Rewrite

GorillaI’m learning the wisdom in the writerly saying, “You never finish a novel, you just send it off when there’s no time left to rewrite.”

I’m in my eighth or ninth rewrite of Hack the Yak, still finding words to change, emotions to outline better, little plot quirks.  You know the old phrase, ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’?  I’m afraid I may be in the ‘If it ain’t broke, fix it anyway’ phase of writing this novel.

Oops … an ellipsis where there should be an em dash.

Oh, well.  Per aspera ad astra.

The Blasted Backstory

I took a great short course on backstory at the Cape Cod Writer’s Conference last week. Michelle Hoover, the teacher, is a fine writer (literary fiction – The Quickening) and knowledgeable instructor. I really needed the course.

She remarked to us that we control some part … maybe 60% … of what the reader gets out of a story, and that we ought to embrace the creativity and life experience the reader brings to the reading. That’s something I forget, particularly when wrestling with plot. Her notes for the class remind us, “The biggest mistake most beginning writers make is the belief a reader must know this or that about what occurred before the character’s present moment. The fault is generally due to the following: 1) the author’s distrust of the reader’s intelligence; 2) the author’s distrust of his/her own writing ability; 3) the author’s inability to give up control; 4) the author’s nervousness about beginning his/her own story …”

Ouch! I suffer from all of the above. Does the reader really need to know exactly what stop loss insurance is and how it’s calculated to fully understand the plot line of Hack the Yak? Or am I just a lazy, controlling author?

There. 1,000 words gone. Easy. Just like a good healthy …

stoploss insurance

Quieting the Mind, Digital Flotsam and the Beach

I had my knee scoped back in January, and my plot for Skins and Bone went to hell. At the time, I didn’t associate the two. In fact, I didn’t figure it all out until the knee improved and I got to the beach. Where I could walk. Where I did not have to check my e-mail, look at Twitter, get drawn into the abyss of looking at YouTube videos or bathe in the statistics the elliptical trainer spits out (320 calories <blip> 134 bpm <blip> 18 minutes left <blip>).

Beach walkingWalking on the beach (I race walk, look funny and sweat) allows me to quiet my mind and speculate on plot. The current novel is a thriller, so plot’s important, but I am not one to write an outline and stick to it. My characters don’t always follow outlines very well … they’re human, after all. Instead, I float ideas, then let the characters marinate in them.

I guess I just relearned what wise men always knew: Quiet the mind to let creativity flow.

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 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.

Writing by Rule, or Invisibility

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:

There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows Somerset Maughamwhat they are.

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:

Elmore LeonardThese 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.

A Reading

My Story Blues Highway was published in the May, 2013 annual Bacopa Literary Review, and I was asked to read a portion of it at the Bacopa annual meeting in Gainesville, FL.  Here’s the reading:

The Bacopa Review had 80+ short stories, creative non-fiction and poetry.  See the Bacopa website  for a copy.   My whole short story, called The Cle eland Travel Inn, is here:

On Writing from the master of mystery and crime

elmore-leonard1-c4b445dd335d73a2096095ed3b2a2f27dd4be19c-s6-c30Yesterday, we learned that Elmore Leonard has passed on, perhaps to write in another sphere.  The New York Times published an obituary and an op ed piece describing him as having elevated the genre.  Leonard wrote a piece on making a narrator that doesn’t usurp the story that is beautiful for its brevity and clarity.  I have extracted it (how could you fool with the words of a master?) in deference to the widely advertised short attention span of, well, almost everyone.  Mr. Leonard would tell you (and does, several times, in the complete article), that there are exceptions to each of the rules.  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.

I just checked the first pages of my first novel, and I believe it took me to page 70 to violate all of the rules (except the prologue … I washed that out months ago in rewrite).

Groped! … The result

Thank you to the fine folks who responded to my Groped entry (women, I assume, but you never know on the Internet).

girl surprised

(This person looks too much like an ingenue to be Weezy)

I asked to read you a passage describing Louise Napolitani … Weezy in my novels … getting groped by a guy she refers to as ‘the Lizard’ after the fact.  She’s at a fancy party, and the Lizard is the host.  Does she make a scene? Punch the guy?  Perhaps, as one of my friends suggested, dig her heel into his instep?  The conclusion was evenly matched between ‘don’t make a scene’ and ‘raise hell’.  Another interesting dichotomy was how to handle telling or net telling Joe Mayfield. As she says of her relationship to Joe, “If it ain’t love, it ain’t bad.”  Does she tell him, assuming that to not tell him might poison their relationship?  Or does she say to herself that she’s a big girl, and she shouldn’t risk prejudicing Joe about his new boss?

Tough questions for Weezy.  She’s no shrinking violet, and she’s unwilling to be intimidated by the Lizard.  She handles the grope itself with sarcasm but not violence, and she does end up telling Joe the day after the party.  I’m still revising, but I will put the scene up in a week or two.

Groped! … Help!

Novice writers get a raft of advice.  One of the most repeated is the admonition to ‘Write what you know.’  Probably a good idea.  After all, if your character is someone entirely outside of your experience, how will you know how she reacts to the events in the plot?

That brings me to the problem at hand:  In my current story, my protagonist Weezy, Joe Mayfield’s special friend (lady friend? See last post ‘Pelvic Affiliate’) attends a business event with him.  Now, Weezy is 35 and no shrinking violet.  At the event, Joe’s uber-boss slips a hand on Weezy’s girl surprisedbehind. I need some help from the women who read this, because I haven’t been groped.  Fondled, maybe, and then only in a friendly way.  Never groped, though.

What would you do?

There’s some background on Weezy here, although I’m more interested in how YOU would react.  The lead-in to the grope is an excerpt from Skins and Bone, here.

If you are willing to answer, write a response to this post.  In the response, let me know whether you’re willing to have your answer be public.  (I moderate all posts and will not show your response if you tell me it should not be public.)