Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The Extra Body - completed (sic)

The Extra Body got started as a NaNoWriMo challenge to myself. I wanted to break myself out of the over-plotting that trapped me and my characters in corners we couldn’t get out of. For those who don’t know, NaNoWriMo is an online promise to write a 50,000 word draft during the month of November. I did it back in 2012. I never reached 50,000, but I got a nice story of 35k+ words out of the experience, and came away with the habit of writing every day and the confidence that I could write without a fully formed plot at the front end. It’s now four months after beginning with only a vague glimmer of a first sentence and no idea what to write next. I simply sat down and wrote. Before I knew it, I had several good characters and they were in a tricky situation.

My writers group, WNCMysterians.org, has been through the book, and they were a great help. They clarified characters and plot issues, as well as the specific English language expression of my ideas. When I thought it was ready, that I’d caught all the errors, I sat down and read the entire book from start to finish aloud, looking for any bumps in the reading. I found several more incorrect word choices, and smoothed out the aural rhythms.

The Kindle version was the first step for me. I didn’t know until later that CreateSpace would provide a Kindle option. When the Kindle was done, I went to CreateSpace and started building the physical book. The pdf was accepted with no problem, but I knew that the cover would take a few hours. Once I had the body of the book defined (size, paper, number of pages), I downloaded the provided cover template and built my cover using the template for the bottom layer. I have lots of layout experience, so the process, though long, went fairly smoothly. When it was done and uploaded and the book was in the review process, a friend discovered two spelling errors on the rear cover. I fixed them ASAP but couldn’t upload the revised cover art because the book was “in review.” Patience is an issue for me, and it was several days before I could upload the revised cover and order a proof copy. I’m expecting it to arrive today.

Yes, an ebook is an accomplishment, but there’s something about holding a physical copy of your book in your hands and flipping through the pages that beats the ebook experience by miles. It’s the final reality of your effort, of the month of writing, the anguish of not knowing what the characters are about to do and the problems that will be created by their actions, the months of revision, and finally, the building of the book on CreateSpace.

Later: Surprise! The proof was waiting in my mailbox this morning. I ripped into it, finding all sorts of problems. Called CS and talked with a woman who didn't ask the right questions to solve my problems. I needed to go back into the text and completely reformat the entire book. Frustration. I want the world to be simple, but how can it be? Now it'll be several more days of chipping away at the mountain before I can order another proof.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Waiting for Your Muse

If you postpone your writing in a wait for the notoriously recalcitrant Euterpe, the Muse of music and lyric poetry (or choose your own personal Muse), you'll still be waiting when the Grim Reaper comes to collect you. She isn't coming. That's her way, and you'd better understand that from the start.

As for inspiration, there's no such thing. There are ideas that seem to spontaneously spring forth, like the title that you've worried about for two weeks, or the nugget that propels you into three months of sweaty work on the next novel. But ask any professional journalist, reporter or writer. A “real“ writer should be able to sit down anywhere at any time and crank out however many words are needed. Are you a writer? Prove it.

How do you prove it? By sitting yourself down at the computer, typewriter, with a yellow pad and pencil, chisel and stone tablet, or whatever you prefer, and putting down words, thousands of words. You might have a problem getting started. The refrigerator might be calling you. The lawn may want mowing and the gutters may need cleaning. Ignore them. Ignore your friends, your spouse (spice?), your children, your job, that pending law suit. Once you start writing, you'll find a groove and the words will start to flow, faster and faster, until you reach your 90,000 word goal. Then you'll turn around and find that your Muse has been watching your progress over your shoulder. You see, it's you that has to inspire her, not the other way around. Tricky, huh? You’d better believe it. It took me years of artistic suffering to figure this out.

As I read the above blog post over, I thought that it took a rather hard line. Okay, so I'm a pedantic didact. So what, if I'm right. My "rules" might not fit you. I've come to them from my own experience. That's part of the problem of being a writer: everyone has plenty of advice for you, but in the end, it's an individual journey and you have to figure it all out for yourself anyway. A writer's life is fraught with danger.

(The first few paragraphs of this post are a rough excerpt from the how-to-write-a-mystery book I'm working on, Mystery Mastery. It will be available through Amazon by summer, if all goes according to plan.)

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Thoughts on Rejection

The Cat Eater was rejected. Let’s face it: rejection is the writer's bane, and it's been so since the first caveman (caveperson?) made the first mark on a cavern wall.

"My work, the product of my rich and fertile imagination, was rejected by those ignorant fools, those illiterate slobs who have trouble reading hot dog stand menus, those Philistines. I'll never subject my work to their insults again. I can hardly wait until I'm dead so I can finally become famous."

