Weeds and plants in writing

 

Yarrow

This shot of wild yarrow, taken from the same location as the rainbow in my previous post, captured just one little patch of several around our cabin. Given how many patches there were, I’m surprised none made it into the bouquet of wildflowers picked for me by my granddaughters on my birthday. But you can see there was no lack of other flowers for them to choose from.

Wildflowers copy

It always amazes me that there are so many different kinds, surviving in some of the harshest locations. Just a couple days ago, my hubby commented that despite it being late September, during his daily walk he counted six different varieties growing in the ditches and gravel shoulders of the road.

I love wildflowers! They’re essentially weeds, but what’s not to love about them? They’re hardy, colourful and prolific.

A few years ago I bought two perennial Yarrow plants from our local nursery. I was sure they would do well in our country-style garden, but I was wrong. They petered out after one season, and I was so disappointed.

During the garden bed rejuvenation project at my daughter’s home earlier this month, one of the few plants doing well was a pink Yarrow, and I assumed she wanted it rescued and transplanted.  Not so. She said it wasn’t a thing of beauty — she considered it to be no better than a weed, flowering sporadically and flopping out over the pathway.

Yarrow-2

I would happily have salvaged it to bring home to my own garden, but we decided that once it was dug out, it wouldn’t likely stay alive for two more weeks in the summer heat and survive being transported in the back of our truck for 800+ kilometres. ::sigh:: So it ended up on the compost heap. It might have been a case of one person’s trash being another person’s treasure, but it didn’t work out.

Not only is there truth in that proverb, it’s also applicable to our writing. What one person deems a well written story may well be rejected by another. Differing opinions don’t change its quality, but might well determine its destination. When faced by endless roadblocks, sometimes it’s worth considering if it might be time to change direction.

Have you ever taken a new direction with your writing? How did it work out? 

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Is there a genre for fictional tulips and daffodils?

Tulips don’t grow in my garden. Deer eat them before the buds even develop. I’ve planted dozens upon dozens of daffodils and narcissus because I’m told deer don’t like them. They bloom beautifully the first year, but only a few make it through to the next, and by the third year there are none. I suspect the squirrels are to blame, but I have no proof.

I love the cheery colour of spring bulbs but have to make do with the store-bought variety. There’s no point trying to grow them where they aren’t going to thrive.

Tulips 2

I’m discovering a novel is a little like a garden. If the conditions aren’t right, it can’t develop its full potential. Unfortunately, I’m the one responsible for providing a nurturing environment, and that involves more than fencing out marauders.

I can do extensive research and come up with lots to nourish a budding idea. I can refuse to let the I.E. thwart my attempts, invest time and energy to revise and rewrite, get professional editing and helpful critiques. But transplant that ready-to-blossom story into a less than receptive location and it’s probably going to wither and die.  Or be buried indefinitely in an agent’s slush pile.

Compiling a list of agents and going from A to Z in a dedicated submission process is like throwing a handful of flower bulbs into the air and hoping they’ll land in a fertile growing medium and survive. There are websites like Chuck Sambuchino‘s that provide listings of what agents are currently looking for, others that demystify the many different genres, and still others that explain how to classify our novels and/or understand why it’s important to know where they fit so we send them only to those agents who read our genre.

One thing I’ve learned over the past fifteen years of writing novels and studying the publishing industry is that we can do everything right and still not meet with success. Perhaps it’s time to change tactics.

I’m thinking of planting crocuses for next spring. Oh, wait…there was a flash of fur in the garden. I wonder if squirrels like crocus bulbs.

Squirrel

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Tulips

By A. E. Stallings

The tulips make me want to paint,
Something about the way they drop
Their petals on the tabletop
And do not wilt so much as faint,
Something about their burnt-out hearts,
Something about their pallid stems
Wearing decay like diadems,
Parading finishes like starts,
Something about the way they twist
As if to catch the last applause,
And drink the moment through long straws,
And how, tomorrow, they’ll be missed.
The way they’re somehow getting clearer,
The tulips make me want to see
The tulips make the other me
(The backwards one who’s in the mirror,
The one who can’t tell left from right),
Glance now over the wrong shoulder
To watch them get a little older
And give themselves up to the light.

Source: Poetry (June 2009)

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Talk about cold feet!

