Showing posts with label revision. Show all posts
Showing posts with label revision. Show all posts

11 April 2022

Workation


Late last year, my health went on hiatus and I found that everything became a challenge. I couldn't go anywhere or do much of anything. Between the cold weather and the accelerating family arthritis, playing guitar and typing were difficult, and naturally, that interfered with my writing. Now that the effects of the steroids are diminishing and warmer weather is creeping back, my hands are regaining some flexibility.

Thursday night, I played my first open mic since mid-November. I didn't drive people screaming toward the exits, and I loved seeing old friends and hearing good tunes for the first time in oh so long.

More importantly, it means I can write again.

Non-writers have the image of the writer as some kind of agoraphobe, hunched over a desk in a dimly-lit garret, pen in hand, scribbling by the hour, occasionally stopping for a sip of water and a bit of gruel. The modern version is a keyboard and oceans of coffee or diet coke. Most artists, whether they're writers, painters, actors, or musicians, dispute that vision.

You need to get away from the work or you'll get weird. Early in my writing career, I forced myself to produce 2000 words a day because I read somewhere that Stephen King did it. In an interview, Jodi Picoult said that writers need to develop the ability to write on demand. That's the purpose of the 2000-word quota. Once you can do it, the job gets a lot easier. Now I know I can produce 1000 words in an hour or less. It doesn't matter if they're junk, because if there's that much, there's enough to fix.

Distance is important, too. I can start a horrific rough draft (that 1000 words, or maybe only a few paragraphs), and if it's not going well, the norm for a first draft, I can step away and play guitar, make a fool of myself on keyboard, or go to the health club. I still do my best planning and editing on an arc trainer.

When you don't have to think about what you're doing, the ideas sneak into view like shy kittens. Ignore them, and they'll come close enough to pet.

Now that I can perform and get away from the writing, it's much easier. The added perspective helps me see why something isn't working and find ways to fix it.

I know actors, athletes, and musicians who tell me the same thing. I often see one of my actor friends at my health club, usually punching a heavy bag. One of my favorite guitar players has composed dozens of songs (he has two CDs out), but when the music isn't flowing, he turns to piano for a week. When he's broken out of the ruts, he reunites with his Martin and sparks fly.

I used to direct plays, and I got my idea for re-interpreting Shakespeare's Twelfth Night as a western while ironing. Didn't Agatha Christie plot her complex novels while washing dishes?

It still works.



31 January 2022

Gettin' Back My the Mojo


I used to outline my novels but not my short stories. For them, I'd jot down the basic idea and let it ferment for a few days until the main points worked themselves out. Then I started writing. I usually had a fairly clear idea of the solution if it was a mystery, but I always struggled with how the sleuth would figure it out. That's still one of my biggest problems, and may explain why I write more "crime" stories than true mysteries with a solution.

Recently, an idea tapped on my shoulder, and the more we got acquainted, the more she felt like a novella, which meant I needed a subplot to flesh out her figure. One plot is tough, and subplots, variations on the major theme, are exponentially tougher. In my Zach Barnes series, Barnes's girlfriend Beth Shepard is a writer in her own life, but she also makes book appearances as "Taliesyn Holroyd," who writes over-the-top bodice-ripper romance novels. The real writer is male, but his publisher pays Beth to dress to thrill at signings and pose for pictures on the website because everyone "knows" romance writers are women. The pen name is an in-joke, too: Taliesyn was the legendary bard of King Arther, and even though the name sounds feminine, the guy, if he really existed, was a man.


Consequently, every Barnes story that involves Beth also has a subplot revolving around identity. The most compicated of those, The Night Has 1000 Eyes, involved a character with Dissociative Identity Disorder, what we civilians call "Multiple Personality," and I used Beth's experimenting with different names (Elizabeth, Betty, Betsy, Lizzie, Elspeth, etc.) as she grew up to amplify that same idea.

You see where this is going, right?

Well, I overthought the new idea so much that I painted myself into an intellectual corner. A short story or a novella is short enough so I can go back and tweak detals later to make everything fit instead of micro-planning. The novella is neither fish nor fowl, or maybe both fish and foul play, so it falls between. 

When that idea appeared to me several weeks ago, I knew it required some research, and the sources of the info I needed were close at hand. Unfortunately, I fell down the rabbit hole and got so interested in the research that it got in the way of my half-formed plot. It crowded out the mystery and I couldn't find a way to connect them. It got so bad I even developed a chronological list of scenes (My version of an outline), which I've never done for a short story or novella. The 8000 words in eight or nine scenes kept bouncing off one wall and into another like a racquetball on steroids. I finally put all my ideas and scenes and fragments into a separate file and stuck it in a dark corner so I could go on about my other copious and crucial business. 

Two weeks later, that same idea started nagging again, like the six-year-old in the back seat demanding, "Are we there yet?"

Last week, I decided to attack the story from the opposite direction and introduce the research idea later, which turned it into a subplot without further effort. I spread all those old notes and jottings across my desk and went to work with my favorite fountain pen (A Parker Sonnet, if you care).


