Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Aids to Edit

I've now been at the rewrite and edit of my novel for a week, which may not seem like a lot of time.  I admit, I've only gotten as far as the first two chapters, mostly because chapter one was such a horror show.  That's my opinion of it; others were far less critical.

The question is this: how do you know what is good, and what is not?  How do you edit with any conviction that you are changing things for the better, if you do not know what 'better' is?

This is a question that used to haunt me a lot when I first started editing.  I had been writing for years by then, without much concern about polishing anything.  I did not yet believe there was any use in polishing, since I was a bad writer to begin with, and since I did not know how to be a better one.  I imagine others find themselves in the same boat.  The best I can do is offer this three-point advice.

Become a Better Writer

This is glib and will at first sight seem like completely useless advice.  I can tell you honestly that in terms of application, it is not advice that you can sit down with this afternoon and apply.  This afternoon, you're not going to be a better writer, and that's that.

In the long run, however, becoming a better writer begins with admitting - in all honesty - that you are probably not that great a writer at the moment.  You may be good enough to impress your friends, the small collective of writers you meet with once a month or your teachers (if you are young enough to have teachers).  I want to go on record by saying that the commendation by those sources is really worth nothing at all.  Thirty years ago I was impressing my teachers and various workshops and outside groups with my writing ability - but I look back on that 'ability' now and I wonder how much of their praise was real, and how much was in consideration for my being young and having plenty of time to get better.

I think a lot of the latter.  I did have a few persons who came into my life to tell me that I was never going to cut it.  They were wrong, but not for what they were reading way back in 1981.  Given the crap I was writing then (that some were gushing over), they were absolutely right.  If I read someone's work today that looked like my work was then, I'd have been just as frank.

Part of the problem can be that if you have enough people singing your praises, you are not likely to work at improving yourself.  So sit yourself down, recognize that the various elements of your writing could use work, and begin to work at them.

Let Others Read It

From the above, it may seem as though I am saying don't bother with the opinions of other people.  I am not saying that at all.  The effect your work has on others remains important - it will help you adjust your clarity and your delivery, things you can't really recognize without having feedback.  A reader may have some help to offer you with regards to quality, but they are much more likely to give you the measure of your readability.  If they aren't reading it, it isn't worth reading.

The problem with relying on others to tell you the quality of your work is that in all likelihood they're not a great writer either.  There is an old saw about wanting to find just one good critic, someone who can tear your stuff apart the way you need to learn to tear into it yourself.  Only thing is, that critic is busy writing, or tearing up his or her own stuff, and they don't have time for you.  So abandon your dreams for meaningful criticism.  I've been at this for 35 years and I have yet to meet anyone who can usefully rewrite a sentence for me, much less tell me how to better construct the paragraphs that will let chapter three effectively transition into chapter four.  That mythical person you dream of having help you is YOU.

Where it comes to the appeal of your work, however, or in terms of technical issues with your work, then yes, have others read it.  This book I am working on now revolves around musicians.  I have spent a lot of time with musicians, and I have performed as a singer with musicians, but I am not one of them.  Having musicians read my work, then, it greatly appreciated.  They can tell me when I am missing my mark.  They can give me little stories about music I can incorporate.  They can't tell me how to write, but they can tell me WHAT to write.

People know what they like.  If they are the sort of people you want reading your book, and they express like for it, you're on the right track.  One of the most useless things I was ever told by my old creative writing teacher was that "I like it" isn't useful criticism.  Bullshit.  From other people, it is the ONLY criticism.  If you can't get other people to like your stuff, it's time to take up another hobby.


Everyone is familiar with the 12-step program's insistence that you acknowledge that there is a higher power.  If you want to write, you could not do better than to acknowledge that there are better writers than you.  Unless your initials are W.S., there will always be at least one better writer than you.

Here's a hint: most of them are not alive.  People who talk about great living writers have about as much credibility as an onanist telling you about the quality of great porn.  There may be a great writer living today, but chances are you won't find them amid all the crap that's being printed all around you.  Dickens and Emerson were only two of tens of thousands of writers in their day, and in their day were not seen as truly remarkable and unusual.  If we were to ask an English gentleman in 1850 to name the ten greatest living writers of his day, there's a very good chance that Dickens would not have made the list.  Most of the time, the people who are alive now and picking writers who are living with them are making their choice based on esoteric, reflective emotional associations with those writers - and not upon their ultimate ability.

The best way to get perspective upon your own work is to read the work of writer who have stood the test of time; writers who lived in an age you are not living in now, and who yet communicate fluidly and meaningfully to you across the gulf of decades or centuries.  It will aid you in recognizing the difference between what is important in your writing, and what is really important.

This last point I will speak about in greater detail; but the notes above should suffice.  Now, I must go, I am meeting with a musician this afternoon to have him look over my work.  I look forward to it.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Time To Write

In the interest of concentrating on the rewrite for my novel Pete's Garage I have been digging a grave for distractions and projects so I have the time to work unrestrained.  A large part of writing involves being able to say to others, even those one loves, "I can't go here, do this, get that, work on those things or show up for the thing because I will be writing.  Sorry."

I'm never impressed when people tell me they do not have time to write.  If you have time to eat and sleep and shower occasionally, you have time to sit and write.  All the rest of your time, in other words, can be thrown out the window in favor of doing this thing which - it is assumed - you love to do.  Are you clothed, fed and sheltered?  Good, you have time to write.

If you find work wears you to the point where you can't be creative, then I have several suggestions for you:  get up before work and write when you're still fresh; find a way to refresh yourself after work; quit your job and get one that doesn't destroy your creativity.  If, as it happens, you've built your life around having an $85K career position that requires you work on bureaucratic projects on the weekends, and you have some fantasy that deep down inside that you'd like to write a book but you can't get around to it, it may be time to admit that your real fantasy is to earn $85K a year and that you're living it now.  Writing, apparently, was never really that important to you.  You're only hanging on to it as a kind of soother to suck on when you feel your life is going nowhere.

I am afraid I'm not the sort of blogger whose principle concern is that every reader who wants to be a writer feels better about themselves.  There are, if you will look for them, groups of writers who hold regular events and readings who, for a few dollars, will serve as a support group to stroke you no matter what sort of material you churn out.  I am not of that breed.  I do not want the gentle reader to feel better about what he or she is writing.  I want the gentle reader to do better.

I am in the process of slashing and burning half of my first chapter, which couldn't feel worse if I were feeding my right hand to wolves.  But it has to be done.  The writing is crap, it was crap when I first put it on the page three years ago and I've been deluded about it ever since, making excuses for not recognizing it for what it is and not fixing it.  I look at the first ten pages and I think, "No wonder this was never published; I doubt anyone got as far as the second page."

I wish that was unduly harsh.  It isn't.  The book hasn't been published and the first ten pages ARE crap.  Or rather, they were.  I hope they are better now.  They feel better.

I'm sorry, i was writing about taking the time to write and I let myself get distracted by the project.  Forgive me, the project at the moment is taking up a lot of my brain and it' easy to slip back into it.

I am writing this blog sincerely to improve the reader as a writer, but that will never, ever happen if the reader cannot prioritize their life.  If you find that you cannot surrender your usual evenings for the sake of writing, that should be telling you something - that you are, perhaps, not as romantically inclined to be a writer as you want to be.  You are more in love with the idea of being a writer than you are actually in love with writing.  This is very common.

When I was young and in school, I was told by who knows how many teachers that my chances of making it as a writer was 1 in a 1000.  They did not know it, but they were being optomistic.  I remember thinking to myself when quoted statistics like that that it was okay, I was that one.  If the odds had been quoted at 1 in a million I would have been just as certain.  I knew I was that one in a thousand because unlike every other person whom I knew would be competing against me, I wanted this.  Not desperately, in the sense that I had to have it or my happiness would be impossible.  But matter-of-factly, in that I was prepared to sacrifice continuously until I had it.

It is strange to think how much of my day, now, I spend writing.  Three or four hours, at least, in one form or another, part for my job and part for my novel and part of it blogging.  I do it like breathing air.  I do it like sitting down across from the reader at a table and confessing this or that as though were having a coffee on a streetcorner or perched on a balcony above a forested glade.  I argue, I reminesce, I propose some idea and I even hear the rejoiner to something I've said and answer.  One thing I do not do is feel my time would be spent better doing something else.  I don't have in my thoughts, as soon as I finish this chore I'll be free to do something more enjoyable.  I don't rush through writing to be free of it.  I love this.  If I am restrained by anything it is the cramping feeling of my hands as the arthritis I've had since twenty begins its inexorable grip, or my head begins to pound from the energy expended.  Then I have to rest, and stop thinking.  I have to vacate the balcony for the solitude of the hotel suite, to eat, to distract my mind long enough to stop it thinking, and finally to sleep.

