Monthly Archives: September 2012

From First Draft to Final Polish

As I enjoy the very last pass through my novel, I’m struck by how different in its specifics each revision is. Of course, writers vary enormously in their technique and approach. Still, I think we can make some general observations.

Here’s what happens—at least, for me—between the first, rough draft and the final revision pass.

The first revision, (which I strongly believe is best left until at the very least a month after the first draft is completed, since I need to get distance from the work), is for most of us actually a partial rewrite, involving sometimes substantial work on characters, plot, and pacing. I expect to move, transpose, add or toss out whole scenes; new subplots may be introduced; information and backstory management will probably need work. In SFF, add issues of worldbuilding and infodumping. In the worst cases, or if the draft was written at breakneck speed (which is why I don’t do NaNoWriMo), this revision may amount to a complete teardown.

In my own work, I usually find I need to add wordage at this stage, mostly in the form of description and ‘stage directions,’ which I tend to skimp on in my first draft; I may need to amp up conflict, too, as well as introduce some foreshadowing. I fix inconsistencies such as abruptly morphing character names and physical details. And then there’ll be factual errors.

The second revision pass will hopefully be easier and more limited in scope. During this stage, I typically find myself refining character motivation and behaviour; replacing camera-eye narration with more subjective character judgment (yet another aspect of show v. tell); and tweaking dialogue so that it’s more distinct and true to character, trying to make it snap and crackle.

This is a good time to strengthen my theme, by which I mean asking myself what the book or story is really about, and making sure that I reinforce this wherever possible within the context of believable character and action. I also find myself noticing words and gestures I tend to overuse (the dreaded, ‘he/she nodded/smiled/sighed,’ etc.).

On my final revision, I’m getting really granular and looking at the fine detail: essentially, I’m copyediting, looking to smooth every bump and buff out the most minor defects. This polishing pass isn’t about what the story is and how it unfolds, but rather about how I present it to the reader in a way that’s efficient, engaging, and pleasurable.

By now I should have a really clear vision of who my characters are and what my story is about. I’m still tinkering with dialogue, ensuring that’s it’s as crisp as can be, and watching for redundant, leftover words from earlier revisions, as well as malapropisms and the like.

But most of all, I’m looking to make the prose really sing (within reason— where I once used to think a sublimely lyrical prose style was everything, I now care a great deal more about telling a really good story, because I think that’s actually what readers want. It’s what I want when I read).

What do I mean by making the prose sing? Well, since by this stage I’ve (hopefully) eliminated scene-level structural issues with regard to pacing and plot, I’m now looking at structural issues in the prose itself at both paragraph and sentence level. As I read, I’m looking to see if my paragraphs are properly structured and sequenced in relation to their neighbours as well as internally, within the paragraph itself (a subject which merits a post of its own).

Next, is the syntax working? Do I repeat words? Can I improve on word choice, strengthen verbs, punch up a metaphor, slip in some symbolism? Have I committed unconscious rhymes, or clunky sequences of sentences that all begin with the subject (‘He did this. It was Monday. He did that. She said this. The cat grinned.’)? Are there words or even sentences I can cut? Are there filtering words (direct speech such as ‘felt’, ‘seemed’, ‘thought’, etc., often accompanied by supporting adjectives) that can be lost and replaced with the stronger, deeper perception of free indirect speech either literal or metaphorical (e.g., replace, ‘he felt very tired’ with, ‘he was exhausted,’ or, ‘he could sleep for a month)?

Finally, as I work my way through the story, I’m looking for slips and inconsistencies in both voice and tone.

Voice needs to work at every level: dialogue, internal thought (free indirect speech), and narrative (in character viewpoint). It needs to be true and consistent to each character. Skill at handling voice is critical to making readers care about a character, as well as keeping them engaged during breaks in the action.