Some of the characters would still work, and different details blended with them I found a crime that could logically connect to the research eventually, too. Even better the subplot would become a red herring.

I started writing again with more energy than I've felt in months, no outline, beginning in a completely different place, and using some different people, except for Zach Barnes. I quit every night knowing what the next scene would be. 

Last night, as I lay in bed listening to the wind whipping our foot of new snow, the idea crawled under the covers and spoke to me again. A soft voice whispered, "He didn't do it." That hasn't happened since Megan Traine told me her huge sad secret when I was struggling with Woody Guthrie over a decade ago. The best thing was that I wouldn't have to change any of the new stuff to find the right culprit; adding four or five sentences to a couple of early scenes would fix everything.

When the story starts telling you where you're wrong, you know you're REALLY on the right track. I don't know when I'll finish this first draft. It's not aimed at any deadline, so I don't even care. But it feels like it might actually happen.

Jimi Hendrix once said, "I play a whole concert, some nights I'm just trying to find that one pretty note."

Well, I found that one neat twist.

I've been away a long time. 

How do YOU know when it's really working?

21 June 2021

Nice Shoes...NOW WHAT?


Remember when you started dating? I was shy in high school, and talking to girls was much harder than any test I ever took in a classroom. Except physics.

If I could get beyond the first few sentences– throw the first strike, so to speak– I'd be all right. It took me a long time to get those first few sentences down, though.

It's the same with writing stories.

That first pitch…

We all have a list of our favoirte opening lines, and we probably agree on many of them. The first few lines of a story or novel are crucial because they need to make the reader keep reading. That's even more important now than it was years ago because we have so many other distractions. If someone doesn't like your book– which he's reading on his phone– he'll switch to email or social media, and you're gone.

Openings should accomplish several things.

Getting the reader's attention is first, of course, but there are other concerns, too.

An opening should establish the ground rules, how the writer is telling the story and how the reader should make sense of it. That means showcasing the style, especially the tone, mood, and point of view. It should introduce the protagonist and antagonist as soon as possible. If the story is in first-person, it's reasonable to assume that the narrator is the protagonist.

The opening should introduce the basic conflict or problem. If it doesn't do that, at least give the impression that something is "wrong," a dissonance that will become important as we keep reading.

That's a lot to demand of a few words, isn't it? Look at how some writers accomplish all these thngs.

We were about to give up and call it a night when somebody dropped the girl off the bridge.

John D. MacDonald sets a tone to open Darker Than Amber. He implies a setting (If there's a bridge, we're near water, so maybe the narrator is fishing. At any rate, he and his companions are outdoors.). We wonder who dropped the girl and why he did it. MacDonald has given us the basic mystery and conflict.

"I poisoned your drink."

This is how Duane Swierczynski introduces "The Blonde." We are probably in a bar, and the conflict is clear. The narrator wants to live, so he (presumably a male) needs the antidote. Who is this blonde, and why has she poisoned this particular person? Curious? I know I am.

When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist.

Circe, Madeline Miller's retelling of The Odyssey, begins with these words. We wonder what particular word Circe has in mind… and who coiined it. We know The Odyssey, so we expect certain other characters to appear eventually, too.

It's never a good thing when the flight attendant is crying.

Air Time by Hank Phillippi Ryan probably begins on an airplane. Why is the flight attendant crying? Is the plane going to crash? The tone makes me want to know more about the person who phrases the observation this way, too.

Kevlar makes Hendrix itch.

This is from my own The Whammer Jammers. We know what kevlar is, so Hendrix is a police officer. He's worn kevlar before and now he's facing a dangerous situation, maybe a raid? Notice that the last two examples are in present tense, too.

MacDonald's book appeared in 1966 and Miller's only three years ago. Some things don't change.

Your opening should begin to set up your ending, too. That's easier than it sounds. If you're writing a romance, your reader already expects that the lovers will end up together. If you're writing a mystery, we expect to find a solution. If you can put a clue in immediately, that's even better because your reader may overlook it while she or he is getting used to the rules of engagement. Sometimes, you can repeat a line or phrase from the beginning at the end to give structural closure, too, like finishing a song on the tonic. 

All the examples I gave are opening sentences, but the "brilliant first sentence" quest may be a trap. DO NOT use a gimmick. Readers will catch you and feel manipulated. They won't like it and they'll stop reading. A gimmick makes it hard to move on without a jarring shift. 

Instead of obsessing over one great line, give yourself a paragraph or even a page to get things rolling. If you can suggest that there's trouble in River City, you're fine. The characters and setting will help you show more and find your rhythm and tone. 

The best advice I can give is to open your first draft whenever and wherever you want. Tell your story. When you know the plot, setting, and characters more fully, you can find the best way in. Then go back and rewrite your opening when you know the best place to start. My last revision and polish is usually on the opening when I have everything else in place. When I'm finding my way, I often write lots of back-story at the beginning, too. I will cut or move most of it when I revise, but it gives me direction. 

Go back and look at my title and opening paragraph. See what I did?