clues at the scene

clues at the scene

Thursday, February 28, 2013

To Stand Naked

A writing group I attend plays parlor games with words. Often, these are quick bits crafted from a prompt to sharpen our imaginations.

I attend because it seems to sharpen the focus on the hook. Also, because I find writing in the dark week after week horrendously lonely. I'm not even a social sort of person and I find it a strain.

I have a story that I have to edit and I am having some trouble with the first few lines of introduction. Hardly a unique situation.

My character is a liar and his admission of the extent of his deception is critical to the story.

His confessional to the reader in first person is horrible when short and pedantic when long. I don't even like first person past a few paragraphs myself because it feels like a gimmick.

I'm going to have to create an additional character in the introduction. I'm going to have to make a throw away character to whom he explains this worldview by means of a confessional.

I despise a wrinkle in the chronology but I might have to craft one for this bit. I know it will get confined to form letter if I do anything but linear story telling.

This one is difficult for me. The character is drawn so strongly from a confessional about a pursuit of deception that I am really hesitant to give it up.

I am going to try a new recipe.  "The Story Opening 20 Ways." I'm going to finish the rough of the work I'm on now then craft the 20 different openings for this other work that devils my mind.

I'll most likely post some of those I like best here. There is nothing like the simple act of posting something to bring that hot glare from indicator light of the bullshit detector. I do not know what it is; but, if I put a sample of something up here then that simple act allows me to see the work as I read others rather than how I see it when it is on my desk.

I'll label them clearly so you can skip over them on days I post them. I'm not sure right now how to quickly judge one versus another myself. The posting is all I can think think of to speedily help my clarity of vision.

Maybe there is another way. I haven't got months to wait on this story. I need to drag it to a conference.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Dante Dante Dante

I read Dostoevsky and Nietzsche at too young an age. I read them when I should have had impressions of a good and hopeful world. That had to be removed quickly. Jesuit education, you understand.

Then, Dante, who was hilarious. Mao. Ah, I loved Mao. There's something about arguing for the common good orchestrated by the party in the midst of a enlightened famine. Well, the famine was past when I read him but I knew about it. The family business, you understand.

I love religion. I find it an almost unfathomable depth of material for my taste in literature. The reluctant and uncaring God is a favorite theme. Also, the enigma of faith. That's bloody awesome.

I just love this picture with the ferula bearing Christ. The image portrays a victim of crucifixion as the strength ebbed. These would have lined the Via Appia after the revolt of the slaves at the end of the third servile war.

When I was a young child, I thought we were the Romans in the whole roman catholic business. You can imagine my disappointment to find out we were the guy on the cross.

I guess that explains why I love the x-ray boost of a good tamper design. I'm more of an old testament guy. No mistaking the meaning of a flood that drowns everybody not on the boat.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013


Girl scout cookies to me define guilt. The twinkie might be more universal but for me it is the thin mint.

The empty calories represent an instant of reward with the lingering aftertaste of shame and defeat. The consumption of thin mints - a sleeve is a single serving size -  is a defeat of reason.

Guilt is a scar from a weakness of will. (Someone said that I'm sure but tonight it came from me. I cannot remember where I read everything.)

I'm looking at dialogue and what it portrays. I'm trying to ensure that my word choice in dialogue reflects the emotional state of my character. I'm trying to make sure that all the shame and guilt and embarrassment and deceit that goes into every interaction between individuals with different aims all comes out on the page.

I want my characters to drag around those feelings of disappointment - ultimately of disappointment - that creep back in around the dikes we erect in our emotional lives.

I've a character being questioned by the police. We don't know yet if he's guilty of his wife's murder but we need to know that in the face of her unexpected demise he is weighing the guilt of those unfinished sentences, the unspoken threats, all the ill-wishing that any two people exchange wordlessly when they pass from infatuation to tolerance and resignation over the course of years.

That reads like a pretty serious indictment of of the state of things between the character and his late wife. I think it is common enough.

My stories are about lies and deceit. Somehow I have to show these are lies by revealing truths to the reader.

It is only in fiction that I can tell the truth about emotion. I'd love to hear how you feel about the emotional portrayal of your characters. I have more cookies for bribes. What's a little guilt between friends?

Monday, February 25, 2013

The Eccentricity of M. Reason


We call the following syllogism "Betty." It's a deductive pattern that indicates a possibly truthful relationship. In other words, it does not disprove a truth.


There are times when we craft stories that have a crystal clarity between cause and effect. We treat these relationships as syllogisms.

I've read three pieces over this past week where the author has gone to great lengths to make clear that the protagonist did A because of B. This derivation in the language of Q { advanced symbolic logic} occurs mostly in back story.

I argue that characters being human do not follow this pattern.

I'll illustrate. Your protagonist may be portrayed with a wandering eye. You reveal in some back story that he's had marital problems and because of that he now only looks. Really?

