Adam Reger | Freelance Writer

Pittsburgh-based freelance writer

Tag: novel writing

New fiction at Euphony

I am very pleased and proud to have a short story, “Cruelty,” in the Spring 2016 issue of Euphony, out of the University of Chicago. You can read the story online here.

A little background on this piece. This is all that remains of a novel I wrote during graduate school, then drastically rewrote several times after graduation. That novel (working title: “Isolation Drills”), after lots of reworking, featured a narrator who was making an academic study of pornographic films and who met and began to date a woman. It was a classic first attempt at a novel, with lots of stuff pulled from my life (NOT the porn thing!), not much plot, and some not-very-well-drawn scenes and characters. The whole drafting process was an invaluable study in what’s required for a novel and how to write one (plan! Revise!), but I’m grateful I don’t have to look at or think about those pages anymore.

Even so, the central conflict of the novel and the relationship between the two main characters stuck with me, and at some point last summer I had two related thoughts: “Is there any way I can salvage anything from those multiple drafts and hundreds of pages?” and “What if the perspective shifted from his to hers?”

And so “Cruelty” came to be.

Notes for Next Time

(I was tempted to title this something flashy and contemporary-seeming, like “One Weird Trick to Make It Easy to Jump into Writing,” but opted for the more prosaic title you see above.)

Anyway, a note stemming from last night’s meeting of my “Writing Studio” class at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts. (Briefly, this is a class whose purpose is to offer writers of all genres/backgrounds the time to write, with some hopefully-stimulating elements like a weekly craft talk, exercise prompts, discussion time, the option to share pages with me and get feedback. Basically, think of an open studio in pottery or painting—it’s like that, but with writing.) Two meetings in, the class has been great fun and very stimulating—for me but, far more importantly, for the students, a number of whom have told me they’ve been enjoying it and getting lots done.

We had a great discussion regarding writing process, and someone brought up Hemingway’s practice of stopping a day’s writing in the middle of a sentence so that he’d have a natural and easy place to start the following day.

This prompted me to share something I do when I stop writing for the day that has come to seem so natural, I quite forgot that I’d ever not done it. The students seemed interested, so I thought I’d share it here as well.

Going off the Hemingway practice, which was designed so that Papa could stop when there was more to be written and it would be fairly clear, the following day, what should come next, I have gotten into the habit of marking the place where I’m going to pick up tomorrow and then writing a short note about what I think can or will happen next.

For example, here’s what I wrote at the end of today’s work on a piece that I think will eventually add up to a novel:

“echoes of Homewood, someone saw him give Malaki a hug and wants a hug too; asks Pete’s advice on Hilda”

This will of course be complete nonsense to you, but it means something to me and when I begin work on this piece tomorrow I can look at this and remember what I thought might be a good next step.

I have the option to follow those notes as if they were a blueprint, but it’s only an option. What I think is important is that these ideas present suggestions I can consider following (and decide to do something else—for instance, I might decide this bit about the hug is stupid, after all, and ignore it), begin to follow and then change course, or follow to the letter if I’m simply not feeling very original (or if I still agree with these ideas).

As I said, this has become a thing I do unconsciously when writing, as ingrained as having a cup of coffee nearby and my internet connection disabled. But several of the students remarked that picking up the thread of a piece of writing often costs them a bit of time and effort each time they get started back up on something, and I remembered that that used to be an issue for me, too. Hopefully this is an idea that can be beneficial to somebody out there.

A bold reimagining of ghostwriting

Two of the more fun freelance writing projects I’ve done have been ghostwriting gigs. One was a novel and one was a children’s book, and in both cases I really enjoyed talking to the author, figuring out what he/she wanted, and then sitting down and delivering the product.

Periodically, I’ll seek out more ghostwriting work by looking around Craig’s List, sometimes advertising my services there, or doing a search for “ghostwriter” on Indeed.com, a job-listing aggregator that has saved me time before. The stuff you find in these places is, however, not often worth finding. At least on Indeed, a lot of it comes by way of elance and oDesk, marketplaces where writers (and others offering services) bid on the jobs posted. Finding an appealing job listed there is always an exercise in deflation, because the person offering the job, either from an understanding of how the marketplace works or from simple cheapness, doesn’t offer much money; the situation is worsened by the bidders, who undercut one another and drive the price down. I suppose it’s classic economics, but it’s always a tough thing to see. Invariably I end up thinking about how many books I could read in the time it would take me to write someone’s non-fiction book and be paid $300 for my trouble.

