Friday, October 31, 2014

Writing Rituals

Long ago, I developed a ritual where I had to clean and straighten things up before starting a new craft project. For better or worse, that process has been extended to my writing.

National Novel Writing Month, NaNoWriMo, starts soon and my writing space hasn’t looked this good since I moved in three years ago. It took two days, but every EFS (Exposed Flat Surface) has been cleared of extraneous clutter and contains only the essential stuff for the writing mission ahead.

·        I have my main desk devoted to book materials: notes, character studies, background info, etc.
·        Another desk is cleared out so it can act as a staging area.
·        I dusted my reference shelves.
·        Pads of clean paper are close at hand—should I need to jot down some profound thoughts while away from the computer.
·        The plant area is organized so all I have to do is remember to add the water.
·        The emergency stash of Halloween candy is tucked away. That I will remember.

Cleaning is a wonderful tradition. I’ve found all kinds of things that were missing from my life. Like some extra mechanical pencils—my favorites. More pads of sticky notes—all colors. Projects I need to finish up before Christmas—gifts and such.

The list could go on, but I will stop. It’s time to go off and write. 1667 words per day will not magically appear without some effort.

Friday, October 24, 2014

A Night of Poet Laureates

I attended the Midwest Writing Center’s fundraising event that featured Mary Swander and Kevin Stein, Iowa and Illinois poets laureate.

It was my birthday and I chose to celebrate with poetry.

The poets were introduced by Dick Stahl, Quad Cities own poet laureate and frequent Writer’s Studio attendee. He read his own piece written to commemorate this joint appearance. As he read, I waited for him to mention the Mississippi River. I knew from experience how he liked to insert the great river into his poems whenever possible. I wasn’t disappointed. Toward the end, he allowed it to flow through.

What followed was a round robin of poems between Ms. Swander and Mr. Stein, each introducing their selection and placing it within the context of their lives in the Midwest.

Everything went smoothly until what should have been the last poem delivered by Mr. Stein. It was a dog poem. Ms. Swander felt compelled to respond with one last dog poem of her own. I’ve seen this before. Dogs and cats seem to have that effect on poets.

A question and answer period followed and I was taken by one of the last asked: What do you have on your nightstand?

Ms. Swander talked about the poems and a biography of Emily Dickinson she was currently reading, saying she liked to study authors in depth.

Mr. Klein came to the podium and kind of sheepishly admitted he wasn’t reading any poetry at the moment and actually hadn’t for quite a while. He had read a lot of poetry in his earlier years and now was more focused on his own work. If anything were on his nightstand, he said it would have to be a newspaper. Newspapers supplied him with all the information and prompts he needed to spark ideas for his work.

I really liked his response, both as an endorsement for keeping newsprint around and for making a commitment to his own creativity and voice.

Being creative and having a unique voice—things we all aspire to as writers. 

Friday, October 17, 2014

Radio Advice

I have to attend the funeral for my mother-in-law, Christina, on Saturday and in order to have a blog post ready for this Friday I knew I needed help—maybe even a miracle.

The radio came through with a miracle.

I don’t always make myself listen to WVIK every weekday morning to catch Garrison Keillor’s broadcast of The Writer’s Almanac. But on Thursday I tuned in late and only caught the tail end, the part where he recites a poem. I went online to read about what I had missed. Then, on a whim, I went to the previous day’s transcript, the day when my mother-in-law passed away after a nearly week long struggle. I was totally surprised to find writing advice that was very pertinent to my novel.

This is what I read:
It's the birthday of novelist P.G. Wodehouse (books by this author), born Pelham Grenville Wodehouse in Guildford, England (1881).

He said: "Always get to the dialogue as soon as possible. I always feel the thing to go for is speed. Nothing puts the reader off more than a great slab of prose at the start.

I think the success of every novel — if it's a novel of action — depends on the high spots. The thing to do is to say to yourself, 'Which are my big scenes?' and then get every drop of juice out of them.

The principle I always go on in writing a novel is to think of the characters in terms of actors in a play. I say to myself, if a big name were playing this part, and if he found that after a strong first act he had practically nothing to do in the second act, he would walk out. Now, then, can I twist the story so as to give him plenty to do all the way through?

I believe the only way a writer can keep himself up to the mark is by examining each story quite coldly before he starts writing it and asking himself if it is all right as a story. I mean, once you go saying to yourself, 'This is a pretty weak plot as it stands, but I'm such a hell of a writer that my magic touch will make it okay,' you're sunk. If they aren't in interesting situations, characters can't be major characters, not even if you have the rest of the troop talk their heads off about them."

