Monthly Archives: March 2014

Reading to Write

While I’ve been going through the exercise of making a chapter outline and synopsis of my first novel manuscript, I’ve also returned to what was probably my first love: reading fiction.

It isn’t as if I haven’t been reading fiction at all; it is more like I haven’t been particularly selective about the fiction I have been reading. I have gotten my fiction fix from audiobooks a lot of the time, which for some reason I don’t actually count as “reading” even though the researchers seem to count it as such. I’ve been consuming tons of non-fiction over the past decade or two, especially about the commercial and craft aspects of writing. Unfortunately I sacrificed a lot of the time I once spent reading fiction in order to fit that in. So much of the writing about writing suggests that writers should read, read, read, not just write. It makes perfect sense.

Know your genre… so they say.

I write dystopian thrillers in a near-future world beset by environmental degradation and political oppression.  So, as you might guess, I’ve always been a fan of 1984 and Fahrenheit 451 and those sorts of classics. I decided to go find some new stuff along those lines. I picked up the Divergent series by Veronica Roth and tore into it. I finished the first two and am well into the third. I saw that they released a movie version of the first one, which always hits me with mixed emotions. I watched the trailer and recognized everything in it as from the book, so maybe it won’t be all that bad.

So, in reading Veronica Roth, I’ve recognized little subtle bits in her writing that bug me about my own writing, a tiny bit of stiffness (which is not an intentional pun, but ends up being one if you have read the books) where dialogue or narrative could be a bit more natural or true-to-voice. Every time I go through my manuscript, I find a little spot that could be better done. I suppose it is impossible to catch everything. Knowing that she has achieved such commercial success perhaps without catching every tiny little spot that she might have improved gives me hope.

Also, as a writer, from time to time I can see her struggling with the limitations of the first person point of view. I started writing my manuscript in first person to begin with and I got talked out of it. I’m glad that I did. Now that I’m writing in third person, I find first person so limiting. In her third book of the series, Allegiant, she continues writing in the first person, but begins switching the point of view character. This makes for difficult reading sometimes. She does clearly label each chapter with the POV character’s name, but I can’t help getting confused about who “I” is from time to time. This is especially true when it is getting late and I am in bed. I have to go looking back just to make sure I know who “I” is. It is a little distracting, and confirmation to me that I made the right choice for the POV in my manuscript, especially since I have always intended for it to be the first of a series. I would be willing to bet coffee and a bagel that Veronica Roth started writing in first person and later wished that she hadn’t because she got stuck with it after the publication of Divergent, thus the POV-hopping in Allegiant.

No changing horses in mid-stream for me.

Thanks for showing me that, Veronica Roth, and for bringing me into that world. You did a kick-ass job with the books. I’ve enjoyed them. I hope you are satisfied with the film version.

And so I read on…

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The Arc, the Plot, and Everything

Between fits of hair-pulling, I have been reading quite a bit about the things one must do to get one’s novel manuscript ultimately into the hands of a willing publisher. I’ve been whittling down a snappy query letter. I’ve been distilling a synopsis. Now I’m making an outline.

“Why didn’t you make an outline to begin with?” My psychic powers can detect the question already.  I’m not a seat-of-the-pants writer, but I’m not a fastidious outliner either.

Sure, before I got fully underway, I set down what the main turning points of the plot would be. You know, the tried and true formula for manuscript success: The hero is born, the hero’s life goes to shit, the hero tries to clean up the mess or kill the shit-maker, shit gets worse, the hero gets in super-deep shit, the hero throws the shit-maker into the shit, and everybody lives happily ever after (or not).

Here’s the thing: what I thought the story was before I began is not exactly what the story turned out to be. My characters insisted on a different story. I listened.

Now I need to go back and outline the story the characters demanded. I’ve broken down my chapters into sub-parts, and I am writing a line for everything important that happens in each of them. This means that I am combing through the manuscript once again.

This is a good thing, I suppose. I have found one or two typos and a few instances of language that could be clarified or simplified. One more notch clicks on the gears tightening up the manuscript.

