Friday, April 30, 2010

Cut me a story : Mr. Stephen Parrish visits the blog!

Dear all:

My good friend Stephen Parrish has his debut releasing on the 1st of May. So I've invited him to take over my blog post today, as he's super-full (one might even say LONG WINDED) of great stories and advice.

And, if you're interested, go check out his contest (you could win your very own Tavernier Stone!) or just go buy the book. I'm here to vouch for it. I mean, just check out the cover!

And without further ado:

Cut Me a Story


The first novel I queried was 180,000 words long. I got nothing but form rejections in response.


Go figure.


I've always had confidence in my writing, in my ability to place one word after another. But cutting is an art that has taken me a long time to master. In fact, my learning curve is still pretty steep. I'm past the hard part, though, the denial phase, the self-delusional insistence that all 180,000 words in a 180,000 word manuscript are critical to the story.


The ability to erase words is every bit as important as the ability to compose them. I think writing programs ought to have at least one course in cutting. Rather than give students a blank piece of paper and say, "Write me something," give them a page full of text and say, "Cut me something." Otherwise it's like a driving instructor teaching use of the accelerator but not the brake.


Of course the main reason cutting is hard is because we fall in love with our words. Like parents with 180,000 children, we hypnotize ourselves into believing they're all equal, and should be enrolled in the best schools. My rude awakening came when veteran author Mark Terry offered to look at the first chapter of The Tavernier Stones. I happily emailed it to him; I was particularly proud of how my story opened, even though beta readers were telling me it opened too slowly (what the hell did they know?). Mark took scissors to the chapter and returned it to me 40% of its former length.


The gall. The impertinence! As I read the shortened version I thought of visiting a church, not to light a candle for Mr. Terry, rather to blow one out. That'll show him! But when I'd finished reading I realized the chapter was better, a lot better. Less was more. Later, when an editor asked me to make cuts throughout the manuscript, he said, "Do it like you did it in chapter one. You did it right in chapter one." The hell I did.


The question writers must ask themselves, as they go over each scene, is this: Is it absolutely necessary to the story? Absolutely? Although thankfully I didn't open my story with the weather, I did include a paragraph about it:


"Somewhere in the sky overhead the sun was broiling. But at Hamburg's latitude, fully a month before the end of spring, it's rays failed to get any leverage on the fog and sleet obscuring the city. The city's residents didn't bother complaining about their plight. They just ducked their heads against the stinging ice and patiently reminded themselves the sun would eventually reappear for an ecstatic seventy-two hour period known as summer."


The Tavernier Stones was first pitched at 145,000 words. It was published at about 90,000. Fifty-five thousand of my little darlings, including those describing the weather, gave their lives so that others might carry on. I hope to sacrifice fewer victims in the future, and one day I might write efficiently enough to avoid bloodshed altogether. Until then, every scene, every paragraph, every word is subject to Steve the Inquisitor paying them an unwelcome visit in the dark of night.


Now go cut yourself a story.


Wednesday, April 28, 2010

My Love for You Was Cattywampus

My favorite word, the word I try to work into every novel I write, is cattywampus.

I just love the way it sounds. Kind of like “platypus,” only with more flavor. Plus, it’s harder to work the word platypus into a novel. Don’t ask me how I know, trust me on that one, folks.

Anyway, one day, when I was a young man in high school, my girlfriend, Victoria, picked me up. We were going to go make out in some darkened movie theater in a preplanned suck-face marathon at some bad movie that should had been yanked weeks earlier.

To know Victoria is to know that she was a very smart girl. She had this amazing intellect, a love of books, was the definition of the word feminine. Her hobbies, much to my delight, seemed to consist of playing the clarinet and making out with her boyfriend.

Which was me.

But I digress. We were bee-bopping along, and I noticed that during the last torrential rainstorm, a car had hit a chain link fence, and the fence was leaning over.

“Wow, that fence is all cattywampus,” I said.

At this point Victoria spits Pepsi (yes, Victoria was a Pepsi Girl) all over her blouse and skirt.

“Are you okay?” It was an honest question.

“Catty-what?”

“Cattywampus.”

“Cattywampus is not a word!”

Now, I had a moment of doubt. Victoria came from a long line of spelling bee winners. But I was sure cattywampus was a word, one I heard other people use and used before myself. I wasn’t the kind of writer or speaker to make up such a fine, outstanding word, as cattywampus.

“It is a word.”

“Is not.”

