Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

Soap gets in your eyes

November 17th, 2013 2 comments

Many years ago, when I was a full-time software developer, I was also an avid bicyclist. My programming partner and I would work until mid-afternoon, take a break, go for a 15-mile bike ride, go back to the office and work until the early evening. It was a way of getting some exercise, but also a way of freeing up my mind to tackle programming problems. Cycling required very little of my attention, so my mind was free to wander. To look at problems in different ways and to come up with (sometimes) elegant ways to code algorithms.

According to the legend, when Stephen King was a university student he approached the editor at the Maine Campus to say he’d like to write a column for the paper. The editor said fine, but it has to be in by noon on Wednesday and it has to fit in this amount of space. The first week, 11:30 came and went, 11:35, 11:40. Steve wandered in at 11:45, grabbed a sheet of paper, stuck it in the typewriter (see Wikipedia if you don’t know what that is!) and reeled off a near-flawless article that fit the allotted space. This process was repeated week after week.

In a recently uncovered interview from 1982, the newspaper editor expands on this story. He didn’t believe that King composed the article on the spot. King, he said, wrote the article in his head during the week, refining and improving upon it until it was ready to be set down on paper. This jibes with the stories King has told about how he tells himself stories as he goes to sleep, recounting a little more each night until he reaches a point where he’s ready to start writing it down.

I do some of my best writing in the shower or on the elliptical trainer, far from a keyboard or notepad. This part of the process isn’t about putting words together to create sentences—that comes later. It’s about solving story problems and advancing the plot. The morning I wrote this essay, for example, I was stumped by my work in progress. I dawdled and procrastinated until the end of my writing session without accomplishing anything. Then I got on the elliptical trainer in the room next door, put on my iPod and proceeded to ignore the music. I thought I had written myself into a corner but over the course of the next 30 minutes, I was able to test out, reject and expand upon various ideas.

It was a non-linear process. I didn’t think “and then this happens, and then this,” I visualized the scene and the characters and listened to what they wanted to say. Sometimes I went back in time to figure out how they got to that point. By the end of the session, I had it all mapped out, more or less. I went back to my office and jotted down about 100 words to record the impressions I wanted to invoke the following morning when I returned to my computer. So, in one sense my day’s work amounted to 100 disjointed words. However, I’m quite happy with the results because I now know the story and tomorrow I should be able to set it down.

Then I got in the shower and thought about the process and came up with the idea for this essay. It would be fair to say that this essay was written in the shower (even though the words were entered into WordPress many hours later). I hope I didn’t get any soap in your eyes.

Categories: advice, ideas, inspiration, story, Writers, Writing Tags:

Maybe I Could’ve Been a Rock Star

October 17th, 2013 2 comments

I’ve read a few “biographies” of rock bands over the years. One thing that has struck me is how unskilled many of the musicians were when they started out. How much they learned about playing their instruments, writing songs and performing on stage as they went along. In Stranger Than Fiction, Mike Chunn discusses how Split Enz kept the volume on Neil Finn’s monitor turned down (maybe even off) during their first tour after he joined the band. (If you’re not familiar with Split Enz, some of the band members reformed as Crowded House, whose song “Don’t Dream It’s Over” was part of The Stand’s soundtrack.)

Touring with a rock group is like a trial by fire. You improve (to the extent that your talents allow) or you die. Neil Finn eventually became a very good musician and songwriter indeed. His group Crowded House has never managed to top the US charts, but they’ve done very well in many other countries.

Life is full of “moments” when decisions get made, sometimes tacitly. I look back on one such moment and wonder what might have happened if I’d made a different choice.

I learned to play the piano when I was young. I took lessons for five years, starting when I was five or six, then gave it up until I was sixteen, when I wanted to be able to play the songs I was listening to on the radio and on records. I took a 9-month refresher course. I was never very good, but enthusiastic. When I went to university, my access to a piano was limited to a clunker in the dorm’s band room and another in the cafeteria at the women’s dorm. I availed myself of both on occasion, but I eventually decided to buy a keyboard for my room.

I went to a local music store and tinkered around on the various display instruments. I eventually zeroed in on one, a Roland that had a few effects and, important to someone like me with limited talent, a sustain pedal, which most of the others didn’t have. As I dabbled, I started playing one of my favorite songs, “Fool’s Overture” by Supertramp. The opening instrumental is fairly complicated, with hand-spanning, four-note chords, and was one of the few pieces that I could play from memory. It sounded pretty good on the Roland, if I do say so myself.

