Writing/Publishing a Novel
David suggested that I write a little something about what it’s like to write a novel and to get it published. When someone asks “How do you write a novel?” My brief answer is, “You let a short story get away from you.” Lifeline was in fact going to be a short story, but what I was trying to capture just kept getting more and more complicated and then to make it understandable to other people I had to add more details of place and situation and then more characters kept coming in, and before I know it was past novella stage and heading on towards novel.
I think everyone’s process and history is different, so I need to give a little background of my writing life. Looking back, there was no way I could’ve predicted this, and probably if you told me all this I might have given up much earlier. This is the third novel I’ve written (actually, fourth – I did a crazy three-day novel writing contest once though I have no idea where that manuscript is). I’ve been writing short stories since grammar school, and tried to get a couple of them published, in my naïveté, back in my 20s, but luckily none of them got picked up because I had a long ways to go before I was a decent writer.
In my late 20s, just after I graduated college after nine years of going from school to school because I couldn’t afford college, I got in at science fiction’s premier boot camp, the Clarion workshop. There for six weeks we wrote every day and critiqued for 4 to 5 hours every day, and had six different well-known science-fiction writers as teachers. It was my most intense introduction to writing and I know I learned a lot, but still didn’t have a whole lot of luck getting anything accepted.
And about that time I also started realizing how hard it was to get all of my ideas into one short story, so I wrote my first science-fiction novel which was a comedy and actually was about what’s now the net and smart phones although at the time I called it an electronic daytimer. This was at least five years before the Internet was born, and had I gotten it published it might have been very prescient. When I look at that one now, I can see where my writing was still too awkward. It’s disappointing to work for months and months if not years and have nothing come of it.
I set that aside and attended monthly workshops once I moved to Oregon – Kate Wilhelm and Damon Knight held them in their home in Eugene, and half dozen of us Clarion graduates would write and critique short stories – so I was back to writing short for a while. And then some time in the mid-90s I tried my hand at a mystery, and since my favorite mysteries were historical, I set mine in Portland in 1862. I still like it very much but have not yet found a publisher.
Then for most of the noughts I gave up writing fiction completely and switched to poetry and eventually got quite a lot published including four chapbooks and a full-length book of poetry. (And all this time, up until 2005, I was also doing a lot of other things like making art for galleries, being a therapist, working on psych units and having a difficult marriage – so writing was not at all the first priority.) What switched me back to fiction was JMG’s contests – he gave us an intriguing premise and one that I could picture much better than what current science-fiction was currently involved with, so I just jumped in and went for it, and to my surprise got accepted and after that of course I had to enter his other contests and was fortunate to be included in volumes 3 and 4 and Merigan Tales as well. Since I think quite a lot about what our world is going to be like, whether I live to see it or not, it seemed almost easier to picture it in fiction then try to explain it in essays.
Somewhere around 2009, my arthritis finally got to be too disabling and I had to stop work and also had to find a computer program that allowed me to dictate my writing because I couldn’t type for long periods anymore. Ironically, the disability that kept me confined to a lounger chair an increasing number of hours every day pushed me to write more, since that was something I could still do. And after reading JMG’s novel chapter by chapter online, I thought that might be a very good way to motivate myself because I remember how discouraging and uncertain it felt month after month as a novel ate up time and energy. And that is the thing that really kept me going as I was writing Lifeline – knowing that I had promised a chapter a month, and that there were people reading it and checking back to see if I had posted a new chapter, and also getting the feedback from people both what they liked and what they didn’t like, what they didn’t understand – that was very helpful. (Something like that could be done with a critique group, if you didn’t want to do it online.)
As to how I go about it, I’m actually pretty disorganized: an idea kind of comes to mind, often an encounter between two characters and only the vaguest idea of what the plot might be, but I start writing, letting the dialogue play out and trying to describe the surrounding situation, feeling my way into the point of the story. I know many people plot out their novels and stories ahead of time, but that’s never worked for me – my best writing seems to come up from an unknown place – although that is no excuse to simply wait for something to come! (And I have to admit, because I’m so disorganized, I probably have twice as many have finished stories as finished ones.)
These days, now that I don’t go to work, I devote every morning if possible, starting from right after my coffee and toast until I’m interrupted by something that I can’t ignore or I get really tired and come to a stopping place, often about noon. So – at least several hours of writing every day unless some appointment or trip interferes, and if I don’t think I have anything to write I just start somewhere describing a person or a situation, or jumping ahead to a scene that I can picture. I don’t know if other writers do this but I found it impossible to write in a straight line so if something seems to be puzzling I just put a note “more here” and jump to the next scene that is clear in my mind. In that way I keep my energy flowing, reassuring myself that there is more to this story even if some particular section is difficult. And often I find that gap becomes a perfect place to add another character or a subplot later on.
In fact, writing to me is a lot more like oil painting than watercolor. Anyone who’s painted knows that watercolorists have to be right the first time because there’s no way to paint over, where an oil painter often blocks in large colorful areas and then goes back time and time again adding large details than smaller details then really tiny details and the picture doesn’t “pop” until those last final highlights get put in. And that is definitely how I wrote Lifeline, because not only was I feeling my way through the narrative, but I was having to do lots of research as I worked. I spent hours on Google Street, “walking” up and down the streets of the towns I was using, because I had never been there. I also did a bunch of research about solar flares and other technical aspects to the story. And then I would go back and focus on each particular character, checking to see if their tone of voice was consistent, and whether or not my descriptions were consistent, and then I would go back and look for places that I could put in lively or humorous details. I guess because I’m older I don’t have the ability to hold all of that in my mind as I’m writing so I have to go back and forth a lot, checking details (when I did my final proofing for the novel, I actually found I had changed a minor character’s name in one place but not in the other – luckily I caught that one!) So it’s definitely a lot of work, although some of that is the nature of science fiction, having to describe the world that doesn’t exist. I’ve never tried to write non-genre fiction, possibly because I don’t read much of it.
As to how it is to get published – that is another entire process and very different from the actual writing. The publishing field has changed in many ways from when I first started writing, some good and some bad. For example, it’s almost impossible to get a major publisher to look at you unless you have an agent and it has to be pretty good agent. On the other hand, there are a lot more small publishers who are able to take risks on unknown writers because of this print-on-demand technology. And fortunately those who predicted the death of paper publishing have been sadly mistaken, although the e-books have added aspects to writing that I’m still not that familiar with.
In genre fiction, it definitely seems to be a plus if you can get a few short stories published first, I doubt that I would’ve gotten much attention for my novel if I hadn’t had some luck with the short fiction. I became fairly adept at the online submission programs when submitting poetry to the small magazines, and the process is the same for short fiction. There are quite a number of small magazines online (again, without the cost involved in paper publishing, more people will jump into the effort of a magazine, although some of them do not last very long, and very few of them pay anything.) Persistence is the one big skill that you need – learning to line up a couple possible markets, and then just start at the top and send it out and as soon as it gets rejected there send it on to the next market. Some very well-known books have been rejected more than 20 times before they get published, so although it can be very discouraging, one has to develop a thick skin and a stubborn attitude. So much of publishing seems to be a crapshoot.
Anyway, just like everything I write, this is gotten a bit long, so I will end it here and if anyone has any questions or comments I will be happy to respond. (Note: I will actually be away from home doing a poetry reading - without a computer - for the next two days, so if I don’t respond have patience - I will!