Monday, July 31, 2017

Writing and...Cold Cuts?

Last week, we picked up some cold cuts at the deli counter at the supermarket. Ham. Turkey breast. A little Swiss cheese. Tasty stuff. The ham was perfect, thin sheets you could almost see through. The turkey, the same, at least when the clerk held up a slice for me to look at an approve. It looked pretty much just exactly perfect. But when we tried to use the turkey to build a sandwich the next day, a funny thing happened: the turkey turned out to be the perfect thickness on one end, and a thin, shreddy mess on the other. Instead of being able to peel up individual slices, you could easily peel up half a slice, and then had to pick through the bits at the other end.

Having run a deli slicer at one point, I think what happens is all in the motion used by the clerk. You can exert more downward at the start of the slice, when your arm is closest to your body. As you push and your arm gets further away from you, you lose downward pressure on the meat, so the back part of the slice is actually thinner than the front half: thus, shreddy meat. Or slices of salami that look like someone's nibbled a bit off the end.

I've noticed (and perhaps I've written about this before, I don't remember) that, in terms of description, my writing is often a lot like those slices of turkey. For whatever reason, I tend to make my writing thick with adjectives and description at the beginning,. I pile it on, descriptions of people with knobby-knuckled hands and hair growing out of their ears, rooms with ankle-deep carpet and pine-scented paneling, deep backyards lit with fireflies at twilight. Whatever. In my RiP, my opening paragraph is five sentences long. Those sentences have enough adjectives for a page. But as I go, the adjectives drop out. Description gets lost in action, dialogue, emotion. The turkey becomes shreddy and thin.

In the case of the RiP, it may be because the passage in question was something I started in my writers' group, not knowing it was going to be the opening of a 300 plus page manuscript. In general, I tend to 'slice thick' on my short stories, I don't know why. It's possible that I use description the way musicians will run through scales as a warm up, or that it's how I find my way into what I'm writing. A lot of the description came out when I ran the manuscript through the Excess Word Removal Machine (pat. pending), but there's still an awful lot there. I thought it was necessary, but on my latest re-read, it still seems a little overdone.

What I can't quite tell is if the pattern persists through the rest of it, i.e., if each writing session starts off with the same slavish devotion to description. I don't think it does. It seems to me that, once I get through that opener, the description become more evenly distributed, and it may well be that it's because I spend between work sessions thinking about the project, writing it in my head.

In the end, I'm not sure how much of a problem this is, whether it's real, or just the sort of thing we doubting writers use to torture ourselves. Front-loaded description may or may not be a problem, depending on how loaded it is (and, perhaps, how predictable: George R.R. Martin's insistence on describing the clothing of every new character in the Game of Thrones epic became annoyingly predictable for me), and how well it serves the story. Maybe there are times where it's best spread evenly, like uniform slices of cold cuts, and other times where it's okay to be lumpy and uneven. What do you think?

And now, some music.

Given that it's almost August, that summer is winding down into the Dog Days, it seems appropriate to throw this little number in from The Who. Amazing that it's forty years ago. Amazing that Roger and Pete are still on tour (and reportedly quite energetic and sounding well). Watching old Who clips is a reminder of how crazed and chaotic they were, and how powerful:

Monday, July 24, 2017

"The Doctor is a--"

In 1974, Mel Brooks released Blazing Saddles, which is at once a brilliant and intelligent satire of racism and a typical, infantile Brooks film. In the movie, the Attorney General of some unknown state tries to force the residents of a town to sell their land cheap in order to build a railroad through it. After intimidation fails to work, the Attorney General convinces the governor to appoint a black man as town sheriff, reasoning that that will be the final straw. In the scene below, the residents prepare a welcome ceremony for the arriving sheriff (NOTE: one obscured very bad word):

I thought of this scene a lot last week after the announcement came out from the BBC that the role of the Thirteenth* Doctor on the iconic British television show, Doctor Who would be played by...gasp!...Jodie Whittaker, a...gasp...a w-BONG!

I don't travel in the squicky corners of the internet where Breitbarters like Milo Yiannopoulos live, so I don't exactly know what the reaction has been from that end of things--no doubt, it's not all that different from the initial reactions of the residents of Rock Ridge to the black sheriff in Blazing Saddles. The fact is, there are always going to be misogynists out there who oppose it on principle, and there are going to be misogynists out there who cover up their misogyny with, "Yeah, but canon!" Here's the thing: we're not dealing with Batman, or Superman, or Tolkien. Canon is mutable, especially for a show like Doctor Who, which has been making it all up as it goes along. The fact that the Doctor can regenerate at all was due to the necessity of replacing the First Doctor, when the actor's health wouldn't allow him to continue in the role! And speaking of mutable canon, I seem to recall that it was established that Time Lords only had twelve regenerations, and here we are on the Thirteenth* Doctor. The showrunners invent and bend and dodge to serve both dramatic purpose and to keep the money flowing.

