Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Sound Literary Advice

Last month, in the newsletter by Philip Martin of Great Lakes Literary, he discussed "The Sound of Your Stories" and advised reading them out loud for their cadence, something I've found useful for years, especially when writing dialogue. (It's a good thing no one can see me marching up and down the house, talking to myself in different voices, waving my arms, making faces, fighting imaginary foes.)

This month's newsletter contains the expansion of a theme on which he wrote last year: "Developing a Sense of Place"--Part 1 is here; Part 2, here.

One of my favorite articles is this one: "C.S. Lewis & the Art of the Believable Detail."

The newsletter is free, the information is useful, and the writing is good. At the bottom of the first page, there's a link for those who want to sign up for the newsletter, which I highly recommend.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Arguing One's Work

(No names are being given, in order to protect no one in particular.)

I've been on both sides of the argument when it comes to defending a piece of writing. This week, the argument came again, this time from a published writer whose submission to an online magazine was not bad but definitely not his best work. After I, a slush reader, offered my comments and suggested a rewrite, the author composed a long and well-thought e-mail response essentially stating that his work should remain as it is, that any changes to it would alter his message.

Although I can understand what he was attempting to do with his short story, his message did not come through in the final product; thus the request for a rewrite. Defending one's work without considering the possibility that a change could improve it is (dare I say it?) arrogant. Very few of us in this world--regardless of our publishing statistics, adoring audiences, or innate talents--can produce work so near perfection that it cannot use a bit of polish to smooth the rough edges.

Several years ago, an older and wiser writer once told me that if I needed to explain what I wrote, I needed to rewrite it.

Excellent advice. If I expend too much prose trying to tell the reader something, maybe I'm not sure of what I'm saying. Maybe I'm over-explaining--and almost any explaining can be eliminated if the story is being told in clean, clear words. Maybe I'm skipping necessary information or, in an attempt to be literary or mysterious, I'm being too vague or am jerking the reader too quickly or awkwardly along the path toward story's end.

I have a duty to the reader. Why should he follow my lead if I keep losing him in a coy attempt to be clever? Why should he lag behind when he can skip ahead of all the chunky, clunky prose and find a clearer path ahead? And why should he stick around for the end if getting there is too much work, or if he's always being jerked off the path?

Recently, I had a small debate regarding a short story of mine published in December. In that case, I was the one presenting a defense of my work--not to an editor who asked for a rewrite, which had been requested and promptly given, but to a fellow writer who wasn't all that impressed with the end result. That's okay. Anyone who's ever hired me to edit a romance novel knows how much it takes to impress me. I've seen my fill of cliched westerns, unmysterious mysteries, and boring thrillers. But that's why I nudge, and sometimes prod, my fellow writers toward something better.

We can't please everyone, nor can we please every taste. All we can do is present our best work and maintain enough humility to realize there are only a few perfect pieces of writing in this world--and ours are very likely not among them.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Long Day

I've just put in 14 hours, and I'm sure glad they're over!

During the first two or three years of working here, we all used to put in 10- to 14-hour days during basketball and baseball, and work six or seven days a week all the time, until someone finally gave in and started letting the salaried folks have an extra day off during the week. Right nice of 'em.

So, over time, I've grown accustomed to working shorter (read "normal"), 8-hour days.

There are a couple salaried workers, though, who still have to put in the rough hours during baseball season, due to the nature of their jobs. I can totally sympathize, but I'm glad I get to go home in summer before the sun sets!

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Novel Update

As of this moment (2:15 p.m., Sunday, February 17, 2008), I am one-fourth finished with Dragon's Bane, the second novel in a projected cycle set in the same world, if not all in the same time.

All these years to write here-and-there, bits-and-pieces, while also working on other projects, and now I get to see the dream start to come together.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Films, Novels, and Hot Coffee

Still waiting on a movie I ordered on The Body, about the finding of what could possibly be the skeletal remains of Jesus Christ. Back when this film was first released on video, I kept passing it on the shelf at the video store, curious but cynical that my faith would be favorably--and honestly--represented. Was it just a mockery of Christianity? And how would Judaism and Islam be represented?

Well, I finally rented it, and was so impressed with the story and the acting (some big names in this, and even the supporting actors are great--I especially like the cheeky Irish brother) that I eventually bought a used VHS tape of it and have watched it several times since. Being a fan of widescreen, however, I've finally broken down and purchased the DVD. Can't wait for it it arrive.

Note (added later, same day): Yes, faith is affirmed, but I will not reveal the ending, which is absolutely perfect. 

