In his popular blog, literary agent Nathan Bransford recently declared himself chairman of the “Can’t We Just Give Ian McEwan the Nobel Prize Already?” Committee. Well, Mr. Bransford, I would like to nominate myself for the position of Vice Chairman, for I have seen the light.

I picked up Atonement a few years ago after seeing McEwan’s writing praised on several websites. After reading the jacket, I wasn’t convinced the story would be very interesting, but I decided that it was worth a look. Still, for a long time, the book sat on my bookshelf, collecting dust. Every once in a while, I would lay aside the SF or fantasy novel I was reading and gaze at the bright red spine, wondering if I was ready to tackle a work of literary fiction. Finally, in a rush to find something to read as I headed off to work, I grabbed Atonement and ran out the door.

I started reading the book that afternoon during my lunch break and after a half hour of reading, I wondered if I dared to finish the whole thing. As a writer-wannabe myself, comparing my own work to McEwan’s is like comparing a kindergarten fingerpainting to the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Every word of Atonement is placed with surgical precision, as though the author stopped after each word to thoroughly consider its placement. Even discussing relatively boring subject matter such as a young woman struggling over what dress to wear to a dinner party, McEwan paints the scene with such beauty and majesty that the reader almost weeps when, at last, the choice is made. In describing Robbie’s march to the evacuation at Dunkirk, he creates a war that is as beautiful as it is terrible, a surreal landscape of body parts and abandoned machinery that places you along that same road, constantly on guard for German aircraft. The horrors Briony faces in the hospital leave the stench of alcohol and blood in your nose long after you have closed the book.

Admittedly, I read Atonement very slowly. Each short session, consuming a few pages at a time, left me in awe of what writing can be. I was forced to read in small sips rather than large gulps just to absorb the full impact of what I was reading. The book was a nine-course feast of the mind, in sharp contrast to the fast-food variety of books I regularly consume, the so-called best of commercial fiction. McEwan could write about buttering a piece of toast and make you hear the knife scraping across the break, feel the rough texture on your tongue. Few writers have anywhere close to his ability to so entrance the reader, to completely blind him or her with such a riveting story so brilliantly told.

I was so affected by Atonement, in fact, that I have not written at all since I finished it nearly two weeks ago. After seeing such mastery of the written word, I look at my own writing, throw up my hands, and ask myself, “What’s the point?” Reading a work like Atonement may give the fledgling writer those feelings of futility, of self-consciousness that lead many to stop altogether, but I have to look at the book as a learning device. McEwan has shown me all that can be done with a novel and though he has most likely set the bar far too high for me to reach, I can still try.

Now, embarrassed though I am, here’s the update on the work in progress. I spent most of this evening rewriting a short story, so my progress on the new novel, left alone for far too long, stands at:

The Dead and the Dying is currently out on submission to two agents, having received one rejection. I am looking to send out a few more queries during my next two days off assuming the flu and other such distractions leave me be.

My ongoing path towards publication has been far from smooth. There have been many, many obstacles in my way–jobs and lack thereof, dying computers, and the everyday requirements of being a husband and father, among others. Still, those things have also been a boon to my writing, testing my determination and ambition. A few years ago, I was simply trying to convince myself that I could write a novel. Now, I have begun submitting my second complete manuscript to literary agents and feel good about my chances.

I first began to think of submitting The Dead and the Dying for publication about the time I was finishing the first draft. When I started playing with the idea, I set about finding as much information as I could on the publishing industry and found a wealth of great sites and blogs that gave me a sound education in a relatively short period of time. Some of these blogs and sites and visit everyday, mining for one more nugget of wisdom that might make the difference between an acceptance and a rejection.

One of the first things I wanted to know was what agents represent the stuff I want to write. One of the first prospects I found online was Lantz Powell, a relatively new agent in Chattanooga. I browsed the information on him, including comments posted by many of his detractors. I also checked out some of his clients, including a horror writer named Cherie Priest.

