Posts Tagged writers
In the almost twenty years since I started writing fiction, I’ve noticed a change in the way I read that same genre. I started my career as a scientist many, many years ago, and the only thing I wrote for a large part of my life were scientific papers. The only thing I read with any frequency was nonfiction, including other scientific papers and the occasional nonfiction book. (With the one important exception of Sherlock Holmes; for some reason which I can’t explain I latched onto Holmes a long time ago and read and reread it. Perhaps it has to do with Holmes’s insistence on using logic and reason—which is an important part of the scientific method—to identify the criminal in the case. The fact that Watson was a physician also didn’t hurt.) But in any event, my life was largely saturated with nonfiction, from biography to all sorts of general nonfiction to straight science and how-to books in microbiology and virology. Then I started a novel.
And as I started, I also began to read novels I hadn’t read before; I studied writing; I read writing magazines and books on writing; I went to writer’s conferences; I joined writing groups and listened to speakers talk about all phases of writing. I read novels and short stories and tried my hand at both. And I have so far gotten to the point that I feel I can write a reasonably good short story, one that stands a good chance of being published. (You can see two examples of my short fiction on this blog site; just go to the Short Stories tab.) Now all I have to do is convince a publisher to agree with me. But all that writing and learning about writing has had another effect.
Now when I read, I read more like a writer. I notice things I almost certainly would not have noticed had I not studied how to write. I’m much more conscious of what the writer of a book or short story is trying to do and say than I would have been otherwise. I look for plot holes; I look for foreshadowing: Ah-ha! He’s introduced an new character/concept. That could be important. I will follow this. To a lesser extent, I am more aware of things that are missing (why isn’t the main character doing this? Or this?). I look at grammar and sentence structure more carefully, I am aware of voice, point of view, and tense more stringently. I look at the author’s voice and style much more than I used to. Before, when I read nonfiction, I only wanted to get the information from the book/article/whatever. And in the case of the odd fiction piece, I read only for the entertainment. I didn’t have the knowledge to understand how it was put together. Now I am much more attentive to style and performance, even in nonfiction. Good or bad, that has been one of the side issues of learning how to write.
That extends to watching TV and movies. I’m now much more tuned in on how the show was put together. I’m conscious of plot holes and things that aren’t there. I look for oddities and peculiarities. I’ve come to realize that Captain Kirk on Star Trek, The Original Series was a lousier captain of a deep space vehicle than I thought he was at first. (Some of the things he did—wow.) But enough of that; who cares? Writing is fun and interesting, and looking at other writer’s works just makes me a better writer in the long run. A fundamental tenet of writing has always been that writers must be readers. This is one reason why.
As a somewhat introverted person and aspiring novelist, I have a tendency to sit in front of a computer and watch the world go by electronically. (Isn’t it amazing what electrons can do for us?) Like many introverted people, I spend a lot of time alone. Not lonely, mind you, but alone—there’s a big difference. And from what I understand, many other writers are also introverted to one degree or another, and like to work alone. That’s what you might call the “default” mode of writing. That is, the single writer sitting alone in his/her apartment/house/office toiling away at the desk with whatever writing tools suit him/her best. Computer, pen and ink, pencil, and paper—they’ve all been used in the past. But now the internet has been added to that writing situation and it begs the question: how has that changed writing?
The internet allows an introverted person to interact with the world around him without having to be involved in it. More than just a window onto the street in front of his/her house, the internet brings the world to the writer. I wonder how writers such as Charles Dickens and Emily Dickinson would have liked the internet. Charles Dickens, not noted for being particularly introverted, wrote about the poorest of the poor in England in the 1800’s, and was familiar with the times because he experienced them first-hand. He was out in it. But would he have used the internet (assuming in the manner of a science-fiction novel that it was available back then) to enhance his experience? In comparison, Emily Dickinson might just be the most introverted writer of all times. She rarely left her house in Amherst, Massachusetts, and became a recluse early in her life. Yet she was a brilliant poet, and we still read her writings today. What would she have thought of the internet? Could she have used it to enhance her poetry? It certainly would have brought her more than the view from the window of her home. I wonder if there are any other writers as introverted as her.
In any event, I don’t feel as bound to the house as Ms. Dickinson, nor do I get out as much as Mr. Dickens is reported to have. Yet I do get out, and enjoy the experience. Many introverts refuse to interact with more than a few friends, but I enjoy the outdoors, though I don’t interact with people as well as, say, an extrovert. The internet is a way to get research done, keep up with the news, find out what friends are doing, keep in contact with family, market books, set up readings, look for bookstores and other markets, advertise one’s wares, and, generally, stay connected with society. All of that is very important for the sophisticated writer, and all of that can be done at home. But getting out is still very important because you can experience things you can’t get on the internet. Riding the train on the internet isn’t the same as riding it in person. I speak from experience. Still, you won’t find me hobnobbing with the rich at a high society ball. I’m not into that.
Over the past several years, beginning in late 2011, I’ve been sending out queries to literary agents around the country, trying to persuade one of them to take on my first novel and sell it to a publisher. (This is what most people refer to as the “traditional” method of getting published.) So far I’ve been singularly unsuccessful in my efforts. Rejections nowadays come in two forms. Some agents still actually reply to a letter, invariably by email anymore. But some agents have decided they have just too little time to send out rejection replies, and the only way you know if you’ve been rejected is to check their website and note their usual response time. If that amount of time, or more, has passed since you sent in your query letter and you haven’t heard from them, you can assume the agent won’t be taking you on as a client. Sadly, that second method of query rejection is becoming more and more common.
But what I want to focus on for this blog post is the general response from those who still do reply in one form or another. Replies are invariably short and sweet, usually one or two sentences, although I have had a few rejections that took up to three paragraphs and went into exquisite detail about how busy they are and how they can take on only a few clients at a time, and so on and so forth. That may be important to them, but it’s hardly informative.to a prospective client. What has become interesting to me is the use of the word “right” in so many of the rejections I’ve actually gotten. Boiling rejections down into the few significant and concise words that actually convey a message, the word “right” occurs frequently. The agent will say, referring to the manuscript, “It’s not right for me,” or “It’s not right for our agency at this time.” Or, “We’re not the right agency for this project.” Or, “This particular work is just not right for me.” Or other variations on the concept.
I’m not sure exactly what to make of that type of response. Of the 50 rejections I’ve received so far (that’s out of over a hundred sent out), 21 have used the word “right” in one context or another. That’s 42 percent. (The rest have not responded at all.) None of these have told me anything as to what the agent thought of the manuscript, so I can’t really draw any significant conclusions from their statements. Granted, these responses are designed to be wholly and uniformly generic and serve as a rejection for any type of manuscript that crosses their computer screen. But it would be nice to be able to conclude something from all these rejections and revise the manuscript to reflect what people are saying.
Ah, the caprices of being a writer.