At Work

At Work
If you wanna be a writer you gotta be a reader.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Syntax-focused Revision (Writing Tip #927)

Okay.  Say you've got a good draft of a short story or a chapter, and now it's time for revision.  Revision should cover a bunch of areas.  Let's lay out an obvious one, and one that's a little more slippery.

• Description
Is  there enough?  Too much?  The goal is have just crisp, clear description in order to set the scene in the reader's head–they can "see it."  Ah, but that's not enough.  Yes we need to see, but we also need to hear, smell, taste, and maybe touch it.  Or feel like we could.  One aspect of revision, then, should be you re-examining the quality of your descriptive writing.  First drafts are often plot-driven and a bit thin in terms of the writing . In revision you can make sure you use, with reason, a fuller range of imagery.  We have five senses.  Use all that seem appropriate for the scene at hand.  Make it "real." Make your scene play like a little movie in the reader's head.  Good description can do that.

This is a trickier area of revision.  It asks you to take a very close look at your prose, your sentences.  "Syntax," defined, often has a lot of mumbo-jumbo about "the rules of orderly grammatical constructions."  For example, the main order of sentence  is Subject + Verb + Object.  Okay, we get that. But a better way to understand syntax is think of the order of your phrases and clauses.  Below, is an example sentence from a chapter I just broke away from (my new novel):

1. "He became more flamboyant after his mother died, and his wild parties–for men only– were the talk of the town."

Okay.  A solid sentence.  Character development and conflict moving forward.  But I kept thinking there was something slightly wrong with the sentence.  So I revised its syntax:

2.  "After his mother died he became more flamboyant, and his wild parties–for men only– were the talk of the town. 
Aha.  What was amiss in #1 is what I might call Syntactical Chronology. That is, the order of the ongoing phrases.  In your writing, do your phrases move forward in logical chronology?  Or are they inverted or in some way out of causal order?  In my #2, the mother dies and because of this, he becomes more flamboyant–which is really what I want to convey.  I also think #2 has a slightly smoother flow, plus places a potential "black-hole word"* in the middle of the sentence, thereby lessening its potential to detract from the overall message of the sentence, which is "talk of the town."  

Geeky stuff here.  Revision-as-brain-surgery.  But if your short story or novel has its syntax well-thought out and well-revised, your prose will have a subtle but felt effect as being better than the other submissions–those in which writers have not fully considered syntax.  

*Black-hole word:  a diction choice, by its nature of being dramatic or colorful, that can suck away all the attention from the rest of the sentence. (My term, thank you very much.)  The goal is to have blended diction in which no one word dominates the sentence.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

What's In A Name?

No, this is not about your novel's title (though titles are fun to talk about–let's do that soon).  Rather, I've renamed my blog.

"Write Right" always nagged at me, because it suggests there's one way. One correct way, that is, to write.  And nothing could be further from the truth.  So let's use IN THE WRITE.  Because that's what this blog really wants to do–get you inside the conversation about writing and the writing life.

For example, and real topic of this post: once you publish a novel or two, you start to get invitations to come and say something about it. Let's call this your Public Life as a Writer.

Invitations to speak span a range from small book clubs in living rooms to keynoting a library convention or giving a commencement address (if you've generated some serious attention) .  But most will fall somewhere in the middle.  Like my visit yesterday to Winona State University in southeastern Minnesota.

I met an afternoon Intro to Creative Writing class, with about twenty-five students and their lively, pony-tailed English professor, Dr. James Armstrong. A school visit is only as good as the students' preparation, and Jim had them ready.  They'd read all the short stories in my SWEET LAND collection, and were packing with "three questions" each.  I didn't get to all of the questions, but many, and we had a good class.  One of the students, a guy, lingered afterward, and said he hadn't expected to like some of my "farm stories," because he had no background in any way in terms of farming. However, he said I had made some of the stories "living things" that kept him reading. "Living things!"  How cool is that as a descriptor of what we authors should aspire to with everything piece we write!  I thought it was a deeply insightful comment about literature and writing, and told him so.

