Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Writing how-to: There is no "try", do or do not.

Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, by Renni Browne and Dave King
Published by The Editorial Department, 1993

It’s almost enough to scare a non-published writer away from the whole business: “Self-editing is probably the only editing your manuscript will ever get.”

But maybe that’s a good thing. Sink or swim, as they say. If you’re not willing to do the serious work to make your manuscript the best you can, you’re probably not offering something to the readers that’s worth their time. From what I’ve been seeing on the bookshelves, too many authors are getting published way before their manuscripts are good enough.

They also say that the best way to learn editing is from editors, and these two have enough cred for me.

I decided to take my writing as far as I can. I’ve spent my own money (earned from a part-time job) on books for research, spent untold hours on the internet for research, spent years writing various parts of my current Work in Progress: to chuck all that because I’m not sure how good I can edit my own stuff would be a colossal waste. Besides, Neal won’t let me.  He's laid a geis on me.

He guilts me into continuing by telling me that he depends on me to tell the story, and keeps ranting that it must be told. He can’t write it in his dimension and transport the manuscript to mine, so I have to do the writing work.

*sigh* I had no idea, many years ago, that people I can’t touch and can only see sometimes would completely take over my life. “Nobody told me there’d be days like these.”

I do have questions about the relevancy of a how-to book published 17 years ago. I don’t agree with everything Browne and King say, though I don’t know if conventions have changed or I just don’t grasp the point. Either is possible. ;)

But this is still a great book! Browne and King don’t talk down to writers, they say there’s more than one way to do things, and something I really like is that they give exercises using real manuscripts. At the end of the book they offer their answers, adding that somebody reading out there might come up with a better way to do it. It’s fun to rewrite John le CarrĂ© or Lewis Carroll. There are examples from workshops Browne and King have given and examples of early drafts of well-known novels.

To illustrate how different people see the same writing, they include reviews of well-known authors or books. I get a perverse kick out of reading a less-than-glowing review of Anne Rice. But chances are that because she’s established a fan base, she’s going to keep selling even if some people think her writing is slipping.

“Self-Editing” also offer checklists, synopses of each chapter in the form of bulleted lists. This is great for reminding yourself of the high points, but I’d recommend rereading the whole book periodically anyway. Like a gripping novel, this book doesn’t waste time or words. It tells you exactly what you need to know and why, because in writing, you have to know why you’re doing or not doing something.

Browne and King helped convince me to keep writing and to get better at editing myself. They also confirmed - unintentionally on their part, I’m sure - that while a writer can aim to please as many readers as possible, she or he will never please everybody. Even among his immense fan base, Isaac Asimov sometimes disappointed. Even he had manuscripts turned down.

I really don’t think there is one perfect way to tell a story, because every reader puts their own spin on it. If I spend ten years on a project, and have it published believing I’ve gotten across every point and every scene exactly “as the story demanded”, there will still be people who don’t like the whole thing, people who will say I used too many adverbs, people who say I used too much internal monologue and people who say I didn’t use enough. I can’t put my vision of the story into peoples’ heads. Moviemakers can’t do that either. I’ll get as close as I can, I will wrestle and fret and rewrite, but I’ll still expect that some people just won’t get on board. That’s fine, I’m not happy with everything I read either. There will always be a bunch of authors to choose from.

But I digress. I also like Browne and King because they realized the contributions of the company pets to the book project were at least as valuable as what the humans offered. As somebody who deals with unauthorized lap landings from one of the cats while I’m trying to write, this is important!

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Shout out to one of my crit pals

The link to my crit pal's blog (I've included it in my list of blogs, too):

This girl knows how to use the English language.  She's great at giving examples to make things clearer.  She's writing tight fiction, too.  Be on the lookout for something with her name on the cover!

You oughta be an editor, honey  ;)

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Sound wave: Edie's first wag


If you like animals at all, you won't have dry eyes by the end of this.

Please: consider a donation to your local animal shelter or the ASPCA.  They can get by with a little help from their friends, you and me.  From the animals to you: "Thanks, bud."

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Sound waves: Life, please stop imitating me!

You ever have this happen? You're writing along, minding your own business. You get plot ideas that you work into the story, they fit great, maybe you tweak and then you set the thing aside for a day or two. You pick up the newspaper, you tune in to the tube, you read headlines on the internet. And there's your plot idea. No, several of them. How rude is that?

In my Work in Progress, I have a story about a guy in Los Angeles, California (by the name of Neal) getting out of a gang and becoming involved with musicians. This story has been in my head since at least the early 1980s. In January 2010, I hear about a former gangbanger in L.A. who is organizing bus tours of some of the roughest neighborhoods in order to show people that those areas are actually vibrant with life. Several months ago, I wrote a scene where Neal hauls the fictional mayor of L.A. into the barrios to show him pretty much the same thing. At that point in the story, Neal is already working with a charitable foundation aimed toward helping street people. In order to raise money for their various efforts, he has to bring sponsors into the streets to show them the potential the neighborhoods have.

Okay, Universe, I thought of it first. Get your own ideas.

Keep in mind, Neal is friends with a rock band. Their drummer, Sandy, co-founded the charity with Neal. In February 2010 I read that Jon Bon Jovi is visiting homeless shelters during his current tour because that's his social issue. Okay, now, hold it. I thought of that first too, back in the '80s when Jon was still struggling to keep the band together and didn't have time for a social conscience.

My band's keyboardist is Lennie Barrett, who drives a Maserati. Last week I stumbled across the name of a Maserati dealer in Texas: Barrett Motors.