If you are young and being questioned if this is something you should 'waste' your time on, by all means waste your time.  If you think yourself a writer, and you are doing anything else, then time is already being wasted, hour by hour and day by day, because you will not see your time for what it is: your slave, and not your master.  There are years of time at your beck and call, if you will make them serve you.  You have ten or twenty of them to spend writing the most awful stuff, and still you will have ten or twenty more to write things that are brilliant.

Get on with it.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Another Kick at the Publishing Cat

These last few days I've been reorganizing my priorities, having made a decision to try one more kick at the cat regarding a novel I finished two and a half years ago.  That novel is Pete's Garage, which is a story about a singer who lost his vocal cords in an accident years before buys an old hotel and transforms it into a practice studio for musicians.  And strange things happen, as more than just ordinary musicians turn up.

The book is humor through and through, and was written from my memories of a place that used to exist in downtown Calgary called Connections.  It was a crummy, ramshackle building where the soundproofing was bad and you could hear the band practicing in the next room over ... unless you were practicing too.  The novel goes back - for me - to the days when virtually every friend I had was a musician.

I am not a musician, never have been.  But I have generally liked them as people, probably because like me money has never been a priority for them.  Mostly, Pete's Garage is a fantasy about how I sometimes think life might be like spent around musicians.

It follows some basic rules for writing.  The characters and motivations are something I know and understand.  The setting is simple, inward-looking and controlled ... virtually every scene happens within or immediately adjacent to the hotel.  Therefore the hotel can really be anywhere.  It's described as "... this side of Jersey Shore facing Arthur Kill," which I don't explain in the novel but can be placed somewhere across the thin strip of water from New York's Staten Island.  But it could just as easily be in any big city.

I'll be talking here and there about getting it ready for sending out to publishers.  It has gone the rounds before, but I'm not convinced its dead.  I'm going to rework some of the first three chapters, pay out the cash and send it to probably twice as many publishers as I did before.  It would be nice if  finally someone were to pick it up and actually read it - and then want to publish it.

Ah, a writer's life.  Soon there will be rejections once more.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Her Touch

For years as a writer the only stories I had the ability the finish were short stories, and the longest one I had completed was only fifteen pages.  I had written story arcs that were much, much longer, but I had never brought any of the novels I attempted to a conclusion, and it was beginning to bother me.  I was in my early twenties and despite having consciously tried to write for ten years, I wasn't getting anything finished.

One of the problems was that I was writing novels which were insanely complex, with multiple story lines which were supposed to converge.  Somehow they never did, and I would hit a writer's block and that would be as far as I could write.  Finally I realized that finishing a novel was more important than writing whatever I wanted ... so I gave myself a task to write a SIMPLE novel which, even if it wasn't very good, I would at least be able to finish because it was two dimensional.  I believed it would help teach me how to organize my thoughts right to a novel's conclusion ... and as it happened, it worked exactly like I expected it to.

I did start to see how to wrap up a story arc, and finishing the novel gave me confidence that was useful in finishing other novels.  I confess, I have been thinking about it and I'm not sure which year I finished the novel in ... either '86 or '87.  I know it was before '88, because that's the year I wrote Somebody's Daughter, which is, of course, another post altogether.

The novel wasn't a novel at all, it was really only a novella, just 35,000 words.  I called it Her Touch.  Very few people ever read it, and I wouldn't go around posting excerpts of it because, well, the writing it pretty bad.  I wasn't a natural writer like some people manage to be.  I have had to work and teach myself how to write, and this was something I wrote before I began to take Latin in university.  Taking Latin was a huge leap forward for me ... but that's another post too.

Her Touch was a straight-up detective story.  Two police detectives, Spears and Androssi, are investigating a serial killer who is murdering people in the doorways of apartments or houses just as they are entering.  Usually the key is in the lock, the door is open and nothing has been stolen.  They have all be killed by having their throat slit.  There's no sign of any struggle.  The cops learn that the victims know one another obliquely in a string of associations.  A knows B who knows C who knows D, but in every case they are just loose acquaintances.  Because of this Spears goes to a funeral of the latest victim to speak with the family and with anyone who might know the deceased.  There he sees Ariana, a marvelously attractive woman who doesn't seem to know anyone.  He does not get an opportunity to speak to her.

A few weeks later someone Spears has met at the funeral is killed.  When Spears goes to that funeral, he sees Ariana again.  The funeral is followed by a wake, which Ariana attends, and Spears decides to watch from outside.  He sees Ariana leave with one of the family members and from that point on he and his partner begin to tail her.

There's no hard evidence against her, but Spears and Androssi are convinced that she is somehow involved.  There's the usual arguments with the police captain (cliche, cliche) and after that the two cops begin to follow her on their free time.  Because of the sporadic surveillance, the next victim dies and yes, it is the man Ariana picked up at the wake.

Now Spears and Androssi are convinced she is using the funerals to pick her next victims, intentionally choosing people who have little knowledge of the previous deceased.  Naturally Spears and Androssi attend the next funeral and yes, Ariana is there.  Only know she sees them, and she winks at Spears.

Both men start to ignore their other duties in order to catch her.  They tag-team the surveillance.  Androssi one night is following Ariana down a freeway when she starts to speed up.  Not wanting to lose her, he follows, and they both begin to play a game on the freeway.  She taunts him to go faster by slowing down and looking at him, and eventually this ends in a terrific wreck where Ariana is unharmed and Androssi is killed.  (cliche, cliche)

At this point Spears loses it (cliche, cliche).  He begins to put pressure on her, she plays games between him and her next victim - and Spears confronts the victim and the victim defends Ariana.  Spears gets into trouble with his superiors who then take away his badge (cliche) and order him away from the woman.  Spears ignores it, and follows Ariana as she takes her next victim into the country.  Spears in turn is being followed by two other detectives.

Ariana kills her victim in an old shed on the edge of a wildlife park just minutes before Spears can stop her.  He trails her through the park, surprises her, and they fight, rolling down a hill and into a stream.  At this point, Spears has lost his perspective and intends to kill Ariana.  He has his hands around her throat, strangling and drowning her, when he's shot and killed by the two detectives following him.  The murders get pinned on Spears (there's never any evidence) and Ariana gets away scott free.

There's not much that's wrong with the plot besides the cliches, and I could probably write the novel now in about three months (took me a year the first time).  I have it somewhere, but I wouldn't look at the original in writing it again.  I'd write out the cliches (probably arrange it so that Androssi is the one to shoot Spears), but I'd keep the conclusion.  No doubt, with more character build-up and at least another story line providing motivations for Spears' mental state, the book would probably come out at twice the length.  I'd probably also add another story line for Ariana so that she didn't come off so wooden and distant.  I don't think I'd give her a motive.

The point was that by forcing myself to write something very simple and two-dimensional, and ignoring the fact that I was writing cliches in order to get the novel to its conclusion, I did learn a lot about pacing, building to a climax, pulling the simple strands of the story together and ultimately writing a denoument.  These are things I could not have gotten into my head writing the beginning five or six chapters of novel after novel.  I began to see how the structure had to be circular, so that the problems the character has at the beginning must be involved and resolved by the end of the novel, to provide continuity throughout.

If you are finding yourself struggling to finish something, I suggest strongly that you set down your self-consciousness about the quality of your work and just concentrate on finishing the job at hand.  Later, if you still like the novel, when you've learned more about how to write, you can go back and do the job properly.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Why Not Short Stories?

The Gentle Reader will take note that most of what I speak about applies to novels, and not to short stories.  A "short" story is one that is typically no more than 2,000 words, and at its best contains one, maybe two characters, a single setting and one resolution.  The focus of the story is intended to highlight the sharpened facet of a theme, and to do it well, or in the very least to tell a tale that will be memorable to the reader.  Traditionally, from Aesop to O. Henry, they tended to end in a moral; O. Henry employed the 'twist' ending, arguably better than anyone else up to his time.  If you are unfamiliar with O. Henry, and you have an interest in avoiding cliches where the twist is used, I recommend him.

