Showing posts with label writing tips. Show all posts
Showing posts with label writing tips. Show all posts

21 November 2020

The Same Old Story



How many of you have unfinished or unpublished stories (or novels) stashed away in a drawer or under the bed, or in a folder someplace on your hard drive? Most of us do, if we've been writing fiction for a while. Oddly enough, very few of mine are unfinished--when I think of an idea for a short story I usually go ahead and churn it out–but I certainly have plenty that are unpublished and unsubmitted. Alas, typing THE END doesn't always mean it's ready for prime time.

old manuscript

Most of those abandoned stories are those I wrote many years ago, when I was just getting started. Occasionally I dust them off and look them over, and sometimes I go back in and do a complete rewrite, until that story is what I consider to be submittable and battleworthy. I've done that several times, and so far I've always managed to sell them afterward.

One of those rewrites was on a never-submitted story called "Molly's Plan," written in the early '90s about a New Orleans bank robbery. A few years ago I rediscovered it, changed it in about a dozen ways but kept the same title, and sent it to Strand Magazine. They bought it, and it later wound up in Best American Mystery Stories, was reprinted in Russia's leading literary magazine, was selected for New York City's Subway Library project, etc. All this after sitting idle for more than twenty years as a stack of dot-matrix-printed pages in a box in the corner of my home office. A similar thing happened with another long-ago story originally called "Footprints," about a college student involved in a cheating operation. I rewrote the whole thing, retitled it "Calculus 1," which was the name of one of my first college courses, and sold it to the print edition of The Saturday Evening Post. That story will soon appear again in a bilingual collection of my SEP stories by a Moscow publishing house. Just call me Ivan.

My point here is that some of those early and forgotten manuscripts of mine had some promise and have been worth revisiting, but in their original state none of them were very good. Which was why I never sent them anyplace. Some things about them that were okay from the beginning, I thought, were in areas I've always been pretty comfortable with: premise, dialogue, hooks, endings, structure, etc. Most everything else about them was terrible.

What was it that made these stories so bad? Here are some of the things I found:

  • Too much repetition. Not just of words or phrases but of ideas and thoughts and plot elements. I probably wanted so badly to make everything clear to the reader, I kept saying the same things too often, in different ways.
  • Too many cliches. At the time I don't think I even realized they were cliches.
  • Too many pet words and phrases. My characters were way too fond of sighing, shrugging, turning, staring, nodding, taking deep breaths, etc. This probably belongs under "repetition," and some of it still shows up in my current creations.
  • Too much description. It took me a while to learn there's no need to describe in excruciating detail things like settings, items, or the way people look or dress. Unless it reveals something vital about either the plot or the character, writers should leave most of that to the reader's imagination.
  • Too much exposition. This is just as dangerous and tedious as the overuse of description– I just didn't know it at the time. Overwriting of any kind is bad, and especially when it involves technical details, which I also happily added to the stew now and then. I guess I figured it'd be a shame to waste all that stuff I had to listen to in engineering school.
  • Too many semicolons. All of them were grammatically correct, but I used them far too often. As I've said before at this blog, semicolons can make your writing appear stiff and formal even though that might not be your intention. I still use too many, but I'm cutting back. (Same goes for parentheses, ellipses . . . dashes--and especially exclamation points!)
  • Overuse of dialect. At first I thought anything that makes dialogue sound more "real" is a good thing. The truth is, using too many slang expressions and misspellings is not only lazy writing, it's annoying to the reader. You know what I mean.
  • POV problems. I found that I often made dumb decisions about viewpoint. I didn't know when to use only one, when to switch, how best to use third-person to heighten suspense, how much head-hopping is too much, and so forth. Basic things that I learned later, mostly by paying more attention when I read.

I'm not saying that's everything that was wrong with my early efforts, but those points come first to mind. I still have several stories (several dozen, actually) sitting out there that are unchanged and unsubmitted and gathering dust. On the one hand, I might take another swing at 'em, one of these days. On the other, I might treat them as training exercises and let them rest in peace.

Do you have some of these underachieving stories lying around in your office, or on your computer? Do you ever try to resurrect them? If so, were they later submitted, and published? Do you look back at some of your early published work and see problems there as well? Do you ever update those published stories a bit when you market them as reprints? What are some of the ways you feel you've improved, in your writing?

Before you ask me, No, not everything I publish is old. I've written 32 new stories so far this year, and I typed this column on Wednesday. Whether it's really finished is another matter--but I'm done with it.


Thanks for indulging me, and best to all of you. Keep turning out that good fiction!