The identity of the Doctor in terms of race, religion or gender doesn't much matter to me. What's important--to me--is that the show tell good stories with quality actors portraying all the roles. But I also recognize that as a white man, I've had the luxury of never really having to worry about it, and that I've never been under-represented. And when I see reactions like the one from the little girl in the embedded tweet in this this article, I realize how important it is to other people. (sorry, I'm not on Twitter, so I don't know how to embed that stuff; Youtube is my limit). To the  good folks at Doctor Who, I say "Huzzah! The Doctor is a woman!" Maybe I'll even start watching again.

What about you? Do you watch Doctor Who? What do you think of the new casting choice?

*As far as I can tell, John Hurt's "War Doctor" from the 50th Anniversary special should count as one, and then I'm pretty sure either David Tennant's 10th Doctor or Matt Smith's 11th Doctor kinda, sorta regenerated as himself (maybe they both did it), so we might actually be on more like Doctor 14 or 15 now.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Put a Bow on it

Yesterday (Sunday, the 16th), at pretty much high noon, I pushed back from the computer, the final chords of the Grateful Dead's spirited-but-sloppy "Scarlet Begonias" first set closer from July 16, 1976 still ringing in my ears, and said, "Finished." The latest WiP had been completed.

Not finished finished, mind you. In early evening I sat with my cup of coffee and made some tweaks to the final scene in the manuscript, then searched back a ways to make a couple of changes to an earlier scene that had to reflect that ending. Part of me wanted to wait until Revision, Phase One to make those changes, but it was on my mind there and then, so I did it. Officially, I guess, I didn't actually put a bow on it until just about 8:30 last night.

This one is currently a monster, 471 bloated pages, almost 138,000 words--yeah, I guess Stephen King really is an influence--but I tend to write long and do a lot of cutting during the revision. I believe the RiP was just shy of 400 pages and in the neighborhood of 116,000 words when I called it a first draft. That manuscript went on a crash diet and went out on submission last year a svelte 98,000 words. This story may well be bigger, but I should be able to get it down much closer to the 100,000 mark. For now, it's time to let it stew, and then I'll read it in a few weeks and discover just how bad it is. In the meantime, there's a RiP that has been too-long neglected sitting on my hard drive...

What about you? Do you draft big, or draft small?

EDIT: Just saw that Agent Carrie has the doors open for another Query Critique! If you've got a query you need help with, send her an e-mail and maybe you'll get a critique. See here for full rules.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Thoughts on the MOOC (Part II)

Well, look at that, me delivering on a promised post! I even went to the extraordinary step of pre-writing a good portion of this post; still, it's just past six a.m. on a Monday and my coffee's not quite ready yet, so there's no guarantee of actual coherence here.

When I wrote about this previously, I gave some idea of how the course works. I'll try not to repeat myself as I give my overall impressions now that the course is over.

It was pretty intense. The course began officially on May 15, with the first assignments posted about two days later. The final assignment was posted on June 22, with all course materials due on July 3 (July 4, for those of us in the eastern time zone). Because I started late, I was playing catch up from the get go, and put in a lot of work. I eventually did catch up, though I admit I also fizzled toward the end--I submitted my final assignment about two hours before the deadline.

I enjoyed the course quite a bit, despite what's going to come in the critique section, which might make it look like I hated the course! Positives included a lot of reading, widely. Each week our required reading assignments typically included one or two pieces of fiction and one or two piece of nonfiction (there were usually three readings per week). The readings were high-quality works of fiction or journalism, no wild esoterica that leaves you scratching your head and saying, "WTF???" There was also a long list of optional reads, though I confess I did not quite have time for getting into all of those (I wish I had). Each week, guest authors provided a video mini-lecture (typically 20 minutes long, give or take). Guest lecturers came from all over the world and included scifi authors, journalists, memoirists. It was a nice balance. The instructors themselves provided interesting topics for discussion related to the weekly topics. Finally, there was the opportunity to meet and read authors at all levels of the writing journey from all across the world.

Holy non sequitur, Batman! One of the other things I really liked about this? In the video mini-lectures, when the authors wanted to illustrate a point about technique or weaving in social issues, they referenced...books! Not movies. Not TV shows. Actual books. This may seem like a small thing, but think about the number of times you read a blog post and the author says, "For a really great example of characterization, watch Forrest Gump" (or something like that). It was refreshing.