This is all background to introduce an ad I stumbled upon today, one that truly stood out from the crowd. While the job-poster gets points for forthrightness, surveying what I know about ghostwriting I must say that this is a new one on me:

“I want to buy your completed manuscript/novel” reads the headline; “You will sign over the publishing rights and will not be credited in the book. Essentially, you will become a ghostwriter for it. Once a relationship is established this could lead to more work with much higher pay.”

Yikes. I guess that constitutes a ghostwriting relationship. Except for the part where I wrote this novel for myself, to hopefully publish under my own name. You know, as part of my hopes and dreams. But I guess I could sell it to you and have you publish it under your or someone else’s name . . . I mean, that would at least spare me the hassle of wrangling with publishers and agents, right? Really, what’s the harm—and I’m sure it’s a decent wage, right? . . . The average bid is how much? $1,527? (as of publication time)

To be honest, I was intrigued by this proposal because I thought of the first two novels I wrote. Neither one has seen the light of day; neither friend nor literary agent has seen these bad boys. I’m not proud enough to send them out into the world under my own name. Why not unload them on this guy?

Because he/she wants the first three chapters for consideration, but “. . . be prepared to send over the entire MS on short notice if you make it to the next round.” Also, he ends the post with “Good luck!” So now it’s a contest? Where the prize is peanuts to take my novel and publish it under your own name?

The crazy thing is, I’m still not at all sure I won’t be doing this. If you opt to do it, fellow writers, good luck!

First Draft: Done

Well, friends, this morning I finished the last remaining scene of the novel I’ve been working on since some time in January. (I don’t know offhand how long this took, but based on this blog post I’d guess I started around mid-January, and was definitely at work outlining the novel by then. Four to four-and-a-half months is pretty good, in my experience.)

I’m very lucky to be leaving, later today, for a long period of travel: Germany, then Italy, then Las Vegas. Lucky to be going at all, of course, but in particular I’m lucky to have a natural break come up, to not even have the option of peeking at this draft for almost two weeks. Further, I won’t be able to do more than some intermittent, notebook-in-coffee-shop(-or-beer-hall, as the case may be) writing during this time; in the past I’ve hamstrung myself a bit by starting other stuff during my “cooling off” period just after finishing a draft, and coming back to these messy drafts a little less interested and enthusiastic.

In terms of interest and enthusiasm, I’m still excited about the novel’s potential. It’s way too long (it’s somewhere around 115,000 words, which comes out to something like 400–450 pages), and a lot of the scenes will need to be made more scene-like. It’s full of places where I wrote notes in brackets like “[what is friend’s name?]” or “[confirm this later].” Sometimes I thought I had a great handle on the characters, they surprised me, and at others I felt I’d completely lost the thread.

But that’s the nature of writing a novel. Even if you hate Ernest Hemingway’s work, if you’re a writer you should appreciate his two semi-famous quotes (i.e., famous among writers and writing students) on first drafts: “The first draft of anything is shit”; and “The important thing about a first draft is finishing the damn thing.”

Apologies for the noodling, barely-veiled-triumphalist feel to this blog post (especially as it’s likely to be the last one for a while). One further note, towards making this post interesting and useful to anyone else, is that (as mentioned here, at the outset of the novel) I used Randy Ingermanson’s “Snowflake Method” of novel outlining, and it was really pretty helpful. The chronic problems of aimlessness and compulsory-feeling workdays didn’t disappear, but they were contained within each scene: I could make a character stare out a window, thinking, for a few paragraphs, but I knew that eventually he had to start walking again and proceed to point B. That was a big help in limiting the number of scenes that are themselves completely gratuitous and static (though given the length of this draft, I’m sure there are some of those, too). I had my reservations towards the Snowflake Method going in, but I found the questions it raised useful, and I expect a lot of the materials I generated—character sketches, brief and less-brief distillations of the novel’s overall trajectory—will be useful to refer back to, and probably amend, as I begin the long process of revision.

On Teaching (and Learning) How to Write the Novel

If you’re inside a particular literary circle already, this is old news to you. If not, writer and teacher (formerly in Pitt’s MFA program) Cathy Day has an insightful article over at The Millions entitled “The Story Problem: 10 Thoughts on Academia’s Novel Crisis.” (Her original title was the less-provocative “The Big Thing: 10 Thoughts on Moving from ‘Story’ to ‘Book.'”) Basically, it makes the point that most creative-writing programs are centered around the short story, rather than the novel, and goes from there.