I wonder how many times I will have read through this manuscript before this project is finished. I have read it so many times that it tends to wash over me. I suppose that is why I am finding things I overlooked before now that I am going through the manuscript with the job of making an outline. It is forcing me to concentrate on something practical, shifting my perception just enough to get another angle on things.

After I am finished with the outline, I wonder if I will want to do some story tweaking…

I suppose I will need to wait to see how this novel ends up writing itself.

Synopsis Hell

And I thought writing a query letter was tough.

If the query letter is a literary flirtation, then the synopsis is a drunken make-out session in the back booth of a poorly-lit and disreputable bar.

Make the manuscript sound interesting in less than 200 words? OK, sure. No problem.

Make the reader understand the entire 80,000+ word manuscript in 2000 words? Ugh. Less than 1000 words? F*ck. You’ve got to be $#!TTING me.

So, I’m fighting to suppress the memory of when I had to write a term paper and they forced me to write research tidbits down on note cards before I wrote them down in the paper itself. This was intended to teach me something that I would use later in my life. I think that something was that sometimes people will tell me to do things that are pointless and stupid.

Actually, I take that back. I think they tried to force me to write down research tidbits on notecards and instead I decided that was complete BS so I just wrote the stuff down on paper or made copies of the stuff to use in my term paper. I’m sure I lost points or had to stay after school and eventually got a bad grade because of it. I’m also sure that I didn’t give a rat’s cleft @$$hole. That sounds much more like me in grade school.

Back on topic: I’ve been writing down little nuggets of plot and character turning points and so forth on little index cards. I had never seen any use for those little blue-pinstriped pieces of stiff paper before. Apparently I was wrong about them being completely useless. Now I can sort all of that stuff out in little piles and move them around and what not.

Maybe I will shuffle them like a deck of cards and deal them out at random to see what happens. Maybe it will be better than the actual manuscript. Maybe I will re-write it that way.

Who knows? I am a writer gone wild.

And the word synopsis just sounds evil.

Look out behind you! You’re about to be eaten by a synopsis!

I think I might be.

Are copywriters sellouts?

Some snotty artiste types might say that novelists working as copywriters are sellouts, but I prefer to use the term “employed.”

Do marketers “use” copywriter-novelists in the worst sense of that word? No, smart novelists use marketers to get paid while they do what they enjoy: wordcraft. If a writer can get paid to write, then that writer gets to write instead of wasting good writing time at a day-job that prevents him from writing. Right? Right. So go write.

So ended the debate about whether I should add copywriting to the jumble of things I do to earn my keep and began my epic quest to be The Best Copywriter in the Whole Effing World. Ambitious? Sure, but why would I aim for less?

That means I had better get back to reading more about copywriting and honing my craft.

Butt in seat

I haven’t posted anything here for a few days, with good reason.

In addition to FREE AMERICA, I have two other novel projects that I am working on. So, while working in the “getting published” mode, also I have been writing, plotting, researching, re-writing, and doing all of those other things that go into the making of a novel.

While operating in “getting published” territory, mostly I have been distilling my query letter for FREE AMERICA. Now it is time for me to turn my attention to working on the synopsis.

Ahhhhhh the Synopsis. I should probably say “synopses.” By that, I mean it looks like I might need to write a few versions of different lengths. At least I enjoy the challenge.

I guess I had better get back at it.

A Writer Re-Writes.

“I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”–Mark Twain

Right now, some smart ass is reading the above and saying, “WRONG! It is French mathematician Blaise Pascal who wrote that in 1657! HA-HA-HA! I am smarter than you!”

Of course, Mr./Mrs./Ms. smart ass is looking past the FRENCH mathematician writing something along those lines in FRENCH, so saying the quote is misattributed…

c’est une ânerie.

But certainly it wasn’t an original thought. Other smart asses will say John Locke wrote something like that around 1690 and maybe even shove in your face something about Benjamin Franklin getting on the bandwagon around 1750.

