rejection, submissions, Writing

IS DUOTROPE WORTH THE $5/MO SUBSCRIPTION FEE?

There are a lot of services out there for writers, and one of the ones you may have seen floating about (or not!) is Duotrope. Duotrope is a website for writers and editors that facilitates finding markets to send your fiction, and tracking your fiction submissions. It has one of the most comprehensive lists of genre markets I’ve found online, compared to other sites that piecemeal lists of magazines, anthologies, and contests. It provides statistical analysis of your writing submissions, how long certain markets took to respond, whether you received an acceptance or a rejection, and how often you’ve sent submissions to a specific market, among other metrics.

I came across Duotrope years ago, probably in my earliest attempts to start submitting fiction, along with Ralan.com, which was my primary go-to. Ralan.com is a great alternative, because it’s free, and pretty up-to-date, and Ralan does a solid job of curating his list, which means you don’t get a lot of tiny, just-for-exposure markets cluttering up his site. He organizes by pay-scale (Pro, Semi, Pay) and additional market type (antho, books). Having worked with him from the magazine end back in the days of The Zombie Feed, I can say he’s rather cranky, but fair, and he didn’t give me too much trouble when we had to update a listing. Duotrope is more hands-off, submit a form, get it approved type deal. Ralan’s got a personal touch.

The catch with Duotrope is that it requires subscription, if you want to get beyond the week-long free trial. You can subscribe for $5/month or $50/year, the latter thereby saving you a month’s subscription fee for the upfront cost. For years, I would dip into Duotrope for a couple months, pay the $5 on a when-I-need-it basis in order to get access to their search feature (truly one of the exemplary elements of Duotrope is their searchability based on genre, length, pay-rate, and title (if you’re looking for a specific market)), and then dip out again. For years, it really wasn’t worth it to me to pay $50/year just to have a searchable market list. Ralan’s could pretty much serve my searching purposes, provided I didn’t mind scanning the black-background/white text website, and I’ve had plenty of luck finding good markets via his lists.

But then something changed. I actually started submitting. Before, I might submit one or two stories a year and really helicopter-mom them: I’d fret over them and wait, and wait, and wait, and query when necessary, and it was easy enough to track them from market to market and not get into trouble by accidentally resending a story to a market that had already rejected it. But a couple years ago, I started really submitting. In 2019, I had over nine stories out for submission at any given time, and let me tell you, that will mess with your mind. It’s like juggling: sometimes Story 3 that just come back will be perfect for X market, but you’ve already got Story 5 story at X market (for the past 40 days), and you need to query X market to see if Story 5 is still being reviewed, if it got bumped to a shortlist, or if they never received it and/or it got lost, and X market requires you to wait 7-10 days before submitting a new story, so… If you’re at all like me, beyond two stories, the multiple moving parts start getting impossible to keep track of efficiently. Stories come back rejected, but you forget about them because the next market on the list for them is currently occupied, or temporarily closed to submissions, or has a please-wait-after-rejection clause, so it languishes un-submitted, and then seven months later, you’re like OH CRAP, I could have had this out months ago…

I used to track my fiction entirely by hand, which worked for a while. I’d write a list of markets, their expected response times, and pay-grade in one column, and then rank them by priority, often considering which market might be the best fit (if not always the #1 best paying) for a given story. Today, this is what my hand-written tracking notebook looks like (which I still use and update as I submit, but being a hardcopy, it’s not easily searchable, and things get lost in the pages):

Scribbling, chaotic, multi-color notes.

Each story you put out there becomes its own vector for complexity, and if you don’t have a very, very good system for keeping track of what’s submitted/on-hold/rejected/accepted/lost, it’s going to be nearly impossible to be efficient about deciding where Story 9 goes when it’s ready to launch.

THIS is when I recommend spending the $5/mo on Duotrope.

