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COUNTING TO TEN TO THE TENTH

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Once in a while I just have to  vent. Things have been VERY busy. Writing, revising, queries, submissions, status inquiries, rejections, rewrites, stalled editorial processes. This is what it’s like to be a writer. Locked away in my study/office, hammering at the keys and, occasionally, wanting to take a hammer to the whole damned thing!

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve been on both ends of this insanity. As a writer I have learned to live with the fact most editors (Even the ones who claim they’re open to everything.) operate from a very limited set of preferences. In the organizations where they employ outside readers, those are chosen because they share the bosses sensibilities and tastes – Or drinking habits. I, and others I’ve worked with, have been equally guilty of this fault. I, though, never claimed to have a balanced approach to everything I was exposed to.

As an editor I was bound by my experience on the other end of that proposition. If I was working within a stated “normal” response time, I would put my life on hold and move mountains to honor that commitment. If someone approached me with their wunderkind of creativity, the chid of their soul and desires, I told them up front, if accepted, it would be just the beginning of the process. This meant I expected them to return as good as I was providing. Everything was a Quid Pro Quo arrangement, governed by that old saw, “You’ll get out what you put in.” Honor that and I am yours to command – Within reason and only in private.

Lately I’ve been dealing with the exact opposite. Normal response times seem to no longer be calculated from when you submit a work or from a stated deadline but from whenever the person at the other end declares “normal” to be in operation. Example, six months stretching out over sixteen months and several inquiries with no definitive response. Another example? An editor working with me on-line for a publication that has accepted a piece who sends me suggested corrections and alterations via a Google.doc, which alterations I implement before all else, only to have the person at the other end of the process seemingly disappear. I, in turn, keep poking (As saccharine politely as possible) after the present disposition of the process. This leads to what I am beginning to interpret as a coded response. “I’m out-of-town this week-end but will get with you at the beginning of the week.” Which I have come to understand as, “Not now. Please!” Which, for its part, eventually morphs into a nebulous feeling of, “Maybe I should have asked – At the beginning of which particular week?”

Of course, all this Sturm und Drang might be attributable to my just being old-fashioned. I worked for years in the service industries while trying to promote my writing and art. In that world I learned that the burden of service was on the provider and a large part of that lay in communication. In a shrinking literary marketplace it would seem this basic tenet would be even more precious than ever. Then again, I’m a writer, poet, and painter. What do I know of reality?

Thus endeth the rant!

 

 

WHAT THE HELL DO I KNOW?

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It’s that rule you get slapped with in that first composition or creative writing course. “You – In the back row. Last week’s paper was drivel. You should write what you know!”

But is it meant to be taken literally? Well, some people think so and it’s an unfortunate truism in a world where electronic isolation is rampant. What is it I’m trying to say? Take a look around. Blog after blog, post after post is oozing an egocentric mash-up of, “This is who I am. This is where I went. This is what I ate. This is the same mass-produced outfit I bought that everyone else in the on-line marketplace was buying at the exact same moment.” The worst of it is when I see, “These are the events in my life that someone told me would make such a terrific story.” Uh, sorry, Chief. No it doesn’t.

How many of you really want to read page after page of that? A constant rehashing of someone’s angst and travails told in a monologue with all the weight and depth of a pine cone sliding over the ice on a winter locked pond. After the first couple of re-issues of ‘How My Life Went Wrong and How I Dragged Myself Back From The Abyss’ I find myself rooting for the fall!

So what the hell does “Write What You Know” imply? How many of us know more than what we’ve read about the world of organized crime? How many of us have been to worlds in far-flung galaxies? How many of us have had that crushing romance with a partner who kept a horrible secret locked away in a mother of pearl inlaid box in a Croatian tower? How many of the authors who wrote such tales did?

What they wrote about was emotions. They looked deep into themselves and found what triumph and disaster felt like for them. They looked beyond the logical mind stringing clever prose together and stared their fears in the eye. They delved into what they knew of passion, power, revenge, failure, desire, love, loss and redemption and gave those feelings to characters they had taken the time to get to know and believe in.

Everything else is window dressing that can be learned or extrapolated. The recoil of a pistol. Blisters raised by desert sun. Weightless floating in ocean or space. Gnawing, all-consuming hunger. All these things can be tried, one way or another. What makes a story live is the depth of empathy or revulsion you make your readers feel for the characters you portray. Instead of write what you know – perhaps the adage should be, DISCOVER what you don’t know for sure in your own heart and soul. Then see if it fits the people and things you want to represent  but about which you haven’t a clue.

WHO, WHAT, WHERE, WHEN IS ONLY THE BEGINNING

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Let’s talk about a pet peeve, okay? Something that required me ravaging a tree on my property this morning. All right, I was trimming it, enthusiastically, but I needed that sort of physical activity before I could approach this like a sane man.