Will that character be more interesting if he has conquered his impulsive trend towards liaison or if he is a serial adulterer racked by the rational knowledge that the risks he takes threaten to drown him in the ruin of divorce?

As the author, you know.  Characters who are conflicted are interesting characters. Characters that are past the point of resolution of their fallacies are not.

We reflect in our characters the traits of people we've seen and most of the interesting ones behave in an irrational sense. Why do they act that way ? We have no idea. We do remember them, though. We remember them.

P = Q and P != Q at the same time. This relationship is exciting. This relationship between actions is interesting. This I want to read more about.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Running Up That Hill

The next part of the song goes "with the hounds of love." Kate Bush, "Hounds of Love." Appears on the Album Hounds of Love.

I went to gathering of local writers today and put the touch on a fellow for a little help and perspective. He gave me the push I needed and a clue. I'm delighted.

Now, the story might still be horrendous but I'm not stuck anymore wondering how to approach something in dialogue. So, I owe him. perspective helps.

I'm in the middle of outlining one that has been a bear. Not a real bear: that's another story about an apex predator in therapy. It's one of those suspend-reality bits where some animals - like bears - live among us. Yea, I know it sounds horrendous.  Didn't you read Scrooge McDuck comics as a kid where everyone was a  duck, a bear, a chicken or a dog? Everybody has a grandmother somewhere that would buy them what they did not need.

So, writing away with plot elements dashing about like so many foxhounds. After being stalled for a few days, it feels good to be headed up the hill and so I dash away baying.

I have a copy of Robert Crais' The Monkey's Raincoat here on my desk and I've read a couple chapters. It is an eye-opening experience. I recommend giving it a try. It's got a hook of a different color.

Photo Note:
[ I borrowed the photo. I don't have that many in the pack ( I have one) and needed a plural picture.

If the picture is yours (couldn't find attribution) let me know and I'll send you a Starbucks card.]

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Comfort Reading for the Writer

At left, skillet chili on a cold night. I serve it over cornbread. Yes, those are beans. I'm not in Texas. It isn't against the law here.

I want to touch a little on some of the books I've devoured over the past months.

Consider this an annotated bibliography centered around the events of an unfortunate demise.

In no particular order.

You're Not Fooling Anyone When You Take Your Laptop to a Coffee Shop. John Scalzi
- Scalzi is the author of Old Man's War which is a very popular series of novels on near-future Terran expansion. He's also president of SFWA. Lastly, he makes a good living as a commercial writer of all manner of topics. It reads like its title.

The Craft of Writing Science Fiction That Sells. Ben Bova. If you don't know Bova from his extensive list of titles, you know him as the editor of Omni. Well, Some of us remember Omni. Some of us remember Nixon. Bova includes all the basics here though the tone is a little of "old editor" and if you had to read the slush pile, you might get a touch of "old editor" too.

On Writing. Steven King. This is part memoir and part treatise on something close to writing. It reads like a morality tale of "don't do this" which in the end is the best most of us know. We, like Edison, have a list of 3000 things that didn't work. Some of my associates love this book. I wouldn't replace it if I loaned it out and never got it back.

Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction. Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd.  You probably know Todd by his work : editor at the Atlantic among other places. Kidder won a Pulitzer for The Soul of a New Machine which I devoured in a single evening thirty years ago (or a little more). Read this. You write fiction? Read it anyway. It goes a long way towards sharpening the brain to avoid phrases like "very cold" as if "cold" wasn't enough. The section "Being Edited" is especially useful. This is in the running for "the best to buy if you buy only one." Yea - that good.

Fiction Writing for All You're Worth. James Scott Bell. I'm going to say he's the best writer on writing who has also written in the genre of zombie lawyer fiction. Think Grisham x George Romero. His text is clear and the book has some gems. By the e-book version.

Ernest Hemingway on Writing. Larry Phillips. You don't know Larry Phillips unless you're related or dated him in college. This is a look at writing from Hemingway's correspondence. It's a bit voyeuristic. You'll learn something but if you want insight into how to quit sucking at writing, this isn't it.

Revision and Self-Editing for Publication. James Scott Bell. See FWfAYW above. I have this. I haven't read it yet. I need to. I'm entering a big revision and re-write cycle next month and I'll read it late this week.

The Forest for the Trees. Betsy Lerner. You don't know her but you want to. She's been a great editor and is now an great agent. If you get a "not quite right for me"  rejection letter, frame it. It'll be like a grader note from Obama that your paper on the forth amendment should invoke the fifth. I forgot I had it until today. I'm going to re-read it starting tonight. I have been a nitwit. Christ - no wonder my errors keep sounding familiar.  This is in the running for "the best to buy if you buy only one."

The Simple Art of Murder. Raymond Chandler. You know Chandler for The Big Sleep. You should know him for more than that but we'll let it go for just movies staring Bogart based on a novel. This text talks about writing - the good parts. It talks about what you don't know about characterization and why it didn't occur to you. I say that because I've read it half a dozen times and every time I say "yea, that makes perfect sense."  I then run off an read The Assistant Murderer  by Hammett. You can get this cheap as an e-book. Do so.

