Yay, yay, first of May…

Well, the third, now. May first is, in the pagan faith, the first day of summer. Yeah, tell that to the weather gods here in beautiful Wharncliffe, where there is still snow on the ground in spite of the rain.

I’m spending my afternoon in the Thessalon Library with Charlie Wilkins. We are, after a fashion, writing together, he on his email, and me on my blog. Charlie was the first guest author we had at Stories in the North, and we have him back this year because he has a new book out, Little Ship of Fools. Charlie gave a workshop this morning on the journey of writing, and this evening he’ll be reading, with musical interludes by our own Len Doi and Al St. Pierre.

I’ve been writing on the third book of The Swan Harp Trilogy, cutting myself some slack because of the other work I’ve had to do. I’ve also decided to give myself a reprieve from my goal of one hundred rejections before my next birthday. The fact is, the first book needs some cutting and rewriting, and I need to get that done before I’m ready to pitch it.

It was hard to come to that decision. I don’t like to let myself off the hook. It feels like failure. But I had a serious think about the way I’ve talked about writing to other writers, and would-be writers,and I realize that, time and again, I’ve emphasized that it’s the writing that counts. Publishing is nice – I love being published, and I love almost everything that goes with it, but what I really love is the writing.

If I’m going to preach that the writing is the most important thing, and the publishing secondary, then I have to practice that, too. So for now I’m going to act like I do have time, and take the time to do that rewrite before I start blitzing the agents again. It helps that Brian Henry, in his workshop a few weeks back, casually tossed off the information that “new” agents are new for years, because it takes time to build a good client list. That bit of information makes me feel far less pressured.

In the meantime, I’ve completed a couple of Poet for Hire gigs, with good results. I’ve kept up with my contractual obligations, and I’ve written a totally gratuitous parody on the subject of the nitrite-nitrate cycle in aquariums. The Muse got me up four times in one night for that, incidentally. Inspiration can be so inconvenient!

Freshly inspired by a morning’s workshop, fortified with the lunch special at the Pepper Mill, and looking forward to an evening’s delightful entertainment. The writer’s life is good.

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Grateful for the day job

There’s a good deal to be said for a day job. I’m not always this philosophical about having mortgaged forty hours of my writing time a week, not to mention an additional fifteen hours of commuting. This week, however, I found myself unexpectedly, albeit grudgingly, grateful for the job.

I’ve been trying to figure out ways to cut back my working days. Recently I pursued a promising avenue in the form of freelance editing for a small publisher. This week I got my first manuscript from them and my heart sank.

Within the first few pages it was very clear to me that this manuscript was nowhere near ready for a final edit. I foresaw an incredible amount of work; I couldn’t imagine having the book ready for publication within a year, much less the shorter time allotted me. I also knew that I couldn’t justify the hours I would have to put in for the fee my contract specified.

I really, really wanted this gig. I saw it as my way to get a little more writing and art time while maintaining the income I needed by doing something I enjoy. I didn’t want to quit on the first assignment. At the same time, I couldn’t afford to do the necessary work on this particular manuscript. I could feel my stress levels rising just at the thought.

In the end I remembered that I did, after all, have a job that paid my bills. I took a few deep breaths and wrote a frank email to the publisher about what the manuscript needed and what I was prepared to do. Then I mentally wrote off that whole gig. If they fired me for it, so be it. I wasn’t happy about it, but at least the groceries weren’t riding on my decision.

To my surprise, I received a positive and supportive answer, followed within an hour by a second, different, manuscript. Just a glance at the new one showed me it was much closer to completion, and manageable within the timeframe. So I’m still on, which is good, with an achievable goal, which is better. I’ll see how I feel about the whole thing after a few assignments, whether it’s what I visualized, or what I need, or can do, before I cut back to a four-day week on the day job.

In the meantime, I’m on my way in to work tonight and grateful to have it.

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A new adventure

A couple of years ago I committed to going to England this summer to meet with some of my online word-nerd friends. It was a pretty scary commitment to make, given that the financial situation was pretty tight at the time, but I haven’t been off the continent since 1988. I love so many things about England, and I’ve missed the place.

At this point it’s stopped being speculative and become real. I’ve renewed my passport and bought my airline ticket. I’ve ordered my British pounds from the credit union. I’m checking into accomodation – favouring hostels because of the price and the fact that I’m going to be spending as little time as possible there.

I’m hoping that I’ll have ideas for articles and stories come out of this trip. I plan to have a very good time, both with my friends and during the days I’ll have alone before and after. I want to visit the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert, and Westminster Abbey. I also want to go to Oxford to photograph gargoyles and decorative stonework.

