Monday, April 21, 2014

Break Time

I'm feeling pretty empty where the blog is concerned right now. The ideas are either not there, or not converting well from thought to post. Rather than flail away, I'll walk away, for now. You know what this means--I'm sure to find a bunch of things to post about in the next few weeks. I'll be turning up in your feeders, and you'll be thinking, "Hey, didn't he say he was taking a break? What's he posting for?" We'll see if that happens. For now, I'll drop in on your blogs when I feel so inclined, and will use the time to get my head on straight. Thanks, all, I'll be back.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Monday Musing

I'm afraid I'm not good for much today. Over the last two weeks or so, I've had a sore throat that finally went away toward the end of last week. On Saturday, the organization I work for sponsored a major public event (it went quite well), but by the end of it, my throat was sore again, and it's still raging. We'll see how far into the day I make it.

*Total lunar eclipse occurs tonight, should be visible to most in the western hemisphere. Of course, it starts well after midnight, but these things are pretty cool if you can stay up. 

*Big debate over on Absolute Write this weekend over the use of the expression "Kill your darlings." My own conclusion? It's not the advice, it's how people are either presenting it (completely without explanation or context, as in, "How can I be a better writer?" "Kill your darlings." Huh?), or understanding it.

*Finally, two momentous events occurred: outdoor air temperature was higher than indoor temperature, and I heard my first spring peepers of the year. They're definitely a little late this year.

*My boss read my two short stories that appeared in Summer's Double Edge and Winter's Regret last week, and I still have a job. Actually, she was quite complimentary and gave me the sort of reactions I hoped for, i.e., good reactions to the story, not just, "I liked it, it was good."

*Watched the Swedish versions of the The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and The Girl Who Played With Fire. They were quite good. One thing that's interesting is how Swedish filmmakers don't seem to feel compelled to have every role played by men and women who are stunningly good looking. I felt like I was watching real people.

Annnnd that's about it. Hope this Monday morning (or evening, depending on where you are) finds you well.

Friday, April 11, 2014

King's Rules

I'm going to be honest here: I'm getting close to full of reading 'writing rules' on blogs, forums, articles and such. It's not that I feel like I'm so superior, so skilled, so AWESOME that I don't need the advice; it's just that I think I've gotten to the point where I've found what works for me, and I'm pretty happy with it. I'm always looking for ways to improve, but I find now I'm more interested in reading about someone's process rather than their rules, if you see the difference.

But then I saw a link to this article: Stephen King's Top 20 Rules for Writers. Well, it's Stephen King, so I've got to check it out. I'm a fan, after all, and whether you like what he does or not, you've got to respect the man. He's got one hell of a track record. When someone as prolific as King, who's sold as many books as King, puts out 'rules,' you read 'em, even if you've had it up to here with 'rules.' Even when you've come to believe the fundamental rule of writing comes down to "Do whatever works," you read.

So, I surfed on over to the article, not ready to swallow it, lock, stock and barrel, but interested in seeing what the man had to say…and I was disappointed. I expected an article written by King. At the very least, I expected an interview in which he dispensed his advice. Instead, the writer pulled tidbits out of King's On Writing and presented them as rules. Twenty of them, supported (mostly) by quotes from the book. Now, King can be as overbearing as anyone who has found success with a particular method, but if you go back and read On Writing, you'll find relatively little that's put down as hard and fast rules. In this article, some of King's 'rules' look pretty ridiculous. Quotes out of context always do.

Here's an example from the article:

10. You have three months. "The first draft of a book—even a long one—should take no more than three months, the length of a season."

Wow. As a 6- to 8-month guy, that's a little depressing. But, wait! I dug out my copy of "On Writing" and started reading. Here's what King actually said: "Still, I believe the first draft of a book--even a long one--should take no more than three months, the length of a season. Any longer and--for me, at least--the story begins to take on an odd, foreign feel, like a dispatch from the Romanian Department of Public Affairs, or something broadcast on high-band shortwave during a period of severe sunspot activity."