Then, later in the afternoon I did an on-campus reading for about fifty folks, students and community members.  The time (5 p.m) was a bit awkward, as people's biorhythms late in the day are on the wane (I know mine are). And that matter itself–the time of your gig– is yet another part of your challenge as a performing writer: you've got to consider the needs of your audience.  I've developed a habit of picking 2-3 reading options, then, upon seeing the audience in their seats, making a choice at the last minute.  It's a bit risky, but I've made it work.

In this case, I read two shorter pieces, one older, one new.  The older piece was my short story, "Dispersal," about a very sad farm auction. In it there's an auctioneer, and his voice affords me the opportunity to mimic his "crying of the lot" (riffing here on a Thomas Pynchon title), and punch up my reading.

 I talked a little between selections; excused, as promised, students who saw me earlier in class (they were dragging); came down off the podium to make the reading more of conversation; then tried to finish strong once again at the mic. I wrapped up by reading my introduction to a new anthology, TAKING AIM: GUNS IN AMERICA (HarperCollins).  It's controversial piece (things with guns have to get way worse before they will get better).  But remember: as a writer your first job is to get people's attention. After that it's to push them to think–about their lives, their ideas, their values.  If you can do that, you've had a successful reading.

You have fulfilled that tricky, complicated, public side of being an author.  Ideally you've made it look easy, left some good ideas and energy in your wake, and returned home ever more committed to the writing life.

P.S. Here's a link to that guns anthology.  Joyce Carol Oates, Walter Dean Myers, and more top authors.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

But Is It Worth Writing About?

A quote from Orson Scott Card:  "Everybody walks past a thousand stories every day.  The good writers are the ones who see five or six of them.  Most people don't see any."

Exaggerations aside, you can see what he's saying, and there's lots of truth to it. It's writers who, as Flannery O'Connor said,"look twice and three times" at something, because they instinctively feel that whatever has caught their attention, has meaning. Then it's question of:  what's the story behind it?

That "most people don't see any" story is a bit harsh.  Non-writers see meaning (heartbreak, joy, humor) in life around them, too, but most don't know what to do with it.  Writers have a leg up in this matter, but we have decisions to make.  For example, let's say we see something, read something, or overhear a snippet of conversation that clearly has something very interesting behind it. But now we have a choice before us:  is it really worth writing about?

I've blogged a bit about this matter before, but an idea is different than a Story.  An idea catches the attention of our brain; a Story tugs at our heart.  An idea engages our analytical side; a "true" Story engages our emotions. The better the story, the more deeply our emotional reaction to its possibilities.

That, in a nutshell, is a good test to employ when judging whether to commit to a new writing project.  Is what you have mainly an idea?  Or is it a real, deeply felt human story that needs to be told?

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Novel Writing: The Slog Through The Middle Part

Pretty sure it was Margaret Atwood who said, generally:  "Writing the opening chapters is exciting.  Writing the last chapters is an exhilarating rush to the end. It's the middle part that's hard."

If you look closely, you'll see that she's divided the novel into a three-part structure--which is pretty much the way screen plays are written.  In fact, pretty much like ALL mainstream movie plots are structured.  So we're looking at "Trouble" in act one.  "Trouble With A Capital 'T'" in act two.  And "Trouble Resolved/Ended"  in act three.  So it probably behooves the novel writer to pump the plot jam in the middle part (second part) in order to sustain interest–anything to get us to the last part where the real action (the Big Fight, the Resolution) happens.

It also happens that I'm talking to myself here, talking myself through a middle part of a big fat novel of the Midwest for adults.  Hey, it's high time:  Red Earth, White Earth came out thirty years ago. (You can see that I try not to be hard on trees).   During that time I've been largely answering an internal bell to keep young people, boys especially, reading.  My novels for grades 6-12 have taken me on a wonderful ride, but it's nice to be back in the middle of seriously adult matters. And a novel the structure of which is challenging me to the max, mainly because I've broken a main tenet of my advice to younger, would-be novel writers.

