Tuesday, November 30, 2010

About Spoilers

I was dissatisfied with yesterday's post. The thing about tropes is that you really have to talk about examples. I want to talk about the choices I'm making. And that brings me to a different subject:


If you really want to get into the nitty gritty of writing, you have to talk about the whole story. You can't get too cagey or the meaning is lost.

At the same time, you don't want to spoil stories for people. Also most writers don't like to talk about ideas before they are finished. Some are afraid someone will steal an idea, or that an imperfect or rough idea will hurt their reputation. I don't really suffer from that problem. Everyone handles ideas differently, and frankly, people who steal ideas are not creative enough to pull it off.

As for being shy of unfinished work: there are things I don't want to reveal. Sometimes an idea is like the mycellium of a mushroom - if it's interrupted at the wrong time, it will stop growing. I keep those things private. I also don't like to post anything that will spoil a reader's later enjoyment of a story later on. However, I think one of the appeals of a novel dare blog is to see the process in action, and how can you see the process in action if I keep drawing a veil?

Sometimes the creative process works better if you display it. Talk it out, explore it. While I sometimes use examples from books I've already written, the fact is I don't always remember the details that make it interesting. If I have a bunch of options, I may only remember the reason I chose the one I kept, and not anything about the ones I abandoned.

The other thing about spoilers is that it can be hard to analyze other stories without talking about the endings. This is especially true of mysteries, thrillers and twist stories. You can't talk about the artistry involved without talking about the secret.

Some people like spoilers. My sister often has to remind me, when I'm telling her about some movie or book, that I should not be cagey about the ending. She may never get a chance to read it or watch it. Plus she found she likes hearing about whole stories. Sometimes she likes hearing about them more than she likes reading them.

This reminded me of when I was young, before home video, when it was actually a challenge to see many great and classic movies - especially esoteric or foreign ones. Movie buffs like myself often only got to see clips and hear descriptions. Heck, even today, many old movies are completely lost, and we only know them from what people wrote about them.

There actually is a lot of pleasure in reading and writing and talking about a story. Sometimes more pleasure than in reading or seeing the story itself. There is a lot to be learned from talking about bad stories that aren't worth actually reading or seeing, too.

And sometimes a story is enhanced by knowing the ending already. (IMHO, the movies Identity and The Others are much more interesting if you know the secret. Other movies, such as Diabolique, must be seen without spoilers first - but are then are fascinating to watch again and again after you know.)

For a long time now, I've been thinking about starting another blog just for spoilers. It would be set up so that a reader would have to click the "read more" button to get to the spoiler parts, and I could use it for two things. One would be so I could keep spoilers out of discussions here - but make them available at a single click from a post here. The other would be for deep analysis of films where I want to talk about the whole plot.

I'm not ready for the work of the film story analysis, but I think I am ready to start writing occasional spoilers for my own and other works here - and that would be a solution.

The stuff I want to write about tropes, though, aren't spoilers. They reveal things about upcoming stories, but not things I particularly want to keep secret. (In at least one case, I want to talk about ways to prevent the audience from assuming certain things will happen. Ways to telegraph certain truths without dampening the story.)

So I'm not starting the spoiler blog yet. I would like to hear from the audience about how they feel about optional spoilers. Have you ever read a review or posting with a spoiler that made you want to read a story you didn't think you'd like until you heard it? Do you like to read spoilers about stories you never expect to read?

In the meantime, I'll start my series about raising expectations, making promises and suprising your audience tomorrow.

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Sunday, November 28, 2010

What Makes Old Tropes Work?

Before I get back to serious writing in December, I'm doing more playing with this Old Serial style story. The problem with a story like this, which is both a reinvention and an homage to an old genre, is that it is a type. I may be taking it in odd directions, but such a story is built out of familiar tropes - what some people call cliches. How do you keep it fresh? How do you surprise and delight yourself (and therefore the reader)?

I've been thinking a lot about that lately.

The word trope comes from Latin and means a turn, direction or tendency. It also refers to a style or manner. A heliotrope turns toward the sun, for instance. I like to think of it as a dance step.

From there it came to English through rhetoric. It means, according to Webster's: "to use a word or expression in a different sense from that which properly belongs to it." In other words a metaphor, simile, pun or irony - a clever turn of phrase that gives extra meaning. A figure of speech.

It is, of course, ironic that a word which more or less means "something different" has come to refer to cliches and standard patterns. Writers prefer the word trope to cliche, because it has fewer negative connotations: Common writing wisdom says it's okay to use tropes properly, but cliches must be eliminated.

If we really want to give the idea of an old pattern or formula a positive spin, though, we use the word archetype.