“It is!”

“It is not a word!”

“You don’t make up words like cattywampus!” I declare in a huff.

“How is it spelled, then?”

“Cattywampus. C-A-T-T-Y-W-A-M-P-U-S. Cattywampus.”

“How is it used in a sentence?”

“I told you! The fence was all cattywampus!”

“So it means leaning?”

“Kinda of. It means askew, or it could also mean not exactly adjacent to something.”

“Like kitty-corner?”

“No, like between adjacent and kitty-corner.”

“You’re making all this up, Anthony.”

“Am not!”

(Let me tell you, I was really good at adult conversation back then)

Victoria tilted her head at me, and then goes back to looking at the road. She has the biggest grin on her face.

“What?” I had recently learned Victoria had an evil grin.

“You are the cutest boyfriend, ever.”

“The word you are looking for is handsome.

“No, I believe cute will do.

“Stud-ly?” I asked, opening up negotiations.

“Stud-muffin?” she countered.

“Okay, cute it is.”

“I love you,” she said suddenly.

“I love you, too. So you love me because I used the word cattywampus?”

Now the grin threatens to split her face.

“Someday you’ll get it.” She even patted my leg.

At this point, as near as I can recall, I was confused.

But wow, was she a great kisser.

And cattywampus is a word.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Saying Goodbye



Have you ever been in a situation where you knew what had to be said but you didn't know where to start? You blurt out the first word, and it sounds rushed or panicked or unprepared. Your heart pounds. Your palms sweat. And the truth is, it's not really that big of a deal. In a hundred years from now, no one will even remember.

Well, here I am.

I'm not saying goodbye. I am taking a leave of absence.

In my reflections, I've realized that I've broken several of the cardinal rules of blogging.
1. I've stopped responding to the lovely people who leave thoughtful comments.
2. I've stopped exploring the blogs of people who visit this blog.
3. I've stopped reading any sort of blogs at all.
4. In short, I've become an absentee landlady.

That's hardly acceptable.

I have no excuses. I've just sorta filled up my life with other things.

Thank you to my blogging team for so many excellent posts and writerly musings and thoughtful comments.

Thank you, kind readers, who stuck with me even though I strayed from the rules of good blogging.

I'm not saying goodbye. I am taking a leave of absence.


Keep writing. Keep dreaming. Keep sending out your words into the universe. And do drop me a line from time to time to let me know how you're making your way in this beautiful life.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Things you're not proud of


Have you ever written a scene that contained something from your past, that you weren't proud of? I haven't yet, but I'm thinking about it.

In some ways I think it might be therapeutic to talk about it, but in other ways, it could be trouble.

I'm not talking about something really bad, like burglary, battery, or murder. If you've done that I think you might have other issues to deal with. Although being completely honest, if you write thrillers... NO.. don't even go there.

What I'm talking about is, have you ever told a white lie, or maybe one that was a little gray, and felt really bad about it later? Or maybe you shoplifted a small item from a store when you were a kid.

OK, so that last one hit close to home. I admit it, and I'm not proud of it. I think I was maybe 7 or 8, I walked down to the local drugstore, and put a box of candy in my pocket. I knew it was wrong, but I didn't put it back. I have no idea why. I think I even had enough money to pay for it, it must have been something about the thrill of not getting caught, or getting away with something.

The weird thing was, when I went to eat the candy, I couldn't. I felt too guilty. I think I ended up giving my stolen booty to my brother, who of course ate it without realizing what I had done.

If I think back, there are probably a lot of situations that I am not proud of, where I fought with my brother, wife, or friends, and probably share significant part of the blame. I wonder if I can tap into those feelings, and if they are universal enough so that my readers can relate to them.

I think that is key. If the feeling is something that isn't universal, then I think you have to work a lot harder to get the reader to understand, if it's possible to do it at all. Feelings that are fairly universal, on the other hand, allow the reader to tap into your emotions much quicker.

What about you? Have you written scenes of real events that happened to you, something that you aren't necessarily proud of now? Would you?

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Research


We interrupt my series on Speed Reading for Fun and Entertainment because:
  1. Back when I used to teach my speed reading class, this interweb thingie wasn't around (much). So now I have a whole pile of research that says what I was taught about subvocalization is BS, and another whole pile of research that says what I was taught is correct. I'm still wading through it. About the only conclusion I have garnered is the subvocalization article on Wikipedia is a terrible article.
  2. For the last three days, snot has replaced my brain, and I can't think. Ha.
As soon as I figure it out, I'll post here!