Meantime, I've also purchased Strangers on a Train and Witness for the Prosecution, classic noir, the first directed by Alfred Hitchcock and the second by Billy Wilder. Highly recommended.

One of my writing rituals involves a cup of fresh coffee beside the computer, and though I'm inhaling the imagination-inspiring aroma, now I'm debating whether or not to watch one of the movies. Work or play. Work or play. Hmmmm....

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Fiction Calisthenics

Today's entry was inspired by an entry over at Jeff Draper's blog, Scriptorius Rex (go check out his site; good stuff), and my response to it.

If you're ever stuck, or you just need to warm up your writing muscles and flex those fingers before confronting your current project, be it poetry or a manuscript or a short story, then here's an easy, fun exercise:

1) Choose a notebook or a loose-leaf binder that you will use only for these writing calisthenics. The reason? Just like hauling out the right exercise mat or choosing your favorite punching bag, you always know where to go when you need a workout. Also, every time you do this exercise, you will end up with something interesting you can use later; if you use the same notebook every time, you always know where to find the material.

2) Each time you start a fresh exercise, put the day's date at the top of the page, then make a list--1,2,3--on the first three lines.

3) Pick a book, any book. Pick a magazine, if you want. Any printed material will do; I prefer thick books.

4) Flip through the book at random and, without looking, point to the page. Write down the word closest to (or underneath) your finger; feel free to try again if the word is "the" or "and" or something else bland. Multisyllabic words are best, but any word will do. Repeat this part of the exercise until you have at least three words listed beside the numbers at the top of your page.

5) Look at the clock--or set a timer--and, without stopping to think about what you're going to compose, write for no less than 5 and no more than 15 minutes straight, incorporating those three words in your list. When the timer goes off or the second hand ticks past the 5-minute or the 15-minute point, stop writing, even if it's in the middle of a sentence.

In my experience, the results are often a lot of fun and help provide some interesting openers for what can become longer stories. I'm surprised at the variety of topics, settings, and eras that I've written about whenever I've just let my mind wander free.

Below is one example from my apple-green spiral-bound notebook which bears the same title as this post--"Fiction Calisthenics"--and the three words in the list are in bold in the text:


1) school
2) arms
3) gloves


No way.


He stared at the gleaming silver benches, the neatly bordered aisles with their shiny aluminum handrails. At least twenty rows of bleachers--and he was supposed to run up and down how many times?

First day of school in this backwater town, and he was already in trouble.

He glanced over his shoulder. Coach Winters stood with his arms crossed, whistle lanyard dangling from one meaty paw, stopwatch lanyard dangling from the other.

Jerk. Can't take a joke.

Coach Winters spat on the track, and little puffs of dirt flew up around the wad of phlegm. "Two minutes added to your time. C'mon, boy. Twelve minutes and counting."

He swung his arms, limbering up. A couple twists, a couple hamstring stretches, a few seconds of jogging in place as a warm-up--

"Thirteen minutes."

What he wouldn't give for three minutes, a boxing ring, and his favorite pair of gloves; flabby Coach Winters wouldn't last one round. Guaranteed.

His tennis shoes banged on the first bleacher, the sound echoing in the stadium. Blowing out his breath, taking it in again, he started up.

And there ya go--you've warmed up your writing muscles, and you have material to use later, and (hopefully) you've had a little fun doing it.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008


About the new fantasy story I started in a small notebook, back when I was sick and couldn't be on the computer: A kid where I work was reading the latest updates (he's been the only reader, actually) when he looked up, a serio-comic expression on his face, and asked, "Will there be unicorns?"


I looked back at him, uncertain where this was coming from--or going. "Uhm, no. Why do you ask?"

"Oh, no reason. I just though there might be unicorns."

"There will never be unicorns in anything I write."


"There will never be unicorns in anything I write."


And that was that.

It's the tale of young Emerson whose Great-Uncle Eban disappeared, long before Emerson was born, back when Eban was a boy himself. I still have no idea where the unicorn question fits.

Sunday, February 10, 2008


I'm re-reading a hefty piece of fiction--hefty in size, scope of story, and theme--The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova.

The Historian might be described as a story that tells a story about a story. It's about the historical Dracula, beyond Hollywood or Stoker or any of the modern vampire tales, and Kostova deftly handles the intertwined stories.

Remember the film Sliding Doors? The alternating storylines could easily have become tangled and difficult to keep separate, but the filmmakers handled them very well. The same with The Historian and its layers of stories that are centuries deep. It's the kind of tale that I'd like to write--not that I want to write about Dracula, but I want to write deep, absorbing, tangled stories that are as well handled as this one.