An archetype isn't exactly a trope. It's the essence of something - the original, the perfect example, the thing on which other things are based. So you could say it has the opposite of the original meaning of a trope. An archetype is not a clever take on something. It's plain, unadorned. An archetype already has a solid meaning, and we can build on it. For example, the story of an ordinary hero who overcomes a great foe is an archetype - David and Goliath, Die Hard, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

Now here's the cool part.

You can dress those archetypes in old cliches and it'll be boring. But if you consider the rhetorical meaning of the word trope (that it holds a different the meaning from that which "properly belongs to it") then you can see why a trope is more attractive than cliche. A cliche is exactly what's expected - boring. A trope, on the other hand, is a little dance step that plays with what's expected. It teases and flirts with you, but doesn't cross the line.

When you are writing something that requires an archetype - like an action movie or a category romance - you should keep this definition of trope in mind. Don't just worry about the big things. Play with the little ones. Use the tropes to change it up, and vary from the original meaning. Take a different direction, add a little style that doesn't properly belong there.

If you do this, you can turn expectation into anticipation.

And anticipation is what turns pages.

(Hmmm, I think I'll start a series on Tropes and Expectations now. So many interesting examples out there.)

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Writing For Work, Writing For Fun

I suspect all writers write for fun. Yes, I have known tortured poets who are driven by personal demons. But I really think that even they, on some level, must get a certain joy from somewhere in the act of creation. And I think that most of the rest of us share a little bit of their torture too.

Because writing is not actually the same as reading, and I suspect (and here is me putting a crazed and unsupported opinion) that the joy we are seeking in writing is at least partly a desire to recreate the experience we had when we first discovered how great reading was. When you're young, and you haven't become jaded yet, and you haven't read every kind of plot or twist that exists yet, reading is a pristine experience. You could surrender yourself to the story and be taken on a journey. You experience the joy of discovery every time you open a book.

But if you read a lot, the experience becomes less pristine. You've seen it all before. You get picky about which tropes you like. And your brain rebels at the idea of giving up control to another. So you jump the tracks and head out on your own journey of discovery - which is when you become a writer.

The problem, as I said, is that writing is not reading. When you take the reins, you take responsibility for the story. You don't get to sit back and let the discoveries wash over you. You have to look ahead and plan. Nothing is a mystery. You can't discover, you must invent. By the time you are rewriting and polishing, the experience of writing is nothing like the freshness of reading. You may still get joy out of it, but it's a different joy. It's a joy of craftsmanship, of communication.

But there are always parts of writing that are like reading. Many writers refer to their first draft as a "discovery draft." Or if you're like me, you do "exploratory writing" ahead of that first draft - taking the story and characters in different directions, playing with what will work an what won't. Finding the most fruitful path.

I was thinking about this today, because writing a mystery requires the highest level of planning of any kind of writing. (And I'm talking about the tightly plotted whodunnit type puzzle mystery here - though there are many looser plot styles that fit in the genre.) It is an extremely satisfying kind of writing, though. Even though you will never experience the mystification of the reader of your story - you'll never match wits with the story, or get to guess where it's headed, or change your mind as the clues pile up - you get to be the magician, luring and distracting and pushing the reader through that experience. It's very hard work to do it right, and you only get the reader-like experience for small parts of the process.

I think this is why I like to dip into adventure - because the story can work out more spontaneously. Even when you have twists and turns, they are much easier to weave in clues on a second draft when they are not a full-out game of wits. If you know what all the characters are really like, and you know their motivations and where they start the story, you will remain consistent as you twist and turn.

But sometimes I go even further off the rails.

Today I worked on The Serial - the strange series of tales that don't quite conform to anything in modern genres. They are inspired mainly by the kinds of stories told in silent movie serials and in magazines and books of the same era. High adventure and mystery and a rather convenient lack of realism.

(For new readers, you can read a little about that project in this post on the early concept of the characters, and also this post on the concept of "Texerland.")

My very first idea for this story came long before the geographic anomolies and the Awarshi partisans and such of my current story. It came from an urge I had as a kid to just sit down and make stuff up - to just start the story somewhere, and keep throwing in complications, and just let it go where ever it wanted to go. It was going to start as a standard high fantasy, but I was prepared to let there be space ships, and forays into the modern real world. I called it "The Perils of Lady Pauline" as a vaguely medievalized version of the old movie serial.

I got bored with it pretty fast, mainly because the mind can whip through such ideas much faster than you can ever write them down. Slowing down to get it all down on paper put it right back into the category of "work" again. It's not reading. It's writing. Bleh.

But as you gain your skills, you can bring those two experiences back closer together again. You can put one to work for the other. The heroine of my current serial is indeed named Lady Pauline (though she is a thoroughly modern flapper and a baroness in her own right) and it is the story of her perils. I am a long way from doing anything with this story. It is still in fully exploratory mode....

...but it is good fun. And that's what I wrote for today.