My favorite feature of Duotrope is their submissions tracker. It keeps a record of your submittable stories (title, length, genre, sub-genre), and a record of every market you’ve tried that story at. Each time you submit, you just jump on Duotrope, add a new submission to the tracker, and voila-! It keeps track of a market’s expected response time (how long they say it’ll take), average response time (how long it has actually taken for other submitters), and when to expect a response. It will highlight a submission’s wait-time in red text if you’ve waited longer than the average time and might need to query. It will generate lists of where each submission has gone already, what it’s responses were, and whether it made a market’s shortlist. This, I find, is the most invaluable element of Duotrope, because it makes it easy to see a list of your current submissions and their various statuses all in one glance.

I still utilitze Ralan.com often, because sometimes he gets faster tips from writers about market changes than Duotrope does (for example, if a favorite market is looking to start back up again, he may put a note on that listing), but Duotrope is my second brain for all submissions. I’ve yet to come across a market that was listed on Ralan that wasn’t listed on Duotrope also, but I like to cross-reference, and Ralan’s notes on a market can be helpful in deciding if it’s a worthy market to try for. I also still utilize my paper method of tracking, mostly for a place to compile itineraries, and then jotting down any personal rejection notes. But for juggling more than two submissions, Duotrope is an absolute life-saver and has saved me a lot of confusion and embarrassment.

What’s more, at the end of the year, I can generate a report that shows all my submissions for the year, or all my personal rejections for a year, or all my acceptances, or all my rejections, and that really helps me track my progress from year to year. In fact, last year, I used Duotrope’s tracker to compare my submission rate from 2019 to my all-time best from almost a decade before, and thanks to those reports, got a much better and more realistic view of how I’m doing in my career than I would have had just trying to guesstimate.

SO! TL;DR: If you’re currently submitting more than two or three stories at a time to various markets, and are starting to find it challenging to keep track of them, I would highly recommend Duotrope. If you’re only submitting one or two stories a year, it’s probably not necessary yet. Get yourself a good notebook for tracking and make use of Ralan.com for some top-tier listings. Note: Ralan.com is a genre list, so it won’t have many purely literary markets.

P.S. – A word of warning: If you’re still heavily utilizing the Writer’s Market annual book and you’re writing primarily genre fiction: cross-check. Writer’s Market was great before the internet, but nowadays, it seems to be out-of-date almost the instant its released. Many genre markets (and well-paying ones!) are online-only, and their submissions periods can change without warning. Some markets that exist at the beginning of the year when WM is published aren’t even around by mid-year. I highly, highly recommend–if you do use WM–make sure to check accuracy with Duotrope or Ralan.com (or, better yet, the market itself!) before submitting. You’ll save yourself (and the editors you want to impress) a lot of headache!

baby, Daily Check-In, Journal

Surfacing at Last

Wow. What a last few months it’s been! From Mo*Con at the beginning of May, to the hubby’s graduation from med school (Hooray!!!), to the Little Man’s first birthday & meeting the awesome Gene O’Neill for root beer floats, to the Little Man’s FIRST STEPS, to moving into our new place in Mass, to car/driver’s license registration, orientation, health insurance swapping, and tack on a sick cat, a couple book formatting projects, a brief but tremendous spike in Etsy shop traffic & sales, and half a dozen plus rejections paired with a brand new story sale (still somewhat secret–woo!)–deep gasping breath: you can see the kind of month(s) it’s been.

Needless to say, I’m digging out and finally surfacing. Writing has been, predictably, pretty sporadic these last eight weeks. There’s been quite a bit of novel-rewrite prep-work, note carding/plotting/etc., but not much for new words. But! I’m already planning to start a six month Chekhov plan (a short story a week, so a total of 26 drafts) to build up my editable (and subsequently, submittable) inventory again. Having a rush of new words, without worrying about editing or changing or fixing–maybe just focusing on one or two problem areas I tend to have (gripping beginnings, interesting PoVs, that sort of thing)–really helps me clear out the creative pipes. More often than not, I find few stories out of the batch that I really, really love (and sometimes a lot more). If nothing else, it tends to get the cliché, boring, or stupid ideas out of my head that won’t go away and are clogging up the idea storage bin in my head.

