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 …
For my first novel, Hack the Yak, I just started writing, mostly character sketches. Then wove the people together into a plot. Call it the Crash Ahead writing method. I loved writing that first draft, typos and inconsistencies included. I’d just sit down and throw myself at my characters and watch ‘em react. The plot suffered. Stuff happened in Spring that should have happened in Winter. Characters ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time. Subplots wrenched control away from the main plot . But, ahhh, it was fun.
Early in the novel I’m working on now, I joined two writing groups. We’ve had some discussion on the subject. I got fired up about using an outline and began assembling (electronic) index cards to sort out the plot. I just couldn’t get into the outlining business. Too much like work. But I could see that the plot would benefit. So, being a middle-of-the-road, see-both-sides-and-generally-stay-in-the-middle kind of guy, I produced a fairly detailed synopsis, then got back to what I like doing, generally following the synopsis. We’ll see how it goes.
I get potholes in my stories, too. In the chapter of Skins and Bone that I just put up, someone in my writing group pointed out that Nita Solchow, a minor chararacter who is interested (perhaps romantically) in my protagonist Joe Mayfield is far too emotionally fragile when confronted with the fact that Joe’s attention and intention is toward Louise Napolitani. Nita is, after a New York investment banker. It was a point well taken. I was talking about how she felt, not how she acted. So, I’ve got to fill that pothole with some cement and do a bit of a rewrite.
My friend Sam Westreich, a fine writer, asked about a rule for punctuation, says, “Put in a comma when your brain runs out of breath.” Now, if we had been given rules like that in fifth grade, we’d all be grammarians!
Another reason for my dilatory behavior with respect to this blog is that been polishing my query letter for Hack the Yak and have come to realize that style is all. For instance, ‘dilatory behavior’ probably doesn’t belong in my query, given its soporific effect on a 21st century reader. While good writing is thought to be timeless, style changes pretty dramatically over time. Here’s the equivalent of a query letter from 1706:
I HAVE put into thy hands what has been the diversion of some of my idle and heavy hours. If it has the good luck to prove so of any of thine, and thou hast but half so much pleasure in reading as I had in writing it, thou wilt as little think thy money, as I do my pains, ill bestowed. Mistake not this for a commendation of my work; nor conclude, because I was pleased with the doing of it, that therefore I am fondly taken with it now it is done. This, Reader, is the entertainment of those who let loose their thoughts, and follow them in writing; which thou oughtest not to envy them, since they afford thee an opportunity of the like diversion. (John Locke, a letter accompanying An Essay Concerning Human Understanding and addressed to: the Right Honourable Lord Thomas, Earl of Pembroke and Montgomery, Barron Herbert of Cardiff, Lord Ross, of Kendal, Par, Fitzhugh, Marmion, St. Quintin, and Shurland;
Lord President of His Majesty’s Most Honourable Privy Council;
And Lord Lieutenant of the County of Wilts, and of South Wales.)
Pinning for your Author Brand. A reference to Pinterest from tyroper, who writes a nice blog …
As you have noticed, intrepid readers, I have been away from the blog for a couple of weeks. I have a variety of well-rehearsed excuses, but the real reason is that I have been doing the pick-and-shovel work of writing Skins and Bone, whose plot is based on a somewhat intricate set of financial transactions. My struggle has been how to provide enough background without boring the reader.
The leader of a writing group I’m in suggested that I watch a 2011 movie, Margin Call, which is based on the intricate financial transactions behind the 2007-8 financial meltdown of the financial markets and seems to be channeling the Lehman Brothers story. The movie has helped me immensely. It made me realize that that there are two groups of readers for any book with technical details in the plot: the presumably smallish group that understands the details and will be critical if the author slips up on details, and the much larger group that wants to get on with the story. Margin Call handles this by using technical detail when it needs to without lengthy definitions … in fact, without any definition at all. For those of us that know VAR means Value At Risk, for example, the movie uses the term accurately. Margin Call doesn’t explain VAR or MBS (mortgage-backed security) or counterparty risk, but it develops a plot that depends on those concepts. Instead of intricate detail, it goes straight for the conclusion: Kevin Spacey, looking at a monitor over the shoulder of a junior analyst, says, “This number here is telling me that we’re going under, right?” So, both the critical techies and the interested general readers are given what they need.
