Monday, May 12, 2014

5 Misconceptions About Writing a Novel

I scour my favorite authors' FAQs on a regular basis, but most of them skip from "How Do I Start My Novel?" to the "How Do I Submit My Novel?" mental process when it comes to their writing tips. Now that I have experienced the completion of my novel and am going through a major revision process, I can see why people go through entire MFA programs to understand this missing link of advice.

The hardest part of this concept is that the process does change from person to person depending on their temperament and writing style. The more "how to write" advice I read from different historical and modern writers, the more I begin to understand that my way of motivating myself to get to the end is very different from how they survive to the end. But, in the meantime, I have also confronted many misconceptions that can lead a writer to roadblocks and the dreaded Novelist's Despair. Here are a few pieces of warning-sign advice that I have suffered through that people who have finished their first chapter and feel like they have a good thing going for them might want to know.

1. Your Characters Practically Write the Novel For You

What I have learned from suffering from this revision process is that characters are like my old rabbit Tinkerbelle, a.k.a. Royal Butthurts. They will do whatever they want if you let them and lead the story astray or, if you intimidate them too much, they will be wish-washy and let you move them around like depressed little puppets. Neither of these is ideal for a novel. I like to think of how I handle my characters in the same way one might deal with building a zoo. Sometimes, humane ideals go out the window and you do what you want with them like a deranged Emperor Nero. Sometimes, you want to create an ideal atmosphere of happiness, but one rabbit won't stop peeing in a corner of the room and your parakeet keeps attacking the dog. That's fine. Give the rabbit a litter box where they want it and damage control the situation with the other two until either the dog and the bird or both lose the desire to create conflict (a.k.a. happy ending) or one takes a suicide spiral through the window (a.k.a. sad ending).

Sometimes these things happen. It's stressful. It's annoying. But you have to deal with it because you chose to build a freaking zoo.

2. Writing Requires Inspiration

I could have placed this as a #1 misconception, but I am deciding to not be too judgmental of our poetic counterparts. The truth is, I've been there before. I spent years thinking of myself as the figurehead of teen angst who wrote very little because her muse was on vacation. Turns out, Ms. Muse is mercenary and goes towards whoever makes the most bitcoins for their brain. That means you have to actively create the means in which your inspiration feeds, and, unless you are writing a novel about Tumblr crazies, this does not involve surfing Tumblr or staring out the window of a cafe with a scarf and a cool hat.


3. Writing Feels Like Dying

This is also a misconception that is the flipside of #2. Do you feel like writing is a repetition of slamming your head into a wall? That's probably because you keep staring at a wall and running into it. I know what that feels like because this is the precursor to Novelist's Despair, which is sitting front of the screen and feeling like you have no idea what you are doing there and no idea how to get out of it. It reminds me an awful lot like taking Geometry my sophomore year of high school and having to make proofs that go directly from one step to the next.

I hate proofs. What if you want to create a new rule that will change how the world views the transitive property? I mean, it sort of makes sense if you look at it upside-down, don't you think?

Wrong. There is a way out of this. Some people may go for the solid-seeming route and start writing upside down, but I seem to have found a solution to this problem in a variety of ways.
  • Revise your previous pages and, if necessary, re-examine your characters and conflict. If you don't have the right conflict, your characters may not know how to react next. Make sure even your minor characters have a hidden motivation, so they can possibly come back bring new light to the original conflict. This will also enable you to continue writing in the same tone you started with and not have a complete break in voice when you return from your zombie-like frustration.
  • Treat your chapters like short stories and guide your characters to a resolution tinged with conflict. What I ask myself is, "How can she obtain closure from the problem presented in the first page?" and then, "How can I screw with the reader to make them read more?" This type of twisted pleasure is how I turn despair into cackling glee.
  • Ask yourself, "What happens next?" This is my favorite solution, but can be dangerous if you don't have the right handle on your characters' motivations. What I do is write a word-vomit sketch of what will carry the plot forward, with brief snippets of what I want characters to say to reach the resolution. Always remember if you take this route, don't add too much detail to the next chapters if you want to keep your pace steady and not get overwhelmed by how much work you have ahead of yourself.

4. The First Draft Law (?)

This is probably the strangest law ever created. Probably because the first draft is the strangest thing a writer can create. Most authors say this law is, "Your first draft can be awful as long as you finish it!" There is some credence to this, I admit, and I hesitate to call it a misconception. My primary reason for being insecure about this law is that there are some things I like to develop and maintain in a first draft, ie. character voice and researched details. But other than my being picky, yes, you can have typos in the first draft. Yes, you can overwhelm your characters motivations with your dream plot if you don't know them all too well yet. The thing is, a first draft can be a ten page long outline of word-vomit or over 200 pages of well-researched, typo-filled prose. The only things that has really resonated with me as a law for the first draft is, "Never show your first draft to anyone professional."