But things are just beginning to settle down. For the month of July, I need to 1) finish some plotting work on a novel rewrite, 2) retype a problematic short story that I need reviewed by a few talented writer-friends (because I sure as heck have no idea how to fix it…), and 3) start a fun, relaxing, totally non-publishing-worried story for a friend who needs a pick-me-up (and am SO excited about just writing something for someone specific to make them happy). There are a ton of other projects in the wings, and I’ve got to read more, but–*le sigh*. One thing at a time, one day at a time. At least the Little Man’s starting to go down at night so well that I can usually get a couple of hours to myself in the evenings. I’m thinking: writing time! :D

Over and out…for now…

But

Daily Check-In, editing, journa, Writing

Small Victories

Today in Mommy-Land

Trying to get back on the blogging horse! This morning, Andy, the Little Man, and I went out with my good friend K— to breakfast at Parker’s Maple Barn (deeeeelicious). Little Man had tastes of pancake, non-spicy sausage, potato fries, and french toast, which he loved very much. While K— and I caught up, he and Andy walked around. My mother got him some itty bitty baby shoes with good soles on them, and now that he’s discovered walking outside (it’s been so beautiful, weather-wise lately!), he almost never wants to stop. He looks so big wearing shoes! Like a proper toddler, and not much of a baby at all.

Yesterday, we took him to the library park for the first time, and he rode on the baby swings (pretty fun), sat on a wobbly thing (with support–kind of fascinating), spun on a whirligig with Mom (okay, kinda weird), and slid down a slide with Daddy (NOT FUN AT ALL, WHY ARE YOU TORTURING MEEEEE?!) Then we went to Mine Falls in Nashua, and walked around for quite a while. It was so beautiful out, and it’s been spoiling me something rotten to have Andy around mid-week. We figure we’ll soak it up now, since come July, I probably won’t see him for a year. XD

We also bought a pint of kumquats to try, since we’ve always toyed with the idea of getting a kumquat plant, but weren’t sure if we’d like it. I’m pleased to report, we do! They’re very citrusy–like an orange-lemon combo–with quite a tart kick, but very sweet, edible rinds. I, personally, prefer to remove the rind, since it has a way of sticking around in my teeth after I’ve eaten it, but otherwise, they’re quite tasty.

Today in Writer-Land

As is always the case when Andy’s around these days, I didn’t get any writing done yesterday, though I did start the retyping of a short story I’m editing on Monday, so that’s making slow but measurable progress. I also found out that one of my short stories, “Snap,” is being held at a really nice little small press publication, so fingers crossed on that one! Got two other rejections yesterday and today (rawr…), but got them both resubmitted this afternoon (yay!).

In keeping with the title, my small victory is this: I counted my total rejections from 2014 and 2015 (so far), and last year I got a total of 19 rejections, and so far just within the first four months of 2015, I’ve gotten 21! Now, this may not seem like a victory, but it is, and I’ll tell you why: in previous years (prior to 2014), I’m not sure I even submitted fiction 19 times. So that’s Victory #1. And then on top of that, I’ve already topped my 2014 total submissions, so I’m doing better than last year!

Here’s a question: What metrics–writing-wise–do you find helpful to track/keep a record of?

I’ve determined I need to focus more on competing with myself when it comes to writing, rather than constantly measuring myself up against more successful authors. For one, it’s not a fair measurement, because I only see the good things going on for them, and oftentimes they’ve been in the field a lot longer than I have. For two, it takes the focus off the writing, which is really the only thing I have control over. So I’m doubling-down on self-awareness and trying to be mindful about the kinds of discouraging thoughts that pop into my head on a near-constant basis. I also want to start tracking my own process metrics (total submissions, for example). I’ve been considering metrics like personalized-to-form rejections ratio from markets I submit to often, maybe word count (though that’s tricky with editing, which is most of what I’m doing these days), maybe length of project (how long it takes from when I start a new story vs. if/when I finish editing and submit it), etc. So what works for you/what data do you find interesting to follow?

It's all about the Data...
It’s all about the Data…

Journal

Wrestling the Bull

Today in Mommy-Land

*Phew!* Missed the last couple days because the hubby was home for an extended weekend, but we all had fun hanging out. The weather has been so nice, we’ve actually gotten out for walks! The Little Man’s nap schedule is still somewhat holding, though Monday was a little disrupted due to being out and about running errands out and about.

