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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Happy Writer’s New Year

While incapacitated after my shoulder surgery, I’ve had a lot of time to think and reflect upon my writing career, specifically, the lack of progression toward success within my writing career. I’ve been writing off and on for most of my adult life, submitting stories since I was at least 15 years old, and collecting mostly rejections. At best, I’ve had one story published each decade. Not what I’d call an impressive showing.

I haven’t improved as a writer. I haven’t made any sort of inroads to a successful writing career. So I’ve had time to ponder about why that is. Sure I have ADHD and it was undiagnosed for most of my adult life and that has played a role in it, however, I’m not here to assign blame or look for a scapegoat. I’m trying to discover what I can do now to correct the situation.

In high school, I was anything but studious. Again, we can blame many things on that, but so what? It won’t change anything and wallowing in self-pity is less than useless. It’s actually counterproductive, in fact. The point is, I’ve had an incomplete education. Instead of paying attention in class, instead of learning grammar and studying literature, instead of breaking down short stories and novels into their component elements and learning what makes a good story, instead of concentrating on technique, I was doing my own thing. I’d read pulp fiction, The Shadow, Doc Savage, the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Robert E. Howard, E. E. “Doc” Smith, along with many of the then current science fiction and fantasy stories. Or I’d daydream, scribbling little pictures in the margins of my notebooks and textbooks ala Sergio Aragonés of Mad Magazine. Or I’d write my own stories. Stories that I submitted in my English teacher when we were in the composition phase of the English class and I’d get good grades on.

So, arrogantly, I thought I knew what it took to be a writer. A writer writes, right? I was already doing that. Therefore, I had even more reason not to pay attention in class. Learning that stuff was for the mere mortals in class.

As a writer, I was able to create my own voice fairly early on and wrote in my own style rather than create imitations of other writer’s works. My natural abilities as a writer were able to carry me through high school and into college, where I was still able to get good grades and comments from my instructors. They’d see something in my style and suggest certain authors I should read and analyze.

Analyze? Me? Why? I already was a genius, wasn’t I? A prodigy? So I failed to follow their advice. The only how-tos on writing I read were from “Writer’s Digest” on how to submit to fiction markets.

And submit I did. And rejections were received for everything I submitted. But all that meant was those editors were idiots. They just couldn’t recognize my genius. It was their fault I wasn’t selling, right? Not mine.

Fast-forward to today. After decades of writing, Ive sold a story in 1987. Another in 1997. Three twitter-length fictions in 2009. And finally, a story in 2011 and another in 2012. Not much of a record, is it?

A glance at that career makes it appear as though I’m just a hobbyist instead of someone who takes their career seriously. And the last couple of weeks have made me take a long, hard honest look at that career and it’s come up sorely lacking.

ImageLast week I picked up “Robert Silverberg’s Science Fiction 101” (formerly titled: Worlds of Wonder). While reading his very first essay, “The Making of a Science Fiction Writer,” he explains his own educational journey to becoming a successful writer, and during that journey, he read a book by Thomas Uzzell called “Narrative Technique,” and I read Silverberg’s account of what he learned from that book, which was that writing was much more complicated than he first thought. It just wasn’t taking an idea and expanding it to short story length. It was that a story is constructed from many elements, including plot, characterization, situations, conflict, style, and more.

And then it struck me like a cold slap in the face: I had no idea what any of that meant. I know what the words mean dictionary-wise, but not in a writing context. My arrogance had led to form a shaky, unstable writing foundation. In other words, my writing houses were being built upon a bog of ignorance.

Today is the beginning of a new year. I plan on making 2014 a year of education. I am going to relearn everything I should have learned in high school. I’m going to tear down this house of cards and create a sound foundation upon which to build my writing chops.

I’ve already asked for help on the writer’s forum I attend, Absolute Write, and they’ve given me many great suggestions, such as the Longman Anthology of Short Fiction and the Norton Anthology of Short Fiction, for example. Now Norton’s sounded familiar. I thought maybe I had a copy, so I tore my library apart looking for it but came up empty, but I know I’ve seen it somewhere, possibly at my mom’s.

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So I’ll check her house, then I’ll check Half Price Books and the library for copies. Until then however, I’ll finish Silverberg’s book, which also has many great short story examples in it. I’ll break them down and try to analyze them to see what makes them tick.

Thus, my goal, or resolution, for 2014 is to spend it learning, relearning, and growing my knowledge of the basics of writing fiction in the hopes that a more solid foundation will help me to become a more publishable writer.

As Robert Silverberg said at the end of his essay, “only you can make a writer of yourself, by reading, by studying what you have read, and above all by writing.” Great advice that I will finally, after all these years, take to heart.

So instead of drinking a cup of kindness for times gone by, I’ll be looking to the future, to times as a better learned writer.

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The making of a literary villain

I’m thinking of creating this complex, evil antagonist. A good villain is one that doesn’t think he’s evil, he thinks he’s a good guy. So will this guy, yet the reader will recognize everything he does isn’t for anyone’s good but his own.

He’ll have no empathy for others. He won’t be able to relate to the needs of others. He’ll be a manipulator, and he’ll say whatever needs to be said, make whatever promises need to be made, with no intention of ever following through on his word, just to advance his own agenda and to acquire his own desires.

He’ll tell one thing to one person to get his way and turn around and say the opposite to another to again get his way and he’ll not see anything wrong with it.

He’ll have no sense of right or wrong and as he moves through life, his actions will destroy the lives of others, destroy their jobs, just to make himself richer.

He’ll be a liar, a cheat, a bully, and will have no problem violating the rights of others to achieve his own goals.

Human tragedy and death will be opportunities to advance himself at the expense of others — carried out with a sly smirk.

