Archive for the Writing Category

Professor Chester, the instructor of my novel writing class this semester, suggested we keep a journal documenting our experience. I decided to set up another WordPress site over write.RobOHara.com for this purpose.

If you’re interested in keeping tabs on how my first novel is going, you’ll find updates there. I also set up a mailing list for the site, so that you will be notified via email each time I post a new entry. Whoever is on either of my mailing lists (that one or the one here) will receive a free electronic copy of my novel at the end of the semester.

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I returned to school this week for another round of graduate classes. I’ve doubled my workload this semester. Last semester I only took one class, and this semester, I’m taking two.

On Tuesday and Thursday afternoons I’m taking Writing the Novel. The class is being taught by Professor Chester, the same woman who taught my Writing the Short Story class last semester. There are nine students in the class, seven of which were in my short story class from last semester, so I feel pretty comfortable in there. In short story class we wrote three 5,000 word (maximum) short stories. In novel class, we’ll be writing one 50,000 novel. Technically, I suppose, that’s a novelette. In short story class we had a lot of minor assignments as we learned about description and plot and scenes and stimulus/response and story structure, but all that hand-holding is over. In novel class, once our synopsis is approved, we’ll get two grades: one for the first 25,000 words, and one for the final product. We’ve already been warned not to try and write the whole thing a week or two before it’s due. This class will definitely force me to work on my time management.

My second class is Readings in Mass Communications, which takes place on Wednesday evenings from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. Although the Professional Writing department has mostly split away from the Journalism / Mass Communications / Public Relations department, requiring hopeful writers to take one class from this block reveals the program’s early roots. In this class we will be reading topical news articles each week and discussing them in class. Students will take turns leading the discussions with a 60-90 minute presentation one a topic that relates to mass communication. From the provided list I chose “Social Media,” so I should be good there. We’re also required to turn in three book reports, write an APA-style paper, and contribute to each week’s discussion. Although I don’t see any insurmountable goals in this class, it will definitely be a steady stream of work throughout the semester. Jeff and Sean, two classmates who were in my short story writing class and are also in novel writing class with me are also in this class. This class has a lot of diversity, with students from Bangladesh and Venezuela and a few with roots in Germany, so I am looking forward to hearing about issues from students with other viewpoints.

Both of these classes will require not only an increase of output but also an increase in reading. I’m trying to work on that. Each time I find myself sitting in front of the television flipping between two stupid reality programs I need to turn the television off and pick up a book. It’s a hard habit to get back into, but I’m working on it.

This semester I am still parking at the nearby Lloyd Noble center and taking the free bus from there to class. Last semester, the buses I rode were largely empty. I figured once that the capacity of the buses was roughly 60 people (that’s with a few people standing). Last semester, my 7 a.m. bus rarely had more than half a dozen students on it and my 11 a.m. ride back to the parking lot had someone between a dozen-and-a-half and two dozen. This semester has been a bit different. Both of the bus rides to the school (one at roughly 3 p.m., the other at 6 p.m.) are mostly empty. The rides back, however, are quite different. On the Tuesday and Thursday rides at 5:30 p.m., those buses are packed. On Tuesday, I ended up standing on the ride back. On Wednesdays, because class lets out so late (9:30 p.m.), the bus no longer goes from point A to point B and back; instead, it drives all over campus, picking up and dropping off people. The normally 5-7 minute ride took about 15 minutes. I’m not in an hurry to get back to my car, but it’s a new experience. Jeff, one of my classmates, has a parking pass that allows him to park right outside our building. Jeff offered me a ride back to my car Thursday after class and it was wonderful! I hope I can continue to bum rides from him at least on Tuesdays and Thursdays to avoid the crowded bus situation. Jeff mentioned that he drinks Diet Cokes and believe me, I am never above a carbonated bribe!

Last night while in novel class it hit me that I am happiest when I am sitting in a classroom, learning about something I love. I loved short story class and I already love this novel class. I know that I will learn many things throughout the duration of this program and this degree, but I already feel like between those two classes, I am closer to my goal of becoming a professional author.