This might even include the second or third draft, if you're doing your very first novel like me and haven't gotten the hang of it yet.

You can show bits and pieces to your writing group to critique and explain some of the pathways you are thinking of developing it into. You can have your boyfriend/girlfriend read it to see if they think it doesn't follow the mental pathway of a rational human being. But you probably shouldn't think that your NaNoWriMo novel is ready to submit to an agent or publisher or even editor on November 31st.

Other than that, finishing your first draft is seriously the shit and I congratulate you on that.

5. You Can Do It On Your Own

This is huge. Like, bigger than the elephants holding up Discworld huge. Maybe even the Giant Star Turtle type of huge. Because you definitely cannot do this on your own. You will make glaringly huge mistakes that your little brother can pick out, but did not even occur to you in the writing process. Not all of us can be geniuses and I know I am not. We all need readers to yell at us and tell us that they love it. It's just not the same on your own, because sometimes you can forget to celebrate things that need to be celebrated and sometimes you forget to be more critical.

But, just like Tinkerbelle the Butthurt, you can't rely too much on your readers to force you to write. They can't be your babysitter all the time and they usually aren't getting paid. Your dedication to your novel comes directly from you.

Other people just help sometimes.

Let me help you, buddy.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Why Get an MFA?

Here is a huge question that I myself am struggling to answer this very moment: why do I need an MFA? After reading post after post by very persuasive and debt-hopeless individuals, I find myself realistically concerned. Even worse is that I don't have a $50,000 job on the side to support my obsessive hobby or MFA programs bowing at my feet to give me support. As one particularly sharp commentator at LitReactor elaborated: "In retrospect, applying to MFA programs with a piece of genre fiction was as useful as and more time-consuming than lighting a pile of money on fire."

So much of my money has already been wasted on programs whose ideals are searching for the next "voice of my generation," as Lena Dunham might say. I'm not a generational voice. I won't even bother to reach that high. I am a voice of a generation and I would like to cross a few boundaries and reach into the generations a little bit behind mine. Mostly I would very much prefer to not die in a gutter as one of the harshest critics of contemporary writing in my lifetime--coughcoughEdgarAllanPoe--or generally unknown as the myth of Herman Melville persists. The goals I aspire to are primarily composed of ambition, competition, and self-sustainability.

Yes, I want to write novels (note the plural). Yes, I want to publish. However, in these past few months, I have been able to find a community of readers that have enriched my work as much as any writer could hope. I have been able to connect with other authors who write publishable material with major presses without ever obtaining an MFA. I have written beyond my original goals and am closer to achieving a complete, if not polished, manuscript than I have been in ages.

What I want from an MFA program is the chance to buckle down and shape my writing into submission, if not art. Ironically, the journey through the application process has already forced me to do that. In the time it has taken to finish these applications, I have been able to reshape my novel into something that moves like the beautiful wild beast it was meant to be.

It gets better. In this single year I have spent more time reading authors like me. I have been able to confidently trace their literary arcs with both enjoyment and a critical eye.

My undergraduate career gave me all the basic tools I need to write. My graduate school in Library Information Science gave me the tools to learn and adapt to the world around me. I understand now that I am as prepared to be a published author as I ever will be. Following through with this MFA would undoubtedly sharpen those skills with intensive care and critiques and community, which in itself is worth the cost, but now I see the other options available to me.

It only makes the decisions I have to make in the upcoming weeks more difficult.

As a closing, below is a, "no MFA" or, "completed MFA" list of author experiences:

John Green- no MFA
Shannon Hale- completed MFA
Brandon Sanderson- no MFA
Stephanie Meyer- no MFA
Stephen Chbosky- no MFA

Other authors such as Veronica Roth or James Dashner or Holly Black or Orson Scott Card or Marcus Zusak or Rainbow Rowell don't even bring the question up. Ever. Veronica Roth did her undergrad in Creative Writing at Northwestern. James Dashner has a Masters Degree in Accounting.

Wait... what?

Let me think about that for a minute.

Friday, February 14, 2014

What? I'm Published Again?

I didn't even know. It is time-stamped for two years ago. Did I submit this two years ago? I must have. In my frenzy between graduating and switching my concentrations from poetry to fiction, I didn't even notice.

But I am grateful nonetheless.

The poem published here is one of my favorites. It is an homage to my family, to the families that have grown up watching "I Love Lucy," but have also grown into the modern age and the new issues that arise when laptops become dinner trays and phones are carried to the table. It is the silence before a possible rejection, an answer to a question that has not been asked. The fear of what the man will say after the word, "Dinner!" has been announced.