He’s started babbling even more lately, stringing lots of syllables together in almost sentences. It’s terribly cute! The monster growling isn’t as common, though, so that’s kind of sad. It’s amazing how quickly he goes through these vocalization phases. Whispering one week, clicking his tongue the next, monster growls, crescendo’ing screeches–it’s always changing. But it is fascinating to watch. He’s also just learned how to open cabinets, and has been pulling out all the non-breakable things (as the breakable things are up on the table now…)

But it’s so nice having Andy home during the week, and not just on weekends! I can cope with long-distance if we have to, but when he’s home at night, it’s like I can breathe better. :)

Today in Writer-Land

After a fairly unproductive weekend and week-start, I actually got a lot done today! During the Little Man’s first nap (short, about 40 minutes), I managed to retype the first two scenes of the current WiP, editing/smoothing as I went. Once I type in the next three scenes, then I’ll be able to send it off to one member of my crack team of beta-readers for critique. If I can get that good to go by the end of the week, that’ll be great!

During the second nap (much longer, about 2.5 hours!), I did a bunch of brainstorming and research on the Porter Short Story Challenge, and I think I’ve got it pegged. Mwahahaha! Oh boy, this is gonna be wacky, but maybe somewhat funny. Talk about writers-writing-about-writers-writing-about-writing Russian-nesting-dolls meta. Madness!

I also dove back into the summary draft of a novel that’s been playing around in my head for the past several years. I’m really liking where it’s going, though I also feel a bit like I’m wrestling a bull–the plot is sort of under control, but it could so easily break out of my grip and run amok. So we’ll see where that goes. I only know I love writing novel rough drafts this way. It’s the closest I’ve ever come to capturing that eager creative rush from my youth. Who knows what it will come to, but for now, I’m just having fun. :)

Journal

Back to Square One

Today in Mommy-Land

I swear, every time I start to get a little confident in my mothering skills, the Little Man throws me for a loop. It’s a weekly occurrence, now. What worked last week doesn’t work anymore. That nap that started seeming routine and awesomely long? Yeah, that’s gone now. Copious reading time? Yeah, no. I’ve been picking away at the same book for the past month. *le sigh*

Also seem to have some kind of bug, which I so *don’t* need right now. Plus the hubby’s back to his long-distance rotation (hopefully his last, but who knows?), so there’s that mental adjustment, too.

Today in Writer-Land

Very little happened here today. May have mentally fixed a problem the 4th scene was having, may scrap a character trait that–upon rewrite–feels a bit too forced. Over the weekend listed three important changes to make to the already rewritten portion, but haven’t implemented them yet.

I realize now that I have a tendency to try to change too much of the original story, which is a basic editing skills problem. Lately, I feel like I’ve jumped to a new level of development in my writing, only to realize I know *nothing* about writing. Ugh. I guess it’s good, but it sure is frustrating.

Also, my current year’s goals, in view of mobile baby, are looking pretty challenging to hit… *rawr*

baby, editing, rejection, submissions, Writing

Hot Potato

Today in Mommy-Land

Pretty standard day here in Mommy-Land, though I’m feeling much less hoarder-ish since I got the massive pile of laundry all tidied up Sunday. The Little Man took two naps–one about an hour and a half long (not bad), and one short forty-minute nap (meh) in bed. My mother also had a few minutes, so she watched him for a half-hour before his nap, which allowed me to get a little writing work started.

Also divided up the Little Man’s toys into three bins in the hopes that cycling through them from one day to the next will hold more of his interest. He’s quite inquisitive, but he exhausts things so quickly! We’ll see if the bin rotation helps.

Today in Writer-Land

Rejected. Rejected, rejected, rejected! *cries* Actually, I’m not super upset, but you know how it goes. I was really hoping this one would happen, especially since it’d gotten pushed up the editorial chain of command. But I did get a very nice and encouraging rejection notice, which I definitely appreciate (…as I wallow in self-pity).

tumblr_m6y9d5qgbj1qfckzwo2_500
“It was really, really good, but no thanks!”