(This is not my writing area, but doesn’t it look cozy?)

I received A’s for all four stories I turned in for my short story writing class, with encouragement from my professor to submit them for publication. Over the past few months, I’ve been doing just that.

My experience, to date:

The first step involves finding the right publication for your story. You might think that’s as simple as searching Google for magazines that publish short stories and submitting your story to them, but I found there’s more to it than that. First of all, you’ve got to find magazines that publish stories in the same genre as what you’ve written. (Makes sense — no sense in sending your horror story to a magazine for children.) Then you need to ensure that your story falls within the magazine’s length requirements. Some magazines define short stories as anything with less than 10,000 words, while others cut them off as low as 4,000. Next I found that many magazines only accept submissions during certain months of the year. Finding a market that’s perfect for your story only to discover that they’re not accepting submissions for the next six months is like taking a cross country road trip only to discover that Wally World is closed for the season.

You also have to pay attention to the magazine’s required format for submissions. Some want .DOC files, some want .DOCX files, some require .PDF files and one asked that you cut and paste your entire story into the body of the email. Even after your story has been written you’ll be tweaking the format for every single submission. I also found that many of the larger magazines charge a submission fee (usually $3).

Finally, most magazines frown upon “multiple submissions,” and request that you should only submit your story to one magazine at a time. You’re supposed to wait until that magazine either accepts or passes on your story before submitting it to another magazine. Of the magazines I’ve submitted to, the shortest advertised wait period is 4-6 weeks and the longest has been 4-6 months. If you’ve only written one or two stories, you’ll have plenty of time to write some more while you’re sitting around waiting for hear from magazine editors.

This morning, six weeks after submitting my first story to Cicada Magazine, I got my first rejection slip. It wasn’t as devastating as I had imagined the experience would be. The email was a form letter that said the story wasn’t a good fit for their magazine. That’s an important thing to remember, and a lesson our professor recently shared with us. Having your story rejected doesn’t always mean your story is bad. Sometimes it simply means that it wasn’t a good fit for their publication. The website LitRejections.com is dedicated to collecting rejection slips from famous works of fiction. And even though it takes a bit of the sting out to know that almost every famous novel was rejected at least once, it’s not really a dinner party any of us are particularly excited about being invited to.

As a kid or even a young man, I would have been more bothered by getting a rejection slip. I would have taken it personally, I think, to have someone say, “Your work isn’t good enough.” But when you begin to look at writing as a business, that’s not what a rejection slip is really saying. It’s saying, “we’re not going to buy your story,” for one of many reasons: maybe the length or tone isn’t right for their publication. Maybe they don’t run stories like yours at all, or perhaps they bought a story just like yours the day before, and don’t need two of them. It’s simply a formal notice informing me that this story, at this time, for this publication, isn’t a perfect fit.

I can live with that.

I’ve started a spreadsheet to track what I’ve submitted to whom. And that story that got rejected this morning at 8 AM? It went to the next magazine on the list by 8:30.

This week marks the end of my first semester as a grad student at OU… except I wasn’t really a grad student, and the class I took won’t count toward my degree.

Where to begin?

The ball started rolling this past summer when Susan asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. It was a trick question as I don’t really plan on growing up, but if I had to, I suppose the answer is, “a writer.” This sparked a conversation that ultimately led us to discover the “Master of Professional Writing” graduate degree program. The program isn’t available at a ton of universities, but surprisingly, it’s offered at the University of Oklahoma.

OU’s website lists several undergraduate courses as required prerequisites for the program. With no idea as to what we were doing, I enrolled in one: Writing the Short Story. Susan helped me enroll for the class and sign up to take the GRE exam, which I took (and passed) shortly before the class began.

While attending the class, I applied for graduate school. This involved tracking down transcripts, providing writing samples, and getting letters of recommendation (thanks again, Ellston and Gabe!). It was a lot of paperwork, but 20 years with the federal government has been good practice. Several weeks after my application was submitted, I received my acceptance letter. I’m in!

