Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Thinking about a new journey

I'm been going down the same road for awhile. The road of querying agents, trying to get one to consent to represent me. And now I've begun to consider two new roads, one for novels and one for short stories.

Recently I believe I came about as close as I'm going to get. I've gotten some turndowns lately that make me think this is the end of this road. Not because the agent didn't like my work, but because she did. One agent liked my work very much, but didn't know where she could sell it. Another agent liked the project also, but didn't know what market it would fit, which is about the same thing, I think.

Discouraged by these rave rejections, I sent a couple of manuscripts to a small press that I admire. I admire them because they're putting out some pretty darn good books. True, I know some of the authors, but, because of that, I've bought and read some of the books. They're well put together, well edited, good covers, and the agent has submitted at least some of the authors for awards. I know this because they've won these awards. I plan on buying some by authors I don't know.

I'm well aware of the pitfalls of a small press, but I'm considering them against the pitfalls of a large, traditional publishing house, for which you need an agent, something I don't yet have. And may never have. The following is a post I made on a small list earlier today that prompted me to do further thinking about this, and this blog.

I've stopped to think it through. Do I really WANT an agent? An agent will try to sell to an editor at a publishing house. Maybe with success, maybe without. Then I'll be nowhere. If a sale is made, then what? I get a small advance, $5000 is the most I can hope for. If I don't spend at least twice that amount on promotion (and maybe even if I do), if I don't sell an awful lot of books, I won't earn their money back for them. Then I'll be dropped and I'll be nowhere.

There too many paths that lead right back to where I am now. So I'm looking for a new path, as I think a lot of writers are. I'm querying small presses, just beginning with this in a serious way, and would be ecstatic to be printed by one. I would be much more likely to keep getting books printed, especially if I'm not printed in hardcover, but trade paperback or ebook. I'm sure I could get dropped by a small press, too, but it's much more likely that the small press will fold on me. The latter would not be a good thing, and I might even have trouble getting my rights back, but it wouldn't damage my name like all the dead ends in the traditional world. The former, being dropped, would probably be the same as being dropped by a big press. I'd have to change my name and start over.

I'm also exploring the option of putting my short stories out myself. I'm gathering intell from people who have done this and just met a guy Monday who has put out 5 books with Smashwords and offered to steer me through the process. Other writer friends have encouraged me to do it, too. There would be NO downside to this. No one would drop me. I would print or sell electronically as many as I could, of course, and would promote as much as I can, but wouldn't be terrified that my publisher would drop me because I wouldn't have one, except myself. And if I could get a following for my short stories, I might just get a following for my novels, too. Another upside.

If this reasoning is faulty, someone please point it out! I'm deep into the considering stage at the moment and could be easily swayed.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Spreadsheets for writers, part two--plotting

Spreadsheets for Plotting
As promised, here's my second main use for spreadsheets. I know I've discussed this somewhere before, but can't find where. (If I could I'd copy it.)

I use a spreadsheet to keep track of my characters and my plot and don't know what I'd do without it. Probably make a lot of mistakes, like having a person's eyes change from brown to blue, having clues talking about before they're discovered, having them discovered twice--that kind of thing.

After using several methods, I've settled on this one. I label the first worksheet "names & desc". I could call it "characters & settings" because that's what it is, but that's long for that little tab.

I dislike reading books whose character names confuse me, whose characters I can't tell apart. One reason for this is sometimes that too many begin with the same letter. This is SO easy to avoid. See those columns labeled A to Z? (And beyond, but we don't need them for this.) I type "character names" on the first line, skip a space and type "first names", skip several spaces and type "last names". Then I slap the first and last names into their columns. If left to my own devices without this tool, many of my names end up starting with M for some reason.

I'm constantly collecting names, of course, as all writers are. Off signs, TV, radio, and I even look at the fictitious people who send me spam, trying to sell me watches and drugs and, well, that other product that, as a female, I don't really need. I collect these in a spreadsheet so I can alphabetize them and, when I see that I have names beginning with A, B, C, but no Rs or Ts, I can see if there's one on that list I can use.