Tone is a slippery thing, best defined as the overall effect, quality, or mood of a work of fiction, the sum result of theme, voice, prose, and much else. A dark theme approached in a sober voice may yield a Tragedy; but a humorous, upbeat voice will change the tone and transform it into Black Comedy. The point here is to understand what tone you’re trying to achieve and not break the effect with false notes or drastic changes. Start as you mean to continue.

And now? I’m done. After this final revision all that should remain is light copyediting and close proofreading (best left to others), and the work is ready to go out and earn its keep in the world!

What’s your experience with rewrites and revisions? Is your approach comparable or different?

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Contest Winner

The winner of the book contest chosen by the random number generator at random.org is ORION. Congratulations, Orion! You’ll receive a print ARC of my novel, ‘SUTHERLAND’S RULES,’ as soon as it becomes available later this year. Thanks to everyone who signed up, and do please come back. Contests and random draws are fun, and I’ll be holding more of them in the months to come.

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The Writing Blogger’s Dilemma

I had a vision of sorts this week, a minor epiphany in which I perceived our hyperconnected community as a vast cloud of flocking birds, wheeling and carving through the sky in near-unison, a collective entity in which each individual’s motion and vector is both a contributor to and a function of the whole. Amusingly, this understanding came while using Twitter.

As individual writer-bloggers, we influence and learn the most from our immediate friends and neighbors on social media and in the blogosphere. And through our collective writings and readings an emerging wisdom on various subjects of common interest seems to be cohering. I see both benefits and dangers in this.

The advantages are clear: information is quickly shared, giving us the tools to adapt to a rapidly-changing craft environment. This information includes everything from writing tips and techniques to new markets, emerging subgenres, publishing scams, and the latest marketing techniques. Being up-to-date or even ahead of the curve in any of these areas is a desirable thing.

The downside to this group dynamic is of course that the individual is subsumed. In writing, reinforcement of the same few ‘rules’ can and does lead to dogma and rigidity, the result of which is a flattening-out of individual style and technique and an increasingly formulaic quality to the resulting manuscripts. I’ve been seeing this for a while, and I believe it’s getting worse: you will be assimilated. The same of course applies to markets, creating boom-and-bust cycles (I predict Zombie Romance will not be red-hot in five years, and that even YA and MG will lose their pre-eminence).

Marketing and self-promotion are an area of primary interest to writer-bloggers, and one where we would do well to question and scrutinize the emerging wisdom. One of the reasons—the primary one for many people—that we blog and strive for a high profile in social media is that we’re told that by enhancing our visibility this will help us promote our work. This is the received wisdom, the flock’s collective judgment, so it must be right, mustn’t it?

Well, no. Ask yourself who reads your blogs and your tweets, who interacts with you on Facebook. Beyond friends and family, I’d bet money that it’s mostly other writers.

Now this does have a value. We writers all need the support of and interaction with other similarly afflicted individuals to keep up our spirits and retain our sometimes tenuous grip on sanity. But how many of these people are going to buy our books, or talk about them? I think there is some effect, but far, far less than we think. Are the four or six or more hours we spend each week blogging about technique and talking about our work on social media going to pay off in sales? Is the three-part, forty-five hundred-word series I recently did on Trad v Self Publishing (and thanks to all of you who wrote to me about it!) going to sell my next book?

Not according to the research. The smart money seems increasingly to point at reader word-of-mouth as the single factor of real significance in promoting a writer’s work and increasing their sales. Not blogs, not Facebook, not Twitter, not sponsored ads, not marketing campaigns, not book giveaways and signings, not even reviews: word of mouth, it seems, trumps all of these. And word of mouth will be directly proportionate, I believe, to the quality of our work.

I’m not for a moment suggesting we should all stop blogging right away or close our Facebook and Twitter accounts. For one thing, these all have a social purpose; for another, everything we write—with the possible exclusion of shopping lists—serves to improve our craft; blogging, I’d argue, serves a very valuable purpose in helping us learn to frame and set out our ideas and arguments.

