Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Across the Great Divide

There are few things more horrific in a writer's life than discovering that a manuscript is gone.

I mean, just GONE. Not there. Not where it used to be. Or, if there, filed under some name so obscure, it will never come to mind.

After a lifetime of writing first drafts by hand, and slowly putting them into the computer chapter-by-chapter (printing them out all the way), I decided - or not, it just happened - to skip that step and write directly on the computer.

It worked so well, I could hardly believe it. It took so much of the drudgery out of the process. I could type like the wind. Mistakes didn't matter. I could move blocks of text around. It was great! (Why didn't I think of this before? What a stick-in-the-mud I had been.)

But I had no idea I'd undertaken a paradigm shift (please forgive the awful term, but I can't think of another one: whackydoodle, maybe?) of monstrous proportions. When writing in longhand, the novel would develop in 3D. I could scribble in the margins, cross out paragraphs and then re-insert them elsewhere, shuffle pages around with different potential bits of story on them. Throw things out that I knew were superfluous. Eventually, organically, the manuscript would grow and take shape, with a parallel refining process happening on the computer.

It worked for about six novels. Why did I stop? Because when I sat down and began writing The Glass Character, I never expected to start a new novel. I was just going to make some notes on Harold Lloyd (honest!). But something happened: some sort of dam broke. It started to pour rather than trickle, so I figured this swift new method was the right way to do it.

I guess I must have tried to duplicate the old system electronically, or something, but it was a complete disaster. I saved each bit of material, potential or actual or even horrible, in a separate file. Then I decided to clump the files together, but I didn't erase all the individual ones because I wasn't sure where they were.

I ended up with two "sets", but not duplicates of each other, though close in some places, plus maybe thirty more individual files scattered around under names I could not remember. A jigsaw puzzle, potentially whole, but rattling around in a box. At the time I wrote it, I knew I'd remember how to retrieve all this: easy stuff! It always worked for me before. (Ironically, at this point The Glass Character existed unequivocally in only one form: the hard copy.)

I'm no Luddite, but it seems to me that making the leap from pencil to keyboard is more radical than people realize. I did a reading at the Vancouver Public Library a few years ago, and was astounded when all the other writers said (or admitted, with considerable embarrassment) that they wrote their initial drafts in longhand. Truly, I had believed I was the only one left.

Yesterday was not a good day, but nevertheless I sucked it up, reassembled the puzzle and put together seven queries. I hate odd numbers, but this was as far as I could go without collapsing. Knowing that the really big presses (Penguin, Random House, HarperCollins) won't look at unagented work, and falling completely flat in my search for an agent (remember the rubber stamp?), I knew I'd have to start with the mid-list presses where I can represent myself. This wasn't a bad thing: I like those presses, and I like what they can do for authors.

Then imagine my dismay (dismay, dismay) when I found out that one of the most potentially desirable presses had had to downsize so radically that they moved out of their old quarters and in with another publisher: the literary equivalent of moving back in with your parents.

It wasn't a good sign. I had to assume the other six were struggling equally. Many had switched their main mandate to non-fiction (with a side of kids' books, which are usually written as ongoing series) because there is a perception that literary fiction just can't make it in a competitive market.

I think publishers need a paradigm shift of their own. I believe that literary fiction WILL sell via Kindle and other electronic media. But these guys and gals aren't yet thinking in those terms. They're thinking of paper and book-binding and expensive author tours. What about ONE YouTube video that goes "viral"? It'd be the equivalent of a hundred author tours, not to mention millions of trees in an already-denuded forest.

I'm really up against it here, and I've never known it more than I do now. I feel so strongly about this novel (which I haven't written much about, with my deep dread of jinxing it) that at the moment I have to continue to plod on in the old system. Sending paper and envelopes and stamps (with my DNA on them: some small comfort) is horse-and-buggy stuff.

But there's another side to this. Emailing manuscripts to publishers isn't a magic solution, as I've found that they're very easy to ignore or even delete. That's because editors don't yet know how to work with them.

They don't pile up on your desk in a slippery mountain, begging for your attention. They're more abstract than material. Subconsciously or otherwise, editors are used to riffling papers and marking things up with a red pen. A link in your inbox just can't compete.

How do I know this? Oy vey, how I know this! That's the whole point of this post. You don't just chuck out decades of habit and experience, and methods that have worked efficiently for years and years, just because the rest of the world has told you to throw the whole thing out and start over.

We're between systems here, and writers are suffering because of it. If and when I write another novel (and a plot is squeezing itself into my brain right now), I may well use my computer, but I will be extremely careful about saving things. I can't just stick every fragment into a separate file, being certain I'll remember where I put it months later.

I'll try to be aware, as I write, that I am attempting to make a leap across a great chasm. It isn't just a different method of production, but a radically different system, demanding a whole new way of thinking.

Hey, mid-list publishers! Are you listening? I think I might be on to something here. And while I'm at it. . . listen, have I got a novel for you!