Category Archives: Things Writers Need

Novel/Short Story Submission Spreadsheet


I was looking for a tool to track my novel submissions today, and I stumbled on this nifty little spreadsheet hacked together by Matt Bell. But I’m one of those guys who likes my stuff just so, and you know, with a little bit of color to keep my tiny brain interested. So I tweaked it and added a couple little things.

A nice feature of Matt’s sheet is a counter that tabulates how long your submission has been in a particular agent’s (or publisher’s) slush pile — it tallies days until you put in a response date. Handy, but a bit dry.

So I added color-coding for the days your piece has been out for submission: Less than 2 months, green (I’d consider that an “active” submission), 2-4 months, yellow (still active but getting dusty), 4+ months, red (probably mostly dead and time to resubmit). This gives you a nice idea at a glance for how many “active” subs you have out.

I also added a “days since last submission” counter, also color-coded, which goes yellow after two weeks and red after a month — a sharp, at-a-glance indicator for whether you might want to send out some fresh subs.

Mmm, subs.

Writing Spreadsheet

All the bells and whistles should work for up to 150 submissions. In the spirit of Matt’s offering, I’ve made the end result downloadable and shareable, in the hopes you might find it useful.

And it’s all on the ubiquitously useful and convenient GoogleDocs, so, you know.

You can find it here.


An Open Letter to the Creators of FreeWrite


I heard about a product a little over a year ago: The Hemingwrite. I wrote a little piece about it then, in which I waffled between two opinions. namely that it would probably help some writers to a) write more and b) feel better about their writing, but ultimately I came down on the side of feeling that the thing was decidedly silly for the price. It was still in development, though, and everything was fair game for change.

Astrohaus-Freewrite_lg_05-1024x768

Well, the wait is over, and the discussion is no longer hypothetical: the device is here. You’ve rebranded it the FreeWrite, which is maybe less catchy than the obvious play on Hemingway’s name. I like it, though. The new name taps into the inspiring soul of the idea: they’re branding it as “your distraction-free writing tool.” It conjures up images of writing wherever, whenever you feel like. A lonely beach at sunrise! A breezy mountaintop with the whispering wind swirling about you! The cozy confines of your murder cabin! Er, writing cabin. I meant writing cabin. Take it anywhere, write anywhere. Distraction free!

And I stand by most of what I wrote in my original review. I would love to test-drive one. It’s still adorable. And I can totally see the draw it will have. We writers are a strange lot — what looks odd and useless to the general public can be a source of endless inspiration for us. Having a tool “just for writing,” especially a tool in which one makes a serious financial investment, is almost certain to do two things: remind the author that he has made a commitment to his craft, and remind him that he really should be writing.

Of course, we have Benedict Cumberbatch for that.

tumblr_mg9p3wt2xu1rwir03o1_1280

But I see one problem towering above all the rest with the FreeWrite.

The investment.

When I first wrote about it, I (crazily, apparently) mused that I might be willing to spend $100, maybe $150 on something like the FreeWrite. I also realized at the time that that figure was probably laughably low, and I was right; I checked their website and the price, to my memory at the time, was projected to be in the $200-250 range. That’s frankly too rich for my blood.  I’m a guy who agonized for a month over shelling out $40 for a copy of Scrivener. (Which I love, it turns out, although they seriously need to implement a Track Changes feature for the Windows version.)

So what does $250 get us? A typewriter simulator with an e-ink screen and a wi-fi switch for automated cloud backups and a couple of weeks of battery at full charge (which is pretty cool). No internet connectivity for anything other than your backups (which is, obviously, sort of a core tenet of the idea — no distractions). A million pages of internal storage (which is, in the scheme of computer storage, not actually all that much, but since this is all the thing does, it’s more than adequate). Feels a little overpriced to me, but I guess I would have been willing to shell out extra for the kitsch factor.

Except — surprise! — the price on the current iteration of the FreeWrite is $499.

Four hundred ninety-nine dollars. (Which is a specially discounted, limited-time offer over the apparent original price of $549.)

Look. FreeWrite creators.

