The Under Ground Writing Project

Making writers right since 2008.

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R is for Rejection

Posted by Ali on September 6, 2012 at 9:10 AM Comments comments (5)

Believe it or not, this is a happy post.  In past years, Jenny has put out a challenge to the group.  It's a simple challenge:

Rule 1: Get three rejections from publishers.

Rule 2: One acceptance = two rejections.

Rule 3: If you get your three, Jenny bakes you cookies :)  If you don't, no cookies :(

In the past, when this challenge was announced, some people didn't get it.  To paraphrase one person: "Why try to get rejections?  That's dumb.  You should only count acceptances."

Nope, counting rejections is AWESOME.  Look, you can write a fantabulous story.  It's wonderful.  It's your masterpiece.  You can send that story out.  You can't make somebody publish it.  The acceptance part is beyond your control.  Submitting is within your control.  So, counting rejections is basically counting submissions.  Counting rejections is saying, "You're doing what you can to get that piece published."  It's counting the part of the process you have direct control over. 

This year, the challenge isn't officially on.  However, the other day I made the decision to go for it anyway.  I've been a slacker and haven't submitted anything in longer than I care to say.  That should change.  Thus, between now and the end of the year, it's my goal to get three rejections.

I know there's not much of 2012 left, but anybody up for joining me?

Why Writing It Wrong Can Be Right

Posted by Ali on August 29, 2012 at 11:10 AM Comments comments (1)

   In the process of revising the novel, I rearranged a scene. I moved it and changed it up a bit and was happy that I'd made it work. Later on, I hit a scene where the emotions didn't jibe with what was going on in the rearranged scene. As I was about to go to sleep that night, I realized I'd fixed the first scene wrong.


In the morning, I re-fixed. Later, I hit on a cool article from Psychology Today that's all about figuring out the right thing to do by exploring the wrong thing. The article focuses on dealing with challenges in real life, but who cares about that? I'm talking writing here.


Have you ever written a scene or a chapter and really poured your heart into it? Then, you got a little farther along, following that path where it naturally led, and suddenly realized you were going in the wrong direction? Congratulations, you're doing it RIGHT! You're just exploring an exercise in innovative thinking.


The article points out, "For example, you could explore a possible resolution to your challenge that you already know is definitely wrong, and yet explore that path in great detail." So, go ahead and write that plot dead end. It's cool, because, "Now you could isolate each mistaken feature of that erroneous ‘solution’ and carefully examine exactly why it is wrong. If you were as specific as possible in where the defects lie, you would force yourself to be clearer and more insightful about the situation at hand."

By writing it wrong, you're figuring out how to write it right. You're experiencing the lesson of, "Oops, that doesn't work. Why not?" So, soldier on. The more bombed scenes you write, the better you'll be at figuring out what really needed to be there. The key is to be thoughtful about what's not working.


Embrace your writing goofs. They're your best teachers!


I leave you with a related Terry Pratchett quote, "Wisdom comes from experience. Experience is often a result of lack of wisdom."

Books on Writing: Do You Read Them?

Posted by Jenny Maloney on August 27, 2012 at 8:55 AM Comments comments (1)

     I have a bookshelf full of books on writing. And I have a sneaking suspicion I’m not alone, because writers, by their nature, are readers. Reading about writing seems a logical step.



Truthfully though, I only use two of those books on writing with any kind of regularity. If I’m in a fast-draft piece of work then I refer to Stephen King’s On Writing – for inspiration and just to remind myself to get stuff down. There’s also the “Shitty First Draft” chapter in Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. Both King’s book and Lamott’s chapter give permission to fuck up, which is very freeing for me. When it’s going slower and I’m revising/rewriting then I go to Susan Bell’s The Art of Self Editing because she tells me how to get distance and reminds me what I need to look for.



So I think that books on writing can definitely be helpful. Writing can sometimes be difficult. You hit snags. And there are times you think you’re the only one who has had these problems. Writing books tell you otherwise.




They’re also good for learning the basics: grammar, dialogue, character and world building, etc.




I think where I start to worry about writing books is when I start to see graphs, worksheets, a plan to get the book done in twenty-four hours. Any kind of prescription-for-writing I’m just not down with. Good writing has its rules, but following strict guidelines, with no flexibility, is like trying to follow a diet to a T right off the bat. Generally it doesn’t happen and you’re left with fat-free, wordless pages and frustration.




And I’ve also fallen into the trap that reading writing books = writing. This just ain’t so.




Writing books should only be used, in my opinion, in conjunction with writing. Always, always, always be working on a piece when you read these books. It’s what they’re designed to do, and it’s the only way they’ll actually help.