The Writer's Notebook (I and II) . Tin House. These are a collection of craft-of-writing essays by some great teachers who are also great writers. [ read Swamplandia by Karen Russell].  You'll read these for several years at least. This is in the running for "the best to buy if you buy only one .. or two."

Ron Carlson Writes a Story. Ron Carlson. The best short story I've read NOT by Hemingway came out last year by Ron Carlson in Grey's Sporting Journal. It was called "Six Pound Test." Carlson takes us through his process of writing a short story in this book. It is an excellent reference treatise on the fear we feel when we're writing the story, it's going well, and we haven't a clue where we're going. That thrill and that fear are known only to writers. If you're reading this, you know exactly what that feels like and how it affects you. "The best to buy if you buy only one."

A Writer's Guide to Characterization. Victoria Lynn Schmidt. This is an archetype-based character reference. Skip it. Don't buy this sort of book.

Editors on Editing. Gerald Gross, editor. I haven't read it. I bought it a couple months back because an editor I know told me to read it this time before I drove someone else up the wall. [ I was young - that's my excuse and I'm sticking to it] She used different words. Less pleasant words. It's on my list.

The Chicago Manual of Style. Just buy one. You can find them in bookstores selling used books.

Merchants of Culture.  John Thompson. Has nothing to do with writing and everything to do with the book business and the current state of the industry. If you read non-fiction, buy it.  I read texts on orbital mechanics so I have a high threshold for non-fiction. I love this text. It won't do shit for your writing. It will however let you avoid being the fellow button-holed in the corner by a self-publishing nazi  who lectures you on how publishers are dead. Did I say nazi ? Sorry to offend. Just attribute it as a familial reference and smile knowingly. I have a leather bound Achtung Panzer I can see from here. I keep it next to War as I Knew It.

The World Within Tin House. Writer's talk writing. I haven't read it yet. Looks good but then so does a breakfast at IHOP. That's why the menu has pictures. Don't eat somewhere that has pictures of food - or anything else including pandas - on a menu. The book does not have pictures of writers writing, so it should be O.K.

The Best American Short Stories (2012). Tom Perrotta, editor.  There are thirteen more versions of this  title's series lying around here if you look. Watch out for the cat. He bites. You are buying these, right ? You have to read as well as write.

Book of Poisons. Serita Stevens (insert alphabet here). This is a lovely text to leave in the powder room. It provides interesting conversation for weekend house guests and keeps residents of your domicile on their toes. It will not however keep your grown sons (and their loinfruit) from coming over and drinking milk from your fridge directly out of the bottle. When you catch them, they smile sheepishly and ask why you didn't buy milk in bottles when they were at home. Seriously, this is a gem. I've a number of reference volumes on toxins hanging about (and a really great rare text from '69 on venom and envenomation that is just world class) but this is clear for the non-professional.

I'm going to stop here. It's late now. I have to run tomorrow with the hounds of love. (cred. inspiration  Kate Bush)

Friday, February 22, 2013

The Civilized and the Barbarous

I've traveled enough to wear the descriptor "well traveled."

I've journeys civilized and barbarous.

Helsinki and Stockholm are wonderful cities.

They polish the train platforms in Stockholm with the same machines they use to clean the floor of your local hospital. Yes - the outside platforms. Daily.

I've also been to less lovely places. I'm not repulsed or surprised by the kinds of things one human will do to another for money, politics, religion, or because it is a slow Tuesday night. Disclaimer: I live less than an hour from downtown Detroit.

I've learned to judge locales by their culinary offerings. I consider a city/town/village civilized if I can buy a newspaper in a European language and order pot of tea with strudel or cheesecake. Short of that: B.F.E.

I lived my youth in a part of the world that was B.F.E. right here in the continental U.S.

What I have noticed is that when I am in B.F.E. the locals regard manners as a point of pride. People introduce themselves or at least respectfully acknowledge you. If you go to B.F.E. and have a letter of introduction, it acts like a real introduction and you are trusted and embraced.

Which brings me to our writing involvement. I have a friend who has a pretty good story ready for submission. Literary stuff. I volunteer to look over the cover letter if they want. I've looked over the story several times so I feel very close to it.

They hadn't planned on sending one.

They were just going to bundle the manuscript and shove it over the transom. I don't think it is common knowledge that a basic business-tone cover letter is no dis-qualifier to a piece of work and ... remember ... you are building impression from the time the packet is received. People make impressions quickly. Short-story and essay should be just as civilized in their introduction as a novel. You wouldn't just send off a manuscript blindly to Miss Snark. 

If you've got the chops, you can be fine shoving your work into the hands of a stranger un-introduced. [ Ah, Mr. Hemingway, I didn't recognize you. We'll read this straight away.]

A cover letter is however courteous. There is a nice explanation for those looking to avoid the connotation of barbarian here.