One confusing section of the application asked me whether I was an undergraduate student or a graduate student. Technically, I was neither. I graduated from Southern Nazarene University with a BA in 2005, so I’m not an undergraduate, but until I had been accepted into OU’s master’s program, I wasn’t a graduate student, either. This was further complicated by the fact that I was currently enrolled and taking a class at OU. And because my application came back with “no deficiencies” (“he don’t know me very well, do he?”), the prerequisite I took was not required.

At least it wasn’t required by the school. For me, mentally, it was required.

It was required because I needed somebody neutral to read things I had written and say, “yes, these are good.” Not a family member or a friend or a co-worker, and not anyone who has read my books or listens to my podcasts, but someone who had no idea who I was. Someone neutral. Someone qualified to teach graduate level classes. Someone who grades and judges people’s writing for a living. That’s who I needed to tell me that my stuff was okay.

I turned in three short stories. I got A’s on all three of them.

I’m not telling you that to brag or pat myself on the back. I’m telling you that because it wasn’t until I got all three of those grades that I felt like I belonged in that program. Those grades didn’t make me feel proud; they made me feed validated. And that’s what I was looking for.

The very first time I set foot in Gaylord Hall, Susan, the kids and I went up to the third floor and found this sign: Professional Writing Alcoves. Unbeknownst to me, my classroom ended up being right next to this sign. Twice a week for the past sixteen weeks I’ve walked underneath this sign and looked up at it. Me, hanging out in the professional writing alcoves.

There’s an awful lot about writing fiction that I don’t know, but the one thing I now know is, I’m good enough to take a stab at it.

For me, the hardest thing about learning how to type properly was unlearning how I used to type. I began typing in 1980 when we got our first computer. My original technique involved poking at keys one at a time starting with only a single finger, and quickly graduated to two and then four before eventually unleashing all of my digits on the machine’s expensive keyboard. It wasn’t until I took a computer class my senior year that I heard that phrase so common in today’s online society: despite being able to deliver 90-100 words per minute, I was told “you’re doing it wrong.” Unlearning those muscle memories and habits I had spent the previous ten years perfecting was not easy to do, and I never completely switched over to “the right way.” I can still type pretty darn fast using my own method. I also think, due to my stubbornness, I have carpel tunnel; my wrists hurt and my fingers involuntarily twitch after typing all day long.

I went through a similar experience with the guitar. My friends and I invented (out of necessity) weird ways of contorting our fingers to force those electric beasts to emit sounds that sorta-kinda resembled our favorite songs. When I went to my first guitar lesson the instructor wasn’t as dismissive of my form as he was downright befuddled by it. (Me too.) I never mastered the first batch of “traditional” chords he asked me to learn. As a result I relegated myself to canoodling around on the guitar instead of learning how to play it properly, and never progressed much past those primitive riffs I learned 30 years ago.

I am now doing the same thing with my writing.

In my writing class, we’re learning about the structure of a short story. The most important thing I’ve learned so far is that successful novels, short stories, and other works of fiction are structured — by that I mean they follow a rigid framework, and contain specific ingredients that readers expect. In one way that knowledge feels constricting, to know that things must appear in a certain order — but in another way, it’s actually quite enlightening. It feels great to finally understand what makes stories work. Many times in the past I’ve written the same scenes over and over, stabbing in the dark in an attempt to “make things work” in the same way a child might randomly poke at keys on a keyboard in hopes that they might eventually make a word appear. Anyone can pile bricks up until they resemble a wall, but to build a structurally sound one that will withstand weight and strong winds requires practice and knowledge.

I ran all of this past a friend of mine who also writes, and he countered with “short stories don’t need to be that rigid. You can do anything you want in them!” And that’s true, you can. This degree program (Masters of Professional Writing) is not just about writing; it’s about writing things that sell. You are, of course, free to write whatever you want. You can include no characters with dialogue in your short story or a hundred (good luck with both). You can name your protagonist Mr. Bsdunensdoppylxyzzz and have everyone in your story speak a made up language. None of those are likely to sell, but you are free to write them. In musical terms, this program is more about writing hit singles than constructing hour-long free-form jazz performances. In terms of music expression both are equally valid, but one of them is much more likely to put money in your wallet.