This leads me to an interesting question for our readers. How do you go about research? I use these things (in order of frequency):
  • Google query
  • Bing query
  • Wikipedia
  • Amazon.com
  • Library
  • Gartner (research for work)
  • Forrester (same)
  • images.google query (try it, the visual aspect of research leads to interesting results)
  • YouTube
  • Independent sources
  • Observation
  • Email plea
Google and Bing are very helpful, as they will search Amazon and YouTube for me, for example. But there still is no substitute for a carefully formulated query directly in the system you want output from. For example, querying Wikipedia directly rather than using Google yields optimal results, because Google has its own formula for query results that doesn't necessarily favor Wikipedia.

Now, as a paid researcher (if you think that is cool... it is), I can find things simply because I've spend an absurd amount of time querying on various topics for my clients. Practice makes perfect, and all of that.

But it gets kind of lonely. The most fun---and sometimes the best---results are when I talk directly to an expert in the subject I am investigating.

What do you use in researching a topic?

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Being an Overcomer


Being human is one of the most delightful, pleasurable, exquisitely painful entities one can be. Not that I speak from experience, having never lived as sprite or elf or angel or vampire or mermaid or any other ethereal or spiritual being. But I am human, so I can speak to the vast myriad of experiences open to us, the breadth of emotional tones that stretch across those experiences, as well as the depth of sensory reactions we can have to each one. In short, I love being human. And I love being alive.

In fact, if we are not living, if we are not growing, reaching, realizing our dreams, then we are in the process of dying. We atrophy. We wilt. We fade away.

I believe that with all of my heart.

[Note to Reader: I also hate martyrs (not the ancient Christian sort but those "woe is me" kind that unfortunately pepper our lives, attempting to drag everyone down to their level of depressed existence). I am not speaking of martyrdom in the following paragraphs.]

Sometimes, however, we each face a moment in our lives -- in our writing, our dreams, our goals -- when we feel defeated and morose and unable to lift our heads. A time when we've hit that "all is lost" moment in our own heroic story, and we're unable to see past the stormy seas or the voracious monsters or the duct tape binding our wrists.

There's a poem I love -- and have loved for many years (and have had students memorize it for the last 4-5, actually) that speaks to this moment and the appropriate human reaction to such events. You may recognize it, since it's gained recent press in a movie by the same name. The author, having already had one leg amputated, was facing a second amputation. This was in 1875, a time when modern medicine wasn't at its kindest or gentlest. But instead of despairing, he wrote a poem about being "unconquered." I hope it speaks to you, just as it rests easy in my heart.

And even if you, as author, do not experience things that cause heartache and despair...make sure your protagonist does. It's what makes her human.

Invictus
William Ernest Henley

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Unlikeable Characters


Have you ever read a published work, and found a character that you absolutely hated. Not necessarily because of what they did in the story, but because they were a horrible characterization, one in which the characters felt more like cardboard cutouts than living beings. I just finished a book in which I felt one of the minor characters was terribly done.

I won't name the book, because I don't think it is appropriate to bash another writer's work without them having the chance to defend themselves. Sorry but I'm not a book critic.

So what was so bad about the character? First of all the character was whiny. I don't know of anyone who likes a whiny character. It's one thing to have your character speak out, but it's quite another to have them whine all the time, and not do anything about the situation.

In this book the mother was put in a situation where she had to step up to help defend her family. It was really a do or die situation, and she kept whining about how they needed to talk to the armed aggravated pursuers. Or maybe they needed to call the cops, or maybe they could simply run away.

It was totally unbelievable because I'm a firm believer in the saying that a mother will protect her young, no matter what. The mother continued to whine about their situation even when the son was put in harms way. She didn't lift a finger to do anything about it. Sorry, not buying it.

Near the end of the book she finally performs an action that helps save them, but it was done more out of idiocy, rather than concerted effort to solve the situation. So it felt like she did the right thing, finally, but not on purpose. Excuse me? That doesn't help.

I think the thing about this character that annoyed me the most was even though she was put in a situation where she had to shoot a gun or die, she still held to a misguided principle that she couldn't have anything to do with guns. I'm sorry, if there is a group of armed individuals on your front lawn, who are planning on breaking into your house, raping and then killing you, any principles you have about using a gun are going right out the porthole. Any other actions are unreal, and make me doubt that the character could actually exist.