Pretty different in the full context, isn't it? Note how King uses the em dashes to emphasize what happens when it takes longer than three months to write a draft. It takes this out of the realm of "rule" and turns it into "advice." The writer of the article happily turns advice into rules. Like #11:

 11. There are two secrets to success. "I stayed physical[sic] healthy, and I stayed married."

There's all kinds of things wrong with that as a 'rule'--unmarried people can't write? Sick people can't write? Huh? But this came from the paragraphs immediately following what was turned into rule 10. King mentioned how he's asked the question (what's the secret to your success?). The answer given "makes the question go away", but has an element of truth to it. An element of truth is hardly a rule.

The article is full of things like this, which is too bad. Presented this way, King comes off looking just as dogmatic as any professor of writing who tries to force you to outline (in this case, however, King 'forces' you to wing it), or to conform to this structure or that. And, yes, King has his moments. The reality of On Writing, however, is that King encourages readers to write. He dispenses advice based on his experience, and mostly doesn't present them as ironclad rules. The text is full of disclaimers like the "for me" above, and his 'rules' ultimately come down to three things: 

1. You must read a lot, and write a lot.
2. Writing is hard work--don't wait for the muse. 
3. Tell the truth. 

That's really it in a nutshell right there. 

So, what's the point of all this? I suppose it's this: we need to stop worrying about what everyone else says and figure it out for ourselves. Find the way that works for you. It might be King's way. Or my way. More likely, it will have elements of other people's methods mixed in proportions that are all your own. Then, when you figure it out, tell us all so we can try to figure it out for ourselves.

I may have used this before, but I'll leave you with this bit of 'writing advice' from the geniuses of Monty Python. Have a great weekend, all.

Monday, April 7, 2014

The Chestnut Tree

Early last week, it finally happened, something it seems I've been waiting forever on--spring arrived.

It's funny how you can tell the difference. We've had some false starts this years, some teasers, some days when the sun was shining and the air was warm enough that you could walk outside without a parka, but when you have several days of single digit temperatures, it doesn't take much for you to feel that way. But last week, Monday or Tuesday afternoon, you just knew--it was spring.

I've been a little extra obsessive over the weather this year. Lord knows we've had some bad winters in the past (our first full year up here, standing at the bus stop in minus twenties was not uncommon), but the last few winters had felt a bit milder, so maybe this one just felt all the worse. Or maybe I'm getting older and my tolerance is shifting, it's hard to say. I'm just happy to be able to say it: spring is here.

Now I can have a new obsession to share with you. Last fall, the organization I work for sponsored a walk led by a man from the American Chestnut Foundation, an organization that is seeking to restore the American chestnut to its natural range. I don't know what your level of expertise is here, so I'll tell you the quick story: the American chestnut was once one of the most numerous trees along the eastern seaboard of the United States, stretching from southern Maine all the way into Alabama and Mississippi. It was also one of the most important trees in its range, providing super-abundant food for a wide variety of species of wildlife. And it was valuable for its durable, easy-to-work-with wood--and then it was all but gone, victimized by the chestnut blight, a fungus introduced into America from Asia. Millions--maybe even billions (estimates hold there were 3 billion chestnut trees in America at one time) of chestnuts died as a result, radically changing the nature of our forests.

Not especially impressive--yet.
Fortunately, some individuals survive, though in the east, it's rare for them to achieve any great size before succumbing to the blight. A number of people have been working hard for years trying to find ways to bring this tree back, and they're finding reason to hope. Resistant American chestnuts have been created by breeding blight-resistant American chestnuts with Chinese chestnut, which has a much higher natural resistance to the fungus. Eventually, it is hoped to have an American chestnut that is almost 'pure' American that is sufficiently-blight resistant that the trees can survive and attain the size and age of their ancestors.

During the program, the leader had a handful of seedlings that had been grown. Each stood about a foot high. He gave me one, which I planted on my lawn. With spring here, I thought I'd post a picture and check on its progress from time to time. By all accounts, the American chestnut is a fast grower, and should reach flowering age in about 6 or 7 years. I'm looking forward to it.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Some Numbers for Friday

This post was inspired by a recent thread on Absolute Write. It's already sunk to page 2 or 3 of the forum threads, so I won't link it here.