What if he says, "Gimme a sec"? What if he says, "Coming"? It is the breath of moment when you are no longer sure of the answer. No longer sure if your words will have any effect anymore in a relationship that has lived long enough to see this day.

Great poem for Valentines' Day, huh?

In any case, there it is. I also have a twitter that I update much more regularly if you would like to follow my adventures through my mobile device and quick quips. I think I am clever, but you can laugh at my mishaps anywho.


Monday, January 6, 2014

In Recognition of My Readers

Today, I would like to recognize all of the fantastic people who don't mind me shoving my novel under their noses...

Alissa Moss - We are only less than a quarter through the novel, but this lady got me the kickstart I needed. She was the first person to say, "Give me more, dammit!" Since she runs miles like a hellion, that's the least I can do.

Timothy J Sweetser - For his inexplicable glee at finding out I had readable material.

Mike Lee - For getting through five pages with meticulous editing before finally looking at the thickness of the manuscript and saying, "What the hell? There's 34 pages?" Yes. And there will be much, much more.

Zak Bouc - For being one of the first to say to my novel-shoving, "Ok. I'll do it." And then actually doing it within 48 hours.

Akasha Chamberlain - For asking if she could red pen the manuscript, to which I happily replied, "Of course!"

And here is to all who have suffered my mental anguish of having written over 200 pages of thorough backstory this past year: Thank you!

Thursday, January 2, 2014

The Power of Genius

Of all the things in the world, I cannot appreciate a University's Holiday Vacation enough. Seriously. I wrote and edited well over 30 decent pages of my novel and wrote enough personal statements and statement of purposes to fill a dumpster truck. And thanks to my Physics and Astronomy job, I got paid to do it! Although not quite enough to feed both myself and four fully grown rabbits...

Here's the thing about applying to MFA programs: they know how to get to you. They know you will spend countless hours wondering if that is just the way you wanted to phrase that or maybe you should just cut the whole scene altogether because it would improve the flow of the story. Especially with an excerpt, not the whole.

When I am writing straight through, I know it's crap, but I do it anyways. I never tell people how many pages of crap I've written because those pages vanish quickly enough under my critique. I think that has been the most difficult part of this novel-writing process--dealing with myself as an editor.

One university MFA program caught that concept, spot on.

They want you to submit a writing sample. Then, they want you to submit a critique on your own writing sample. Goodness gracious, it is genius. It is the Catch-22 of writing.

Because as soon as you write a full critique, you realize how much of the sample you can fix. But you can't. You know you can't. Because as soon as you spend two sleepless nights changing your sample, you are going to have to write another critique.

And if you give in once, you have to give in more than once. Who knows how long the circle of death will continue before you write the final critique and all it says is, "It's all crap. Don't look at it."

Your corresponding writing sample then lies in wait for them, a blank piece of paper.


It makes me want to go to that university so very badly.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Writing Personal Statements

Now that I have captured your attention with a particularly boring title, I will proceed to talk about something completely different.

AdamJOsterkamp wrote everyday for three hours when he wanted to create something. He finished it. 1 + 1 = 2. He published.

It sounds simple, doesn't it? Apparently it is not. It requires intense isolation and lack of distraction. It requires obsessive focus and the ability to gloss over problems during the creation process in order to just keep moving. It's boring. It's hard. And it requires that one singular thing: dedication.

His success in completing his work proved something incredible about him. He worked and he achieved. He accomplished a goal, no matter how long it took. When I read what these personal statements ask, they ask me much of the same things: "What are your short term and long term goals?" Obviously, I want to get published. But is publication the short term or the long term goal? Is there something else I want to explain about myself? Something that makes me different from everyone else who just "wants to get published"?

So I look at a few of the questions again and analyze them:

"Explain your short-term and long-term professional goals. How will an --- education assist you in achieving these goals? Reflecting on any relevant work and educational experiences, describe how you would contribute to the program and to the profession."

"Detailed Statement of Purpose.  Two to three pages in length, single-spaced."

"A 1-2 page essay describing your writing background, your reasons for wanting to enroll in our MFA program, and your goals after graduation."

"Personal essay (3-4 pages, double-spaced) that addresses: 
• your preparation in the study of creative writing and literature 
• additional experiences that seem particularly relevant to this application 
• the strengths and weaknesses of your writing 
• your goals for your two years of degree study Critical analysis (3-4 pages, double-spaced) of craft"

The first thing that pops out at me in this analysis is how they title what they want from me: Personal Essay, and Statement of Purpose. Not only do they want the "personal," they also want the very crux of my purpose. They want a thesis that describes both my personality and drive.