• Cover the least amount of time possible.  That is, make life easy on yourself by limiting the time span in your novel. A year?  A summer?  Even, better, why not a week?  (Or, like James Joyce, one day in Dublin.)

So in my big fat, multigenerational novel, I'm covering the 1890's to 2015. (Do as I say, not as I do.) It's not like I can't succeed at that, but to do so, I have to find creative narrative solutions to small matters such Point of View, Protagonist (who is it, really?). Those small matters. . . .

But hey, solving literary problems is what writers do.  Every novel is its own puzzle, and I'm happy to see–I think–that my pieces are fitting together.

Wish I could say more about this new novel, but it's a great jinx to talk about your work in progress. That advice I'm sticking with.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Failure, But Hey–

I recently had to give up on something that was a dream of mine. Something I'd worked on for nearly three years, and invested a good deal of money, too.  It was a reading app called LitWeaver,  a dot com, wherein authors could deliver contemporary young adult literature directly to English teachers in middle- and high schools. Describing building a digital library and the app itself would require a book (I'll write it, someday), but in the end our website did not get enough traction (users and paying subscribers) to make it sustainable. We peaked at 1200 English teachers from ten countries. This was admirable but insufficient. Along the way, however, we forked some lightning–winning education-technology awards, connecting with teachers and students, and developing work from an A-list of YA authors.  But in the end, we had to shut LitWeaver down.  It was an idea whose timing was off a click or two; e-reading, and digital delivery of content to schools has not fully arrived.  Schools are all over the tech and digital-reading continuum, with some fully digitized, and others several years behind the times. The whole landscape was, and remains, too unsettled for what we offered.

So let's speak to failure. As author, it's part of the landscape you live in.  Looking back through my writing files the other day, I totted up some seriously "lost" time: novels, short stories, miscellany that was never published.  A rough estimate?  Probably around 4-5 to five full years of writing that went nowhere.

But is that truly lost time?  Wasted effort?  I don't think so.  For writers, every page we write makes us a tiny bit better:  smoother, less self-conscious, more aware of our personal voice. With LitWeaver there is serious, short term loss but, I believe, some eventual reward for having stepped up and tried. In fact, "eventual" might have already arrived: I've plunged back into my own writing with energy and excitement that had, to be honest, waned over the years. Now the act of writing feels fresh and new.  With some luck my reward for failure will be a book or two that would not have been written otherwise.

Addendum:  LitWeaver  offered work from over fifty top, YA authors, including my pal, Pete Hautman.  Our authors were first to know about the shut-down of our app, and here is Pete's reply:

"About fifteen years ago a friend of mine set out to write, direct, and produce a feature length movie. Early in the process he asked me if I thought he was making a huge mistake by investing all his money, his credit, and his connections in the project. I said something like, “Would you rather be flat broke and disgraced and have made the movie, or spend the rest of your life thinking about what could have been?” He spent all his money, maxed out twelve credit cards, begged all his friends (including me) for money, and used every favor from every connection he’d ever made. He made the movie, it got no love, he declared bankruptcy, and now he’s selling real estate successfully, and seems to be quite happy. There is no moral to this story.  Anyway, you have my undying respect and admiration for giving it a shot"  (Pete Hautman)

Thanks, Pete. 

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

This Is Not Good News

I wanted to share one more, very recent story of working with a "Big Six" publisher.

HarperCollins has published several of my YA novels in the past, and has made good money on my titles, especially Memory Boy.  If you really want to hear about it, they've sold over a million bucks worth of my books over the years. Keep in mind that royalty rates are around 5-7 percent (my cut). In short, I've been good for HC. And I love the people there. Nothing cooler than heading to 10 East 53rd Street in NYC, the HarperCollins building, and afterward having lunch with the most literate and interesting people (editors) you can imagine.

