Sunday, January 15, 2012

Writing is Like Puppies

The common consensus seems to be that when a journal or agent doesn’t want to work with a work, it means it’s bad. After all, it is called “rejection.” This, for many reasons, is simply not true. Good things get denied constantly (Chicken Noodle Soup for the Soul was rejected over 30 times) and terrible things get made constantly (Valentine’s Day had over a million dollar budgets and celebrated celebrates swarming all over it).

Pleading for funding is like adopting a puppy. The agent is the potential owner, your work is the dog.

1) Just because an owner doesn’t want you doesn’t make you a bad dog.

Millions of beautiful, fun, and loving animals are euthanized each year because there are fewer owners than there are puppies.

Agents can only handle a few clients at a time, and get thousands of different choices to choose from. Which means:

2) Owners can only go off of first impressions.

If the dog is dirty, injured, sleeping, shy, or has any temporary problems, he will be over looked. When at the pound, a person can have up to 100 dogs to look at with a little amount of time to do it. When an animal isn’t obviously playful, when he’s sleeping, the person isn’t going to stand around and wait for him to wake up, they’ll move onto the next cage and play with the leaping Labrador.

Novels often start out sleeping, not obviously playful. Few people will give wait for a tired puppy to wake, and even fewer will read a slow moving entrance, despite that the work may be far better when it hits its energy than the jumping hound.

3) Cleanliness is like grammar.

There are charities whose only function is to pay for cleaning services for pound puppies. Dogs who are groomed have an extreme benefit in getting adopted over those who weren’t. There is a story at my local pound of one collie who had been in a no-kill shelter for six months. After a cleaning, he was adopted within one week.

This is why a typo-free draft is so stressed upon. The cleanliness of the dog does not reflect his personality, his loyalty, or even the actual cuteness.

Nor does the spelling change the ideas, the flow, the tension, or even the intelligence of a work. But it sure sounds like it does.

People realize that the way a word isn’t spelled doesn’t actually change the meaning. Not adopting a dog or giving a story a change based on appearances is superficial, and so many beginning authors will eschew it.

However, though we can clean up a puppy, we don’t really know what he will look like afterwards, if he was attractive, if he’d be the dog someone would still choose. Again, the owner can only pick one, and where there are many options that are fairly equal in “quality,” then every element, superficial or not, becomes important. Choices out of millions is often made by feel, and feel comes from the whole package.

Grunge can often be a sign of disease (yes, not necessarily, but not out of the question); typos are often a sign of laziness. If a person didn’t take the time to fix the obvious, then it’s unlikely he took time with anything.

The place where this analogy falls apart is that a dirty dog takes a lot less energy and work to fix than a sloppy story.

4) Breeds are like subject matter.

Certain people look for certain things, and it varies from person to person. Therefore, most aspects are not actually qualities or flaws, just characteristics. One owner may only be looking for a small dog; the big ones are out of luck. Some are only looking for golden retrievers. Some Chihuahuas. If a dog had the choice of changing his breed, size, coloring, and shape, it doesn’t mean he should. Just because one person didn’t want a terrier because they were looking for a guard dog, doesn’t necessarily mean that the next person will be.

The genre, the idea, the format, the style, the images: all of these are the breeds of a work. When reading the submission pages of literary journals, especially the poetry guidelines, this becomes very evident. Often times they will be definite about rhyming, but some will only accept rhyming poems, and others refuse to. One of the number one reasons stories get rejected is because of the content that does not appeal to the individual judges.

An agent’s blog told the story on when she was judging a writing contest. She had three piles for the definitely-nots: cliché, dull, and a male hero who carries around a classic novel.

Why? For some reason a large number of people had included it. If only one had, she wouldn’t have noticed, and he may not have gotten rejected.

This is the most important idea to remember: not everyone is looking for the same thing.

5) Potty training is extra work.

A dog that needs extra training gets him a great deal of negatives. He is still a wonderful animal, but, like I said, there’s a hundred of wonderful animals to choose from.

Books with severe problems take extra work. Even if they are far more interesting, once someone realizes, “I’m going to be spending the next few months trying to edit this,” they’re not going to give them the chance. Not when they have the cute fuzzy Shiatsu to turn to. They’re not going to take the time to realize how smart this Border Collie is.

6) Most bad dogs just need a lot of work, only a rare few are doomed.

The sick, the vicious, the chewers, the biters, the untrainable: there is no such thing as a lost cause. All dogs should be able to live happily in a nice home, and most dogs can. It is a rare dog that is irredeemable. The time and effort varies, and it takes a diligent and passionate person who really wants to see that dog in a home to do it.

