Friday, June 26, 2015

Kenda Burrows Editor

I saw in Monday’s Dispatch that Kenda Burrows got first place awards for Best Editorial Page as well as Best Local Editorial from the Illinois Press Association and the Illinois Associated Press Media Editors Association.

A delightful surprise on my part.

I went to one of those events years ago when I was writing for the Galva News. They always read the judges comments before presenting some very nice plaques. For Kenda the judges said in part:

“…I hope readers appreciate what it takes to deliver this much quality local material. The design is not flashy, but local editorials, columnists and letters to the editor set this paper apart.”

As a reader I do appreciate her efforts on the editorial page. It’s always interesting and distinctive.

I especially appreciate her willingness to stick her neck out and give unknown and inexperienced columnists a chance to write on a new and higher level. She did that for me.

I was chosen to be part of a group of guest columnists in 2008 thanks to then governor Rod Blagojevich. He went out of his way to give me a lot of material to work with by closing down state historic sites. Since Bishop Hill had three sites within its tiny village limits, all I had to do was walk from shop to shop and listen to the reactions. I wrote them up, gave the piece a positive twist, and ended with a satirical “Thank you, Governor, for that much.” I had a killer entry.

But winning was the easy part. I had to follow up with other columns. I had to deal with the deadlines. I had to get used to expressing my opinions. I had to write in the first person. Those things did not come easy to me at that point in my writing career.

Working with Kenda on those columns became an invaluable experience in my development as a writer. I will always appreciate her and the Dispatch. 

Friday, June 19, 2015

Donald Harstad on Writing

I met up with Donald Harstad in the second floor lounge of the St. Ambrose library. He had been invited to talk about writing and being an author. His specialty is crime fiction and police procedurals set in northeast Iowa.

He sat on a library table and regaled us with a life story that began in Iowa, went to Hollywood, and then returned to Iowa when Hollywood got too strange, too drugged out, and, thanks to Charles Manson, too dangerous to raise his young daughter.

He happened upon a career in law enforcement with his return to Elkader.

His writing career got a kick start when, without warning, he was forced to take earned vacation time. It was a use it or lose it situation that left him home alone. His solution was to write a book—in eleven days. Yes…eleven…long…coffee-fueled days. He used a Commodore 64 computer and 9-dot matrix printer to produce his first book. It was difficult to read and probably would have gone no further if his sister hadn’t finagled a way to get it retyped and distributed among her Hollywood friends and contacts. His lucky break came when an agent took an interest.

Millions of books later…I get to sit in the St. Ambrose library and listen to his advice:

·        Find out what you do well and make it work for you.

·        Stay sober, get some sleep, and be alert.

·        Write 1-3,000 words a day.

·        Begin the next day with a quick edit and then go on.

·        Don’t trip the reader’s “eye.” Keep the writing smooth.

·        Don’t edit dialog. Keep it realistic and brief.

·        Know what people are like.

·        Have your cops keep their fingers beside the trigger and the gun pointed down.

·        Cops will be all business on the job. No one throws up at a crime scene.

·        Cops will not use jargon like “perp,” that’s for wannabe’s. Real cops are thinking and therefore speaking in terms of the reports they’ll have to write up at the end of their shifts.

·        Ditch the agent who’s looking out for himself first.

·        If you have a contract with Double Day—don’t screw it up by going with an independent!

·        London is a great place to stage a murder scene.

·        If you find yourself signing books at the same table Charles Dickens used—have someone take a photo!

His second book took 30-40 days to write. Must have had something to do with all that training writing all those police reports. I can only wish for that kind of speed.

·        A final bit of Harstad advice comes by way of John le CarrĂ©: “Strive to write interesting shit.”

That motto hangs on his office wall above a more modern computer.

Sounds like good advice to me. Can’t wait to read that first book.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Theme: Romance

I don’t know too much about writing romances. I’ve read maybe three or so. No way would that qualify me to write one. Good thing I didn’t. I’m still sticking to my novel being a mystery. But it is a mystery with just a hint of romantic potential.

My protagonist and her erstwhile alley have a long history of being at odds with one another. Opposites in a lot of ways. But opposites sometimes attract. I want to think of their alliance as filling in the incomplete spaces of their potential with interesting possibilities. Creating a larger synergistic whole. I want them to make a good team whether they see it or not.

But things can never go smoothly in a story. There has to be tension and conflict and—to make the case for romantic undercurrent—competition. Enter my Swede, Lars. I could have called him Sven, but I didn’t. Bishop Hill has had a long line of stray cats named Sven. I stand by Lars.

Lars has a lot of jobs to do. He provides a link to the past, a sounding board for ideas and theories, and provides clues to current and future problems. But just being Swedish gives him romantic currency. The accent, the blond good looks, the hint at political importance. Maybe a royal connection. This is the stuff of Bishop Hill dreams and I want to use it all.

As I said, I didn’t write a romance. This time at least. Who knows what will come later. I’m keeping my options open. 

Friday, June 5, 2015

More on Finishing

I’ve just finished yet another round of edits, revisions, and cosmetic alterations to my novel. I think some of my changes have been good, worthwhile, and have added more dimensions to the whole. Others, however, I’m not so sure about. I’m beginning to wonder if I’m spinning my wheels so to speak. If the little tweaks I’m making here and there are a waste of time.

I’ve wanted to stop for awhile now, but issues, sometimes important ones, just kept popping up demanding to be dealt with, such as expanding my ending to include something more than the protagonist’s internal dialog and exposition.

Then I got my latest issue of Writer’s Digest. The July/August issue has an article titled “Creativity Deconstructed.” It contains a compilation by Jessica Strawser of inspirational tips and helpful insights.

I naturally homed in on the section about “Turning Pages into Books.” I found a couple of quotes on finishing a book that caught my eye. They are the following:

“…It requires us to assess what we’ve already written to determine what’s working and what’s not; to revise and refine our work. It requires our willingness, in effect, to rethink what we’ve written as we decide how to shape our work, and to jettison what doesn’t fit, and to write completely new material as required,…”

This is where I am now. I’m looking at the shape of things, how the pieces fit together. I’ve tried to segregate my villains according to the messages I want them to deliver. I’ve made efforts to answer the questions my Beta readers have asked. I’ve deleted sentences, whole passages in some places, and written new material for others. I’ve gotten the message.

As for the other quote:

“I work until I’m finished, not until the book’s finished. The book is never finished,… To complete a book we must accept that it won’t be perfect.”

This isn’t an unusual dilemma for artists. This settling on a stopping point. I came across it in the jewelry I used to make. I’ve seen other artists deal with it, too. When to put an end to a project. When overworking doesn’t add anything useful. When to just accept the piece “as is” and move on.

This might be the hardest idea for me to grasp, the idea of living with imperfection, after all Our Side of Perfect is the current working title. The original working title was Picture Perfect. Do you see a pattern here? I do and it bothers the OCD in me.

I hadn’t thought of the end of my novel as coming to terms with imperfection. I guess I’ll have to start thinking about this aspect of the end.