I used to write short stories, and had some luck with them.  If you will do a lot of reader's theatre, where you have the opportunity to read aloud in a coffee shop or such, something about 1,200 words is good.  Humor is better than something poignant, as it gets a crowd going.  But humor is hard to write, and most short stories you will hear are rather unremarkable stories about people's families, or places they've traveled, or some moderately unusual thing they experienced which they decided to write out as a story.  These are dull to read, and worse to sit and listen to read aloud, particularly if the writer doesn't have a performance voice.  A monotonously written story read with a monotonous voice can equal 12 minutes of death.

I have very rarely heard a short story read aloud that I enjoyed that was not written by some master at least 50 years ago.  For years I wrote them, but I've never especially enjoyed reading them.  Those that I've written have little value, as short stories are not published and when they are, they usually don't make any money.  I wrote a series of humorous stories for a magazine for several years that paid me a fair 30 cents a word, but that was because they had a trade angle - home renovations.  They were not what could be called pure fiction.

I don't like reading short stories, as they end quickly and this means I must make the effort to start again with new characters.  Somehow, I've never enjoyed starting anything.  Most of the time, it takes ten or twenty pages for me to start to care about the characters, and by then, the short story is over.

Overall, I prefer the difficulty, the depth, the effort of writing a novel, even if many novels that I've started never saw an end.  I am unsatisfied with characters in a short story; I want to give them a greater purpose, and let them talk as much as they wish.  As such, it is very rare that a short story occurs to me that I take the time to write down.  I would rather conjecture for several months about something I haven't started, than write something which I then forget about by the end of the day.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Untitled Mess So Far

So far I've restrained myself from talking about my general work, instead using one example from my past in order to outline some of the features regarding writing, and novel writing in particular.  From time to time, however, I'd like to talk about work I haven't done yet, since development is an important part of being a writer.  It is probably the least spoken element of writing, since writers in general do not like to talk about their work until it is accomplished.

I have experienced, in the past, a reluctance to continue projects that I have spoken about prior to writing.  If something has only a chapter or two written, and I talk about it, there is a distinct lack of motivation for moving forward.  It may be that, having given out the story, I feel less inclined to 'tell the story again.'  It may be that the expression of the listener has convinced me subconsciously that it isn't worth continuing.  Or it may be that once I've said the thing out loud, I've realized myself that it was never that great an idea.

I used to call this "killing the muse."  For some ten years now I have rigidly kept to a practice of not talking about my best projects before writing out the first draft.  Once the first draft is written, in toto, I have found there's no danger in talking about it.  I do not feel kept from working on the second draft.

I think every writer likes to talk about their work, even the work they haven't finished yet.  Writing can feel like having lightning in a bottle.  I have this GREAT idea, and I want to tell everyone!  I believe every writer feels that ... and I believe that most writers come to the same conclusion as me.  Don't open the bottle, or else you will have only an empty bottle.

Still, there are ideas I have thought about for ages, which I think are good ideas, but which I doubt I will ever actually write.  They occur to me, I turn them over and over in my mind, I structure out the characters and contemplate a workable theme.  I think up an opening and organize a plot, but then I don't like that plot and I find myself organizing another.  And another, and another.  And the story never gets written.

There is one that I believe I have nailed down to some degree, but I still have yet to write a word.  I also do not have a title, none of the characters are named and I don't have a theme beyond the least complicated sort, such as "don't die."  And yet I have a setting I like, an opening, a general sense of how the characters will interact with each other and a good first climax.  I don't have an ending, however, and you can't write a story without an ending.  Believe me, if you don't know where you're going, you won't know how to get there and the story is going to wander horribly.  I know many authors who say publically that they didn't know where their books were going when they started, that they "let the characters lead them" ... and yes, the books wander horribly.  Generally, I don't finish them.

One day I'm going to be walking and an ending is going to hit me, and I may actually start writing.

The details aren't important.  The idea centers around five jaded adventurers who find themselves in a town as it is being abandoned by the townsfolk, who are loading everything they have into carts to flee an oncoming army.  The adventurers do not flee.  They find a public house with a remaining inventory and contemplate the value of staying alive.  They view cruelty differently, and upon catching a scout for the approaching army they interrogate him differently.  They find a squad of forty humanoid invaders and dispatch them with some ease.  They identify a significant arm of the approaching force in the distance, debate the logic of remaining, and then take note when a large, impossibly huge flying creature drops inconveniently close to them.  This is more or less the pace of the novel as I imagine it.

In a sense, it robs some of the framework of The Wild Bunch, except that I don't see these characters suffering from a lack of education.  Nor do I see them being motivated by the usual stuff, children and innocent people and friendships.  I'd like to dig into a deeper theme about staying alive when its irrational to court death, but I haven't worked that out yet.  And, as I said, I don't have an ending.

I'll keep the reader posted, however.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Necktie Unnecessary

I identify four kinds of editing.  The first is that with which everyone is familiar: the solemn, miserable grind of checking for spelling and grammatical mistakes, correcting the order of words, removing unwanted adverbs and adjectives, getting rid of colloquial phrases like "in fact" or "as far as I'm concerned' and so on - this last being something that clutters my first drafts like ten drunks in a back alley.  It has to be done, but after years of doing it the dull process begins to be rather straightforward.  I usually set aside a certain amount per day, depending on the length of the work and the approach of the deadline:  about 3,000 words a day.  That takes me about an hour and a half, or more depending on the amount of work needing to be done.

The second form of editing is continuity.  This is a significant problem in a novel.  It is important to remember when the hero hits the villain with his closed fist in chapter 12, that you put a high school ring on the hero's finger in chapter 3.  It won't do to say early in the book that the character's father was a mailman, and then to have a stroke of inspiration late in the book where you reveal the character's father was a prison guard.  Something has to be worked out, whether you pick one or the other, or give a reason for his father having once done both jobs.

Here another set of eyes on the volume can be a big help.  You will tend to be wrapped up in the language and structure of the text, while someone who knows nothing about your novel will be more likely to see those continuity errors.  Only, be sure it is someone who will squawk when something is wrong ... I've known too many readers who will simply assume there must be some reason for you making the mistake, when in fact you've just forgotten.

It's easy to take more than a year to write a novel, particularly if it is something you don't do a lot, and that increases the likelihood of continuity errors occurring.  If it helps, write out a list of pertinent facts about the characters, without looking at the novel.  Then you are more likely to write out the things that are actually important, rather than a reflective list of things you've already written.  This will also help with the third kind of editing.

This would refer to the importance of getting rid of things that are not working.  The reference may not turn everyone's crank, but I always liked the line Bill Murray had in the movie Tootsie, where he confesses that the solution to his play is to write the "necktie scene" without the necktie.   This can be a difficult decision.  We fall in love with characters, or sequences, or little in-jokes, and it turns out they just don't work in the story ... but we refuse to accept that, and we go on making the problem worse and worse, until finally we have our own personal Jar Jar Binks.  It's easy to see why Lucas couldn't see past the disaster that character was; he was too close to the work.

I have been pushed to the point where I have removed up to three complete chapters from a work, recognizing that the book was going in the wrong direction.  It can be very hard to throw out characters, or settings, or even certain themes when you realize the work is trying to do too many things, or that it is doing things the wrong way.  But do it.  Kill the character.  Get rid of that section, no matter how beautiful it is with the girl and the high wire and the tutu that rips and sends her to her death.  If it isn't working, it isn't working.  You have to be prepared as a writer to stab your novel or story right in the heart if it has turned against you.  Feeding it more time just makes it worse.  The same is true of a composer, a painter, a sculptor or any artist.  Cut out the bad and move on.

Remember, though, that once you have cut that out, you are going to create continuity errors with what's behind ... when you get rid of the priest from chapter 9, don't forget to remove the reference to him in chapter 14.

The fourth sort of editing is the worst.  Yes, it hurts to kill chapters, and it can make it seem like the book is never going to be finished, but it is worse to finish a book and realize that it doesn't have enough.  You've come up short and you haven't any idea how to fix it.

My first draft of Act of God, I realized that my lead character, the narrator, was a ripe asshole.  I had written him as a cook, and had included the sardonic, often mean attitude most of the cooks I worked with had.  He was intended as a little-educated, tough, disbelieving sort of runt, and when I found I'd managed that acceptably, I realized he was impossible to warm up to.  The reader wasn't going to get past chapter three listening to this guy.  I needed something to make him more likeable.