You were duly warned. You were. I distinctly remember saying, “we’re probably doomed to an abundance of cruising analogies here for the next little while.”

Then I began browsing through the 500+ photos I took last week. A lot are just mediocre shots; I’ll undoubtedly trash a good many of them. But the odd one made me smile… made me remember the delight of discovery.

Below the massive Hubbard Glacier, casually riding a calved chunk of ice, was a gull who… in my mind, at least… had cold feet. She stood there for a time, then took off to flap circles in the sky before settling back on the iceberg. (I imagined she was getting her circulation re-energized.)

Cruise 5

Not far from the gull were two spotted ice seals who periodically slid off and then clambered back on an iceberg, eventually solving the problem of cold ‘feet’ by holding theirs aloft and resting on blubbered tummies.

Seals 1

Yes, I realize I was letting my imagination run wild, but that’s what writers of fiction do. We imagine, ask “what’s happening?” and “why?” and sometimes make up fanciful applications.

For me, those ‘cold feet’ are reminiscent of my jitters when I think about sending my stories out into the world. After a little agitation I settle back into my office chair and go back to the more familiar environment of writing or revising, even if it’s not the most desirable place to be.

I think many of us accommodate the negatives in our lives by rationalizing and adapting instead of trying to overcome.

Am I wrong? (A better question might be, can you dream up a more reasonable analogy from these photos?) 😉

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Queries and Submissions… Oh, my!

It’s a no-brainer: writers love to write. Find a plot or an interesting character lurking in the brain’s back room and away we go, plotting (or not) and happily unravelling story complexities for hours, days, probably weeks… to the exclusion of all sorts of potential distractions. Housework? It can wait. Family? They’ll understand. Grocery shopping? Mmm, maybe a quick trip to stock up on essentials like chocolate and chai tea and Diet Coke.

When the initial writing is done we’re willing to delve right back into it, editing, revising and even rewriting. It’s what writers do, right?  Pick away at it from every angle until we get it ‘just so’.

Jay 2

When it’s finally ready, we steel ourselves to send it out into the world — to critique partners first, then to beta readers. Finally the day comes when we can’t stall any longer. The story is as good as it’s going to get under our hand. It’s time to find an agent or editor to mentor us through the next stage, time to send the manuscript out on submission. Ackkk!

That’s what sends me into a flap.

Jay 1

I end up all a-flutter, suddenly convinced that it’s premature… surely another revision is necessary. If it’s not the best I can make it, sending it out now could be a mistake. I begin to re-read. It’s total crap! I’m sure it is. At least, the whisperings of that nasty Inner Critic sitting on my shoulder are telling me it is.

What’s the solution? Do we re-work and polish manuscripts until the life is sucked out of them, then shelve them in favour of starting something new? Do we close our eyes to the possible shortcomings and throw them into the public eye, hoping the recipients will be kind and limit laughter and jeering to the confines of their own office before sending out the rejection letter? Or… dare I suggest it? Do we stand tall, pull up our big-girl britches and recognize when we’ve done the best we can for now — ‘for now’ meaning we accept the reality that there will undoubtedly be recommended edits forthcoming — and take the next step?

Jay 3

There’s nothing more nerve-wracking in my world than hovering my finger over the ‘send’ key. Despite what others suggest, it never gets easier for me. Over the years I’ve read plenty of books on the craft of writing, studied agents’ and editors’ blogs to glean helpful information and listened carefully to the experiences of other more seasoned writers. I’m developing a fat resource file, but nothing nourishes the seed of confidence that will tell me, “Yes, DO it now. You’re ready.”

Earlier this week I printed out another item to add to my file from the Books & Such Literary Agency blog: “Minimize the obstacles to publication“, a post written by agent Rachelle Gardner. Her very first point is, “Not working on your book and your writing craft long enough.” ::sigh:: See what I mean?

I just might have to peck out a bit more on this revision. I’m aiming to make it public soon, but… not today.

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What convinces you that your work is ready for public scrutiny? How do you block out the negative Inner Critic’s evil whisperings?

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#WIPMADNESS WEEK #3 – Basics of the Craft

Welcome back for our Week #3 check-in, Wipsters.

“I’ve had a story rattling around in my head for years, waiting to be told. Maybe it’s time I wrote it.”