A guy around my age approached me. He had a band and they were looking for a keyboard player. He wanted to know if I was interested in joining them. Just like that! I was then—and still am to this day—very realistic about my musical skills, so I turned him down without a second thought. My little demonstration had plumbed the depths of my talent and I didn’t think I had what it took to be in a band. Given his encouraging offer, though, I might have gone back to the privacy of my room and tried honing my musical talents (such as they are) in private and then presented myself to a band as a full-fledged musician, albeit one who had never developed the necessary skill of being part of something.

Instead, I decided in advance that I couldn’t do it. Maybe I was right. My piano playing is much like my cooking: I don’t have any improvisational skills. I need sheet music or a recipe. But maybe if I had seized the opportunity I would have discovered—or learned—the necessary musical skills. Maybe our group would have taken off and I might have lived the life of a rock star. (Who am I kidding? Coming from eastern Canada, the chances of national, let alone international, fame was remote at best. But I’m sure the lads from Te Awamutu, New Zealand felt the same way.) But it was an unexplored opportunity and my life might have been different if I’d taken it. If nothing else, it might simply have been fun.

During the same period, I was also writing short stories, which I shared only with some of my neighbors. I wrote them longhand, often during a single sitting. I never considered submitting any of them for publication back then, though I rewrote and published two or three of those early works a quarter of a century later. So, who knows what response I might have gotten if I’d typed some of them up and sent them out? I was ignorant of proper MS formatting back then, so I might have had a few mechanical handicaps to overcome at first, but I might have gotten some encouragement and had a twenty-year head start on getting published. After about 1985, I mostly gave up writing short stories and didn’t start again until the end of the millennium.

Back in the 1980s, I thought that I didn’t have enough life experience to be a writer. Maybe I was right. Or maybe I would have—like Neil Finn did—learned by doing. Made mistakes, got rejected, picked myself up and plowed ahead. That’s the way it’s done in art. Few people hit it out of the ballpark the first time. Some of the most famous painters started out as apprentices to other artists.

We learn by doing. We try, fail, learn and try again. If we persist—and if we have cultivatable talent—maybe one day we succeed.


Categories: advice, short fiction, Writers, Writing Tags:

Reading out loud

September 17th, 2013 Comments off

In a 1962 letter to Robert Wallsten, John Steinbeck advised, “If you are using dialogue—say it aloud as you write it. Only then will it have the sound of speech.”

I don’t entirely subscribe to this philosophy. Dialog in fiction doesn’t resemble real speech. People stop and start, hem and haw, talk in circles. Fictional dialog, unless the author is making a point, is devoid of most of these quirks. To demonstrate how ditzy Rita is in the Dexter novels, author Jeff Lindsay usually has her start a sentence several times without ever reaching the conclusion. People don’t really talk the way they do in Elmore Leonard’s novels, even though he’s a master of dialog. Well, they do on Justified, but mostly people only wish they could talk that way.

Still there is a value in reading aloud. Not just your own work, either.

For the past several years, I’ve gotten into the habit of reading to my wife. She enjoys hearing the sound of my voice, she says, and I’m happy to comply. We have a number of go-to authors who write straightforward and charming stories. We enjoy Alexander McCall Smith, for example, author of the #1 Ladies’ Detective Agency mysteries, as well as a number of other series. I’m currently reading The Last Storyteller by Frank Delaney, the most recent in a series featuring an Irish man who, in the 1950s, works for the Folklore Society gathering and recording oral traditions. Every now and then I attempt a brogue, just for the fun of it.

Last year, I read aloud two Bradbury books: Dandelion Wine and Something Wicked This Way Comes. Bradbury’s language is magical and florid, but it was interesting to see how different his style was in these two books. In the former, there are copious colorful metaphors, but the language is fairly direct. The latter almost broke my tongue when reading aloud. Sentences that started off in one direction shifted halfway through and took off in another. Searching for the right way to emphasize words meant sometimes quickly reading ahead to figure out what it was going to be about. Occasionally the sentences came out feeling leaden and clunky, but when I realized what he’d written, I’d go back and took a second stab at them. It was an edifying experience. More recently I read Death is a Lonely Business and had much the same experience. I think that’s one reason why Bradbury has virtually no imitators. I still can’t figure out how he does what he does.

