Saturday, August 18, 2012

"I Can Do Better Than That"

I consider myself a writer.  I know some prefer the term "aspiring writer", but I write.  That makes me a writer.  What I aspire to is to be an author, which I see as a person who makes their living from their writing.

In my quest to be an author, I have already written four complete novels (okay, two drafted and revised [and revised, and revised...] and two with full rough drafts).  The four books are all part of a series, so I've been submitting the first to agents for a couple of years now.  Still waiting to sell it, though.

Which brings me to the title of my post.  Best writing advice I ever got was from an article I wish I still had so I could properly site it.  (anyone that recognizes it, please leave a post in the Comments section)  The advice went something like this:

"The real writer's mantra is 'I can do better than that'.  When the writer looks at another work, even one of the great classics, they think 'I can do better than that'.  And when the writer look at their own work they should shake their head sheepishly and say 'I can do better than that'."

I've tried to keep that in mind, especially when doing my revisions, to think "I can do better than this."  So when I finished the rough draft of my first novel I set it aside for a bit and knocked around on some short stories.  When I came back to it, I knew I could do better, and I did.

Once I had it as good as I could get it on my own, I took it to my writer's group.  After over a year of reading chapters there, I went back and did another full revision.  Then I gave that full version to a few beta readers and did another revision based on their input.

At each stage, it was amazing what I missed, what I saw anew through fresh eyes.  And each time I could see the novel getting so much better.

So I sent it out into the world, trying to find an agent to love it as I did.  On my first round of queries, I actually got a request for a partial (50 pages) from a Dream Agent.  She rejected it, but I got a very encouraging letter (not just email) from her assistant.

So I revised again.  And, since I'd only gotten one request, I revised my query letter, too.  Actually, I ended up studying how to write query letters.  I found Query Shark very, very helpful (follow her advice and read the full archives from the beginning.  It really helps).

Since then I started to get at least one request for a full on each round of queries.  All of them said similar things: they liked the book, they just didn't love it, or at least not enough to rep it.

So I revised and revised my query letters.  I even looked for trends in who was requesting fulls.  The answers shouldn't have been surprising.  I found that all the ones who requested fulls had two things in common: 1) they were all very personalized queries, 2) they requested pages along with the query.

By very personalized I mean I did serious research and found one thing I could put in for why I wanted them in particular to rep me, or at least this book.  Something other than a stellar track record, or best selling clients or even a big agency.  Something unusual, probably not in their standard bio, or at least a new spin on it.  In  one case, it was something the agent had mentioned in one blog interview five years earlier when the interviewer asked for one thing about her that would surprise most people that knew her. 

I was happy to see my research paying off and figured that meant I could probably ditch the generic queries.  If I couldn't come up with one really good reason I wanted that particular agent, then maybe they weren't right for me.  (Okay, I do still send out some anyway when I really like the agent but can't find a way to say exactly why.)

And since pages seemed important, I figured I might need to revise my query a bit more.  But in the meantime, agents that wanted pages too went to the top of my list.

But what finally got to me was all those full requests that ended up still not loving it.  And they all liked it.  Some even seemed to love it, just "not enough" or "didn't love it as much as I'd hoped".  And all of them were very encouraging, not just to keep looking for the right agent for the work, but also to send them anything else I wrote.  Two were actually were almost insistent on seeing anything else I wrote.

Finally it dawned on me that maybe I needed to go back and look at the manuscript itself.  It's been over a year, maybe year and a half since I actually read through this thing.  Since I finished it, I've written the next three volumes in the series, expanding greatly on the overall story and getting much deeper into the characters.

That's why about a week ago I sat down with a hard copy of my novel and started reading it.  It took my until about page 20 to see why they were rejecting it.  By page 30 or so I knew where my central problem was: I'd made my MCs life too easy.  I let him get away with too much, too easily.  There just wasn't enough conflict, enough tension to really keep the story going.  The writing was generally pretty good, but it could be so much better.

I shook my head and said "I can do better than this".

But I'm not, yet.  I'm going through the whole book first, finding all the scenes that don''t work and marking them for revision.  Finding all the scenes that, no matter how beautifully written or whatever, add nothing to the story or bore me.  If they bore the writer, they must be hell on a reader.

I'm especially horrified at all the times I let my character drift into Mary Sue-land (though technically Marty Stu, since it's male, but I still prefer the Mary Sue label).  Things are unrealistically easy for him, he can do no wrong.  He overcomes obstacles too easily.  It just gets boring.