My solution for the second draft was to give him a disability.  He would have a crippled leg that would counteract his irascible nature and give him a little sympathy.  The new feature had to be worked into every moment and every aspect of the story, and as a result I had to throw out passages and a full chapter, necessitating the rewrite that would ultimately change the climax of the story in favor of the character's physical flaw.  In turn, this changed the character himself, so that he became less cold and mean and a little more funny, even compassionate in some instances.  Overall, it heightened the work completely ... but it was a long, difficult effort to rework the whole book to fit that one highly significant change.  Worth it, yes, but not much fun at the time.

There you have it.  Any English graduate can manage the first and second kinds of editing, but it takes a writer to recognize when three and four are required, and it takes a writer to get dirty up to the elbows and do it.  Don't hesitate, and don't put it off ... it only takes a great deal of thought, patience, innovation and a willingness to cut like a surgeon.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Gettin' Shut o' Doin' Things Rather-more-or-less.

Wow.  It is not as though editing were the most interesting subject.  In fact, for most editing is the worst part of writing, something most would rather not do - professional writers as a well as amateurs.  One of the great things about having an editor is that they are willing to edit ... and where it comes to schlock material I write for magazines, I am happy to lean on them.  Let me warn the gentle reader, however, that editors will edit anyway, no matter what you fix first.  This is true everywhere.

If you have any artistic inclinations, you will want to edit your work.  Here is where having a solid understanding in grammar is most helpful.  Here also is where not being in love with every word you write is an absolute necessity.  And here, finally, is where you will be broken on the rocks of your self-doubt.

For certainly the one thing that setting out to edit will cause to wither and die is your ego.  If you don't find this to be true; if you don't find the need to question your value as an artist and as a person as you apply the red ink to your work; if editing is a breeze ... either you're not cutting enough, or you haven't learned to invest your being into your work.  Editing is hard.  It is self-abusive.  It is taking something you've written in a moment of genius and recognizing in the cold light of day that it is all worthless.  Writing is passion.  Editing is passionless.

Some people can't do it.  They can't bring themselves to cut a word of their work, or they can't bear the proof that their writing is clearly something loathsome that no one should ever read.  There are thousands of would-be writers who never write anything but first drafts ... and because of that, they never write anything anyone would read.  If you will be a writer, you will need to understand that editing does more than destroy your bad work.  It leaves behind your good work.  It allows the good work to breathe, to shine, to lift itself up from the ground and fly. 

No matter how painful, think of editing in these terms:  you are pulling a fast one over the reader.  The reader overseeing your edited work doesn't know what you've thrown out; they see only the carefully crafted words you've polished and straightened out.  As far as they know, this IS the way you write.  It will seem to them to be effortless, for how can anything so beautiful not have been written that way from the first?

Ask yourself, do you question great works from the standpoint of what they must have been when the writer first set down the words, or do you make the assumption that the writer was just that smart?  Consider the opening of Shakespeare's 57th sonnet:

"Being your slave, what should I do but tend
upon the hours and times of your desire?
I have no precious time at all to spend;
nor services to do, till you require."

Do you truly believe these were the first words he set down when he began to write?  Or do you realize the hours and nights he reviewed them with angst, again and again, questioning the use of every word, replacing them, changing them back, reordering them for the right meter, and so on?  Being Shakespeare, we will never know.  They may have been written in this way, as he was struck by the muse all at once, but I doubt it.  Poetry is an editing hell.  No one, ever, edits like a poet, if the poetry will be more than words, but music too.

It's strange to think of some poets editing.  Anyone can imagine the effete Lord Byron burning the midnight oil over his poem Darkness, but can the reader imagine the gruff, military Kipling struggling to fit his words in order?  Consider this from The 'Eathen, a favorite of mine:

"An' now the hugly bullets come peckin' through the dust,
An' no one wants to face 'em, but every beggar must;
So, like a man in irons which isn't glad to go,
They moves 'em off by companies uncommon stiff an' slow."

No great writer has ever lived that did not write the same awful refuse you find yourself looking at in your own work.  The difference between you and they is only their willingness to tear and shred their work to improve it, bring out what was good and cut off what was bad.  You cannot do as they did without bearing down upon yourself just as hard.  You may not want to face it, but every begger must ... and everything else that Kipling says.

To not edit is to not have appreciation for what you have written that is worthy of being shunt of all that you've written that ought to go.  It is finishing the job.  It is writing well.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Quality is a Dead Loss

I was not happy with Saturday's post.  I felt a little sluggish that day and I did not feel I'd done enough thinking and organizing before writing the post.  It did not flow.  It felt more intransigent than I would have liked.  I don't think it caught the correct mood, or that it said what I wanted to say.

That's how it goes sometimes.  We want to be better writers, but some days the mind is not as sharp as it could be.  Some days we are distracted.  Some days the words don't come.  It doesn't matter how long you've written or how good you are, you're subject to your environment and your quality of being.

Thankfully, there's editing.  That's a subject I want to get into this week, along with more about the setting, but for now I just want to reassure the reader that no matter how bad the stuff you've just written seems to be, within the hack and the blabber there remains the central nugget of what you were trying to say in the first place.  Words can be changed, sentences restructured, new points added or old points wiped from existence.  You are the god of your work.  When things get real bad, don't hesitate to bring a flood and wash everything clean.

There is an agenda to editing, and an agenda to this blog, which I have yet to talk about it.  If you will say that you want to be a better writer, then you are saying there is a difference between bad writing and good writing.  But what is 'bad' writing?  What is 'good' writing?  Who gets to say?

Nothing could be easier.  You do.  You get to say.  For ourselves, we all do.  Anything you're willing to dedicate time to read, that gives you a sense of satisfaction or which compels you to sacrifice other things in order to spend time reading, that's good writing.  People will attempt to assign all kinds of measures and dictates about good and bad writing.  You will read some on this blog, since the need to find a formula that aids in determining between good and bad is a disease that all writers to some degree suffer from.  The reason for that is obvious.

Unfortunately, you will never really know if you are a good writer.  You cannot measure it by your willingness to read your own stuff, or by your sense of satisfaction.  You are too invested.  And so however you try to compare what you write with what you read, you won't be able to do it.

Of course, some writers simply assume a mantle of unquestioning ego regarding their writing.  I know something about that.  Having a big ego will get you past a lot of the criticism you'll receive, it will keep you writing and it will help with those saturdays when you feel all you can write is sludge.  You'll attribute it to other things, like distraction and exhaustion.

Deep in your heart, however, you won't feel so sure.

I will leave the reader with a story from Kurt Vonnegut that he recounts in Foma, Granfalloons and Wampeters, a collection of stories, essays and speeches from those days when Vonnegut was virtually a god upon the American campus.  In it he describes being on a bus, and seeing a woman reading one of his books.  Vonnegut observed that the woman was near a point in the book where he'd written what he considered a very good joke, and he decided to wait until she came to that point.  In fact, he remained on the bus well past his stop in order to see her reaction.  But when she came to the joke, her face did not crack so much as a smile.

Vonnegut's point of the story is my point.  You may think you're a genius, but the woman on the bus is just reading, for her, an ordinary story.  She doesn't know who you are.  She doesn't know how hard you're working.  And all you can do is keep quiet about it, enjoy what empty adulation you do receive and know that you will never be the writer in someone else's head that you are in your own.

Try not to let that worry you.  Try to write out what you can, try not to give too much importance to what others tell you to write or not write (as I did on Saturday) and try to enjoy what you're doing.  It's all you've got.  And when you try to be a better writer, and when you get advice about it, listen carefully, take from it what you can, and then go write whatever you want.

No matter what anybody says.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

The Setting Well Traveled

I still find myself writing what are essentially introductory posts to the various facets of writing.  In this case, the matter of choosing a story's setting.  I believe firmly that two rules here should be followed with absolute rigidity.  Your story should either be set somewhere that you, the writer, are very familiar with, or it should be set somewhere that no one is familiar with.

One of the benefits of writing science fiction or fantasy is that the environment in which the story takes place can be of any nature, and no one can argue the rules or the 'truth' of that environment.  The downside is that you're forced as a writer to create a completely alien universe where none of your readers can bring with them personal experience - and that is a lot of work.  Most writers of sci fi or fantasy lighten the load by augmenting fantasy with elements of the real world.  Here they immediately discover they are backed against the wall by the other truth.  People may not know the planet Mars, and you may be able to set a mining camp there.  But people do know mining camps and they do know miners ... so you had better know them too, or your story will be dead by the third page.