One of the final things I do with a work of short fiction is read it aloud to myself. Now, prose isn’t designed to be read out loud, at least not primarily. Prose is for the printed page, and the process of reading is quite different from reading aloud. As I discovered, Bradbury is much easier to read inside my head. However, one of the surest ways of finding things that will sound clumsy and clunky, whether read aloud or internally, is to read them out loud. If you stumble over your own words, imagine what it will be like for another reader. If a transition catches you by surprise or feels awkward, it will stick out. You’ll hear the echo of awkwardness in your own voice. You’ll feel your own confusion. It’s also a great way to find typos because you are forced to read every word and not skim, the way you might if reading internally.

I reserve this process until the very end, because there’s no point in finding those last few clunkers if you’re just going to rearrange the story substantially afterwards. Who knows how many awkward things you’ll end up inserting.

Did I read this essay out loud before I posted it? Well, honestly, no. But maybe I should have. Read it aloud to yourselves and let me know where I went wrong!

Nil Illegitimi Carborundum

August 17th, 2013 Comments off

I first saw that phrase on a “sampler” hanging from the wall in a co-worker’s office some 20 years ago. My mother studied Latin in school—my sister, who is 12 years older than me might have, too—but I didn’t, so I wasn’t sure what it meant. So I put on my thinking cap. Nil = nothing. Easy. Illegitimi…well, that looks familiar. Carborundum, though? Well, it sounds like a mineral and the root looks like “carbon,” so I guessed: Nothing ruins diamonds or, in other words, Diamonds are forever. Got it! Yay me.

Except the faux-Latin phrase was concocted during World War II to mean Don’t let the bastards grind you down.

A couple of  things brought this phrase to mind recently. First, there was a brouhaha over a writer’s post containing a checklist that determined whether or not a person should consider himself a professional writer or not. A lot of people were incensed by it, and others posted their own criteria as a rebuttal. The most reductionist and on-the-nose quiz had a single question: 1) Do you get paid for your writing? If yes, then you are a professional writer. None of the other questions are relevant and were seen by some as elitist or exclusionary.

A post by Kelly Braffet (author of Save Yourself, which I highly recommended), unrelated to the aforementioned to-do, jarred a memory. She wrote about a high school English teacher who actively discouraged her from being a writer. Based on the story, it seems that the teacher was an aspiring but failed writer who was going to let her own bad experience inform her opinion of other people’s chances at success in the field. Fortunately, Braffet bridled at the “advice” and is now the author of three novels.

I had a somewhat similar experience, at about the same age. During a medical examination prior to going to work for the summer in the local paper mill, the doctor determined that I was partly colorblind. I’m sure I must have realized there was a problem before that, but I have no recollection of it. What I do remember is the doctor stating as fact, “You’ll never be an electrician or a chemist.” I had no plans to be an electrician, but I was leaning toward chemistry as a major when I went to university, so this pronouncement was disturbing.

Granted, I did ultimately experience some problems in the analytical chemistry lab. Detecting the first visible trace of pink in a clear solution during a titration defeated my limited color perception. I muddled through and was delighted to prove my titrating abilities during another experiment using an iodine indicator where the solution went from black to white in a single drop. That I could do! I completed a BSc in chemistry with honors and went on to obtain a PhD in the field. So there.

I have no way of knowing where I’d be today if I had listened to that one opinion, but it would have completely altered the course of my life. Completely. I wouldn’t be living where I am, I wouldn’t be married to who I am, and I wouldn’t have had the job I’ve held for nearly 25 years. I might not even be a professional writer, too.

I am reminded of John Locke from Lost, who bristled every time someone suggested that a certain task was beyond his abilities. “Don’t tell me what I can’t do,” he would respond, and would redouble his efforts at whatever the task was.

So, don’t let anyone discourage you. Don’t let anyone tell you you’ll never be a writer, or that you’ll never make money writing. Truth is, even if you aren’t a terrific writer, you might be one of those flashes in the pan that astonishes everyone. The 50 Shades of Gray author made nearly $100 million last year, five times as much as Stephen King earned. (You might also win the lottery—the likelihoods are similar, but still…)

If writing is your passion, go for it. If people say you aren’t a very good writer, keep at it. You’ll improve. You may not be Hemingway and maybe you’ll never sell that 1000-page opus. The marketplace will decide if there is a market for your work, but if it’s your passion, keep at it. Enjoy it. Don’t let anyone else’s opinion hold you back or keep you from enjoying what you do.

