Friday, July 29, 2011

Oh, the Horror!

By all rights, I should be a horror writer.
When I was a kid, I read everything. I don’t remember any titles in particular that stood out for me, but I read just about everything I could get my hands on. I even read some of the Ramona the Pest books, even though they were supposed to be for girls! (Or so we thought. I’ll add that I read a few of the Henry Huggins books, and didn’t like them as much as the Ramona books; on the other hand, I loved the Hardy Boys, but wouldn’t touch Nancy Drew) As I got older, I was drawn to horror. It’s not unusual for kids of a certain age; I’ve seen my own kids go through this, too. I was fascinated with monster and horror movies, and wanted to watch them, even though they sometimes gave me nightmares (just seeing commercials for The Exorcist on TV scared the hell out of me). And, around the same time, I was introduced to Stephen King.
My parents weren’t overly fussy about what I read, and did not object when I read Salem’s Lot at age eleven. King became my favorite author, and he still holds that distinction. I devoured his new books, re-read his old ones, and was inevitably disappointed by the movie treatments they received.
My first forays into ‘serious’ writing were horror. Not a surprise, I guess, considering the direction of my movie and reading interests.
So, I should be a horror writer. Yet, I’m not.
Two weeks ago, at my writer’s group, I took a prompt and wrote the beginning of a short story about a woman who comes home and finds her husband has been replaced by an exact duplicate. When I ran out of writing time she was fumbling with the lock on her front door, trying to get out. It’s good, if I do say so myself. The tension builds nicely, and it’s got a real nice ‘creep factor.’ I like it, and would like to finish it.
One of the members of the group noted that I write a lot of horror-type things, and it’s true. I would say most of what I’ve written in my Writer’s Group is either outright horror or suspense, but they’re all shorts. Furthermore, of the short stories I’ve written over the last year or so, almost all of them are horror/paranormal/suspense. As for novels, I have four in various stages of drafting. Not one of them is horror, not even close (horrible, maybe, but not horror).
I have a theory, of sorts, on why I haven’t written any lengthy horror. But first a brief digression, if you don’t mind.
When I was under thirty and still fairly athletic (i.e., many years ago), I cracked three ribs while playing hockey. “Not much we can do about it,” ER doc said. “Take Tylenol for pain, and breathe as deeply as you can. It’ll take about six weeks to heal.”
Everything was painful: sitting, standing, walking, going to the bathroom, breathing. My biggest fear, however, was the prospect of coughing or sneezing. There is no way to cough or sneeze gently, and trying to suppress one often makes you feel like your chest is going to explode.
I needn’t have worried. During the time of greatest pain, and, indeed, for several weeks, my body did none of those things. Not a sneeze, not a cough, not a single hiccup. Not until I was probably four or five weeks into the recovery process, when the pain was a thing of the past, did any one of these common body functions occur. It was as if some internal Scotty crawled through the brain and activated the Sneeze Override Protocols. Good work, Scotty.

To write good novel of any genre, you need to maintain tension. That’s Basic Writing 101 right there. Yet it seems to me that horror requires an extra level. You still have to create good, well-rounded characters. You still have to describe your scenes and put your details in the right places. And now you have to add in a monster, or a demon, or a ghost, some terrifying something that menaces the people of your world. It has to be believable enough for people continue reading, and it has to spread that tension out in just the right amounts throughout the story.
I’m still new to this writing game. I’m still learning. I don’t think I have the chops at this point to maintain the kind of tension needed for a full-length horror novel. I can do it over a couple of thousand words, but not over the 75-100K required for a novel, there’s just too much needed. On some level, my brain knows that I’m just not up to that, yet. Mr. Scott has pulled the wires from the Novel-Length Horror Control Panel so the monsters can only come out to play in the short works. Or maybe I just haven’t dug up the right monster yet. Time will tell. Have a pleasant weekend, all.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Monday Musing