That said, I got it right back out again like a hot potato, so the infinite game continues! (Ouch! It burns! Submit! Submit! Submit!)

Also got 650+ words of the second scene started for this month’s rewrite. Took me quite a bit of time–rereading Sunday’s work–to get my shoulders into the story, but I suspect that’s just from yesterday’s heavy-duty brainstorming. It left me a bit fuzzy-headed. Ah well, there’s always tomorrow. :)

Journal

Dressed to… Well, Not Quite Shoes…

I’m going to try to keep this a bit more up-to-date on a day-by-day basis, if only to encourage myself to pay attention to the individual successes and triumphs of each day. Sometimes, being at home with the kiddo can make all the days blend together, and by the end of the week, I’m often left feeling like I haven’t accomplished or experienced anything. But the truth is, a lot happens and changes on a very small scale during this particularly chaotic time. So as an exercise for myself and my self-awareness, I’m going to try to pay attention to those little things and track them as much as possible, lest by Friday I forget the little wonders each day brings.

Today in Mommy-Land

I woke up today and decided that it was time: I’m going to try to get dressed like a normal person every morning. Now, this may sound at best like a really, reeeeeally silly little goal, and at worst like I’m a total slob most days, but it’s been complicated these past months by the Little Man being a horrendous spitter-upper. It’s only now, at almost eight months, that I can pretty much count on not being thrown up on 3-5 times every single day (and no, that’s not an exaggeration). There comes a point in a parent’s life where you realize that trying to wear clean clothes all the time is a waste of one very precious resource: sanity. And also water and electricity from running the washing machine two or three times a day just to keep myself clothed.

On top of this, I was in almost the best shape of my life prior to pregnancy, which means all of my old clothes aren’t even close to fitting, even having dropped a good deal of the baby weight I put on. Most of my closet consists now of tank-tops in a variety of colors and yoga pants. Considering the rapidity with which all of these got soiled for the past seven months, if I was wearing something mostly clean, I’d sleep in it, and just wear it the next day. Most clothes didn’t make it more than a couple of hours past wake-up time, and I’d end up changing quite regularly.

So today, I got up and put on jeans (maternity jeans still, since I haven’t quite gotten up the nerve to spend our limited cash on a new pair of larger pants, and/or admit that I probably just need to donate my old clothes since it’ll probably be a while ’til I can fit into them again), and an actual tee-shirt, and a sweater. I didn’t put on shoes, because 1) I’m not going anywhere, and 2) I think it’s a silly cultural rule (the “dress to shoes” thing comes from the clever, cleaning guru on the FlyLady website, if you’re wondering), myself preferring not to tread outside dirt all through the house.

It feels like quite an accomplishment, not only on my part to get dressed like a real human being, but also to realize that we’re moving–finally (*sobs with joy*)–out of the spit-up stage. The Little Man can still hork up a bit now and then, but nothing, nothing, nothing like he used to, and that’s a wonderful realization.

He’s also starting waving “goodnight”–not “goodbye” or “hello” yet, just “goodnight”–which is freakin’ adorable.

In Writer-Land

The Little Man took a rare and deeply appreciated two and a half hour nap, which let me get some serious brain-work done. I’ve selected my next story to edit and submit, and while I love it’s core, boy–it’s going to need a lot of work. Mega-rewrite work. I think it’ll be great once that’s done, but it’s going to take some blood, sweat, and tears. Over the weekend, I penciled out the plot fixes, and today I sat down and wrangled out the scene list. It took quite a bit longer than I expected–certain plot elements I’d wanted didn’t meld well with each other, and it took a lot of brain power to figure out what elements were necessary, verses just cool. But I think I’ve got it fixed up now, so hopefully tomorrow–nap permitting–I can get a chunk of new text down following that guideline.

Also heard Friday that a story of mine is on hold at one of my favorite little genre magazines, and am *so psyched* about that! Not holding my breath or anything, but *please please please please puh-leeeeeeeeeeze!* (Fingers crossed.)