I still have my library card for the Bodleian Library at Oxford. When you get that card, you have to take an oath not to take any fire into the library, or cause any to be lit there. Very cool – I wish all libraries had that oath! One of the manuscripts at the Bodleian is the Junius Manuscript (also called the Caedmon Manuscript).

junius ms noahs ark

In my fourth year of university I wrote a fairly extensive paper on the twenty-two zoomorphic (made of animals) initials in the text. On my second visit to Oxford I actually got to see the manuscript itself. That was an incredible experience – a once-in-a-lifetime thing. I won’t repeat that this year, but there are lots of other things to see and do.

I’ve also taken on a new job, as freelance editor to a small U.S.-based press. My friend Sue Kerr put me onto them – and them onto me – and this week I received my first MS for editing. Looking forward to the ride, and the possibility of having enough additional income to cut back to four days a week at the call center.

I’m slowly – much more slowly than I’d wanted – getting back into regular writing. I hope to be back up to my pre-break level in a week or two. I won’t stop when I go to England, but I’m not taking my computer, either. One more thing to have to look after. Instead I plan to write longhand. We’ll see where that takes me!

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After the breather

That was an interesting month, probably the first time I’ve gone a month without even trying to write fiction since I seriously started to work on my writing in 2008. I did only contracted pieces for pay. I hadn’t intended to stop blogging for the month; it just kinda happened. I’d feel guilty about it if I could, but the truth is – I needed that.

It took some pressure off in a difficult time. Our well froze a few weeks ago, and we had no water for over two weeks. This is the first time ever that the well has frozen. Yes, we’ve had pipes freeze before, but this time it was pipes and the pump and the well. The pump cracked in two places and David tore it down and rebuilt it with replacement parts. Then he spent hours over the next couple of weeks priming, thawing, digging, thawing, priming…We hauled drinking and cooking water in a five-gallon coamping drum and used the indoor fish pond for flushing and washing and for water for the poultry. It seemed to take everything we had just to keep going.

We weren’t the only people in the valley whose well froze, and even in Sault Ste Marie there were lots of frozen pipes and homes without water. I know we were lucky in having the indoor pond, because otherwise we’d have had to haul everything. It was hard to feel that way in the middle of it all. But, you know, it’s all research, and much of what I felt and thought will inform “Here be Dragons” when I get back to it.

For now I’m back into Kiar’s world, preparing my query material. Sunday I attended a workshop on getting published. It was led by Brian Henry, whose website Quick Brown Fox is a goldmine of information for writers. Brian is a really good workshop leader; personable, easy to listen to, humourous, informative and always in control of the room. Here’s Brian with my friend Angie Gallop at the conclusion of the workshop.

Brian Henry and Angie Gallop

The main thrust of this workshop was how to find and get an agent, and participants were invited to bring their query letters. I brought mine for “The Swan Harp”, and I’m so glad I did. In addition to the great workshop, Brian did a really useful and helpful critique of every query letter that was brought. Four of the twenty-six of us brought them, and I’d say that the critique I got improved my query immeasurably. That alone was worth the cost of admission, as they say.

So, back to work, starting tonight on the drive in.

And thanks for your patience, because I really needed that break.

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Leaving Valenia…for a while

I have now had two rejections in this latest round of submissions to agents. Progress, however slow.

I don’t like to change my mind about something when I’ve made it up, but I’ve just done that very thing. It’s been a hard decision, made at the end of a very hard twenty-four hours.

You see, I received two conflicting pieces of critique on my work from two writers I respect very much. One told me that every scene had to advance the plot, and that many of the scenes in The Swan Harp didn’t do that, and needed to be cut. The other complained that The Last Black Swan was all plot and no introspection.

Cut the introspection and go for plot. Stop focusing so much on the plot and give us introspection.

In retrospect, it’s no surprise to me that I had a meltdown. Critique is vital, and I’m not in this just to hear, “Oh, this is great!” But these were diametrically conflicting demands, both requiring considerable work to address. The prospect of all the work I apparently have to do on these books, at the glacial pace of an hour a day, overwhelmed me. The thing that kept going through my head was, “I can’t do this.” I couldn’t get past it, and it was devastating.

What I wanted was someone with more experience that I have in writing and publishing fiction. I know a couple of people, but nobody I feel I could simply phone in a crisis. Instead I called a friend who has read both books and who I was dead sure would tell me the truth, and not just what I might want to hear.

It’s impossible to please everybody; I know that. I have to write the story I want to tell, but my own wish to publish means that there will be demands that don’t fit with mine. What I hoped to get from my friend Larry was balance. I kind of expected that he would say something like, “Well, Swan Harp does start a bit slow; you could condense that, and, yes, Last Black Swan rips us along pretty fast.” I hoped to hear that the changes weren’t as extreme as I feared.

What Larry told me was that nothing needed changing, but that I needed a break. I’m not sure I’m a hundred percent with him on the first part, but the idea of a break, as soon as he said it, was like a light in a dark room.