First off, thanks to the folks who read and commented on The Gambler, Part II. It’s nice to see how others deal with these issues, and interesting to see how many different ways there are to skin a cat. Jennifer at Writing Cocoon wrote her own post on the subject. I apologize; apparently I’ve driven her to drink! It’s a subject that I may well come back to and explore again in the future: fish, or cut bait; hold ‘em, or fold ‘em; I suspect it’s a subject you can go around and around and around on, and my own views may change as I gain more experience.
This morning I checked in on my blog list and found a great post from R.S. Mallette over at From The Write Angle, a post that speaks very much to me after the weekend I came through. In essence, Mr. Mallette reminds us to cut to the core of the issue:Objective, Obstacle, and Tactics. You may say “This is news, Jeff? This is Basic Writing 101: Conflict.” You’re right, but it’s sometimes good to be reminded of this every once in a while. It was particularly good for me to read because I found myself again adrift in my book this weekend. I like the writing, but I’m not certain at all that I have a good story. It feels like I’ve got some entertaining vignettes populated by a series of recurring characters. I found myself asking What do they want? Why are they here? a couple of times while working on the book this weekend. This is a potentially serious problem, because it doesn’t feel like standard Doubting Writer Insecurity; this feels like it could be a fatal flaw in the novel.
Now it’s possible that I’m a little punchy. This was a tough weekend for writing. After finishing Friday’s blog post, I had a hard time putting dedicated time in on the book this weekend. We had a welcome, but distracting, house-guest for an overnight visit; a heat wave (I’ve always preferred cold to hot; you can always bundle up and get warmer, it’s hard to get cooler); an increasingly-neurotic dog who sensed thunderstorms through the wee hours of Saturday morning and, as a result, practically sat on my head and panted hot, wet doggy breath on the back of my neck; and we went to see Harry Potter VII.2 yesterday afternoon – I heartily recommend it to fans of the books, they did a nice job.
Anyway, it was hard for me to get in a groove. I did get some good edits in, but I think I may need to go back and start from where ever it was I left off on Thursday to get a real sense of how good – or bad – this middle-third of the novel is. I’m hoping it’s just a case of distractions pestering me, and not the symptoms of something truly amiss.
Have a good week, see you on Friday.

Friday, July 22, 2011

The Gambler (Part II: Gone Fishing)

I need a new metaphor.
Last week I compared the act of writing to playing poker. “Stick it out,” I said. “You’re book will never get written if you fold your hand every time the going gets rough.” I believe that, too.
The problem is, writing really isn’t like gambling (unless you’ve quit your day job to do it, that is).
No, a more apt metaphor is fishing. You take your boat out on the lake, bait your hook and drop a line in the water. Maybe you jiggle the line a bit here and there, but you spend a lot of time waiting for something to come along and bite. Sometimes the fish gets away, sometimes it’s too small and you have to toss it back. Sometimes you land a keeper. Dinner!
The thing is every fisherman has one of those days where the fish just don’t bite. You spend hours out there with your line in the water, waiting. Waiting. Waiting. At some point you have to decide: stay here, or move to another spot?
The resistance to movement is strong: why would any other place be better? You’ve spent all this time here, you've been successful here in the past, you know the fish will bite if you give it just a little more time. And then there’s the fact that the act of moving – pulling in the lines, stowing the gear, firing up the boat – takes time; time that’s spent not fishing.
Developing a story takes time and energy. You’ve invested time and energy thinking about your characters and their world, constructing a plot, and crafting dialogue that is true to your characters. You’ve lived with these people in your head. You’ve laughed with them and cried with them, and now you’re telling them, “Sorry, I’m going away for a while. Maybe I’ll see you again sometime.” It requires a mental change of gears to get into another new world and populate it with new people with new problems. It requires stowing one set of gear, moving the boat, and dragging the gear out again. Time and energy.
But again, there’s a time when it’s the right thing to do. The reason this post is so difficult for me to write is because I really can’t tell you when that is. It seems to be something you ‘just know,’ a matter of feel. So here’s where I cop out. I’m going to turn it over to you, the dedicated few who follow and read this blog: How do you know when you’ve really reached the end of all you can do with a particular story? How do you know when it’s time to move the boat? Feel free to comment or write your own post on your own blog. Thanks, and have a good weekend!

Monday, July 18, 2011

Musical Monday

I don't have much to say today, it was a quiet weekend from a writing perspective, though I started an interesting (in my view) literary piece involving a mosquito's search for blood (it was a strange mood, for sure).

So, I'll use this snippet from the DVD The Closing of Winterland, the Grateful Dead performing Terrapin, Part I: Lady with a Fan. I'm sluggish this morning; hopefully, to borrow a lyric from the song, inspiration will move me brightly.

The Grateful Dead is not to everyone's taste, especially not ten-minute songs, so I'll forgive you if you run and hide. Back on Friday, have a good week, all.

Friday, July 15, 2011

The Gambler (Part I)

“Now, ev’ry gambler knows that the secret to survivin’
Is knowing what to throw away and knowing what to keep.” – “The Gambler,” Don Schlitz

I recall a period in the late 70’s and early ‘80’s when country music was king. Considering I grew up in a suburban enclave a mere thirty miles from New York City, this was kind of strange. Ads featuring the likes of Crystal Gayle sprouted up all over the television, touting New York City’s only country music station: 1050, WHN. The Dukes of Hazzard enjoyed an inexplicable run as a to-10 show, Kris Kristofferson and Dolly Parton were movie stars, Willie Nelson shared a billing at Giants’ Stadium with the Grateful Dead. On the rock and roll stations I favored playlists were crammed with southern rockers like Lynyrd Skynyrd, Charlie Daniels, Marshall Tucker, Molly Hatchet, and the Allman Brothers.