I know what they want from me. They want to know if I will be like AdamJOsterkamp and complete my goals and bring them the honor of having instructed me in the best ways to do that. That in itself is very personal and brings me to the obvious question: "What IS my purpose?"

One thing I have learned very effectively is that I cannot ask others to give me my purpose. I am the one who must put the self-control in effect to develop and achieve goals. In the end, I am the only one who can truly measure the distance I have achieved toward "success." I decide what "success" is. For AdamJOsterkamp, "success" was publication, seeing his work in print and given accolade by his peers. For some of my favorite badass female characters, their goals are to follow instinct, survive, and love. I see success measured in grades, in a change in composition and development, in weight, in stability.

What do I want? I spend hours reading fantasy and science fiction. I spend my evenings watching in awe of the simplicity of my rabbits' lifestyles, their every movement some strange miracle of existence. I stare at peoples' faces on the bus and try to read their thoughts, imagine the trials of the girl younger than twenty with white speckling her afro, wonder at the composition of a grad students' make-up (why did she choose to snow-white eyeshadow?). Every student I counsel at work, I see their visible struggle with difficult grades and the shame of needing to ask for something different than what they wanted to ask. Their fear of the unknown illuminated by their necessity to be in my office.

I don't ask questions. I stare. I think. I reason and empathize and judge and envy. And in my envy, I escape. I can imagine what success would be like even though I know its texture and taste from the lives I have explored around me and in fantasy. In the end, that escapism is my purpose. That is my short term goal, not "getting published." Publishing is an extension of that purpose, a way to share in the success of finally, finally escaping.

1= write
1= achieve escapism

1 = 1? Yes.

2= publish

1 + 1 = 2

Why do I write? I write to satisfy envy and exact empathy. I write to be extraordinary and, perhaps, in the process of wanting to be extraordinary, perhaps I will achieve it.

Now I have to write that down in a way that doesn't sound crazy.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Applying to MFA Programs

There is one phrase for the greatest sense of relief in preparing for the application process: "Yes, of course I will write you a recommendation!"

The other day I contacted my old publisher and possible editor, Jacquelyn Mitchard of Merit Press, and despite my sudden falling off the face of the earth to complete my MLIS, she was both happy to hear from me and delighted I was fulfilling the next key segment of my career. To be honest, I could have applied to MFA programs last fall, but by the time I had thought to do it, that time had already passed.

There is a certain giddiness that accompanies the application process for a new degree and a new school or even a new job.

For one, there is the planning. The deciding which schools are best and which ones are not worth the effort or which schools will provide the greatest home for your creative process and nurture the young sprouts of talent that have already carefully and hesitantly germinated through previous life experiences. The high that comes from applying is brought to an even greater tension from past rejection or success.

Let me share my history of applications with you for a moment:

At the end of my undergraduate career, I applied to many poetry MFA programs around the country and met with an incredible success from most of them. Some offered me fellowships, some were extremely welcoming for their programs. Back then, I had the plan to become a poet.

This, as you can tell, did not happen. Instead, I was confronted with a significant life change. There were people around me who wanted more of one thing and one thing only: my fiction.

There are choirs in the background who lament my ignorance of this. "Why, oh why did you not see this coming? How could you have prepared for it better?" My tunnel vision for poetry had allowed me to completely ignore the fact that, underneath my own nose and past my own suspicions, the deeper thread was developing.

I was accepted by a publisher for fiction. I had to make a choice and every choice available to me said, "Delay! Delay! Delay!" My only option was to reject the poetry MFA acceptances and take the only non-poetry concentration graduate school opportunity available: my back-up, the MLIS.

Here is the honesty part: I didn't finish the novel, but the past three semesters of earning my MLIS were the most transient and life-changing months of my life. Suddenly, there were people in the public sphere that I cared about. Strangers on the bus became more important to me than television shows or dead poets. My primary reason for existence suddenly switched from being about me to being about the woman on the bus stop with a Walmart bag hat and the confused gentleman who wanted to clap along with the children during story hour. I loved and hated them all with the equanimity of a librarian.

But my goal has always been the MFA and I'm here now. I am here with enough knowledge to know I will always be ignorant and enough experience to know I need more.

The next giddy step is the actual developing of materials: editing your resume, creating spreadsheets for recommenders and making your final decisions, and developing the portfolio. Wanna know a secret? I LOVE EDITING THINGS.

Once they are all tidily put in place, the waiting game is the worst, but then three-six weeks later? Letters! Letters everywhere! Rejection, acceptance, fellowship, interviews? Bring it on!

Just... leave me some money please?

This upcoming week: the GRE.

The month of November: NaNoWriMo and applications galore.

H. Jarvis