I'm off to loot and pillage.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

The Beauty in Ideas

More scraps of paper from a day at left. It was a big day for the scraps.

I've been very occupied with the pressures of the real world. The day job, this cold, a couple opportunities. It's all been a blur.

The ideas come. Uninvited, but they come.

I've been fortunate to know a number of men whose ideas have changed the modern world. Yes, they've all been men. Women frighten me a bit. I try not to get very close to them.

One of the best of these men told me he believed he could solve most problems by applying his mind without interruption to the issue at hand, and in doing so, an insight about something completely different would leap into his conscious mind as if sprung from some pop-up box released by the spinning handle of his first activity. He would joke that if he could only discover how A made him see B in a different light, he'd bottle it and we'd all get drunk on inspiration.

I had that day today. I'm grinding on my day job concerns, focusing on bits and pieces of various cat herding variables and boom: ideas. I see a set of edits. I see a change in the direction of a current WIP. I have an idea about grouping three of my stories thematically. I have the idea for a new story which is fantastic - and by that I mean "waaaaaaay out there" fantastic and not so much the golden glow of wonderfulness fantastic.

I don't know why working on one thing made me so much more away of solutions elsewhere, but it did. I find ideas themselves wonderful. I find their birth simple beautiful. [ On the other hand, I find deadlines the ugly old witch ugly. Camilla ugly. ]

Why this happens I personally do not care. I love it when it does.

I am wondering if being completely wrapped-up in a non-writing activity spurs any of you onward to your writing brilliance?

I'd love to hear stories of how seemingly unrelated actions spur your creativity.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Content and a Green Dragon Hangover.

I've had the same cold for a month now. I think I have to give it a name at this point. I'm torn between "Fucker" and "God Damned Cold." Maybe I should have a poll.

================================== content.

I worked my way from bell hop to assistant night manager at the President. My reward was the night desk eleven to five.

It had been a lot of ass-kissing and shit-detail volunteering but the effort paid off. I could study for the day-gig at 'Tech as long as no one was in the lobby, and no one ever was. The rack rate was something on the order of a nice used Chevrolet. That and a .38 in the drawer kept the hustlers and pimps at bay. Downtown was still downtown.

It had rained a little earlier and it was cool now. I could see through the brass-and-glass fronters a little wetfall fog loitering on the sidewalk. Traffic outside had slowed to cops and milkmen and the half-hour bus.

I jumped a little when the big turnstile door moved and its glare parted like curtains at the Met.

Five-foot-nothing walked across the hotel lobby and the marble tiles twinkled as she passed. She had Texas-big auburn hair, a powder blue suit, and an Uzi bright with oil like an Uzi should be.

The voice of Atlanta herself in three hundred years of pride rang out. A little of my soul melted.

 "Young man, Mr. Smith is a guest of yours tonight. I'd like his room number, please."  She smiled a little and Mona Lisa got down from her frame, went into the powder room, and cried for three hours.

I was in love and like every time, I'd never be the same again. I call it my moment of clarity.

"Five Twenty-Three," I said. "I could show you."

Tuesday, February 19, 2013


I try to read "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" at lest once a year.

Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

This line always reminds me of a long extended emergency blow by a submarine in a trouble. I haven't any idea why but for the mermaids singing, each to each.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Journals, Old and New

At left, the nearly indestructible Moleskin and the durable yet fleeting iPad also using a Moleskin app.

Like you, I've carried a journal most of my adult life to catch ideas, snippets, flotsam.

However, I'm using a journal this year for for recording the information about the writing I do rather than holding the writing I produce.

I'm recording the meta-data.

I suggest you also consider the advantages of doing so.

Many of us are professionally organized and competent in our day jobs but turn to writing as if we're sophomores in high school once again. We do poorly with issues such as prioritization, time management, and consistency of effort.

The "about writing" journal helps.

I've tracking my

  • writing effort by word count,
  • progress towards projects (i.e. short story draft finished, first re-write finished, second draft polished),
  • time on projects including this blog, 
  • my reading list - currently reading and "need to read." 
I'm tracking the effort I spend in design, drafts, edits, and administration.

I hate recording time. However, it's helping.

I've been able to see by a simple application (Eternity on iOS) the percent of effort I am expending on various aspects of this increasingly serious pursuit. Its use is effortless.

I'm able to look in my journal at progress I've made in production of content.

It has been a real help for the ego. It provides a type of grounding that shows a measure of progress that otherwise is completely lacking. "January, I did X and wrote six chapters of Y and edited two short stories and sent two others out and ..."

It looks much more impressive when we're tracking our activities. Those milestones of novels published or stories in an anthology come too rarely to be the reinforcement many of us require. The frustration factor can grow in the middle of winter and a journal about writing helps.

I'd urge you to provide that sense of accomplishment and success in your own efforts by considering recording them in a journal. It makes those "I'm completely shit at this"  moments much more insignificant when they come.