One of the biggest stars of the country music surge was Kenny Rogers. Rogers had a string of hits on both the country and pop charts in the 70’s, songs like “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town” and “Lucille”, but his most famous hit was “The Gambler.”

In the song, written by Don Schlitz, the narrator tells of the important lessons he receives from an old card player on a train. In addition to the line at the top of this post, it’s got that classic, catchy chorus:

“You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em,
Know when to walk away and know when to run.”

And now I finally get around to my point.

I see about a bajillion posts on Absolute Write that go along these lines:

“I’ve written [insert random number] of words on my [genre] novel, and now I’m [stuck/bored/completely captivated by a shiny new idea that I really want to write instead]. This happens all the time, and I never finish anything. What should I do?”

There are as many different answers for this problem as there are respondents, and they range along a continuum which starts at one end with “Get your ass in that chair and finish the damned thing,” and ends at “Delete everything and never write another word” at the other. Okay, most people don’t actually come out and say that last, but some folks sure do imply it, don’t they?

I’m much closer in sentiment to the ‘finish the damned thing’ camp. And because I can’t help but talk about me (it’s my blog, after all), I’ll relate a little of what I went through  while writing Parallel Lives. I started on December 6th. I worked at a furious pace through December and January. At the end of January I had a full story with a beginning, middle, and end (but not ‘The’ end) totaling 183 pages, 44,000 words. It was a glorious process, exhilarating and fun.

And then February hit.

An old classmate of mine called February “The Armpit of Months.” I think that’s pretty accurate in the northeast portion of the United States. It was in February where I got bogged down, saw the flaws in my book, and started to struggle. I couldn’t get things quite right, and there were many moments where I shoved back from my desk, groaned aloud, put my fists to my head, and stomped around the room in frustration. I started new documents constantly, copying parts of the story and starting them over, and heard the siren’s song: “Work on me!” cooed he short story I’d started in Writer’s Circle. “Come back to me,” sang the NaNoWriMo. It was tempting, so tempting. But I didn’t give in, I stayed the course, lashed myself to the mast and steered the ship away from those rocky shores. Why?

A book that doesn’t get written doesn’t get published, and a book that doesn’t get published doesn’t get read.

And this is what it comes down to: I want you to read my book. I want lots of people to read my book. Sure, I could just post the whole thing here, or e-mail it to you, and you’d probably start to read it. You might finish it, too, but I want more. I want you to buy my book. I want it repped by an agent and edited by a pro. I want to see it on bookstore shelves, I want to click on it at Amazon. I want you to love it or hate it, it really doesn’t matter (well, I’d rather you love it, of course), I just want you to read it. Got it? And if I gave up every time things got tough, you’ll never get to read my book. I’ll always be moving on to something better or easier, and I’ll never finish everything. A gambler who folds on every hand comes away with nothing except lost antes on every deal.

And so my general advice is to stick it out, because, as the Gambler also says, “ev’ry hand’s a winner and ev’ry hand’s a loser”.

Of course, the Gambler also knows that, sometimes, you do have to fold ‘em. You have toss your cards on the table, and wait for another deal. When is that time? That will be the subject for another day. Have a pleasant weekend, all.

[Note: Not sure what's up with that font size in the last paragraph, but I can't seem to get it right....]

Monday, July 11, 2011

Another Weekend Done

This was one of those weekends that was largely unsatisfying from a writing perspective.

For one thing, I never quite recovered from my mid-week jaunt downstate for a funeral. I was only gone for a day and a half, but it felt much longer than that. I didn't get back until Thursday evening, and never really got my rhythm back. I started working on the bits of Parallel Lives that I want to develop, but couldn't quite get my teeth into it just yet. Part of it was the disruption of my rhythm, but part of it was that I had something competing for my writing attention at the same time.

Back in the spring I took a prompt at my Writer's Group and ran with it, creating a beautiful piece that I thought was perfect for Parallel Lives. I took it home, finished it up, and dropped it proudly in the middle of the manuscript. The problem? It doesn't fit, and I think I knew it even as I shoe-horned it in. I ignored that nagging feeling and left it alone, moved on, finished the book, blah de blah.