Should we writers then try to steer our blog and social media focus towards items of interest to our readers, actual and potential, so that we can attract more of them and that way extend our marketing reach? Well, good luck on that one. We’re not Kim Kardashian or Keanu Reeves, and fiction readers don’t typically idolize authors to the extent of following their utterances on social media and reading their daily ruminations.

In conclusion, then, I’ll keep blogging and maintain my social media presence, but with the awareness that I do so not for self-promotion but to maintain social contacts, exchange ideas, and give something back to a community of writers which has often been generous towards me; and of course for the sheer fun and banter. But if I find myself with just one spare hour in my day… well, that hour is probably better spent working on the next book.

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Arrgh!

WIN BOOKS!

Yeah, I know ‘Talk Like a Pirate’ day is over: the cry of angst in the title is due to my having got busy and TOTALLY FORGOTTEN that I’m now posting twice–Wednesdays and Saturdays–rather than just once a week! And it being halfway through Saturday and all, I’m moved to a simple solution: a random prize draw. By simply commenting below, you’ll be entered to win. There’s no catch, no spam. The prize:

1. A signed print copy of my popular nonfiction book, ‘Aegean Dream,’ the tragi-comic account of our year on the actual ‘Mamma Mia!’ island of Skopelos

OR (you choose)

2. A print ARC (Advance Reader Copy) of my upcoming caper/thriller novel, ‘Sutherland’s Rules’ (ARCs are expected out before year’s end)

Simply leave a comment below to enter; winner will be asked to choose which prize they receive. Priority postage included. The draw closes Wednesday September 26 at 0800PST, and winners will be announced here.

And there will be a new post that same morning  🙂

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So You Want to be Published?

Why? Why do you want to be published?

No, really. I’m serious.  Just humour me as I go out on a limb here.

During a brief Google search to see what the internet community’s collective wisdom on this question might be, I was surprised to find that the question doesn’t seem to have been aired much. One of the very few posts I found on the subject came from a writer who—as well as saying they ‘want to be read’ (fair enough)—said, ‘I’m trying to raise money to get an editor to read my work.’ Uh-oh.

It’s no exaggeration to say that the desire for publication assumes geas-like proportions. Beginning writers (I was one, and can attest to this) are absolutely desperate to be published—so much so that they’ll ignore all the advice and red flags posted everywhere on the internet and on writing sites and get suckered into parting with thousands of dollars by scam-artist editors and publishers. The hunger to be published seems at times like one of those biological imperatives, on a par maybe with the need for food, shelter, and sex.

In the spirit of questioning assumptions and examining our own motives—which I’ve always believed are healthy things to do—let’s take a step back and try another question: “Why do you write?” Since writing is, for a vast proportion of us, difficult, lonely, and very time-consuming work, this is a reasonable question. And given the very low hit rate among aspirant authors, and the slim chance of ever being able to make a living it, we could arguably be doing more rewarding and enjoyable things with our time.

On the positive side, the desire to write and be published is the same as that which fuels any creative pursuit. Writers are motivated by the same desires that drive musicians, painters, and other artists: an earnest need to self-expression, to creation. But whereas I don’t think anyone learning their first chords on a guitar really thinks they’re ready to go out on a stage before an audience, the new writer has no such inhibitions. They somehow lack the objective measures, the yardstick necessary for self-assessment (which is why a critique group of the best writers you can find is so terribly important).

But on the cynical side of the scale, I’d wager that a good number of those who set out to be writers are motivated by dreams of wealth and fame, of bestseller stardom, complete with adoring librarian groupies and appearances on ‘Fresh Air.’ Somehow, society does nothing to dispel this fantasy, and maybe it shouldn’t. Why, after all, should anyone question dreams and puncture aspirations, however misguided, when the world will likely do so far more decisively? And it’s quite possible that the aspiring writer driven by illusions (or delusions) of wealth and fame may transmute, in the course of practice, into the honest artist seeking self-expression.