Let's throw out a few numbers, just for fun:

41       239       5.83
35       307       8.77
28       367      13.11
This 'table' shows the chapter count, total manuscript pages, and average pages/chapter of my first three novels I drafted to completion (i.e., story has distinctive beginning, middle and end). What got me looking at these numbers was a question on Absolute Write asking how long chapters should be. My smart-ass answer was "as long as they need to be," because, really, that is the only answer to a question like that. A chapter needs to tell a part of the story, and when it ends, it needs to leave the reader wanting to turn the page and read the next chapter. It doesn't matter if you accomplish this in two pages or ten, or two hundred--keep the reader interested and reading, keep the story moving forward.

The first line represents my first major effort, an untitled NaNoWriMo project begun now more years than I would care to remember. In a month's time, this project clocked in a hair over 50,000 words and was quickly abandoned in favor of PARALLEL LIVES (which is found on line 2). Roughly a year after starting PL, I went back to this NaNo project and spent several weeks rewriting it and expanding it--and promptly dropped it when BARTON'S WOMEN* exploded in my brain (in fact, while researching this, the 'last modified' date for the NaNo project is the day before I wrote my first words on BW; I think that, whenever I'm stuck, I should go back and work on this thing. Twice now it has led to better things). BW's stat line is at the bottom of the table.

I find a couple of things interesting about this. First is the fact that each successive work has increased by roughly the same amount over the previous work, about 60 manuscript pages. Second is the way the chapter counts and pages/chapter numbers fall and rise respectively. If I were handy with graphs and charts, I'd plot it out, but that would serve no real purpose other than to look spiffy, so we'll leave it out. Third is the question of what it means to me as a writer, if anything.

When I first started writing the NaNo, I didn't really think much about chapters. In fact, most of the organization of the chapters came after I had 'submitted' the novel for verification. It was written out of order, with line breaks and few chapters. For several days after NaNo ended, I was cutting and chopping and putting the story into proper order. As I read, I found natural ending points for chapters, so I stuck the word CHAPTER in between paragraphs and moved on. It was--and is--quite the mess. But I didn't think too hard or long about it.

With PL, however, I found myself worrying a bit. Most of my chapters felt fairly short (apparently 8.77 pages), and I was fine. Once in a while, however, I'd get one that was three pages. Or one that was 12 pages. And while I knew it didn't matter, it bothered me, so I would look for ways to fold the hot pants-length chapters in with longer ones, or try to split the really long ones up in a way that made sense. What I found was there was a reason those chapters were long or short; and splitting or combining led to more headaches. Eventually, I learned to stop worrying about it--the chapters would be as long or as short as they had to be.

When I started writing BW, I knew one thing right away: my chapters were going to be long. This was an actual, conscious decision I made very early in the process. Lots of scene breaks. BW and the NaNo have two things in common: both are written in 3rd person with multiple viewpoint characters, yet BW's chapters are much roomier. PL, on the other hand, is told in 1st person, with only one viewpoint character, which makes it feel much more contained.

Despite making that decision, I'm not beholden to it. I have a couple of 3-page chapters in BW--and probably one that comes close to 20. Ultimately, the chapters will be as long as they need to be. I have two other novels in draft form that I've started since BW, but it's too soon to tell where they will fit on the scale of things. And that brings me to that last point, what this means about me as a writer. I believe part of the upward trend, both in terms of total page count and pages/chapter, comes from me finding my stride, my voice as a writer. It will be interesting--for me, anyway--to see what the next one looks like, and the one after that, etc.

Have you looked at numbers like this? What kind of trends (if any) do you see?

*BARTON'S WOMEN is being subbed under another name. I'll talk about that at another time. It's still easier right now to refer to it by the old name.

Thanks for reading, have a great weekend!