Hart Johnson has something to say today about ego over here. It's well worth looking at to see how she deals with angst. Celeste Holloway has the opposite end going for her right now on her blog here. She's deep in a final edit and getting excited about the end of the process.

Me? The steady progress recorded in the journal will help keep the tiller hand firm as I move ahead.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Lies, Damn Lies, Marketing, and Advertising

At left, breakfast of champions.

I wouldn't have to work very hard beyond putting up a sign outside a cafe saying "American Breakfast $5.99" for you to know exactly what product I was offering. If you were hungry, you'd probably come inside and I'd have a chance to add you as a "regular" every Sunday morning.

This technique is low effort marketing. (You might have learned it as low-impact marketing which is a horrible turn of a phrase. Shoot that bastard.).

  • Little advertising money expended. 
  • Little barrier for customer education as there is high product identification already.
 Location and price are the two major inputs on our initial chance to win you over. Yes, we have to deliver a quality product that conforms or exceeds your ideals of the product we portray.

This is the business proposition most of us think about when we think of selling our novels:

  • It's good. 
  • It's affordable (Dog knows, readers are rich compared to writers).
  • You know what a novel is, anyway. This is a novel - what's not to like?

We'll put it in front of you and hope you are a voracious eater, reader.

Of course, the large difference between the low effort marketing for the cafe and the low effort marketing of our books is that we know breakfast. We've met him before. We know his name. We know that besides being hot and devoid of pooling grease, it's hard to miss the target of customer expectations.

Novels are different. Novels have very high barriers to sale because of of poor product identification. Frankly, your hoped-for reader probably doesn't know you. She probably doesn't trust your content.

One book is not very much like another despite the blurbs and dust cover lies we tell. I have six books in my library now identified by the publisher or other author blurbs as "reminding me of Douglas Adams and his madcap universe of exceptional events." None - not a single one - has a damn thing in common with Douglas Adams except for the "inadvertent" theft of a line or two that probably was innocent in the end. If you read the guy, his stuff sticks in you a bit.

How to over come this barrier?

If you are customarily addressed as His Excellency, you can devote some income to advertising ... print, online, broadcast mass market, and direct mailing. No? No provinces in the old country named after your late uncle?

What do you have in trade? Content.

You have content.

It appears to me that a successful way to build readership is to get your craft product in front of influence readers who do tend to be voracious,  who do talk a great deal with friends about what they read, who are consulted for book recommendations, and who buy periodicals and anthologies which publish stories in your genre. We'll leave reader based reviews out of this.

Crowd-sourcing is for lemmings. You know what happens to lemmings.

I advocate the short-story route for building readership that can help with your novel's marketing as legitimate sale efforts.

I know short fiction is not an income proposition in itself. I know no advances come from short-fiction efforts. I know your agent might try and have you bumped off for janitor's insurance if she finds out you're working on short stories instead of the next novel she can sell. Here is a hint: don't tell her until it works.

What? You can't deceive your agent?  You told your mom how your prom date with Jimmy Football-Guy went? I didn't think so. [ Oh, you sign your taxes every year, too. I'm talking to you. Triple moca latte is NOT an unreimbursed business expense.]

I do know that getting advertising dollars from your publisher is determined by an internal formula based partly on your sales and on your advance. Get a $1M advance and you better bet there is some house money going into press ads for your work. Get a $5K advance and you might get house money to pay for a press release written by the internal contractor. Sorry.

How to up your advance ? Readers. Exposure. A change in visibility since your last deal.

I'm suggesting that getting your name in the eyes of readers by working at short fiction in conjunction with your novel work can pay dividends far beyond the smug look of satisfaction when you have one of your stories in something on the rack in the powder room.

It can attract influence readers (sales) you've not been in front of before and it can give your agent something material to say to the publishing house about why you're worth more THIS deal than the last. You become an "up trender."

You only have content to trade. Your blog and your tweets and your loving network of writers already know and love you. They'll buy your book. They re NOT an "up trend."

You need new readers. Short fiction can help.

I read a story this week by Samantha Hunt in the No. 55 Tin House  ("All Hands"). I don't know what new work she has in the pipe but I know she has a novel The Invention of Everything Else that I will buy this week. Yep, I loved the short story. I'll buy her novel.

Bonus - the novel is about Tesla, the best toaster-fixing physicist the world has ever seen. That's another post.

Never heard of her before. My loss. It will not be this way in the future. [ BTW - she's the 2010 Bard Fiction Prize winner].

I'm not saying you can get in Tin House or The Paris Review; but, you might. You know your genre periodical hierarchy - or should. [ Hint - subscription price is a decent ballpark estimate for status]. Never fear starting in the middle. You can always go either way with future submission depending on your state of mind.

You generate content. How can you get it in front of a reader? Get it in stuff influence readers buy. That's how professionals do it. ( Look at the adds in this weekend _WSJ_ magazine supplement. Those brands do not advertise in Redbook because the influence buyers don't have eyeballs there).