So is the answer, “I write because I want to be read,” good enough? I don’t think so. To me, it indicates that the person hasn’t looked deeply enough into their motivations. I’d even hazard that such a person isn’t really suited to the task, since all good writers are, in my experience, people possessed of powerful and searching intellects who ask the deep questions and don’t flinch from them. If there’s one quality that defines a writer I’d say that it’s curiosity, and most especially curiosity about people, about what makes them tick, act, and react in a given situation.

I’d posit that the most—and perhaps the only—valid answers to the question, “why do you want to write?” are, and have always been, that there are stories you want to read which nobody else has written. That there are characters and ideas you want to explore. That you have to write, because if you don’t, something inside you will hurt, sicken, even die. It’s a need, a compulsion, entirely unrelated to public success.

What about publication, then? Why are we so desperate for it, like children who just have to have that puppy so badly they can’t think about anything else? Where does that compulsion come from?

Validation is the first thing that comes to mind. Okay, but let’s be realistic. I’ll confess right away that in my first year or so as a writer I—like almost every other new writer wannabe—sent stories to The New Yorker and other equally stratospheric markets. This is very like taking an evening class in CPR and expecting to pass your certification exam and become an M.D. the next day. Now this doesn’t mean that validation—or, more properly, a benchmark by which to gauge your progress—isn’t necessary, but it should be sought at an appropriate level.

Publication is also about income. All of us driven fools who choose to be writers would love to quit our day jobs and make a living at it. I mean, damn! who wouldn’t want to make a living inventing stuff and making made-up people have adventures? It’s like being paid to be a kid again (except, of course, for the hard work, self-doubt, and grim loneliness of the task). And yet, I think money should be the last thing on the writer’s mind while they’re about their business, because trying to write with the express desire to make a killing is only going to kill one thing—your story.

Where does all this leave us? Once we’ve asked and honestly answered these deep, uncomfortable questions, and decided that the reasons we write are because some strange force is driving us to do it, and we’ll do it even if the work is hard, lonely, and peculiar, and we might never make a penny at it, and it may be our fate to simply labour on in obscurity, with nobody ever taking an interest in our work, and we do it, in the end, like a child lost in play with their toys, humming distractedly to themselves while creating elaborate adventures for people only they can see… then, just then, I believe something great might emerge.

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I Did it My Way

Years ago, back in the ‘seventies, I used to ride motorcycles. My favourites were the British and Italian  classics, the Triumph Bonneville and Norton Commando, and most of all, my beloved Ducati 750 Desmo. These were far from perfect machines: the Triumph left puddles of oil everywhere, the Norton had issues with its quirky Isolastic engine mounts, and my gorgeous Ducati suffered from maddening electrical issues. Nonetheless, each of these bikes had at least one feature so outstanding, did one thing so damned divinely well, that I could overlook all their other faults.

By contrast, when I got to know my first Japanese bike, the newly-introduced Honda CB 750, a four-cylinder technological marvel of the time, I experienced a strong sense of anticlimax: from handling to acceleration to braking, the bike did everything well; it didn’t drip oil, didn’t try to shake itself and you to pieces, and it was dependable in the way we’ve now come to expect from everything Japanese and German. But I didn’t love it. Couldn’t. It lacked the fire, the one outstanding trait that redeemed all the faults of my previous European machines. Why?

Design by committee.

Three decades later, I still feel the same way. It seems a universal law that if you try to iron out every flaw in something and take a truly cooperative approach to design or creativity, the end result lacks heart, spirit, fire, whatever you want to call it. (I’m sure you’re thinking right now of examples that would prove me quite wrong, but I’m afraid you’ll never convince me. I have a seventh sense that can discern genius and creative fire in anything, from a frying pan to an aircraft). To make something that works very well is easy; to make something that turns sane people into fanatical cultists (see: Mac owners) is far harder. Steve Jobs trumps HP any day.

