Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages. Geoffrey Chaucer said that about 600 years ago as part of the prologue to the Canterbury Tales, the first writing we would recognize as English. I believe it. What would life be worth if it weren’t a pilgrimage? Every day. I hope you will join my pilgrimage. I’m writing a book … well, several. Writing is pilgrimage, and I’ll need sustenance along the way. I hope you will follow along, comment, help lead me. C’mon, it will be an adventure …
Read over your compositions and wherever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.
I was just finishing a story yesterday, preparing to submit it. A couple of phrases I had written warmed the cockles of my heart. I read them over several times aloud, letting the words roll off my tongue.
Then I read Dr. Johnson’s advice.
Just a quick personal note that SyFy’s Warehouse 13 will finish out with a short fifth season beginning April 14th. My son Edward has written the music, and it’s been a good run. Each episode goes to a different time, different place, which made it an exciting creative platform for a composer. The theme song was nominated for an Emmy. Edward passed on these details: “Hey gang… the PREMIERE date for Season 5 of Warehouse 13 is MONDAY, April 14, at 9pm (4-14-14, which, btw, totals 14 when you add it up…). I’m still finding out the full schedule, but if they show all 6 in order with no pre-emptions, the finale will air on Monday, May 19th.”
See Edward’s website for more of his music.
Here is a quite-astounding resource. Called the Periodic Table of Writing, it is data mining in the form of Mendeleev’s famous table of the elements, beloved wall decoration of every high school science lab. It lays out hits on terms related to storytelling. Maybe the exact thing we should all try to ignore when looking for our voice … but tempting, nevertheless.
Over the last couple of years, I have been forced to learn about the difference between the drive to create and the (apparent) expectations of potential readers. Writing is writing, and the doing of it is reward in itself. It’s just that you need a saw and hammer sometimes to fit it into the genre.
When I began writing my first novel about three years ago, it was my romantic notion that it should be an exercise in storytelling, a blending of oral tradition and whatever skill with the Mother Tongue I could muster. I had wispy ideas of a plot, to be sure, but I found myself larding the first draft generously with diversions about my own special interests: blues music and the southern gift of language and storytelling. (Living as I do now in Minnesota, I don’t hear as much euphony. We tend to keep it clipped. Maybe it’s the 25 below.) As a result, the first draft of Hack the Yak weighed in at 127,000 words. (Most novels of my genre are 80 – 100 thousand words).
I finally figured out that the story needed to move more quickly, took out some material that I love, and squeezed Hack the Yak down to 88,000 words. I hope that is closer to the publishing world’s perception of reader expectations.
I was just looking back at pictures and notes I took in March 2012 on the Blues Highway (Hwy 61 between Memphis and Vicksburg). I justified the trip as part of writing my first draft. As I worked through the novel, I had to cut most of the blues highway material, but it has provided a couple of short stories. My character Mase in The Cle eland Travel Inn is based on … well, really, abjectly copied from … Frank Ratliff, the proprietor of the Riverside Hotel in Clarksburg, MS. I attempted to capture Rat’s storytelling voice in a non-fiction piece, Bessie Smith’s Death.
A fine writing teacher and novelist, Steve Ulfelder, mentioned in a class that his third novel was the one that finally made it into the marketplace (check out Purgatory Chasm or his new one, Shotgun Lullaby at his website) but said a bit wryly that the good stuff in the first novels is creeping back into his later writings. An optimistic hope for me.
When I started out writing Hack the Yak, I didn’t think about genre, length or plot. Just an interesting story. The characters pretty much wrote the plot as they developed. I ended up with 127,000 words, a main plot, two subplots, and a trip through the country where the blues music I love came from. Then came reality. Editors and published writers pointed out that a beginning writer has to hit the expectation of the market, which is 80 to 90 thousand words for mystery/suspense … 100,000 at very most. So the seventh rewrite took it to 88,000 words. I’ll save the subplots for other novels. The blues highway is gone, too, but it gave me a published short story and inspired two that are out to magazines. All in all, it’s been a wonderful learning experience. I hope the next novel, Skins and Bone, will require a little less rewrite.