In the end, it is all you have beyond using the market building techniques of the life insurance business as applied through a social media lens.

You don't actually believe joining more civic breakfast clubs is going to catapult you on the NYT bestseller list, do you?

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Critique, Finding Fault, and Advice

 Cheeto the cat provides a little needed input at left. I'm interpreting this as "not quite right for us."

I'm talking tonight about the solicited and unsolicited input we writers receive.

First: the Critique. When I hear someone ask for a critique or they send me something to read, I pretend I heard them say "I need an attaboy because I worked like a dog on this thing and just need to know it was worth it."

This might not be what they wanted, but it is relatively harmless to point out the bits of the piece I thought were working or the parts that I enjoyed reading. Having someone say "I liked the introduction of the dragon character" is far better than saying "I didn't understand the Gwain character at all. He was wooden and contrived." If they want the true reader's impression of what wasn't working, they need to ask for it another way.

Second: Finding Fault. This is the snarky workshop trick of some (frequently poor) writers who seem to believe that increasing their stock comes by devaluing the other writers around them. I think this was called destructive criticism when I was in school. It's the sort of thing written in haste across a paper that just crushes a student. [ This is American Lit. If you want to write for Letterman, enroll in a different section. Otherwise, your observations should be expressed in facts you can support with a  footnote. ]

Now, I've made a  joke or two in passing in sessions before that I regretted when the words left my lips because my reference was poorly received. [I get it .. The baby is the whale. The mother is Ismael and the Paul character is Ahab in a station wagon driving them on ! .... The writer didn't know the characters in Moby Dick. Ooops. ] Now, in sessions I refrain from any joking or encouraging others by responding with laughter. It isn't worth hurting someone's feelings for a fifteen second diversion into mirth.

I will however joke around in a social writing group. Thin skin beware. If someone complains about some aspect of prose deficiency and it seems to hit home, it probably wasn't aimed at you personally. If you're in my writing circle, just mention "typing like a chimp" or a "simian editing style" and move on...

Finding fault comes in many forms. It is unsolicited advice (I just "don't get" the protagonist's mother). It is an unsolicited example (Here, I've re-written the paragraph and this reads better. You can use it). It is a snarky comment meant to win favor from a particularly unpleasant workshop leader (I'm not sure I fully see you channeling Mary Shelley in that passage for an emotional palette of the Gothic form. It had a little of an Erma Bombeck and Steven King love child thing going for it). It is an unsolicited realism observation also known as Die Hard Syndrome where unbelievable events just keep coming ( Nobody keeps a safari rifle in the back of a Jeep. It all lost me there when they decide to kill the dinosaur.)

We all try not to be "that guy" and trust me, "that guy" shares a little more opinion that is EVER solicited.

Third: Advice. This is the true feedback that a writer often wants but really doesn't want to hear. If they want advice, they have to explicitly instruct the reader (me, in this case) what is within bounds. I'll offer this feedback when I clarify what they want me to include. I do this for someone who says "I want to hear what's wrong ...what's not working." If an opinion on the quality of the dialogue isn't requested, I'll not say "I found Mary's speeches to be poorly disguised info dumps that made me dread the six hundred times I've done the same bloody thing." I'll restrain myself to what I'm instructed (See how the scene transitions work for you. I saw Hemingway do it and I wonder if I got it right).

When actively solicited by the author, I will offer something negative if indeed I can see the issue. I won't say "Jeeze, it seems a little loose here and I didn't like the iguana in the bedroom part but I don't know ...maybe it's OK for  romance novel." I might want to, but I won't.

I'll either pull out of the author specifically what they want me to look at or, I'll just mention the parts that work very well and let them figure out what I did not mention.

Maybe that's a poor policy but I do not want to be the guy who crushed someone's fragile little dream of a story by treating with the it delicacy of a Sunday Morning Political Show (say, Beat The Press). I'm not going to watch anyone tear up.

I've gone on too long here. My point is that agents send form letters because they don't have any stock in the makers of facial tissue. "Not quite right for us" is far nicer than "The character Molly is poorly rendered."  When a writer asks for an opinion, they might not be asking for what you hear out of their mouth at first. Be careful. Friends are hard to make and easy to loose.

Modification in Progress

The blog layout is undergoing revision on Saturday 2/16. It may be unreliable for a few hours in late afternoon/early evening.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Transition Day

 Two pictures above ...before and after.

Over at "Mystery Writing is Murder," Elizabeth has declared it time to clean and as usual, she's correct.

Short entry tonight because I still owe myself 750 words today.

That brings up the point of today's post : volume.  I've tried the 1200 to 1400 a day production and I'm not happy with the writing. I don't know if it is a "push" or if that volume that makes me sit too long and dread the activity. Either way, I'm not happy with weekday prose at that volume.

I'd like to ask, what are your day-by-day production targets?  I've mentioned here before that Hemingway was steady around 400. I know another writer who is a solid 1800 six days a week. I'm just curious - how many do you shoot for each day when you're writing?