I wanted to like the product. I really did. In fact, I still do. I think, conceptually, it’s absolutely got a place among burgeoning, youngish writers like myself. (Sorry, I just had a coughing fit over calling myself a youngish writer. Whoops, it happened again.) I can even envision how I  would use it:

“I’m going out to write!” I announce to nobody in particular, as I throw a scarf around my neck and don my tweed jacket with suede elbow patches and spontaneously sprout a beard. I put on spectacles for no apparent reason (they’re just empty frames and YES I CALL THEM SPECTACLES), scoop up my FreeWrite by its collapsible handle and bicycle off on my 19th-century huge-front-wheeled bicycle (because modern bicycles are so mindlessly corporate, and yes, I use “bicycle” as a verb AND a noun in the same sentence; I’m a writer, whee). Along the way, I stop and pick some coffee beans from the living trees and brew them with my own urine, then I perch in the crook of a mighty elm in the heart of the wood, sipping my coffee and typing away on the next American masterpiece while the fauna of the forest swirl lazily around me.

Seriously, the site features pictures of a bearded dude writing on this thing. So tranquil! So creative! So hip! This is what you’re’re selling to the throngs of would-be writers out there. Don’t get me wrong, this is a great vision. People would buy that! I would buy that!

But — five hundred dollars? That’s almost a mortgage payment. Rent for a month. That’s two months worth of car payments. A university course. Four weeks’ worth of groceries for my family of four. 2500 packets of Ramen Noodles, enough to subsist on for over ten years!

So who are you really selling this to? I have to imagine that any “established” writer is already going to have their routines and favorite tools well-ensconced; they won’t have any need for this thing. Poorish college types will balk at dropping that kind of cash on this thing when they can easily get a laptop — and a damn good one at $500 — to do everything this machine does and more. And middle-of-the-road types like me (my wife and I are comfortable, but by no means flush with extra money) are never going to be able to justify dropping that kind of coin on a unitasker like this.

In short, I feel you’ve priced yourself out of the very market you hope to attract. The only people I can see spending $500 on this device are the very rich who have run out of useful things to spend their money and time on (which may be a bigger segment of the population than I give credit for) or those who believe that the tools seriously make the writer (which I sincerely hope is a minuscule portion of the writing population).

For the same $499, I can buy myself a laptop and a copy of Scrivener (which not only offers a distraction-free writing mode, but will also package and format my book for submission to agents or even self-publishing) or any other free programs that do what the FreeWrite does (q10 and WriteMonkey, just off the top of my head, are two free programs that are excellent for drafting), and still have $200 to throw at the tsunami of credit card debt rising outside my door because of all the frivolous, needless things that I buy.(I’m an American, after all).

I would have loved for the FreeWrite to be one of those things. I love its design and I love its concept.

But I can’t, in any type of conscience, let alone with a straight face, consider paying $500 for $100 worth of hardware and $400 worth of kitsch.

Bleh. Back to doing this thing I love using the tools I already possess — which are more than adequate and don’t make me feel like a stinky hipster in hiding.

 

 


Stuff Worth Watching – The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows


I am a lover of language.

I adore aphorisms. I moon over malapropisms. I can’t get enough of witty wordplays. And then there are things that take it to the next level completely.

I wrote a few weeks back about how I dig on inventing words — I think all writers do, for that matter — but for me, it’s something I just noodle with, inventing a word to suit the moment. More often, I’ll simply invent a word to fit a dumb little alliterative pattern, or worse, bend and break a word to rhyme it. But the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows by John Koenig is next level word genesis.

His postulate — that other languages have words for complicated concepts, while English lacks the words for similar artful expression — is one that I’ve bemoaned, but Koenig takes the matter straight to the mat. He not only invents words in an academic fashion (spinning together etymologies of Greek, German, Chinese and so on), he creates hauntingly beautiful videos to illustrate the concepts. Sounds a little bit hokey or pretentious, but his creations are elegant in their simplicity.

Take, for example, the cynical angst of Vemodalen: the frustration at the knowledge that everything you do, every creative endeavor you pursue, everything, in fact, that makes you unique, is as subtly differentiated and as lasting as a snowflake on the wind. Sure, no snowflake is exactly like another, but who gives a sharknado in a blizzard of billions?

Or, perhaps the quiet reverent awe of Socha is more your flavor; that realization that other people are not merely supporting roles in the great sprawling film of your life, but that they are the protagonists in their own stories, and you are just an extra at a coffee shop. The shift in perspective could dislocate your spine.