What writing books have you read that you found useful? Have you come across any you thought were counterproductive?


The Improbability of Infinite Progress

Posted by Oliver on August 24, 2012 at 9:30 PM Comments comments (1)

There's a famous thought-puzzle with many forms, the most famous of which is the chicken and the egg problem. (Which came first? Probably the dude. There. Puzzle solved.) My favorite version of it involves sourdough bread, and it goes like this: To be made correctly, every new batch of sourdough bread needs a chunk of the dough from the last batch. Which begs the question, how could the first batch of sourdough bread predate everything? See. A puzzle.


There's a philosophical answer to this puzzle. Philosophy is dumb and needs a schmancy name for everything, and the name for this concept is "the impossibility of infinite regress." Logically speaking, no series of events can stretch infinitely into the past. There must have been a first baker/brilliant marketer who invented bread-gone-sour, because we can logically argue that sourdough bread didn't just bake itself. An baker baked, and sourdough bread resulted. The argument of a natural, spontaneous explosion of sourdough bread is always an option, but it's still an argument that, at some point, sourdough bread wasn't, then it began...


This would appear to be evidence that human minds are hardwired to include structure in comprehending the world. We want to see that things have a comfortable termination, whether it is where those things start, or that they end. Cap'n Hair wrote a good summary of the psychology and necessity of sensible endings in fiction a couple days ago, (discover it here). Go read it. It'll give this one context. From here on I'm going to look at a few endings that I view as successful, concentrating on how they signalled the end had come.


Seven Samurai is a film by Hiro Kurasawa about seven samurai--shocking! It starts (you can't think about endings without thinking about beginnings, so that's what's with all the fucking talk of beginnings when this is about endings--shush!).... Thank you. It starts with a little village having problems with invaders. They require defenders, and can pay the defenders nothing, and samurai tend to be expensive anti-invader systems. Hoping to essentially plead to the charity of samurai, the villagers go to the local...hub of samurai activities is what it appears to be in the movie. Long story short, they discover one samurai who wants to help. He's called Kambei. What Kambei wants from the rest of his life strongly impacts how the movie is shaped from there on out.


Kambei is a weathered samurai, who wants nothing more than to be done with fighting. He doesn't want to help the village because he doesn't want to be in any more battles. Eventually he agrees to help, because he's a good dude--honorable and such--and understands their plight. He is then able to do what the villagers couldn't do by themselves: lend legitimacy to their pleas for help. Kambei begins recruiting other samurai, and soon has two more dudes: Kasushiro, a teenaged rich boy who wants to be a samurai and has ultimately good intentions; and Shichiroji, another weathered campaigner who's an old friend of Kambei's.


Not too far into the movie, Shichiroji and Kambei have a conversation in which they muse that this battle could be the last one, both of them smiling about it, almost happy at the idea that they could soon die in battle and end the fighting. The conversation was significant. Explanation below.


Kambei continues recruiting samurai till he has seven guys, including himself. After Shichiroji, the remaining four samurai are all men in their prime, experienced and ready for a fight and not yet tired of it. These guys, the last four samurai, all have many years' possible service to honor and the movements in the world, and they're wise enough to know what they should do. So the adventure begins.


Over the course of the movie, three particularly relevent things gradually progress. The first is the Kambei, our weathered campaigner, tries to keep the teenage rich boy Kasushiro out of harm's way. Kambei is wiser and more experienced than the headstrong rich boy. Kambei knows best. And Kambei clearly wishes to keep the rich boy away from the long, tiring life of a samurai.


The second relevent thing that happens--important to the movie, though secretly much less important to the point I'm making--is that the seven samurai save the village.


The third relevent occurance is this: Four samurai die. The four who die are all the samurai in their prime who I have not here named. The rich boy, Kasushiro, survives, as do the two old campaigners on their ways out. Kambei, Shichiroji, and Kasushiro survive this story.


The movie ends a little bit after the battle for the village is saved. Why, might one ask, would a movie about saving a village not end precisely when the village is saved? The answer to that, my dearies, is that Seven Samurai is not about a village being saved. Seven Samurai is about seven samurai. The movie ends with a great shot. The three surviving samurai looking up at the graves of the samurai who died. Go find a screen shot of it. It's a good shot.


The samurai standing on the left is Kambei, in the middle is his old campaigning buddy. The hot rod kid is the other. The four swords in the top of the hill are the graves of the other samurai.