What about you? Have you had similar experiences with bad characters? What about them annoyed you? or made them seem unreal?

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

National Poetry Month: O Captain! My Captain!


In honor of National Poetry Month -- and of Walt Whitman -- and of Abraham Lincoln (who died on April 15th), I'd like to post this beautiful elegy.

I'm sure you've read or heard it before, if not in high school English or on Dead Poets Society, then just because it's floating in the collective discourse. I love it because it resonates with the soul.

And, how can you not love a man who wrote his own critical reviews under pseudonyms? Talk about a creative spirit :)

Feel free to add your own favorite poems in the the comments section.

Walt Whitman (1819–1892). Leaves of Grass. 1900.

193. O Captain! My Captain!

1

O CAPTAIN! my Captain! our fearful trip is done;
The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won;
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring:
But O heart! heart! heart! 5
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.

2

O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells;
Rise up—for you the flag is flung—for you the bugle trills; 10
For you bouquets and ribbon’d wreaths—for you the shores a-crowding;
For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning;
Here Captain! dear father!
This arm beneath your head;
It is some dream that on the deck, 15
You’ve fallen cold and dead.

3

My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still;
My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will;
The ship is anchor’d safe and sound, its voyage closed and done;
From fearful trip, the victor ship, comes in with object won; 20
Exult, O shores, and ring, O bells!
But I, with mournful tread,
Walk the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.

Taken from http://www.bartleby.com/142/193.html.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Your Best Editing Tool


What editing tool do you pull out of your toolbag, when it's time to get serious about finishing your novel?

Do you give it to a friend? Beta reader?

Do you print out a hard copy, grab a red pen, and go to work on it?

Do you head over to the local coffee shop, order a large espresso, and read all day?

I don't.

I read it aloud.

When I first started writing, I spent most of my editing time at a local coffee shop, a line of espresso shots sitting in front of me, and a red pen poised to make cuts. I will still do this early in the editing process, but when it's time to make the final edits, nothing works for me, like reading it aloud.

The best case is if my wife has nothing else to do, and I read it aloud to her. But that doesn't happen with enough regularity to allow me to use that technique to finish the book. So instead, I read it to myself.

What reading it aloud does, is clean up the prose. I can't count the number of times I have read a paragraph in my head, and thought it sounded great, but when I read it aloud, I make major changes. The paragraph usually still has the action, description, characterization that was there before, but it is so much cleaner and glides off the tongue.

That's what reading aloud does for me. It allows me to find the areas that don't have the right cadence, or just plain sound funny. I make the changes, then go back a couple of paragraphs, and read it again. If it still sounds bad, I make more changes and try it again. Only when the paragraph slides off the tongue like melted ice cream, do I consider it done.

How about you? What do you have in your secret bag of tricks to help you edit?

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Number of characters in a novel

Is there a limit?

I've always enjoyed novels with varied and interesting characters, each having varied and conflicting interests, and with story lines that intersect in surprising ways.

Recently, though, I've come across a few books which advise writers to limit the number of main and supporting characters to the lowest possible minimum, and to collapse two roles into one whenever possible. This is to avoid cluttering the story with needless detail. And while I do understand the need to eliminate unnecessary details from a story, I can't help think that my supporting characters (both the helpful and the antagonistic ones) add to, rather than take away from, the overall story.

Am I delusional to think this way? Should I be murdering more of my darlings? And how do other writers determine when to eliminate a beloved character?


Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Speed Reading for Fun and Entertainment, Part 2

Part 1 of Speed Reading for Fun and Entertainment can be found here.

How do people read? Physically? Obviously, your eyes travel back and forth across the page (or screen), and your brain processes the information and turns the symbolic representation of data (words), into information (story).

The “Trick” to Reading Fast

While this description is true, it is a gross simplification of how people read. Letters form words, words form sentences. Sentences sometimes end before a line ends, sometimes they continue onto the next line. The sentences form paragraphs. We all know this structure of language, and, conveniently enough, becoming familiar with the narrative of the physically written word can increase the reading rate without sacrificing comprehension.

Let’s take a two sentences from last week’s post:

Speed reading is not lowering your comprehension rate. Reading so fast that you can’t comprehend the text properly is certainly not speed reading. That’s being a dork.”