In Other News

Not much other news today, other than that it’s snowing again. I think we’re supposed to get 10-14″ last I heard, and it looks like the new snowfall has already made up the melt, so we’re back to where we were after last Wednesday. We also discovered some snow fleas outside the back door, which were pretty interesting to watch! Otherwise, we’ve been watching too many episodes of Hoarders. At least it gets me motivated to clean and tidy up the place! :) That show was our go-to energizer on Sunday afternoons when we had to clean up the apartment, and boy, it can light a fire under us. I think we both recognize that there’s a tiiiiiiny bit of hoarder in us that we just have to keep in check. ^_^

Journal, Misc, Publishing/Editing, Writing

Dr. Eponymous & The Placebo Emporium

LM_InstaPro_Product Photo2It all started with a birthday gift for my little sister back some fifteen-odd years ago. My sister was really into the idea of becoming a vet, so for her birthday, my parents saved up a bunch of old medicine containers and filled them with tic-tacs, Pez, Skittles, and Chiclets to use as “medicine” for when we played vet. It was a great–and rather inexpensive–gift that we enjoyed the heck out of for months, carefully doling out tic-tacs to our stuffed animals (and, of course, eating them ourselves) and writing prescriptions, delighting in “curing” their faux aliments.

The funny thing is that the placebo-effect is actually quite strong. A couple of years ago, my husband (currently finishing up med-school himself) found an article regarding “the placebo-effect” that showed not only that placebos do–in fact–make a measurable, positive impact on people. More surprising than that, however, was the finding that even when you know what you’ve been given is just a placebo, it still creates a placebo-effect. You can take a tic-tac, for example, and say “If I take this, I’ll feel better,” and lo and behold! You just might. Might, of course, is the key word. It’s not actually changing anything in and of itself, but the brain is a powerful (and apparently suggestible) organ.

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A number of years ago I decided to play with the placebo-effect myself, and used a little antique glass bottle wrapped in a Post-It Note for “Productivity Pills.” I put white Tic-Tacs in it, and whenever I was feeling sluggish, or didn’t want to write, or didn’t want to focus at my day-job, I’d pop a “pill” and get back to work. Did the Tic-Tac actually do anything? No, of course not! Well, it may have made my breath a little minty fresh, but otherwise, no. However, popping one from that silly little bottle reminded me that I was supposed to be focusing on getting stuff done, and I got a LOT of writing and work stuff done during those years. Beyond that, it was just seriously fun and made me smile.

Which got me thinking–what if I could make little snake-oil bottles for all the various “writerly ailments” I suffered from? Things like writer’s block, or self-doubt, or rejection blues? When I really got to thinking about it, there were tons of “ailments,” so I decided to start making those snake-oil “cures” for them under two brands: Lucky Muse and Dr. Eponymous.

DrE_RutRemedy_PourLucky Muse is the snarky, snake-oil, cheater’s brand–the “cures” that promise instant success, brilliant prose, loads of money, and all without really having to work at it, because who wouldn’t love a book deal to fall into their laps? Dr. Eponymous is a bit more serious (though still quite snarky, because–hey, it’s me.) writerly ailments for those committed to improving their craft and surviving the day-to-day pains and aches of being a writer.

I’ve also created a few that are for a general audience, which I had a ton of fun giving as gifts this Christmas.

With a little prodding, I’ve finally opened an Etsy shop (called, what else? The Placebo Emporium!) where I sell some of these silly things, and I must say, I’m having a wonderful time! I’ve got quite a list of new “cures” to get designed and put up there, mostly for my own growing apothecary than anything else! Curious? Check out The Placebo Emporium here! Any particular writerly “cures” you’d like to see? Let me know!

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Journal

A Novel Approach to Novel-Writing and Structure

theweekendnovelistWhen I was in ninth grade, I couldn’t write a five-paragraph essay to save my life. I had good reading comprehension, and understood the material, but for some reason the structure of a five-paragraph critical essay eluded me. I spent hours after school sitting down with my English teacher, trying so hard to understand what I was supposed to do. It was like ramming my head against a wall. No matter how hard I worked, I always ended up with C+, B-, maybe–if I was lucky–B on the top of my graded paper. And I had NO. IDEA. WHY. I swore I was doing what she asked me to do; hell, one time, my mother even sat in with me on one of these tutoring sessions, and even she couldn’t understand what I was supposed to do. 