And so it goes, time after time, month after month, year after year, decade after decade, lifetime after lifetime. What insight can I bring to this ongoing and thoroughly depressing phenomenon? I doubt I'll be able to shed any light in the gloom. All I know is that every time they do it to me, I sink to the same depths as I ever did.

But these days, knowing that I'm a whole lot more experienced, and being far more confident in my writing than when I was just starting out, I at least don't feel like quitting the writing altogether. These days, I know my writing is strong and that I've got plenty to say about the state of things, people's psychology, situations I've seen or extrapolated from reality. They can hurt me, yes, but they can't stop me.

It’s true that I'd only submitted it to one magazine, but it was rejected. And that knocked the wind from my sails, which are merely tattered rags after all these years of buffeting anyway. My writing cohorts tell me to submit again. That’s what we’re all told, right? “Keep the blasted things in the mail. Your work will never see daylight if left in a desk drawer” (or a computer file these days). That’s true enough, but it drives me nuts.

Here’s what I did in the past. After years of courting magazine editors to get my photos and articles published, I got fed up enough to start my own magazine (Shooter's Rag - Nature Photo Magazine). I moved to the other side of the desk. I no longer had to convince an editor that I was his/her ally and sell, sell, sell. I could, and did, write whatever I wanted, and I had a slush pile of other writers who were suddenly trying to sell their work to me. The foo was on the other shoet. (BTW, I treated other writers as colleagues, not as adversaries.)

The world had changed by the time no one was interested in publishing my Ben Bones novels, and I was able to go to Smashwords, Amazon KDP and CreateSpace to do it myself. Sales aren’t great, but I’m not beholden to anyone, and I’m not begging editors for the opportunity to help them fill their publications.

So now I'm again thinking of self-publishing. Not only The Cat Eater, but a book of my short works. I have a title for the collection and need to develop a cover. Now I have to weigh the possibility of no sales on my own, or postponing self-publishing in the traditional hope of a cash sale to magazines that are cavalier about my precious output. What a dilemma! As I'm wont to say: a writer's life is fraught with danger.

Yeah, I know, I have a bad attitude. What can I say? I’m a child of the 60s.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

On Rewriting

I spent the morning rewriting parts of Palaver’s Hands that my crit group, wncmysterians.org, ripped apart at our last meeting. As much as I dislike having my work torn into like that and all the homework I have to do because of it, if I address the issues they identify, the work is always much better in the end.

And that’s what a critique group is for, isn’t it? We writers are always too close to our work. We don’t see the little details like punctuation errors that make us look only semi-literate instead of brilliant.

But we also miss the bigger structural issues, the gaps in the story telling that have nothing to do with literacy. These larger errors are the ones that show us to be ignorant, grunting cave people who can’t tell our brethren (and sistern) which way to go to find the mammoths our lives depend on.

I am greatly and regularly indebted to my fellow WNCMysterians. Humbled, too.

On the topic of precision in writing, I think it was Blaise Pascal who wrote, “I am sorry I have had to write you such a long letter, but I did not have time to write you a short one.”

Another of my favorite quotes comes from Mark Twain. He said, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—’tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning.”

Yikes! Could you have said it more succinctly? In the face of such comments, how can any writer dare to be arrogant? Every word, sentence paragraph, and page is a life and death struggle.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Cat Eater

Over the weekend I submitted my story The Cat Eater to a magazine. Besides my crit group wncmysterians.org and several close friends, the story hadn't seen much daylight. I’ve been holding it back because I want to release an ebook of my short pieces. At the same time though, I want to get some magazine publication. Submission means waiting months for their positive/negative response, but that’s life, ain’t it?

I'm not sure where the idea for the story originally came from. Mostly, I think it came because I was stuck on my larger novel projects and was looking for a shorter story I could knock out quickly in the meantime. Did I say "quickly?" I must be kidding. Even the shortest project becomes an involved research quest and an attenuated writing effort of several weeks. It was the same with The Cat Eater.

The research started with a Google search for "cat recipes." I was surprised when hundreds of hits showed up, and I was able to get some very cool stuff. Some of it was satirical but much of it was real, including the info on cultures around the world that relied at least partly on feline protein.

The title of the piece was a major problem. I went through The Cat Burglar, The Cat Bungler, and Cooking Cats.

In the end, I settled on The Cat Eater, a title that some people find so unsettling that they refuse to read the story. I feel bad about their refusal, because I think that the story shows some excellent writing and has twists and turns that make it thoroughly macabre. My critique group agrees. By the way, one of the refusing readers is in that group.

Another little known fact, is that my cat, The Half Montie (a fixed ex-male), hasn't read it either. I don't want to upset him.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Palaver's Hands - a novel in process

I want to tell y'all about how the story Palaver's Hands got started.