Whatever you’re writing, it begins with research. That research may be as simple as ordering your own thoughts and perceptions in a few simple notes or a bare bones outline, or the in-depth fact-finding required for historical works, be they fact or fiction. Once having completed that process, you gather your ideas, notes, references (what all) and sit down at a keyboard. Your fingers assume their position and you begin. Eventually, with a lot of hard work, coffee, liquor, and a good bit of scatological tension relief, you make it to the end of your endeavor, typing in “The End”.

Pat yourself on the back, especially if you’re an aspiring novelist. Far more works of fiction are started than are ever finished. But are you really done? Maybe you should run Spellcheck one more time? Go ahead, I’ll wait. Are you done now?

If I were you I’d set this magnum opus aside for a day, or a week, or maybe longer. Then get back to researching. Not on what it was that you discovered or concocted to begin your labor. No, I suggest you open to page one and start reading. But before you do, go find yourself a good dictionary – And a thesaurus – And a manual on style – And a grammar guide. Why? Because I’ve seen more times when relying on Spellcheck produced the perfectly wrong word for the completely wrong use.

As you read, if you aren’t one hundred percent sure of a word’s definition and proper usage – LOOK IT UP! Pay attention to the context around it. The precisely defined word may not be the best one for where you’ve decided to plop it down.

If you’re using a particular word repeatedly, get out a thesaurus. What are the words that mean the same or relatively same thing as the one you’re beating to death? Have you made the mistake of using a homonym or homophone? Words that are spelled or sound alike. If you’re comparing or contrasting characters or qualities, what are the proper antonyms?

Are you familiar with the concept of hot and cold words? Aspiration? Metaphor? Simile? Alliterative progression?

By now you’re probably saying, “Hell, all I want to do is write.” My answer for that is, “No, you started writing because you wanted to get published.” If you don’t pay attention to the craft and mechanics of your own language, you’ll greatly reduce the possibility of reaching that goal. I’ve sat on editorial committees for journals and periodicals. One of the fastest ways into the “Thanks but no thanks” pile was to give me the impression that you felt rewriting your submission was my job. I hate to disillusion you, when I’m bingeing through a hundred or more manuscripts of varying length in a day or so, if you give me the impression you don’t understand the complexities of your native tongue, or somehow regard me as the hired help, your acceptance rate just plummeted.

Use a dictionary, a thesaurus, Strunk and White’s, “Elements of Style”, “The Chicago Manual of Style”, and any other resource you can find. Find an authoritative reference for formatting your manuscript, your queries, your cover letters. Learn how to do it by the book, then, after more practice than you can stand, show an editor you know how to bend the rules in imaginative and scintillating ways.

For God’s sake, if you want to be a writer, behave like one!

 

LUCK – ANOTHER NAME FOR SWEAT

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I was sipping my coffee this morning, cruising my internet feeds (a sure way to sour my mood) when I ran across one that went begging for an answer. It was something akin to those ‘Ten Habits of Successful People” ideas. Only this one was more like the fifteen traits of lucky people. Something that presented a rather random list of behaviors and characteristics. The nature of it brought to mind the quote from Seneca above.

Luck applies in lotteries, card games, dice – but rarely success. As an artist and author I live by exposure and acceptance. Often, people will see where I’ve made it into a publication, exhibit, or show and exclaim, “Don’t you feel LUCKY?” Honestly, no. Satisfied would be a better descriptor. But then, they’re not privy to the work leading up to those points. Even when I’ve been in the so-called “Right place at the right time” it has been a matter of being prepared for whatever opportunity I encountered.

What goes into that kind of prep? Take this week for example. I have twenty pieces of short fiction, a novel, and eight or nine multi-piece poetry submissions out for consideration. I track these daily. I’m working with an editor at a magazine to get a short story into final shape for publication (Just because they accept it doesn’t mean your work is done.) and have written nine new poems in the last couple of days. Meantime I’m actively editing a draft for a new novel-length work and lie in bed awake at night, re-working two or three of the short stories I have out in my head. Oh, I’m also gearing-up for a binge of visual projects in studio for which I’m amassing idea files.

If something is rejected, I read it and determine what I might have done better. Quite often this results in rewriting the original. I have some pieces that are in their eighth, ninth, or tenth draft. I have paintings that exist as a long series of sketches, watercolor studies, canvas board trials, and completed works and their subsequent versions. This is actually quite productive because I have reached that point in my career where I realize that my ego is no measure of a work’s value or finish. No successful artist in history has ever been so confident as to believe they had nothing left to learn. Doubt is the great motivator. Once I have gone through this process I feel justified in sending whatever it is back out.