Ideas are the same, in that it is a singular story that is so terrible that it is worthless. The difference between the two is, of course, it doesn’t matter if a story is forsaken.

It is just important to remember that if it truly is a “bad dog,” it is your dog and you can help train it to be a viable option for owners everywhere.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Chapter Length

Most people who are truly invested in writing are sticklers for format. Not a uniformed format, of course, that would be too easy. One of the hardest parts of trying to enter scripts into contests is looking for the desired layout of those specific judges; if it’s not the right one, a person may very well be considered an amateur or just an idiot.

It makes sense as to why many authors at one point or another contemplate chapter length. Considering how many abstract and, let’s just say, inane rules in writing, we often think that there should be some sort of regulation.

But of course there isn’t, and we all know that there isn’t, yet the question comes up often enough: How long should a chapter be?

My personal issues with chapters is that I often want to put one in—sometimes about every page, but I feel that they should be longer, so I force myself to keep going even when I really want to make a break. Then it becomes a question of what is long enough, which no one really knows, and it is stressful.

One of my books (Lilae and Company, unpublished), I allowed myself to put in a chapter at every instinct. Because it was my seventh large project and I had been exercising restraint, it became an interesting task. When I read the novel after finishing, it illustrated to me something about the way I viewed my scenes. Often times there was a chapter that was only a paragraph in which it told the results or consequences of an earlier event, but didn’t actually have a point in the end.

For example, my character disappeared from her shift and now she was getting lectured, but at the end of the scene I had not delivered any new information, up the stakes, or foreshadowed the resolution. That’s the reason the chapter was so short. I needed to illustrate the consequences, but it was the only intention of the scene, and thus I didn’t know where to go with it. I just jumped ahead to the next part.

I believe this was a helpful experience for me, and an author should take the time to follow with his instincts to understand why those are his instincts.

However, that’s not particularly the advice anyone wants if they’re actually bothering to reading this, so here are a few basic tips to think about when deciding exactly how long a chapter you want.

Number 1: The Superficial Aspect.

In the artistic world, we try not to admit our nonsensical biases, but I find that, in this case, it is the most important part of deciding how long a chapter should be.

A short chapter is indicative of a commercial book, meant for the enjoyment of the masses. A long chapter means the book is for the intellectual. This, of course, is not always true, but it still often affects the reader’s perception. Short chapters, ones less than 10 (250 word-sized) pages, are easier to read and often make the novel fast paced, but the reader doesn’t feel the achievement. (It also risks ruining the flow.) Ones above 10 pages make the novel more of a work out, but they are more accomplished each time they do so.

Number 2: The Subject Matter Matters.

At the end of each chapter, the characters should be in a different place than when the chapter started. It does not necessarily mean physically, or requires for a change of great magnitude. Very simply, something should have happened: something important (even subtly) about the character has been revealed, information that makes the consequences of failure even worse, or a piece of knowledge that allows the characters to change tactics or make a plan.

Writing a chapter based on what has actually occurred can take away the stress of choosing chapter length “for the wrong reasons,” whatever that is.

Number 3: Time Lapsing

One of the hardest parts of novel writing is to establish a passage of time in a non-distracting way. The easiest way to illustrate a change of time is by format. The characters announce they must travel to the next town over. Chapter. They’re in the next town over.

The problem is, if a story is movie-like, in which modern society tends to make them (this is not a negative choice), then there tend to be far more moments of jumping time and location than common in the classics, which means we’ll often have a story with a lot of chapters, chapters in which things don’t happen because the “moment” is not over. Moments in movies and televisions carry through a lot of locations naturally, in novels, it’s not as easy.

There are no simple solutions to a lot of time lapsing without chapter breaks. It takes experience and thought and is usually based on the context, making it hard to make blanket techniques.

Some suggestions are to play with formatting outside of a traditional chapter break. Adding a space break is like a chapter, but less distracting and takes up a lot of room in the page.

Switching back and forth between characters can work, but can easily be awkward. It is a delicate task to keep going from one scene to another with only a new paragraph as notice.

Summarizing the time-lapse is the best way:

“Let’s go to the park.”

They drove there in silence.

Upon arrival, they continued the silence. Finally Liz looked at her brother. “I don’t know what to do with you.

If a scene between two time lapses is short enough, it might be best to just summarize it all together to avoid having two chapter breaks so close together.

The best way to make decisions based on chapters is by trial and error, reading other people’s work and seeing how it plays out for them. Without clear standards, it becomes the main part of prose that works like poetry, giving the author leeway to change the rhythm of their story without being complete bizarre.