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Friday, November 26, 2010

Gains and Losses in the Book World

I feel like I've been running a marathon. Every single frassin' rassin' day I've had something major scheduled for weeks. Though I get a break tomorrow, this morning I was up at 7am, so I could go over and finish getting my Dad's books ready for the Book Guy to come and take them away. I had already prepped and packed about 30 crates and we had at least as many to go.

And as we packed and hauled and loaded more and more books (and book cases), I felt a certain relief to think that the hundreds of ebooks in my iPod Touch would never have to be hauled and packed. Also they'll never get moldy or musty or trigger my allergies.

eBooks are doing great things for publishing and reading (and moving house). It's easier to buy them, to read them and to store them. I've probably bought more books this year than I have in a very long time.

But this is also a melancholy time for booklovers. When I called the Book Guy, he wasn't sure he would be able to take many of the books. Everyone is selling books and nobody is buying them. He blamed the down economy and that fact that younger people don't seem to read as much.

And a part of that is the move to ebooks. Heavy readers are getting rid of their excess libraries. Sure, we all keep around our special, most treasured books, but we're ditching the rest. And we're not looking for so many deals in used books to take their place. We're not buying so many new books either. Plus, everybody is selling those used books themselves on Amazon, or giving them to the library, which is supporting itself by selling them.

This is a tough time for the grand old used book store - the place we used to find treasures.

However, when the Book Guy came, he did take every single one of my Dad's books. (And the bookcases, and some other furniture, and the magazines and the paintings and posters, and the life-sized cardboard standee of Obama.) I don't think he could have afforded to buy them, or not many of them, but they were worth the labor and storage to him. Was it sentimentality? I don't think so.

I think it's like the advice of Baron Rothschild: when there is blood in the streets, buy. We're in the middle of a shakeout in paper books. The junk - the books people only want for a quick read and don't want to keep - will soon disappear from the paper world altogether.

But the treasured books - the interesting and esoteric and rare books - will always have a market. One day, I expect, those will be the only books printed onto paper. And those will be the ones that survive as antiques and collectibles as well. At the moment, when everyone is ditching their paper collections, the price to collect them is a bargain - Free. It costs only the labor and storage, which is the main thing most people are trying to avoid.

So the fact that the Book Guy wants those books, all of them, gives me hope that there is still a place for the treasured object in the world of books. And a place for sharing the cost through trading and selling of used books.

After all, in spite of the hundreds of book on my iPod, I still have hundreds of physical books of my own to pack and carry if I ever move. But when it's thinned down to the treasures, that won't seem like such a labor.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Set A Date To Start

Spent all of today clearing out my dad's apartment. He was a packrat, and a book freak. My job was packing and sorting and arranging books so that they could be viewed easily by the book guy. The book guy will probably not be able to take them all - possibly not even most - because everybody is selling their books now, and nobody is buying. But he is going to help find alternate places to take them before the lease is up on the apartment. (He knew my dad. When I gave him my name and said I had an apartment full of books to find a home for, he said "I bet lots of them are in French." And I said "and most of them came from your store in the first place.")

Anyway, when I stuck my head up for air today, I took a gander at the calendar, and discovered that my days are completely booked up until the end of the month. I was, however, reminded of a bit of wisdom I learned when I was in film school - a bit of advice a guerilla filmmaker passed on to us, which he had got from a mentor of his.

"Set a date to start."

Filmmaking, especially guerilla filmmaking, requires a lot of preparation. An endless amount of it, actually. Writers may need to do a little plotting and research, but filmmakers have to arrange for budgets and casts and schedules and weather and props and crew and permits and rentals and just a whole lot of stuff. And it never ends.

Sorta like life.

You have to do that stuff. You can't just let it go completely. However, because it never will end on its own, you also have to decide in advance how much is "enough" and put a cap on it.

So when you have an overwhelming pile of kerfuffle to deal with, the key is to accept that you can't do everything, and give yourself some breathing space to do it... and then put a cap on it and set a date to get back to writing. For me, the date will be December 1.

In the meantime, I think I have the seed for the plot of my next George and Karla mystery. It will involve the clearing out the stuff left behind after a long and interesting life.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Can A Writer Be Too Comfortable?

There's a great discussion going on over in the comments section on Dean Wesley Smith's blog. (The post is about someone else's post about the new James Frey scandal.) The comments discussion, as usual on Dean's blog, covers a lot of territory. But the major topic on this one is education, what it's good for, day jobs, and work ethic.

And one of the things I have to admit is that I am a little too comfortable to be really successful as a writer. But I don't know that that's a bad thing. Sure I wish that the opportunities available today had been available when I was younger and hungrier.