Hey, does anyone around here know who won this week’s draw?

If you’ve been a writer for very long, you’ve likely encountered similar comments. Whether you’re having lunch in the cafeteria at work, chatting over coffee after a club meeting, or making small talk with another parent in the bleachers at hockey practice, if you mention you’re a novelist your words may unbind the dreams of a wannabee writer. Suddenly a lot of gut-spilling happens. I think it’s a little like unburdening to a hairdresser or bartender!

After the above statement was made we chatted a bit about her ambition. I always like to encourage anyone who feels the pull to write, but it was soon obvious that she would benefit from doing some groundwork on the craft of writing before she began putting any words on paper.

C’mon, tell us who won, will ya?

“What genre will it be?” When she raised her eyebrows over a look filled with confusion, I added, “What kind of story?”

“Oh, it’ll be a fiction novel.”

Near the end of that conversation she asked if I could recommend a book that would tell her everything she needed to know. She wanted a magic formula. Not wanting to either discourage or overwhelm her, I offered to lend her something from my bookshelves that would give her an overview of novel-writing basics. After that I suggested she write a complete first draft of the story before reading anything more and perhaps getting tangled up (or bogged down) with too many mechanics.

The draw! The draw! You’re getting me all in a flap! Who won the draw???

Of the over fifty craft books on my shelf, I didn’t choose the first book I had read, which was TECHNIQUES OF THE SELLING WRITER by Dwight Swain (1965). Instead I chose to lend her WRITING A NOVEL AND GETTING PUBLISHED by Nigel Watts (1996, NTC Publishing Group), not because I thought it was the most comprehensive guidebook, but because it’s short, simple and straightforward… and not too scary for a very new and naïve writer.

This is where I ask YOU what book you would have recommended in that situation. Not the book you value now as an experienced writer and/or published author, but the one book you wish someone had given you before you began your first manuscript.

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Now… before we start getting tweeted to bits, I suppose I need to satisfy all the birdie curiosity and announce the winner of last week’s draw for a review by Jessica Morrell of a synopsis (or query) and the first five pages of a manuscript.

WEEK #2 WINNER
Kiperoo – Kip Wilson Rechea
 

Congratulations, Kip! Please contact me at caroljgarvin [at] gmail [dot] com with your e-mail address and I’ll give you the scoop on claiming your critique from Jessica.

Now, for next week… since we’re talking about craft books today, one person commenting before next weekend on today’s post will win a $25 Amazon gift certificate to use towards the purchase of a book of your choice.

We’ve hit the mid-point of the month, so have you all made it half-way to the goal(s) you set for July? There’s still time if you boot into high gear. Go, go, go!!! (But don’t forget to leave a comment before you depart — or several. Every comment gets a separate entry in the draw.)

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Ah, drat! It wasn’t me.

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Using more than half a brain (or, hints for successful querying)

Nesting birds are testing our patience this week. A junco decided to build a nest in the middle of one of the twelve-inch flower baskets that hangs just inches from our family room window. (Yes, the same basket from which the finch eyed me last week. What’s with these birds?!)

It’s an impossible location for us to accommodate since there are patio tables and chairs beneath the planters (plus I need to keep watering the flowers), so, although we felt badly about it, we chased her away.

That same evening, before we had a chance to remove the nest, a robin took it over, and the basket swayed precariously as she flew in and out on a redecorating mission. We discouraged her, too, so she has moved on to the top of the spotlight above our driveway, where anyone with half a brain can see the angles make it impossible for any twigs or moss to balance. Not having half a brain, and undeterred, she keeps picking up the bits that land on the pavement below and returning them to the spotlight… from where, of course, they slip off. Again and again.

Wasn’t it Einstein who said the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results? Silly wild things!

Then again, the not-so-wild among us have been known to act in a similar manner.  Who hasn’t taken the same query letter, polished to make the best impression possible, and sent it out to agents time and time again – the same letter to every agent on a constantly expanding list?

We’re told to be persistent, to have patience, because some day that letter will connect with *the* right person. But I’m not so sure it will! How can the same letter avoid becoming generic? I can’t help wondering if agents feel the same about our impersonal queries as we do about their form rejections.