The setting is any frame in which the story takes place.  It is critical for placing your reader into the story.  The setting must be believable.  It must feel 'real.'  Characters play best when they are allowed to exist in situations where they belong.  The place they live.  The place they work.  The social structure that most fits themselves.  It may seem creative and imaginative to dump a mess of characters into an environment where they don't belong, but it is also a very, very overdone trope.  Interloper A travels to Setting B and spends novel/film/play interacting with the setting as an interloper.  Thing writes itself ... unfortunately.  The story line taps into human feelings of discomfort when being pushed into strange environments, and the reader or viewer reacts with visceral understanding.  And that is why as a theme it has been done to death.

Setting makes an excellent background for your story, and it can contribute in a thousand ways to the plot, the motivation or the impetus of your theme or your characters.  However, setting makes a very poor character, or what is called a foil ... that is, a contrasting element in your story that enables your character to 'be' the character, revealing those things that as a writer you are writing the story to say.  Setting as foil is transparent, it's dull, and it makes an easily forgettable story.  When I say 'transparent,' I mean that the reader will very clearly see you, the puppet master, pulling the strings.

I am sorry, I am remiss in making this point clearly.  I need to say that of course, your story CAN follow this trope.  As a theme, it is sometimes described as 'man vs. nature,' though in truth that is a more complex structure than what would normally be employed, i.e., man is lost in an unfamiliar country.  The gentle writer needs to know, however, that it is one hell of a steep hill to climb up in making your story a) interesting; b) innovative and c) remotely original.  If I am to see or read another story about a man trapped on a desert island, it better have truly unique elements in it that challenge my previous experiences with stories of this type.  The same is true for prison stories, alien planet stories, tourist in the third world stories and so on and so forth.  Then again, you might be the person to write those unique elements - because you have been to prison, or you have been trapped on a desert island, or you have been to an alien planet.

If you haven't, however, and you think that writing yourself into an environment with which you have no experience would make a good story, stop.  What is most interesting is that the writer must be, far more than the character, completely at home and unbelievably familiar with the alien environment in order to pull it off.

Have I gotten the whole point across yet?  All right, one more try:

If you're thinking about writing a story like the one above, don't.  Unless, of course, you really want to.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Julia Skayakovak

Over the years I have written many characters with whom I have fallen in love. On the whole my writing tends to revolve around one woman and one man, with supporting characters. My women tend to be strong, capable, obstinate characters who resort to Machiavellian tools to achieve their agendas. My men tend to be somewhat capable survivors who are often in over their heads, but game. The conflicts that arise between these two personalities is one I have seen very little of, particularly where the woman is not sentimental and where the man is not ideological. My characters, as I’ve said, reflect facets of my personality, but they are never ‘me.’ They do not react as I would react, they do not approach problems as I would approach them, and they do not see the world as I see it. Nevertheless, I still love them.

For two decades I was possessed with this particular character whom I wrote into three separate books. The first book was never finished. The second I did finish, but it was awful and it has been lost now. The third book was the one I’ve mentioned already, Act of God.

The character at its inception possessed a number of questionable, young motivations which no respecting person my present age would have: beauty, murderous sadism, phenomenal amounts of ability ... the trope that would now be called a ‘Mary Sue.’ My inspiration had not been comics, but rather a desire to somehow make the notorious Carlos the Jackal into a woman character. It seems almost silly to write the words ‘international assassin’ in today’s world – terrorist would be more up-to-date – but that was the conception I originally had, lo about 1980.

Early on I settled on the name ‘Julia’ for its lyrical qualities and its associations with the conqueror Julius Caesar. Her last name was a composite of ‘skaya,’ the Czech word for ‘town,’ emphasizing her urban and thus modern characteristics; and ‘kovak,’ which has an imprecise meaning regarding stealth and capability. I could not know that Alan Moore was making the similar association (I assume) when he named his Rorschach character Walter Kovacs. I did not think that meant I needed to change the name of my character.
Being the terrible writer that I was in the 80’s, I wasn’t able to do her character justice in words. I could picture her in my head and how she ought to behave, but I couldn’t do better than to present the shallow outer shape. I did get an interesting break, however, that gave me a wider perception of what the character offered.

In mid ’86 I was at a job interview for an analyst’s position. I was fresh from working for the government as a statistical clerk and I hadn’t entered university yet. Before the job interview began I found myself in a conversation with another applicant. He went first. Then, after my interview, which didn’t go so well, I ran into him in the coffee shop downstairs and we continued our conversation. He told me his name was ‘Bob.’ I identified myself as a writer, and in answer to his query I told him about the book I was struggling with, which included Julia. I confessed that I wished I’d had more information about what went on behind closed doors with international intrigue, whereupon he explained that he could help with that.

We took a short walk to another building where he kept a small office for his own use. I realized quickly that he was obviously more likely to get the analyst’s job than I was. Once we were in his office, he locked us inside and began to explain that he had worked for C.S.I.S. for a number of years. That’s the Canadian Security Intelligence Service. After a little digging into his files, he produced a box which was full – coincidentally – of documents related to the movements of Carlos the Jackal from the mid 1970s and into the 80s. It was material that had been printed on a teletype machine ... old dot-matrix printing and so on. The pages made oblique descriptions of Carlos in Bulgaria, Carlos in Brazil, Carlos in Spain and so on. Now and then there were descriptions I did not understand that ‘Bob’ explained for me. Bombs had a tendency to go off in places Carlos had been seen in just a few hours prior.

I was engrossed, obviously. I was a bit worried, too. But after several hours of talking and reading, Bob closed the box, swore me to secrecy and let me out of the office. I never saw him again. I did not go looking to see him again.

I have always throught of that as a very odd moment in my life. Now and then I’ve had to convince myself that it really happened. Were the documents real, or were they some faked thing that Bob happened to have with him the day we met. Was C.S.I.S. watching me? Are they still watching me? I guess you have to decide how paranoid you’re going to be. I tend to believe that somehow the whole thing was a coincidental run-in between my writing and Bob’s unique conspiracy-fueled paranoia. I tend not to believe the documents were real. My subsequent investigations these last many years have convinced me that a lot of what I read that day was complete bullshit.

It was, all the same, terrific fuel for my creativity. If I had ever considered giving up on Julia prior to that meeting, afterwards I had to write something, eventually, that would suit the character. And as I’ve said, I eventually did.

Julia is not someone I would ever want to know personally. She did remain a terrorist and an assassin, but I washed the sadism out of her in favor for indifference, and replaced my original conceptions of her ideology with a sense of intense retribution. Not revenge in the ordinary sense, for wrongs done her, but the cold certainty that certain people’s lives should be brought to a literal end.

I suppose she deserves resurrection, and that will mean having to rewrite and restore the original book. It’s only been in the last two weeks I’ve realized I have to do that.

Thursday, June 9, 2011


The creative writing professor I had in university believed that all characters should be ugly.  She considered beauty to be hideously boring, cliched, overused as a trait and therefore completely dismissible.

There's no question that ugliness is easier to describe.  Split lips, Neanderthalic foreheads, scrubby hair, humps, club foots and general scrawniness are easier to envision than aquiline noses and high cheekbones.  If you want your readers to clearly remember a character, remove the character's eye.  The only thing is, most of us are no more especially ugly than we are especially beautiful.  I personally am not astoundingly attractive, but I have no distinguishing characteristics that would describe easily just how I am plain-looking.  If I were to write that I had bad skin, or a bulbous nose, or that I have a pear-like build, these things would be true ... but not in the degree that as a reader you'd be likely to picture.  My skin is only lightly pockmarked.  My nose is only a little bit bulbous.  My stocky build isn't quite like a pear.

How much better for writing, however, that we exascerbate characteristics like this in order to make our characters more memorable and profound.  We are expected to exaggerate.  Writing is, after all, lying.  Moreover, the description of the father's gut in chapter three will only serve to give a greater sense of growth when the father realizes his failing as a human being in chapter nine, vowing to give up his self-indulgence.

The tendency to exaggerate does not work both ways, however, for my professor from long ago had a point.  Writers tend to make their attractive people - especially women - unnaturally attractive, so that every female denizen of the home and workplace embodies sexual perfection.  It is natural that writers write out their fantasies; without fantasy, most writing would never happen.  If you want to be taken seriously, however, and if you want to be published out of the porn industry, you will tone down the physical descriptions.

All right, but why?

We are all well-aware of our shortcomings.  We may enjoy watching porn for its attractive, immoral participants, or reading about rich, attractive people, but in a world where there is so much of it on tap, it tends to roll over us like a wave upon the sand, quickly rolling off and leaving no special impact.  To dig into a character is to tear up the sand and destroy the perfect image that was there before.  Personal struggle is unpleasant and it is ugly; even if your character is beautiful at the start of your story, if he or she is to have any depth at all, it will be necessary to tear down the facade and reveal the unpleasant, uncomfortable truths about living.  Beautiful people eat, shit, suffer and die just like everyone else, and those are the things that truly concern us all.

