back of the card, I made notes to myself for the revision. What changes needed to be made? What was missing? (Usually transitions into the scene) What was excessive and needed to be trimmed? (pretty much everything to do with meandering around an unanchored setting) What was just plain wrong? (oops! Cousin Stella isn’t supposed to be pregnant anymore.)

Cards for the first two scenes in Act II (l, front; r, back)

Cards for the first two scenes in Act II(l, front; r, back)

When I finished my first draft I had a folder in Scrivener with about 20 new scenes (or scenelets) that weren’t in the original outline, that I had written spontaneously while thinking through the first draft. I didn’t have a place for them yet, but I knew they filled a hole in the story. The card process helped me find a place to slot in the new scenes.

Now that I’m about 40% of the way through the second draft, I cling desperately to these cards. The forest is dark and scary and haunted by plesiosaurs. But I have my trail of neon index cards shining through the poisonous smog, and I tiptoe carefully from one to the next, writing wrongs, adding settings, and erasing pregnancies, one card at a time.

My handy dandy sorting box. Just looking at its serene organization can break off a fit of muppet-armed hyperventilation.

My handy dandy sorting box. Just looking at its serene organization can break off a fit of muppet-armed hyperventilation.

The tabs on the left for P1, P2, & P3 divide the story arc into Acts (P= “Part”). Part 4 is lurking behind the cards standing on end on the right, which are homeless scenes that I’m pretty sure I know where they want to go. The blue tab on the right is my current location. When I finish a scene in the current draft, the scene card moves in front of that blue tab. I cannot tell you how good that feels.

Have you tried reverse outlining? Feel free to share what works for you. Tips on taming plesiosaurs also welcome.

Bonus reading:


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8 Reasons Why Your First Novel Isn’t Working

In my previous posts, I talked about Why Novels Are More Fun Than Short Stories and lifted your spirits with How To Not Hate Your First Draft. Now that you’ve dried your tears and have begun to envision a glorious future for your deformed brainchild, it’s time to talk about exactly how you’re going to climb that gilded staircase to the stars.

In June, I spent two weeks at the Fantasy & Science Fiction Novel Writer’s Workshop in Lawrence, Kansas, learning from two sharp and insightful instructors: Kij Johnson and Barbara J. Webb. On the first day of the workshop, we eight first-time novelists sat around the table in the fishbowl and listened as Kij told us everything we had done wrong.

Like Madame Defarge, Kij knits while we cry.

Like Madame Defarge, Kij knits while we cry.

Prior to the workshop, we had all submitted the first three chapters of our novel-in-progress plus a complete synopsis. Kij read our sacrificial offerings and summed up her reaction with an inventory of our collective crimes. Use the handy-dandy checklist below and see how your first novel holds up.

Common Problems of First Novels

  1. Not Enough Plot. It can be hard to wrap your head around just how big a novel is. First-timers often try to stretch a thin little string of circumstance over 200+ pages. Other possible offenses: Too Much Plot and Poorly-Paced Plot.
  2. Rushed Scenes. When discussing my chapters, Kij pointed out places where she wanted more description and more setting, and my instinct was to resist. “But that’s boring,” I’d think, “I have to get to the action.” While struggling with short fiction, I had trained myself to mercilessly stamp out every curlicue of narrative elaboration. Now that hard-won skill was working against me. Novel readers look for different pleasures than short story readers: they need immersion, and they need time to settle in.
  3. Churning. Looking at that vast expanse of blank pages you have to fill, it’s easy to get panicky and start throwing incidents at the page. You slap on an explosion here, a gunfight there, sprinkle a one-eyed ogre army over Chapter Five, top it off with a messy break-up and call it a plot. But activity doesn’t = plot. A plot is a sequence of events in which each event causes the next, leading to the central conflict. A lot of flashy unrelated action will never get you there.
  4. Stakes Aren’t High Enough. You’re not going to convince a reader to go along for a novel-length ride if all that’s at stake is whether your protagonist is going to have a bagel or a Belgian waffle for breakfast. Your stakes don’t have to be mortal danger or the fate of the universe, but whatever you choose must feel like annihilation for your character. Extra Credit: Writing Excuses 7.47: Raising the Stakes.
  5. Lack of Agency. Related to #3. Activity also doesn’t = agency. First novels often feature characters pushed around by circumstance, or ones that don’t initiate activity. Your protagonist must go out into the world and cause things to happen. Preferably bad things that will hurt him/her and rain misery on their hapless head.
  6. Backstory & Exposition Poorly Managed. This one happens in short-story land, too. The reader gets a couple of pages of a scene with a good hook and then everything screeches to a halt while the author explains the full timeline of events since the protagonist’s birth*.
  7. Poor POV Choices. Novels typically have more characters than short fiction, and can handle multiple points-of-view. But are you choosing them wisely? Are you switching POVs at the right places? Kij suggests that more than one POV can improve your story, but if you introduce too many, you’re more likely to trip yourself up. Analyze your POV changes and ask yourself if they are the best interest of your story. Extra Credit: Writing Excuses 4.13: Juggling Multiple Viewpoints.
  8. Anemic Description. Characters need to be grounded in their environment. I did this one wrong and so did pretty much everyone else. If your story is set in the Wild West, the reader needs to know not just how it looks, but how it smells, how to saddle a horse, and how long it takes to travel by train. Useful description is what makes a world feel real to a reader. Extra Credit: Writing Excuses 6.11: Making Your Descriptions Do More Than One Thing.
Delicious, but not enough to sustain a novel.  Photo by Christine Lu, via Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0

Delicious, but not enough to sustain a novel.
Photo by Christine Lu, via Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0

Keep in mind that though everyone in the class was a first-time novelist, we were reasonably experienced writers with publications in professional markets like Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Clarkesworld, Daily Science Fiction, and Writers of the Futureand we still did it wrong.

That’s because writing a novel is hard. It’s probably not much like anything you’ve written before. So don’t freak out: now that you know what’s wrong, a second draft is the perfect place to fix it.

*If you’re lucky. If you’re unlucky, you’re going to get the founding of the nation in which she lives and the genealogy of her ancestors.