Writing Wednesday

In rereading my urban fantasy fairy tale, I came across a scene that I had pulled from the trunk novel I was using for donor parts.

The scene features the MC and another character, the MC’s friend who is also the Homicide Police Captain.

My MC is called in to look at what turns out to be a magic circle, used to summon demons, because he’s an expert on the esoteric. He is often called in by the Police to identify occultish symbols or objects. Not because anyone believes in the occult, but in the hopes that by giving the item a historical context they will have a better chance of assigning motives and tracking down suspects.

Now as I said, this is an old scene, one of the original scenes from my trunk novel that I had started 15 years ago.

In the scene, my MC meets the Police Captain in a corn field and together they head toward the murder scene.

On the way, they pass the Medical Examiner, who is leaving the scene, heading back to his car. He quips a few morbid jokes and is gone. Never to appear in the story again.

At the time, I thought nothing of that meeting with the ME, nor did any of my beta readers mention it. I knew nothing about writing crime scene fiction nor had I read many police procedurals.

But this week, I started thinking about it. Something nagged at me that the scene was inadequate. But what?

It occurred to me that the ME just leaving the scene, the bodies, without so much as a “How do you do?” was a little odd.

If you’ve ever watched the television show NCIS (or any of the hyper-graphic crime shows), you know that Ducky never just leaves the scene. He and his assistant are there investigating and providing Gibbs with a running inventory of findings. Then, after they’ve done all they can at the scene, Ducky tags and bags the bodies and ensures they get to his lab for the autopsy.

My ME, on the other hand, tells a few jokes and is gone.

Because I now have a better understanding of how (fictional) MEs work, I’m going to revise the scene.

The ME will still leave, still make some jokes, but now I’ll add some more dialog. The Captain will ask a few questions, including something like “Leaving already?” And the ME can respond, “I know how to deligate.”

At the crime scene I’ll add a few ME assistants and forensic techs, even giving some pertinent dialog about the bodies to one of them.

Why did I start thinking about this scene this week? My oldest son just started interning with the local Medical Examiner’s office and I guess that made me more conscious of what was going on in this story.

A writer’s job is never done. That’s because writers are always expanding their knowledge and always applying that knowledge to improve their writing.

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Writing Wednesday with Chekhov’s gun

“One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it.” — Anton Chekhov, from an 1889 letter to playwright Aleksandr Semenovich

“If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.” — from Gurlyand’s Reminiscences of A. P. Chekhov

“If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on a wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.” — Anton Chekhov, quoted by S. Shchukin, Memoirs

Anton Chekhov’s oft-quoted piece of writing advice, often referred to simply as “Chekhov’s gun,” is a literary concept that means every element introduced in a story must be necessary to the plot or it is superfluous and should be removed.

In other words, you should remove all false guns from your writing. This applies not just to physical objects and characters, but irrelevant scenes that don’t advance the story, as well.

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I bring up Chekhov’s gun because as I was reading through my own manuscript, I found one. I missed it my first read-through, however, it must have made an impression upon my subconscious because while I was sitting enjoying a cup of coffee (Sumatra from CoffeeIcon. Yum!)j Saturday morning while watching an episode of Star Trek on BBC America, it popped into my head.

“The knife!”

I immediately wrote knife on a notepad and placed it on my computer to remind me.

“Well? What about the knife?” I hear you ask.

I’m getting to that. Patience, young grasshopper.

I have a scene in my manuscript where my MC, an expert in things occult, and his friend, who happens to be a captain with homicide of the local police department, are together investigating a recent gruesome murder scene when one of the investigating officers discovers an ancient obsidian knife.

The knife turns out to be evidence from an earlier murder that the MC believes was a human sacrifice in a ritual to summon a demon.

The MC takes a picture of the knife and sends it to an expert in early Mesoamerican civilizations, who is aiding the MC in the hunt for the demon, in the hopes that he can identify the artifact.

When I had introduced the knife, I had fully intended to have it serve as a significant clue and later my MC and his Mesoamerican expert would get together to discuss where the knife had originally come from.

One thought I had was the knife was an actual museum piece stolen from an Aztec museum somewhere Central or South America and it would help the police to finally identify the killer.

The thing is I never mentioned the knife again!

That’s right. I placed the knife there for the reader to see and then I completely forgot about it.

Now, however, all sorts of new scenarios are presenting themselves on how to make use of the knife, including, but not limited to, adding needed information to not only identify where the killer came from, but also to help develop the relationship between the MC and his police captain friend.

I did a quick Google search just now and found a cool Aztec ceremonial knife that would work, but unfortunately, that knife is held in the British Museum nor is it ancient enough, which means it won’t work in my story. Shame.

aztec ceremonial knife

I’ve got more research to do. Down the rabbit hole I go!