Maybe, rather, you’re a parent (like me) experiencing Yu yi on an almost daily basis: the desire to experience the world through new eyes again as only a newborn can, casting aside expectation and the monotony of the routine to be delighted by the delicate staccato of raindrops in a pond, or the graceful carving of the sky by birds’ wings. It’s a great sadness that we can never again know the world with the joy and wonder of a newborn, but we can live it vicariously through them.

At any rate, if you’re a wordnerd like me, you owe it to yourself to take a glance at the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows. There’s not much else like it on the web, much though our Vemodalen might tell us otherwise.


Things Writers Need — Sanctuary


This week, in “Things Writers Need,” perhaps the last of the BIG ideas: a sanctuary.  If the series is to continue, it’ll have to start diving into the nitty-gritty, the finer, more specific things.  Lots to ponder.  But at any rate, the Sanctuary.

Let’s get one thing clear: writing is hard.  To be specific: coming up with ideas is hard, writing the ideas down in a coherent and meaningful way is hard, making the time to write is hard, not getting distracted from writing is hard.

On a good day, writing is like chasing butterflies with a net that instead of a net uses bubbles.  Just when you think you’ve snagged one of the buggers, the net bursts and you have to dunk your wand in the solution again.  (That’s not nearly as sexual as it sounded coming out.)  On a bad day, you have no net and must entice the buggers to land in your mouth using only the hypnotic ululations of your tongue.  (Also not directly intended to be sexual.)

On a good day, you’re tracking the movement of radioactive particles through the vacuum of space, standing in your backyard with a whacked-together dish of ceramic and tinfoil hoping to snare quarks from the ether.  On a bad day, meteorites are smashing your house to bits and your dish is on fire, and also the quarks are superheated and are burning your satellite dish to a cinder.  Burning it for a second time.

On a good day, you’re on the Atlanta perimeter trying to catch somebody using a turn signal.  On a bad day, the interstate has snowed under and everybody’s walking home.  Except you’re still in Atlanta and the walk home takes a day and a half.

That is to say that if you’re going to write properly, you need supreme focus, free from as many distractions as possible.  You need a sanctuary.  A safe haven from the world.  A bunker to protect you from the bombs, big and small, that blow up every day in your world.  A soundproof chamber to block out the low drone of life.  A treehouse you can climb into to escape the leaping jackals.  A little bubble of air at the bottom of the ocean.

Ideally, this would be a room of your own.  A room free of needless ornament and away from regular foot traffic, or maybe full of little bric-a-brac (is bric-a-brac plural?) that inspire you or fill your head with strange and wonderful ideas, and just off the hallway so that you can hear the soothing sound of footsteps as your significant other or your kids or your cats or your hamsters or the neighborhood dog approaches.  A room that has no television, or maybe one that has a television receiving no signal so that it only plays soft soothing static, or perhaps one hooked up to a DVD playing old episodes of Leave it to Beaver on repeat because that’s what stimulates your brain.  A room with no windows, or maybe a window overlooking the dense cruel cityscape below, or a window overlooking your children’s playground, or the soft contours of a white-sand beach, or the sweeping majesty of the Appalachians, or a painted backdrop of unicorns leaping over rainbows and farting out quarks for you to catch in your satellite dish.

Look, the makeup of the room is not a standardized thing; it should have the things that benefit the writer’s process in it, and it should forcefully reject anything that obstructs that process.  Writers need a space that keeps their heads level.  A space that can shut out the demons and distractions and the e-mails and the worries and the crises and the bills and…

Okay, I’m actually stressing myself out a little bit thinking about all the things that get in the way when I’m trying to write.  The simple fact is that there is no end to the stream of things that will try to stop a writer from writing on any given day.  If the writer is not equipped to fend those things off, they will sweep him under like so many tons of thrashing white water and deposit his soggy corpse with the rest of the broken dreams at the shattered delta of Unfinished Projects.  A simple place to write is one of the best defenses for keeping those things at bay.  It doesn’t have to be lush and finely furnished.  It doesn’t have to be lined with polished mahogany or stocked with leather-bound books or busts of famous dead people.  It doesn’t have to overlook a sunlit veranda or a tranquil garden.  It doesn’t even have to smell like scotch and candlewax.  It just has to be a place that makes a writer feel comfortable and safe and relaxed and creative.  It helps if it has a door.  But you know what?  It doesn’t even have to be a room.  It just needs to be a space where you do your writing.  Thoughts are semi-tangible things, I think.  Bits of them bleed out and seep into the walls, the floorboards.  They mingle with the air, and discolor the carpet over time.  You need that space to soak up the essence of your thoughts so that on the days when the ideas don’t want to flow, you can stew in those ambient thoughts to release some of the locked-in juices.