I like attractive characters in my stories, but I don't feel they have to be outlandishly attractive to be noticed.  I don't particularly like physically ugly people in my stories - but people who are emotionally or behaviourally ugly fascinate me to no end.  To wrap this up, if you have found yourself writing characters without flaws, or if you save your uncomfortable motivations for your villains, you must educate yourself.  The division of characters between villains and good guys is stuff for old timey serials, not for legitimate writing.  We are all ugly.  We are all motivated by things we would not feel comfortable revealing to the general public - writers and non-writers alike.

And that is precisely why writers should write about it.  To enable others to read it, and relate to it, and grow from it.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Drivers

We all know what a character is.  We see enough movies, we read enough books, we have the concept thrown at us in school through representations from Shakespeare ... and of course our lives are filled with characters.  There are small parts like the people who fill your coffee cup or exchange your money at the bank.  There are extras like the others driving cars around us, or filling the queues and theatres, or crowding the square at New Year's.  And there are those characters who pose as major supporting players in our lives.

A quintessential quality about reality is that at any time, for any reason, one of the extras can spontaneously be thrust into the role of major supporting player.  Ten minutes ago, she was sitting next to you on a bus, without knowing anything about her.  Now, she has just saved your life by a hair's breath, having her thigh cut open as she pushes you into the aisle just before the bus is hit by a car.  She falls into the aisle next to you, crumpled metal and plastic all around you.  You're tearing off your expensive suit jacket and pressing it into her thigh to staunch the blood as she starts to shake from shock.  You're holding her hand and reassuring her ... and at that point it's time to find out who she is.

Sadly, writers find themselves casting around for some expression of what makes this woman tick, and they don't have it.  A rather pathetic description of the woman's hair, size, eyes, age, ethnic background and so on is gorged out like the boxes on a tax form.  Some expression of the woman's social connections is attempted and we find out she has a child - as though this is the only possible association this woman could have - or that she has a mother.  Two paragraphs of description later we know nothing about her except a few physical descriptions we will forget immediately (because we will see her in our mind how we want to see her anyway) and a thoroughly dismissable family connection.

It is hard to explain what a writer can put there that isn't trite and useless to the reader.  I can say that in those moments of stress, you as the passenger trying to save her life won't care about any of that.  For you, there is blood everywhere and you are probably inadequate to the task of managing it.  You will be hoping that help comes soon.  You will be encouraging the woman to talk because you will want reassurance that she is still alive.  You won't care what she says - unless it is something so out of the ordinary that you have to listen.

The problem comes from the rather clumsy set of priorities a writer has, in that first the idea of the bus crash is created, and then it comes down to personalities.  Let me put it plain: plot does not drive character.  Character drives plot.  Logically, you should have the purpose of this woman set out in the story ahead of time.  The bus crash is the best way you can think of to relay this character's contribution to the story - and therefore, you will have ahead of time the priorities you need to tell you what information the woman must relay before she falls unconscious or dies.

If a bus crash isn't the best way for her to relay it, then you shouldn't write that into your story.

Before setting out to write a story, you want to have two characters sorted out quite clearly in your mind.  You should know how they will interact with each other.  You should know what agenda both will have, and how those agendas will conflict with one another.  The appearance of both characters will descend, therefore, from the agenda, and NOT from a momentary visual you got from sleeping, the television or some other source.

For example, if your first main character is a professor, and your second main character is a student who falls in love with him, the student's appearance will have a lot to do with whether the professor will make commit an act generally seen as amoral.  The professor's appearance, and the professor's personality, will need to be something a student can fall in love with.  Matters will be different if the characters are both the same sex, and they will be different if the authority figure is a man or a woman.  The motivations behind the student's interest in an older authority figure will need to be expressed, as well as the motivations behind the professor's willingness - or lack thereof - to allow the advances of the student.  The appearance of either will also depend upon which participant is the more aggressive.  An aggressive student who is successful will look different than an aggressive student who is unsuccessful.

I have thus created the pattern and structure of the book, and I have a reasonable idea of what both characters must look like in order to make the book believable and accessible.  Now I can start on the plot.

I will be writing more about character first, however ... as there is more to be said.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Do Not Suffer a Grammarian's Wrath

While we are on the subject of grammar, I should make my case clear - or rather, I should have W. Somerset Maugham make my case clear:

"Only a few years ago, I was spending some weeks in London and had engaged as temporary secretary a young woman.  She was shy, rather pretty, and absorbed in a love affair with a married man.  I had written a book called Cakes and Ale and, the typescript arriving one Saturday morning, I asked her if she would be good enough to take it home and correct it over the week-end.  I meant her only to make a note of mistakes in spelling that the typist might have made and point out errors occasioned by a hand-writing that is not always easy to decipher.  But she was a conscientious young woman  and she took me more literally than I intended.  When she brought back the typescript on Monday morning it was accompanied by four foolscap sheets of corrections.  I must confess that at the first glance I was a trifle vexed; but then I thought that it would be silly of me not to profit, if I could, by the trouble she had taken and sat me down to examine them.  I suppose the young woman had taken a course at a secretarial college, and she had gone through my novel in the same methodical way as her masters had gone through her essays.  The remarks that filled the four neat pages of foolscap were incisive and severe.  I could not but surmise that the professor of English at the secretarial college did not mince matters.  He took a marked line, there could be no doubt about that; and he did not allow that there might be two opinions about anything.  His apt pupil would have nothing to do with a preposition at the end of a sentence.  A mark of excalmation betokened her disapproval of a colloquial phrase.  She had a feeling that you must not use the same word twice on a page and she was ready every time with a synonym to put in its place.  If I had indulged myself in the luxury of a sentence of ten lines, she wrote: 'Clarify this.  Better break it up into two or more periods.'  When I had availded myself of the pleasant pause that is indicated by a semi-colon, she noted: 'A full stop'; and if I had ventured upon a colon she remarked stingingly: 'Obsolete.'  But the harshest stroke of all was her comment on what I thought was rather a good joke: 'Are you sure of your facts?'  Taking it all in all I am bound to conclude that the professor at her college would not have given me very high marks."

The above appears in Maugham's The Summing Up, which he wrote in 1938 at the age of 64.  Cakes and Ale was written in 1930.  Maugham's first success with writing was with Liza of Lambeth, which was published in 1897.  Between those last two dates Maugham became an insanely successful playwrite and wrote a great many books, including The Razor's Edge, The Moon and Sixpence and Of Human Bondage.

As such, the complaints and perturbations of grammarians should not be taken too much to heart.  The motivations behind such people have very little to do with the creativity of language, as their main focus is to put a straight-jacket on language, gag it and drop it into the sea.  If you have been told by an English teacher, professor or expert on letters that you have no talent, congratulations.  You have just proved that in 80 years, grammarians have not changed a bit.

There is one purpose for grammar, and that purpose is to make yourself understood.  There is great sense in grammar in that one ought to know the placement of commas and other devices, if only to clarify examples such as "Eats, shoots and leaves," as the famous book sets out to solve.  No question about it, knowing where paragraphs go is helpful.  As is knowing virtually every other rule you can wrap your head around.  It is a cliche, but it is a serviceable cliche: learn about grammar's rules, and THEN break them.

You will read things written by people who will tell you to reduce the number of ellipses, colons, semi-colons and dashes in your work.  An editor will not turn you down for such things unless they are so abundant that its impossible to read what you're saying - so yes, try to keep them to a minimum.  This does not mean that you should not use them.  Use them sparingly.  When you are wildly famous and successful, you can use them abundantly and to your heart's content ... but I'm guessing by then you won't want to.

Similar things can be said about the length and type of sentences, the old bugbear about prepositions, comma splices and so on and so forth.  Sit down with a book and learn what they are, and learn how you are abusing them.  And then, after you've come to a decision about it, throw away the book.

I repeat for emphasis.  Be clear.  Write in short, direct sentences.  Reserve your long, developed sentences for when you feel comfortable, or even resolute, about saying a particular thing with a certain pomposity that fits with your character.  Mix it up.  But most of all be aware of the sentences you are writing.  Know when you've written on and on in some absurd irrational sentence with no proper punctuation or clarity that leaves your reader unsure about what it was exactly that you were trying to say when you started the whole thing off.  The more you know about your own writing, the clearer your writing will be.  And the less guff you will have to take from so-called 'experts.'