This tends to prove two things every writer knows (or will find out) without having to hear/read assholes arguing about who said what first:

  1. The best writers know how to steal great stuff (ask Shakespeare when you get the chance)
  2. Minimizing word count sucks

The pain and misery of linguistic economy worsens when an author sits down to squirt out a query letter. If I were to believe much of what I have read, I would think the point of the exercise is to come as close as possible to getting across what is written in 70,000 to 120,000 words with a few sentences.

Impossible? Probably. But I don’t think that is the point.

I am coming to understand the query to be a literary come-on designed to get your prospective agent/publisher horny for your manuscript. Teasing is the thing that elicits the hot-and-bothered sensation in the mind of the reader. Unfortunately, I’ve never been much of a tease.

And maybe now I’m the smart-assed asshole saying I know more than you do.

Whatever. You decide.

I’m afraid I will perpetually feel the need for another draft (or draught) until somebody goes all-in on this sumbitch.

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Query, query, quite contrary…

So, I have started the process of sending out query letters to literary agents. This is something like saying “I have started the process of passing a kidney stone without the benefit of modern medicine.” I expect it might take a long time and might not be the most enjoyable thing I could be doing.

Although I have only been doing this for short time, I have learned some things:

1. My first query letter sucked
2. My revised query letter still sucked
3. Most guides to writing query letters suck

Yesterday, I stumbled across a query letter writing blog that I think is fantastic:

Queryshark.blogspot.com

The Query Shark blog is run by a literary agent who also helps aspiring authors by eviscerating their shitty query letters. Authors whose query letters are selected for evisceration then have the opportunity to submit revised query letters to be further eviscerated. Eventually, some get to the point where they are actually pretty good. In reading through the archive, I have learned some of the reasons why my previous queries sucked. Reading the entire archive is mandatory before submitting a letter to be chum for the Query Shark.

I was going to send out at least one query letter every day until I began reading this blog. Instead of sending a query letter today, I revised my query letter about 15 times. I’m not going to send it out again until I have finished reading the entire Query Shark archive and revised my query until it seems to meet the Query Shark standard. After that, I’m probably going to revise it some more.

Thank you, Query Shark. You rawk.

Down in Miami

Jack sat in the 7-chair round-table conference room with his back to the glass wall separating the space at the end of the long hallway leading away from the reception area. The grey-and-white swirled marble conference table sat in a corner jutting out from the side of the building. He looked out of the wall-sized windows in front of him toward the tinted windows of more conference rooms emerging from both sides.

They were on the top floor, and huge birds soared in the thermals rising from the emerald and turquoise water 200 meters below. Dozens of them swooped around past the windows, up in the sky, and down toward the water. He wondered what sort of birds they were until he spotted one on the roof above the conference room to his left: Vultures. That one grasped the steel edging in its talons and spread its feathers, lording over the corner perch like a warrior king, daring another to oppose his rightful claim. The others kept their distance.

He laughed to himself and gazed across the water, over an anchorage speckled with an armada of pleasure-boats, toward the mass of overgrown condos encrusting the barrier island in a haze just below the horizon. An empty container ship was anchored offshore. Cruise ships, barges, tugboats, offshore service vessels, and a tall mast sailboat lined up alongside the rifle-straight rows of docks and terminals leading the way from the sea into the bay. Smaller craft made wake along the channels in the protected waters. At that height he could see the reefs and sandbars in the bay marked off by dots of green and red. Bigger boats waited for the drawbridge and smaller ones drew white ribbons around them as they made way out into the gulfstream.

Incongruous sounds escaped from the conference room to the left that had been marked with a “Pardon Our Dust” sign. The saws and screw-guns punctuated the variable whine of the too-cold air dropping from the long, narrow vents in the ceiling above the windows. The smell of new office surrounded him. All at once, a huge gathering of vultures materialized in a mass of intersecting spirals, swirling like a swarm of bees in the sky between the conference room and ocean.

He felt like a vulture himself, a scavenger waiting to feed on the dead. He had never contemplated suing anyone before, but he felt like he didn’t have any choices left. It was his last play to make before he resigned himself to a quiet oblivion that he knew would eventually spiral down like the birds gliding on the air outside the window.