Categories: advice, authors, Writers, Writing Tags:

Reprint: Why go to conventions?

July 17th, 2013 Comments off

[The middle of the month snuck up on me without warning, so I haven't had time to prepare an essay for July. I decided to go back several years to my July 2007 column, which is apropos because, tomorrow, I'll be flying halfway across the continent to NECON, where we will pay tribute to one of the people I mentioned in this essay six years ago.]

As writers, besides income tax and agent commissions, attending conventions is our biggest annual expense. Everything else pales by comparison—memberships dues in professional organizations, postage, ink cartridges, paper—and with a growing trend toward electronic submissions, some of these are decreasing. Even so, the necessity of paying for the tangible tools of our trade is self-evident.

Soon I’ll be flying halfway across the continent to NECON. Other than mosquito bites, hangovers, more calories than I normally consume during any given week, and sacrificing valuable neurons, what will I have to show for this trip? Why spend a thousand dollars to attend a convention for a few days?

The first time I ever attended a genre convention was when I was an undergrad in the early 1980s, living in Halifax. I think it was Halcyon 7 or 8. Probably fewer than a hundred people attended. I believe Jack Chalker and Spider Robinson were Guests of Honor, but that may be a false memory. I can find no evidence on the internet that this event ever took place, and I’ve misplaced the tan-colored conference t-shirt that featured a butterfly-winged nymphette.

I remember walking to the conference hotel from my dorm, wandering the dealer room on Saturday and buying a few items in a fan-art auction on Sunday morning, including a pencil sketch of a unicorn I may still have somewhere. If I attended panels, they’ve been obliterated from my memory.

Nearly a decade later, shortly after I moved to Texas, I heard that Jimmy Doohan and Marina Sirtis would be at a Star Trek convention in Houston. Growing up in eastern Canada, I’d never had the opportunity to attend a professional fan convention of this magnitude.

I went alone, and ended up standing in the registration line between a man dressed like one of the Ferengi and a young woman with purple hair, prodigious cleavage and fishnet stockings. They were engaged in an intense debate—complete with references—about exactly what Spock did between The Motion Picture and The Wrath of Khan. I only thought I was a Star Trek fan. I soon discovered I was waaaaay out of my league.

The convention was fun, but I was disillusioned to find out that the people manning the vendor tables were only there because they knew how much cash avid fans were willing to shell out for cheaply made bric-a-brac and ephemera. The vendors didn’t care about Star Trek and I overheard a few unguarded exchanges concerning their opinions of attendees, too.

Another decade passed. I found myself easing into the horror-writing community. I landed a gig as a contributing editor with Cemetery Dance magazine, and my first column was scheduled to appear in an issue debuting at the World Horror Convention in Seattle, 2001.

I am not by nature a gregarious person, so I didn’t make lightly the decision to cast myself into the midst of hundreds of strangers for four days. However, having made the plunge, I wasn’t about to loiter among the potted plants or lurk at the back of the meeting halls. I was determined to participate. I wanted to get to know people, and give people a face to associate with my name.

I’d never met any of the other attendees. I knew a few through online interactions and others by reputation. Still, I made a concerted effort to approach people. Rich Chizmar had couriered me a defective copy of Dark Dreamers just before I left. From the contributor photo at the back, I recognized Stan Wiater and Beth Gwinn shortly after I checked into the hotel. Neither of them had seen the book yet, so I had my opening. After that, it got easier. Getting people to sign their photos in the book was a useful tactic for meeting writers I might otherwise have been too diffident to approach.

I encountered Tim Lebbon in the registration line, where I was proudly showing off the GAK cover art for an anthology containing two of my earliest short stories. I also met the anthology editor, a member of my first online critique group. I saw Barbara Roden, who, three years later, would publish one of my stories in All Hallows. I sat with Larry Santoro at the Stoker banquet. Mike Huyck and Gene O’Neil critiqued one of my short stories, and every time I saw Gene after that, he inquired about whether I’d sold it yet. I eventually did.