Monday, June 6, 2011

Helping the Tortoise Along

Aside from the matter of writing, there are other skills a writer can develop which can aid in the process of creation.  There are three in particular which have helped me - which I would go so far as to say without which I would hardly be a writer.

The first and foremost is grammar.  This is not a popular subject.  I'd like to emphasize that a public school education doesn't provide enough knowledge about grammar, any more than the school band program provides enough knowledge about playing an instrument, or a school gym program giving enough for a competitive athlete.  Athletes and musicians employ trainers and tutors ... but usually a writer will believe that he or she needs no special training to understand the structure or complexity of language.  Understand that I am not speaking of the creative use of language, but of the very nature of the language itself.  This is the tool.  Knowing how the tool fits in your hand is a big part of mastering the craft.

My own success with grammar was not installed by the teaching of English, but through the Latin courses I took in university.  As it happens, at present I cannot read Latin.  I cannot translate it.  I took Latin last about 21 years ago and it has all washed out of my brain.  What has been left behind is the construction of the language itself.  By understanding Latin - a much more systematic language than English - I gained much greater understanding of how words fitted together.  I understood for the first time why our ancestors were taught Latin in school.  It was something constantly made a joke about, teaching dead languages and all, whereas it should have been understood as a critical function of teaching grammar.

The second skill on my list would be typing.  I am right now touch-typing this post, at about 45 wpm.  That's the speed I write at when I am casually creating.  When I am on fire, it is more like 60-65.  If I push it, and I'm copying without thinking about the material, I can write 70-75.  This is impressive for someone who failed typing in High School, when I could not manage better than 35 wpm, and at that with many, many errors.

I could understand the value of it, however, and even after that class I continued to work at it year after year, using a text book that I'd found in a used book store.  Once someone has explained the principles to you, and given you a sense of what is important and what is not - something that can really be accomplished in an afternoon - everything else is just practice.  And so I did, spending a few hours every once in awhile typing groups of letters and associating a particular finger with a particular key.  Over time I improved, and with improvement I became more attuned to the typewriter itself - and of course the keyboard later on.

I get a little cranky when I read arguments about moving the letters around on the keyboard, and about how the QWERTY keyboard was designed to slow people down, etcetera.  Be that as it may, I have no desire to change the keyboard.  I don't think about the letters as I type them.  I couldn't tell you without actually looking which finger types what key.  And I never look.  I just type.  A new keyboard would bollux me up completely.  Sitting down and letting my fingers move is so natural, so comfortable, I can't imagine forcing myself to undergo four years of repatterning in order to learn someone else's keyboard.  Do you know how much material I would have trouble keeping up with in four years?

While we're at it, this is the third thing that I'd mention as a needed skill.  That would be this thing I'm working on right now, the computer.  I started, ages ago, on a manual typewriter.  That would have been the one my parents let me use back in 1976.  I was blessed with an electric typewriter by 1980, when my grandmother past away and her's was brought into the house.  I wasn't technically allowed to use it at will - my parents were scrupulous about that sort of thing - but I ignored them and used it anyway, every chance I got.  By '83 I was staying up all night long, typing, and the electric typewriter was mine (mostly by default), and in my room.  By '84 I'd moved out, without being given the typewriter (no support from my parents for my writing, ever) and writing long hand again.  For twenty years I wrote all my first drafts out by hand.  My mind moved at that pace, and I believed that long hand was the best way to write.  It's only been about five years now that I've accepted that my drafts are better constructed by a computer.

I say this to explain that most of us start with simpler gadgets and promote ourselves up to more and more difficult machines.  That is the age.  When I hear about people who are still creating their documents on Notepad or Word Perfect, I am astounded.  Microsoft Word is simply not that difficult to learn, and it provides benefits that have to be accessed.  If you are not familiar with a computer at all, GET familiar.  There are no excuses.  Virtually anyone can teach you the basics, and a course through a local library is easy enough to join.

I suppose a fourth skill would be to continue training yourself in every kind of development even vaguely associated with writing, but that should be self-evident.  The words themselves contain knowledge.  It is best to be knowledgeable and competent in using these words.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Tortoise Speed

Using your brain to write is like using a specific muscle; it must be exercised at least somewhat regularly if it is ever to be built up, and once built up, it must not be allowed to atrophy.

But what if every time you sit down to write the words don’t come. Or worse, what if everything sounds like something an insidious hack drunk on hack-writing potion would write at a hack-writing festival for hack lovers? I can assure the gentle reader that I know just what this feels like. The last thing you want to do is write, and writing is what you’ve set yourself to do everyday.

The dilemma can kill a writer completely.

I have a solution, but it will seem, well, wrong somehow. If you can’t write your own stuff, then don’t write your own stuff.

I am advocating a simple solution. Find a book that you love, take it down from the shelf, or rip it off the computer if need be, weight it open on your desk and begin copying it, word for word. If it is book you love, this should be easy ... so long as you can keep your eyes from just drifting forward, until you’re in your cumfiest chair reading. Seriously, write it out, just as the author wrote it out before you. At least one of two things should happen.

In the first place, you will, after spending enough time at it (twenty or thirty pages, perhaps spread out over several days), you’ll become more aware of the sentence structure and the pacing than you ever were before. One of the problems with equating your writing to someone else’s writing is that you’re familiar with their writing at rabbit speed compared to your own efforts, which you’re used to viewing at tortoise speed. If you slow someone else’s work down to a familiar speed, you’ll have a real comparison between your writing and someone else’s. You may start to notice that your writing only seems hackneyed because of the speed you’re reading it at. Readers won’t read it at your speed.

The other thing you may start to notice (and this may take longer, sixty or ninety pages, or never, depending on the author) is that not every word written on the page really belongs there. You may notice certain words get used more often that you’d have thought normal. And you may notice certain passages are, well, pretty worthless. You’ll notice this because you have to spend an hour or so writing it out, thinking, jeez, I wish this conversation-slash-descriptive passage were over.

DON’T allow yourself to jump ahead and only write out the good bits. Write everything out, as long as you can stand it. If you’ve got it in you, write out at least two hundred pages, no matter how long that takes. If you ever write a book, you’ll have to get used to writing two hundred pages or more. For the moment, I’m only asking that you write out someone else’s pages, someone who is supposedly already proven to be a good and respected writer.

If, after that’s done, you want to enlighten yourself still further, start copying out a BAD book. Something that is just awful, something that you would never, ever read in a million years. Find out how a book editor feels. And after you get to the point where you’re ready to kill kittens, start rewriting that book with impunity. Change the character’s names, change who kills who in scene three, change the story line and the writing completely. Just go with it.

Now, go back to your own writing. Tell me how different it feels.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Drowning You

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”

Without question this is one of the most famous openings to a book ever written.  Charles Dickens wrote it in 1859 in the manner of many of his books, as a weekly serial.  For him and for his readers, the French Revolution which is the centerpiece of his novel A Tale of Two Cities occurred 70 years prior to his writing, which would correspond to the bombing of Pearl Harbor for us.  In other words, an event distant enough that nearly every person who had experienced it themselves were dead, but near enough for living persons to still feel particularly keen about the event.

The novel is in most senses an ‘historical’ drama in that occurrences of history do measure in the novel, and Dickens wants to set the stage for those occurrences, and does so in the novel’s opening passages.  He speaks about England and France, and about the conditions of both countries – briefly – at the year of the novel’s beginning, 1775.  And it is only after all of this that the actual drama begins with the rushing of an English banker’s coach from London to the sea, setting in motion the love story between a French aristocrat and the daughter of an improperly identified French revolutionary.  The general theme of the novel is, again and again, resurrection.  Dr. Manette is resurrected from the Bastille, France is resurrected from its entombment under the Monarchy, the certain death of Charles d’Evremonde is resurrected so that it can continue and in the end Sidney Carton is resurrected from his utter worthlessness to something of a hero.  There’s even a humorous scene with grave robbers in the middle of the novel, ‘resurrecting’ a body.  It is generally supposed that the end is very sad, but in fact – read correctly – it is an astoundingly happy ending, and was recognized by audiences who made it the most successful play ever based on a Dickens’s novel in the 19th century.