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Writing Wednesday

I finished the first draft go-through of my urban fantasy fairy tale I’ve been writing since February.

I must say, I still don’t hate it. (Although I do need to work on a great punch line ending.)

I still find it a very fun story. The characters all click for me. The love story, although it happens quickly over a period of only three or four days, doesn’t seem too rushed to me. But, what do I know? I have trouble with time relationships as part of my ADHD.

Sometimes I’ll think something happened a long, long time ago and someone will say, “That was just last week,” while other times I’ll run into someone and think I just saw them recently, but they’ll let me know its been months (often rather angrily if I had said I’d get back to them about something and I never did). “You sure it was 6 months ago?”

Sorry, went off on another tangent.

This first go-around I just read it for content to see if anything glaring jumped out at me. First thing I found was an entire section that said, “[fill in with more detail].” (I often use brackets to highlight things i need to go back and do.) So I did. One character’s eye color changed. I also found in the beginning I used the word faerie for both the creatures and as a term for a clan of faeries. And sometimes Faerie the clan was capitalized and other times not. Then, in the last quarter of the book, I started using the word fae, capitalized and uncapitalized, as the word for a faerie clan. I also spell the word faerie when characters who know about the supernatural refer to them and fairy when regular people talk about them. I wonder if that will confuse the reader?

Other than that, there weren’t any glaring continuity errors that I saw.

Now comes the fun edits. OK, I lied. These are the boring edits. Where I search for, then try to replace a series of words that need to be removed or rewritten.

For example, I’ve always had a big but problem. It seems to be part of my writing style, to write sentences in such a way that I have a but conjunction in far too many of them.

To me, but appears excessively, like at least once every paragraph. Maybe they don’t really, but it sure seems that way.

(Ok, I did a search. I have 465 buts in a 99,000 word novel contained within 3,649 paragraphs. Is that a but to paragraph ratio of 12%? How would I know? I’m a writer, not a mathemetician.)

Another thing I’ll search for are words ending in ly. Not that I am anti-adverb, like a lot of writing advice seems to be, mind you, after all, an adverb is just another spice in the writer’s spice rack. You can use it sparingly for effect or use it too often and it becomes overpowering. For myself, in some cases, a sentence can be rewritten better without the adverb. In other instances however, an adverb can work perfectly.

Next, I’ll look for observation or sense words (not sure what the actual writing term is, intransitive verbs?) like think, feel, see, seems, appears, and so on. These words point out an activity, instead of describing the sensation itself. The story is in first person and it isn’t necessary to say, “I feel …” something. I do need to describe what the MC is feeling. In other words, I need to show, and not tell.

In a related search, I’ll look for all the to be verbs. Was, have, can, could, would, etc. do have their place, but often these sentences can be rewritten to give the meaning more punch or immediacy. Many times these words indicate a sentence that is in passive voice instead of active voice.

And finally, I’ll search for crutch gestures, such as, “He shrugged,” “She raised an eyebrow,” “They laughed,” or “He smiled.” Filler phrases that are cliched cues about a character’s behavior and can become tedious with repetition if everyone’s heads are nodding and their eyes are winking. This is more show, don’t tell.

Here is a short tally of excessive words appearing in my novel:

  • But appears 465 times
  • Ly words appear 1,025 times
  • Was appears 1,708 times
  • See appears 347 times of which 47 are Seen
  • Look appears 297x
  • Have appears 452x
  • Can 314x, Could 352x, Tries 48x, Think 222x, Would 259x.

Do you think I’m obsessing over nothing?

After I’ve gone through my lists of Find and Replace words, then I’ll give it a very thorough read-through again.

Now I’ll take a few questions from the audience.

“When do you run the grammar checker?” I don’t. I will probably run the spell check when I’m nearly done to see if I introduced any errors during my edits, but I simply don’t trust most grammar checkers.

“What grammar books do you refer to most?” Usually Strunk and White’s Elements of Style before they added a third name to the title. Also English 2600: A Programmed Course in Grammar and Usage (I also have English 3200). I’ll reread S&W and English 2600 as a refresher before I do my final read-through.

The programmed course is interesting, starting off with a simple sentence like, “Birds fly” (What is the subject? Birds. What is the predicate? Fly.) and progressively getting more and more informative and difficult. I’ve relied on those books for almost 50 years.

“Do you read your writing out loud?” I do not. I understand why some authors do, because hearing the sentences helps them catch rhythm issues, like too many short sentences, or clunky sounding phrases that a writer may miss reading silently. But I have two reasons for not reading out loud. 1) I can’t stand the sound of my own voice. It’s also one reason I have never used a tape recorder to write with when pen and paper aren’t available. 2) I’m a horrible out loud reader. I think, for one thing, my tongue might be too big for my mouth, but beyond that, there’s a disconnect between my eyes and my mouth when I read. My eyes will be wandering a few words ahead while my mouth is still trying to comprehend the words previous, this making it sound like Yoda is reading it. I will also admit, I had to go to remedial reading classes when my elementary teachers discovered I had been faking my ability to read. I wasn’t reading phonetically, which was the thing then, I simply had a monstrous vocabulary and had all the most common words memorized.