I do believe in signs and this one came as a wonderful surprise. I will try to make the most of it—in Christina’s memory.

The Writer's Almanac:

Friday, October 10, 2014

Reviewing Rewrites by Word Count

First Draft: 50,365
Take 2: 50,628
Take 3: 30,125

The first draft of my novel came together for the 2010 National Novel Writing Month, NaNoWriMo. As I’ve mentioned before, I reached the 50K word goal, but the work definitely failed to come together as a novel. I had bits and pieces of character development, some scenes worth salvaging, and two endings. The next two attempts at rewrites didn’t progress very far and I abandoned it for the most part.

Version 4.0: 5,832
Version 4.1: 18,718
Version 4.2: 42,515

The Version 4s started over and slowly progressed with renamed characters and a reworked plot. My biggest failings were still pretty much the same as before—revealing too much too soon and assuming the reader would know as much as I did about the life and times of the Bishop Hill of my imagination. Not so good by any count.

Version 5.0: 48,146
Version 5.1: 59,485
Version 5.2: 66,832

Version 5 and beyond were definite improvements thanks to loads and loads of the small rewrites and little tweaks I inserted whenever and wherever the mood struck. Better in a lot of respects, but I knew the end result wasn’t necessarily a smooth product.

Version 5.3: 68,503

Version 5.3 was produced during the 2013 NaNoWriMo marathon month of writing. I joined a writing group at Books-A-Million and sat in the coffee shop with a paper printout of V5.2 and totally retyped the whole thing. That had the advantage of finding many of the rough spots and as well as adding new material. I thought this version good enough to send out with agent query letters.

Version 5.5: 69,252 (ongoing)

Version 5.5 is what I’m working on now using some feedback from a potential agent. I was asked for “polish” and “immediacy.”

I think I know what “polish” means. It’s all the little technical things I wasn’t sure about and had glossed over because a copy editor would probably fix them for me. Sometime. Down the road. Well, this is down the road and I have to deal with them.

“Immediacy” will be a bit trickier. This seems to be more of a style and substance issue. This is improving my characters and their interactions. This is me improving the character arc for my protagonist. This is getting all my ducks in a row from subtle clues to the final denouement.

Fortunately for me, Version 5.3 was fun and less of the hard work of all the previous attempts. Version 5.5 is also shaping up to be much easier and more enjoyable. I hope this means I’m finally getting the hang of this novel writing thing. It would be nice because the next NaNoWriMo is coming up and my tentative title is: Book Two.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Humour (US humor) n. the quality of being amusing… [OED]

I didn’t let the fun stop with the old lady. Not me, the other one. The one I mentioned in last week’s blog post.

For better or worse, I tried to interject humor into my novel. I attempted some jokes, made some puns, and retold an unusual story.

For instance, I had fun with one particular name by using it—a lot.

Again, it started early on when I got bogged down with creating Swedish names for my characters. I didn’t want to step on anyone’s toes—name wise, but trying to invent clever new ones was taking up too much time. It was NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) and I had to get my daily quota of 1667 words. So, instead of going with the unusual or the rare, I went with the maximum common. I swear that at one time I was told there were three main families at some point in the early days of Bishop Hill. In a stroke that combined inspiration and desperation, I turned them all into Anderson’s. If you check out a Quad City telephone book, an antiquated paper one, you’ll find page after page of Andersons. I opted for safety in numbers and maybe a little tribute to The Matrix. So far I’ve kept most of those Andersons alive and well.

Then I decided to continue the fun for one Anderson in particular. I was inspired by someone who, at one time, made a creative change to his name. I used that idea to turn a character’s middle name into a running gag. I just took the letter “J” and came up with as many substitutions as I could. Of the many possibilities, here are just a few: jerk, jinx, jealous, jovial, jolly, jester, juvenile, justice, and journey. I made three or four jokes before I had to give the poor guy a break, apologize, and promise to stop.

At another point in the book, I have a scene with vigilantes hiding in the shadows. Something similar to that really happened, not like I have written it, but in the ball park, so to speak. I heard about it well after it happened, so by that time it seemed humorous to me. I’d like to think that using it in the book lets me remember a couple of guys who went out of their way to help us all out.

These are the main points where I tried to add a humorous twist to the story and some color through conflict for a few characters. They do say that humor is subjective: What is funny for one person is not funny at all for another. I imagine some of my attempts at humor will come across better than others—or maybe not at all.

All I can say is, “I had to try.”