What can we do to improve our chances for a positive response? Here are my six common sense (but as yet unproven) suggestions:

  • Research agencies and their client list. Do they rep our style of book? If not, we’re wasting our time (and theirs).
  • Explore agent websites to stay up-to-date on any changes in genre preferences and to find out whether or not submissions are currently being accepted. They aren’t going to make an exception for us.
  • Spend time interacting with agents on social media. Discover them as real people. (But don’t stalk them. Respect professional boundaries.)
  • Leave photocopying for manuscript pages. Make every query an original, using the agent’s name, correctly spelled.
  • Think about the mood of our manuscript and the voice that took us through its writing. Put ourselves in the same headspace while we write the query letter.
  • Don’t try to cram an entire synopsis into the query. Get the story’s concept across, introduce only the main characters and the conflict they face.  The job of a query is to captivate the agent, not to bog her down with a litany of details. Send a separate synopsis if one is required.

It also wouldn’t hurt to keep in mind agent Kristin Nelson’s admonition:  “It’s more important for a query concept to be original than for a query to be perfect.” If we don’t have an intriguing story, the perfect query letter isn’t going to help get it published, no matter how often we send it out.

We have to take steps to ensure our querying efforts aren’t wasted, unless we enjoy being constantly turned away like silly birds!

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Following the Road Signs

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I’m good at telling people where to go, although I know not everyone appreciates being told what they can or cannot do.

On our recent Christmas trip we encountered many highway signs. Some told us what we couldn’t do, like exceed a specific speed, while others were very helpful. We didn’t appreciate signs that told us to reduce speed for construction ahead, especially when there was no construction. Or to merge lanes when that meant being stuck behind a slow moving transport truck.

But we liked the safety aspect of knowing that there were deer in the area that might bolt across the highway, and to be prepared because there were no gas stations ahead for several miles. It was comforting to know which junction to take when highways intersected, and exactly how many miles were between us and our destination. And it’s always good to know the clearance under an overpass, particularly if you’re driving a large RV.

My hubby says I’m a very efficient navigator when our travels require map-reading and following directions.  I wish my ability stretched to also knowing exactly how to proceed in my journey as a writer.

Wouldn’t it be nice if God placed bold signs that said, “This is the direction you need to go right now,” “Prepare yourself for a six-month (or six-year) journey,” “There’s a rough patch ahead but it’s a smooth ride after that?”

God does give us guidelines and signposts, but they aren’t quite as obvious as highway signs. Just as the Department of Highways expects responsible drivers to watch for and obey their signs, so God expects us to search out his guidance and follow it, whether it’s for everyday situations or our writing endeavours.

I think I’ve been waiting for him to slip easy-to-decipher instructions under my nose, when it’s pretty clear I’m suppose to take some action… make an effort to search out his directives and follow them. This road to publication is a one-foot-in-front-of-the-other kind of journey, not a taxi ride.

Okay, God. I get it. Querying, here I come!

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Have you ever found yourself immobilized because you didn’t know where to start in the querying process?  How did you get over the uncertainty about taking that first step?

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“Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct your paths.” [Proverbs 3:5]
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Thus says the Lord, Your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel: “I am the Lord your God, who teaches you to profit, who leads you by the way you should go.” [Isaiah 48:17]
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Therefore do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward. For you have need of endurance, so that you may do the will of God and receive what is promised. [Hebrews 10:35]

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Patience may be a virtue, but….

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It was nearing dinnertime, at least for our Labrador. Hubby and I wanted to get the Christmas tree up first, so we ignored the blatant hints. Tynan’s a patient dog and finally lay down to wait.

 

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That was hard to ignore! As soon as the tree was secure and before any decorating was begun, his patience was rewarded with his nightly bowl of kibble. Afterwards, in the first bin of ornaments, a bag of old Christmas dog toys was unearthed and he was ecstatic. Dinner and long lost stuffies! Life was good.

Patience may be considered a virtue, but passive patience doesn’t achieve much.  It needs to be accompanied by some kind of purposeful action. If Tynan had settled into an unobtrusive corner to wait, he might be waiting still. Instead, while he didn’t beg, agitate or annoy, he made his presence something we couldn’t ignore for very long. He was just too appealing.

We aspiring authors could learn a lesson from him.

What do you do while you wait for a response to your query letters or submissions?

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Are we poisoning our chances for publication?