By tenth grade, I’d pretty much accepted that I was never going to get it, that every paper in my academic career was going to be a flung-to-the-wind Hail Mary attempt for a decent grade. 

Then, I had Mr. Tulloch, and my whole understanding of critical writing changed. For our first big assignment in his writing class in tenth grade, we were going to write an essay on The Heart of Darkness, type it up in proper MLA format, and turn it in. The revolutionary catch? He was going to write the essay. We just had to put it in the right format. And he was going to write the essay in front of us, sentence by sentence, showing us what he was doing and why. He broke down each paragraph and how to structure each piece of our argument (Statement, Quote to Support, Explanation of How Quote Applies–then repeat). He told us how many examples to use, how to place them for greatest efficiency, what each paragraph of the five did what and why it worked best that way. Sentence by sentence, he wrote a critical essay on our book, and piece by piece, until we had an excellent example of what our essays would need to be like. Was it formulaic? Yes. But once I mastered that rigid formula for essay construction, I could experiment, shift the paragraphs, alter the structural flow to best achieve what I wanted to do in any essay. 

Since that day, I never got anything lower than an A- on a paper, and that was a 20-page examination of a book I hadn’t technically read all the way through. The only comment? “Could have gone a little deeper.” Oh yes, yes it could. But the structure was perfect. 

This is the anecdote I thought about while reading The Weekend Novelist by Robert J. Ray. It’s not a book I would have appreciated when I first started trying to write, because I would have chaffed against the step-by-step formula of creating a novel (which is supposed to be ART and UNIQUE). I would have worried that his method would turn me into one of those *horrifying* commercial writers who churn out two books a year and wind up on the New York Best Sellers List because–ugh, who’d want that kind of success? I would have feared that a methodical approach to novelling would kill my creativity and stilt my ideas. 

As a more mature writer, far less afraid of losing whatever little spark it is that makes me want to write, I can only say: I think I’m in love. 

Is Ray’s approach formulaic? Yes. Does it have a use? Absofreakin’lutely. I think this book may have finally taught me plot structure in a way I can wrap my head around. I’ve never been a strong plotter. Intellectually, I understand the whole Aristotle’s Incline, three acts, yadda yadda yadda. But I never GOT IT well enough to know how to apply it to my own work. Or how to dissect other works using it. I’d try, but hit some kind of mental block, and eventually give up, thinking “This structure doesn’t work for me, apparently.”

But that wasn’t it. I just didn’t get it. I read tons of words on plotting and structure, and over and over I read the same examples, the same explanations, and over and over I failed to connect the dots. The common explanations just didn’t click for me. But after reading this book, I feel like I get it for the first time. 

The book is broken down into 52 bite-sized tasks in the effort to construct a whole novel. As of right now, I’m starting to run through it with my own work in progress, and am finding it opening mental doors I didn’t even know were there. Do I agree with every step Ray recommends? Eh, maybe not. But his method has shown me a skeleton to hang my own process on, to make my summary-drafting technique more efficient and fruitful, and how to move forward from that summarizing to full prose. I loved his construction method, even given that I’m not typically a “jump around” kind of writer, leaping from one scene to another. This book provides just the right amount of structure-to-creative leap, in my mind, to both capture the fun of a first draft, and keep that first draft from devolving into a hot mess. 

It’s also shown me how to fix existing manuscripts I have by giving me those structural elements to look for–just as Mr. Tulloch gave me the structural tools to look for in a critical essay. And after mastering the most common plot structure, I imagine I’ll be able to twist things around and adjust them to what want them to do for any given project, just as I learned to do for essays. 

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and if you’re struggling with plot and the common ways of explaining structure haven’t helped, this might be the book for you. 

(This was one of the five books recommended by Peter M. Ball in his post about narrative structure.)