Good stories end frequently with enduring images. In Cap'n Hair's example, there's a complex image of heartbreak. The King Arthur legend ends with an image of the dying king sailing across the mysic lake to Avalon. Frankenstein ends with an image of the monster wandering into the wide world. Strong images encapsulating...something. I'm still unsure what.


Seven Samurai, a story about an old soldier who just wants to be done with all the dying, ends with an image of that old soldier looking at the graves of younger men, an old friend at his elbow, and the a kid--new generation eager for the fight--receiving his first taste of reality. Kambei survives. He also gets to watch a young samurai grow. So that's not all bad.

Tying my concept together is somewhat tricky. Some dude once advised not to confuse activity for story, or something to that affect. What one might take away from this treatise, as far as advice goes, is a suggestion for a process. Begin by examining the story you're writing. It is no doubt filled with all kinds of motion and excitment. If you are thoughtful, then it also has at its core somebody who is trying to do something--to gain something, accomplish something--something personal. Everything must have an end--there's philosophy supports it, the improbability of infinite progress--and every enduring story ends when your character either gets or doesn't get his strongest personal desire. Usually, the most elegant stories end when he doesn't get what he wants, but he gets something better.


And then the whole world exploded!

So You Think I Should Change My Setting, Characters, and Plot?

Posted by Shane on August 10, 2012 at 6:00 AM Comments comments (0)

Have you ever had a critique that seemed supremely unhelpful? Before you stab the offending reader in the parking lot (the only real benefit of which will be all that freed up time to write in jail), or throw the story in the trash, consider that the real problem might be one of translation. It's one thing for a reader to be able to identify an issue in a piece of writing; however, it's another thing entirely to always know the best way to fix a problem. Perhaps the reader didn't get engaged. Or perhaps the reader was genuinely confused. These are legitimate responses. And while their solution may be valid, it may not be best for that writer, or that piece of writing.


For example, if the critique on a particular story is that it doesn't explain enough, and there were pieces that didn't make sense, the reader might suggest adding more description, more pages, more words. I know I've said this almost verbatim in the past. Yet, when the writer looks back on that story, he or she should ask, "Are these details truly important to the story?" In some cases cutting can bring clarity to a work better than adding more.


Readers' reactions are often better taken as hints towards identifying real problems in a story, rather than as prescriptive answers on how to fix the story. It occurred to me recently that one of my critiques of a fellow writer had been far less helpful than I intended. In trying to articulate what was causing me problems in her story, I believe I pointed to how she should focus her rewrite. But what if I missed the point? What if the intention of the story was different than what I took away?


Even if I was off base, it should be helpful to a writer to see where I was focusing. If I’m not paying attention to what the writer wants me to pay attention, then that’s an issue that needs addressing. When I say, “Cut this part,” I am responding with my interpretation of what the piece should be. The section in question may need to be cut, but the writer needs to come to that conclusion because that decision serves the story, not because I told her to cut it.


Stories are like maps. Sure, maps allow us to get places, but they also have the ability to take you away from the known and to focus your attention on things you might not otherwise experience. If your only goal is to get to your destination, then a very utilitarian map may serve. But we rarely appreciate stories that follow this model. It’s like freeway driving: fast, but boring. So, we need stops to see that interesting rock formation, or to get a bite to eat at some unexpected dive with fabulous chili.


Ultimately, when I told the aforementioned writer that she should cut certain parts, what I was really saying was that her map had too many random stops, and that the final destination seemed too unclear. There were lots of elements to her story, but only some of them were grabbing my attention, and not all of them seemed to support one another. There’s a fine balance between a trip that is fast and boring, and one that makes you feel lost on random side streets.


Readers are naturally going to try and sort out the maps given them based on what they see. Writers have access to a lot more information about what went into making the map/story. Keeping this in mind might lessen some of the bristles I know I get when a reader tells me something I don’t like about mystory. A reader’s advice may be wrong, but it can still point a writer in the right direction.

Going the Distance

Posted by Ali on August 8, 2012 at 7:45 AM Comments comments (1)

About a month ago, I did a very sillly thing. I signed up to submit a full novel draft to the the writing group. Luckily, I had a rough draft. Unluckily, I had not yet started revising it. So, off to the races I went.


Jenny's post on Monday had me thinking about what I think are important writing rules. I came up with some clever ideas. I started drafting a clever post. Then, in the midst of working on the novel revision, I realized there's just one that seems to be the biggest. It's like Newton's Law. It's physics. Undeniable and constant:


It's always easier to spot the problems and figure out solutions for someone else's work.