Phew! I guess that means I don’t have to get into stochastic calculus in Skins and Bone. It’s just sufficient to know that my character Weezy understands it.
I am constantly astounded by the Internet. It has changed fiction writing, at least genre fiction. If your story has an involved plot, you have to love the Internet.
Last night, I was knocking around cyberspace, looking for a few details for my current writing project and second novel, Skins and Bone. I was able to get a detailed map of the road Fiskani Chomba (see, 100 common Zambian names in Nyanja and Bemba languages, available on several websites) needs to travel from Lusaka, the capital of Zambia (Google Maps), to a small airport in Congo. (I know the airport’s fully functional; I saw it right down to the tarmac on Google Earth.) The time differential between Lusaka, her destination in Dubai, and the bad guys she reports to in New York? A snap on www.worldtimezone.com. Oh, and a quote from the statistician Thomas Bayes? Google has scanned the Transactions of the Royal Philosophical Society for 1763, and there he is in his glory. Inside dope on Charles Ponzi and his scheme? Dozens of articles. (His full name was
Carlo Pietro Giovanni Guglielmo Tebaldo Ponzi. Phew!)
In short, I think writing as an art form has been more heavily affected (no, not impacted … that’s still a dental term in my lexicon) by the Internet than music, and that’s saying a lot. Twenty years ago, you had to travel to an area you expected to write about to get details. That’s still essential for places your story spends much time in, but you can do peripheral locations from you computer, in your underwear. (And no, you can’t go entirely naked even indoors in Minnesota in winter.) Books that needed a minimum press run of 1,000 and an investment of $50,000 or more can now be printed as singles or as electronic files.
That’s the good part. The other part is that Twitter can make a perfectly bland observation moronic and blow it to a thousand inboxes, and there is an enormous amount that probably none of us really want to know on social media. (Your dog did what on the rug?)
I think the amount of important information in the world is growing at a slow, steady rate. That’s an optimistic vision, as you surely know if you have been given the “magic of compound growth” talk by a life insurance agent. The Internet has provided access we’ve never had before … a good thing. But it’s also added an enormous pile of manure to dig through on the way to finding that pony.
Retired? Not me. If you do the things you need to do when you have to do them, then you can do the things you want to do when you want to do them.
Shoreacres gave a good and trenchant response to my post on writing groups: “Here’s the key phrase in your post: …having a good writer look at your own stuff…. ” and goes on to say, “(I)f we’re going to listen to other voices, we need to choose those voices carefully.” See her blog at shoreacres.wordpress.com
As I said in the first ‘writing groups’ post, I’ve joined a couple of groups. I agree with shoreacres that we need to choose carefully. The hard part of ‘carefully’ has been, for me at least, not choosing just people whose writing I admire most. I love fine literary writing, and there are a couple of people in my writing groups who are great wordsmiths. Their critique of my stuff helps iron out the plodding bits. But I’m writing genre fiction, so I need to listen to folks whose work I don’t read by choice. In my quest for ‘comps’, which is to say, writers I can compare my own writing to in queries to agents and publishers, I’ve been reading a lot of mystery/suspense lately. Right now, I’m reading one by a best-selling author whose writing is considerably weaker than at least four (unpublished) writers in groups I’m in. The characters are square-chinned, chiseled cardboard, and the prose varies from workmanlike to plodding … but the plot drags me along. For me, it’s a lesson learned. Reading other genres exposes me to gag-me-with-a-spoon phraseology, but phraseology that’s appropriate to the genre (we’re talking chick-lit, here), but also to writing that has great mechanics (clear description in the right places, despite the heaving-breast breathlessness). So, I appreciate shoreacres’ insight and would only add that ‘good’ writers’ groups include all sorts of writers.
There are quite a few groups where I live and work, and I’ve been lucky to find a couple that I really like. Having found them, I’m learning their value. First off, listening to other voices makes one’s own voice stronger, better. At risk of being obscure, it’s a little like the bracing that keeps the soundboard of a guitar from warping. In a fine instrument, the luthier shapes the bracing by shaving away parts that are unnecessary, leaving the soundboard as strong as it was before the shaping but more responsive … clearer sounding. That’s what a writing group does, at least for me. Torturing the musical simile a little more, having a good writer look at your own stuff is a little like listening to covers of a song you know well done by other musicians. You always love the original, but the covers broaden your horizons.