Now, Cherie Priest maintains a popular LJ and is one of the brightest new stars in horror fiction. I started reading her blog everyday (she usually posts at least once a day) and, interspersed among her hilarious tales of Spain the Cat and other aspects of her life, found wonderful insights on life as a published author. From Cherie’s blog, I discovered that she had a new agent, Jennifer Jackson of the Donald Maass Literary Agency, and my mouth began to water. DMLA is one of the most prestigious agencies in the country and, after a while reading Ms. Jackson’s also-popular LJ, I decided that I wanted Jennifer Jackson to represent my work . . . no, LOVE my work.

During my research, I found several other things about Cherie Priest that I did not expect. First of all, she attended high school, at least a year of it, about 45 minutes from where I was doing the same. This was odd, considering she mostly grew up in Florida and now lives in Seattle. Central Kentucky is far from being the cultural center of the universe and, though it does have its own rustic charm, would be the last place you’d likely look for a noted horror writer.

And it gets weirder.

Cherie has a brother named Alex, now in his freshman year of college. This fine young man, “Mr. Overachiever” according to his sister, graduated from Grayson County High School–my alma mater.

And weirder still.

Alex–Mr. Overachiever–was a 2006 attendee of the Kentucky Governor’s Scholar Program, an elite summer program for gifted rising seniors in the Bluegrass. I also attended GSP from Grayson County, in 1993, where I met the wonderful girl who is now sleeping on the couch behind me, wearing my wedding ring. In addition, I am on the Statewide Selection Committee for GSP, meaning that I have evaluated a portion of every application for the program that has come in over the past five years, including that of Mr. Overachiever. The process is anonymous–I get no names to attach to the applications–but I’m sure his must have stood out among the 1900 or so I see every year since he did make the cut.

Now, as Ron White might say, I told you all of that so I could tell you this: Tonight, I sent a query to Jennifer Jackson, asking her to consider my novel.

I have no illusions that such remarkable coincidence will better my chances of getting published. Only a wonderful story, well-written, will do that. Still, if there are higher powers at work in all of this, it would make a much better payoff to the story if Ms. Jackson agrees to carry my book.

The new work continues, though since I feel like I’ve been run over repeatedly by a concrete truck, I may skip this evening in favor of actually getting more than four hours of sleep. Then again, I may not:

Now that the holiday season is over and literary agents everywhere have had an opportunity to clean out their inboxes of all the trash and treasures that were sent to them over the last few weeks, I’ve run out of excuses. It’s time to start submitting The Dead and the Dying and see what happens.

I had originally planned on sending it out weeks before Christmas, had even structured my various queries with such stated, but I wanted to go back through the manuscript. Now, I want to do the same thing, but the last time I only found a few things that I wanted to change, so my reason says that it would not be of any great benefit to go through it one more time. It is funny, though, that the closer you get to submitting your manuscript, the more errors you are sure you will find in it if you just read it one more time. You are always certain that, this time, you will find that one mistake that will make the difference and get you published, that one typo that will keep you from looking like a complete idiot.

I’m fighting hard to resist such temptation. It would be easy to just sit on my novel and never let it see the light of day. It is rather like being a parent and fighting the desire to keep your children bottled up so they never have to experience the pain we went through as children and young adults. Still, how do our children grow unless they make their own mistakes and learn from them. In parenting, I’m all for allowing my kids to screw up occasionally, so long as it is something that can be fixed. I can’t prevent all the pain they will have, nor do I want to, really. If I had lived my early life in a bubble, I certainly wouldn’t have the tenacity to finish a novel and send it out, risking rejection and ridicule. Pain, a little bit at least, is good for the soul.

And so, later today (damn these early morning posts), I will begin the long, hard road of submitting my novel. I have no illusions that it’s as good as it could be, but like a child ready to go off to college, I’ve taken it about as far as I can at this point. In the day job, it is easy for me to pass over something wrong with my store because I see it everyday and it becomes part of the landscape. When a corporate entity comes in, however, they pick up on it right away and I am chagrined at how I could miss something so obviously wrong. I hope some agent wants to represent my novel so that, if nothing else, I can gain another perspective on what works and what doesn’t in my writing.

