Preamble

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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 …

Two Books

I am fortunate to be in writing groups with some great writers.  Two of them have published books recently.

If the Dead Could Speak, by Tim Mahoney.  (Goodreads, Amazon)

Great noir mystery set in St. Paul Minnesota before Minnesota Nice was in style.  If you like historical fiction, you’ll like this.  Fast-paced Mystery? Ditto.  Lovable losers nicely drawn? Ditto.  Aw, heck.  Give it a read.  Tim is an editor by trade and a fine writer.

Fifty Shades of Prey, by John Sandfraud (?) (Goodreads, Amazon)

It’s a long short story … almost novella.  It’s got fifty shades of gray (without the lubricious details).  It’s got John Sandford plot and character development (if that’s the word).  What’s more to want?  Sandfraud, who chooses to remain anonymous, is a fine writer who gives you witty, acerbic asides and fast pacing.  If you’re a Sandford lover (the prey series, Lucas Davenport), you’ll get a lot of chuckles; if you don’t like Sandford, guffaws. If you’re a guy, you’ll squirm as you read about your Inner Matron; if you’re a gal … well, what do I know? I’m still tied in knots (laughter AND agony) by the Inner Matron.

I happen to know the fraudster has at least two good novels stored away waiting for a perspicacious agent.

Rewrite and Guitar-making: The art of shaving the braces

Screen Shot 2015-03-06 at 8.30.04 PMWhen a luthier is making the top of an acoustic guitar, he or she is faced with a delicate balancing act: the spruce used for good tops is thin, 1/8” or less. And the tone of the instrument depends on putting enormous tension on this fragile sheet. The top needs support, but too much support deadens tone. The solution: scalloped bracing. The luthier adds braces, then finally shaves away as much as possible, leaving just enough to keep the instrument from collapsing.

So, your point, John?

Rewrite is similar, and it helps me to use the model of the luthier. The first draft is the rough top, braces in the right places (plot elements, characterization and so on). The rewrite scallops the braces, usually removing unnecessary wood so the story can ring true.

I guess it’s possible to torture this simile too much, but the thought helps me through the minutiae – those gentle passes of the draw knife over the brace that give the guitar – and the story – its voice.

The Value of Literature in 30 words or Less

It was a simple statement on a subject too often drowned in words:

Study of the Liberal Arts “is for developing the muscle of thoughtfulness, the use of which will be the greatest pleasure in life and will also show what it means to be fully human.”

It came from Anne Hall, a lecturer at Penn, as quoted in a New York Times column by Frank Bruni. He remembers being transfixed by her lectures on Shakespeare.  His telling took me back to my undergraduate experience, where I, too, realized the power and depth of Shakespeare because of a gifted lecturer.

These days, I am greedy for examples of good writing. I see in this short phrase the brilliance of an analogy that packs a world of meaning into a few words.  Would that we might often write with such clarity … and brevity.

Big Words

Last week, I had one of those epiphanies that come when seemingly unrelated events collide and produce insight.  In my case, three events gave me perspective my habit of (proudly) using big words.

The first was wife Beverly chuckling over a John Grisham short story, Fetching Raymond. It’s a wonderfully written story in its own right, relying on big words for humor (and, in the end, sadness).

The story centers on Raymond, a sorry soul on Death Row at Parchman Farm in Mississippi.Parchman Farm  The family fetching him is uneducated, but Raymond has spent ten years with a dictionary, so he lards his frequent letters home with the impressive vocabulary he’s acquired.  On the way to Parchman, the family contemplates one of his letters explaining why yet another lawyer is coming to his defense:

“Not surprisingly, a lawyer of such exquisite and superlative yes even singular proficiencies and dexterities cannot labor and effectively advocate on my behalf without appropriate recompense.

“What’s recompense?” she (Inez, his mother) asked. “Spell it,” Butch said. She spelled it slowly, and the three pondered the word. This exercise in language skills had become as routine as talking about the weather. “How’s it used?” Butch asked, so she read the sentence. “Money,” Butch said, and Leon quickly agreed. Raymond’s mysterious words often had something to do with money. “Let me guess. He’s got a new lawyer and needs some extra money to pay him.”  Grisham, John (2013-06-17). Fetching Raymond: A Story from the Ford County Collection. Random House Publishing Group. 

Okay, so that exquisite bit of humor built on ponderous writing tweaked me.  Surely, not my vocabulary, though.  Right?  My wife just smiled, which brought on the next act of realization: a vision of sitting long ago in my college writing professor’s office.  He had asked what I was trying to say in a particularly tortured passage.  I explained in much plainer English.  He looked up from the paper, puffed his pipe and said, “Why don’t you just say it that way?”

The last event came at a meeting of a writing group.  Tim, a fine writer, editor by day and thus person one listens to carefully, read out these lines from my work-in-progress, Skins and Bone:

It had started as a simple statement that as a good trader, he was simply trying to do the best for his company. Over a couple of days, it had morphed into a full-fledged tragic exposition. In Ross’s perfervid imagining, the judge would surely understand how Ross’s desire to do good had been taken advantage of by dishonest, ungrateful people.

