A Forest of Dead Trees

[Note: living trees look more inviting.]

by Jean Roberta

The most recent topic of discussion on another writers’ blog, “Oh Get a Grip,” was “chaos.” Each contributor interpreted this term differently. Some discussed the chaos in the world which can be inspiring to a writer, some described the chaos in a writer’s mind which can lead to unexpected connections which form a plot, and some talked about the apparent randomness of a writer’s luck in getting published (or not).

I’ve been dealing with the physical chaos in the second-story bedroom that my spouse and I call “the library.” It used to be filled with books in bookcases made of particleboard that were buckling under the weight. When I got a new, shelf-lined office in the university where I teach, I moved our whole fiction section there, along with much of the non-fiction. The empty bookshelves at home were so decrepit that I took them apart and recycled them.

Taking three-quarters of the books out of the “library” should have created more space, but it simply cleared more room for more stuff. At this point, I can’t remember how I managed to keep all my stuff in an apartment.

The home library has become an unofficial storage unit for stuff that doesn’t clearly belong anywhere else: paid bills (which might be needed as proof), framed artwork (which we haven’t decided where to place), two sewing machines (one a treasured antique from 1916 which first belonged to my grandmother), thread, ribbons, pins and fabric, a filing cabinet for important legal/financial documents, musical instruments (spouse comes from a musical family), greeting cards, stationery, envelopes, etc. Every few years, I reorganize, yet my organization plans don’t last.

Lately, I started sorting out the stack of papers related to my writing. One of my filing cabinets in my office at school contains numerous containers for correspondence with various publishers. One of my shelves is labelled “Dead Publishers,” and it includes material I can’t bear to throw away.

In the home library, I have two envelopes for two publishers I’ve dealt with at home during my time away from the classroom. One of them is Excessica, the writers’ co-op run by Selena Kitt where I have several pieces for sale, and really should post more. I also keep a running list of calls-for-submissions with deadlines which I keep updating and reprinting. Under that, I keep a list of my fiction pieces (short and long stories) in alphabetical order with word-counts, listed by content (het erotica, lesbian erotica, bisexual and ménage erotica, gay-male erotica, realistic-contemporary, historical, fantasy). I keep two lists of submissions: fiction and non-fiction, with dates and the places where I’ve sent them. When/if one of my submissions gets accepted or posted, I circle it.

Atop all this, I had a large pile of blank sheets of paper on which I had scrawled useful information: email addresses of writers and publishers, buy links for books, event listings, promo information, research notes. In the last week, I’ve managed to turn most of this handwritten material into files in my “Documents” on the home computer.

I probably sound well-organized, but I still feel lost in a paper forest. Any serious writer needs to stay on top of the business of writing while also making time to write and revise material for publication. I’ve noticed that several of my stories have been rejected once and haven’t been sent out again. Clearly, that needs to change, but I need to decide whether to revise them, and if so, by how much.

The last three years’ worth of fiction submissions show me that several editor/publishers gave me vague promises that they wanted to hang onto my stuff for publication sometime in the future. How soon should I send another query, and when should I give up hope and send these pieces somewhere else?

Or should I put everything else aside to write stories that need to be submitted SOON because deadlines are speeding toward me? I don’t have much time left before I have to start teaching three classes and marking assignments.

The Welsh poet Dylan Thomas described writing as a “lonely craft,” and I’ve seen it visually represented by images of empty boats and boats with one person in each, surrounded by vast bodies of water. These visual metaphors are not encouraging.

However, writers’ groups such as Erotic Readers and Writers bring writers together to critique each others’ work, kvetch, inform, and compare notes. I’m curious to know how other writers organize writing-related material so that everything can be found when needed.

Sorting Out

by Jean Roberta

This weekend, I have several big jobs to do, and I’m fairly sure I won’t finish them all. Unfortunately, none of them involves writing fiction.

1) I need to make a dent in my To Be Read list of books for review. The book that is most accessible to me physically is a hardcover anthology of fabulous (in every sense) lesbian sci-fi, just out from Lethe Press. In due course, I’ll post my review somewhere on-line, with a link on Facebook.

