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"Make no mistake, my friend, your pointless life will end, but before you go, can you look at the truth? You have a lovely singing voice."

-Morrissey, "Sing Your Life"

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Last weekend I completely forgot to write a blog post because I was in Columbus doing a presentation for the annual Columbus State Community College Writers’ Conference. I had intended to post about the topic I covered in my presentation, so I’ll talk about it this week. My presentation was titled, “Then What Happens?: Getting Unstuck in Fiction Plotting,” and it was about how to blast through that specific kind of writer’s block that occurs when we just can’t for the life of us figure out what should happen next in a story.

I provided 7 tips to help my fellow fiction writers get unstuck. These are all things that work for me when I face this problem, though no one technique works 100% of the time. At the heart, really, of each tip is the idea that it’s important not to get too caught up in getting your story to its conclusion. Let your story meander a bit; let your characters do things that might not seem to be directly related to the plot. Whatever doesn’t work can be revised out later, but you might find that you discover new, inventive, interesting plot points through letting the story run free for a bit.

Here are my 7 tips for getting unstuck in fiction plotting:

  1. Use writing prompts. I’m a big time advocate for writing prompts. Damien and I keep a prompt bowl, which we add to anytime we can think of new prompts. When you just can’t figure out what should happen next (or when you want to write but can’t decide what to write about), a prompt can help point you in a new, unexpected direction.

  1. Write a concrete, in the moment scene—have your character DO something, ANYTHING. Avoid writing a scene in which your character is simply thinking. One way to do this is to make a list of possible settings and a list of possible characters. Then have your main character interact with another character in a setting. What happens when he or she runs into So-and-So at X location? What will they talk about? What will happen? Something interesting and worthwhile might come of it, and even if the scene gets revised out of a later draft, writing a concrete scene like this might be just what you needed to break down that writer’s block.

  1. Open a blank document to free yourself from the rest of the story, and place your character into a new scene. You might also remove yourself from the computer altogether and start writing a new scene with pen and paper (or if you’re already writing with pen and paper, try moving to a new notebook or start writing on the computer). This method will probably leave inconsistencies between this new scene and whatever you had already written in this story, but that’s okay. As with everything, these things can be fixed later through revision. In the meantime, separating yourself from what you’ve already written might help your mind to look at the story in a new way, and you might think of interesting things that should happen in the story that you wouldn’t have thought of when you were so attached to the entire story as a whole.

  1. On the other hand, you could read through what you have so far and try to key in on elements that are already in the story but are not being fully explored. Maybe there are issues, characters, or objects that you’ve mentioned briefly with no intention of pursuing them in a more in-depth way. What would happen if you went ahead and pursued one? As an example, in my story, “This Is Not a Fairy Tale,” from Peter Never Came, in the drafting stage I just briefly mentioned that one of the characters, Stephen’s, hands were rough and dry. This detail ended up getting woven into the story pretty thoroughly, and in its final incarnation, the story relies very heavily on Stephen’s hands and how the other main character, Lucy, reacts to them.

  1. Step away from the computer for a while. Go for a walk (but bring a pen and paper!), or listen to music. Watch a movie or read. Taking the pressure off of yourself to write might be all you need to overcome your writer’s block.

  1. Combine two stories that you’re stuck on. Obviously, this is only useful if you’re stuck on two stories that have similarities. Personally, I tend to work on several stories at once, and I do often find that X story and Y story have similar main characters, or settings, or situations (or sometimes all three). Combining such stories can result in one, much more complex and interesting story.

  1. Finally, if all you can come up with is a cliché, go ahead and write it anyway so you can move forward. During the revision process you can look for and rework clichés.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

I recently read an essay in Issue 3 of Kugelmass by Pank editor  (and excellent writer in her own right) Roxane Gay. The essay is called “The Art of the Rejection of Rejection,” and as the title suggests, it’s about Gay’s experiences as an editor receiving angry, bitter responses from writers whose work she rejects.

One of the most interesting responses she shares in the essay came from a fellow editor, with whom it was clear she had established some sort of working relationship prior to rejecting his work. More than anything, it seemed this fellow editor was upset about receiving a form rejection, but one comment he made in his lengthy missive was one I’ve heard many writers make about work that has been rejected, the gist of which is that many of his stories rejected by Pank have gone on to get accepted elsewhere.

If I were Gay, my reaction would be, “And your point is?” Clearly this editor—and many writers who have made similar complaints—believes that because a story is accepted somewhere, it must deserve to get accepted anywhere, and any journal that rejected it was wrong to do so. This argument is so illogical, it’s almost not even worth picking apart, but just for fun, let’s have a go at it anyway.

First of all, a confession: I’ve felt this way before, too. It never would have crossed my mind to email an editor who had rejected me to complain, but I do understand that initial in-your-face-sucka! feeling you get when something somebody said wasn’t good enough gets accepted. One of the first rejections I ever received came from a journal whose policy it was to give personal feedback on every submission. There’s a lot to be said for form rejections, let me tell you. This rejection essentially said the story was uninteresting, the character idiotic, and the writing weak and awkward. Ouch! When the same draft of the story got accepted elsewhere a few weeks later, I felt, I admit, kind of gloaty toward the journal whose editor had said such nasty things about it.

But I was wrong to feel that way, and here’s why: writing is subjective. Yes, some editors seem to forget that when they say things like, “Most of the work that gets submitted is terrible,” but on some level, I think most editors know that just because they don’t engage with something doesn’t mean it’s inherently bad. A rejection doesn’t mean the editor is rejecting you or your ability as a writer. It doesn’t even, really, mean they think what you submitted is bad. All it means is they, personally, don’t like this particular piece quite enough to make room for it in their particular journal.

