Showing posts with label experimenting. Show all posts
Showing posts with label experimenting. Show all posts

18 March 2019

Terra Incognita


by Steve Liskow

A few weeks ago, I saw a submission call for "Detective Mysteries" in the 2000 to 4000-word range, and with what now passes for a generous pay rate. Alas, the deadline was only two weeks hence, and I know how I work well enough to know I couldn't produce a salable story in such a short time. My stories rarely go out in less than the sixth draft, and the first one usually takes me about a week.

I went through my colossal file of unsold stories and WIP. Of 23 unsold stories (some of which were heavily revised into something that did sell), several were "crime" stories, but only two or three involved detection and a sleuth. That holds true for my published short stories, too. Two or three feature Trash and Byrne, who star in my roller derby novels and support Zach Barnes in his series. Two others feature Woody Guthrie from my Detroit series. But most of my stories, sold or not, are one-offs, and they tend to focus on people who get away with something...or not.

My novels include six featuring Connecticut PI Zach Barnes, four featuring Woody Guthrie (a fifth is in a complete second draft), two roller derby novels with Trash and Byrne, and two standalones, one a quasi-police procedural and the other a coming-of-age novel that revolves around a crime.

The point was brought home to me strongly this past weekend when I presented my short story workshop, one of my most popular offerings.

In that workshop, I point out that one of the advantages of the form is that it gives writers the chance to experiment with new characters and techniques without committing a huge amount of time or effort. A novel takes me about 15 months in several installments, and with revisions, between 1200 and 1500 pages. That's a major undertaking.

My average short story runs about 4000 words, between 15 and 20 pages. Even with revision, that's several weeks and maybe 100 pages. I seldom print ANYTHING out until the third or fourth draft because it's not worth the paper yet.

That means if you don't want to use the same characters or setting and try something different, this is your chance to do it. Try that unreliable narrator with the odd speech pattern. Try the factory or sports setting you've avoided. Introduce that young, old, or opposite-gendered point of view. Try humor or present tense. Try second person or a new genre.

"Little Things," which eventually won Honorable Mention for the Al Blanchard Award, came from a failed story featuring Max and Lowe, two homicide cops from the Woody Guthrie series. The first part was in the point of view of a seven-year-old boy and the rest came through Maxwell. It didn't work, but the kid was a revelation. He was bright, but he lacked the life experience and sophistication to understand what was happening. Not long after that, I overheard two children arguing at a miniature golf course and Brian and Amy, two bright kids who don't understand the significance of Amy's innocent chatter, materialized on the spot.

"Susie Cue" was an experiment that came from meeting a former classmate at my high school reunion. None of the characters is at all like a real person, but the name "Susie Cue" popped into my head after meeting a real Susie. Johnny, a mentally challenged 19-year-old, fought his way to the front of the line, and he had a crush on Susie. It took me a long time to find what made him tick, and eventually I found that all his images were either tactile or edible. A fellow writer praised me for giving him such a limited internal life, and it worked. Nobody seems to notice that the 3600-word story only has ten words that are more than two syllables long, and that four of them are proper names. The story took me over a year because I didn't recognize Johnny's potential at first.

"Teddy Baer's Picnic" is an exercise in low comedy, which you can see from the title. I enjoy irony, but seldom aim at outright humor. Here, puns and rimshots fly like bees in a rose garden. All the characters have names that are puns on different kinds of bears: Bronwyn, Grizelda, Ursula, Kodiak...The story is a comic mass murder. I wrote it for a particular submission call, but the market didn't take it and Mystery Weekly grabbed it last fall. Several readers left positive comments, so maybe I should try something like that again.

Brian, Susie, Johnny and Teddy Baer's daughters and ex-wives couldn't sustain a whole book. Some techniques don't, either. Jay McInerney's "Bright Lights Big City" is a novella rather than a full-length novel because you can only sustain second-person POV and present tense for so long.

But in a short story...

23 January 2017

Break It, Fix It, Break It, Fix It Again


by Steve Liskow

Last time, I listed several books that helped me write better. They all tell what to do in order to write more effectively, but no book can tell you how to do it. That's a personal thing.

Grad school rekindled my long buried urge to write, and over the next nine years, I wrote five atrocious novels. All I can say is that I learned to produce junk more quickly. When it came time to produce a thesis/project for my sixth-year degree at Wesleyan, I decided to rewrite one of those train wrecks based on what I'd already learned from hundreds of mistakes.

I chose Dr. Joseph Reed as my adviser, partly because I knew he didn't give a rat's ass about hurting my feelings. When I phoned to ask him if he would be my adviser, he said, "Probably not, but come in tomorrow and we'll discuss it."

Because of his response, I did two things I'd never done before. I wrote a 2-page summary (Now I know enough to call it a synopsis) and a chapter-by-chapter breakdown of the events in my story.
Joe looked them over as though he saw checkmate in three moves. When he learned that I wrote everything out longhand and re-typed it for him--this was 1980, pre-computers--he shook his head.

"You're wasting time," he said. "Compose at the typewriter and don't worry about typos. You're going to revise everything to death anyway."

An outline and typing the first draft changed my process radically. Between 2003 when I retired from teaching and started writing full-time, few other changes merit discussion. But here they are.