Returning to the opening paragraph and its comma-splice mania that proves grammar isn’t everything if you understand when and how to break the rules; Dickens wants to put some very immediate ideas into the reader’s mind.  In the first case, that disagreement about the period is rife and constant, and that he fully expects everyone to have an opinion about whether or not those were good times or bad.  Dickens was a denizen of coffee shops, as all artists continue to be, and he was familiar with the thousands of ongoing arguments about the period (“noisiest authorities”) – as we are regarding the decisions surrounding the Second World War.  He had heard the events referred to as wise, foolish, hopeless, hopeful and so on, without any resolution ever occurring among the debaters, and he wished to establish from the beginning that both were in every way absolutely right in that no one, clearly, had any real idea at all.  This sets the stage beautifully for saying whatever he wants to say, while everyone else can go hang.

Moreover, in keeping with his theme of resurrection, he ends his series of oppositions with the emphasis upon the Heaven-slash-Other Way alternatives, and not by chance as people would reckon.  Excellent writers do not, as is often asserted, do things by chance.  It is emphasized again by repeating “good” and “evil” as opposed to good and bad.  Dickens is announcing that, above all things, he is conveying a moral play, in which some of the characters will certainly be good in the sense of holy and redeemed, while others will certainly be evil in the sense of cast out and damned.  With this one proviso:  that the absolute nature of either is sullied in that the world is not fashioned of “superlative degrees,” but that it is made muddy.  Charles d’Evremonde’s father is the extreme evil; Lucy Manette’s father is the extreme good (which is a statement of its own, I can tell you).  And Lucy herself is rather lacking in damnable characteristics.  But Charles and his twin Sidney are both as muddy as muddy gets, as is the truly interesting Madame Defarge and her not-necessarily-unique perception of the world.  The events of good and bad that carry through the novel are painted in shades of gray, the same shades Dickens declares he’s going to use as his palette in the opening sentence.

From this and from my description of my own book I hope that the gentle reader begins to understand that from the first a novel must be more than an interesting series of sentences strung together to form a narrative.  It is a work of intrinsic character, fashioned so that each part of the novel must influence and comment upon every other part of the novel, to elicit an emotional and intellectual response from the reader … to take the reader into a world and immerse them there until their former perception of truth or falsity is drowned out of them, leaving them awakened to something they did not previously understand.  Most novels fail at this either by not having any conception of their purpose at all, or by drowning the reader so heavy handedly that the reader must fight back. What is required is the sort of sleepy somnambulance that one sinks into with pleasure and contentment, never realizing that the surface has passed over them long since and it is too far now to swim out before the last bubble of air escapes.

A Tale of Two Cities is not an easy book to read.  It is heavy with description, dependent upon an understanding of people’s ideals in the time period and extremely dense in vocabulary and structure.  Therefore many turn to an expurgated version, such as I read when I was in my teens.  Having read the expurgated version, and having been quite young, I did not realize the content and purpose of the book and I was left with an empty, even angry feeling at the death of Sidney Carton.  It was only by reading the correct book that my eyes were opened.  Yet still I dreaded the end of the book, knowing what was coming, in spite of thoroughly enjoying the passages and their marvellous strength.  Then I came to the end, and tightened up … only to be utterly surprised.  As I read the last two pages of the book, I was crying – with happiness.  It is something I can’t explain, even by assaying the last two pages word for word.  It was a feeling.  In confession, I admit that I’m a sensitive person, and I don’t imagine others would be likely to cry … but for me, I was changed by the ending of the book, and in my perception of things altogether.  It is without question what I would consider to be among the best books ever written.  And yet – a thing that does not surprise me – it is mostly ignored by the literary elite as a dismissible love story.

In a few days I shall write about themes, and about love.  For now I am satisfied to warn the reader not to expect my response to the book’s end.  I can’t promise that it will be “well worth it” if you read right to the end.  It would have to strike you in just a particular way, I think.  Still, if you feel you might get a sense of it from what I’ve written here, and tried the book, it would serve you well in some capacity, I’m sure.

Friday, June 3, 2011

The Rules of Reading Here

In university I had a professor who kept office hours three times a week from 10 AM until 11.  This was every week, year after year without fail, and as far as I know continues to do so.  And while I was at university, and occasionally afterwards, I would make a point of seeing him once a week, sitting in his office full of books and drinking tea from cups that he never cleaned.  Being very English, he would mock me for taking his cups down to the bathroom and rinsing them out.  He came from Lincolnshire, and he must have had a bit of the coalminer in his blood.

The other thing he used to mock me for was my paltry reading experience.  Dr. Baldwin, brilliant and funny, was without a doubt the most well-read fellow I've ever had a chance to know personally, and conversations inevitably included a long list of books that I ought to read, as he shot titles out like bullets.  I never did get around to reading all the things he suggested.  I bring it up because, well, lately I feel like him.  I never seem to be able to have a conversation without making referencing some book I've read, and telling others they ought to do too.

Oh, not always.  In truth, it comes up more with the young.  I believe it takes time to read all the things that can or should be read, and that there isn't enough time in the first twenty years of life to a) read it; b) develop the vocabulary to understand it; and c) obtain the experience necessary to appreciate it.

In case the gentle reader hasn't guessed yet, I'm again putting off the post I mean to write about A Tale of Two Cities in fovour of discussing an often quoted proverb, "A Writer Reads."  I do agree with this.  It's important to see what others have done.  As important as physically writing as much as possible is, to build up the habit and the focus necessary, it is just as important to discover and investigate what others have done with the process.  A writer does not live in a vacuum.

I have heard people who say that they don't wish to read because it might influence them, or that it discourages them, or that they dislike reading something they wish they had written put on the page by someone else.  Ridiculous, but there it is.  Why shouldn't a writer be influenced?  What can possibly be so pristine about a writer's style or focus to suggest that its good enough to be influenced by parents, teachers, peers and the unavoidable advertising media, but not other books of the writer's selection?  You don't have to read every bit of trash, no, but for the love of sweet little red tomatoes, you can pick out works of literature you respect.

Yes, it is true that something brilliantly written can be discouraging ... and unfortunately, 'measuring up' is something writers and other artists seem compelled to do - with the proviso that if they fail to measure up, they often spiral into self-doubt and self-hate.  So be it.  If the gentle writer can't take a knock on the chin once in awhile, if their work can't be kicked into the dust by a better master of the art, and if they can't pick themselves up and decide to try harder, it is no great loss.  Art has no time for the wounded self-pitying martyr ... that's a thing religion can tolerate, thus explaining why the literature in religion is so consistently second rate.  Art wants its creators to go one better.  And if we are not masters in every piece we write, we can yet be masters of one or two works that will last a dozen lifetimes.  Oliver Goldsmith may have despaired that he was not Shakespeare - we can never know for sure - but that has little meaning to us as we sit down for a performance of She Stoops to Conquer or tuck into a copy of The Vicar of Wakefield.

Oh, you haven't read ol' Oliver?  You should.

Yesterday, I said that I did not want this blog to devolve into endless discussions about who is and who is not good.  Today I should like to add a collarary to that.  On this blog, if I say it is good, it is.  This 'truth' doesn't extend to your blog; it doesn't even extend as far as my dinner table.  It carries no weight of any kind outside the framework of this little electronic frame.  Elsewhere in the universe, literary works may have values of every level and measure.  But here, in this particular realm, I will not quibble about using the words, "this work is good, and you should bloody read it."

Now, the gentle reader may, or may not, choose to take my advice.  I certainly did not always take the advice of Dr. Baldwin.  But I also did not stand in his office and tell him that he was an idiot for suggesting books to me.  I did not do that because I was not an idiot.  I came to his office; I sat drinking his tea; I recognized the dynamic.

And now you, O gentle reader, come and sit down in my office, of your own free will.  I am sorry that I cannot offer you tea; it would be in clean cups, I assure you.  Sadly, the circumstance of our meeting disallows it.  Accept, if you will, what little hospitality I can offer.  And in the meantime, please understand that if I make mention of some work in a positive way, I am advocating most strongly that you should read it, perhaps with my examination of the work in your mind.  Perhaps, even with a book you read once upon a time and formerly despised, you may come away from the post about it with a fresh perspective.

Within the constant cat-calling that the lust for social popularity has created, there is a resistance to comprehension.  People wave the things they enjoy like military flags, marching under this or that banner as if going to war, with little or no concern for the purpose behind any bit of art to which they themselves do not personally pledge allegiance.  This I cannot tolerate here.  I do not care about anybody's nationalism.  Nor will I declare any work I appreciate under a banner of my own.  If possible, I shall try to represent works here that I do not like along with works that I enjoy.  I shall try to describe every work with only the intrinsic message of the work in mind.  I shall hope that others learn the benefit of such efforts.