He’ll have a backstory where as a young man he learned how to get his way through bullying tactics. I’ll have a scene where he attacks another classmate simply because he thinks that student is “different” and my antagonist won’t get into any trouble for it because his family is moneyed.

And he’ll dodge the draft while at the same time protesting the war protestors and he’ll never see the contradiction.

He’ll treat others, those who aren’t as well-off as he is, as lesser beings. He’ll believe he is destined for greatness and nothing, no person, will stop him.

He’ll run a company whose sole purpose is to destroy other companies.

And despite all this, people will love him, and overlook all these faults, and instead view the protagonist as the villain.

Of course the reader will know who the villain is. They’ll recognize him as the self-centered, egotistical, immoral, unethical sociopath that he is.

I hope as a writer that I’m up to the task to creating this villain. I want him to become as famous as Sherlock Holmes’ Moriarty. Or other infamous literary bad guys.

I just have to come up with a name. Maybe Mitch Rollinmoney?

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My writing process. Mine!

Many beginning writers are curious about the writing process and what works, and what doesn’t work, for other writers. The problem is, however, that writing processes are as numerous and varied as are writers themselves. Ask ten writers about how they write and you’ll get ten different answers.

Oh, sure, there are the two basic camps known as “Outliners” and the disparaging term, “Pantsers,” which comes from the term “flying by the seat of your pants.” An expression that probably came from the Outliners’ side suggesting that writers who don’t outline are somehow directionless and create a first draft that meanders aimlessly.

I much prefer the terms that George R. R. Martin uses: architects and gardeners. The former do pre-write, create blueprints, timelines, character bios, and intricate world building. The latter are more organic, free-flowing, and free-thinking, adding a little water and fertilizer here, pruning an unruly branch there.

Suffice to say, that even with two camps, the processes of each writer within still vary tremendously. Some even straddling the two.

Despite the arguments to the contrary, one style is not superior to the other. It all comes down to “what works for you is what’s best.”

In my own case, I’m a gardener. I often think its a condition of my ADHD, although I’ve heard others who also suffer from that disorder claim they are architects because of it. Maybe. Or maybe they also suffer from OCD, since often if you have one disorder, you’ll have another. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

In my case, the ADHD manifests as an inability to organize and a sudden loss of interest in a project. I’ve found that pre-writing or planning — the creation of an outline — makes my mind believe the story is already written. So when it comes time to do the actual writing, putting the notes and outlines together, my mind wanders because it thinks “I’ve already done this” and it’s off exploring a new idea, a new project.

So my gardening process has to be immediate. I have to plant the seed and water it ASAP. I have to take the idea, which often isn’t even fully formed, just a shadow of a hint of a fragment of an idea, and run with it. The sooner I start to write, the better. If I let the idea percolate in my head, growing and forming into a story, I might lose it. My mind once again goes, “I did this already.” so I have to strike before the iron even gets warm.

It’s an odd process, but it’s what works for me. I’ve tried all sorts of “methods” from different writing books, but none of them were helpful. Again we’re back to “what works best for you.”

For instance, I started a new short story yesterday. I had no idea what I was going to write. Just a vague idea that it would be a fantasy set in a 17th century-style world where they still had swords and firearms were in the early primitive stages.

But what to write?

Ok. The word “highwayman” popped into my head. Fine. But what about him? Other writer might sit and try to develop this character first. Or create a situation to put him in. Possibly they’d start world-building. Even plotting. At the very least, they’d give their character a name.

But not I. I stare at the paper as the word “highwayman” bounces around until he dislodges some other words. I need that first sentence. Nothing can follow until I’ve laid out that first sentence. It is the light in the dark. The first sentence illuminates the second. The second begets the third. And so on until the story is pouring out of my fountain pen one sentence at a time.

It’s rare that I think ahead. some writers need an ending and use that as a homing beacon to direct their story through the darkness. But I never think that far in advance. I rarely think more than a few sentences ahead of what’s going on paper.

And yesterday, the highwayman found companion words. An opening sentence formed. Good, bad, ugly, or indifferent, the first sentence’s quality isn’t important in this case. The important part is getting it down so others can follow.

The sentence I finally wrote down on paper was anything but groundbreaking, except in the strictest sense of the word. It broke ground for everything that followed.

The sentence was:

The highwayman stepped out from his hiding place to confront the lone traveler.

“So now what?” you say. Well, after that I continued to write, sentence after sentence, and a story slowly formed. Yesterday, I managed to write 7 hand written pages relating to that one word, “highwayman.” Which I think translates to about 1,700 words.

Today, I’ll continue writing. I still don’t know where it’s headed, but I like where it came from. And I have a good feeling about it.

Many will probably ask, “How can you write anything worthwhile like that?” To which I say, I have no idea. All I know is it works for me and I know of no other way to do it.

Some outliners will think that with such a haphazard approach, I probably go off track a lot, or I end up having to trim a lot of excess.

And they’ll be surprised when I say, No. Not at all. I hardly ever go off on a tangent. I can usually spot a wrong turn within a sentence or two, and then I turn back and follow the correct path. And I rarely end up pruning excess.

Which doesn’t mean I don’t edit the hell out of it. I do. I still polish it to a fine luster before I submit it.

My advice, however, is Don’t try this at home. It’s not a method for the faint of heart. I’ve suffered through years of angst over it. Why can’t I outline? Why don’t I get ideas like other writers seems to: by the dozen and all fully formed?

It wasn’t until I was finally diagnosed with, and went on medication for, ADHD that I came to terms with my process and accepted how my brain works or doesn’t work.

So my advice for writers trying to find “their process” is, go ahead and sample around. Try what works for other writers. Mix and match. And don’t be surprised if you find that what works for you is totally your own and doesn’t work for anyone else.

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