When I read through the book I knew I was right, this piece really didn't belong there. The voice of the piece was all wrong, and, while there was some thematic connection, it just wasn't quite right, and I didn't think I could really make it right. Out it came. I have to say, 'Kill your darlings' isn't as hard as I thought.

But the piece has been nagging at me, especially over the last two weeks. I wanted to do something with it, and, when the folks over at Time Frame announced their official launch party, I thought, "Perfect! I'll submit it to them and read it at the Open Mic Night that's part of the launch!" What a great idea!

Unfortunately, it's one of those things that I can't get quite right. The deadline for submissions for Time Frame passed by yesterday, and this piece still sits, unfinished, competing with Parallel Lives for attention.

Have you ever had something that you've felt so compelled to write and get right? That's the way this thing is for me right now. So, back to banging my head against the keyboard.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Reaching 'The End'

When you cook, it’s usually easy to know when something’s done. Recipes and cookbooks and cake mix boxes are full of phrases like “Bake until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, 35-45 minutes”; “Cook until tender and golden brown, about 1-1/4 hours”; or “Cook until a meat thermometer reads 160.” How simple is that? And with experience, you learn that you really can chuck away the meat thermometer and just cook something for 20 minutes/pound, or turn off the heat on the vegetables when you start to smell them.

Novel writing isn’t so easy. As I worked on Parallel Lives (and that is a title that I am leaning towards more every day) I struggled with finishing. I started writing in early December: The sixth is the day that a document related to this project first appeared on my computer. It took nearly two months before I finally hit the end of the story. At that point I had a 180 page, 43K novella. It felt good to have an ending, yet I knew it wasn’t done. It just didn’t feel right. The toothpick came out gummy, so I finished the last sentence, said “Not bad,” and put it back in the oven, the words “THE END” conspicuously absent.

Over the next two months I tinkered and toyed, backfilled the story, and struggled with the ending. The one I’d written in January just didn’t quite ring true for me. I liked it in that I thought it was written well, but it just didn’t quite work. It seemed too precipitous, and I found issues with character motivation earlier in the story that bothered me. And there were times in February when I despaired. I had seven different documents with titles like “Ending (new)”, “Ending (newer)”, and “Ending recast” as I banged my head against the wall in an effort to really and truly reach the end. The efforts paid off in early April: I had the ending I wanted, solved the motivation issues and now had 300 + pages, 95,000 words of first draft finished.

But I still couldn’t quite write those two little words. Not yet.

I think there were two reasons why I couldn’t manage to write them. First, I knew the work was not done. I would have to read the book, and then I was sure to find all the flaws, all the problems, all the hatefully bad things in it, and then I would have to fix them. With all that work looming, it seemed somehow a conceit to boldly declare ‘The End.’ But really, if everyone thought that way, very few writers would ever decide they were finished, as there’s almost always room for improvement.

No, I think my fear of ‘The End’ is more of a superstitious thing, on par with hockey players who avoid the word ‘shutout’ when their goalie has a goose egg on the board late in the third period. I thought the book was pretty good; I thought I was finished with the story, had all the major events in place, had a satisfying ending, but I thought, by putting those words down, I’d somehow jinx myself and end up looking it over and saying “It’s not Scottish!” and it would be back to the drawing board.

The read through, as I’ve documented here, showed that it was not ‘not Scottish’. I actually think it’s pretty good. I also know I’m not really done. Despite the revision and the editing, there are still things I need to do. There are a couple of subplots still need fleshing out (or cutting – but I think fleshing out), a few themes that need more development, and still more punctuation, grammar and spelling errors to catch. Yet, when I reached the last page, I felt confident I could indeed put ‘The End’ down. How did I know? I can’t really answer that; I just knew. It's really not much of an answer, but I'm not sure there is one. No timer goes off, there is no toothpick to insert, or thermometer to read. There just comes a point where that’s it: You just know.

How about you? When or how do you know that you’re done? What tells you you can put ‘The End’ on your work?

NOTE: For a great 'this is when it's done' moment, follow the link below to an episode of Malcolm in the Middle. The entire episode is great, but fast forward to the 18:18 mark. Unfortunately, I could not embed it here.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Sweet Words

Off schedule again.

The long weekend completely screwed me up. It wasn't until Tuesday morning rolled around that I realized I missed my Monday post. Between the holiday and being in deep with my novel revision and another, shorter piece, that had been consuming my brain, I couldn't toss anything together. Until now, the big news (not Big News, just big news, for me).

Yesterday afternoon, I typed the following two words in my manuscript: THE END.

Boy, did that feel good.

I know I'm not done, not by a long shot, but it finally felt right to put them there.

