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 …

Long words

My critique groups often lean on me for using bigger words than necessary. Particularly people who read and adore Hemingway. My weak defense is accuracy: I want the reader to get an exact picture. The response is, “in well-written work, sixty percent of the reader’s vision is what the author wrote; forty percent is drawn from the reader’s own experience.” Now with several years and more than several rewrites under my belt, I understand.

So who had the twisted sense of humor to give an exact definition of ‘fear of long words’ as hippopotomonstrosesquipedaliophobia?

Pitch Conference

Ahh, the pitch conference.  Three minutes to explain your darling child of a novel to a polite but dubious agent.  Three minutes for her to ask probing questions that tear it apart.

I enjoyed most of the Writers Digest pitch conference in St. Paul, Minnesota last Saturday.  The classes were more reminders of ideas we writers should always have in our heads than anything new.  Mystery writer Kristi Belcamino reminded us to “get in late and leave early” so that you give the reader the essence of an action, rather than all the steps (hearing the knock, walking to the door, turning the knob).  Set up a ticking clock. (To know that you have to catch a flight to Istanbul is just information.  To know it’s an hour before takeoff and you’re still in the security line raises the stakes.)  This is stuff most writers know, but I, for one, tend to bury important things in prose, then have to trim.

I had some hope of discovering how a self-published work of fiction finds readers.  For all the good ideas, warnings, and suggestions, there was not much there.

Possibly the best takeaway for me was a session in which first pages of novels were read aloud to six agents, who then indicated when they would stop reading.  One of the pages read was from a talented author in my Wednesday critique group. The agents had comments similar to those the critique group had when its members read that first page.  Heartening to hear that the group is on point.  Also very interesting to hear the agents’ take on what works and what doesn’t.  Good writing is necessary, but not sufficient.

In any case, the experience kicked me into yet another rewrite.

Plot Complexity and the Value of Regularity

A fine Minnesota writer, William Kent Krueger, plans his mystery novels out in detail, I’m told.  He is well known for going to a diner each morning and writing.  His stories are detailed and coherent, and his prose is clear and finely balanced.  His Ordinary Grace won the 2014 Edgar for best novel.  Clearly, he knows what he’s doing.

Kent Krueger was one of the founders of one of my Minneapolis critique groups, Crème de la Crime, although he has left the group under the pressure of success.

One of my several conceits when I began writing seriously several years ago was that writing is an organic process.  We plant the seed of a character, and the character grows through the story.  The story must have an arc, and main characters must grow through the arc. Ahem. Like many of the other conceits, that one is true but not sufficient to justify waiting for inspiration to carry me away on its gassy clouds.

I’m not a person who thrives on having a regular schedule.  I feel guilty about that in a number of areas of my life, but I always have excuses: those immediate quotidian issues and tasks … groceries, dentist, car service, getting the books back to the library … seem to jump in front of writing.

I mention all of this because I am realizing how important regular writing is.  The more complicated the story, the more important regularity becomes.  In my third novel, of which I’ve drafted perhaps a third, the plot has, as they say in the bi’ness world, a lot of moving parts. If I were clever like Krueger, I’d be writing every day, which would keep the plot details in my head at all times and prevent the egregious plot mistakes I’m trying to backflush.

Too late for a true New Year’s resolution, but I hereby resolve to write on a more regular schedule.

Music, cadence and writing

My son Edward, a composer, sent me a cryptic note:

Great article about two of my favorite things…. music and Vin Scully.

The article is about the Dodgers’ legendary announcer. Professors at USC’s music school studied why Scully’s lines were so memorable, why so many people remember them verbatim. I’ll hope you watch the video embedded in the article and see why those lines work so well.  But, a spoiler: Screenshot 2016-04-04 23.40.10music.

Not surprising, really. A wordless tune is appealing to us in many ways, one of the most important being cadence. Songs lay words over melody and cadence, and a great prose passage pays attention to cadence.