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Common snowberry, or Symphoricarpos albus, is a deciduous shrub in the honeysuckle family. It grows wild on shady hillsides and woodland areas but its attractive clusters of white berries have also made it a popular ornamental shrub in many gardens.

It grows in wild abundance on our family’s Okanagan property and provides winter food for quail and pheasant. In other areas it’s also browsed by deer, bighorn sheep and bear.

On a recent visit I admired the shrub and came home to research its name. Despite its innocuous appearance, I found one source (Wikipedia) that said snowberries are considered poisonous to humans. “The berries contain the isoquinoline alkaloid chelidonine, as well as other alkaloids. Ingesting the berries causes mild symptoms of vomiting, dizziness, and slight sedation in children.”

We have a lot of wild berries in BC, many of which are edible, but some are known to be poisonous while others are of doubtful edibility or are just plain unpalatable. Around our property each spring we have bushes that bear small red berries that I think are huckleberries. In fact, I’m pretty sure that’s what they are… but not sure enough to eat them. I’m going to take a sample to our local nursery next spring and get a knowledgeable opinion.

In this case I think I’m smart to admit I don’t know what I don’t know. When in doubt, be cautious. Go do some research. That’s not a bad philosophy in writing, too. Barging headlong into unfamiliar situations without first doing adequate research can often cause irreparable damage.

A couple years ago agent Rachelle Gardner posted a “Friday Rant” about people who fall into her inbox looking for an agent. They pitch work that she doesn’t rep; they’ve clearly made no effort to read guidelines or learn about the querying process; they “aren’t taking the time to approach publishing seriously.” In their ignorance they alienate agents and effectively kill any chance of having their work considered.

That’s not very smart if their goal is publication.

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When tackling something new in life or writing, how do you determine the proper approach? Do you prefer to jump in first and ask questions later? And here’s another question: Do you think it’s unfair to be penalized for ignorance?

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Query Letter Advice: How to Avoid Being Buried in the Landslide

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If you’ve been writing with the goal of publication you’ve likely read a whole lot about pitching, querying and submitting. There are books and blogs filled with everything you need to know, but if you’re at all like me, there are times when you begin to experience “information overload” – that sense of being buried under a landslide of information.

In 1965 the largest landslide ever to occur in Canada sent approximately 47 million cubic metres of rock and mud careening down a mountain and across the adjoining valley not far from the small town of Hope, BC, 150 km northeast of Vancouver. The Hope Slide left a permanent debris field 85 metres (279 ft) deep and 3 kilometres (1.9 mi) wide*, and buried three vehicles.

The aftermath of a landslide isn’t stable ground. Not that you’d be tempted to hike across the base of one that has just descended – but if you did, you’d feel a worrisome uncertainty beneath your feet. A slight shift. Maybe a shudder. Always the possibility that nothing is quite settled, and if you dare to step out with false confidence you may find yourself carried away by further movement.

There are days when that uncertainty is similar to the hesitation we feel as we prepare to send off a query letter. Perhaps we’ve encountered conflicting information about submission guidelines. We’re not sure what to trust. Rather than risk taking a wrong step, we freeze, paralyzed by fear.

My best advice (and right now I’m talking to my own reflection in the mirror) is to determine which agent/agency or publisher is the best destination for your work, then scrutinize their website for specific requirements. Take the time to investigate the best route, even if it takes a little longer to navigate. You want to be sure there is a solid foundation for your approach.

In looking for help, I’ve found a number of good resources, but one of the best is today’s post on Rachelle Gardner’s website. How to Write a Query Letter: The Definitive Guide is excellent – thorough, yet concise.  Go have a look. It’ll put your querying feet on a solid rock.

What’s your approach to querying? Do you submit the same query to multiple destinations, or personalize each one for specific situations? Have you found a concise and effective way to describe your book… words that, if found as a blurb on the back cover, would hook potential readers into buying and reading it?

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“These words I speak to you are not incidental additions to your life, homeowner improvements to your standard of living. They are foundational words, words to build a life on. If you work these words into your life, you are like a smart carpenter who built his house on solid rock. Rain poured down, the river flooded, a tornado hit—but nothing moved that house. It was fixed to the rock.”
[Matthew 7:24-25 The Message]

* Reference: Wikipedia

Photos of Hope Slide by C. Garvin
All rights reserved

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