My spreadsheet is all prepared with prospective agents and their contact information, all gleaned from agentquery.com, Writer’s Market, and other sources. I am a frequent reader of the agents on my lists who maintain blogs and I plan on using what I’ve learned from that endeavor in my queries–all personalized to each agent, of course.

I’ve studied up. I’ve prepared the best I know how. Now all I can do is cut and paste and send or print and package and send. And wait. And hope. And pray. Hopefully, that and a pretty good book will be enough to get me published.

Meanwhile, work on the new book stands thusly:

Thinking about my post from yesterday, I remembered another thing about some dialogue that irks the crap out of me. I can’t stand it when writers overuse names in dialogue. For example, consider the following scenario:

Two men are sitting at a table. They are the only people in the room.

“Bob, I’ve been really depressed lately,” said Bill. “I’m thinking of killing myself.”

“Well, Bill, why don’t you do it?”

“I don’t know, Bob. Guess I’m scared.”

“I know why you mean, Bill. Death’s a damn scary thing.”

You get the idea. If two people are having a conversation and no other people are involved, they simply don’t use each others name as much as some authors want to convince us they do. I believe the cause of this atrocity is the same that leads to most timid writing–fear of not being understood. The author does not trust the reader to follow the conversation between the characters close enough to keep track of who is speaking, and so injects the names in at regular intervals to show us who is speaking.

I try not to do this. If I am doing my job by creating an interesting, believable story, I think the reader will be able to follow who is speaking, not only by the speech patterns and word choice of the speaker, but also by how the dialogue sounds in the reader’s mind. A successful dialogue writer makes you hear what is being said, rather than just making you read it. It’s that point, when the words jump of the page and become sound, that you know you have done good work.

On of my favorite authors that sometimes tends to stray too much into name calling is Jim Butcher. Let me first say that I am a huge fan of Butcher’s work, but I have noticed in some of his work that he throws a lot of names into the dialogue where they don’t really need to be. If Harry Dresden is talking alone to Karrin Murphy, Harry does not need to keep calling her “Murph” regardless of how cute it is. They both know who they are, why must the keep reminding each other of it? All the names, particularly at the beginning of his novels, give me the impression that he is a slow starter, that when he is not diving into the story as much as testing the water and wading in. They speak of hesitation, more to remind the author of who is speaking than the reader.

Again, I love Jim Butcher’s work and only hope that I can find a tenth of his success with my own writing. I can forgive him his love of names because he writes an imaginative, pulse-pounding, damn good story. Other writers suffering from the same malady, however, may find their overuse of names the final nail in their rejection letter coffin.

So, to summarize: If you hear the dialogue in your head as you write it and it doesn’t sound natural, rewrite it until it does.

That said, I am foregoing work on Untitled in anticipation of having Monday and Tuesday off. I wasted an hour walking around Wal-Mart, so I’ll have to make it up then.

I’m going to begin a new semi-regular series where I discuss the pet peeves I have with some published work. To protect the innocent, all names, titles, and whatnot will be changed. As a writer dreaming of publication, but not there yet, I am in no way qualified to judge what works and what doesn’t aside from what appeals to my own personal tastes. However, since no one is actually reading this so far, it won’t really matter if I rail against some of the issues I have with various works I read. Perhaps if I become a world-famous author, a person or two may come along and read this, at which time I will seem authoritative and wise. Until then, we’ll just call it bitching.

First up–dialogue.

I pick this topic first because, without tooting my own horn, dialogue is one of my strengths as a writer. I say this not because I write a passage, then bask in the afterglow of my talent, but rather because several people who have read my work, including several who have no stake in my emotional state, have praised this particular aspect of my work. I have a lot of faults as a writer, believe me, but I don’t consider dialogue to be one of them.