I attended as many panels as I could. I toured the dealer room during idle moments. I haunted the con suites. Not wanting to miss out on anything, I’d made sure my return flight wasn’t until well after the closing ceremony. That meant I could go to the “dead dog” party. I sat in the con suite helping get rid of the remaining booze and food, chatting with one of the Guests of Honor—Jay Clarke, aka Michael Slade—and thus began a friendship that continues to this day. Turns out it was his first horror convention, too, and he enjoyed the experience so much that he wrote a novel with a similar convention at its core. (I die in that book, by the way. Spectacularly.)

Initially I went to conventions to promote myself. I took postcards and book flats, propped up a copy of the latest work in front of me if I was assigned to a panel. I wrangled invitations to small press anthologies, though most of those books never materialized.

Now I take a more laid back approach. I attend fewer panels and sit in on more readings. Authors are more appreciative of faces in the audience than panelists—and nothing I’ve heard at a panel is as memorable as the time I saw Gary Braunbeck read “We Now Pause for Station Identification.”

I still spend a lot of time (and money) in the dealer room, but I now know that the most important things are to be learned at the bar. I remember an impromptu gathering in a lobby bar, featuring Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, Michael Slade, Feo Amante and several others that was worth the cost of the trip alone.

I show up at the parties in the suites, but usually don’t stay long. I find them too hot, too claustrophobic, and too difficult to move around. After a certain amount of alcohol has been consumed, no one remembers what was discussed the next day anyway, myself included.

When I discovered NECON, I knew I’d found my convention. There I’ve gotten to know a lot of people in a short period of time. The “con suite” is an outdoor quad at the university campus—breezy, temperate, roomy. I can drift from one group to another without stepping on feet or pushing through a mass of sweaty bodies. I don’t have to strain to hear what the other people are saying. I may have to buy my own beer, but that’s a low price for that level of camaraderie.

With attendance limited at 200, I’m never overwhelmed. There’s a high return rate, so after five years the familiar faces now outnumber the unfamiliar. It’s networking at the most fundamental level—making and reconnecting with friends. I talk with people as much about life in general as about writing. How are the kids? How was your vacation? How’s the day job? I can play mini golf with Beth Massie, go grocery shopping with Doug Clegg, sit on a patio drinking with Peter Straub, gossip with Dave Hinchberger and watch Peter Crowther battle Rick Hautala at darts at midnight. There’s a good reason regular attendees call it “Camp NECON.”

Yes, there will be panels where we discuss the burning issues in the genre today (the panelists and the audience will likely both be hung-over and sleep-deprived, the same as at most other cons) but there will also be a talent contest or a game show where F. Paul Wilson struts his stuff in drag and Tom Monteleone tells shaggy dog stories. We laugh a lot during NECON. I like that.

Even if we don’t talk about writing all the time, and even if I don’t find out about fantastic new writing opportunities (though I have) and even if I don’t meet an editor who’s drooling to publish my work, I come away from the four days physically exhausted and creatively renewed. I’m reminded that there are other people toiling away the same as I am. I’m heartened by their successes and commiserate with their disappointments. I’m part of a community.

As writers, our daily lives are insular. Some are fortunate enough to live in places—Manhattan, for example—near others writers they can hook up with on a regular basis, but most of us don’t. Every now and then we need to get outside our heads and meet with people who understand what it’s like to be a writer.

That’s why I go to conferences. And it’s worth every penny.

Categories: advice, authors, books, conferences, Writers, Writing Tags:

Bartleby and me

May 17th, 2013 1 comment

After a long hiatus while working on other things, I’ve finally reached a place in my schedule where I can focus on a novel again. I’m not exactly starting from scratch: I have a 3000-word chapter that was thoroughly critiqued by some writer friends a couple of years ago and a fairly solid idea of where to go next. I went on a research trip to an important location a couple of months ago and took along the video camera to film the locale. I know the main character quite well, because I’ve written about him before, though only one short story featuring him has been published, and that in a fairly obscure anthology.

This isn’t my first time at the rodeo. I’ve written four or five novels already, one of which I worked on extensively with my agent over a period of about two years. That was a learning experience, even if the manuscript ultimately didn’t attract any publishers. However, I’m going to approach this book a little differently from my previous efforts. One of the biggest changes is the tool: instead of using the old tried-and-true Word, I’ve decided to shift to Scrivener. I’ve had the program on my computer for a long time, but until now I haven’t taken the time to explore its features. Now, after watching a few tutorials, I’m hooked.