Ahh, those writing groups. When I started, I bought into the concept of the lonely life. You know, the writer sitting at a desk in his hovel (before publication) or hideaway (after publication), concentrating on stringing words together. But ‘they’ said, join a writing group. For the first several months, I was resistant. Who could possibly critique my writing but myself. Or maybe my wife, who is an accomplished writer.
Short story: I did, and I’m glad. I’m playing out the second novel to the three writing groups in which I now participate. I’d be disingenuous to say that it’s humbling. Rather, it’s exciting, and it’s great to have other eyes coming from other perspectives look at one’s writing. A writer of romance novels turns out to be a master at sentence structure. A writer of mid-grade stories helps me understand that my hero is too much a wimp. My wife makes my plots much, much better. So far, I’m halfway through Skins and Bone, and I have these references (picture) to consider in the rewrite. Hallelujah!
Like it or not, we all try to play by the rules. Whether it’s passing through customs in a foreign country or having relaxed conversation with friends, there are always rules. We’re brought up with rules, and we consider people who don’t know the rules badly behaved at best, psychopathic at worst. People who know the rules pass through life with least friction. People who like friction have to know the rules to break them artfully.
Writing is no different than other aspects of life. There must be rules, right? But if you look for them, you court frustration. Great writers often differ on what constitutes good writing. Perhaps the truest and most frustrating statement of writing rules comes from W. Somerset Maugham:
I draw three conclusions from this:
1. A scientist might say, “There’s no unifying theory, so look for smaller hypotheses.”
2. Maugham has a sense of humor.
3. Turn off the Word grammar checker. For reasons unknown, Word concludes that the ‘they’ in his rule is ungrammatical.
Looking around and through for help on writing in my niche of commercial literature, I ran into rules I think work pretty well from no less than Elmore Leonard (NYT, July 16, 2001). He says:
These are rules I’ve picked up along the way to help me remain invisible when I’m writing a book, to help me show rather than tell what’s taking place in the story. If you have a facility for language and imagery and the sound of your voice pleases you, invisibility is not what you are after, and you can skip the rules. Still, you might look them over.
1. Never open a book with weather.
If it’s only to create atmosphere, and not a character’s reaction to the weather, you don’t want to go on too long. The reader is apt to leaf ahead looking for people.
2. Avoid prologues. A prologue in a novel is backstory, and you can drop it in anywhere you want.
3. Never use a verb other than ”said” to carry dialogue.
4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb ”said” . . .
. . . he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange.
5. Keep your exclamation points under control.
You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.
6. Never use the words ”suddenly” or ”all hell broke loose.”
This rule doesn’t require an explanation. I have noticed that writers who use ”suddenly” tend to exercise less control in the application of exclamation points.
7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
Once you start spelling words in dialogue phonetically and loading the page with apostrophes, you won’t be able to stop.
8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
Which Steinbeck covered. In Ernest Hemingway’s ”Hills Like White Elephants” what do the ”American and the girl with him” look like? ”She had taken off her hat and put it on the table.” That’s the only reference to a physical description in the story, and yet we see the couple and know them by their tones of voice, with not one adverb in sight.
9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.
(Even) if you’re good at it, you don’t want descriptions that bring the action, the flow of the story, to a standstill.
10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.
My most important rule is one that sums up the 10: If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.
Or, if proper usage gets in the way, it may have to go. I can’t allow what we learned in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative. It’s my attempt to remain invisible, not distract the reader from the story with obvious writing.
If I write in scenes and always from the point of view of a particular character — the one whose view best brings the scene to life — I’m able to concentrate on the voices of the characters telling you who they are and how they feel about what they see and what’s going on, and I’m nowhere in sight.
Moving from Schadenfreude to Fremdschämen (describes embarrassment experienced in response to someone else’s actions). German seems to deal with feelings about #Congress better than English
Always great writing advice from an agent (who turned me down, but then)
Originally posted on Carly Watters, Literary Agent:
Last week I wrote about beginnings, this week I want to talk about endings.
Endings are very specific to each person’s own story so I can’t give individualized advice, but the most important thing is that endings must feel satisfying to the reader. ‘Satisfying’ is a very subjective word and it will mean something different to each reader. But here’s a good description: An ending is where tension is relieved because a conflict has come to a peak and everything has changed. The world will look different to the main character and reader now.