Today, I am listening to an audiobook of a recent bestseller (by recent, I mean published within the past five years or so). This is the second or third time I have been through this book and I enjoyed it a great deal the first time. While not wholly original, the story is well-told and parts of it border on excellent. I always enjoy listening to the audio version of a book I like. It add a new dimension to the work, a depth of understanding that might otherwise be lacking. As a side effect, though, it allows me to study the work from a more critical perspective than I would reading it on paper for the first time. I can evaluate certain aspects of the writing, can see if various things work or if they are only a string of words that convey little meaning. Of these things, the one that is easiest to grade is the dialogue. Hearing a narrator read the passages exactly as they would be spoken in real conversation allows the reader to gauge how true the dialogue is and how well the writer performed his or her task of keeping out of the story’s way.

In the work in question, one of the characters gives a lengthy monologue about his background from childhood to manhood and how it affects who he is now. This is all fine and good, except that the monologue itself sounds, well, written. Every piece of information is served in a complete sentence, garnished with adverbs so as to sound as poetic as possible. The speech is eloquent, though casual, and demonstrates a high level of intelligence in the speaker.

As a general rule, though, we don’t speak this way. Our verbal communication is not like our written word, full of the above. Instead, we speak in clipped passages. Incomplete sentences. Fragments galore. We start and stop, hem and haw, hesitate and cogitate until we wonder if what we are saying makes any sense at all. More egregious to me, we don’t use adverbs. Listen to the speech around you. Eavesdrop on some conversation at your local restaurant and count how many descriptive adverbs you hear. I guarantee it won’t be many unless the people you are listening to are way into the cups, and even then I doubt it. We use less description in dialogue because the people we are speaking to generally have an understanding of what we are talking about without having to go into great detail. Along those same lines, how many people do you encounter on an average day who use simile or metaphor in their everyday speech. Sure, we all employ those aged cliches (e.g. I’m as busy as a one-armed paper hanger, etc.), but anyone who uses spontaneous comparative language to describe something would probably be stoned to death in the Wal-Mart parking lot.

We are not a culture of expansive speech. We are a culture of text-messaging, email, and abridged audiobooks. To write any different violates the main rule of fiction–tell the truth. That may seem like an odd statement concerning fiction, but good writing is believable only if it remains true to how the characters act, think, and speak. Anything less than the truth drives the reader elsewhere, someplace where another artificial truth, a better one, will replace his or her own. Even in a work of fantasy or science fiction, the dialogue must be something we, as readers, can believe regardless of how outlandish the tale. I think that this is especially important in works of these genres where the writer is already asking the reader to suspend some belief.

In On Writing, Stephen King discusses this same topic in some detail and I encourage anyone reading this to seek out that work and read. King goes so far as to criticize contemporary authors by name, something I will not do here. Still, I hope that is some prospective writer reads this someday (perhaps after I have become famous, chuckle, chuckle), he or she will stop and evaluate what makes good dialogue and what are just words on the page between two sets of quotation marks.

No writing on the new work last night as I was working on the synopsis for The Dead and the Dying, but I worked on it some tonight and my word count stands as thus:

As an addendum to my post of yesterday, I would like to establish a couple more goals for myself to reach for in 2008.

First, I would like to become a more dedicated blogger. For a long time, I did not see what benefit having a blog would be to anyone who had one. I saw it as a way, mostly, for people to climb up on their cybersoapboxes and rant about whatever came to mind. To me, this seemed like a waste of time that could be better spent actually writing fiction. I figured that, while I have opinions about a great many things, most people would not care to read them, but seeing authors like John Scalzi and Cherie Priest dramatically expand their readership by combining excellent fiction with engaging blogs, I now see the value of having such an outlet. Now, if I could only sucker a few people into reading regularly, telling their friends to read regularly, and so on, I might have a few people ready to purchase a novel of mine should I ever get into print.

So, with that in mind, I intend on posting much more frequently on here. If I expect people to stop by on a regular basis, I need to commit to giving them a reason to do so. Hopefully, I’ll be able to particularly start off with a flurry of entries as I begin submitting The Dead and the Dying in hopes of landing an agent. I’m eager to share my experiences with anyone who cares to read them and hope that I can offer as much insight into the industry through my struggles as these aforementioned authors and others have to me.

