Day 15. 1 pm. Word count: 31,197 Fragmented thoughts.

I wrote nearly 1k words in a half hour sprint last night, reaching my 2k goal before midnight with two minutes to spare.  Booyah.

This paranormal tale is having surprisingly little paranormal stuff going on.  I think I’ll have to add more during editing.

I’m in the one Starbucks in Tuscaloosa (the ones in Target and Barnes & Noble totally don’t count).  About ten minutes ago, there was a guy in here who was screaming at all the Asian patrons about the Korean War.  When one of the baristas came to throw him out, I thought he was going to hit her.  I’m still anxious that he’s going to come back with a gun and shoot the place up.  This will probably make its way into my writing.  If, you know, I’m not murdered by crazy Korean War guy…

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Cooling Off

I was reading this blog post and found myself disagreeing strongly enough to write my own post about it.

There’s a common bit of advice that when a writer finishes a piece, they should put it aside for a while before editing it.  This is often referred to as a “cooling off” period.  I’m a big proponent of it, because it works for me and I’ve seen it work for others.  Your mileage may vary, of course, since every writer’s process is unique (some writers barely edit, some writers don’t edit at all, more power to them but I edit like crazy).

The post above advises against a cooling off period because 1. if you’re thinking about your story you should be working on your story, 2. you’re not going to forget your story anyway, no matter how long you put it away, and 3. it pretty much just serves as further procrastination to keep yourself from finishing a piece and getting it out there.

My issue with 1. might be a more personal thing.  When I edit, I very rarely edit story.  The plot and the characters pretty much stay the same from the first draft.  So while I may be thinking of my story, that doesn’t mean I should be editing for my story.  It doesn’t help, and in fact can actively hurt, because:

2. the “cooling off period” has nothing to do with distancing yourself from your story.  I has everything to do with distancing yourself from the way you tell it.  When you first have a story in your head and write it down, you know exactly what you mean.  What every description is describing, what every bit of dialogue is getting at.  Because you know, it is easy to fail to recognize when your writing will not express what you want to express to people who don’t know, a.k.a. your readers.  You’ll remember your story, but with time you will forget the details.  It will be that much easier to recognize the description, etc, that doesn’t work, that’s confusing or ambiguous.

Allowing that time also aids another bit of editing wisdom: kill your darlings. When you’ve just finished a story, you’re still patting yourself on the back over that flowery description of the setting, that clever turn of phrase in your dialogue.  It helps immensely to have time for your pride to dissipate and allow you to recognize those things just aren’t serving the story.

As for 3., yes, the cooling period can be used for procrastination.  So can any number of other useful writing processes: research, outlining, writing character backstories, etc.  Such things can be abused, yes, but that doesn’t mean they can’t also be put to good use, perhaps even most of the time.  And as good as it is to get your work out there, you will have more success, and therefore more encouragement and less despair, if you send out good stuff.  Yes, it’s very possible to get so caught up in editing your stuff that it never sees the light of day.  But that doesn’t mean you should send out raw first draft material that more often than not is going to get rejected.  There’s a middle ground, of course, where you edit your work effectively, and a “cooling off” period helps your editing to be effective.

So, readers, do you put your manuscripts away for a while before editing?  Why or why not?  And if you do, how long do you let it sit?

Keep it simple. Really.

So, in addition to my writing, I’m also a submissions editor for Apex Magazine (which is a fantastic magazine that all of you should check out, enjoy, and consider subscribing to).  “Submissions editor” is a fancy way of saying “slush reader.”  I’m one of a legion of people who act as gatekeepers, combing through submissions, sending the very best on to the editor-in-chief and rejecting the rest (i.e. most of them).  I enjoy this job, which is good, because I don’t get paid (slush readers usually don’t).  I get to see from the receiving end of a submission what works and what doesn’t, what stories compel me to read to the end (and how) and what stories I can’t read past the first paragraph (and why).  The latter far outnumber the former, but sifting through that chaff is worth finding the occasional fantastic grain of wheat.

