Thursday, December 18, 2008

Stuck

I hate getting stuck with my writing. And what's more frustrating is that I know where I want to take this, but I'm just stuck, for some reason. Whether I'm not exactly sure how to transition from A to B, or I'm just too chicken shit to move forward -- fear of sucking, I suppose.

Oh well. Back to procrastinating -- or as my friend said: organizing my thoughts.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

First paragraph

Nathan Bransford is currently holding his second "first paragraph" contest (see link for details).

I was just thinking, how important it is to have a stellar first paragraph?  Ideally, an agent should read the entire first chapter (or sample chapters) before deciding on whether to ask for more or reject you. Realistically, I've read that an agent may not even get past the first paragraph.

So I went to Nathan's blog and checked out some of the entries. What I discovered was interesting. For a moment, I completely understood what an agent may go through day in and day out with hundreds, if not thousands of submissions a week. Reading through the contest entries, I started to skimp. I'd speed-read, and if the first few sentences (sometimes, even the FIRST sentence) did not grab me, or if the writing was not up to par, I would skip and go immediately to the next entry.

No, it's not fair. And you may think a professional agent should have more patience than that -- after all, you really can't judge a book by its first paragraph, right? Or should you? Are we encouraging short attention spans by putting everything into the first paragraph?  And what works? What doesn't?

I'm not an agent, but I'm a writer and reader, and I've read a lot. The thing I found out while reading the contest entries was that instinctively, I looked for something specific because I simply did not have the time to read every entry from the first word to last. I could see, often, within the first two sentences that the writer either a) did not have the writing chops, or b) did not understand effective storytelling, or c) tried too hard to impress. Many entries started with a body, or bloodshed, or murder, or some calamity. Some started with an outlandish "what if" scenario. Some started with a mundane description of the location or character and, by the end of the first paragraph, failed to advance the plot and tell me why I should read on. Some were littered with grammatical errors or overuse of conventions such as dangling participles, adverbs, vague adjectives, etc.

I also realized that the "voice" was very important, and I could sometimes overlook the lack of plot or conflict because the voice was intriguing enough. Also, if the writing was good (voice, style, tone, word choices, etc.), I'd be eager to read on even if the story was not something I'd read usually.

Simply reading through about 100 or so of the entries has taught me a few things, as I temporarily put myself in the shoes of an agent:

- We're vying for an agent's attention, competing with hundreds, if not thousands of other writers
- An agent only has so much time to decide if a manuscript is worth pursuing
- A good, well-read agent will likely to know the quality of the writing by the first paragraph, or sometimes the first sentence
- The first paragraph should excite, enthrall, and make the readers ask pertinent questions, so they'll be more likely to read on and find out what happens next
- The voice/style of the writing is just as important, if not more, than the actual plot movement
- Cliches that are taken straight out of a rule book is not particularly enticing:  a body or murder or explosion in the very first paragraph; descriptions of character or setting; some kind of internal angst before we even know the character; outlandish "what if" scenario right off the bat

The fact is, agents are human, and they only have so much time in a day and they want to maximize their effort while still find that gem in the huge piles of material. So, yes, they will skimp.

I did.


Thursday, December 4, 2008

Be Thankful (a Belated Thanksgiving Thought)

As a perpetual dreamer and idealist, I tend to get into a mind set about what life could have been, might have been, or could be. Not that I'm being unrealistic and can't tell the difference between a daydream and reality. But a vivid imagination is part of a writer-artist's core.

As a child, I used to daydream a lot. For a while, I think between the age of 8 and 10, I truly believed I could become a wizard. I even had my handmade wands (made from chopsticks) to prove it. Of course, that was years before it became okay to believe you're a wizard, thanks to J.K. Rowling.

As an adult, I don't daydream that much anymore because real life and responsibilities have made me a more cynical, cautious, and pragmatic realist. Even when I'm writing my fiction, deep down I know it's not real, they're just lies to tell the truth about the real world, and my real goal is to get published, get read, and make a lot of money. :)

Lately, though, I did start to wonder: What if my life did turn out differently? I guess in many ways we all wish for things we didn't or couldn't have. The grass next door is greener -- the whole shebang. I wouldn't say I regret my life -- yesterday a friend asked me, "Are you happy, Ray?" And my answer, honestly, is that I'm neither happy nor unhappy; I'm content. My life is neither exciting nor boring, but content. I neither demand attention nor resent it. I'm rather at peace with where I am. There are certainly things I still want, which I can get but not without some kind of major sacrifices. Now, I'm no stranger to sacrifices: I left home at a young age and didn't see my family for years, for example. But where I am now, I feel less inclined to make any sacrifices. The reason?

There just doesn't seem to be something I really, truly, passionately want, that would prompt me to drop everything else to get it. Life, to me, has become a steady stream of peace and contentment. There's absolutely nothing wrong with peace and contentment, but it's ironically a "challenge" for me to adapt to. I've always been a person of goals, of desires and wants, of motivation and drive. These days, I wouldn't even pick up the phone and call because I just don't care that much. Whatever will be will be. It is as if I took a chill pill (or a major antidepressant or something). I'm not the same aggressive, impatient, agitated goal-getter I was 10 years ago.

I don't know if it's a good or bad thing. Just different. Perhaps I've reached a point in my life where "success" or "failure," in the conventional sense, don't matter that much anymore. Is this enlightenment, that the Buddha spoke of? Or self-delusion? An inner peace? Or just stagnation? Am I becoming complacent? Have I lost my passion? Or is this a sign of maturity and acceptance?  That I'm thankful for what I have?

On the other hand, I began to understand more about my own duality: the wants and not-wants, the yes and the no, the here and the there, the this and the that.  In the past, I think I was impatient, scared, and discontent with the notion that I might just be only one thing, or that who I am can be easily put inside of a box with a giant label on it. I think I'm at a point where I realize, "it's okay to be different things to different people, to myself."  If that's the true me, then I'm okay with it. I want to be true to it.

In a way, I feel like I'm on the verge of another discovery, another phase of my life where my urgency of seeking and learning will reignite, and off I will go again. I'm not sure what yet. But I've always known that I have, and always will be, a seeker and learner. I know that I'll be 95 years old and I will still be learning and appreciating new things. Maybe this really is a quiet before the storm and a new phase will start before I know it.

Let me sip my tea, and ponder some more.