Whatever the reason, I stumble and stammer when reading out loud, just as I always have, so there is no benefit to my reading out loud — everything sounds clunky, and in Yoda’s voice.

Somewhere around here is a blogpost of me reading Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” one Halloween several years back. It took me innumeral takes before I got it to where I thought it wasn’t too embarrassing to post. If it hadn’t been part of a challenge by fellow blogsters at the time, it never would have been posted, ir even recorded. My reading of it is atrocious. Find it and have a good laugh.

“Would you consider paying for a real editor?” No.

“When will you send it to beta readers?” I don’t know. The reason I packed away my trunk novel is despite several positive critiques, I received one particularly scathing critique that absolutely deflated me and I gave up writing for several years. Pretty sure I don’t want to go through that again.

“When will you start to write the synopsis and query letter?” Shut up. Never say those words to a writer unless you’re prepared for violence.

“When do you anticipate sending it to agents?” I don’t know. Looking at the calendar, I doubt I’ll make it before NaNoWriMo and I’d hate to start subbing it after, since that’s when all those NaNo-novels start filling up slush piles everywhere. So, most likely early 2018.

“Are you thinking of self-publishing?” Only as a last resort, after I’ve been rejected by every literary agent there is

And it looks like we’ve run out of time for further questions. Thank you all for your time.

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Writing and wediting Wednesday

Elmer Fudd would say he was “whiting my manuscwipt,” but would he say he was “wediting it,” too? Probably not, there isn’t an R in editing, but he would say he was editing with his “wed pencil.”

Sorry. I’m being silly, but I’m also whiting, er, writing and editing my manuscript.

Yes, the one I said was going to be done a few weeks (months?) ago.

Well, two things are going on. The ending is a little harder to write than I first thought it would be. I’m trying to fill it with action and suspense as well as a good pay off. I’m also having an internal debate if I should kill off one or more characters (and which ones).

The other issue I’m having is suddenly other scenes are popping into my head. Scenes that fit in throughout the story which add drama to the narrative and increase the tension.

They just came from nowhere, unbidden, and I started writing them down in a notebook hoping they’d just go away, but the more I wrote, the more detailed they became until I realized I needed to insert them.

And they’re fitting in perfectly. Unlike when I deliberately write scenes as filler because a story isn’t long enough or because it needs backstory or something to explain a later scene.

No. These belong here and fit in seamlessly.

So that’s why I’m not finished with this story. It wasn’t finished with me.

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Writing on the run

One of the fallacies about running is that it’s boring. Non-runners seem to be under the impression that because there is nothing to do while running that it is inherently dull.

Other activities, like weight lifting, happen for short bursts and offer variety between exercises as you work different muscle groups. While many stationary exercises, like biking, rowing, ellipticals and such often provide a place to rest a book, tablet, or other device so you can read or watch videos.

Running however, unless you work on a treadmill, doesn’t provide that sort of convenience. Granted, with MP3 players and smartphones, a runner can listen to audio books, old time Radio programs, music, and other audible distractions.

Back when I started running, those devices didn’t exist unless you wanted to drag around a heavy Sony Walkman or transistor radio.

“What is there to do but think?” they said (and still say), as if thinking itself is boring.

Maybe for some people it is. Maybe some people have dull thoughts. Maybe they’re accountants. Who knows?

But thinking in itself can be relaxing. Running for some becomes a time for meditation, a time free from stress and the day-to-day thoughts that assail us.

For me, it has been a time of active thought. I’m a runner who writes, or a writer who runs.

Running therefore, gives my mind the opportunity to work on whatever story I’m writing at the time.

While my conscious self concentrates on the mechanics of running, tracks the various signals my body sends to my brain, the writer part is freed to think about plots, scenes, story ideas, character development, and how to get myself out of the corner I wrote myself into, among other things.

Endorphins are great for kicking the writer’s mind into overdrive and helping to eliminate writer’s block.

Sitting at a desk staring at a sheet of paper or computer screen can often be stressful as you try to force your imagination to come up with ideas and solutions.

And some writers have other ways of relaxing, such as making a cup of tea, going for a drive, taking a nap, shopping, binge watching a favorite show and so on.

For me, I find running does the trick. And I’ve missed it. Returning to running also coincides with a return to writing.

For me, running serves two important purposes. It creates a stronger, healthier body, while at the same time it builds a more resilient, and active mind.