It’s fascinating reading for anyone who’s concerned with this stuff. I suspect it’s even more crucial if you’re teaching a creative writing class, or enrolled in one; it looks like there’s been tons of commentary below the article itself.

For myself, I found the “problem” Cathy Day points to weirdly inspiring. (Quotes around “problem” because, as per her original title, it’s not so much a problem as it is the state of things, for better or for worse; she suggests “think[ing] outside the workshop” but isn’t more specific than that, which is fine since the piece is more a conversation-starter than a prescription for change.)

And by that I mean that I’m pleased to know that the novel remains outside the reach of academia. I don’t believe in the “MFA effect” or that there really exists an “MFA story.” In fact, I kind of hate that kind of argument. And yet, I do think that MFA programs have had a leveling effect on the craft side of things, allowing lots of decent writers to craft good-enough stories that eventually find homes in journals but which are not often worth reading. I guess that’s harsh, but my experience with most lit mags is more akin to a buffet than a feast: I try a little of this story, then move on to the next. Most are well-written, but fail to convince me to care about what happens in them.

I like, by contrast, that writing a novel remains a major feat, a challenge that workshops can prepare one for, but only so much. Cathy Day cites John Barth’s distinction of “sprinters” and “marathon runners” among writers, and I like that. Plenty of people run a marathon each year: I’ve seen estimates of about 500,000 Americans. But that’s something like five percent of all the people who ran at least one road race in a year, and less than two percent of Americans. It’s a strikingly uncommon phenomenon, for the simple reason that it’s difficult to do.

Both novel writing and running a marathon are difficult because of the sheer volume of work that goes into both. A personal trainer can give you tips on marathon training, and might even accompany you on a few runs. But unless he or she is really well-paid and/or really dedicated, you’ll be doing some of those runs alone, and you’ll have to get yourself up at 6 a.m. at least some of the time. The same idea seems to hold when it comes to novel writing, and it’s this problem that Cathy Day illuminates: a workshop can do a really good job evaluating the first chapter of your novel, but after that the volume of work it would take to properly critique the thing becomes prohibitive.

I guess that that’s what I like, that for some things the only answer is to work through it. Sure, there are running groups organized around a specific race, and you can form a group of friends who’re all writing their novel. But you’ve got to press every key yourself, just like you’ve got to take every stride. The act of keeping it up, of getting down to work and keeping your seat, isn’t something anyone else can teach. And I like that.

Noveling

I wanted to share a novel-writing resource I’ve found useful over the last few weeks, as I’ve changed course while working on my novel. As usual, I’ve gone on at length in the run-up to sharing this valuable resource, Randy Ingermanson’s “Snowflake Method” for outlining a novel, so I’ll link to it here in case you’d rather not wade through the waist-high verbiage below.

In a nutshell, I became frustrated with the increasing aimlessness of my novel. I had what I thought was a good idea of where it was going, what the various threads were, and so forth. But each scene seemed inessential, even dull. I felt like I was writing only for the purpose of getting that day’s word count in. I could all too easily see to the end of this process, when I’d have a first draft I didn’t care to revise, and would be faced with re-writing the entire thing.

I thought, “What will I do before the second draft to make this less of a mess?” The best answer was that I’d look through, see what I had, and rigorously plot out the second draft based on the storylines and characters I’d worked out. This satisfied me for about thirty seconds before the obvious occurred to me: why not plot it out beforehand?

I’ve never worked that way before. I’m not ideological about it, though; I just think it’s fun to free write, catch a hint of where this thing is going, and then follow it there. I think Stephen King, in his surprisingly great On Writing, describes this method as something like finding dinosaur bones in the ground and then just following the process of excavating them. I’ve found that solid . . . but it’s never worked for me for the novel. Part of what gave me pause as my novel went along in its bumbling fashion was that I’ve been here before. I’ve written two novels, and each one I wrote more than once. That thing I said about getting to the end of a first draft and not caring to revise it? Yeah, I was very much speaking from experience on that one. (I would argue that my first novel is more like three novels, since each one shifted focus quite a bit.)

So I was left with the alternative: to plot. (I should stop and confess this is hardly a new dilemma for a writer to face; so much so, the website for National Novel Writing Month has at least one forum thread dedicated to the “Plotters versus Panters” (i.e., by the seat of your pants) schools of thought, and there are over 70,000 Google results for that search phrase. (Interestingly, “Plotters versus Panthers” turns up about eight times more results. Go figure.))

I looked around the internet for resources or advice on outlining a novel. Read the rest of this entry »