Below those rows I have columns headed: complete name, description, age, role, vehicle, and other columns for more description if I need it. It's surprising how soon I can forget what vehicle I had a character driving, even though I carefully picked it to make a statement about the character, of course.

At the bottom I list the main settings and describe the main features in case I forget what I put where.

The second worksheet is the plotting timeline. But I do the third one first, plot beats. I use three acts and have three plot beats per act, sort ofin general. Act I has plot beat 1, plot beat 1, and plot point for the end of the act. Act IIa has plot beat 3, plot beat 4, and middle point. Act IIb has plot beats 5 & 6, and plot point. And Act III contains plot beats 7 & 8 and the end. These are just a phrase to tell me what important thing happens at that point. There are 12 items and, if I can get 5500 words for each one, I'll have a decent length novel.

I don't always have all of them filled out when I begin, but as the story unfolds, they all get filled in.

Then I put these on the second worksheet in RED. These are the writing points I'm aiming for. They can change, of course, but if I don't have something to aim for, I have a hard time getting started. The red events go down the first column under the heading "Events". The next column is "time" and the next one, for my current WIP, is "clue or suspect", that is what does this event relate to. Sometimes I color code by theme, by clue, or by suspect so I can see if too much of one thing is bunching up.

The rest of the columns have the names of the main characters, beginning with the protagonist. I fill in more detailed events leading up to the plot points, and put details about what separate characters are doing at that point in their columns. It's easy to glance across the sheet and see if I've been neglecting a theme, a clue, or a suspect for too long. It's also easy to see if I have a character doing two things in two different far-apart places in too short a time.

I like to bold the first column and unbold the event as I write it. It's very easy this way to make sure things happen in the right progression. Especially if you decide to make a big plot change and need to shift things around.

I used to have the characters on a different sheet, but decided that I'd like them all together. Just have to do control-page-up and control-page-down to shift between my worksheets. And I use other worksheets to keep track of things specific to that project.

That's how I do it! I'd love to hear other methods or ways this one could be improved.

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Monday, July 12, 2010

Spreadsheets for writers - first of two

(This is a repeat of the post I made today on All Things Writing, so if you follow that one, you can skip this. I'll forgive you.)

A writer friend mentioned today that she had never used spreadsheets and was having fun discovering that tool. I thought to myself, How does one live without spreadsheets?

If you use them all the time and love (or not love) them, you can skip the rest of this. But if you don't use them and would like to explore, I'll try to give a Spreadsheet 101 class here, starting with the barest basics and moving to creating a timesheet.

Spreadsheets have columns and rows, obviously. But they have much than that. When you open a new one, the rows are numbered down the left side starting with 1. The columns are lettered across the top starting with A. The numbers go on for a long, long time. I've never reached the maximum. The letters go to Z, then start over with AA, AB, etc. Next is BA, BB, if you need that many columns. I've gotten into the AA/AB part often, but have never needed the Bs.

I'll tell you another way I use spreadsheets for my writing next time, but, for today, the first way is as a timesheet. Since I'm a retired (OK, I couldn't find any more contract jobs, but I call it retired) programmer, I was used to working from home and keeping track of my time. Since I'm doing writing full time and taking tax deductions for my expenses, it only makes sense to keep track of my time, if only to prove to the IRS (should they get curious) that I'm serious about being a writer and AM working pretty much full time at this.

I use the first row of my timesheet for a label, so if I print it out, I'll know what the heck it is. The next row I use for column headers and I used: DATE, START, END, HOURS, TOTAL, TASK, MILES, DAY OF WK.

The date is obvious, right? What's great about an Excel spreadsheet is, you can put the first date in, say space A4 (a little window below your toolbars tells you what space you're in), then, where you want the next date, just type =A4+1.

I type the time of day I start a project and the time I end it in B4 and C4. Then, in the HOURS column, I type =c4-b4. Voila! It figures out for me how much time I spent on that task.

If I drove, say to pick up office supplies or do business related banking, I put my miles in that column so everything will be in one place.

I like to know what day of the week it is, especially when I'm going back trying to find a reference to something a month or two ago. So I put the day of the week in the next column. If the month starts on Thursday, I can put =5 there.