I rather think it’s that way with the Arts, too. With film, no question, right? Hollywood movies are almost without exception bland, formulaic, and devoid of the fire I’m talking about. Well, I’m starting to think it’s at least partially true of books as well. All things being equal (in this case, the writer being a pro that knows his or her craft, and having a good story to tell), I’d rather read the story at least close to the way writer originally envisaged it, at the length they felt it needed to be, with the ambiguous or unhappy ending the publisher’s marketing department vetoed because it could hurt sales, than a heavily-massaged, corporate product which half a dozen people have had major input on.

This isn’t to say that writers don’t need input. As well as writing, I’ve both edited and published other authors’ stories myself, and I understand the myopia all artists can sometimes suffer; and God knows we all need feedback and copyediting. But I have serious issues with the increasingly Hollywood-corporate approach to creativity that a lot of authors have to endure, because I believe that  somewhere along the line, something is going to get lost, some intangible quality that makes the work unique and sings of the Artist’s spirit and vision. I mean, can you imagine an art dealer or gallery owner walking into Picasso’s studio and telling them more people would like the painting and it would fetch a higher price if he backed off the Prussian Blue a bit? Yes, he was a genius, but Fine Art painters are typically left to work undisturbed, and the finished product is the way they see it.

We’ve seen what the corporate approach to Art has done for Hollywood and the music industry (or for that matter the brewing industry) over the decades, and it’s not pretty: it’s sucked all the uniqueness and bite from the products of each and incrementally replaced them with a formulaic smoothness that’s wholly lacking in originality and… Integrity? Fire? Truth? LotR, Firefly, Psycho,… Would any of those have turned out the way they did if the creative genius behind each had been replaced by a committee and second-guessed at every turn? For a compelling example, check out John Mellencamp’s superb 2010 album, ‘No Better Than This’, recorded the way they used to do it in the ‘fifties, with everyone singing and playing around a single mic. As Mellencamp explains, “everything was cut live with no overdubs or studio nothing! These are real songs being performed by real musicians—an unheard-of process in today’s world. Real music, for real people!” Smooth, it’s not. But it’s drenched in integrity, spirit, and that unmistakable, ineffable spark of creative truth.

Is it any coincidence that each of those industries–Hollywood, the Music Industry, and the breweries–have now lost huge amounts of market share to the Indies and small ‘crafters’ in each field? The worm turns.

Yeah, I can hear all the rebuttals, but, hey–this is op-ed, not a statistical analysis. And, yeah, I’ve always been an autodidact and a loner in every one of my endeavours, winning or losing largely on my own merits. It’s the way I’m wired. I’ll take advice, even solicit it, but I’ll do it my way or not at all, thank you very much. So when I discover someone like Dan Simmons or Kris Rusch, writers I enormously respect and admire, are wired much the same way, it makes me feel I’m not entirely crazy. And that’s a big reason why I’ve decided to publish my new novel, ‘Sutherland’s Rules’, through my own Indie press, Panverse Publishing, even though all the feedback I’m getting suggests it might be a very good candidate for a traditional publishing deal. Because, among a laundry list of other things, I want more control than I’m ever likely to get going the traditional route.

When you have a seventh sense, you have to trust it. Even if it means leaving a few drips of oil here and there.

 

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Emeralds in the Meadow

When I was at SF writing boot camp (aka Clarion West), one of the highlights of the six weeks was the day that Joe Haldeman, an accomplished poet himself, asked us all to write a poem, using any metrical device we wanted. So indulge me here, friends: I’m going to talk about poetry—sincerely and unpretentiously, because (fortunately for you), I’m no academic, and lack sufficient erudition to bore you with  tedious analysis.

I think everyone ought to read poetry, at least occasionally. And GOOD poetry, not fluff. How do you know if it’s good? It’s good if it quickens your pulse, or sends a shiver down your spine; if it’s stood the test of time, far outliving its author, it’s likely very good indeed.

We ought to read poetry because it frees us from the ordinary, giving us a glimpse over our claustrophobic urban horizon, or possibly even beyond the veil. Because great poetry is drenched in magic and speaks of immortality. And because sometimes it just delights.

