Wrestling With Words and Other Writing Conundrums

Me (upper right) with my sister and writing peeps at a recent writers conference

It all seemed so wonderful, this writers conference. None of us had been out amongst fellow writers and friends for what seemed like forever. Our last conference was cancelled (I’m sure I don’t have to tell you why). Omicron wasn’t even anything beyond a letter in the Greek alphabet. We were all vaxxed, masked and ready to go. We had a wonderful, funny, encouraging keynote speaker. Food and drink was plentiful. Lots of authors on hand to mingle with and tell tales of low ambition, vanishing imaginations, the utter inability to care about our characters and more. Yeah, writing’s tough in the days of COVID-19, but just being here gave us energy and inspiration we hadn’t felt in, Christ – almost two years?

It was also a time to meet with my agent. I sent her my manuscript quite a while ago and, like the rest of us, she had a myriad of her own mountains to climb. But read it she did.

Let me first say that she graciously took me on early, well before I developed my skills. And she’s been there with me for far longer than most people would’ve. And she still is. But what she told me wasn’t what I wanted to hear. It wasn’t that I can’t write – I can – it’s just that I’ve written WAY too much.

I steadied myself for her advice: lose 30,000 words, create a dynamic hook, change the ending (but keep the idea of it), and take the first 100 pages and make that a backstory that’s worked into the plot in the first chapter.

Slap me with a cold haddock. This is a lot to digest.

Of course, the first thing that comes to mind is I’m a fraud, I can’t write, and the overwhelming temptation to take my life’s work and erase it permanently from the two computers and several stick drives I’ve save it on.

But I can’t do that.

After a few days of letting this information sit inside and wrestle in my head, I thought about my agent’s comments. Then I took a good, hard look at what I’ve written. There’s some really good writing there, interesting, even. But it’s not dynamic. There’s nothing that punches the reader to wanting to keep turning the pages. A writer friend of mine read it and although she writes horror, she knows her way around science fiction enough to formulate a good, honest opinion. Even she had a tough time getting through the first 100 pages,. But after that, she said, it really moves.

Hashing this harsh truth out with my sister made me realize I need help. Serious editing help. Although the talent’s there, the structure isn’t. So after having a bit of a cry, I chose not to go back to my manuscript and start hacking away. I sat with it and with great pain, sought out the sections to chop. I haven’t completely destroyed them. They live on in a separate document because there’s some really good stuff there I might be able to use elsewhere.

Still couldn’t shake the feeling that I couldn’t write, though.

I got a bit of validation that I could last week. It wasn’t science fiction writing, but two highly competitive grants for work. We’d been teetering on a bare-bones budget, praying against hope that we wouldn’t have to close up shop. Last August, I wrote three grants that month. Two offered by the state, one an NEA grant. Everyone had their hands out and these grants had to be perfect. My boss and I played tennis with the verbiage because each section had to be a paltry word count of 500-1000 characters, spaces included. She’d add a word, I’d have to subtract another. We found new ways to say things. I even cheated and didn’t leave a space between a period and a new sentence. After much angst and stress, I submitted the grants, with crossed fingers and prayers.

December 1 was a wonderful day. The state sent us two emails: we got one grant for the full amount and the second grant for a partial. Found out while I was on the phone with my boss. The relief we felt was palpable; our organization would last another year. We’re still waiting on the NEA grant, but for now, we could breathe.

Then came a moment of clarity. I didn’t learn how to write a grant overnight. My earlier attempts went ignored. It took many repeated attempts at jiggering language and plotting out reasons why a particular cause should be awarded funds. My skills improved and so did my fundraising skills.

Now I have to apply that logic to my science fiction writing skills. It’s hard. I’m still shaky. Inspiration comes in fits and starts. Just need to hang in there and work even harder. Going to keep my eyes on that prize.

And for sure, hire an editor. I’m going to need all the help I can get.

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