Come to My New Blog!

If you followed a link here from a comment I made on somebody's google blog, I would love to have you visit my blog, but this is no longer it. While I may occasionally post things here again once in a long while, virtually all my content will be at from here on out. If you were curious enough to come this far, why not give me one more click?

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Sometimes you can't simply tweak something

This morning's struggle was this paragraph, still in the first third of the book (I'm looking forward to getting past chapter eight or so, where I feel like the writing really improved. Right now revising feels too much like rewriting.

Anyway, here goes:

The bookshelves lining two entire walls of the study held almost as much interest for him as the rifle cabinet did. Paul or Michelle, or perhaps both, liked to read as much as he did. Uncle Danny had made him leave everything behind, including the book he had been reading. Chris eyed the shelf hungrily. He would have to take a longer look later.

I suppose this isn't a horrible paragraph, but it's kind of a dead one. There are two sentences in a row that end with the "as much as ___ did" structure. It also suggests that Chris is planning on borrowing a book from Paul and Michelle. Now he will eventually do just that, but at this point he shouldn't be planning on it. He should be expecting to be there a day at most. I let my knowledge of what was coming seep into the moment. Also, when it comes to third person limited, it's not particularly tight penetration.

The thing is, though, having decided I didn't care for this paragraph, I couldn't seem to fix it. At first I was mostly trying to find a way to take out the repeated "as much as ___ did"s, so I was just trying to come up with different words to say the same thing. The problem was that I could not say the same things without some of the problems I just pointed out, but had not yet articulated to myself. I didn't know why the paragraph wasn't working, but it continued to not work no matter what words I plugged into the existing sentences.

Then I decided perhaps I shouldn't be trying so much to keep the existing sentences with just a few tweaks. Perhaps what I needed to do was delete the entire paragraph and rewrite it from scratch. I tried that, and managed to get something that I could live with.

Here's the new version. Hopefully it's better:

Though he was supposed to be focused on the rifle cabinet, something else caught his eye. All those books! Somebody here was a reader. It must be nice to be able to keep books after you read them and look at them again later if you wanted to. Chris had never had the chance to take a close look at somebody’s book collection; what you read probably said something about you. Hopefully he’d get to spend some time in this room before he left.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

How do I *know*?!

So I'm working on Vanishing Act again after leaving it dormant for a very long time. I haven't lost my passion for the protagonist and what he goes through, but I've been staying away from it mostly because it's so much damned work compared to my more recent writing projects. I learned so much while working on this and over the year or so after I finished that first draft that it practically hurts to go back and read some of the passages in this. I mean, hell, I already cut forty thousand words, and there's still fat! It's not that it can't be cleaned up, but that cleaning it up is so much less fun than writing new stories. (Another issue is the time versus what I have to show for it. In the time it takes me to wrestle with this manuscript, I can put four or five short stories into circulation with the paying markets. Any one of those could strike paydirt while I'm still cutting darlings from Vanishing Act [and I'm still checking my e-mail compulsively forty times a day for one of them in particular.])

So why am I taking it up again? Well, I figure if I'm going to seriously pitch it around, this is the time. Since it's a finalist in the Do It! Write! contest, I'm going to be able to say on my query letters that it placed [whatever] in a contest judged by an acquisitions editor from Harper-Collins, and I know that when a contest has a respected judge, that makes it worth mentioning in those letters.

So as much as I feel like I could polish and cut forever, I think the time to take that blind leap is coming quickly. If nobody takes it on, that's okay. The next book will be better. :-)


Anyway, I'm still finding places, mostly in the first third of the book, where the writing just isn't carrying its weight. Passive constructions (not passive voice per se, but telling more than showing), repeated phrases, and stuff that simply lacks polish. And I've got a good enough eye now to see what's bad, but sometimes the fixes can still be hard to find.

This is hardly new or Earth-shaking, but one thing I have to keep reminding myself is to ask myself how I know. That's my trick for making the writing vivid. Specifically, how do I know a character's mental or emotional state?

Here's an example:

“I just wanted to make sure you were all set,” she said. She seemed awkward herself for the first time all day.

What drew my attention to that sentence in the first place was that it was my third use of "for the first time" in the chapter, but the problems with this paragraph run deeper than that.