It’s just a tool, little different from a pen and paper in the end, but it has a few attractive features. The one that caught my attention in the first place was the fact that it’s more than a word processor—it’s a workspace. Once you’re inside the program, you don’t have to leave it to pick up your research files or other related documents. You can attach them to the work­space so they’re all in one place. You can open up a pdf or an image or even a video and overlay it with what you’re working on. You don’t have to rummage around on your hard drive to find the document. Even if you’re really organized, that can take some doing. Here’s a screenshot of my workspace, which is in its infancy:

The “Binder” on the left is your project. Everything under “Manuscript” is the work in progress. But there are also sections for character sketches and place descriptions, plus the Research folder, which in my project currently contains the video from my trip and an image.

Note the main area of the window, which resembles a cork board. In Scrivener, you write in scenes which are collected together into chapters and, ultimately, the entire manuscript. This cork board display makes it easy to move scenes around until you find the optimal order. My cards above are currently blank except for a caption, but once I get to work they will contain short descriptions of what happens. You can also have Scrivener automatically create a synopsis of the scene, though I haven’t tested that feature yet to see how effective it is.

When you get down to the writing, you click on your scene and type. You don’t worry about formatting—only content. Formatting is the last thing you do, when you assemble the manuscript for output in one of a myriad of supported document types. Just type. Write. Put down words.

You can split the screen (horizontally or vertically) and open the document twice so that you can refer to text earlier or later in the scene without constantly scrolling back and forth, which can be quite helpful. Or you can open a second document in the split screen for reference. Got a web page that you keep referring back to? Simply drag the URL into the reference area and the whole page will be imported into your workspace. Or export it as a pdf and add the pdf version to the reference area, which ever works best for you.

Do you use real people—actors or actresses, for example—as models for some of your characters? I’ve been known to do that in the past, creating folders of images I culled online. In Scrivener you can create a pinboard to which you add these images randomly, along with whatever notes you want to insert. Have you ever seen one of those boards on TV created by a character who is obsessing over something? Messy affairs with strings connecting items from different parts of the board, everything haphazard to a casual viewer, but which has an internal logic to the creator? You can do that in Scrivener.

Stuck coming up with a character name? Scrivener has a built-in name generator with a ton of options, including specifying whether you want a common or rare name or a name in a different language.

Another nice feature is the fact that you can go into full-screen mode, which really keeps your head in the game. Once you have everything you need set up, all your research and images and related documents, you can blank out the rest of your screen and tune out such distractions as email, Facebook and Twitter.

For me, this latter aspect is one of the most intriguing. My writing time is limited, so I want to make the most of it. The software is intuitive and you can get going quickly without doing much more than watching a 5-minute intro video. Then it’s game on. Avoiding distractions, not having to search for research documents, being able to overlay images when I want to describe something…everything about Scrivener is designed to make it easier to get the job done without venturing into the Internet during your writing session, where all manner of traps and lures await to distract you from the manuscript.

Check back next month. If all goes well, I should have an update on my experience with this new (to me) program, which is available for both Mac and Windows users.

Categories: advice, Fiction, novel, Writers, Writing Tags:

Saying no

April 17th, 2013 Comments off

I’ve been trying my damndest to clear off my desk so I can devote my attention to a novel I’ve been aching to write for months—nay years. The problem is that I keep getting sucked back into all these little projects that keep me from turning my attention to the book. This relates back to a post I made here over four years ago, called Of course I will.

One problem is that it’s such an honor to be asked to do things sometimes that it’s almost impossible to say no. Other times, cool opportunities come along and I actually volunteer to write something. Over the course of the past couple of months, both of these things have happened. Plus I had to do revisions for a new edition of a forthcoming book and proof the new pages. Then I got sent to Japan for a business trip for a week. And I had a new book come out, which meant that I had to pay attention to reviews, do interviews and watch sales ranks and all the other things that happen when a book is published.

Mind you, these are all good problems to have. I’m not complaining. And, yet, I really want to work on that novel. I went on a research trip with my wife several weeks ago and came back with an hour of video to use as a reference as I write. I have one full chapter already written that dates back at least two years. The chapter has been extensively critiqued, but it’s going to get a major overhaul because I discovered finally what the book is going to be about. I think. I won’t really know that until I start working on it again.