Need to backtrack a moment here and talk about formatting the numbers. You can have the dates displayed however you want them. If you're on the HOME tab of your toolbar, there's a place for Number about midway across the top. On the first column, it will know you've typed a date and the window will display *Date*. But you can click the little arrow on the bottom right corner and change the way the date looks. Same way with the times you've typed in. On the DAY OF WK column, choose Custom for Category and ddd or dddd to display the name of the day. This enables you to type =5 and have Thursday displayed. Magic! Then you can type =h4+1 for the next day and Friday will pop up.

You can insert rows using the Cells block on the toolbar. If you insert rows a lot, like I do, you can click that little thing that almost looks like a down arrow, to the right of the very top small toolbar, and you can click More Commands and, under Customize, you can add Insert Sheet Row, Insert Sheet Columns to this little toolbar so you can do this with one click.

You can also hover your mouse over the line between one of the letters at the top, left click and drag to make the column wider, or narrower. If you want a lot of text in one box, but not in all of them, you should click Wrap Text to enlarge just that box and display everything you've typed into it.

I use that TOTAL column to add my hours for the day. If I type =SUM(d4:d16), it will add the hours that have been calculated from the start and stop times I've typed in, over in the E column.

The fun part is, if you set up one day, you can copy it and paste below. Put your cursor on the first cell you want to copy, press shift and, keeping it pressed, arrow to the right and then down until the cells you want to duplicate are outlined. Then press Control-C, move your cursor where you want that first cell to be copied, and press Control-V. In fact, if you want to repeat a sample day over and over you can do Control-V again and again without going back and copying again. Here's where you can change 7/1/2010 to 7/2/2010 by adding one, then copy and paste the cell displaying 7/2/2010 to the next 7/1/2010 and it'll turn into 7/1/2010. You may have to tell it exactly which cell to add 1 to if it gets out of whack. Then you can do the DAY OF WKs that way, too.

When you get to the bottom, you'll want to count the hours you've worked that month, and the miles you've driven. Put your cursor where you want the total to appear, in the TOTAL column at the bottom, and press AutoSum at the top right. It might sum only one or part of the numbers, and you'll have to put your cursor in the white box where the =SUM formula appears and type in the rest. For example, if it just says =SUM(E45), you can change it to =SUM(e4:e45). It will change your lower case to caps, which it seems to prefer.

I have another nifty use for spreadsheets, plotting, but I'll save that for another day. This is long enough! Is this at all clear??

Tuesday, July 6, 2010


Michael Bourret at Dystel & Goderich Literary Management recently blogged on being pre-published. This, by the way, is a term that raises hackles in some people. But it just means a person who is seriously writing and trying for publication and who hasn't achieved it yet. Since the average time for getting published after that person starts seriously seeking it is ten years, there are a lot of people in that category! No matter what they want to call it.

At any rate, the point of Michael was making, as a result of an encounter at a conference, was that being pre-published is a time too many writers don't stop to enjoy. A time without deadlines, when no editors are breathing down your neck. A time when you're free to write whatever you want and your own pace.

The comments, as you can imagine, if you're a pre-published author, were lively. Check them out.

I can't go along with the agent, or the writer, here. I'm sure he's never been in this position and, in fact he states that he's quoting an author who is now published. I'll bet he caught her at a bad time--maybe a deadline coming up? Maybe her sales figures are down? She seems almost to wish she'd never been published.

Sure, we're free to write whatever we want. But if we knew what we could sell, we'd drop our creative vision and write THAT in a heartbeat. And Michael and his un-named writer don't know how I work if they think I have no deadlines. Of course I have deadlines. I set them up myself and I knock myself out to meet them. Without deadlines, I'd probably spend three years writing each book.

But when the book I really wanted to write, that I was so free to write, hasn't attracted an agent or a publisher after a year of querying, it's time to write another book that I think someone might want to read. After another year, it's time to write another one.

I really think a lot of us ARE writing books that other people want to read. In fact, people who have read mine usually want to read more. Now, how do I convince an agent that I have a market?

Long live the free, and may we soon be fettered.

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