And that's actually an important point. For me, at least, repetitive phrasing is almost always an indicator of deeper problems. I use repetitive phrasing when I'm writing lazy. I'm trying to get the words on the screen, get the chapter done, whatever, and not looking for the best way to do it, which is okay, as long as I eventually revise. But clichés--even if they're just "house clichés"--are a symptom of the same underlying problem that leads to passive writing. (Again, for me, anyway.)

I struggled for a while to fix the superficial problems. One of the other two repetitions of the phrase was easy to get rid of, but one of them, I felt, needed to stay. There's no real reason not to leave this one too, but this paragraph was ringing clunky to my ear, and now is not the time to be lazy, anyway.

But I couldn't figure out how else to convey what I thought was important here--that it was noteworthy that Michelle seemed nervous, because she was the only person who had not shown any sign of nerves in what had been a very unusual day. How else could I distinguish this time from all the times she had not seemed nervous? Everything I came up with sounded even more clunky--in particular, everything I was coming up with was even more passive. Lots of "to be" verbs that indicate that you're seeing description or exposition and not action.

Then I asked myself an obvious question: How does Chris, the POV character, know Michelle is nervous?

When I thought of it like that, here is what I came up with:

The door opened partway and Michelle poked her head inside. “I wanted to make sure you were all set,” she said. She paused abruptly, as if she had been planning on saying something else and then changed her mind.

This may not be perfect. I'm telling you her pause was abrupt; is there a way I could show that instead? Maybe if I just say "she paused," and lose the "abruptly." It's still a work in progress. But for the most part, now I'm showing you nervous instead of telling you. Who knows? Maybe I could come up with a nice simile for her stopping-and-starting.

But the point is the question that broke the logjam was how do the characters know the thing I'm trying to convey? If I can't think of a way they would know, then I shouldn't even have it there, because I'm breaking POV by telling you things the POV character couldn't figure out.

This may be unbelievably obvious advice for anybody reading this. Hell, it's obvious for me, since this isn't a new advice. But what I'm working on is internalizing all the little techniques I've picked up--remembering things like that when it really counts.

Also, did you notice what else happened there? The point I was so anxious to make--the contrast between Michelle's earlier confidence and her awkwardness now, didn't actually make it to this revised version at all. And that's okay. If I've characterized well, readers will pick up on the fact that she's usually able to project confidence, but that this interaction is testing even her abilities. It won't seem out of character--readers will be able to distinguish between this quiet moment and her earlier displays of confidence. Or maybe not, but that's a chance I need to take. This is a recurring problem of mine, and a reason I tend to (tended to, really, since I've gotten a lot better with my more recent writing): Closed Captioning for the Dumb. (Heh . . . I like that so much I think I'll make it a tag. I bet I have cause to use it again.) I'm always so worried that readers will fail to pick up some subtlety or nuance that I intend that I hammer it home, over and over again. I need to have more faith in my readers, first of all. Second of all, if some readers don't see exactly what's in my mind, that's okay. Hopefully the story is entertaining and meaningful without having a direct dump of what's going on in my brain. And the things that sail over your head when you first read a story are the ones that make the story reward re-reading anyway.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Well *somebody* thinks I'm a winner, at least

My novel won first place in the preliminary round of the "Do it! Write!" literary contest. Woohoo! My wife won this contest last year, and now she has an agent. Coincidence? You be the judge.

Other irons in the fire:
  • A short story being looked at by a pro market. I received an e-mail from the slush editor telling me it had been passed up the food chain to the editor-in-chief. ::fingers crossed::
  • Another short story at a different pro market. I haven't heard from them, but they've had the story for 37 days longer than the average time for rejection listed by duotrope, and for ten days less than the average time listed for acceptance. Hey, I know it's not much, but you have to take your positive portents where you can find them!
  • A contest entry for a significant national contest. The talent pool I'm up against is huge and daunting, but I feel really good about my entry--my query letter and the first two pages for Vanishing Act. I already thought I had a good query letter, and I went back and polished the heck out of it. I think I managed to improve it quite a bit.
So, you know, no action on the blog doesn't translate to no action on the writing front. ;)

Revisions on my novel just got put back on the front burner--I'd been focusing on short fiction for a bit, hoping to get a sale or two. But there's a possibility I'll get a full request or two out of this, and I don't want to squander it.