Jodi Picault once said that a writer must learn to write on demand, and that's another skill nobody can teach you. Stephen King and other writers set word count goals--King's is 2000 words a day--and I forced myself to do that, too. It didn't matter if 1999 of them were crap, I wrote until I reached that number. Some days, I finished by noon and other days I wrote until midnight, but after a few years, I knew I could sit down at the keyboard and produce two or three pages of semi-coherent English is an hour.

Now, I generally write a few paragraphs in the morning and go to the health club if I get stuck. While I sweat on an arc trainer, my mind runs free to figure where I'm going next. But I don't have to write in the morning. Remember that write on demand thing? I wrote the first draft of this essay at 4 pm.

Do you outline just because your teacher told you to do it in school? If so, have you found a more flexible way to do it? If you do some form of pre-writing, is it words, diagrams, phrases, or something else? What really works best for you? I used to doodle on separate sheets of paper and move them around to figure out my basic plot and character relationships, but now I use a dry marker board. At the end of the day, I photograph it and stick it in my picture files so I can start with a fresh board the next day and still refer to the previous work.

The only other major change is my outline/synopsis. Somewhere in those years of wood-shedding, I started doing what the screenwriters would probably call a verbal story board. I list fifty scenes in order. The character name in bold type is the POV character, and I tell the essential action/change of the scene in a sentence or two. The number at the end is its order in the MS.

The storyboard tells me where I need to do research and shows if I have too many expository or action scenes together so pace is an issue. It takes me several weeks to develop fifty scenes (although I'm getting faster) and that's my first draft. Writing those scenes out as real prose is my second draft, and always shows where I've left something out, repeated something, or put events or information in the wrong order. I correct the scene list ("Chronology" in my terminology) as I go, each change a "save as." By the time I have my first full MS, I'm usually on at least the twelfth draft of the scene list. That continues through the next several drafts, and my record is 31 scene lists.

That first full MS has to come fast because that's how I find the rhythm of the story. It helps me feel when a scene is in the wrong place. I wrote the first "full" version of Dark Gonna Catch Me Here in 33 days (I didn't plan it, it just gushed out that way) and it had over 92,000 words and 57 scenes. The final version a year later lost four of those scenes, added an new one, added another POV character, and cut about 8000 words.

Through my first four or five drafts, each scene revision is a separate word file: Scene 1-A, Scene 1-B, Scene 1-C, Scene 2-A, Scene 2-B, etc. I keep them separate because it's easier to change the order by renumbering a five or six page scene than it is to cut and paste in a 300-page document. If Scene 12-C needs to move, "Save As" gives me Scene 22-D.

None of this means you should do it, too. But if you're in a rut or things aren't working, maybe put a few new parts in the machine and see what happens.

Do you write at a particular time of day because you need to get to work or the kids have to be in school? If not, try earlier or later. Try in a different room. Walk around outside before you write, or go to the gym, or listen to some music. Do you write with music? Try a different kind (baroque instead of jazz, for example) or silence. Do you hear the words better?

If you normally outline, write a scene or two without planning and see what happens. If you don't outline, try it. This is a huge change, and it's hard, but you might discover something.

Try writing character bios for your main characters before writing your story. Figure out what's at stake or what that character's weakness is. I do bios for my major characters and have a file so I have ages and major events consistent (like when Zach Barnes stopped drinking or Chris Guthrie almost lost his leg in the shoot-out), but the minor characters change as I need them, especially names.

Try writing in pencil or roller ball or ballpoint or fountain pen (my fave for early planning) or even crayon or dry marker instead of the keyboard. If you write longhand, go to the keyboard first.

Do you write a few pages, then go back and revise before moving on? Try writing the whole work before you go back. If you usually do a complete draft, try revising scene by scene.

Do you have a word or page goal for the day? What happens if you raise or lower it? What if you write a scene instead of a word count? If one scene is four pages long and the next one is ten, can you still do it? That's my only solid rule now, I have to write the complete scene in a day because the rhythm won't sustain overnight. My scenes average about 1600 words, so if I write one a day, that's about 50,000 words a month (Hello, NANO). And I no longer have to write every day. The point of the fast and messy first draft is that it gives me something to fix. A first draft is like a block of marble: once you have it, you have to chip away the excess to make a statue of an elephant. Or Michaelangelo's David.

When I finished that MS in 1980, Dr. Reed encouraged me to send it out, and it collected a stack of rejections. I knew I'd revise it yet again someday--when I'd learned more craft. When I looked at it again a few years ago, I understood that the opening dragged because the important subplot took a long time to develop. Re-sequencing with several overlapping flashbacks helped, but that created another problem. For the first time, I listed all the events in the story in chronological order before I wrote the new outline so I could keep the back-story coherent. I've only done that with two other books (one of them is currently a WIP) because they had more history to them than usual.

I added a couple of scenes and expanded one character, but beyond the re-sequencing that demanded some new transitions, at least eighty percent of that book is what I wrote in 1980. That astonished me. I finally self-published Postcards of the Hanging (Another Bob Dylan allusion and not the title from back then) in 2014, 34 years after it was a thesis and 42 years after the first version began in the back of a spiral notebook.

Gotta keep it fresh, right? My next project is to learn to write with my left hand...while standing on my head.

What have you changed since you started writing? What do you wish worked better?