Each journal usually has its own specific aesthetic, which is often difficult to pin down even after you’ve read multiple issues. Sometimes, as is the case with journals run by grad students, the aesthetic is constantly in flux because the masthead changes from year to year. Sometimes, though, you might think you have a pretty good idea of what this journal publishes, and you might think your story or essay or poem is a good fit, and you might be right—but you might be wrong, too. You can never really be sure if a specific editor is going to like a specific submission, and the fact that an editor from one journal says “no” and an editor from a different journal says “yes” doesn’t say anything about either editor’s ability to recognize a good thing when it’s in front of them. All it means is that the one editor engaged with that particular submission more than the other did.

Snarkily pointing out that a journal has rejected work that was accepted elsewhere—even when the “elsewhere” is, in your opinion, a “better” place to have been accepted—says more about you as the writer and your attitude, ego, and level of bitterness than it does about the journal. Every editor has a right to like or not like whatever he or she wants. You’d think, as an editor, the guy that wrote the letter to Gay would have understood that.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

I’m almost positive at this point that I did not get in to the PhD program at OU, the only school to which I applied this year. I knew already that my chances were slim, but with every day that passes and I hear nothing, it’s more and more likely that I’m going to get a form rejection in the mail in a week or two. I know that the OU faculty usually makes their decisions by the end of February, and I know, also, that if you get in, you hear right away, but if you don’t, you hear much later.

I’m incredibly disappointed. I felt like OU was my best chance to get a PhD, for a number of reasons. If I can’t get in here, I don’t think I can get in anywhere.

So who cares, you might be wondering. It’s not like a PhD would have guaranteed me a tenure-track job. True. But aside from the fact that the main reason I wanted to go back to school was simply because I want to be back in school—I like school—I think the MFA is on its way out as a terminal degree.

Because I’ve been realizing I won’t get in to OU, I’ve been frantically looking for jobs that I can apply for. I should have done this in the fall, but I was so overwhelmed with other things, I just never got around to it. At this point, there are few positions that have yet to be filled. There are some, though, and I’ve been pouring over each one that I find, feeling my heart sink a little bit more each time I see PhD listed as a preferred degree, if not required. Many of these are community college jobs, non-tenure-track. Still, still they prefer candidates to have a PhD.  It doesn’t mean I can’t apply, but it DOES mean it’s unlikely my application will be taken too seriously.

In this job search, I haven’t found a single position that doesn’t at least list a PhD as preferred. Not a single one. In the past, I’ve found a handful, but it’s rare. Colleges and universities, it seems, are considering MFA’s only when they have to anymore. Enough people have PhD’s that they don’t really need to accept a master’s degree as terminal. As much as I’d like to say it isn’t fair, I know that, all other things equal—and they often will be—it makes perfect sense to want to hire the person with the highest level of education.

So I’m finding myself feeling kind of stuck. Even if I find a job now with my MFA, it seems unlikely that I’ll be able to move up to anything more permanent without a PhD. I suspect within five years or so, MFA’s won’t be considered terminal at all. Yet the school I felt I had the best chance of getting into doesn’t want me.

So what do I do? I don’t know. Apply for the few jobs for which I’m qualified, I guess, and hope for the best. And in a few years, when my degree isn’t enough to qualify me for any jobs? I really don’t know yet. I’m going to have to really evaluate my career prospects and figure out the right path, and soon.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Even though I said recently that I would not, under any circumstances, be returning to the novel that was my graduate thesis, this past week I went into my trusty old “Failed Attempts” file on my computer and turned what was an 80,000 word novel into a 21,000 word novella. I’ve been thinking about doing this pretty much ever since I sentenced the document to my “Failed Attempts” prison. I guess making that very difficult but important decision freed me up to see the novel for what it really was: about 70 good pages of story and close to 200 pages of filler, of me trying to sustain the length of a novel without really knowing how.

Though this was not the first novel I’d written, as a novel it was more of good practice than a worthwhile piece of literature. It was me learning how to fill in that many pages, me learning how to revise something that lengthy. After multiple revisions, though, it’s still too flawed to be a workable book. I can see that now. There are huge components of the plot, entire characters, that feel flat, unbelievable, over-written.

But there’s some good stuff in there, too. At its core, there’s a nugget of an interesting story, which is what kept me working and trying and believing in this novel for so long. Once I accepted that the novel would never be good enough, I realized that maybe if I pared it down to that nugget of good stuff, maybe then I would have something worth reading.

The impetus to finally give it a try came from the Iron Horse Literary Review newsletter. Iron Horse is currently open for entries in their annual single-author competition, and this year they’re accepting novellas only. I almost never enter contests. With the exception of book contests, the few times I’ve decided to spend the money, I haven’t even gotten so much as an honorable mention. I’m just not good enough, I’ve told myself, so it would be like throwing my money away.

But it isn’t, really. The entry fees for contests help to support the journals you’re paying the fees to, and most entry fees entitle you to a subscription to the journal anyway. Your money is going to something worthwhile, even if your submission doesn’t place.

So I decided to use the Iron Horse contest as motivation to trim this novel to novella length. At a first pass, I got it down to about 95 pages—roughly 30,000 words. The contest guidelines stipulate that entries must be no more than 20,000 words—roughly 65 pages. I did some more tinkering and trimming and got it down to a lean 21,000 words, but I still need to cut another 1,000 if I want to enter the contest. I may not make it—the deadline is less than two weeks away—but I’m certainly going to give it a go.

Even if I can’t get it down to 20,000 words, I feel good about this experience. It was useful for me to see just how much I could cut from the manuscript, and it feels good, too, to see it take shape as something that might be publishable after all. Maybe this novella will eventually end up in the “Failed Attempts” file, too, but right now, I feel really good about how it’s turning out.