Bam. Epiphany. Wait, you're thinking that's obvious, aren't you? Let me flesh it out a bit. Last week, I went to see the Total Recall remake. Spoiler alert: it's pretty terrible. The best part, by far, is the scene where Kate Beckinsale is doing her very best to murder Colin Farrell. Awesome. The worst part, by far, is, well a lot of parts of the movie where it felt like the writers had gotten too attached to a plot device/image/silly idea that made no sense. They got so sucked in to a little piece of the story that the story as a whole suffered. Classic forest vs. trees situation.


For my novel revision, one of the first things on my list was going through the chapters as they were and plotting the chapters as they should be. It was a quick outline sketch, but a couple of things became obvious to me along the lines of "What was I thinking?"


In my rough draft, there is a part toward the end where one of the characters gets kidnapped. I wrote a whole scene where the heroes jump to a conclusion about who the kidnapper is and have a confrontation with the wrong person. When I wrote it, I thought the misdirection was cool and would build suspense by keeping the reader guessing.


Now, I can see that the whole "mystery" aspect was a tangent that didn't really serve the story as a whole. Snip, snip, that part's gone. Now the plot's going to be tighter. I couldn't see it when I was drafting, because I was too caught up in creating something from scratch. Now that I have the raw material on the page, it's easier to see what should go where.


Getting distance makes it easier to kill your babies. Baby killing, in the writing sense, is key. So, do whatever works for you to get distance. Listen to feedback from others, give a piece time to sit, write something else at the same time, write your manuscript and sign it with someone else's name... Whatever works for you, do it. When you get to the point that you can hear a critique without arguing back, you're in a good place. If you're not there yet, then you're not ready to revise.

There Are Rules for That

Posted by Jenny Maloney on August 6, 2012 at 7:45 AM Comments comments (0)

If you are a beginning writer, you’re in luck. Unlike a great many other creative endeavors that breed competition, writers tend to help other writers. It is easy to find advice. It is easy to find the how-tos. As evidence I offer the availability of workshops, MFA offerings, writing blogs (Hi!), and the writing/publishing section of your local bookstore or library. Everywhere you look – including at this screen – you can find a writer willing to tell you what they know.


But the results can be very confusing. How do you know who to listen to? How do you know what’s Right vs. what’s Wrong vs. what’s Sorta Right But Kinda Wrong? Because all that is out there. Right, wrong, and otherwise.


There is no straightforward answer. I’m sorry. The way to sort through all the talky-talk about writing is to read it, and follow your gut. Do what sounds right to you – because you’re the one who is going to have to do the work. Plus it’s always good to try stuff out. You’re not going to know what to do until you’ve experimented. That’s one of the fun things about this job.


For my money, the best writing rule I’ve ever heard is actually a set of five rules from science fiction Robert Heinlein -

-which I found via author Robert Sawyer. To see Sawyer’s take on the rules click here. The rules originally appeared in an essay called “On the Writing of Speculative Fiction” in 1947. See? Writers have been talking about writing forever.


#1: You Must Write.

It doesn’t matter what you want to write. Science fiction, fantasy, romance, mystery, and cookbooks all get written the same way: pen to paper. Or fingers to keyboard. Or rock to tablet. I’m not saying you have to carry a notebook around everywhere you go, or even that you have to have a set schedule. But the only way to write a book is to accumulate pages. However you can do that, do it. And this rule really should be the fun part. This rule is what National Novel Writing Month is all about – putting stuff down on paper. Whatever you want to write about, write it. No one is judging you. It’s just you and your story. As long as the paper is piling up, you’re doing a good job.


Just be aware – you can’t just be talking about writing. You can’t head into coffee shops, plop your laptop down, and hope the cutie barista will stop her espresso-making duties and come ask you about what you’re writing. At best, you’ll be daydreaming during your writing session and, at worst, she’ll actually interrupt you. Either way, nothing’s getting written. And you’re just a wannabe. Don’t be a wannabe.


#2: You Must Finish What You Write

Let’s face it, some pieces just don’t work. Sometimes it’s because you’re trying something new and legitimately do not possess the skills or experience to pull off what you want to pull off.


However, the only way to gain the skills and experience is to finish pieces. You can’t gain expertise in beginnings, middles, and ends without actually making it to the end. Without an end, all those beginnings and middles are floating in space. You have to finish. This is tied to #1 – If you write from page 1 to page 300 you will have a finished book. Just keep plugging away and soon you’ll see it doesn’t take that long at all. Yes, some things will suck. But not as much as you’d think.