Public Service Announcement: in the spirit of Transition Day, I'll be changing the layout of this bog over the weekend. There is chance I eat the history. It happens.

Also, the tone and focus will be different going forward. I will be blogging more about writing techniques, writing resources, writers on writing, and writing examples. There will be a reading list feature as well.

When I started, I didn't have much focus. This blog became a sort of public journal. I'm really not comfortable continuing that exercise. Thus, a more disciplined focus on writing is the solution. The content is more interesting that way, too.

Write well.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Agents, Editors and Publishers...oh my !

Lions, tigers and bears they aren't.

Short entry tonight. Clam chowder, a foxhound, an a fellow framed for murder pull me onward.

To the point :

Merchants of Culture  should be required reading for everyone picking up a pen.

It is the business briefing on our little book industry and explains in great detail how the business works from the perspective of the folks with the money.

It gives a historical review of how we arrived here and what the business cycle means for all of us in the content business.

I've tried for eight years now to learn all I can about publishing and in one two hour session with this book learned nearly the total I've been able to gather on my own in all that time.

It feels like drinking from a fire hose. If you are serious about your craft, you need to be serious about the business. Yes, it matters.

You can make a lot of money when the other guys at the table don't know what you know. Likewise, they can make a lot off you if you're in the dark. Success is your own responsibility. Own it.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

On the Floor of a Hotel Bar

The title line of today's post comes from the song "I'm Flying North" by Thomas Dolby. Yea- I'm that old.

I feel like I'm on the floor of a hotel bar. Many of you genteel readers won't know with certainty the feeling of those filthy dirty tiles on the face; but, you can imagine. I have that sullen feeling at the moment.

I'm down there getting ready to stand up and have the patrons avert their eyes which is to say they're waiting for me to leave to stare at my back in disgust.

What is it about being on the floor of a hotel bar that is so utterly demeaning? Public failure of control and moderation is a magnification factor of 100 over our normal everyday lack of rational foresight. I think writing something you care about is damn near the same.

Putting it out there is pretty demeaning when you know - and we all know - that our writing has shortcomings.

That feeling of self-effacing and demeaning behavior is exactly what it is to be serious, bring your A game, and think that this time around you might have blown it. You might have lost those bits of yourself that made the effort worth a damn at the start.

I'm going down that alley now because I've got some stuff to stand behind. Thus, the little bit of library  expansion in the picture above to help with the last of the mechanical details of future success.

I worked hard at the writing for about eight years in a period when I was young and very full of myself. I had some of the flavor of success without finishing the meal. I wrote several stories, a play, and four novels. I was young and hungry and had something of a soul left I could put into my work. I was also desperately unhappy which for young writers seems to be a very helpful condition.

If you are under thirty, from a supportive family with members you actually enjoy seeing, feeding yourself and have a significant other whose dog you do not like better then that person - I don't want to  read your stuff. We'll talk about why your made-up angst and anxiety isn't worth a shit in a different post.

Back to now. I'm getting serious again. Serious means getting up at two AM to write down dialogue you've poured over in your head for an hour while lying in bed because you can't hold it in any longer. Serious is trying on emotion after emotion while all alone in a room to get the tone you want for a character's perspective. How can you say what the character is feeling if you are not feeling what the character is feeling?  You try on emotions and think about them.

Serious is taking the painful things in your life apart piece by piece, turning those pieces around, and putting them on the page even though they are the most demeaning, embarrassing  and dehumanizing experiences of your life. I differentiate painful from tragic.

Tragic is the person you loved most in your young life dying without you knowing they were that bad off. That's bloody tragic. Shakespeare twist of the knife tragic. It happens.

Painful is the conversation you had with them two years earlier when they were saying something you knew then was important and of value and then you intentionally ignored their wisdom because you were an ass. You have a chance later to change from the path you took simply because it was the one they didn't talk about and you don't. When they ask you how you're doing and if you are happy or content or feel successful you lie. That's painful.  Why did you do it?  Are you genetically an asshole? [ That's a real real gene. It's one of the most expressive known to science.] Doesn't really matter. The pain is however real and you can get some mileage off it - so you use it.

Crafting text where you are pushing the reticent character past their level of comfort is pretty self-effacing. There is a lot of you behind the page. It isn't you, but you've used the 'you' part to get it out.

 You make the character yearn, need, desire and then you hit them most in that very place they're not able to stand the internal conflict and you push and push forcing them to confront those bits they most hide from even themselves. Those stories have a real emotional toll and I think they're the ones we like most in literature. They aren't so much the plot as they are a seething ball of discomfort at every turn the character can take.

Writing that sort of story feels - when you are through - as if you are waking up on the floor of a hotel bar embarrassed and ashamed of your performance. Everyone there saw you. They all know you're getting up because you've been on the floor. You were so unimportant to them as to be just a spectacle to talk about on the ride to wherever they're going next.