Monday, March 31, 2014

Monday Musing: Fresh Eyes

While every writer has their own particular process they follow, one finds almost universal* agreement on one thing: It's good to put your manuscript aside after finishing that first draft, let it stew for a bit, and come back to it 6 or 8 weeks or so later and read it again with 'fresh eyes.'

Yet even with a long break, I find the very act of re-reading one of my manuscripts triggers my memory, and while I occasionally surprise myself ("Wow, that scene worked even better than I thought!"), more often than not, I don't. I anticipate the words, recognize the sentences, and find myself reading something on page 38 that I know I have almost word for word somewhere later in the story—and I almost always know exactly where to find it. This makes it harder to properly edit the story, because I know what I meant to say and thus I'm not always the best judge of whether I've said it right.

Interestingly enough, it doesn't work quite the same way when I re-read someone else's work. Last week, a friend handed me a copy of Richard Russo's Empire Falls, thinking I might like to read it. She's right--I read it about two years ago and liked it quite a bit. As I found myself between books with nothing new handy, I picked it up and started reading it over. While it's familiar, and I know how it will end, and pretty much everything that comes in between, it's not stale for me. More interestingly, I'm not anticipating sentences or words, or skimming over bits or plugging things in ahead of time.

Even books I've read a lot—Salem's Lot, The Lord of the Rings, A Prayer for Owen Meany—don't 'burn in' the same way. These are three books I pull off the shelf every few years and read over again, and they're familiar, yes, but they don't trigger the same anticipation of something I've written. I suspect it's because I've only ever read the book. On the other hand, something I've written, even if I haven't looked at it or thought about it in five years, is not something I've merely read, it's also something I functionally lived with for a period of time. It was in my head, front room and back, was part of my life for a while in a way that something I've 'just' read can not be. It's burned in my memory banks, the way you can burn in an image on your computer monitor or TV screen if you leave it on too long to the same thing.

Do you find you can ever read your work with truly 'fresh eyes'?

*almost universal. While there are those who don't do this, they seem far outnumbered.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Blathering On

So, Winter's Regret has been out for a few weeks now. Hopefully, you bought it, read it, and liked it. Hopefully, you liked my story, "An Unexpected Reunion." Being somewhat brain dead this week, I thought I'd share a little about how that story came about. I don't think there will be any great revelations here, but perhaps it will interest you. If not, have a nice weekend, and maybe I'll have a little more functionality next week.

Back in a time that's embarrassingly-long ago, an idea was born, an idea that grew into a manuscript I have mentioned here far too many times (hint: it's called PARALLEL LIVES). During the first two or three months I was drafting that novel, I was on fire. It seems new ideas and scenes were popping into my head constantly. It was almost like living with a movie or tape recorder inside my skull. Whatever else I was doing, the story was playing out, and when I had writing time, I was essentially transcribing what I had seen/heard/thought earlier.

At some point, the ideas dried up, but that was fine, because the story itself had run its course. And I did have a story (I should point out that a lot of these scenes just seemed to play out in my head independently of what had come before or what might come after; they were just ... scenes). But I also had too much. There were some scenes that were, functionally speaking, duplicates of other scenes. And some scenes that just didn't fit the way I thought they would when I first wrote them. Finally, there were some that I thought had to come out just because the thing was too long. "An Unexpected Reunion" fell into this category. I liked the chapter as it stood in the manuscript, but on further review, it wasn't essential. Out it came.

The tough part of turning that excerpt of a deleted chapter into a stand-alone short story was the fast that I still have plans on getting its parent published. So, I could have changed the names of the characters so they weren't people represented in the original manuscript and pretended it was its own thing, but I really didn't want to do that. Instead, I had to find a way to leave it open enough that, should (when) PL gets published, it all makes sense, but with enough of a story and conclusion that it leaves readers satisfied. I think I managed to do that.

That's it for me, hope you all have a nice weekend.

Hey! Because I'm always bad at this, if you're interested in buying Winter's Regret, it can be found

At Amazon or Smashwords or Createspace. Enjoy!