I was going to start on March 1. Then it was going to be April 1. Now it’s looking more like May 1 is the big day. May Day. Maybe that’s appropriate. Between now and the end of April, I’m going to write one more essay (beyond this one), finish up one more short story (well, okay, maybe two), get all the fallow stories I have back into circulation, and review three books (okay, maybe four). That’s it. If an interesting set of story guidelines come my way, I’m going to close my eyes and pretend I didn’t see them. If someone invites me to submit to an anthology, I’ll dig around in my archives to see if I have anything that might fit. Otherwise, I’m going to say sorry. At least, I think I will. I hope I will.

It really is hard to say no.

Come to think of it, I have another invitation to write an essay outstanding. Did I say yes already? I’m not quite sure—I didn’t exactly say no, though.

How many days are left in April? Maybe I can squeeze it in…

If only there were more hours in the day. More days in the week. More weeks in the month…

The strangest time

March 17th, 2013 1 comment

I have a new book coming out in just over two weeks. This has to be the strangest point in a book’s lifespan. I’ve seen finished copies, but it’s not available to anyone else yet. I put the manuscript to bed nearly a year ago, and I revisited it a few times in the interim, first with the copyeditor’s report and then again to proofread it.  I’ve seen the cover art. I’ve seen the proofs and the real McCoy. There have even been a couple of reviews published already. I’m working with the publicist in anticipation of the book’s release. I’m generating reviews from bloggers and I’m participating in interviews that will come out around publication day.

But the book’s not out yet.

From my perspective, it’s a fait accompli. I’ve moved on to other things, and yet I have to think of it from the perspective of everyone else, for whom it’s brand new. I sympathize with actors who go on promotional tours in support of a newly released film. They may have made another movie or two since they last had anything to do with the one they’re promoting. But for their prospective audience, it’s brand spanking new.

I’m actively promoting the book and using every excuse to tweet about it or update my message board or make a post on Facebook. I’ve been sending out announcements to every writing group to which I belong, and my publicist will be hitting local media (and associational media—don’t forget your alumni news or the hometown paper where you grew up even if you haven’t lived there in decades) with press releases. I’ll be going to Comicpalooza in Houston in May, where there’s going to be a session made up of the book’s prime audience, and to World Horror in June, where I’ll take part in the mass signing and pimp my book when I’m introduced at my panel session.

For most of us, this is probably an uncomfortable phase. Writing is a solitary endeavor, but now we’re putting ourselves out there and saying “look at me” in loud (but hopefully polite and respectful) voices. Turning the spotlights on ourselves and our work while nervously awaiting the reactions of others. All the while trying to focus on that new shiny thing that has attracted our attention.

Strange days indeed.


We’re all doing our best

January 17th, 2013 Comments off

Two days ago, it was announced that Dan Brown’s next novel will be coming out in May. Immediately the wailing and the gnashing of teeth started. Is there another author, besides perhaps Stephanie Meyer, whose mere name incites such vitriol?

I’m going to stick my neck out here: I’ll buy Inferno, and I’ll read it. I might even enjoy it. I thought the uproar over The Da Vinci Code (hereafter: DVC) was unwarranted, even though I think Angels & Demons is a better book. DVC sold a gajillion copies, mostly on the strength of the controversy surrounding the plot. Brown might not have seen it coming, but if he did, kudos to him for finding a way to put his name on the map. DVC was his fourth book, not his first. He didn’t burst onto the scene with it. As they say, he paid his dues.

Dan Brown will never win a literary prize for his writing. However, he isn’t a horrible writer. He managed to sell his first few novels based on their individual strengths, and the first two are nothing like his Langdon novels. I enjoy his books in the same way that I like those by Clive Cussler, Michael Crichton, Stieg Larsson and John Grisham. None of these authors have what you might call literary chops. Their skill at characterization is limited, and their phrasing can be clunky. However, they write entertaining, thrilling books. I always came away from a Michael Crichton book feeling like I’d learned something, both about the subject matter and about the craft of telling a suspenseful story. Cussler’s books are pulp adventures with stock characters who never change from one novel to the next and totally unbelievable scenarios, but they were fun.