Nevertheless, there you are unable to elucidate any explanation or justification and it's that inability to communicate that drives home the demeaning performance.

You have something to say that puts the whole evening in perspective and you can't speak clearly enough that anyone will listen. That's what it is to put your work out there thinking so much of it and knowing that it will come back because of your confused and obscured writing.

It isn't angst. It's the floor of a hotel bar. Now I have to stand up and stagger out.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Dead Broad in the Library

More bits of dialogue and story notes. New pipe (an Author model ... have to make good on that one).

Am I the only one walking around with parts of stories in their pockets at the end of the day ? I can't be.

Well - short entry tonight because I am hard at work on the white room story I discussed a little in yesterday's post. I want to get that one done this week and put on ice.

I've got a dead broad in the library and a husband in interrogation #3. I won't hang him upside down and put cigarette butts out on the back of his head. It isn't the R.U.C. doing the business.

I can't believe the Pope is retiring. I have him as a prime example in a story as a poor bastard with a job-for-life. Now I'm stuck with Elizabeth R. , Castro, and a handful of African Despots.

Monday, February 11, 2013

The Interview

Ah, the interview scene. This is the all-purpose two character in isolation dialogue exchange which is so critical to fiction but passes by almost invisibly to we readers.

At least, they're passing me by because I have never made an adequate study of the bits and now I've got an important one to write.

I believe the exchange between characters gives way to an immersion in storytelling which seems complete because the characters in the scene become so immersed by the tale of what happened outside the white room that we the reader are pulled into the that same frame of focus. The two parties dissolve as the principal agents and the story emerges independently of the fact two men are confined in a small space, sitting on hard chairs, and talking.

The scene - a white room.

Inventory:  A couple chairs, a lamp (maybe) , a table. Probably a note pad and a pen. A couple cameras in the corner.

Characters: A cop and a person of interest.

Those are the material details. The rest is interaction and dialogue and the absence of dialogue.

I've got one of these to write now. The protagonist is in an interview room and the name of the game is "your dead wife at home in the library."

I know what is supposed to happen in my story. It's a pretty quick outline.

The questioning starts.

We go back before the dead bride to six weeks ago when infidelity became indiscreet.

We walk through the resolution by the couple last weekend in a country house.

We have the husband coming home early from a business trip. We have him discovering the wife dead in the library four hours after coming home, showering, and going to bed.

Now, the story plays out in the interview room. There is a little falling action scene in a bar afterwards that has a little twist; but, ninety percent of the story involves two men and a little box of a room.

My job: make it work. So - I'm looking for a little help. I'm looking for story examples of the best "white room" scenes you remember.  

I can think of Chandler's scenes (wise-ass and bull cops). I can think of some other white room (Merlin and Wart at the beginning for a breakfast; but ,the room is very rich and can hardly be white room). I think of Huck and Jim on the raft in the river. I think of Haviland Tuf and any number of other characters aboard The Ark. I can think of so few, really. I'm just not pulling things together and I could use some help.

If you remember two-character dialogue scenes in the white room environment which stuck with you all these years, I'd love to hear from you in the comments. 

The art for this one is telling the story from the interrogative prompts. No one wants to read a story that is an excruciating detailed question and answer session. Thus, I have (gasp) the flashback scenes with little to break our immersion. I know the flashback is despised but the threat of the murder charge is my external conflict of Man vs The Law. I need the tension of the interview to be a major contributor to the conflict and palpable tension.

I am looking for masters of the white room. I've probably read them because I cannot recall the scenes. That's probably the mark of doing it well.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Pull the Cart

I received a note from a friend about yesterday's post. I was a little hesitant to open it suspecting the dreaded "hurt feelings." Instead it was an acknowledgement for a needed kick in the ass.

Vince Lombardi - as the story goes - used to ask new players to describe what kind of player they were. Did they need a kick in the ass, an atta boy, or to be left alone?  Writers need all three but in differing amounts.

The hideous picture at left describes our game pretty well.

We are the horse. We produce content and really, that's the most important job: pull the cart. In order of importance for prioritization we :

  1. Pull the cart.
  2. Pull the cart.
  3. Pull the cart.
  4. Do everything else.
The cute one (I'm being generous)  on the right is all the fun stuff. That for many writers becomes "talking about writing" rather than writing. The opposite fellow in the hideous hat is all the business aspects of managing the empire because ultimately, writers are a lovely small business with a workforce of one.

The fellow with the whip isn't your agent or your publisher. It's the embodiment why you got into this gig to begin with when you had the very uncool idea that sitting alone at the desk writing while everyone else is playing games is somehow rewarding and fun.

What to do? Write. The rest will take care of itself if the writing is good enough in the eyes of the readers to create the voracious need for more. Take the readers on the guided adventure to a new emotional land. Scare them. Shock them. Astound them with the sights. Bring them home safely.

They'll want more. You'll do fine. Put on the pith helmet and write.