Retro Writing: Hello Pen & Paper
Technology is your friend. Except, of course, when it isn’t. Who among us hasn’t succumbed to the seductive whisper of Facebook or Twitter when we’re supposed to be writing? The Internet is an incalculably valuable resource in all sorts of ways, but it can also be a hugely wasteful time-suck.
Author Alex M. Pruteanu ran into a different problem when he was writing his early books. Now working on a new novel, Alex has sworn off technology and reverted to pen-and-paper while he cranks out the first draft. The benefits have been surprising.
Please welcome Alex to Write Despite.
My new book (which is being read currently by—my unscientific count here—12 publishers, with at least 30+ rejections already in the bag) is called The Sun Eaters, and it would be considered “literary fiction.” It’s not a big book at all—only about 60K words—but I wrote it around my day job and life in general (dad, husband, cook, mixologist, part-time jazz drummer, thief, liar, etc.), so it took nearly two years of fairly consistent work. It’s been making the rounds (read: rejected) with both literary agents and publishers (indie and “biggies”) since June of 2014.
The Sun Eaters is a simple story set just-post WW II in an Eastern European country. The story follows two brothers (14 and 9) as they struggle to survive shortages of food, the brutal winter, and a new politically repressive ideology (communism.) It’s a happy-go-lucky book, as you can tell. But it does have a happy ending. Well, sort of.
After having written and published a novella and a collection of published short stories using all available technology at those times, I thought I’d do the same with The Sun Eaters. By the time I started writing it in 2012, “the cloud” was available as a storage option, so I decided to take advantage of it. Unfortunately, between constantly saving my in-progress manuscript in the cloud, on various laptops, thumb drives, and on a regular ol’ desktop, all to ensure the security of not losing my work, the novel became an additionally huge pain (outside of the regular ol’ pain of just writing it.)
Many times I’d forget to save the newest version on some device or other, so I’d end up with outdated versions on some devices and up-to-date versions on others. Keeping track of things like that cut into my available brainpower, all of which I needed to write my book. When I finished in 2014, I swore I would never ever use a computer for my writing, even short stories or flash.
I am now in the process of writing my second novel, which is tentatively called The Long, Oil-Stained Life of Rosetti. For this go-round, I’ve opted to write it all out by hand, with a #2 pencil, on lined legal pads. Writing by hand slows me down enough to allow me to truly cogitate about the material I’m committing to the paper and not just dump ideas that will later be cut. Now I don’t have to save ongoing manuscript drafts every day onto a dozen different devices. And what I also like about the “old-school” method of writing is that there exists a natural extra editing step when transfer the work, typing it onto a laptop.
How is the process of writing a second novel different than writing a debut?
I think every novel has its own life, its own path, and its own destiny. I think each book dictates to a writer how it should be written. My approach to writing the second one is much different from the first. Besides the whole paper-pencil thing, I’m more loose about working on it and don’t beat myself up at all if I don’t write for sometimes long periods (days or weeks even).
Also for this second book I’m doing something I’ve never done before: I’m writing down notes when I’m not working on it. Because the scope of this one is much greater than the first, I’m finding that I need to jot down on sticky notes ideas as they occur to me throughout the day. I’ve got a folder full of stickies that I often consult before sitting down at a writing session.
I’ve also learned a ton from having written a first novel. The most important thing has been: how to be in the thick of it, as I’m writing it, and still keep a general, subjective eye on the scope of the book. It’s hard for me to convey that—I’m not a teacher or professor and never have wanted to be one—but it’s just something that I can feel. I can feel myself being buried in the minutia of the words and individual ideas, yet somehow able to act like a deity of sorts—a god, really—and keep focus on the scope of the overall novel, as it’s coming together… as I’m weaving it. Does any of this make sense? If it doesn’t just know it’s not you, it’s me. But also know that I know what I’m doing, so buy the damn thing when (if it ever?) comes out. Ha.
Finally, something else that I’m doing differently on the second one: I am reading literature concurrently. With The Sun Eaters, I basically stopped reading anything literary or any type of fiction whatsoever. I found that I didn’t have the time or energy to devote to anything other than my daily life duties and writing the book (usually during very early mornings.)
But now with Rosetti, I’m not just finding that I’m inspired by reading fiction concurrent with my writing, I’m finding that I need to indeed read “big books” with “big themes.” So I’ve been gorging on novels like Bolano’s 2666 and Mailer’s Harlot’s Ghost and Melville’s Moby Dick and Dostoevsky’s Demons and Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow and Cervantes’s Don Quixote.
There is something truly inspiring to me about books such as these. They are all huge projects with huge scope and huge reputations, and I find that comforting to my own work. These books offer different worlds for me to enter and spend time in, and when I come out of them, I’m ready to create my own, in my own novel. It’s quite inspiring to read this sort of work.
How long had you been writing before you published a piece?
I started writing around age 14 (horribly) and the first thing I ever had published was a very short prose piece called Center St. 2B. It was published in a literary journal (now defunct) out of California, Penn., called Peer-Amid. I was 26 years old. Since then, I’ve been lucky to have some pretty decent success. I’ve published short stories in literary journals such as [PANK], Guernica Magazine, The Stockholm Literary Review of Literature, The Prague Revue, and many others.
Any advice for writers still working for their first “breakthroughs?”
Yes: work. Work, work, work. Don’t get online and say you’re working (#amwriting is the most preposterous hashtag, imo; the epitome of cognitive dissonance for a writer on Twitter using it), or lament you’re not working. Don’t surf through Facebook photos or Twitter feeds because you’re “blocked.” Work. (I don’t believe in “writer’s block.” That’s the biggest load of garbage.)
And stay persistent and focused. Looking at my overall acceptance-to-rejection numbers throughout my career, I’d say about 7% of my stories have been accepted by magazines or journals. That is HUGE. I am lucky. I’d be happy with 2%. I believe 2% is the “standard” acceptance rate for a writer. I’ve been very lucky.
As of now, The Sun Eaters has received at least two dozen literary agents’ rejections and at least 30+ publishers’ rejections. I will never give up trying to find a home for it. Every time a rejection comes in, my mission the next day is to research and find at least two potential publishers to send the book to. Currently I’m looking at foreign houses that tend to publish in the English language. The research is exhausting, but I have no other choice.
Learn more about Alex on Amazon.