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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 …

With a Little Help From My Friends

Join a writing group, they said when I was starting out.

I was skeptical.

Now, here I am a year and a half into writing groups.  My friend Karl, himself an exciting writer, has helped me restructure the beginning of my first novel and suggested an important twist that will carry into my second.  Miranda, an editor, has ever-so-nicely restructured my query letter to be shorter and better.

Those are the obvious and wonderful advantages.  The more subtle part is that I have heard many different voices speaking from different points of view … short story, YA, romance, science fiction. I have sampled good (and, as valuable, bad) examples of the craft of writing.  I have seen other people’s characters jump off the page.  I have become a better writer with a lot of help from my friends.

 

The Cloud … and a Resource

Ahh, the Cloud.  You know, all thCloudsat data that’s searchable, that enables creativity to flourish.  That brings transparency to politics everywhere.  That data that allows ads for Minnesota ear-muff hats to pop up in the Huffington Post when it’s 30 below outside.  That cloud.

Not to be a curmudgeon, but it seems to me that the amount of IMPORTANT data is growing at a fairly regular rate.  Higgs boson, sure.  Good music, sure.  But that other stuff … the miasma of misleading ads, multiple sources contending for each and every niche … that’s growing exponentially.

I don’t know about you, but the Internet is both an irresistible source and a frustration for me as a writer.  There’s so much out there, and so much dreck obscuring the good stuff.  As a result of trying to sift through some of it, I have put up a page, Resources, that lists out what I use.  If you would like a more readable spreadsheet, contact me.  If you can add to it, contact me.

The Fine Print of Self-Publishing

Shouting PersonTo self-publish or not?  It’s a question every writer faces these days, and it’s a hard one to answer.  Like the American West in the heady days of the great land rush, there’s promise, great promise.  It’s just that there are so many organizations promising so much that it’s hard to sort the wheat from the … let’s be polite … chaff.

If you write and you’re like me (which is to say, a writer with a book often cited as, ‘Wow!  Really good.’ and thirty or so rejections from agents), you’re going to have to answer that question.

I’ve mentioned several books I like on writing.  Here’s one I really like on self-publishing:  The Fine Print of Self-Publishing, by Mark Levine.  It’s a nuts-and-bolts guide to the practical issues you will need to deal with if you self publish.

Ten Rules For Writing

Important rules, with thanks to my friends at Writers Alliance of Gainesville:

1.  Avoid Alliteration.  Always.

2.  Prepositions are not words to end sentences with.

3.  Avoid clichés like the plague.

4.  Comparisons are as bad as clichés.

5.  Be more or less specific.

6.  Writers should never generalize.

Seven:  Be consistent.

8.  Don’t be redundant; don’t use more words than necessary; it’s highly superfluous.

9.  Who needs rhetorical questions?

10. Exaggeration is a billion times worse than understatement.

Finally, when confronted by an upset grammar Nazi, always say softly, “Oh, there, their, they’re.”

Mechanics, mechanics

One of the things I’m learning from reading other people’s work in progress is the importance and unimportance of mechanics. In several groups, I’ve read stuff that’s mechanically exquisite but not very interesting. Then the other day, there was a piece with interesting characters and the rhythm of a good song. But I had to keep stopping to reread because the Mechanicmechanics were ‘invented’ … no quote marks to set off dialog, one-line paragraphs breaking up thoughts, commas where they shouldn’t be, none where they should be, and so on. Maybe James Joyce or Faulkner can do that stuff, but it’s hard for we mortals.

I’m realizing good mechanics make it easier for the reader to enjoy the story. Sure, breaking convention is sometimes important, but it’s harder to pull off that plain vanilla mechanics.

The Inimitable Dr. Johnson

Samuel Johnson Reading

Samuel Johnson Reading

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.

Damn!

 

Warehouse 13

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.

Writer’s Periodic Table

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.

Stories vs. Genres

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.

Frank Ratliff, telling the story of Bessie Smith

Frank Ratliff, telling the story of Bessie Smith

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.

The Pilgrim’s Progress

HTY progress chartWhen 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.