But, all that aside, one thing strikes me about the whole spectrum of Dracula/vampire myths: the use of a variety of talismans used to ward off Ol' Vlad or other evils. What makes a silver bullet through the heart any more effective than the average bullet through, say, the head? Why is garlic such a big deal? Or a sharp wooden stake? Why are crucifixes, holy water, or other holy symbols from other religions, such powerful weapons?

They are, after all, only things. What power do they have over what is, essentially, spirit? And what happens if a vampire's victim is non-religious? What's a poor neck-bitten atheist to do?

The topic is addressed in The Historian, but even then the atheists resort to religious talismans to protect themselves from an evil so far beyond understanding or human power to overcome that they don't know what else to do. One person carries a silver knife, another a gun loaded with silver bullets, and another an ancient vampire-killer kit. Garlic in their pockets, silver crucifixes around their necks. Again, just things.

I'm not a ghoulish person, nor do I revel in gore or evil, but there's something about the various vampire legends that have captured my imagination since I first saw a version of Dracula on TV when I was about six years old. It gave me nightmares for years, but--and this is odd, perhaps--it strengthened my faith in God. In my worst terrors, I prayed for peace. No teddy bear or talisman worked the same.

Where did all those traditional talismans originate? Why did/do people think they possess any power? Guess this means I'll be cruising Wikipedia...

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Job Quest

In addition to writing-related posts (or, at least, story-related posts, even if some of those stories are on film), I will likely be interspersing comments on my quest for a new job.

I've been at this current job for ten years, four months. Though there are things about it I enjoy and that make coming to work an interesting prospect, matters have deteriorated since my first supervisor left in early September 2001, just before the 9/11 attacks. (No connection, just pieces of my world changing at similar times.) There have been bizarre events, crazy rumors, lazy coworkers, opposition to logic and professional practices; and through much of it I've had to deal with a disintegrating family and sudden health issues, one of which happened back in the summer and led me to reevaluate my life.

I'm not where I want to be, either as a person or as a writer.

As a result, one manuscript was finished, and other writing projects begun. (I've not entered any contests or sent any work for publication, however, since the most recent short story was published.) Also, I've been sending out resumes and responding to "help wanted" ads, looking for a job where things make sense, where I don't feel as if I'm living in an upside-down universe where right is wrong, practical is pooh-poohed, or logic or creative solutions are looked at sideways. Weird, but the only sense I've found sometimes resides in fiction.

There is my faith, of course, and a lot of everyday, practical wisdom in the Bible--but even working with people who profess the same faith has not made things easier. In fact, often those are the very people who are the greatest obstacles. I don't understand it.

Anyway, I'll be posting things every once in a while about the journey toward job satisfaction. That'll be a story in itself.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Distraction and Imagination

Last night, it was The Fellowship of the Ring; tonight, The Two Towers.

Sometimes, I need absolute silence in order to write, but sometimes there's something about the distraction of a movie or a CD playing in the background to set the imagination leaping to new connections (and I definitely need to look at the current manuscript with fresh eyes). Whenever I need help with a fantasy story, it's often the LOTR DVDs or the soundtrack CDs that are called into service.

When I'm feeling science fiction-y, Equilibrium or Dark City, Farscape or Firefly might occupy the DVD player. The first couple Spider-man movies also work.

For action or adventure, I might choose Empire (the miniseries about Tyrannus the gladiator), The Last of the Mohicans, Rob Roy, Braveheart, The Ghost and the Darkness, the Bourne series.

For a bit of romance or drama, perhaps Daniel Deronda or Ladyhawke or The Ghost and Mrs. Muir will provide the necessary ambiance. Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights--bless those Brontes--are for the darker moods.

Mystery or suspense? The Bourne movies again, or Hitchcock, or maybe the first or third installment in the Mission:Impossible series. The Illusionist is still fun, and Collateral can still make me tense.

Westerns or history: Open Range, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, either season of the Lonesome Dove television series, maybe Luther or The Four Feathers.

Humor might come from The Importance of Being Earnest, Strictly Ballroom, Much Ado About Nothing.

Notice how many of these films actually cross genres? They don't necessarily fit one hundred percent in an particular category, and that is part of their appeal. They reach wider audiences because many of them have a little something for everyone. That's what I want for my own stories: guys, girls, adventure, mystery, romance, action, humor, and more.

Now, back to work.