“Perfervid,” he said.  “Great word, but it drags the reader away from the character who’s speaking and reminds us there’s a narrator.  You don’t want to do that.”  But I love the word, a marvelous conflation by my cousin, Gamble, a consummate story-teller.  You won’t find it in the dictionary, but it has a pretty clear meaning. However, Tim’s right — it’s showing off, and it weakens the passage.

I need to think simple language, or at least not orotund (oops!).

“Bloodline” on Netflix, March 20

Yes, I know it doesn’t sound like writing.  But it is.  Music, that is.  And my son Edward, not me.  See a first review from the Berlin festival.  Edward Rogers and Tony Morales wrote the music for this Netflix original by the creators of the enormously successful Damages.

BloodlineAm I proud?  You bet.

Present Tense, Past Tense and the Oral Tradition; OR “This Guy Walks Into a Bar…”

No, I’m not turning this into an adults-only blog.

Last night, I finished presenting Novel #2 to my very helpful writing group.  After the comments were finished, our grammar nazi and certified DFW (Damn Fine Writer), whose day job is being an editor, did one of those Ahems that often precede something heavy.

“Umm, why did you write it present tense?”Present tense

She continued, “You know, it being a thriller, editors are going to expect past tense.”  Across the table from me, another editor and DFW was nodding agreement.

I summoned up my response, preparing an explanation that would be both incisive and erudite, “I dunno. It just came out that way.”

I’ve been churning on this for a day.  Of course, the editors are right.  But it’s not a small task to move from present to past for an 88,000-word work, so I have employed a variety of arguments, justifications and self-serving excuses.  But I still come up with, “It just came out that way.”

So, why did it come out that way?

I have to blame the Oral Tradition.  See, I came to writing from music.  I’ve been telling stories and playing music for many years, and most of that is in present tense, so I guess I just naturally moved into the story-telling mode I was familiar with.

Present tense is pretty limiting, though.  88,000 words?

Self-Publishing: Blessings and Woes

John Rogers:

Sifting the massive quantities of fact-ish stuff from the opinion of the subject of self-publishing is tough (think fly specks in pepper). This seemed good to me.

Originally posted on Publishing Insights:

old-books

In the article Why You Need to Become an Independent Publisher, Geoff Livingston advocates writers to consider self-publishing; he also shares the valuable things that he has learned in the process. Livingston states that the trend of independent publishing is mainly due to “retaining artistic direction, a higher percentage of profits, and the increasing lack of editorial and marketing support offered by traditional publishing houses”. He offers suggestions on producing an outstanding manuscript and marketing the book after it has been published.

Meanwhile, Joe Belanger discusses the potential disadvantages of self-publishing in his article Self-publishing risks and rewards explored. He points out that independent publishing not only means that authors must be involved in the “creative aspect” of production, but they must also make “a series of business decisions”, which possibly takes up the time that could be spent writing and even leads to unwise decision making without seeking…

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What is writing like?

Roger Cohen wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times about Israel a couple of Legoweeks ago.  He began by quoting a novelist.  The quote is perhaps the best commentary I’ve seen on the process of writing.  He said:

“(Writing) is like reconstructing the whole of Paris from Lego bricks. It’s about three-quarters-of-a-million small decisions. It’s not about who will live and who will die and who will go to bed with whom. Those are the easy ones. It’s about choosing adjectives and adverbs and punctuation. These are molecular decisions that you have to take and nobody will appreciate, for the same reason that nobody ever pays attention to a single note in a symphony in a concert hall, except when the note is false. So you have to work very hard in order for your readers not to note a single false note. That is the business of three-quarters-of-a-million decisions.”

Doldrums, and a question

Can it have been a month since the last post?

Oh, yes.  The holidays, perhaps the handiest excuse for inactivity.

My question to myself has been sitting there, sitting there, day after day:  Self publish or traditional?

In favor of traditional publishing:  It’s traditional.  People have been making a living at it for pushing 600 years (not counting the monks working the vellum).  Somebody out there knows the many-more-than a few hundred people I could contact by myself.  Somebody knows how the business is done.  Right?

Well, maybe not.  I see randomness, chaos and poorly executed fundamental practices.

So, self-publish, right?

Umm … maybe.  Amazon’s out there throwing business models on the wall to see if they stick.  One can self publish, hard copy publish, audio-book publish, get reviews from other writers, offer up completed books for reviews … all on Amazon.  I think of Amazon as an avuncular alligator, happily consuming writers’ products as long as market share keeps rising.  As self publishing flattens, as it reportedly has, does the alligator tear off your arm for a snack?  (Pardon my mutilation of metaphor.)

Dunno.  A couple more contests coming up.  More queries.  Freshen up the platform (Ugh!) Who knows?  Soon, I may get writing again.