Writing with Feeling

I read a submission guideline the other day that sliced novelists into ‘beginner’ and ‘experienced’ using the following cleaver:  “you may consider your work for the experienced category if it has been critiqued by people other than friends and family.”

I get it.  Your wife’s going to tell you it’s great.  Family harmony vs. weak characterization … harmony wins, right?

Well, that’s all well and good as a general case.  However, my wife Beverly is not a general case.  She is an educator of many facets … kids, science outreach, young (we’re talking preschool through elementary), old (adult to ancient).  And, in all those facets, writing has been her central organizing idea. Here’s a reminder from her current writing course that rang a bell with me (hehehe):

The Writing Paradigm

Ponderous title, no?

The paradigm of writing has been one of my discoveries, the kind that slaps you upside the head and then laughs at you when you look back over your benighted stumble toward understanding and realize that it was always there, obvious. You were just too dense to see it.

ParadigmWebster’s defines paradigm as “a framework containing the basic assumptions, ways of thinking, and methodology that are commonly accepted by members of a scientific community.” The OED weighs in less ponderously than one might have expected, “A worldview underlying the theories and methodology of a particular scientific subject.”

I should have reflected on the definition. Strike the ‘scientific’ and you realize that paradigms are ubiquitous: everything from religion to sandwich-making at Subway has its paradigm. And, as I realized over time, I was light on the ‘methodology’ part of the writing paradigm.

When I began, I thought writing was made up of story-telling and mechanics. I quickly learned (i.e., was corrected) that what I called story-telling is Voice, a somewhat mystical characteristic. Part in-born talent, part life experience, the experts intoned. Not something one can learn by rote. Asked for more specifics, the experts universally mumble something about it having to do with the wealth on one’s life experience and … read a lot. I kind of get it.

I had a rock-solid control of grammar and vocabulary (or so I thought). English major, you know. I had read a lot. Couldn’t do much to influence that ineffable quality called Voice. So what more did I need?

Well, a lot. I’ll call it Technique, the methodology of writing. It is the part I’m learning from other writers. It’s the not-so-obvious superstructure of the story that allows the reader to follow comfortably, the choice of point of view and tense, the way characters and time sequences are introduced. Thankfully, this is stuff one can learn.

It does make it hard, though, to do a rewrite on one’s magnum opus and realize just how much one has to learn. Always the optimist, I look forward to the next epiphany.

The Agony of Grammar

I’ve been running into an issue in writing lately that has me stumped: grammar. Specifically, how precisely to follow grammatical rules in writing, particularly in dialog. On the one hand, John McWhorter (Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue and others) points out that the language is always in motion and often intimates that the “rules” we follow are dated. On the other hand, a shared grammar should give the most possible meaning to those words we write.

The difficulty I have is bridging the gap between real speech, which has available to it gestures and visual cues to help meaning along.  Also, because it’s thought on the fly, it includes repeats, irrelevancies and meaningless y’knows, umms, and so on, which we tolerate and edit out.

Written dialog needs to be clean and economical while sounding natural. It’s a delicate balance. I try to stay grammatical, but occasionally find my characters sounding stuffy as a result. (That’s what rewrite is for.)

Here are some I struggle with or see in my writing groups:

Bring/take: Most people seem to know the difference between transporting something toward where we are now and transporting it away. That said, common usage is collapsing to just plain “bring.” Writing needs to minimize confusion about motion. I’m sticking with the distinction.

It's LIE, dammit!

It’s LIE, dammit!

Lay/Lie: Difficult because lay is also past tense of lie. But lay is something you do to an object and lie is an action you do to yourself. (Furthercomplicated by the fact that no one is interested in getting lied or even lain.) I stick with the distinction.

Who/whom: At least in speech, few of us observe the difference. I try to rework sentences to use who, thereby getting over the speed bump of the reader trying to remember the correct application of the rule instead of following the story line.

All part of the accretion of the craft.  If you have ones that bug you, let me know.

 

 

To Genre or Not to Genre, That Is the Persistent Question

Does one (say, an unpublished author) (say, me) try to conform his writing to the model of a genre? If so, what is the model?

Does my Muse care about genre? Of course not.  She admires Ursula LaGuin, who said Museof genre, “I don’t want to live in some gated literary community just to get respect from the ignorant.”

Of course, my Muse can’t be bothered with piddling matters of commerce and the like. She did not mention that LeGuin presumably made her statement after she was published.

On the practical side of things, I get that you have to be able to describe what you’re writing in a few words. Leading a conversation with “My work is really impossible to classify, a unique blend of realism and fantasy leading to a confrontation between …” gets a polite smile and an invented need to be somewhere else. Quickly. Leading with the same description in a query letter? Fugeddaboudit.

It’s Aristotle’s fault, really. He stamped our pedagogy with the need to classify, and it stuck. We like to put things in well-organized cubbyholes. And really, I understand the need. An agent or publisher needs to know where a book fits. A bookseller (remember them?) needs to shelve it. Not tomorrow, not after 50 pages, but now.