#3: You Must Refrain from Rewriting, Except to Editorial Order

I’m pretty much with Robert Sawyer on this one: “This is the one that got Heinlein in trouble with creative-writing teachers. Perhaps a more appropriate wording would have been, ‘Don't tinker endlessly with your story.’” Basically, once a piece is finished, I’ve discovered I need to hit it with one big rewrite – where I fill in the holes and restructure chunks that are falling down. Generally my writing group members are my first readers and they point that stuff out for me. After that I spruce up the ‘pretty’ and play with language bits. Then I call it good. Out it goes.


And I think that’s what Heinlein means. I know more than one writer who has rewritten one book – and even one story – more than five times. Let me tell you something: if you’ve had to rewrite something more than five times, then – in my opinion – it’s time to let it go. Not out to an editor. But under the bed. It’s sucking your time and you, as a writer, do not have the goods to make it work at this particular point in time. Give it a little while and then look over it again. (And when I say a ‘little while’ I mean after at least a year of you working on something else. Publishing is slow…it’ll wait for you.)


However, if it’s pretty-darn-close then it’s time to throw it to the editors. Literary magazines will ask for rewrites if it’s close. Agents will ask for rewrites if it’s close. Through writing and finishing you’ll learn when you’re close without any external help. And you won’t have to rewrite something five times. Be honest with yourself and you’ll know what needs to get fixed before it goes out. So fix it. And send it.


#4: You Must Put Your Story on the Market

There’s something that Justin Halpern said in Sh*t My Dad Says, and I don’t have it in front of me at the moment, but basically Justin wanted to ask a girl out and was hesitating. And his dad says something like: “Don’t say no for them, they’ll say no plenty themselves.”


Every story you don’t send out is you saying no for them.


Editors and agents will say no. Imagine, if you will, a desk piled with manila envelopes. Imagine your email inbox full to capacity. Every day. That’s a lot of stuff to wade through and that’s a lot of competition. Sheer numbers say you won’t get in to every magazine you send to. Your novel will not be wanted by every agent. Suck it up.


But, for heaven’s sake, don’t say no for them. Make them send the rejection letters. Put the ball in their court. You’ve done what you can. Leave it to them to make the play.


#5: You Must Keep it On the Market Until It has Sold

This is the part where you get rejected and say “They don’t understand my genius!” and send it to another magazine that will get your genius. A lot of writers – even Robert Sawyer – say to send out the rejected story the same day you receive the rejection. At least within the same week, okay? Let’s be realistic. Don’t let your story sit there. Thanks to websites like Duotrope you can easily track and send your story out pretty darn quick. Put it back out there. Again, don’t say no for them.


Another thing to bear in mind is simultaneous submissions – the practice in which you can send out one story to multiple markets. Do this as much as possible. At first I was just sending out a story to three or four markets at a time…but you’ve gotta do more or you’ll be shopping the piece for years. Fifteen to twenty magazines at a time. That’s the number to shoot for. And yes, it does lead to some really shitty weekends when six or seven rejections come back at a time.


For those of you worried about having two, or even three magazines, accept your story at the same time: Send simultaneously to magazines that you feel equally happy to be a part of. Pick magazines of the same ‘tier’ to send to. Because the absolute worst thing to have happen is to have the New Yorker and Joe Schmoe’s Magazine accept – and Joe Schmoe got in first. But if you’re super happy to have either Tin House or Glimmer Train pick up your story (and I’d be over the moon, personally, with either one), then by all means send to both. They accept simultaneous submissions; they know some things can slip by.


Same rule applies for novels. Tier your agents. Send simultaneously. Lather, rinse, repeat.


A final note: Very few writers follow all five rules. Some writers can write and write and write. All day long. Happy as clams. And that is perfectly okay.


But if you want to be a published writer, the best thing to do is to look at the five rules and figure out where you are getting tripped up. Did you finish a novel and only send to three agents? Have you been writing the same novel for the past four decades? Have you actually written anything this past week? Sometimes writers are really good at finishing short stories and following these rules…but when they try to write a novel they choke on Rule 1 or 2.


Spot your weak point and blast through it.


How about you? Do these rules resonate with you? Are you already doing all of the above? Do you see a spot you might need to work on?

R.I.P. Ray Bradbury

Posted by Jenny Maloney on June 8, 2012 at 11:20 PM Comments comments (0)

As I'm sure a great many of you know, literature lost one of it's most prolific and talented writers recently. I think everyone and their brother has read Fahrenheit 451 (and if you haven't, you really should!).

Here is the man himself discussing the fine art of writing for yourself. Keep on, keepin' on, writer friends. And, Mr. Bradbury, you will be missed.

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Brandon Sanderson on the Benefits of Writers Groups

Posted by Jenny Maloney on April 18, 2012 at 6:35 PM Comments comments (0)

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