I love Kiar’s world, and telling this story. I’ve thought about it every day for months – make that years – even when I haven’t been writing it. I’ve worked on it most days. I know the geography of Valenia, the taste of the food, the layout of the castle and the lives of the people. Sometimes that world has seemed more real to me than my own. I need a vacation.

So I’m leaving Valenia behind for a few weeks. I’ve decided to give myself until equinox. If I’m not ready to return then, I’ll take a couple more weeks, but by early April I should be ready to get back to it. In the meantime I have a non-fiction project I’ve wanted to get at, and if I’m hungry to write fiction, there’s always “Here be Dragons”.

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One down, ninety-nine to go

Yesterday I received my first rejection in the current round of submissions. I was pleased because the rejection was quick. The whole text of it was “I’m sorry, but this is not for me.” Perfect – it said “no”, and it said why – not a good fit. Most importantly, it said it without hanging onto the thing for six weeks or six months.

In the meantime, I’m doing two things – working on the third book of the trilogy (Dark Waters, Dark Skies) and doing a serious cutting and rewrite on the first book. At 150,000 words, it’s about a third too long. I’ve also had some really good feedback about the length of time it takes to show some action.

I know there’s character and setting information in that extra 50,000 words that I feel is important to the story. I also know I could very well be wrong about how important it is, or about how much of it the reader needs to know. So I’m going to try to turn a less partial eye on it and see what I can hack out, compress or rejig. This will be painful. I bear in mind Daphne DuMaurier’s words about her experience editing her first novel: “I cut out passages it had given me exquisite pleasure to write.” Yeah, I’ll be doing some of that.

The pleasure of writing is perhaps half the point of writing. Art needs to be self-rewarding, remember? Telling the story is the other half. What I’m doing now isn’t totally about the writing. It’s about publishing, about looking for someone to put my story out into the world. That’s a little different.

If all I cared about was the writing, it wouldn’t matter to me whether or not my work was ever published. Clearly it does matter, or I wouldn’t put so much effort into finding publication. It would be completely dishonest for me to pretend that I don’t care whether or not “The Swan Harp” and the following books are published. I care a great deal. Yes, I’ll always be glad I wrote them, even if they are never published, but publication would make me very happy, too.

So I’ll put myself through the work and annoyance and, yes, emotional pain, of cutting and rewriting “The Swan Harp” yet again. This will be rewrite number seven, or possibly eight. I’ve lost count.

The good news is that all of this work on the first book has, I believe, made me a better writer. One of my fears for “The Last Black Swan” was that it would be a worse book than “The Swan Harp”. Second books are often not as good as first ones. I was thrilled beyond belief when one of my readers told me that “The Last Black Swan” was better than “The Swan Harp”. I’ve only rewritten “The Last Black Swan” twice. It’s tighter, it moves better, and I think I’ve learned something more about where to start a story.

Now I’m going to apply those lessons, make “The Swan Harp” the story I really want to tell, and also that my readers really want to hear. In the meantime, I’m preparing three more submissions for this Thursday, on my way to my goal of one hundred rejections. Knowing that you guys are reading this keeps me accountable and on track. Thank you. Maybe I could do it without you, but you make it easier.

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Moving on

For the last year “The Swan Harp” has been with a publisher who expressed interest in it. Although I would love to work with this company, at this point there is nothing happening, and no deadline for anything to happen. I feel that I have to keep moving with my efforts toward publication. I’ve decided to begin submitting to agents again. When I run out of agents, I’ll go to publishers.

Part of the decision is because I have turned sixty, and I’m much more aware of the clock ticking. I have stories to tell, books to write, and I want to get them written while I’m still relatively compos mentis. One reason I left the book so long in one set of hands is hope; the other is that it was much less work. Submitting is work. It’s research, and preparation and emailing or mailing the submission, and then it’s the mental strain of waiting, sometimes simply for a deadline to pass. You know – “If you haven’t heard from us after six months, we just weren’t a good fit. This is not a reflection on the quality of your work. Do try somewhere else.”

I’ve realized that I can no longer afford the time to sit around waiting. I have to take some action, even if only to make myself feel I’m doing all I can. Perhaps in the end nobody will want “The Swan Harp”. Maybe it will never be published. If that is the case, then I’ll still be glad that I wrote it. However, it will not happen because I let the manuscript sit in a drawer or – ever again – in one set of hands for a year.

I’ve compiled a list of agents, and am working on a list of publishers. I’ll be working my way through them systematically, and as part of the process, I will keep you, dear readers, updated on the whole thing. Did I get a rejection? You’ll hear about it. Did I put out three more submissions? Ditto. It’ll help keep me on track. My new goal is one hundred rejections by my sixty-first birthday.

I start today, pitching to three agents. Wish me luck.

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