MN Crime WaveThat has led me to try to understand, in depth, the thriller genre I’m writing in and its relationship to others close to it. That quest led me to the Minnesota Crime Wave, three crime writers of serious intent and fine reputation. In particular, there’s a series of public TV programs featuring discussions between the Crime Wave (Carl Brookins, Ellen Hart and William Kent Krueger) and often other writers. Episode 13 defined the Thriller genre better than I’ve seen before, and Episode 6 produced an excellent reading list that will occupy the rest of my summer.

Editing And Playing Tennis Solo

I believe there is a version of the 5-stage Kübler-Ross model of grief related to editing: Denial/Surprise/High Dudgeon/Fascination/Damn, I’m glad I did it.

Kubler Ross Model

The Kübler-Ross Model

I’ve often been told that every writer needs an editor. Of course, my grammar and syntax are impeccable, so that admonition was easy to ignore. Pay for advice that I surely didn’t need? On my budget? Really?

Of course, I was in the first stage of the model, Denial.

A writing group friend caught me up short when he said, “Writing without an editor is like playing tennis with yourself.” My second novel is in draft and is being pummeled by my writing groups. But maybe the first novel needs … help?

Finally, I decided to dip a 50-page toe in the ocean.

When the manila envelope bearing the edited product arrived, I opened it wondering why I felt a little like the moment right before I ripped the paper off a present from my certifiably loony aunt. (You never knew what was coming. When I was ten, it was a heat lamp. Just the bulb.)

This is a waste of time. He’ll only be able to argue with word choice.

 First page: 4 marks. I gasped. Second page: 8. Third page: 9. Surely, he must be wrong.

Surprise threatened to become High Dudgeon.

I put the envelope aside for a couple of days and pretended to be too busy to look at the other 47 pages.

Then the fourth stage, Fascination, saved me. I don’t (well, didn’t) know the convention about single quotes, and the editor’s word choice suggestions were excellent.

Over the last several days, I have achieved the fifth stage, Damn I’m Glad I Did That. Guess I have to adjust the budget.

One Rule of Writing from South Park

Great writing advice.  Not Aristotle’s Poetics.  Not E.M. Forster.  Not even Stephen King.  They’re great resources, but …

TA-DA … South Park. South Park

Great short interview with Matt Stone and Trey Parker in which they divulge their ONE RULE of good writing!

You’ll like it.  Script writer, fiction writer, makes no difference … it’s good advice.  Simple and to the point.  (Contributed by my son, Edward.)

 

 

Publishing, a Disturbing Article, and The Maginot Line

This morning, I’ve been thinking about platform (oops … Platform), the Maginot Line and an article I just read by Michael Wolff, “How book biz dug its own Amazon grave.”

If you’re a writer like I am, you probably fall into one of two camps: (1) Published, or at least agented; or (2) still hopeful. I am in the still hopeful group, and I am watching the evolution of the publishing industry closely. Of course, I’m on the outside, guessing at what’s going on, trying to decide whether to continue to bust my hump trying for representation or just self-publish. The scary part is that it’s clear that publishing is changing, but it’s not clear how a writer is going survive and prosper in the brave new world of heightened technology.

Business strategists intone the phrase ‘creative destruction’ to describe radical change to an industry, often driven by technology. They say it with such relish and optimism. Fine, if you’re a business strategist … but as a person at the nexus of the destruction wondering what to do, not so much fun.

Wolff’s article reminded me, a former coattail member of the community of business strategists, of Michael Porter, who began writing brilliantly about competitive strategy thirty years ago. In a competitive environment (this is loosely paraphrasing Porter from memory, always dangerous), businesses attempt to erect barriers to entry … tools of the trade and well-kept trucks for tradesmen, patents and software for tech companies, the enormous capital investment in a power plant for utilities … to compete effectively and protect their bottom line. A corollary is that the bigger the barriers to entry a business erects, the more invested it gets in maintaining those barriers.

Even a few years ago, publishing businesses controlled the production and distribution of books, pretty much from inception through production to the retail seller. That control has been taken away at both ends of the chain of production and distribution … many retail sellers have been driven out of business, and the publishing mechanics that formerly meant only publishers could print the end product have changed dramatically. It would take brilliant perspicacity and firm resolve to drive out of the ditch the industry is in. With that thought in The Maginot linemind, consider the Maginot Line, that WWII barrier erected by France to make absolutely sure Germans would never march onto French soil again. That was the line the Luftwaffe flew over. The scary takeaway for the publishing industry is that the noise in the sky is Amazon and Print on Demand technology flying over (soon, apparently, with drones). My question is: What happens to the lowly writer drudge? Yes, I hear the warm air being blown on The New Internet Marketing, but it’s not clear to me what a writer is to do the reach his potential readers.

I’d love to hear others’ thoughts on this.

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.

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.