I’ve always thought that great story tellers lean heavily on cadence … we almost hear the music as they speak. A good reason to read one’s work aloud.

John Grisham and Beethoven’s Ninth

John Grisham, thanks for setting me free.

I’m in three writing critique groups.  Twenty or so regulars beethovenand some great writers.  We focus down on plot, character voice, technique.  I occasionally worry about over-analyzing everything I read.  Like in college when I had that course in music that took Beethoven’s Ninth apart note by note.  I still don’t like to listen to it.

So, here I am, worrying about whether it’s okay to name a character who turns out to be minor, whose point of view (pardon me, perspective) I should be in, when I pick up Grisham’s latest, The Whistler.

Damn.  He starts the story pretty much the way my own most recent novel starts, which is boooooring, according to a substantial minority of my readers.  Chapter 10 has a short paragraph in which we see the world through the eyes of three different characters.  A stone no-no.

And, guess what?  It doesn’t matter.  The story moves nicely.  The characters are interesting.  The plot is straightforward, but it has me in the palm of its hand.  I kept turning the page.  Finished at 1:30.  In the a.m.

In the hand of a skilled writer, the rules become plastic.

I know I have to cleave closer to the rules than Grisham, but I’m glad to see that writing rules are guidelines, neither prescriptions nor proscriptions.  Maybe some day, I’ll get out of the straitjacket.

But I doubt I’ll ever be comfortable listening to Beethoven’s Ninth.

Cyberwar

cyberwarNot long ago, a writer friend said, “You’d better get published quickly, or your concept will be part of history.”

He’s right. Back when I got the idea for my first novel, Fatal Score, I thought there would be a future war in cyberspace. I guessed at the time (2011) that it would start with a bang in 2018. I was wrong.
I was wrong because “war” had, in my mind, a definite beginning. Like Richard crossing the Channel in 1066 or Franz Ferdinand being assassinated in Serbia to start World War I.
The foreword to Fatal Scores says that, in the unspecified not far future in which the story takes place, “the world is not dramatically different, but what the media called Cyberwar I has happened. In the wake of fires, floods, power-grid failures and a small nuclear episode, the United States rushed to develop the most secure (and most expensive) data vault in history. They named it, in bureaucratic mumblespeak, the Interagency Communication Channel. The acronym was thus the unpronounceable IACC, which shortly became ‘Yak’ in popular speech.”

Like lots of events in this new world of ours, the whole notion of war is being torqued by technology. It seems as if Cyberwar I has started, perhaps by our attack on Iran’s centrifuges, perhaps earlier. It heated up in the recent election.

One thing almost certain: it will escalate further.

I need an agent.  Double quick.

Sailing and Editing

cotuit-skiffs-racing

Cotuit skiffs a-racing

At risk of straying into overwrought metaphor, editing is a bit like sailing. My wife’s family is of New England whaling stock. She grew up sailing the flat bottom, gaff-rigged skiffs that evolved from the workboats designed to sail the shallow bays and shoals of Cape Cod. Her grandmother wrote a wonderful story, The Cut of Her Jib, which she took from a journal and letters of her grandfather, a whaling captain, and her grandmother. Have a look.

cover-cut-of-her-jibOkay, back to torturing the metaphor. When I go to my critique groups, I get gusts of wind coming from different directions. They’re like the changing winds that bedevil sailors near the shore. But those contrary breezes, if you read them right, you sail a better line. Same with the critical comments. I’m somewhere just off shore with my third novel, Open Circuit, tacking and backing, trying to maneuver.

After you pull free of the shoals and into the ocean, the wind steadies. You have to trim the sail and determine which line work best. Not unlike the work of editing once the story’s laid out. I’m halfway through the first substantial edit on my second novel, Skins and Bone, realizing I’m in deep water. I better navigate right or I’ll miss the point of the island.

Awright, awright. I think I’ve bludgeoned that metaphor enough.

Back to the editing …

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.