Now don't get me wrong, I still love the book.  Everyone that's read it likes it, feels there's some solid writing there.  And I agree.  But having this much distance from it, and all these other books written, I can see it as the promising amateur work it is.

So now I need to make it look like the polished professional work I used to think it was.  Maybe then the next agent will finally love it enough.

Anyone else out there with their own humorous or horror stories to share?  Feel free to share in the Comments.  I think the writing life is lonely and frustrating, but it's better when we know we're far from alone.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

What Is The Right Amount Of Moral Outrage?

For those who haven't been paying attention to the news, Dan Cathy, President and COO of  the fast food restaurant Chick-Fil-A, made some comments during an interview that showed his opposition to same-sex marriage. 

This has caused a great hue and cry from both sides of the debate.  It has lead to opponents calling for protests and even boycotts of the chain.  Supports have called for rallies of people to buy massive amounts at the chain to show their support.  In at least two major cities (Boston and Chicago) there have been moves to bar new Chick-Fil-A restaurants from being opened.

Because of all this, several Chick-Fil-A restaurant owners have come out in favor of same-sex marriage.  The one here in Chicago tried to defend her store from politicians by claiming they have several gays working for the store and that she has no problems with gays or lesbians.  Other store owners have come out in  defense of Mr. Cathy's views.

I'm not going to bother discussing the whole same-sex marriage debate at this point.  That could easily take up a couple blog posts on it's own.

For now I'd like to address how one should respond to the remarks of one person who may be highly placed in an organization.   

As an example, I'd like to point to Marge Schott.  For those too young to remember (or too opposed to sports to have noticed the story at the time), she used to be the majority owner, managing partner and CEO of the Cincinnati Reds MLB team from '84-'99.  She was a very controversial figure for much of this.

In 1992, she was sued, in part, over her alleged racism.  That suit was lost, but the allegations kept up.  Aside from claims of using the "N-word", she was also accused of antisemitism when she said she felt that Hitler had been good for Germany in the beginning, but went too far.     

Many people were very offended by her.  In  the end, the league commission  would suspend her from her day-to-day managing duties twice (apparently it was almost three times, but she sold her majority share before anything materialized).

Now without speaking on the validity of the claims against her, I can at least appreciate the appropriateness of the response the commission took.  They penalized her, not the team, since she was the one that had offended them.

So in a case like the current Chick-Fil-A debacle what would be a reasonable response?  I think taking out one's outrage, or support, of the COO's comments on the individual restaurants of the chain  is unreasonable.  If I was upset enough about his comments, I'd call him an idiot, maybe send him a letter or something expressing my disagreement.  If I agreed, I might send him a letter of support, maybe speak out in  his defense.

What I wouldn't do was buy or not buy their food based on his opinions.  If I'm going to patronize or boycott a business on moral grounds, it will be based on their corporate policies and practices.  If Chick-Fil-A was like the Boy Scouts, with a stated policy banning hiring of homosexuals, I could see taking direct actions towards the restaurants. 

There are businesses I like to patronize and others I avoid at all costs because of their policies and practices.  Personally, I've never eaten at a Chick-Fil-A, mainly because I've never lived near one, and I'm not a huge fan of fast food chicken anyway.  So boycotting it would be pointless for me anyway. 

Let me put this another way: I really hate many of the policies and practices of the American recording industry, from their outrageous punitive lawsuits against illegal downloaders (with penalties far in excess of any actual damages done to the company in individual lost sales, that don't even go to the artists they claim to be protecting) to their contracts that often treat the artists (especially songwriters) as work-for-hire (so the company owns the copyright, not the creator).  However, if I follow the model of the Chick-Fil-A protesters, I should boycott buying anything from these major labels.  So how do I support my favorite bands?  How do I get their music, other than hoping it comes on the radio or illegally downloading it (even using a service like Spotify is indirectly supporting the record companies)?

Why should I penalize these bands by not buying their records just because I think they're getting screwed by their label?

And that's when I do object to a corporate policy.  It makes even less sense when I'm just objecting to something some idiot at the top is spewing.  If the CEO of Wendy's made some outrageously offensive comment in an interview, would I stop eating at my local restaurant?  Probably not.

Does that make me a moral coward?  I don't think so.  I think it means I'm making a measured response, directed at the person that offended me, not waging total moral war with a complete disregard for casualties.

So, anyone out there disagree?  Or maybe even someone agree?  I'd love to hear your thoughts on this.  But let's keep to the issue of response, and not fall into arguing the same-sex marriage debate.  Maybe I'll address that later on.