I’m lucky in that, at work, I can sneak a half hour at lunchtime, close my door and be alone with my thoughts in total silence if I like.  I’m not so lucky in that my house (which my wife and I once thought so huge and cavernous) affords me no such luxury.  Between two babies’ bedrooms, our bedroom, and a guest room (which has also sort of become a makeshift library and cat bedroom), there is no sanctuary to be found.  The best I have is the use of the desk adjacent to the kitchen, which butts up against the stairs which are essentially the heart of the house.  There’s no door, even, to shut the world out.  Also, of course, when I’m at home, I’m Dad, which means I am always on call.  So I have to make the most of my time at work and enjoy what little sanctuary can be had while I’m there.

That’s not to say that I can’t write at home.  I can, and often do.  But it only works because I’ve talked to my wife and she respects my time and space while I’m writing, provided I don’t ask for too much of it.  It works because I take that time when the kids are asleep and don’t need my attention.  It works, in short, because it has to work and because I make it work.

That said, when we ever get around to buying a new house, it’s gonna have to have at least a walk-in closet or something I can turn into a study.  You know, in addition to the basement we need, and the bathrooms with reasonable fixtures, and the less ridiculous plumbing situation, and a lot fewer trees in the backyard, and a porch that isn’t falling apart, and…

Sorry, I got distracted.

What’s the most important thing inside (or outside) your writing sanctuary?


Things Writers Need — Books


Every Thursday I write a little piece for people who are thinking of writing books or for people who have writers in their lives.  A collection of things that a writer’s life is not complete without.  To continue in my series in Things Writers Need, here are some of my thoughts on one of the most important things in any writer’s life: books.

Nobody takes up soccer because they think it’d be nifty to kick a ball around without using their hands for an hour and a half.  They take it up because they watch a game or two and think it looks like fun and they start to practice and they get decent at kicking the ball around and that’s how we get soccer teams now.

Nobody takes up stand-up comedy because they think it’d be nifty to stand in front of a crowd and ramble about whatever minutiae are going on in his or her life at the time while a bunch of strangers sip overpriced drinks or shout abuse.  No, they see other comedians on TV or on stage and they appreciate the humor they see on display and they practice telling jokes to their friends and one day they step up to an open mic and that’s how we get stand-up comedians.

Writing is maybe a little different in that I think there may be an intrinsic desire to write things down and tell stories; something encoded in our DNA that makes us want to pass tales on to the rest of our clan.  But people don’t set out to write hundreds of pages without seeing it done several times, learning the intricacy of storytelling, learning the way characters can sprout fully-formed from mere words, learning the way an otherwise rational adult can develop a really unhealthy relationship with a collection of pulverized wood and ink: taking it to bed at night, carrying it around in a purse, caressing and holding its pages, staring into its face for hours and hours and hours on end.

Any great writer was a great reader first.  You can’t run before you walk.  You can’t write before you read.  Writers learn to love writing by reading lots and lots of books, and they learn to write by reading lots and lots of high-quality books on all sorts of things.  So, a writer needs books.

Think about your favorite book.  It changed your life, or at the very least, changed the way you thought about the world, right?  If writers want to write books that can do the same for others, we have to learn from the masters, we have to imitate their work, we have to transmogrify their talent and their teaching into our own twisted wonderful creation.

Reading is the lifeblood of the writer.  In order to keep up the steady flow of words out of our brain-holes, we need a just-as-steady flow of words in the other side.  Words are weird, words are a paradox.  You can never lose a word, but you can sure as hell use one until it’s so tired it can no longer lift its own head.  They’re a renewable resource, but you can only carry so much at a time.  I can only juggle a couple of story ideas in my head before they start knocking each other out through the ears.  And sure, I can write down every idea that comes to me, but that doesn’t necessarily help me.  The idea I jot down in February because it sounds brilliant looks like a puddle of mushy dogsharknado by the time I get around to wanting to write it in June.  These ideas have an expiration date, I think; a use-by warning that causes them to decay the longer they’re left on the shelf.

So if words and story ideas can go bad like so much Aldi produce, how does one keep fresh stock on the shelves?  You go to the grocery store, naturally.  But not Aldi — their produce goes bad in just a few days.  No, you need the good stuff; you go to Publix, or the farmer’s market.  You go to books.