He was high up in the sky, seemingly higher than the passenger-jets meandering from over the ocean toward MIA on final approach. The occasional helicopter passed close by. He looked down at their rotors chopping the air as they buzzed by like bumblebees. He felt even higher, because he was still high from the joint he had smoked earlier on the ride over, drugging himself to keep his mind off the mental pain the dope held at bay. A vulture came around the corner and shot toward him, pulling back and flapping its wings in a frenzy just before it smacked into the window.

The visit went as expected. The lawyers expressed their condolences and said lawyer-things that made sense to lawyers but not much sense to someone that had to live the life they were talking about. Halfway through, he took a bathroom break, refilled his complementary can of Coke with the flask he carried around with him, and took a few bumps of the real thing behind the closed door of a stall. He didn’t know whether he would go up or down, and he had stopped caring.

The second half of the visit was more pleasant given the circumstances of his bloodstream, but almost the same as the first half. He did get the opportunity to scribble on a signature line and watch the lawyers get all legal and lawyer-happy as they glad-handed him and assured him he had made a good decision. He thought about popping an oxy in the elevator as he went down, down, down to the street below.

Flip-flops in February. Cat-sized dogs strolled by, leading their humans on meandering paths back and forth along the sidewalk. The rumble and squeak of buses and the chirp of arming car alarms punctuated the competing sound systems of outdoor cafes. Humidity was seeping into the atmosphere, not yet at its full-summer oppression, but enough to remind him that Miami was the capital of Latin America.

Trucks hauled electronic billboards, blaring drums & bass as they cruised past the outdoor tables and awning-covered bars, temporarily victorious in the sonic melee. Improbably expensive exotic cars mingled with taxis and Toyotas as the streets cleared out at the end of business and the beginning of happy hour. Where else but Miami would a baby blue Lamborghini fail to turn heads? Phone-zombies made their way out of the city, away from downtown and onto the highways that might as well be parking lots. The night was awakening bit by bit as the valets chatted and waited for a new set of keys.

Happy hour pulled the crowd in slowly, like a parasailer out of the sky, into the music and chemical recreation. Amateurs. Mostly amateurs, anyway, but a few professionals kicking the night off early. Jack had become a pro who could spot another across the room through the ice at the bottom of his glass. Tall, short, fat, skinny, man, woman, old, young… They all had The Vibe.

The Vibe wasn’t something he could ever explain to anyone. Either you could tune into it or you couldn’t. If you could, then it didn’t need explaining. If you couldn’t, then words would be less effective than cheap beer. Jack covered his mojito with a napkin and went into the toilet to snort another couple of bumps.

Calling names

Once upon a time, I was a lawyer. This wasn’t that long ago, as I haven’t wrapped up my last case. Still, I prefer to think of it in the past, my in-good-standing licensure be damned.

In my lawyering, I sometimes was forced to go places that didn’t suck. One of these occasions was about a week ago when I was forced to go to Miami while it was cold as balls back at home.

While I was there I did a little word sketching, playing around with the mind of a character in my second novel manuscript. It is a newborn thing just beginning its life, not yet fully aware of what it is. But the CHARACTERS. Man, the characters. They can’t wait to bust out. They are out of control.

Only problem is, they don’t have names yet. Or maybe that isn’t a problem. I am certain they will name themselves after they hang out with me for a while. They already call each other names, but nothing that might appear on a birth certificate.

So, any writers (or non-writers) out there that have any comments about naming characters are welcome here. You are among friends–me and my multiple personalities. We think it is cool that you actually read this and took the time to comment. Truly.

Don’t everybody post all at once now. Don’t want to crash those servers.

I am a terrible blogger.

How many times have I started a blog and let it slide away into oblivion, neglecting it for more “worthwhile” or “real” writing? I dunno. But plenty. I am certain that the carcasses of long-forgotten blogs are out there somewhere, lurking in the cyberspace of the interwebs, waiting to embarrass me someday when I least expect it.

I think my main problem is that I thought my blog needed a “theme” tying it all together, unlike my true life which seems to have the common theme of chaos and anarchy laced with OCD. I give up. Screw theme. This is me, and this is what I write. If you don’t like it, then just shine on, my friend. Shine on.