I also plan on keeping track of my progress on the new story on here, as much as a motivational tool for myself as an informative piece for my readers. Everytime I log on and see that counter staring me in the face, I think it will spur me to make my foray into cyberspace a little shorter so I can focus on what I’m supposed to be doing–writing another damn book.

I have set my tentative goal at 100,000 words, but that is subject to change as the novel starts to take shape. In my first attempt at writing a novel, I completed it at 120,000 words, parts of which were decent and parts of which were God-awful, unreadable, and, worst of all, cliched. The second completed manuscript–far better in my eyes–is also far shorter at 61,000 words. I believe the first is probably an average length for a fantasy work, while the second is bordering on being too short. Still, the story is what it is. I will change whatever I need to in order for it to be published, but it is simply a more compact, simpler story than the first one. My current work should be much more complicated than that one, but I still want to stay around the 100k mark for fear of it being too long, too wordy. Sort of like this entry.

Well, 2007 is come and gone and I have to say that I couldn’t be any happier about it.  The year was not a fruitful one for me, but some good did arise from the last 12 months of turmoil.  First, I completed my second novel manuscript and have it about ready to start making the rounds among literary agents.  I have started a new novel that, while still in it infancy, promises to be my best yet.  I have thought up several more good ideas that I think will make great stories, ideas that I have locked away either in my head or on little index cards for future reference.  With all that in mind, I’d like to set a few goals for myself for the coming year–not resolutions, which are made to be broken–but goals that I can work toward everyday and not worry about taking a day off here or there.

First, I want to be represented by a legitimate literary agent by the end of 2008.  I certainly hope that the completed manuscript currently waiting on my hard drive will net me that goal fairly early in the year, but if not, I will still have the year to write a newer, better one that may be more likely to succeed.  Second, I want to have at least one short story published in a magazine or on a literary site.  This seems like a minor task compared to finding an agent, but I am not, by nature, a short story writer.  I don’t generally read many shorts, so I don’t think of story ideas in terms of that media.  I have dug around in my brain for a few ideas that, if properly executed, will at least offer me a fighting chance of seeing publication, but it will be somewhat like writing in a foreign language.  Short stories demand different things of the author–more vivid description, more poetic language, and the knack of knowing just where to enter and exit the story.  The short story must be more impactful over a shorter period of time.  Still, I am learning every day and look forward to the challenge.  I also want to write more regularly than I have this year.  Circumstances with family and the day job often leave me tired and I admit to slacking a great deal when I should have been writing.  Toward the end of the year, however, I found myself growing more irritable and restless, both traits that I now associate with too little writing.  Fiction is my oasis, my release, and my drug.  I should take that drug more regularly.

On a personal note, today also marks my eighth wedding anniversary.  Amy and I spent the Eve at her church (I say “her” because she attends far more regularly than I do) amidst a very small crowd of people with nothing better to do.  During a closing speech by the pastor, my writing was mentioned out of nowhere, offered as a prayer request.  Amy insists she had nothing to do with it, and I believe her, but that did not make it any easier when everyone in attendance turned to look at me, wonder in their eyes.  Everyone I’ve met who has learned of my desire to become a published author has expressed a great deal of interest.  Everyone wants to know the famous author/athlete/movie star before they become famous.  Also, there is a certain element about writing–everyone wants to do it, thinks they can do it, but no one actually does it.  To find someone who is doing it, makes that person a curiosity.  It was a bit odd telling a little old church-going lady, in a church, no less, that my novel is about vampires, but I figure God must like a good vampire tale as much as anyone.  Otherwise, how could there be so many?

The pastor concluded the get-together in prayer and mentioned my book and my ambitions of publications.  Everyone agrees that it would be a great thing for me and my family, struggling as we are, if I could find my way into those loft ranks.  I just hope that God agrees and was listening.