15 September 2020

Let’s Get Zoomier: Amazing Zooming Tips


As a companion piece to my last SleuthSayers post The Next Best Thing to Being There about Zooming instead of meeting in person, I thought I’d do some tips on how to prepare and do a Zoom conference. So, you want to make sure you look your best, both personally, as well as in terms of camera angle, lighting, etc. Go full Hollywood with makeup, hair and lighting.

In the good old days when you could actually go out into the real world, we had to get out of bed, shower, shave, get out of our P.J.s and put on real clothes (not our daytime P.J.s). But now, in the age of Covid we’ve gotten sloppy. Hey, who needs to comb your hair when no one’s going to see it? And that shirt you spilled mustard on, no problem, it might be a limited Jackson Pollack design! But the internet age has changed all that with Zoom and other online video conferences. We can no longer hide behind the curtain of privacy that old fashioned phone conferences gave us. No longer can we multi-task while we’re on that conference call – no clipping your toenails or reading the latest mystery novel or Facebooking while you attentively listen to others talk. Now via video conferencing we have to allow a whole bunch of strangers into our homes, let them see our messy cluttered counters, our out-of-date wall paper and dusty bookshelves. But there is help out there for those of us who struggle with the idea of video conferencing. Here are my tips to make your Zoom even zoomier:

Personal Grooming: You want to look your best. Maybe get a haircut and a close shave: If your local hair salon isn’t open, why not try the do-it-yourself approach? I like to keep my hat on as it makes a good template so I don’t cut it too short and promotes my always-wear-a-hat brand. And I find that a good sharp axe makes for the closest shave.

You can trim your own hair. Watch out for the ears!

The secret to a close shave is a sharp blade.

This picture shows the final glorious effect – not bad for an amateur.

After you get your haircut and shave you might want to powder off the shine, like the Beatles did in A Hard Day’s Night:


--Make-up?

--Norm, take them down to Make-up and powder them off. The shine, you know.

--Sure.







To which George Beatle, while having makeup applied, says:

“Hey, you won't interfere with the basic rugged concept of me personality, will you madam?”


So, don’t forget to powder off the shine. Just make sure to use the proper utensils, like the custom panda powder puff as seen in the pic below. You can probably find one -- or maybe something even better -- at Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goopy store:


And let’s not forget the words of wisdom on this subject from Carole Lombard as Princess Olga in The Princess Comes Across:


Princess Olga (Carole Lombard): Oh, my poof!

[fishing out her sopping wet powder puff]

King Mantell (Fred MacMurray): Your what?

Princess Olga: My powder poof! It is vet!
[squeezing it out onto his shoes]




Camera Angle and Framing: Make sure your phone or laptop camera is aimed properly. Unless you want to look like grandma driving her humongous ancient Oldsmobile and not being able to see over the steering wheel, you need to make sure you aren’t angling your screen so that you are too high or too low in the frame.

Uh, hello? Where are you? I can’t seeeee you.

Proper Background: Make sure to have a clean, uncluttered background with nothing sprouting out of your head to conflict with the pearls of wisdom you’re spouting.

Uh, no that’s not the new Mickey Mouse club hat I’m wearing.

Lighting: Make sure the lighting is flattering. Don’t you just love that “is it Halloween yet” look? Or do you prefer the “did you forget to pay the electric bill” fashion? Or maybe a dark, noir rolling power outage vibe?


Hollywood Cool: Or you can go for the film noir shadow effect. The Shadow knows. This works particularly well during brownouts.


Always look your best: Look sharp. Pic out the right outfit. Add a tie. A tie can dress up any old shirt. It can also be a useful tool in letting everyone know how you really feel about outlining. And it can be used as strangulation ligature in a pinch if you feel like acting out a scene from one of your books.


Cute cameos: Don’t forget the photo bomb cameos. It’s always good when a baby or child or cute animal walks into frame and steals the scene. Remember what W.C. Fields said, “Never work with children or animals.” They’re scene stealers. Exception to the rule: Buster in these pix.


Final Reveal: And the final reveal, makeup and hair done, proper lighting and angle, appropriate attire. It all comes together in the end:


The Real Deal: And a pic from a real Zoom conference I did a couple of weeks ago with a book photo bomb:


So there you have it. All you need to know about Zooming and being Zoomier!
~.~.~

And now for the usual BSP:

Thanks to Steve Steinbock and Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine for the review of The Blues Don’t Care in the current September/October 2020 issue just out. Four stars out of four. My first time getting reviewed in EQMM. A great honor!




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