More on this on Friday. Keep your words flowing!

Friday, July 1, 2011

The Magic Bullet

The Magic Bullet. It’s a trope common to fantasy and horror, the projectile that stops a monster dead in its tracks. It breaks the unbreakable spells, kills the unkillable monsters. The best known Magic Bullet is an actual bullet, made of silver; useful for stopping werewolves, but the Magic Bullet can be anything. Vampires get a stake through the heart. H.G. Wells’ Martians were brought down by the simple bacteria that we can (mostly) co-exist with (though wouldn’t it have been interesting to see a sequel in which humanity has to deal with whatever bugs came over with those Martians?). Spells are broken by love’s first kiss. If I wanted to, I’m sure I could venture over to TV Tropes and find dozens of other variations on the Magic Bullet, but I want to get some writing done today.

Writers want to have a Magic Bullet. Read through the threads on Absolute Write and you can find tons of posts seeking the Magic Bullet. The most obvious ones are along the lines of “How do I break through this Writer’s Block?” but even seemingly-innocuous threads bearing titles like ‘Where does your inspiration come from?’ and ‘How do you stay motivated?’ can be thinly veiled – and, possibly, subconscious – searches for Magic Bullets.

The idea of a Magic Bullet is kind of nice. It’s something we can call upon when we’re stuck in a particularly tight plot point, where we’ve got our characters in a bind and we can’t quite figure out how to get them out of it. We need one when we ask ourselves the critical question “What happens next?” and find we haven’t got a clue, or when we’re so close to the ending but come to the realization that it won’t work, and we can’t seem to find a way to make it work. And so we take to the forums and blogs and books, and look for the Magic Bullet, the Secret Formula, the Ancient Incantation that will kill the beast, break the spell, or unblock the mind and make it all seem clear. It must be out there; but where?

I hate to break it to you, but I have to: It doesn’t exist. I think the five followers who read this blog regularly already know this, and most of you who followed the link from my AW sig to here also know this, but I’ll say it again: There is no Magic Bullet. There is no Secret Formula. There is no mysterious stranger who will meet you in a dark parking lot and whisper what you need to hear to get you going. When you’re stuck, there is no Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch to ‘lobbest towards thy foe, who being naughty in My sight, shall snuff it.’ Sad to say, but true.

But that’s not to say we should despair; far from it. We have a weapon of our own, a weapon that does not require a gun or a slingshot like a Silver Bullet, isn’t as messy as a stake in the heart, or as noisy as the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch, and it’s with us all the time.

It’s called ‘The Brain.’

I’ve spent a lot of my writing time this week being frustrated. There were a number of distractions in the early part of the week that stopped me from really getting going, that stopped me from building momentum, and it showed. Wednesday and Thursday I was stuck again, flipping back and forth through the printed version of my WiP, going over my notes, and scrolling up and down the on-screen version. I struggled with the question ‘What comes next?’ because the revisions I’ve made require some changes going forward, and I just couldn’t quite grasp what those changes should be (this is compounded by the fact I’ve reordered some things in the new version and what was page 250 in my printed version has now moved to page 138. Organizational issues). I needed a Magic Bullet.

I took a shower instead, and found my Magic Bullet.

No, wait, I just said there is no such thing, but I found the solution for my problems while showering. How?

I thought about my story.

I stood in the shower and thought. I thought about the scenes I had just finished, and was happy with. I thought about where it would go from there, thought about the dialogue and actions, what needed to happen, and what I wanted to happen, and the problems started to wash away, just like the soap and shampoo. When I got out of the shower, I dried myself off just enough to not ruin my notebook, sat on the edge of the tub, and wrote a page and a half. VoilĂ ! Problem solved!

The Magic Bullet is much more fun, and it maintains the air of ‘The Mysterious Author.’ There’s definitely a Cool Factor to saying “It just came to me,” or “It was like I saw giant, Fourth of July fireworks exploding in the sky, and I knew what came next!” That’s much more fun than “I spent hours thinking about it, writing and rewriting, and I finally worked it all out,” isn’t it? But the reality is, if you stop writing, and stop thinking, you’re almost certainly more likely to lose your story than find a Magic Bullet. 

My advice doesn’t come with credibility in the form of dozens of bestseller novels that you’ve read and loved, but really, doesn’t it make sense? When you’re stuck, just think. Think about what came before, and what might come next. Think about that scene that’s giving you so much trouble, play it in your head, jot down words and possibilities. At some point your brain – your brain, your mind – will find the right combination, and the world will make sense again. That’s the trick right there. The only Magic Bullet we have is The Brain, and that’s the most powerful weapon there is.