So this year I sent an HC editor my new, YA novel. It's post-apocalyptic, in the style of Memory Boy, and occupied me a good part of two years.  It's the real thing, some of my best work, and the readers at HC picked that up immediately.  My editor, Alyson, loved it. The larger, editorial board loved it. Things were sailing along toward a book contract, and after that revisions, and an eventual hardcover release.

But then things slowed down.  My editor went silent. I had a very bad feeling, and I was correct. When the novel reached some department called "Acquisitions" (i.e., sales and marketing, I learned), it stalled.  The head of marketing opined that "Post-apoc has peaked, was on the wane, and by the time the novel came out, it might not sell."

"Post-apocalyptic fiction is on the wane," said no one, ever. Except for this marketing honcho. And that was enough to kill the deal.  My editor was completely apologetic–felt terrible–but had no say in the matter.  Which is the scary part.

This scenario illustrates a near complete reversal in the structures of publishing. It used to be that Marketing worked for Editorial:  editors decided what books to published, and marketing people then sold them.  But no more.  Nowadays, marketing types are in control.  It's they who decide what books get published.

The implications of this are profound and dark.  It encourages "safe" story lines, and books that are "like" other books (my case notwithstanding).  It eliminates any "oddball" book that becomes an unlikely bestseller.  At the far extreme, it means that book lovers, browsing for some new and different and surprising, will no longer find such titles.

I wish I had some good news regarding the current state of publishing. The only thing positive I can think of, is that it has never been easier to publish independently. An ebook directly to iBooks or Amazon.  I'm reluctant to do that, because I've had a good career in the the "old school" paradigm, but it may be, finally, that the worm has turned.  As I've written in posts below, each author has to be ready to adjust, adapt, pivot (whatever) in terms of keeping an open path forward. I've got some serious decisions to make.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Getting Back from Back on My Heels

Have I mentioned that rejection is part of the writing life?  That it never goes away, no matter how much success you've had?  Of course I have.  But these days I'm feeling it big time myself.  I've landed in that literary niche of "great reviews but doesn't sell books."  That latter part is relative of course; "doesn't sell books like Stephanie Meyer or Gary Paulsen," I would add. 

Still, my Motor Novels trilogy with Farrar, Straus & Giroux is struggling to pay back its advance (it looks unlikely unless lightning* strikes).  Teachers and librarians who struggle to get boys to read love the books.  And I get badly written but sweet emails every week from boys who "finally read a hole book", and ask me if I'm writing another in the series.   But boys don't go to malls and buy books, nor talk about them on social media.  I am, as my dear FSG editor Wes described, "doing God's work" with these little stock car novels.

And one more detail of my current literary doldrums:  my agent of twenty years went off the rails, imploded, I had to sue (it was messy but is now resolved), and so today I am "available" and looking for a new agent.  I'm finding this is not easy even though I've published a dozen YA novels, and have a fairly good 'brand,' may I 'umbly say.   One agent said that my recent submission (a new YA novel) has "undistinguished writing."  Okay, f**k you.  Two other agencies have not replied after four weeks.

In short, I am reminding myself daily that it's probably not me.  That it's the publishing industry that's back on its heels.  I need to keep the faith that good writing will out, but not necessarily sit back and depend upon the old paradigm of Big Six publisher, advance on completion of the manuscript, and eventual royalties.   It might well be time for  e-publishing along with other forms of literary life re-boot and re-invention.   Stay tuned.

*There is some interest from television for a possible tv series about my stock car novels.  Nothing firm, and a long way to go.  Still, there's talk.  

P.S.:  Writers who've had great success can be really annoying when they start bitching about their lives.  This isn't meant to be that kind of post.  The goal here is to talk about recognizing when we need to make strategic moves, career pivots, and/or new approaches.  And of course to keep faith in ourselves.