One problem with comfort is that opportunities alone aren't enough. They are like the teacher in the zen saying "When the student is ready, the teacher appears." If you need something, you make opportunities even when they aren't there. If you don't really need something, well, it's like that scene in the last Shrek movie where an overweight Puss In Boots won't go after the mouse which is drinking out of his bowl of cream. "I'll get him later," he says.

That mouse is an opportunity which Puss is too comfortable to take.

On the other hand....

I am a contrarian. I come from a very stubborn lineage - a mixture of English Puritans, French Canadians and Irish. I prefer to dance my own steps. I always choose the tougher path. (I can only wish I would be as prescient as Gonzo the Great - who in The Muppet Movie was headed to Bombay to break in to movies. He felt that heading for Hollywood would be doing it the easy way. And now look! Mumbai is the center of Bollywood - the biggest film industry in the world.)

I am also a late bloomer. I like to explore everything carefully before I make up my mind and throw myself into something. When I was young, I ate a very limited diet. Mainly Cheerios, bananas and white rice. I am now one of those aggressive foodies who will eat just about anything. I learned to read Chinese so I could ask for the Real Stuff in Chinese restaurants. (I still won't eat animals which I consider to be pets, and I would be reluctant to eat most insects. But chicken feet? No problem.)

The time I have taken over these many years (nearly thirty since Clarion) have given me tools to do exactly what I want. Having all of that stuff from my life lying around, and having the opportunities of the new ebook revolution, AND having the luxury to pursue it my own way at my own pace - that's all really very cool.

The French have a phrase "d'un certain age" (often applied to women, although it gets applied to men too especially in terms of a midlife crisis). This is the era of women of a certain age. We drive a lot of the market now. (We buy far more DVDs than those younger men that advertisers used to go after, for instance.) It's the age where you're comfortable enough to not give a shit. There's power in that.

So let's face it, I may be reasonably comfortable, but I'm not satisfied. I'm not where I want to be. That mouse should not feel too comfortable around me. I don't actually have to get him right this second, but when I want him, I will get him. Like an old momma cat, no messing around.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Are You Headed In The Right Direction?

It's not usually a good idea to start second-guessing yourself in mid-stride. Yes, you want to pop up and take a sighting on a regular basis, but if you start worrying about your direction in the middle of a book, you can simply derail yourself. Or to stick with the "mid-stride" idea, you don't want to trip yourself up.

However a Karmic slap upside the head will trip you, derail you and lay you flat. And that is a good time to get up and take a sighting on where you're going before you head out again. But then, I don't know that you can help but stop and assess things when you've been knocked for a loop.

So I'm picking myself up, and processing through my father's things, and what he wanted and what I want. And it's giving me some clarity that I didn't have before. I mean it really has cut through the nonsense that I knew was nonsense but I couldn't eliminate.

It's time to stop fooling around. Time to stop obsessing over shit that doesn't matter.

I talked before about the difficulty of finding that one unifying goal in fiction writing these days. For screenwriting, I could choose something symbolic - the Nichol Fellowship competition - which was a single thing that encompassed most of what I needed to do at that stage of my career. You had to write well, you had to write a lot, and you had to put it up for judging. Fiction has no central thing that is equivalent in standing or universality. Indie publishing sort of gave me a bit of the same drive....

Except it didn't give me the focus. As a matter of fact, indie publishing is full of distractions.

It has been a good thing to do, but that is not the prize my eyes should be locked on to. It's the velvet case the prize sits in, maybe, but it isn't where my eyes should be. August Wilson put it perfectly:

"You're entitled to the work, not the reward."

Whoa. Yeah. That's actually it, right there. It's all about the story.

So the prize is the work, and the way to get that is via Heinlein's Rules of Writing. That's my focus now. That's my mantra. And this blog is a part of that. It's the commitment to keep going. I'm still a little punch drunk from the karmic slap, but I think I'm on my feet now.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Au Revior Mon Papa

My father, Don LaGuire, died on Wednesday morning. While all of my family is very supportive of my writing, I can say without a doubt he was always my biggest and most enthusiastic fan. He was also the biggest factor in my becoming a writer, and in the kind of writer I became.

At story time, when we were very young, he'd offer to read aloud to us, but my sister would always ask him to "tell a story out of your own mouth." And he would tell us these wonderful stories from pieces of stories he loved as a kid - pulpy kid's books and comic books, and radio shows like Terry and the Pirates, and movies like the Bowery Boys. They'd be full of motorboat chases, and diamond smuggling, and hair-raising escapes.

The stories were also influenced by something else my father loved: French literature - from Dumas and Hugo and Emile Nelligan to Camus and Simenon and Druon. He was a scholar with a masters degree and a diplĂ´me from Laval University, but he loved literature with the same gusto he had for those children's stories. He talked about Victor Hugo in the same way he talked about Dave Dawson In The RAF - always rapt with each vivid detail of the story.

And so I find I can't help but see pulp fiction as literature and literature as pulp fiction. I learned that great bit of writing wisdom from him long before I heard it from writing gurus: It's all about the story.

Nobody could ask for a better fan, or cheerleader. He didn't connect with every thing I wrote. (He wasn't fond of science fiction or fantasy, for instance.) But when he loved something, he did so with every fiber of his being.

I remember when I gave him a first draft of one book. He was so excited, he called me up at ten o'clock at night and asked if he could come over and talk about it. He sat there and gushed for hours about every detail of the story. He did the same thing just the other day after reading the first third of the work-in-progress, and I will always be glad of having had the chance for that conversation.

His favorite of my books was The Wife of Freedom. Oddly, we didn't have that gushing conversation on that one. Instead, he carried the manuscript around with him and forced anyone he could to read it. I couldn't stop him. I was secretly glad that he wasn't computer literate, so he couldn't go out and spam the universe. I tried to explain to him that it wasn't a commercially viable book - it's an historical novel without an historical period, a fantasy without magic, a trashy novel that's not trashy in the least, a romance about a break up of a marriage. But to him it was great literature. And he loved it, perhaps, because I did as I learned from him, and made it about the story, and not about the genre or conventions.

One of the reasons I set aside some extra time lately to work on the layout for a paper copy of my books was so I could give him a real bound copy of that book for Christmas. He never even saw the cover art. I feel so bad about that. But in the end, I know it was the story that mattered.

Au revior, mon papa. Je t'aime, et merci pour tout les histoires.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Hold on Posting for a Few Days

Things got really bad today. I will not be posting until Saturday or Sunday.

Cover me

Update on my ongoing adventures in paper publishing (this being an offshoot of this year's eBook Experiment):

So I finished the pdf of the interior. I had been led to believe that after that, Amazon would process the file and then give you a template for the cover with which you could start the process of creating a cover. They don't. They actually give you a choice of using their cover creator (for those who can't do their own designs) or uploading your already finished cover. And they give you some links to pages with the information you need to create that custom cover.

Which should be at the beginning of the process, not in the middle. I could have had the cover ready now too. (This isn't really Amazon's fault, but my own fault for listening to people who didn't know.) As it turns out, they don't do templates for all formats, and mine will have to be made by hand myself, and they give oddly vague instructions. My artwork is good. The key is getting it into the right format for them (They want a bleed, but they don't seem to want it to be a real bleed built into the file by the software. They want me to fudge it. Gah!)

So I'm frustrated.

I'm also frustrated because I bought some advertising on a review site which should be good for boosting sales a little.... and my sales promptly came to a complete halt. I haven't sold a book since the ad appeared.

As for the critique and writing progress: I got some scenes done and chapters read. Haven't pulled either together yet.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Marketing and the Physics of Water

Lately I've been hearing a lot of writers who are trying to increase their promotional activities. They think it's not working fast enough or well enough, and they are getting desperate. They lower their prices and beg each other for tips on places to send book announcements, and try to find ways to get more reviews and start buying ads....

And I am reminded of one shining bit of wisdom that came out of one of the worst movies made in modern times.

The movie is Force 10 From Navarone. It was a sequel to the Guns of Navarrone, and I remember watching it on TV. I remember watching it more vividly than I remember the movie itself. We stood there in front of the TV, hand half extended to change the channel, but it was so incredibly bad that we couldn't turn away. It was like watching a trainwreck.

My brain was seriously damaged by watching this movie, so I may be hallucinating the plots points I actually remember but: It's about a bunch of commandos who are dropped behind the Nazi lines for something that mattered deeply to them, but by the end they've decided to blow up a dam instead. It's full of dialog that would embarrass a cheesy B-movie hack. "The place is crawlin' with krauts! They're coming out of the woodwork!" and "It's quiet. Too quiet." Even Harrison Ford, Robert Shaw and Edward Fox couldn't save it.

It has one redeeming quality, though. It contained a lesson in physics, delivered cheerfully by Edward Fox (who was playing the role that David Niven played in the original). He was the demolitions expert who directed them where to set the charges inside dam. And at the climax, when they've finally set them off... nothing happens. They turn on Edward Fox as if he had led them wrong. But he's not worried. He explains patiently that they didn't have enough explosives to blow up the dam, but that's okay, because the water will take care of the rest. And lo and behold, the weakened dam gives way under the weight of the water behind it, and the Third Reich is wiped out, and in spite of the woods crawling with angry Krauts, our heroes get to go home to their sweethearts.

Marketing is like demolition.

If there isn't much water behind the dam, then destroying it is an overwhelming and well-nigh impossible proposition. You can go after it with a sledge hammer or a stick of dynamite, and nothing will happen. Hitting it harder and longer with that sledge hammer will not help.

You need the leverage of that water behind it to make your job possible. I don't care if you are an indie writer marketing to the general public, or a writer seeking traditional publication - you've got to create that mass to use as leverage.

You've got to write.

If your marketing efforts aren't paying off, odds are you're fighting against the physics of the situation. WRITE MORE! Fill that reservoir to bursting so that the marketing will be easy.

There are a few exceptions to this, of course. The first exception is if you are a traditionally published author, you should market like mad around the time of your book release. That's because you need to get as much attention as you can during that short time when your book is in the bookstore.

The other exception is with the more indirect marketing you do. It's always a good time to network with writers and readers. Be a positive contributor on forums and newsgroups, build your good name, and that also will add mass to the forces behind the dam. Just don't sacrifice your writing to do it, and don't be lured into thinking more is better.

Once the reservoir is full, then yes, sure, go at it. With the force of a million metric tons of water, we can all apply the second verse from High Hopes:

Once there was a silly old ram
Thought he'd punch a hole in a dam
No one could make that ram scram
He kept buttin' that dam.

'Cause he had high hopes ... (etc, etc.)
...whoops there goes a billion kilowatt dam!

I am a believer in chipping away at a goal with excessive persistence (just ask some of my former supervisors!) but don't forget where to place that persistence: writing.

Tonight's Progress: mainly reading. (This is my long work day at the day job - we'll get back to the dam tomorrow....)


Sunday, November 7, 2010

Laid Out with Layouts

I may have a migraine. I think it's actually just a sinus headache combined with some eye strain. (Although I did find that the sun was too bright today, which is often the clue to a migraine for me.)

Therefore I only got a little work done on the W.I.P. and on the critiques.

However, I have finished the layout for the paper version of Have Gun, Will Play. In the end it required me giving up on my favorite font, Palatino, because it's an amateur font that doesn't have true "small caps" for the beginning of chapters. I like a book laid out with a nice block style first paragraph for chapters - and the first few words in proper small caps. So I had to go with a properly hinted full pro font - Garamond. (Which means the capital Qs are now all swashy and excessive - and there are a lot of references to a town called Quester Springs in the second chapter. Oh well....)

Yes, you see, migraine time is an excellent time to obsess over fussy little things like typography. All of the proof-reading I've done on that thing and I never caught that I still had two instances of underlines in the book. I can see it now because I can't really read the book.

I think that typography and advanced layout is one of those places where ignorance is probably bliss. Today I asked a question on a writer's board about how to do something in InDesign, and I got an answer of how to kludge together something like it in Word. The thing is, for that particular problem, yes, you could do it in Word. It actually would be fine and no one the wiser. And most of those people using Create Space to make a book are perfectly happy using Word.

But to me using Word to do a layout is like trying to make pancakes in handcuffs. No probably worse. I can't do it because I know better. I know what can be done with the real thing and I can't settle. Sigh.

Crit Dare Day 16 - Taking the eBook Experiment to Paper

I got a lot of Chapter 12 done today, and some work on 13 and 14. I will likely assemble them tomorrow.

I got a number of chapters read for critique, and come comments, but I want to finish this chunk of chapters on this book before I really critique and post. Get an idea of the longer arc.

And I did most of the layout work for a paper version of Have Gun, Will Play. It's available in just about every electronic format, but most people still read on paper. (Plus paper is fun to collect and give as gifts.) I'm doing an experimental publicity push on it this month and next, and I decided that this is a good time to make it more widely available.

(It's also time to make all those classes in graphic design pay off. I have all sorts of spiffy cool things I can do. I should do them.)

It takes a couple of weeks to get through the system - uploading the layout, doing the cover, getting a proof, etc. - so I hope to have the layout done and uploaded tomorrow or Monday night so the process can begin.

One day I'd like to do a special illustrated edition, but that would take a LOT of time, and I've got books to write. So I'll make do with what I've got.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

The Inertia of Words

I cut the work-in-progress in half and threw away the end.

Well, sort of.

I just saved it to another file. I intend to do a lot of copying and pasting in pulling the rest of the story together again. (I'm not going to type from scratch, even though I've done that before and it is useful.)

The reason I did this is because I had another great idea to take care of one last bit of nonsense. I have some secondary characters I need to get on and off stage at various times, and so far I've been treating them like a sack of potatoes. You know you dump them in the scene, and then you put the away for a while, and they obediently sit in the cupboard.

The problem is that I had one last character I was treating with this kind of convenience, and I don't think he would sit nicely in the cupboard. So I rearranged some scenes, let George commit a bit of mischief and sent the guy away on an errand. And that gives me all kinds of excuses for other things. (And forced me to move some other scenes.)

The problem with this kind of rewriting is that there is inertia to words. It's hard to get a grasp on a new feel and a new approach when the words are sitting right there, doing their job pretty well. The words see no reason to change. They've got seniority. But they don't have a contract or a union, so you may have to kick them all out and hire them back one at a time to do the job the new way.

I have twenty chapters to put back in - but I do have most of the material written, and most of the rest will be fun. So it shouldn't take that long. But considering that I have to give each of these chapters a lot of attention (and there is more new material than I expected) I think I should set a goal of trying to get a chapter a night back in place. Some of these will be partials, and I'll be working on the new material in a more haphazard fashion.

For tonight, I sat there with the old manuscript and new notes, and I wrote a chapter outline for each of the remaining chapters. It was a lot of work, and I had to re-replan a few sequences. I think, though, I now have a complete set of scenes that flow from one to the other properly. I may have one clue subplot to weave in, but I did leave a little space for that.

No critiques done today.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Crit Dare Day 14 - Making The Universe a Little Less Stupid

On critique: I got a long set of comments done for a book I just finished - they are notes in retrospect on the whole thing. I hope they are useful. They are more like "notes" that you give as a script analyst than simple critique.

WIP: Now that the middle of my own book is falling into place I find that rough parts of the end chapters are coming clear. Or rather than rough, perhaps I should say weak. Sometimes, when you are writing an adventure story (especially a light one) there are these moments when something needs to happen that requires some basic stupidity on the part of the universe. The laws of physics are suspended, competent people become drooling idiots for just a few convenient minutes, and God goes off to play golf and forgets to set the Time and Distance Regulator on auto.

That's a rough draft thing. Don't sweat it too much when it happens. If it is a truly embarrassing gaffe, you will think of some way to fix it before you have to show it to anybody. A little change of timing. A better placed revelation. Your characters turn out to be just a little bit cleverer than you planned.

That's what I was doing today. Making my universe a little less silly. (The characters are silly enough.)

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Walking To The Story

I was reading Dean Wesley's Smith's blog again today and I came across a term I'd never heard of: "Walking to the story." I can tell you, though, that I know the practice that term refers to very well.

I first learned of it when I took film classes, and our instructor complained about seeing way too many student films where the character wakes up, gets out of bed, brushes his teeth, eats breakfast, gets his car, goes to work.... He forbade students from using those elements in their scripts at all - and nearly half the class complained vociferously that they had a unique story that absolutely had to start with the character doing those things.

What those writers are doing, though, is taking their time in getting to the story. They don't leap into the story, they walk to it. Or maybe schlep to it. Ooze. Crawl.

But the beginning isn't the only place this happens. Anytime there is a transition, the prose might schlep from one place to another, oozing through the business of hanging up the phone and leaving the house and locking the door and walking to the car and getting out the keys and getting in to the car.....

Don't do that.

Unfortunately even advanced writers do it sometimes, in their first drafts. And for a rough draft it might be fine. It's a kind of exploratory writing. You move your characters around, get to know them, warm your way into the scene. It's a place where you find the mood or voice and set things up. But that's a warm up. It's like practicing scales. You don't do that on stage with the audience and orchestra waiting.

That isn't to say that transitional moments can never be important, or even be good writing. Sometimes they are a critical part of the story - as in Psycho when Janet Leigh decides to take a shower. In a moment like that, the trivial actions of your character must take on a new and critical weight.

This is what I was talking about on Halloween, when I wrote about how details have to carry their weight. They need to be interesting, they need to set the pace and tone and voice, and they need to give us information. Sometimes when they don't actually carry the story forward, you can still get away with it, but if you do, it had better be a real piece of virtuoso writing. It had better knock the reader's socks off.

Because of all the rules out there, there is one absolute rule of writing: Thou shalt not bore the reader.

The crazy thing is, these sections that bore the reader might actually bore you too. These are sometimes the spots where you get stuck. You try to figure out what to put in this transition between the phone call and the confrontation, and you can't think of anything and it's all so boring.... Well, the key is to remember - don't walk through. Cut to the chase!

In the meantime, Crit Dare Update: I read about five more chapters of a manuscript because I want to give my comments in perspective. I also came up with a marvelous idea for a darling I don't want to cut, but I have to stop and think about what other weight it can carry.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

How Do You Know Your Book Is Good Enough?

The question came up in two different places today. On the Amazon Kindle Community discussion board, it came up indirectly. There was a lively debate about getting someone else to edit your manuscript - and someone wondered how you could judge the quality of a freelance editor.

Then Dean Wesley Smith posted about whether the publishing industry was a proper arbiter of writing quality. And if not (and he thought not) how do you judge yourself?

So how does a writer know if the book is good enough to publish? Who can you trust to judge it for you?

Ny answer to that question is: You can't pawn that basic responsibility off on someone else. You may need an editor, but you're the boss. It's one of the basic skills you need to publish anything.