What makes me read to the end, what compels me to send a story up to our editor-in-chief, is basically a discussion of what makes for great, gripping fiction.  Which is interesting and important, but not what I want to talk about at the moment.

I want to talk about cover letters.

Since Apex only takes electronic submissions, I’m referring to the content of the email that accompanies the story attachment.  As a writer submitting my work, I’ve read a lot of advice about what should be included in a cover letter, electronic or otherwise.  Now that I’m on the other side of that transaction, I can tell you that a lot of them are wrong.

Here’s what should be in your cover letter:

  • “Dear editor-in-chief’s name” – Get it right.  I get a lot of cover letters addressing the last editor-in-chief, and that’s sloppy.  Checking the masthead takes all of five seconds.
  • Your name.
  • The name of your piece.
  • Sincerely, your name.

That’s it.  Really.

Please don’t give me a summary of your story.  If the story can’t stand on its own, I will reject it, and I want to have my own impression of your story, not yours.  Please don’t tell me your life story, how you’ve been writing forever, the classes you’ve taken, etc.  If your story is good, I don’t need to know, and if it’s bad, it won’t save you.  Previous publications, professional affiliations, etc?  Eh.  Personally, I can do without.  Again, if your story is good, I don’t care if you’ve never been published before, and if it’s not, all the publications in the world won’t make a difference.

The bottom line: your story needs to speak for itself.  You need to get out of the way and let it.

Now, let me be clear: I will not reject a story solely on a cover letter.  (Well…I imagine it may well happen, but it would have to be really bad.  Like, threatening and/or offensive bad.)  But these mistakes are really annoying, and believe me, you don’t want me to be already annoyed when I have to decide if your story is one of the few I send up.

500% Done

I’m having one of those days.  Maybe more like one of those weeks.  You know the type, where it feels like everything that can go wrong does go wrong.  Like whatever you try to do, you’re doing while shoulder deep in molasses, so it takes forever to do anything, and when you’re done it’s sticky and stained and useless anyway.  Writing-wise, it’s the feeling that makes me want to print out the story I’ve been struggling with, just so I can tear it to pieces, and set the pieces on fire.  The feeling that has me all but convinced that I never had any talent to begin with, or if I did then I certainly don’t now, and I should just accept it and give up.

This isn’t an uncommon experience, of course, for me or for anybody.  I’ve got a ton of pep talks for myself along with a ton of quotes from famous people about how quitters never win, about how whatever I do, I need to keep moving forward, even an inch at a time, etc etc.

Then I have to write.  I have to keep that fire going, somehow, because if I let it go out, it’s that much harder to rekindle.  Because the best way to combat the worry that I can’t is with actual proof that I CAN.  So I write about the feeling (HELLO!) and I write drivel in my journal.

And I edit.

I don’t touch anything too recent, from the past couple weeks, say, because they’re still to fresh for me to look at with a detached eye.  Anything later than that is fair game.  I print out five, six, seven stories, and retreat to the coffee shop with a stapler and a pencil.

A lot of people hate editing.  A fair number of writers do it sparsely, if it all (Lawrence Block likes to say he sends out first drafts all the time).  I’ve come to like it.  It’s useful, of course, to know that when I first write something down, I don’t have to be paralyzed by the need to make everything perfect.  Then there are times like this.  By reading through my old work, I’m reminded that, yes, I wrote this stuff.  Surprisingly enough, it’s not that bad.   Sometimes it’s actually pretty good.  And with pencil in hand, I can make it better.  I enjoy that process, recognizing the rough edges (an awkward sentence structure here, a wrong word choice there) and sanding them smooth.  At times I’m able to go deeper, noticing themes that I might not have seen when I first wrote the piece and reshaping the prose to strengthen and highlight them.  When I’m done, I’m in a more positive place in relation to my writing, and hopefully the general feeling of impotence has passed as well.

So, what about you guys?  How do you keep writing (or doing anything) when you’re just 500% done with everything?