One of these things at a time would be a little annoying, but really, I think I'm being abused.  How can you fight the Universe?

Coming soon: observations triggered by reading "Self-editing for Fiction Writers" by Renni Browne and Dave King.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Research that doubles as hope

Wild Thing, by Ian Copeland
Simon & Schuster, 1995

Ever wonder what it would be like to have a spy in the family? Somebody who really travels around the world, cutting back-room deals with power brokers in Third World countries, helping topple regimes and setting up others, helping set up something like the CIA? Wouldn’t it be awesome to live like Bond?

Ian would tell you there are good and bad points to a life like that. His dad really was a spy. His dad really did help organize the CIA. Ian eventually became a top booking agent for bands like The Police (founded by his brother Stewart), but getting up there was hard, hard work. The book started out as just a research read for me, but I realized that it’s also very inspirational.

The book is described on the cover as “the backstage, on the road, in the studio, off the charts memoirs of Ian Copeland”. You wonder when you see a title like “Wild Thing” how much of an exaggeration it is, just to get your attention. This is no exaggeration. In the first couple of chapters, I completely forgot to pay attention to how he wrote.

There is so much crammed into this book I don’t even know how to hit the highlights, in a blog. Crossing country after country on a half-dead motorcycle with no money and one good friend! When Communism was still alive and well, this was taking your life in your hands.

I had a hard time taking Ian seriously at first. He says that his mother, before she married Ian’s dad, worked for British intelligence during World War II specializing in blowing up bridges so the Germans would be disrupted. She eventually became a highly respected archaeologist. She got so caught up in it that she maybe paid less attention to Ian and his siblings than was good for them. With his dad often away from home - which could be in Damascus, Cairo, Beirut or London - for months at a time, Ian, Miles and Stewart found creative, sometimes destructive, ways to occupy their time. Their sister seems to have stayed out of the family histrionics.

What started to make me like Ian was his admitting that sometimes, he just hated being told what to do by his father. Not having the slightest idea what to do with his life, at eighteen Ian joined the U.S. army, got sent to Vietnam and made sergeant by nineteen. That only impressed his father temporarily, because after his discharge, he couldn’t find work in London or America. Ian spent enough time in both places to be considered a Yank in Britain and a Brit in America. As you might expect, that seemed to have helped in some ways and hurt in others.

Ian talks about being tossed out of tube stations in the London area for vagrancy, not finding anything to eat, not having one cent in his pockets, and sometimes really being in a deep funk. His roller coaster of a life occasionally sat for a while at the top of a hill then caromed straight down and crashed, but somehow, sooner or later, he'd crawl back up.

I’ve never had to sleep on benches and I haven’t wondered how the hell I was going to find food. Sometimes opportunity found Ian, rather than the other way round, but a lot of his success was made or kept by sheer determination. For somebody with only a part-time job, no publishing credits and no "ins" in publishing, I have a long, hard road ahead if I want to make it there. But as Ian says, perseverance is everything. :) I see now what it means to "make your own luck."

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Sound waves: a ramble on writing and music

Reading about how music is made and how writing is done got me thinking. That can be trouble, I know.

The whole process of writing a novel is so much like making a record. Some of it’s done spontaneously, some of it’s labored over. Some parts fall out of your fingers almost perfectly and you can feel that it shouldn’t be messed with. Other parts ooze out a tiny bit at a time and never feel right so you spend hours, days or weeks tinkering with it.

How something sounds influences what you do with it. You write something and run through it either in your head or out loud. If something sounds off, you try to isolate what and why. If something makes your point especially well, you may decide to emphasize it with an addition.

In order to continue with a piece of work you've set aside for a while, you have to re-familiarize yourself with it. But the more often you do that, the more objectivity you lose and the more you increase the odds that you'll just get sick of it before it's finished.

I suppose this is true for other forms of art. It's been brought home to me how alike people can be. Like in an event as vast as the Olympic games, when we produce art, we share so much while retaining what makes each of us unique. I am so glad I learned to write and read. I love seeing the ways people are connected yet separate.

Although, it would have been nice to win that gold medal in hockey, in Canada. . .

Monday, March 1, 2010

To crit or not to crit: the last bit

What can the critter learn from critting? If you read my previous posts, some things become clear:

You learn patience. In the process of trying to give constructive criticism, you learn to choose your words carefully, thinking through what you say and how you say it before you hit ‘send’.

I always read through my crit before sending. Did my intent come through clearly? If something seems vague, I do my best to clarify. I look for typos. What good is a crit if it doesn’t make sense and has avoidable mistakes? It doesn’t take long to double check.

Light bulbs go on. You realize some of the mistakes other writers make are things you do yourself. The advice you offer others may work for you. As you work on applying those suggestions to your own writing, you cut down on making goofups in the first place. And that’s the ultimate goal of joining a writing workshop anyway.

Other light bulbs go on. You see how other writers do things really well. You have access to the writer, for a change, and you can message the person to ask how they came up with a phrase. But please! Do not plagiarize anybody! Use the same technique but don’t open dozens of worm cans by plagiarizing.

You can message the writer to ask what sort of writing tools they use - online and hard copy.

A more selfish idea is that if you establish a good rapport with somebody through critting, and they sell something, they may be able to put in a good word for you. Please don’t let that become your primary motive, though. Speaking personally, as a writer I notice details, and I’m likely to notice if you’re only interested in what I might do for you. ‘Nuff said on that.

Why am I not an owl critter? Because owls eat unpleasant things. :)