I heard the word "palaver" on the radio. I don't even remember where.  But it immediately occurred to me that it would make a great name for a western town, maybe somewhere out in Wyoming or Montana. But was that it for ideas? Not hardly. I'd also been toying with the idea of writing a story about corporate espionage, not a cyber story, but about good old fashioned breaking and entering. The two elements sort of fit together in a rather far-fetched way.

In the spirit of NaNoWriMo, I sat down at the computer one day and started writing with no plan in mind. Knowing that I have to grab my readers at the very start of a piece, I began with a break-in artist being discovered in the middle of a penetration. And of course, it couldn't be merely a discovery and bust. No way. It had to have a major twist or two in it. At the end of that first day's writing session, I only had a few hundred words, but I knew that my perp was a young woman named Danielle Palaver, that the job had been a test engineered by a potential employer, and it had been a set-up from the start. I discovered all that in the process of writing.

Now, you're asking how that works, right? How does a writer with no plan and only two vague ideas come away from the computer with the opening nugget of a story that has a cool lead character and great potential for depth and intrigue. Well . . . I don't really know. What I do know is that my mind tends to synthesize ideas, to make new combinations out of old stuff lying around in its dusty recesses. That's what happened here.

I then decided that my character, Danielle (Dani) Palaver, was simply too young and innocent to figure out exactly what had happened on that job. She needed a more experienced criminal mentor. Thus, Vadim Flikowitz, a retired Ukrainian criminal living a quiet life in the middle of nowhere had to be invented, they had to be friends, and he could then help her sort out what had really happened.

The story started to build from that point, although there was some jumping around time-wise, and I was pretty sure that my critique group, wncmysterians.org, would pounce on me for the lack of linearity. They did. It was only after they had received the second installment that the light began to dawn on them and the story took a more linear path, starting with how Dani was recruited by a questionable outfit that did penetrations for various private clients, businesses, and governments.

I'll report on further developments as they occur, or rather, as they occur to me in the writing. I'm not sure where things are headed, but I do know that they're headed downhill at an ever increasing pace. Stick around.


I've been thinking of doing a blog for a while. My problem is that after running BBSs (electronic bulletin boards) for ten years in the 1980s, before the Internet got going, and I felt I'd done my bit. My antisocial side asserted itself and I didn't want to play that game any more. But circumstances now force me to blog, to establish a public "platform" for myself as a promotional tool for my writing. And let's not forget that this is my place to spout my opinions on anything I care to, from national politics to my recent property line dispute with my neighbor.

So who cares what I think about anything? I don't know. That's where you come in, you, my current readers and my potential future readers. I've kept journals for years, most of my life in fact, but my writing there has been private, for myself and my biographers (ha!). A blog is a different creature. It's designed to be public, a place where I share my ideas and report on my doings, where I bare my soul to the world.

I plan to write about writing. My plan is to report on my writing process, where I get my ideas, how I develop them into articles, stories, or novels, and the problems encountered along the way and how I solve them. This is a blog for other writers and people who may not write but are interested in the creative process.

What credentials do I bring to this forum? I don't have a degree in English. I've never taught a writing workshop (not yet anyway as of 2013-2-16), although I've been a presenter at Killer Nashville several times. Instead of formal credentials, I have a lifetime's experience as a writer. I started writing as a kid. Unfortunately, I didn't know what I was doing and didn't have much life experience. The result was that I didn't have much to say, though I knew I wanted to say something. All the reading I did inspired me, I guess. It took me years to figure this out, but there are four active writers in my bloodline at the moment, so I kinda feel like the "tendency to authorship" might be a genetic defect in us. May you all be blessed with such a malady. The others are Fred Phillips, Jim Lavilla-Havelin, and Kate Havelin.

I'm currently working on several projects: a book on writing mysteries, several short stories and a couple of novels. One of the novels, The Extra Body, was written in 2012 as a NaNoWriMo project and is currently in rewrite. Palaver's Hands is being approached as another NaNo project, meaning that it's being written with no pre-planning, no plot outline. There are three other Ben Bones genealogical adventures that need reworking before they join the two Ben Bones adventures already out in the world.

If you've never heard of NaNoWriMo, let me enlighten you and explain why I did it. NaNoWriMo (Google it) is an international conspiracy of individuals who all agree to write 50,000 words during the month of November. It's a personal challenge and commitment to write 1663 words per day. Some write with outlines, but many write without. I felt I had pre-planned the three Ben Bones books that are on hold too thoroughly, and in doing so had trapped myself into plot wrinkles I couldn't solve. To break myself of the over-plotting habit (method?) I'd developed, I took on the NaNoWriMo project to force myself to write with NO pre-planning. Strangely enough, I started writing and ended up with a short novel that's pretty good. Needs some rework, but what first draft doesn't?

Well, there you are. You now see the tone of what I want to do with this blog. Stick around. I'll be adding to this at least weekly. Enjoy the ride.