That’s twenty-seven words. If we identify those words as a block of text, it looks like this:

And now we jump right into reading faster. Knowledge is power. You, as a reader, do not need to stop and process each word before moving on to the next. Your brain can do that for you automatically. Some of you reading this with absolutely no practice or training already read by processing clumps of words rather than singular words. A fast reader processes that sentence like this:

Last week we talked about good and bad reading habits. The entire bedrock to speed reading, once bad habits are eliminated is this:

Reading words together as segments rather than singular entities will increase your reading rate.

The above example is an simplification. The "chunking" of words has a lot to do with how the words are presented to the reader on the page or screen.

Your Eyes and Your Brain Can Get Closer

Your eyes don’t need to. Stop. At. Ever. Single. Word. They can stop at certain points in the flow of text still “process” all the data the author is giving you. One possible stopping point on the page before your eyes move to the next might go like this:

And that’s it. The fast reader doesn't move from STOP sign to STOP sign, She merely "jumps" her eyes from point to point.

I warn you: training your eyes to not roam across the page like a dot-matrix printer takes practice. It took me nearly nine months to increase my reading rate from an already fast 300 words per minute to a very speedy 500 to 800 words per minute. When I started out, my reading rate actually fell to 200 or so words a minute. Because thinking about how you are reading something while reading slows you down.

My eyesight, by the way, is poor. The muscles in my eyes are not a good as a normal person’s. I’ve had three eye surgeries, yet I easily take in large clumps of words at a time before physically moving my eyes. The eyes, as we recall from last week, are fast. Even mine.

Now we come to the caveat: even if you train yourself not to serially read words by moving your eye to each and every word, you could still cap out at 150 words per minute.

That’s caused by the internal verbalization words, or “sub-vocalization.” Some people do it, some people don’t. We’ll talk about that next week!

Monday, April 5, 2010

Best Writing Advice


I loved JKB's post on bad writing advice, because I've received plenty. Writing advice can be hard to give because usually the person giving the advice will tell about you the things that they do wrong, or the things that they have to pay strong attention to. (Like ending a sentence with a preposition)

When I first started writing, it was pretty horrible. An engineer by training, I hadn't paid much attention to my English classes in high school, or college, other than to learn the basic mechanics of putting words together so that I didn't sound stupid. I never had an issue with spelling, or vocabulary, but I think I owe most of that to my family genes. One of my uncles was the VP of Marketing for the Chicago Tribune, and another was the Dean of Journalism for Kent State.

So while I could put sentences together, they sounded like I was writing a technical paper. I could go into excruciating detail about exactly how something worked, why it would happen, and the expected end result. Unfortunately it wasn't the kind of writing that most fiction readers want when they are looking to be entertained.

There were a number of books that I read to help me improve. There are the standard ones, Stephen King's "On Writing", an interesting one called "Immediate Fiction" by Jerry Cleaver, and many others.

So what was the best advice that I gleaned out of these books?

First and foremost the use of active verbs. Most technical papers have a very passive voice, and frankly that's what makes them so boring. I go over my writing and analyze every verb to make sure there is something going on, right now.

Second, don't give all the details at once. Drop important details in small doses. This one hit me right where it hurts. My early writing had trainloads of details that came at you like a firehose. There was so much description of what was going on, that you forgot why it was happening.

Third, and this was given recently, there has to be tension in every line. I don't know if it is a symptom of the video game age, or the fact that people have so many distractions to keep them from reading, but if you don't grab the reader by the throat, and hold on tight, you're going to lose them. I've written about this before, and while every scene doesn't have to be a gun to your character's head, there needs to be conflict, there needs to be a reason for the scene to exist.

What about you? What writing books worked for you? What are your top three best tips?

Friday, April 2, 2010

The best advice you never got.

I know you've had those "advice" and/or "tips" from well-meaning but clueless other writers, blogs or places online. You know the ones. "Use other verbs instead of said at the end of a dialogue!" and so on...

What was the worst piece of advice you ever got in your writing career?

Mine was...well, I have two.

First:

The one I used above there. I was told that books would pop SO MUCH MORE if I used other verbs in my dialogue tags. And I have one entire book (my first after I got serious about writing once again) that doesn't have a single said in it. They moaned, or laughed, or winked, or whatsit.

Horrible!

The other was:

"Go ahead and quit your day job! If you are a writer you are ONLY a writer."

Patently false, and I didn't do it then, and won't do it now. I think I need to be out in the real world to see the colours and people, and why quit and just sit at a desk to think about my books? I think about them much better when I'm out doing stuff. I love living in my head, but I love it MY way, not what others think should be my way.

And you?