In reading and pondering the intricacies of the last book I read (The Eyre Affair, by Jasper Fforde) I had no less than three ideas for new stories of my own, riffing off of elements found in Fforde’s book from genetically engineered pets to holding works of art hostage.  They might have been crap ideas, but I had them, and a lot of writing I think is in the exercise; it’s about the journey, as they say, rather than the destination.  I also rekindled a bit of my love for science fiction and the ridiculous, which I think is at the core of my contemporary writer self.  It was a welcome discovery after the detour into YA lit I’ve had over the last couple of years.  The heavy tropes and weighty themes of Dystopian Futures and Society Must Be Saved and The Chosen Ones have weighed on me and made my writing a little bleak, a little encumbered, a little melodramatic, perhaps.  (I’m talking about the Divergents, the Matcheds, the Hunger Gameses which have been so popular in recent years.  It’s good stuff, but man, it ain’t uplifting.  Pity the children being raised on this stuff!)

Now, that’s not to say there’s nothing to gain from those books.  Far from it.  No, in every book there’s something to be learned, even if all you learn is that you don’t want to write a story like the one you just read, ever.  (I’m looking at you, Wuthering Heights.)  It’s a foolish student that turns aside the tutelage of his predecessors.  Writers need books like football players need to review tape.  Like babies need mothers’ milk.  Like a hurricane needs an area of warm, high pressure air moving into an area of cool, low pressure air.

Now, every writer out there has their preferences and tendencies.  One will gravitate toward sprawling works of incredibly detailed interpersonally linked tales of fantasy, a la Game of Thrones.  Another will splash around in the deep and impenetrable waters of gritty crime and mystery stories in the vein of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.  Still another will lounge in the comforting pages of a classic romance like Pride and Prejudice.  But tendencies and preferences aside, I think it’s necessary for all writers to consume all types of literature at least occasionally.

I’ll grant that attempting to read books in all genres is a perhaps insurmountable task just given the volume of what’s out there.  You could read a book a week for a year and still leave out some of the obscure genres like, oh I dunno, Interstellar Revenge Comedy Romance.  And maybe that’s a genre best left untapped (or maybe I just got an idea for a story…).  But I think it’s far too easy to stay in your own little cabin in the woods, reading books you know you’ll like before you read them, never sampling the waters in the streams and ponds that crisscross the landscape.

I think a good book is going to have lots of elements of lots of different genres and stories; a little something for everybody.  It’s an anemic adventure story if there isn’t a little bit of romance along the way.  No science fiction yarn is complete without a good solid dose of gritty down-to-earth human interest at the bottom of it.  Thrillers go amiss if there isn’t a little bit of a fantasy element in there; a bit of something that plays outside the rules of reality.  And I don’t know a single story in any genre, no matter how dark or dismal or defeatist, that wouldn’t be better off for at least a little dose of humor.  We must bring balance to the force, and if we want to bring balance, we must ourselves be balanced.

So, the writer needs a steady diet of books.  We need books that we like and books that we hate.  Great books and terrible books.  Books we can read cover-to-cover twenty times and books we can’t penetrate beyond the first chapter.  Books that uplift and books that depress.  Books that make you want to run out of your front door and start hugging people and books that make you want to nuke the planet from orbit.  We need to read it all so that we can write all of it into our own stories.  Writers are tasked with communicating the unending message of the human condition to those who will come after us; we don’t have the right to leave any of it out.  We have to read as much as we can so that we can tell our own stories as completely as possible.

If you’re a writer, you need a library card, or you need Amazon’s new book-rental service, or you need a bookstore in your neighborhood that will let you park in an armchair and read for hours at a time, or you need a friend with a crapton of books that you can borrow.  If you’re a friend of a writer, you can never go wrong by buying that friend a book.  Doesn’t matter what kind, what genre, what author; buy them a book.  But for god’s sake, don’t give them a gift card, don’t just buy something off Oprah’s Book Club or whatever… pick out a book that you like or a book that you think they’ll like or hell, just pick out a book with an interesting cover.  They’ll read it just the same, and maybe on the next thing they write, they’ll credit you with putting that book in their hands that inspired the new story.

What book has most influenced you as a writer?  As a person?  What would be your desert-island book?  If you could make one book required reading for everybody in the world, what would it be?


%d bloggers like this: