clues at the scene

clues at the scene

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Edit Me Baaaaaaa

  I am in editing mode. I've got a ton of work to go through and I'm feeling a bit like a sheep. I'm not sure if I'm one of the herd or a little lost lamb. All I can do is bleet "Baaaa" and go on my way.

Here's some of the garbage I'm editing. Pity me. Seriously. How the Hell am I going to get this as crisp and clean as Cormac McCarthy (my editing hero) would craft ? This will be a tough rewrite for me.

I have a sample of mine here followed by just a wee bit of The Road below for illustrative purposes. His surety of language is everything I want and mine is all over the bloody map. I'll fix it but I'll need a couple walks, a little snow, a pot of tea, and a decent cookie to get through it.

Kait’s leg hung over the arm of the office chair. Her jaws moved with full goat-motion. She despised the effect gum had on the appearance of girls her age.

She imagined the view from the front of a classroom with all those young faces chewing in unison. It must look from blank stares and involuntary jaw motion as if a particular class of zombie had enrolled in Ms. Sultey’s Composition section.

She’d borrowed Missy Abram’s last two pieces in seventh period. Kait received the notice at the start of class to appear here for a discussion with Mr. Jones, councilor. She’d thought of the interview to come. She took Missy’s gum.

She’d not met Mr. Jones. She’d not even seen him previously but then being new to the Excalibur school, there were clearly many strangers in administration. She was no stranger to the prep school elite routine, though. This was her fourth in eight years though it was unique in that this was not a boarding school. The students here lived with their families and that development was a bit new to Kait.

He had kept her waiting for twenty minutes when he finally walked past her.

She nudged a box of tissues on the side table and they fell to the thick carpet. She frowned a little more.

Mr. Jones eased into his desk chair. “And ?,” he asked.

“I didn’t say anything,” she said.

Mr. Jones was trim and severe and lightly scarred down his right jaw.

“Actions are more meaningful than speech. You just said something in the action language. I’m wondering if you’d care to elaborate verbally.”

Kait shrugged.

“Why are you here?,” he asked.

She met his stare. She thought he should have been accusative. She’d prepared for that. His stare was engaging and a few years on she might think this gentleman could offer to buy her a drink.

Kait answered in her best Hepburn. “Just lucky?”

Mr. Jones nodded. “Have you ever seen a school psychiatrist before ?”


“Did the office look like this ?,” he gestured.

The office - library really - had enough walnut cabinetry on the walls to make a fifth avenue lawyer jealous. Also, every volume on display was a jewel. She recognized titles. What psychiatrist had a gold embossed copy of _Actung Panzer_?

Mr. McCarthy's work now.

The weeds they forded fell to dust about them. They cross the broken asphalt apron and found the tank for the pumps. The cap was gone and the man dropped to smell the pipe but the odor of gas was only a rumor, faint and stale. He stood and looked over the building. The pumps standing with their hoses oddly in place.The windows intact. The door to the service bay was open and he went in. A standing metal toolbox against one wall. He went through the drawers but there was nothing there he could use.

I'm going to say the difference here which jumps right out is in the execution of the language. There isn't one pinch of surplus in McCarthy's work. He's decided what he's going to convey and he wrote a scene to illustrate that point. Then, he's gone with a chainsaw, a chef's knife and even a scalpel and removed every possible excess. 

The verb ? Not needed. They'll understand. Drop it. Were the weeds dry ? Don't say so. Show us their dismissal instead. 

What's happened here ? We were outside and walked through the weeds. We looked around and found the gas tanks and investigated the contents. We surveyed the scene carefully, went inside, searched a tool box. We did all this in just about as many words as I could summarize it.

Even if you don't know the story, you feel the scene. They're looking, salvaging. They need.  Who ? A man and someone else. At least one. They are not important here. The scene is important - the setting. It tells us the story. Something has happened, and now someone in need  is looking without finding. 

That's the story. Looking and not finding.

I've got some work to do. 

Wednesday, January 30, 2013


Janet Reid had a little of the standard drill this morning : show us your desk.

It made me think of Aardman Animation's "Creature Comforts" (sigh, youtube here ). Try the 4:12 mark about space. Mind you, I deplore videos, links to videos, people who suggest I watch a video, instructional videos, and cat videos in particular.

I'm a dog person. I'm not anti-cat, I'm pro-dog.

We have a cat. It adores me. It sleeps with me. It makes the house smells like cat in all the little corners by leaving various bits of cat fur about the baseboards to build up until the cleaning ladies notice it. Then it does it again. It must work. We have few mice and I am surrounded by woods and meadows.

Anyway, this is my desk at about 7:10 local this morning.

My HP laptop has a small cooling issue (cat hair, I suspect) and so a can of chemical duster is nearby. That is not a chemical intoxicant in aerosol form. Oh - that's an O.E.D. in the background. Marvelous things, the O.E.D. The case is really sturdy so it will support all manner of props. I recommend a set for every writer.

They're also full of great words you cannot use because if you do everyone assumes you pulled it from your O.E.D. at random and shifted your sentence structure to accommodate it. They'd probably be right. Except about the shifting of the sentence structure. That part was blind luck.

Oh - a metal shaded light is critical, too. Those buttons you get as minor awards at writer's conferences for doing things can just stick right on the shades magnetically, then. Saves the finish on the fridge and then you don't have to explain to friends who are over (and in your fridge after your beer - or the last limonata Pellegrino if they too are writers) that the button was an "award" for doing something at a conference. You won't get the "you poor poor delusional thing" look then. Better to keep them in your library on your desk lamp right from the get go.

So, in the vernacular I've shown mine. What does your writing area look like these days ? (The link to Janet Reid is at the top of the list at right .... above Miss Snark. No, I didn't mean anything by that. It's happenstance, really. Spatial association implies nothing. Don't talk about it. We don't need to be ticketed for nitwittery around here. Or fed to sharks.)

ONE LAST NOTE - I've visited a good many blogs of some delightful writers this week. Blogspot hates me and won't accept even my most innocent comment. I think blogspot hates blogger and from what I understand, the inverse also holds true. I'm sorry. I try to comment once and then, de nada. I'll switch to a blog fueled by the Django framework one day soon and maybe all will be right with the world.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

A Little Content

Image by Chris Corwin.

A little fun tonight prompted a pick-up line contest. The scene:  your own best pick-up line story - 1st person, please.

My entry (apologies to Raymond Chandler):

She was a blond. The kind of blond to make a nuclear physicist kick-out a containment panel.

I walked to the bar and stood beside her. She was reading last month's Jane's Intelligence Review, in Russian, on her iPadsky.

I waved the barman over and ordered a drink - my usual. The barman stood there with a glass he was over-polishing and looked at me.

"Hey Buddy," he said. "Give a guy a break, will ya? Just what the hell is that?"

The blond answered the query without looking up.

"An Ivy Mike?," she husked. "It's a blast, baby. A thermonuclear blast. Make it two and put it on my tab. I think this fellow and I need to discuss a little - how do you say - detente?"

Monday, January 28, 2013

Expected, Unexpected

I wrote earlier this week about habituation. I was writing on the aspect of language which makes phrases invisible. Have enough of these invisible phrases and your prose disappears. The artistry that you bring to a story as the expedition leader drifts away and eventually the emotional lifeline you give your reader fades, too.

I become very frustrated after giving one of my drafts a cooling period and re-reading it because I see all the bad language. I see the over use of modifiers to cover my insecurity in saying "here...this thing is this thing: believe it."

Sometimes, I see these habituated phrases. Sometimes, I see these habituated characters.

Above is an astronaut pin. When I was in school, it was just about the symbol of godhood to we lowly engineers.

Now, you have a character in your story sitting at the bar with one of these on his lapel. How's that work for you? Is it a boy scout drinking coffee waiting on his buddy to come out of the head so they can go on their way? Is it a fellow working on his second double scotch hoping the sirens outside just keep on driving.

We can make either character work. In the context of the story, which works better for the reader? Good gone bad or good out of place?

Habituation might have the buddy coming out, the steely-eyed rocket jockey over-tipping the owner's wife behind the bar, and leaving to meet some guy named Gunther at Villa Pacific Retirement Community where he rules the croquet court.

Characters need to be interesting. They need not be invisible. The cop isn't grumpy.  He's considerate and articulate considering he's working on his master's in comparative literature in the evenings.

Characters compliment one another. Immemorable  characters compliment nothing.

Introductions All Around

Welcome !

I'm the writer whose topics include lies, deceit, murder, liars who murder, and murdered liars.

It's a cup of WeeGee at the All Night Cafe while you wonder how you ended up with a bus ticket to Omaha in your pocket. The strangers here are all safe. The people you think you know? Maybe not so much.

 I try to cast these stories into mainstream commercial fiction instead of a detective or cozy scheme. I follow rules poorly so its a question of latitude more than genre preference.

I love the topic of deceit and the process by which it evolves. Why ? I write fiction. I'm a liar.

At the top left is a little friend - the .32 automatic ( from a photo on wikicommons I believe by Bob Adams) from all those pulp detective stories of the last century. It's gentle enough for a lady's purse and practical enough for a detective's pocket. It's dispatched tens of thousands of fictitious villains but so far none of mine.

I'm editing a story now where I kill a fellow (off stage) with an exploding chicken coup. How ? The chickens flash to steam and explode. Pot pie revenge!

I'm working on a good dozen short stories that will be making the submission rounds late this spring as I step back into the fold of long-form fiction. I'll release the short stories in hopes that a couple make publication while the novels are being penned.

 I share what I see, what I learn, and what I'm thinking. I've been at this for thirty years. I had some success years ago, hung up the cleats, and got them back out last July. You can't get it out of your system once you start no matter how hard you try. Tryst me on that.

I'd love to know what you're thinking. Thanks for stopping by ...


I'm participating in the lovely re-introduction blogfest today. The link is here to find a heap of bodies.*

* talented writers re-introducing themselves ... not all with murder or mayhem on their mind.

Pistol image courtesy of as per their terms of use published in the wikimedia commons.

Sunday, January 27, 2013


No - not that kind of funk. I'm talking "last potato chip in the bowl and nothing else in the house to eat" type of funk.

We've heard the advice to not read fashion magazines because they'll make you feel fat and ugly. I'll add that you have to be careful as a writer what you read as well.

I was exchanging an email stream with a friend who has their first book coming out soon and how they were excitedly planning their book launch party. They had 130 people to invite.

Wow. 130 people.

Now I was feeling like the last chip in a bowl.

I moved five years ago this month from a place I'd previously  lived for twenty years. I don't make friends quickly (writer, I watch - right ? I'm shy by nature). I'm not very social. I have no connection to my present locale at all but for a tiny company which produces an extremely specialized type of product.

My social involvement ? Teaching English as a second language one-on-one. That's my charity. Hardly a huge exposure there as well. I knew tons of folks at my old home. I even did a live radio show for ten years with two hours every Saturday morning. ( That might not help here as it was radio for the blind. No - I'm not making that up. I love helping people who cannot see. )

Well. They'll be no launch party when my books of  lies and murders come out. I know a handful of people here and none of them read contemporary fiction. It's one of the reasons I have few friends because so many of the people I talk to don't read newspapers or fiction.  I need to work on that little aspect now and find a social outlet.

  Unchecked, I can see it now. Here's an example for a work I don't intend to turn into a novel.

I say, "Hey - I'm having a launch party. My book is coming out in print and I'm having a deal Wednesday - did you get my invite ?" 
"Yea - sounds cool. What's the book about ?"   <it was on the invite but here goes>
"Uh, it's about a conflicted guy who finds mother-in-law had his father-in-law killed and stuffed in the protagonist's trunk. He finds the body on the night his wife throws him out because she 'needs space' and so he's trying to juggle the truth versus any lies he might be able to create to make it all work out in the end. It's a kind of  'who broke this lamp ?' story with a dead body." 
"Wow. Dead body. Great family." 
"Yea - cool, huh ? It's a murder story with a literary fiction tone to it. Conflict of self. That sort of thing." 
"Yea. Sure. Is that Wednesday ? Yea, I'll try to stop by before volleyball at the Y. It's league and all. But I'll try."

Now, I sound the crass bastard for thinking that I need to form some social connections before my publish date.

What I mean to say is that I need to form some social connections to people who might read contemporary fiction and understand some of the possible implications of current events. No, a Kardashian blipvert reference is not a current event topic.

It's a university town. How hard can it be to find someone who understands the role of  the opium trade in 19th century European politics, can find Rwanda on a map, can find the Spratly Islands on a map or who knows Ivy Mike ?  I'll trade any of those right out for someone who can recall their Dostoevsky  Orwell, or (easy one) Shakespeare.

Two large pizzas would have leftovers at my launch party. That's bloody awful. I've got to fix that - and write. I've still got to write more.

Be careful around newly successful authors. They're a little like standing next to Miss America in the grocery line at Whole Foods. A six pack of craft brew and some organic blue corn tortilla chips are going to make you feel like a troll when she turns and smiles with her basket of radishes, rice crackers, and soy milk (half pints).  You're going to feel like a troll even if she doesn't turn and smile. Her radiant aura is enough.

Don't read the fashion magazines, either.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Progress Example

It's been a snowy week. Nothing big but steady. I've been writing that way, too.

I wanted to write today about the editing process and what I think is good and bad and how it fits together and ... I don't have the chops to say "here's how it goes."

I do have a small introduction to a story that I'm going to post in four versions to show my evolution. I'll say a few words about each following the snippet. I believe that by showing how I came to the "second draft" quality version in the end you might see something that strikes you about your work.

I'll also say that when we read another writer's process and see their decisions in action, we mostly see our mistakes through the lens of their works.  Writing is decision making and we'll see our own bad choices in someone else's work. We don't see it in the works of established authors. We don't see it because that's why they're published. [ Thanks to Steve Almond on that point].

So, here's a rough of a 2 AM style of composition: an introduction to a character as the introduction to the story. It's a story that takes place in a fly-in fishing camp in Canada. That's all you need to know about it for these bits to make sense.

Rough Draft :

Walther Mallett was a fellow whose face did not match his personality. Round jowls with large eyes whose fully exposed iris the color of gooseberry pie melted away any hint of pugnacity, Walther beguiled his victims into giving away too much in every deal. He seemed a grandfatherly owl whose molten voice soothed the cold better than any cocoa.

Owls eat live prey rending flesh from bone and gloating to their kind of the deed.

Comment :  Not horrible. There is the over use of "whose" and the logical error that owls rend flesh (rare). Also, The second sentence is a bit much for the opening. It's length detracts from what it is suppose to convey.

First Draft Revision :

Walther Mallett’s personality did not agree with his appearance. He was beguiling with a round face whose fully exposed iris seemed the color of gooseberry pie. He was an owl of a grandfather wizened and serene. His voice was molten confidence. You instinctively smiled when you met him in some animal ritual from the past.

Owls feed by capturing live prey and consuming flesh, bone, squeak and plea.

Comment:  Here I think I'm grasping. I don't like "seemed the color of "  very well because it logically implied they might be of a different color altogether. Why would that be important ? They are or are not the color of gooseberry pie. Where do you see gooseberry pie anymore, anyway ? Well, it is a story about guys doing something rustic. I also happen to like the green-on-green specificity of "iris" rather than "eyes."  I also learn that the plural of iris for anatomy is irises. Oops - that got by in this draft. Notice I've changed the owl to tell you what it means to be a raptor and not that they are raptors. I've introduced a more visible sense of harm and danger. You know something about Walter. You know something about is sense of mercy for others.

Modifiers stripped - a bare bones version to allow a language check :

Walther Mallett’s personality did not agree with his appearance. He was beguiling with a face whose irises were the color of gooseberry pie. He was an owl.

His voice was confidence. You smiled when you met him.

Owls are raptors. They feed by capturing prey and consuming flesh, bone, squeak, and plea. They gloat of it to their kind.

Comment: Here we have modifiers restricted to only that which is necessary to convey the expository introduction. Only. I still have green eyes present but in a more artful presentation without the indefinite element "seemed."  I added a little of his presence without the modifiers. I told you how to feel about him. I told you that his charm worked on you as a reader. "You smiled when you met him."  You don't know any Walther and you certainly don't know this one. However, you know something definite about his presence because I told you. I'm unencumbered by flourish here. I also added an ugly part. Walther makes you smile. He also gloats about the demise of those he eats. That's an ugly fellow - and I've told you he doesn't look ugly. I've had to play a game with the confidence and the smiling because I wanted a break between calling him an owl and telling you that owls are unsavory characters. There is a risk here of "WTF ? What about owls ? Oh yea, this guy is an owl. Ok - whatever."

Second Draft Version :

Walther Mallett’s personality did not agree with his appearance. He was a beguiling moon-face whose irises were the color of church basement gooseberry pie. His voice was confidence. You smiled when you met him. He was a coiffed owl brushed back and smooth.

Owls feed consuming whole the flesh, bone, squeak, and plea. They gloat of it across the woods to their kind.

Walther had been gloating for the last two hours since they’d picked him up at International Falls airport. He shipped his gear to Brian’s house in Chicago and flew in to meet the group at their last stop before the border crossing. He didn't want to spare the time for the cross-country drive with them or for the effort of packing the Expedition.

Comment: I've included just a bit more of the story here to see how it links. The descriptive words and phases have returned for better or worse. I liked making him a moon-face and getting the church basement gooseberry pie gave a rural community note that I wanted the reader to see. I'm going fishing with these fellows. I don't want the reader in a mind-set of Manhattan Park Avenue. I want them thinking Perry, Iowa at a hot dish. I want to lay the ground work for an innocent location with an innocent looking fellow who is vicious and predatory. It matters later and I'm thinking of that here.

I'm keeping the gloating as an element. It modifies the owl and I avoid saying simply Walther is an owl ...I say he is a coiffed owl.  What is that ? I don't know, really. I suspect he could have a curly-do like Mike Brady from The Brady Bunch or maybe he's buffed like Benny Hinn. The thing is that he has an affected appearance and that part of his nature bleeds through which the reader might not recognize as sinister until the next line "consuming whole the flesh...".

The gloating gives me the transition back to Walther's actions now. It places us in a vehicle on the way to a trip. I might have to call the story "Walter's Fishing Adventure  to give the reader a clue to what we're talking about here.  I might need to add "fishing gear" to the phrase "shipped his gear" in the final draft.

You know what the other fellows on the trip endure when you read on... two hours of gloating. You know what it is to be pinned by someone and hear there conquests. I've met a couple writers like that, too. Of course, I say that owls gloat to their own kind. Are his fishing partners also prone to gloating ? We'll have to read to see. We do know Walther pushed part of his work and inconvenience off on them. We have doubts that they're quite like him.

We stop here. I don't have a very good hook and I'm at risk of losing a reader. We are not in media res. We need the next paragraph to hook us because we're very close to "not quite right for us." The final draft might have to put a new starting paragraph alluding to the final turmoil as a way of establishing a hook. I might need a giant hook right here in para 4. I'm not done with the story and its presentation - but I'm thinking about WHY I am making the choices I've made.

I am ultimately giving my bullshit detector (bullshit detector) a chance to warm up. I'm giving it a chance to tell me when I've made a bad choice. I'm giving my story a chance.

Maybe this helps you give yours a chance as well.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Heeeeelllllllllooooo, Reader.

I found a set of rules from Jonathan Franzen (author site here) today. There are many of these various rules of writing floating about. I liked this set probably because I found it connected to The New Yorker podcasts where various authors read pieces from other authors whose work has appeared in the pages of the magazine. (here).

The podcasts are amusing.

Anyway, Mr. Franzen has a published set of rules which begin :

The reader is a friend, not an adversary, not a spectator.  

I've thought about this all day and I think I can appreciate what he intends here. I also think I've violated this rule on more than one occasion. Damn.

I'm leading the reader on an adventure to an emotional world they've not visited before. I'm the guide in this wild land of my imagination and I need to look out for my reader's best interests. I don't try to lose them (WTF syndrome). I don't try and confront them with an overt theme or message (sermons are for delivering in buildings with steeples, not for works of fiction). I am here to guide them. They're intelligent. They're alert. I don't have to explain everything because they can make logical conclusions given reasonably clear facts.

I have a problem in a story I'm writing now. Mr. Franzen and Mr. Ron Carlson unknowingly helped me figure it out today.

I'm an outliner (see the Watery Tart in the right hand column - she did a great study this week of various writing styles of some blog readers over on her bog. Very worth the time to have a look !) . This outline business gives me targets. It gives me security. It gives me somewhere to go when I am heads-down crafting prose.

It's good because I wander less. Notice I say "less." Lately, I've been including little elements in my stories that I didn't know were coming. Sometimes these little gems become major plot points.

In the story I'm working on now I have a couple of these beauties wound into the story and then ... the outline. I'm going down the path with the reader at my side and without warning I grab the poor bastard and push him over a cliff. Yep - drastic right turn here in the climax of the story because I have in my notes "turn right here." I don't tell the reader we need to turn. I give no logical indication that a turn is possible and wham the trail.

Surprise is great. Every story needs surprise. What type of surprise ? Hmmm. "I'm surprised in the word choice here which makes the mundane beautiful." "I'm surprised that the character's desire for withdrawal cannot be achieved because of the blonde love interest's persistence." "I'm surprised at how much I like the protagonist whom I initially viewed as a scumbag." "I'm surprised he didn't shoot the bastard sooner."

What did I do ? "I'm surprised that is in the story because it is completely out of tone, tempo, and the writer gave me no hint that it was even remotely a possibility."

I've got to change a draft because I've done my friend the reader a great wrong. We were in the thick of an emotional jungle and before we could approach the river whose current we could hear ahead of us, I pushed the reader off a narrow ledge and right down a cliff they didn't know was there.

Friends don't let friends execute sudden right turns off cliffs they didn't know were there. Oh, we might let them see the cliff. We might warn them that it was there. We might say it is dangerous and descending it is a little taste of Dante. We might take them to the edge, hold their hand, and jump off together (Butch and Sundance).  We do not apply the literary stiff arm and shove our friend down to WTF-land.

I did it. It was in the outline. I'm fixing it now. I hope my friend will still talk to me when I get it right.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013


The photo at left is courtesy of Mr. George Gastin and an uncredited ewe.

I've been reading a great deal lately. I think it helps with perspective.

I was at a writing group last night (no post as a result) and was able to hear a dozen or so writers much like myself read works created at the meeting. Some were funny. Some touching. None polished and all representing our first efforts at various prompts. It's a fun group.

What stuck me most in the writing last night was the concept of habituation.

We're wired from birth to be good at pattern recognition and pattern completion. We're very much pathetic sheep following the crowd. We are accustomed to "bitter" and "cold" and seldom think it out of place.

What struck me last night was how we as writers without deep publishing credits fall not so much to cliche but to habituation. No one put up "It was a dark and stormy night."  We did however have our share of "black nights" and "bitter cold" and "rummaging in a purse." There is nothing really wrong with this until you reflect that we're trying to write prose that captures and immerses the reader in a journey. Using tired phrases out of habituation doesn't do much to help us.

They too easily become invisible to us in editing and our stories become ill-remembered by our readers.

Adverbs, adjectives and overly colorful metaphors are unhelpful. They jar the reader out of immersion and scream "look at my florid prose."  Use of phrases that we expect to hear, that we pass by unnoticed, and that we habituate aren't helpful. These scream "ignore my prose."

What is it then that we need ? We need language that adequately describes the actions of our characters and accentuates their dialogue which should reveal their conflict, turmoil, emotional state and humanity.

Habituated:  He looked right past her with a cool, icy stare.

Unexpected: He looked past her with all the regard of a college kid working a drive-through window.

I'd say we've all read the habituated version a hundred times (sometimes in our writers' groups). It is a cliche but I'm using it as a habituated phrase here for illustration. If you're crafting anything like a crime story, why would you use it again ? It's part of the lexicon ? Sure. But we're writing a story here and not a pastiche of the genre.

The unexpected version is better - I'd argue - though still a bit florid. I'm working here without a net, rough draft and all. It sounds a little tainted itself.

I'd say the unexpected language version gives the reader an understanding of the causal air of minimum regard better than the first. It isn't perfect and won't make it through the final edit. It's better though.  You recognize immediately the image the writer wanted you to understand.

At the least, you won't read it and think it was written by a sheep habituated to the language by the raw urge to merely get to 100,000 words and a submission. There's a great deal of that floating around these days. [ not however in my writers' group ]

I wish I could do a better job with the illustration here. <Insert worn immemorable phrase here.>

My point is to tell the story without the language of sheep. Don't fall prey to the habituation of patterns, language, behavior, events. Immersive writing doesn't do it. Neither should ours.


I love the introductory subordinate clause. I'm on medication for it and with professional help I may be cured. I realized after writing this post that what I dislike most about my introductory clauses is that they are omnipresent and thus invisible. They help make the rest of my writing invisible, too. I don't need that kind of assistance 

Monday, January 21, 2013


It's cold here. The door knob hurts your hand when you grab it.

I thought today about the structure of a scene. In rough draft form, I'm pretty general about staging a scene. I need it to advance a plot point so I put it together with three or four derivative points and sometimes one or two of those become the keys to future scenes themselves. I like it when I have a character say something offhand and it becomes an important role in the story - a role I did not foresee.

For example, I might have a character confronted with a choice that needs to be made right now with no meaningful information. Maybe he'll reference odds on a certain proposition bet in a crap game. Right then we know something about the fellow and his world view. Maybe he had a betting problem in the past. Maybe he has one now. Maybe he's the product of a misspent youth. Maybe he liked to go to Vegas with his ex-wife.

When he needs to meet a tough somewhere later in the story and he thinks he needs a public place, he might suggest a table in an upstate Indian casino . Surveillance, relative anonymity, and a chance to turn the tables on the tough by slipping a pit boss a note saying he saw the fellow in the men's room and the thug has a revolver in his belt.

I like the unexpected things in crafting a scene that give way to something later. I might need to grab onto to it to complete a story.

I don't know exactly where they come from; but, they have proved to be essential to the story re-write when they emerged just as a random insertion in the rough draft.

I'm curious, through the process of multiple drafts does anyone else have this tendency to bring in bits that start as insignificant references and turn into meaningful plot elements ?  I'm doing it a great deal more in the last month or so than I have in the preceding years. I don't know if that is meaningful or not.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Editing, or Self-Dentistry

I have a body of stories that I've worked on over the last six months. It is time to start the serious edit process.

I hate editing. I have a horrible eye for detail in my own work. That's painfully obvious to anyone who reads my words here. Occasional verb tense. Frequent appositive. Dreadful hanging participles.

There is nothing for it but to clean up the mess.

I write "rough drafts." These are not first drafts but rather a dog-paddle attempt to tell a story and survive the effort. I'm swimming for the other side.

Then, the edit cycle and a solid "first draft." This effort is iced for at least a month. Then, with a near-innocent eye I return and try to correct some of the larger issues with the first draft. If I am successful, I have a second draft where the language can be tuned.

That's as far as I've been with a story for many years.

I'll go farther this time and actually hire an editor for this second draft. I'll take their edits to heart.

I'm ready to do the work necessary to move from garbage to a product someone might want to read. I've even conceived of a new long-form story that I have never before attempted. Many of my bits are reworked elements that I've messed with off and on for years. The piece which I have started sketching now is something new.

I know a couple of the characters but I've never finished their stories. I'll use them in different ways here.

I have to finish an interrogation (merely a torture scenes) this week and then work on editing a story from last July.

I'm anxious to have a couple of these rough works shaped into first drafts before I work out the outline of the long-form I have in my head.

It is exciting to have options.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Marginal at Best

Pens above from KingKongFive from wikicommons.

I spent the equivalent of three new Moleskin notebooks on a very nice stylus and a couple writing apps on the iPad (4th gen) that I've used for about 90 days now.  I borrow a couple of styli from a friend. I tested these devices and four of the note applications for the iPad.

My hope was that the new  pens would allow the interface to be a kind of electronic journal capable of receiving handwritten notes about various projects and of providing some searchable organization beyond the current physical-folder-and-file system I use.

Not a chance.

I'm not able to send even the pdf of some demonstration documents without violating my own security protocols so you'll have to take my assessment on faith.

The interface is poor for writing. The precision with which one can produce solid cursive is limited by the near lack of resistance from the glass contact surface. It's too bloody slick for the sort of muscle memory most of us have to render proper loops. My "e" and "i" and "r" characters are indistinguishable. Transcription or review will be that much more difficult and so notes would be used less than necessary - given that we wanted them for the very utility of not remembering the precise turn of a phrase we craft now when we need it later.

None of my children take notes in cursive or have anything resembling legible script. Let's look at - gasp - printing for those who really didn't master 2nd grade.

With a fast style of printing, the interface with a stylus will remind you of printing with a dicey fountain pen. The smoothing functions and the lack of almost any resistance again provide inconsistent strokes. Also, the capacitance screens are not good at instantly establishing input contact. They do better maintaining contact in cursive than establishing it on every stroke in printing. The contact of the pen on glass with the jot pro makes too much noise for practical use printing. At least, I'd throw you out of a meeting for it. I'd hear your writing on the speakerphone in a conference call if you sat very close at all. Unless you are junior staff at the far end of the table or the second row, this is too noisy for use.

Other styli work with less noise but at the cost of much less precision which is right back at the heart of the matter : notes need to be quick to record, reliably rendered, and effortlessly read.

The iPad doesn't completely hit the mark for notes. It's close and if your comparison is - say - scratches on wax tablets or triangular punches in a surface of damp clay rather than clear ink on white paper ...well. You might be satisfied.

I've given the lecture that a map with a bullet hole in it is still a strategic document. You can read it, navigate with it, and bring the regiment into battle order using it. A computer screen bullet hole in it is a tactical document : you can hit the enemy with it and cause damage if you can manage to locate him.

I believe one could import a .pdf document and use the writing interfaces to perform reasonably good mark-up. This seems a quite good utility use. Your annotations really jump off the page.

Of course, if like me you edit from paper and flip around in the pages a lot, the electronic sequential advance features are an obstacle (much like those useless sequential transmissions sold in performance automobiles ...don't engineers ever drive the bloody things ?). They aren't insurmountable but they'd be a change to how you do things now. Oh - pulling a staple and laying four pages side-by-side is right out.

I suggest buying a decent pen (the interface renders the 6mm tips of most stylus the equivalent of a chisel-tip marker. The adonit jot pro is much more precise in manual use but the interface renders it little more effective than others in practice), some new moleskin notebooks, and using a page or two at the beginning as an index on the content you create. Even - gasp - numbering pages as you advance through the book seems to solve many of the organizational problems which we wish would be solved with technology. Namely - we writers are often asking "where did I have that X ?".

I'm going back to fountain pen for my notes because I have several, like using them ("special") and can find this tactile pleasure sufficient motivation to take more detailed and complete notes.

The iPad is not a content creation device and few have such illusions.

As a note platform, it's dicey.

Some functionality can be nicely tweaked from it but the utility of pen and paper is not yet there. Oh, you CAN use it if you desire. It can be made to work with some limitations. However, I'd like it to "work" rather than altering my style so that it "can be made to work."

If you haven't yet developed a style or pace of note-taking ( I write in small script on paper very very quickly), then the iPad can be adapted. If taking notes requires you to interrupt your natural flow for the medium you are using, I view this as sub-optimal.

The iPad is lovely for content consumption. It is still behind the utility curve for content creation.

Don't get writerly ideas and confuse one function for the other.

Thursday, January 17, 2013


I'm slow tonight and haven't anything of great insight to contribute.

I'm going to watch an episode of the Rumpole of the Bailey series and go to bed.

Maybe we can all dream of our protagonists being acquitted.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Under the Weather

Certainly an odd phrase for all of us out of the grave are indeed "under the weather." Nevertheless, it holds for me.

I'm a bit drained and haven't anything especially lively to contribute but for the effort involved in trying to use an iPad as a notebook.

Now, Moleskin is a wonderful product and I love it. However, I've lost ideas because I cannot find the page in a notebook from either two or three years prior that I might want to bring back to life. I was hoping that the search routines in Evernote might allow me to access pdf versions of hand notes with vastly more acumen at organization that I have today.

It is a long haul and I'll let you know my progress once a stylus arrives later this week. The problems are of course : fine motor control on a rather coarse capacitance touchscreen designed for multi-touch input,  the recognition of my handwriting with some set of keys in any full-text search repository, the general pain-in-the-ass of using a substitute for pen and paper, the selection of a app note platform that has the convenience of a clipping service from the web and the utility of allowing my own markup to appear in conjunction with any clippings, and the feeling of being a complete geek for even suggesting that there can be a technological replacement for the paper journal.

Now, I haven't all the answers. I am motivated in thinking only that 43 notebooks - some of which have disappeared forever - could have been ubiquitously available in searchable electronic form if I had found an easy solution some thirty years ago.  The key is easy solution. Maybe it exists, maybe it doesn't.

I'm willing to dive into the shock of the new and see if a e-journal with my own handwritten notes in cursive can be captured in a mechanism that enhances their longevity and usefulness without ruining the immediacy of their creation.

It is a tall order. I will share but first, sleep.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Research Reading

I devoured The Cruel Sea by Nicholas Monsarrat during the holidays. It's an older novel written after WWII. It dealt with the war in the North Atlantic and the lives of a few of the crew during the sixty-eight months of the campaign.

I learned a couple of tricks. None are really applicable to what I write or plan to write. Nevertheless, it was good to read with a critical eye. It was good to enjoy the story.

I selected this particular novel because I have a recurring long-form concept rolling in my head dealing with space combat. I know how things in space move. I even know how to get them to move together. Thus, the who practical end of space combat has always been an interest of mine and it boils over in this concept I cannot leave alone. I wanted to see how a story with the sea as an embodiment of the conflict played out.

This is all horrendously dull for you except that I recommend reading fiction written immediately after WWII and then reflecting on our current fiction forms. It is eye-opening.  Prose, action, conflict, theme, and even the horizon of the book's focus were different than I would have expected. I found the prose rewarding but the characterizations unsatisfying. It wasn't a case of the action overwhelming the more literary aspects of the story. It was a case of the characters being more two-dimensional then we less credentialed writers being allowed.

I enjoyed it. I learned. I recommend such an exercise to you.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Down To It

Sit in the chair. Don't get more coffee. Don't wish for another cookie (the breakfast of champions - or at least of writers). Don't go and read Elizabeth's weekly twitterific posts.

We have ugly scenes to write. Unpleasant scenes. Difficult scenes.

I've had to restructure a WIP because the linear nature lead down the primrose path to ....blah. We need something else in this bleak story to offset the central idea : love can bloom even in the most unlikely of gardens. Not an original concept for sure, but am I likely to offer an original concept you would understand ? I'm hardly practiced enough understanding my own original thoughts let alone conveying them to you. I suspect the original thoughts I have are of a singular wit. Too many coffees in cafes with dead guys. [ The best breakfast of my life. I'll have to write that story sometime.]

I have a WIP in which the world is going to end. Surprise ! The bit is a however a play on what people find important when they learn truly the world is ending. I loved On The Beach with Gregory Peck. I loved the photo exhibition  I saw about seven years ago at the Metropolitan in New York - the attribution of which escapes me. I love the end of the world.

I'm an endings sort of guy : sometimes I attend them, sometimes I create them and sometimes I am the cause of them.

So, a story restructure. My inspiration for this comes from Mr. Kenneth Helphand and his work Defiant Gardens. The text describes gardens in wartime and war-torn areas. It is an excellent read.

I'm the sort of fellow who loves flowers in the cracks of an old foundation. I'm not above taking down the building to speed up the process. I'm a destruction-as-beauty fellow. It always put me at odds with a college buddy who became a brilliant architect.

Enough digression. I have to go restructure a plot with the unpleasant scenes. I need to do this so I can move to to a work of a different cast I have rolling around in my head.

Work on one thing at a time. See it through it's current stage. Put it down gently, move on.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Bad Habits for Memorable Characters

Writers adopt bad habits faster than bunnies have babies.

It starts with the fiction - lies - and goes down hill from there. We neglect people who are important to us. We neglect not just the details of life but sometimes whole swaths of it. We're prone to sloth, drink, gluttony, self-doubt, every imaginable sin against the English language, exaggeration, imprecision, and forgetfulness.

We can look at the same sentence for an hour and not see that the participle has gone and hanged itself.

What about our characters ? We craft intricate dances for them and generally emphasize very little as we have limited space for description. A word or two, an unshined shoe, maybe a knowing grunt: that's it.

Oh, for emphasis we might have 'em pour a drink, take a slug, wince, grimace, look away. Once perhaps.

Hemingway suggests that characters should be deprived of security. They have internal conflicts that they have learned to manage and when we write a story we are depriving them of their coping mechanisms. We put them in a war with a mission and people they begin to care about more than they should. We let them embrace abject failure, rationalize it as their lot and then put a huge fish on the line and dare them to posture that success doesn't matter.

I'm not Mr. Hemingway and my conflicts are seldom well realized. ( I'm working on it.) However, I was noticing my tendency to retreat with a big bundle of bad habits when stress erupts. Spindle me just a little and I begin to look like Mr. Bad Example (sorry Warren). All the usual.

Then I look and notice when I put my characters in real conflict, they're not retreating to their bad behavior nearly enough. Oh, they're morose or pause or linger over breakfast or maybe buy a pint of Turkey. However - they don't try and retreat enough.

Further, my conflict doesn't continue to intrude. How is it in good literature ? Does an element of conflict erupt and allow the character ample time to adjust and adapt or a does a mad cascade occur compelling them to change or die ?

Relationship problems, work problems, a dead body, the F.B.I -> these all cascade together.

The  bride doesn't announce she's unhappy and then a couple of merry days pass with maybe a congenial drunk with the best man.

 No, the bride says "I need some space" and our protagonist walks to the car with three days' clothes, opens the trunk, and finds his father-in-law modeling this season's newest look in entry wounds.  The phone rings and it's his mother-in-law in her most sultry southern accent suggesting he meet her for a drink at the Fireside "and maybe not mention it to Melinda." He might be in a position to manage some of this if he weren't a new Special Agent with the F.B.I. who is hoping to hear tomorrow about an assignment with potential undercover work in an "organized crime unit."

Hit 'em, then hit 'em again. What would I be doing ?  Drinking, eating, missing appointments, forgetting the dog,  not answering the phone, and starting a new story.

What should the protagonist be doing ? Opening a big can of self-destructive behavior.

Eagle Scouts are great guys to have when a campfire is needed. Otherwise, we want to read about the miscreants who are too damn near our own flawed selves.

Here's hoping there are no dead bodies in your trunks, tonight. Sultry blondes - well. Good luck with that.