Dean has some great advice on his blog about how to acquire these skills, but here are some things I think will help any writer develop basic judging skills:

1. Learn your craft. Read, write, take classes, join critique groups. Don't ask your teachers and group mates to tell you how good your work is. They don't know - that's your job. The reason you take classes and join groups is to learn what they have to teach, not what you demand of them. What they offer may not be exactly what your current story needs at the moment, but you have a TON to learn. So you'd better get started. And one great way to learn is to help other people with their stories.

2. Get experience with real world publishing. Even if you intend to only self-publish, you need to learn the business. So write short fiction (or poetry or articles or songs) and start submitting it to markets. Get things published so you can get through the process. You need to see what it's like to be edited. You need to learn not to take it personally, and you need to learn to stand up for yourself when you are edited by an idiot. You need a variety of experiences so that you know what is normal and what isn't.

3. Get yourself a slush pile. You can't judge your work until you've established some standards of your own. So start judging. If you can't get a gig being a first reader for a publication or competition, create your own competition. Find a magazine that publishes the kind of fiction you like, get your hands on a year's worth of issues, and then read through them all and pick a "best of year" story, and two runners up.

Nothing will give you perspective better than having to judge 100 professional level stories, rank them all, and pick only 1-3 of them for honors.

They say nobody can edit themselves, and maybe that's true, or maybe it isn't. (Both Isaac Asimov and Rex Stout were famous for having manuscripts that were ready to publish straight out of their typewriters.) But even if you can't judge your own work, you can surround yourself with intelligent, honest and skillful people who can give you perspective. To do that, though, you must have the skills to judge the judges.

As for my dare progress: I did a little writing - not measurable stuff - and I read through two chapters, but haven't prepared the full critique.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

NaNoWrongMo Begins!

NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month, began today. Many many authors working diligently to write an entire (of short and clunky) novel in one month.

If you are a writer, it is a wonderful thing to take part in NaNo (or something like it) if you possibly can. The problem with NaNo is that most people can't possibly take part, either due to timing or other constraints (like you can't work on something in progress - it has to be a new work to count).

But that's where the "something like it" comes in. Every year I celebrate the month of NaNoWrongMo, which is basically the same as NaNoWriMo, except you choose your own constraints. (Even if you're just a reader you can take part!) I was going to write short fiction, blog posts and articles - but the novel I've been trying to finish was stubborn, so I decided to do stick at it.

As I mentioned earlier, I find that having people waiting to read chapters is a really good incentive to getting them done - and I owe a lot of people critiques - so I have turned this into a critique dare. The goal is to critique approximately a chapter a day for my group, and then work on my novel so I can post my chapters in return. (The group's ratio is three to one.)

I am a little bit ahead of the goal. I started ten days ago, and I have 13 crits up, so I think I can slack off for a day. Mondays are still my long days (though my schedule is better now) and I have to get up early tomorrow to vote. Plus I could use some sleep.

If only I could have done my original thing by writing blog postings, I've have something fascinating for you to read, but alas, you will have to wait a little bit longer.

In the meantime, what are YOU doing for NaNoWrongMo?

Monday, November 1, 2010

Crit Dare Day 10 - Making Details Carry Their Weight

The issue I'm having with Chapter 12 is that it is a light-weight chapter with one important thing in it. One way to deal with that is to cut everything but the most important thing and merge it with another chapter and move on.

But with a mystery, a light-weight chapter is also an opportunity. This is true of every blank spot and every boring bit. You can cut them out or you can make them way more interesting as better ideas come along later. Consider a boring bit to be a place holder for those later inspirations.

This is important in a mystery, because we've got so much subtle stuff we have to weave together. You need a little space to maneuver.

I just sat down and planned out a wonderful flow to the chapter, but it was just a string of pearls. It went from here to here to here. And that's pretty good because I have been struggling for a while with this chapter. But now that I have all those nice bits, I can see how I can use them to better advantage. This bit doesn't just mislead the audience about something, it also works as a transition. That bit puts in a joke right where we need some relief, but it also gives us some information we'll need later. Oh, and these two bits could be blended together, and then I won't have to interrupt THAT bit later on.

A good detail or turn will provide many layers of satisfaction. It will move the plot forward, it will give us information, develop a character, maybe even give us insight beyond the direct plot of the story. It will help the pacing of the story - speeding things up or slowing them down in just the right way. And most of all every bit will set up what comes after.

You can usually rewrite some extra layers in, but IMHO, it's always good to be weaving these details while you create the story. It's a lot of work, but sometimes if you take your time in getting a sequence right, you will have something much more wonderful in the end.

So anyway.... Chapter 12 is not ready to submit for critique, but it is now on it's way to being something more than adequate. (And the development on it has pushed forward a lot of the rest of the story too.)