Back to the course. There were problems. Some of these, maybe most of them, stemmed from the technology the course was built on. It was hitchy. Jumpy. On several occasions, I started to type in a comment and found that the first five letters on line one disappeared. Or I'd actually hit the post button, and my response would be missing the last half a line. If I clicked 'edit,' Instead of having my entire post there, waiting for me to re-type the first five letters or last five words, I'd have...nothing. I resorted to typing comments out in a word document and pasting them in. I also tried switching to Chrome, and it seemed a little better, but I don't like Chrome and I don't want to have to switch to Chrome. Firefox is still used by a huge number of people, and if you say this program works well on Firefox, you better make sure it does.

The other problem, and this was a big one, as far as I'm concerned, is that there was little actual discussion that I could see. Each week, the instructors posted thoughts for discussion, and asked for our thoughts/comments/experiences. But the interface itself did not really promote discussion; it promoted individual commenting. For one thing, you could not see all the responses to the main discussion, you could only see the last five. You'd have to click 'show previous comments' to get more. Also, on the few occasions where someone replied directly to a comment on the main discussion thread, you had to click a tiny little icon at the bottom to see the reply. Instead of a discussion where people responded to each other and freely shared ideas back and forth, what you had was more of a 'stop and drop' situation, with people stopping in, dropping a comment, and moving on. This is partly a product of the fact that there were hundreds, if not thousands, of participants, along with the fact that you got credit for posting and commenting. I think sometimes people were just aiming to do the bare minimum to get credit.

Along these same lines, course participants were able to set up their own discussion groups. I mentioned joining one or two of these. But again, there seemed to be very little actual discussion. Instead, when people posted assignments, they'd share them to the discussion groups and ask for feedback. (True confession: I didn't actually start any discussions myself within these groups, so I guess I can't complain)

Would I do it again? Yes, yes I would. Despite my complaints, I was exposed to a lot of different writers of all backgrounds, as well as a lot of different ideas, and some lessons on craft. I was able to revisit old works and new (the opening to PARALLEL LIVES got a workout here, as did both the WiP and the RiP), and anytime you are forced to think about your writing is a good thing, I think. I also met a few people who could become good crit partners/sounding boards/beta readers, and have already critiqued a piece for one of them.

This post has already gotten kind of long, so I will say farewell for now, leaving you with this piece of music from Pete Yorn. Though I have not heard it for years, it worked its way into my thoughts yesterday when I was sketching out this post. Enjoy, and see you next time. Please share your thoughts below!

Monday, July 3, 2017

The Reading List, 2017 (Part II)

Happy Independence Day (early) for my American readers! Happy Canada Day (late) for my Canadian readers! And happy [insert appropriate holiday here] for my [insert appropriate nationality, ethnicity, religion, etc. here] readers! Whew, I think I covered it.

Last week, I wrote about the MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) I'm in, and the promise to finish that job is still there, but since the course is still technically open until tomorrow, I'll hold off until next week. And since we just closed the second quarter of 2017 on Friday (seriously, how is it July already???), it's time to share my reading material for the quarter, in case you find it of any interest. Here we go, in order that I read them. Some with editorializing, some without:

Feed (2002), M.T. Anderson. A future with wifi built right into our heads. Good concept, good book overall, undermined (for me) by the really annoying "teenage voice" of the protagonist/narrator.

Wizard and Glass (Dark Tower, book IV) (1997), Stephen King, re-read. This was always my favorite of the Dark Tower series, and a treat to read again.

Wolves of the Calla (Dark Tower, book V) (2003), Stephen King. Re-read, but it's been a long time.

The Song of Susannah (Dark Tower, book VI) (2004), Stephen King. Re-read. This is where King may have lost a lot of readers, as King introduced a new character into the series: Stephen King.

Fates and Furies (2015), Lauren Groff. Irony: I started reading this one right after my semi-coherent thoughts about time. This book made me question the whole premise of that post.

The Lifeboat (2012), Charlotte Rogan.

The Sleepwalker (2017), Chris Bohjalion. Both this and Lifeboat were interesting while being read, but quickly forgotten. And I'm a Bohjalion fan.

White Fang (1906, though the one I read was published in 1971 or so), Jack London. I think I'll be skipping Call of the Wild.

The Dark Tower (Dark Tower, book VII) (2004), Stephen King. Re-read, but it's been a long time (and I think I had only read it once, unlike some of the other entries in the series). Authorial insertion aside, this is a good read and a satisfying conclusion to the series. Does it make any sense at all? That would take many multiple posts.

That's the list. Three months, nine books completed, which is more than I thought, as it seemed like I went through long periods of not reading during that time. I suspect the fact that four of the books were re-reads (though only Wizard and Glass is a book I've read more than once) sped my reading up a bit. I'm also happy to say I'm still making progress on the WiP and even a bit on the RiP.

So--what have you been reading? Anything good?