Run. Think. Write.

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To self-publish or not to self-publish

One of my many New Year’s Resolutions is to figure out this thing called “self-publishing.”

Now when I first started writing, on a manual typewriter — ah, those were the days, fingers all black with carbon… sorry, I digress. Back in the days before the Internet and electronic publishing, there were just the traditional publishers.

If you wrote, or were writing a book, there was really only one way to get it published, the old-fashioned way: submitting a query to an agent, hoping the agent loves your book enough to take you on as a client, then hoping your agent can convince one of the many book publishers that they should love it also.

As a writer of sci-fi and fantasy, my dream was to be published by Ace or DAW or Signet. That was pretty much every sci-fi/fantasy writer’s dream, because there was no other route back then.

Self-publish? That was a dirty word. That meant you failed. You were a loser. An egotist who needed to see his name in print even it meant they had to *shudder* pay, sometimes thousands of dollars, to get it published. It was vain and thus the term, vanity press came into being and it was a pejorative.

Respectable writers didn’t even consider self-publishing.

That was then, this is now.

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Now self-publishing, whether it is an eBook or a publish-on-demand (POD) print book, is regarded with more or less favorable light. Some of us old fogies are still a little leery of it, still think of the old negative stigma associated with it, but little by little we’re beginning to realize self-publishing is a respectable activity. It gives you creative control. It gives you an opportunity to put your book out where the public can see it, something that might never happen with traditional methods because the gatekeepers can’t publish everything. They have to make choices based on monetary considerations and sometimes good novels have to be rejected.

So I’m trying to overcome forty years of being indoctrinated that self-publishing means failure and trying to learn this other side of the publishing industry.

There’s a lot to learn and so far I’m very overwhelmed and not exactly sure where to start. It’s like learning how to walk all over again.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

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Trying something different

I’m what is known in the writing community as a “pantser.” That means someone who is an organic writer, one who “writes from the seat of their pants.” Pantsers don’t make outlines or pre-write or make any sort of preparation before they write, they just start writing. We just jump into the river without looking and commence to swimming downstream, generally writing from beginning to end.

On the other side of the fence are the plotters. Before they ever get around to writing that first word in their story, they’ve done their preparations, created outlines, made up a bunch of 3×5 cards, scribbled on a white board the various turns and twists and with who knows what other information they feel is necessary to get things in order before they get down to the writing proper.

Pantsers and plotters do not get along. Its the literary equivalent of the Hatfield and the McCoys. Get enough writers together, throw in the topic of outlines, and before long, they’ll form up sides and begin to throw insults, eggs, and rotten tomatoes at each other. Each side believes its their way or no way at all and they’ll never see eye-to-eye. Its a feud that goes back to prehistoric days when two cavemen, Groo and Oop were tasked with painting the cave walls. Groo immediately set out drawing directly onto the wall, while Oop started to pre-write what he wanted in the sand. Oop criticized Groo for a misplaced antelope, “That not happen if you plot.” Groo took it badly and kicked at Oops writing in the sand. “That not happen if you paint on wall!” Blows were exchanged and the two started to grapple with each other. They fell to the ground, wrestled and rolled out of the cave where they were promptly eaten by a saber-toothed tiger.

For many years, I’ve been a true pantser. I’ve just picked up my fountain pen and started writing without any idea of anything. Like magic, the words would flow and I’d be completely surprised by what ended up on the paper. I’ve never tried to analyze how that happens, how I can write a complete story without knowing anything before hand. I’ve been afraid if I analyzed it, I’d lose it. (I once read back in the 1920s there was this champion-caliber golfer, who golfed like nobody’s business. He was, or so I read, that he was head and shoulders above all the other golfers at the time, with a gorgeous swing. A giant among duffers. Then one day, he was approached to write a “How to” book on his golf swing. He sat down and tried to analyze his swing, how he approached the game, and you know what? He over-analyzed it and actually lost whatever it was that made him so great. His analysis paralyzed his talent and he was never the same again.)

But my current project, which I have yet to write a word of, seems different to me. I’ve been letting it percolate in my head. I’ve already got a beginning scene, several action scenes, a few character sketches, all in my head. But things are beginning to overflow. I’m running out of room, so to speak, in my head and the other day I made a list of the characters who I expected to be in the story.

And keeping with the semi-plotter idea, I’m trying to figure out how the program “Shrivener” works, because I’m going to start writing each of those scenes — out of sequence — and that program looks like a convenient way to keep them organized.

So we’ll see how it goes. It’s a whole new concept for me, writing from prepared notes and pre-written scenes. I’m walking the fence, so to speak, between organic writing and plotting. With any luck, I’ll be able to perform that tightrope walk and I won’t slip, fall, and get eaten by a saber-tooth.

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