If you’re a writer, you ought to read poetry, even try your hand at it, because nowhere will you find metaphor, compression, and precision of language  to equal the best poetry. I begin or end most days reading a favourite or two; sometimes, I’ll spend a few days memorizing something I really love, and then recalling it at odd times. It’s an exercise worth the effort.

As I said, I’m no academic. So instead of making an ass of myself by attempting to deconstruct the work of the greats, I’ll simply quote a few fragments of my favourites, hoping you’ll savour the words with me, and rest my case there. Take just five minutes, and read these slowly, let them get under your skin. If you were turned off poetry—as I was—at school, maybe these will make you look again.

#

There is one story and one story only
That will prove worth your telling,
Whether as learned bard or gifted child;
To it all lines or lesser gauds belong
That startle with their shining
Such common stories as they stray into.

– Robert Graves, To Juan at the Winter Solstice

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But pleasures are like poppies spread:
You seize the flower, its bloom is shed;
Or like the snow falls in the river,
A moment white—then melts for ever;
Or like the borealis race,
That flit ere you can point their place;
Or like the rainbow’s lovely form
Evanishing amid the storm.

– Robert Burns, Tam o’Shanter

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I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by
madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn
looking for an angry fix,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly
connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night,

– Allen Ginsberg, Howl

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Never on this side of the grave again,
On this side of the river

– Christina Rossetti, A Life’s Parallels

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— Then do the clouds like silver flags
Stream out above the tattered crags,
And black and silver all the coast
Marshalls its hunched and rocky host,
And headlands striding sombrely
Buttress the land against the sea,
— The darkened land, the brightening wave —
And moonlight slants through Merlin’s cave.

– Vita Sackville-West, Moonlight

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The force that through the  green fuse drives the flower
Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees
Is my destroyer

– Dylan Thomas, The Force that through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower

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THIS is a wild land, country of my choice,
With harsh craggy mountain, moor ample and bare.
Seldom in these acres is heard any voice
But the voice of cold water that runs here and there
Through rocks and lank heather growing without any care.
No mice in the heath run nor no birds cry
For fear of the dark speck that floats in the sky.

Robert Graves, Rocky Acres

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If you enjoyed any of the  above fragments and care to read any of the poems in their entirety, I’m sure they’re available online. I’d also recommend three marvelous volumes:

– The Mentor Book of Major British Poets
– The Oxford Book of Narrative Verse
-The New Oxford Book of Light Verse

To close, here’s one in its entirety. Beyond its gentle humour, I love this one because it reminds me of England, and the vanished eccentricity of its people; and for the poem’s wonderful, strolling rhythm, every bit as suited to the poem as that of Longfellow’s The midnight Ride of Paul Revere.

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The Rolling English Road
by G. K. Chesterton

Before the Roman came to Rye or out to Severn strode,
The rolling English drunkard made the rolling English road.
A reeling road, a rolling road, that rambles round the shire,
And after him the parson ran, the sexton and the squire;
A merry road, a mazy road, and such as we did tread
The night we went to Birmingham by way of Beachy Head.

I knew no harm of Bonaparte and plenty of the Squire,
And for to fight the Frenchman I did not much desire;
But I did bash their baggonets because they came arrayed
To straighten out the crooked road an English drunkard made,
Where you and I went down the lane with ale-mugs in our hands,
The night we went to Glastonbury by way of Goodwin Sands.

His sins they were forgiven him; or why do flowers run
Behind him; and the hedges all strengthening in the sun?
The wild thing went from left to right and knew not which was which,
But the wild rose was above him when they found him in the ditch.
God pardon us, nor harden us; we did not see so clear
The night we went to Bannockburn by way of Brighton Pier.

My friends, we will not go again or ape an ancient rage,
Or stretch the folly of our youth to be the shame of age,
But walk with clearer eyes and ears this path that wandereth,
And see undrugged in evening light the decent inn of death;
For there is good news yet to hear and fine things to be seen,
Before we go to Paradise by way of Kensal Green.

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