No one, I believe, sets out to write poorly. Some writers are more adept than others, and some have strengths in certain areas and weaknesses in others. I think that if DVC had been a blip in the pan, if it had hit the top ten list for a week or two and then faded away, people wouldn’t get so up in arms when Brown’s next book was announced. The fact that it was a bestseller for many months and earned the guy a king’s ransom in royalties is unpalatable to some, mostly because of his obvious shortcomings as a writer. But, good God, Fifty Shades of whatever blocked off the top of the bestseller list for weeks, simply because the books contain tawdry and titillating scenes in novels that come from a major publisher. Brown’s books take readers to places they might never otherwise experience (Paris, Zurich, Rome) and shine a light on the work of artists (Bernini, Dante, Da Vinci), even if some liberties are taken. More importantly, they make readers want to know what happens next.

As writers, we’re all doing the best that we can. Many are getting better as the years go by. To be sure, there are writers who end up “phoning it in” later in their careers, either metaphorically (Robert B. Parker’s last few novels feel somewhat perfunctory) or literally (Hey, buddy, I have an idea for a new book — how about you write it and I put my name on the cover?), but I think that Dan Brown sits down at his word processor and does his level best to come up with a compelling and gripping plot each time. He may be mining similar ground in his Langdon novels, and perhaps even hoping to stir up similar kinds of controversy, but I don’t remember too many people getting up in arms about his book based on a far-reaching conspiracy within the Vatican. It was an entertaining thriller in a genre that has been around for a long time, and I expect Inferno will be much the same. Nothing wrong with that.

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Not the time to rewrite your text

December 17th, 2012 Comments off

When we last spoke, I was working on the copy-edited manuscript of my forthcoming book, The Dark Tower Companion, which will be published in April, less than four months away. My, how the time does fly. When I was writing it, it seemed like publication day was in the distant future.

The copy-editing process took place using the track changes and comments functions of Word. Thus far, I have only printed out the entire book once, and that was shortly after I sent it in to my editor the first time.

This week I received the page proofs, which look like this:

For the first time, I get a sense of what the finished book will look like. Page proofs are printed on only one side, so this stack is twice as large as the finished book, but it’s a ream of paper, and there are marks around the page that indicate the final trim size. Each line is numbered for easy reference. The layout and design are complete. For the first time, I see how the maps I drew will appear in the book, what the section headers will look like, and all the little adornments (see the bird beneath the book’s title above?) the designer has added to the book.

I have until January 3 to report back to my editor, though I will probably finish well before then. The cover letter contains a series of instructions. Don’t try to write between the lines—all comments and corrections are to go in the margins. I only need to send back the pages where I have corrections. Be sure to make a copy before sending back the report in case it gets lost.

And there’s this stern warning: This is not the time to rewrite your text. That ship has sailed, in other words. Small corrections are okay, but if my requested changes end up costing more than 10% of the original design and layout, those costs will be passed on to me.

That was a lesson I took to heart early on, though I didn’t have any direct experience with the potential repercussions. When I was addressing final editorial comments on my short story “Unknown Soldier” for All Hallows, the editor pointed out a passage that she thought was clunky. I agreed, but to de-clunk it was going to require adding a number of words. I tried to take a shortcut, but the editor hated my change even more than the original! I explained: I was trying to keep from messing up the layout. I think the editor was surprised by that. She expressed her appreciation, but gave her blessing to a wordier fix for the problem.

On the other hand, I attended an appearance by crime writer John Lescroart a few years ago. He was in town for a signing, but one of his biggest fans had managed to snag him for a more intimate appearance for the local writers guild. He had a new book coming out and mentioned during his talk that he had received the printed galleys for the novel and decided to entirely rewrite the opening chapter. I can’t even imagine what his editor’s response was to that!

My job for the next couple of weeks is simple and painstaking: to go over a book that I have been working on for over a year and look at it with fresh eyes. I need to make sure that the process of incorporating the copy-editor’s changes and my stets and deles over those, didn’t end up causing missing or extra words, for example. I have to look for previously missed problems, formatting errors, ungainly layout issues and everything else. This is called the “first pass” of proofing, but it’s the main one. There will be the bound galleys at some point, but by then almost everything should be fixed.

That stack of paper above and me are going to be close companions between now and the end of the year.