2) I really need to finish writing a first draft of my proposal for a book project for the university where I teach, so I can get time off to work on it. This book, which already has a publisher, will be about censorship, broadly speaking, not only the official kind imposed by governments but the mob-rule kind imposed by organizations which supposedly rebel against governments. The publisher wants me to focus on eyewitness events, for which I was present or involved. Egad. I have a mass of material that needs to be summarized in a logical way.

3) I need to start reading the pile of student essays that were handed in to me on Friday. The essays are on the short stories I’m teaching in a first-semester English class. The student efforts I’ve seen so far are not completely garbled, or incoherent, but they need work. It’s my job to explain how they could be improved, not because I want students to say exactly what I want them to say, but because I want them to express themselves as clearly as possible.

4) Later today, an expert in decluttering (who runs a business doing this) will arrive to help me tackle the basement of my house, which reminds me of a jungle or a war zone full of landmines. Ms. Declutter is a friend of my stepson, and she has been polite about the mess so far. I’m afraid we’ll probably have to take everything out of the basement to make sure we can find and destroy all the black mould. (I killed a large patch of it with bleach last week, and was lectured by my whole family for doing this without a mask or gloves.)

Looking at this intimidating to-do list, I see what all these tasks require: discrimination or judgment. Writing anything, fiction or non-fiction, requires the same skills that enable a person to create order in a house. What’s important needs to be identified and put in an appropriate place. What’s less important needs to be used to support or enhance the important stuff. What is not needed has to be discarded without mercy. No “maybe I can fix it and use it later.” If it’s taking up too much space, it has to go.

Reading an amazing collection of sci-fi stories, most by veteran writers, and then reading the writing of undergraduates in a mandatory English class, is a study in contrasts. Good writers demonstrate by example what works and what doesn’t work.

To show what I mean, here is the opening scene of “Eldritch Brown Houses” by Claire Humphrey in Daughters of Frankenstein (Lethe Press):

“This is Salem at its oldest and spookiest: cold fog off the ocean, daylight dimming early, gables and gombrels looming at odd angles. I’m gazing out from the upstairs window of the Corwin place, from beside a case of age-yellowed cloth dolls. The streets are empty except for the tail-lights of a single car, receding.”

Don’t you want to read the rest of this story? All the details in this paragraph, from the physical atmosphere to the vintage architecture to the aged dolls to the one modern car that is going away, combine to create a unified effect.

By contrast, a typical student essay reads somewhat like this:

“I am going to write about a story called “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman which is in a big book for my English class. This story was written in the 18th century.
[Note: students often confuse the 1800s, or nineteenth century, with the one before. It’s all in the past, and who cares about the difference?]
This story has a first-person viewpoint. It is about a woman who is depressed because she just had a baby. Her husband is a doctor named John. They go to stay in a house in the country for the summer. Some people think the house is haunted, but I don’t think so.”

Do you want to read the rest of this essay? Please, for me? I didn’t think so. Note the scatter-gun effect. What does the viewpoint, the character’s depression or the husband have to do with ghosts, or the illusion of ghosts?

In my comments on the student assignment, I will have to be more articulate than the student. I will have to explain that all the information in the opening paragraph can be used in some way, but it all needs to support the student writer’s thesis, that this story is NOT about ghosts. The widespread perception of contemporary readers (from the time of first publication) that the story IS about ghosts – or even demonic possession — needs to be debunked.

When dealing with a mass of material, in the form of notes, ideas, or physical objects, I need to apply my own advice to myself. What effect am I aiming for? What could be added, and what needs to be pulled out? If I have good material, how should it be arranged for best results?

It’s easier said than done, but just naming the challenge ahead is a good first step.

Other writing instructors before me have pointed out that half the job of writing is editing. Many writers before me have found this part to be the “work” of writing (as distinct from the “play”), but it can’t be avoided, and it can be as much a journey of discovery as the typing of a first sentence.

To those involved in a parallel process of shaping a work of creative writing, I say: Don’t give up! Be equally ruthless with irrelevant details and with the black mould of writer’s block. You are not alone.

Hot Chilli Erotica

Hot Chilli Erotica


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