All of us have things to do, and most of us have reasons why we are not doing them.

A year or two ago I decided to start walking for exercise each morning. But before I began, I decided I needed a new pair of walking shoes. If only I had a new pair of walking shoes — $100 walking shoes — I knew I would start walking. After buying the shoes, I decided I needed socks. Yes, I most definitely needed thicker socks with more advanced walking technology embedded in them somehow to help me walk. After the socks came a new pair of headphones and better walking music. I spent days organizing songs into playlists by their BPM (beats per minute) so that I would have slower songs toward the beginning and endings of my walks with more intense ones in the middle. Along with my new music playlists I also installed a bunch of apps on my phone that I would need to walk. This included not one but two different apps to track my walking paths, distances and times, and another one that allowed me to track my daily calorie intake. And then I had to spend a bunch of time getting all those apps to talk to one another along with my Facebook, Twitter and Google+ accounts.

Somewhere in the middle of all that madness, I found the time to walk a couple of times.

Those putting off fitness and exercise are not the only ones who have mastered the art of procrastination; writers have been doing it for years. In the old days this meant sharpening one’s pencils (multiple pencils) just so, having the right paper, the right lighting, and the right chair at the right desk before writing the first word. Of course in today’s world it’s less about pencils and more about our computers. I remember halting a writing project one time after I had become convinced that my current keyboard would no longer do. After driving around to Walmart, Staples and Best Buy and not finding what I wanted, I ordered a new keyboard from Amazon and waited a few days until it arrived before continuing. I wish I could say that was the least expensive purchase I ever made in an attempt to stall progress on a project. “If only I had a laptop that were slightly faster than this one…”

Enter Regina Mayer, a fifteen-year-old girl from Germany. Regina really wanted a horse to ride but her parents wouldn’t buy her one, so instead she strapped a saddle to the family cow and taught it how to jump.

Suddenly, waiting until I have a FitBit to start walking seems a bit foolish.

In various interviews, Quentin Tarantino has admitted he writes all of his scripts by hand. George R. R. Martin writes his stories using an old DOS based computer and ancient word processor (WordStar 4.0). Danielle Steel has written more than 100 novels using a manual typewriter.

You don’t need a thousand dollar computer to write a best-seller or a thousand dollar guitar to learn how to play a few chords. You don’t need a $100 pair of shoes, name brand socks, or a smartphone full or apps to start walking. You don’t need a dedicated recording studio to start a podcast, or top of the line art supplies to start drawing or painting. Do you see where I’m going with this?

Sometimes, a cow’s good enough.

Anyone who has ever written pseudo code using Microsoft Word and pasted it somewhere else knows the pain of the “smart quote,” those curly quotation marks that authors love and programmers hate. From experience I can tell you that WordPress hates them, or at least is inconsistent in the way it handles them. Even when they appear correctly within my blog, WordPress mucks them up when passing headlines off to Facebook and Twitter.

So far, the easiest way I’ve found to deal with smart quotes is to turn them off. I disabled them in the WordPress editor, and because I write so many blog drafts in Google Docs, I turned them off there too. For a long time, this has worked.

But now I’m back in school, writing short stories that require very a specific format. That includes paragraph tabs, spacing issues, and yes — smart quotes. After spending the past couple of weeks working on a short story, I cut the text from Google Docs and pasted it into Microsoft Word only to find a complete mess. I searched Google and found a few tricks to help me convert all the quotation marks, apostrophes, and dashes back into their “smart” counterparts, but it was still more work than I want to do every time I write a story. I love the portability that Google Docs affords me and hate the idea of writing things in a single Word file (I worked on my last short story via three different computers), but I hate having to reformat all my work even more.

What I wish is that Google Docs had a button that would allow you to “swap” between two different sets of settings. I don’t know if that’s possible or not. If that’s not possible, the next best thing would be some way to load and save settings — things like spacing and, yes, turning on and off smart quotes. The best solution I’ve found so far is creating two different documents, changing the settings to the way I want them, and then making a copy of that empty document and writing in that copy. Surely that’s not the best solution, is it?