When dealing with editors, show curators, performance directors, I treat them as the professional I want to be seen as. Yes, they are dealing with the product of my imagination and toil – My babies, if you will – but they are also dealing with who knows how many other fragile psyches at the same time. That’s a juggling act I have been on both sides of and never envy.

I take their suggestions and give them honest consideration. Do we always agree? Well, no, of course not, but on my end I try to find the compromise that works for all involved. Is this always possible? Again, no, but the effort serves to keep the relationship cordial.

Why even worry about that? Because this person I’m dealing with is dealing with their own deadlines and pressures and, if I can develop an empathic bond, they might be more patient with me in our present endeavor – and helpful in future circumstances. In other words, as I learned in the military, everything depends on a team and the only place success comes before work is in the dictionary. Oh, never forget, quite often it comes down to who you know. Friends will do more for you than enemies.

Luck, outside of gambling, is always a matter of work. Working to produce a product that you can offer without reservation to the world. Work at figuring out where to offer it and at what cost. Work in developing relationships that are beneficial in both directions. Work at dispassionately examining failure and discovering why it turned out the way it did and how to correct it.

There’s an old truism – Luck creates a lot of three-legged rabbits. How lucky is that?

LET THE CHARACTERS DO YOUR TALKING

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Having worked around Hollywood and what is called “the image industry” for a while, I have a thing for stills from vintage film. I especially am taken by the era of silent film. There was no recorded dialogue and any spoken words you got came from what was flashed on the screen as written embellishments. The producers, directors, script writers, and actors were masters at that adage, “Show me. don’t tell me.” The action and expressiveness of the players were the way the story was conveyed.

That knack, being able to let the images do the story telling and getting the writer off the stage, is something beginning writers struggle with. They think they have to spell out every detail for the reader in drawn out narrative passages. But do they? Take the photo above for example. A still from a black and white silent film. Without someone telling us, it speaks volumes without uttering a word.

First, there’s the setting. Judging by the background, the furnishings, and props what do we know? This is apparently an upscale environment. Wainscoting, chair rail, wall paper instead of paint (Not cheap back then). A marble-topped Federalist style table beneath an obviously high-end mirror and frame.

What about the inhabitants of this space? Young. Good looking. Probably affluent judging by their looks, her pearls, his pajamas. He kisses her hand, but by the apprehensive look on her face, romance is not foremost in her mind.

Even the spray of flowers in the vase behind them sends a message. These are obviously blossoms from a tree. As artificial flowers were uncommon then, this arrangement tells us it must be springtime.

It’s the same thing when you write a narrative fiction. So often I read paragraph after paragraph of exposition. Telling me in microscopy what it is I’m supposed to be seeing. Even in science fiction where world building is de rigueur, too much narrative is a bore. This can be a real drag on the story. Even when, almost as an after thought, there are a couple of lines of dialogue between characters inserted before it’s back to cataloguing time, place, scenery, weather, traffic, architecture – ad nauseam.

What’s the matter with letting the characters tell us something? Like this;

Stepping inside, Joe blinked against the light.

“Where have you been?” Vera asked.

“Don’t worry about it.” He dug a rag covered object from his pocket and dropped it on the stained and splintered table. It made a thud of something heavy. A blue-gray gun barrel poked from it.

Looking up at him, Vera whispered, “What have you done, Joe?”

“Let’s just say Detective Corrigan won’t be snooping around anymore.”

“But what’s going to happen when he doesn’t report in at the end of his shift?”

“We’ll be long gone by then.”

Vera made the sign of the cross. “Merciful Mary, Joseph. They know he was checking up on you.”

Joe shook a cigarette from the pack on the table and struck a match on the rough surface. “There was nothing else for it I’m telling you. Now get packed.”

Melodramatic? Maybe. But it sets a tone as well as a time. Joe blinks against the light after stepping inside. It must be dark out! Night time. Vera’s first words express concern. Joe’s blunt reply and revelation of the pistol tells us bad things are afoot. Bad gets worse. Joe seems to have killed a policeman. Vera’s tension mounts but Joe doesn’t plan on them staying around. Vera reveals her religious nature and that they may be in worse trouble than we thought. Joe gets even more abrupt. He feels cornered. Now’s the time to get going.

Did I tell you this? No, the characters in my little schauspiel did. Without mentioning time or mood or specifically why things seem to be going wrong for these two – In so many words – All that was conveyed in dialogue.

Get to know your characters. Keep journals or notecards on them and build up who they are and why they do what they do. Their background and present circumstances. Their hopes and aspirations.

Then trust in them to tell their stories without you having to constantly butt in with your fly on the wall narrative. The reader came here to meet your characters – Not you.