May 28, 2013

OK, I'm back

Relocation to Los Angeles. Rewriting a 100,000 word novel into a 82,000 word novel. Other excuses. But let's not dwell. Thank you to all the spammers for commenting.

Now, a post.

If you're going to cut your novel from [large word count] to [smaller word count], I recommend pondering the following at the start, just to save yourself the head-pounding-on-table treatment. I say this as someone with a large dent in my forehead.

* Commit to cutting 15 or 20% of the manuscript. Now I'm talking a process where you need to really make cuts, not the nip/tuck process reserved for a manuscipt that's almost pub ready. If you are looking at your story and sense that it needs tightening, I would propose that losing 15%, for starters, can be done to just about any long form piece, and especially a novel. You can probably lose a third of that just eliminating adverbs, uh, not that I'd know.

* Read the manuscript, preferably after you have set it aside for weeks or months. In all probability, it will read differently than it did when you were in the depths of writing/editing. I am aware the next sentence seems impossible. But here it comes: you have probably forgotten parts of the book.

As you re-read, take notes in three columns. Column One: what you love. Column Two: what you're reading when your attention drifts. Column Three: sections you don't love with important characterization, information, plot developments, and so on. Because you're going to need to find a way to keep the essential bits while altering or editing out the rest.

Subplot that never quite worked? Cut it. Unless you have a way to salvage it that excites you, just cut it. Spare yourself the dozen rewrites.

Subplot you no longer need because you resolved a conflict/plotline in another way? Cut it. Yes, it means losing a great description or hilarious joke. Cut it anyway. Though I'm all for recycling a joke. Good jokes, especially jokes that flesh out character, are gold. If the joke doesn't recycle, make it a part of your personality and use it at a barbeque.

Cutting extraneous subplots will take off a significant chunk of the 15-20%.

* My rule of thumb on subplots: does it advance the plot and provide conflict? Okay, it may be a keeper. Does it just "provide characterization" or another arty flourish? Cut it. Unless you're writing an arty novel, of course. But if plot is what you're about, make every subplot work for you.

An example: in my story, the Breitling Navitimer, a vintage wristwatch, provided an important subplot. The antagonist owned one, and the anti-hero protagonist used it to set up the villain for a fall in the last chapter. But when I changed the ending, the Navitimer no longer was necessary. I loved the Navitimer. I based it on a friend's watch, with the same backstory, and its presence set up what I thought was a clever ending. But the ending did not work (for various reasons). I realized I was trying too hard to make it work in part because I loved my friend's Navitimer story so much. It was hard to cut. But I did it. Over 2,000 words right there.

* There are a hundred little tricks that let a writer save a word here or there. None of us have time for all 100, but I have a few favorites. Mind you, some of them depend on the tone and language of your piece. Ignore the suggestion if it interferes with your stylistic choice(s). No hard and fast rules here. But a lot of them work.

1: turn sentences structured like, "He unearthed the hairpin belonging to the secretary" into "He unearthed the secretary's hairpin." Particularly helpful when formality leads us to of-related excesses, as in, "The music of the banjo player," a sentence that often (though not always!) can hit on the banjo player's music and move on.

2: Find a better verb than was or is. Not always possible. But a good verb tends to tighten up a sentence. Fewer words, and in most cases you get better writing, too.

3: Try to only use the following when necessary: had been, had, and that. I abuse them all, that in particular. They add up.

4: Don't tack stage direction onto dialogue unless you must. Thus:

"I once broke seven wooden toilet seats with my head," he said, turning the horse around.

...can lose the gerund and everything after it. Again, on occasion you may need the action, though even then I personally prefer a separate sentence for the horse. But most of the time you will not.

5: Don't use much stage direction at all. I sin here often. All through the early drafts my characters interrupt dialogue by opening folders and sipping coffee and fiddling with cell phones. It's an understandable lapse. Like many of you, I learned a lot of storytelling from TV and movies, and too often "see" my scenes with pauses, facial expressions, and other visual cues. But a little of this sort of thing goes a long way when it comes to the written word.

6: Ditto for the attibution-related adverbs. "Zounds," he said reluctantly can usually work with he said or she replied or the like. Again, cutting all but the most necessary adverbs will not only improve your writing, it'll save you dozens--maybe hundreds--of words.

7: See that huge chunk of exposition? Start cutting there. All the harder because it may contain some excellent writing. But in a plot-driven piece, at least, it's probably an information dump or an overdose of background, or both. And I'm not saying cut the whole thing. Just keep what you most need and don't violate the "show, not tell rule."

February 19, 2013

Reading List

On the chair, on the desk, in the computer case....

True Grit, by Charles Portis
Have you ever read this novel? Wow. The determined, judgmental, and self-righteous Mattie Ross is one of the great narrators, in fact in Portis's hands is so powerful she overshadows even Rooster Cogburn, the half-broken U.S. Marshal she hires to find the man who killed her father. The story sweeps right along and Portis never falters in his use of Mattie's distinctive voice. A guy in his forties pulling off the voice of an 1880s teenaged girl is quite a feat. I'm a guy in my forties and I wouldn't touch that job. A terrific novel.

The Hundred Days, by Patrick O'Brian
As I near the end of the Aubrey-Maturin series.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being, by Milan Kundera
I'm about due for the once-in-a-decade reread.

Miracles of Life, by J.G. Ballard
Ballard is one of my influences, and I was surprised and pleased to see this posthumous autobiography. A physician by training, Ballard began his career writing hallucinatory science fiction and some of that, as well as classics like High Rise, have earned respect as literature. As a boy, Ballard lived in Singapore under the Japanese occupation--a time he wrote about in his memoir Empire of the Sun--and in his writing, at least, his view of humanity is not a rosy one. I've read seven or eight Ballard novels and a bushel of short stories and don't remember ever cracking a smile. His reputation continues to grow in the U.K., and though less known here, he has been found worthy of an immense collection of short stories, and a few studies of his work are out there.

January 19, 2013

Daily routines

Ah, the old daily-routines-of-writers trick, the catnip-flavored link bait designed to ensnare wordsmiths of all ages and levels of delusion. Just click through and find another of The Secrets to finishing that novel and gaining so much fame that web sites write stories about your working habits. At least the ones you cop to. No one expects you to tell the truth about the opium.

Daily Routines of Famous Writers, while interesting enough, does what stories like this always do: make me feel bad that I do not get up at four a.m. to write "when the writer is most in touch with the subconscious" or "before the tumult of the day" or whatever the reason(s) given. Mind you, I have been up writing at four a.m. a lot over the years. But I am not getting up. I am still up. For reasons unknown, the record-a-rock-album schedule sank into me in my youth. Left to my own devices--or, if you prefer, in my days before parenthood--I edited a little in the daytime, but really moved into writing mode only in the evening at the earliest.

I do not recommend this habit to anyone. Writing can alienate you enough without throwing you into a pattern at odds with society's circadian rhythm. During excesses of nightowlism I would take a lunch break at 1:30 a.m., until I learned the African guy clerking at the convenience store took his break then and locked the door. A locked 24 hour convenience store! It's like encountering a white rhino.

Another variation on the daily routines story is the writer's desk story. In fact, the topic is such a perennial that there's a handsome book on the topic by Jill Krementz. And it's worth looking at.

Like all Leo Toltoy Mittys I too long for some author to take me seriously enough to put my desk in such a book, so that I can reveal how the Darth Maul action figure on my desk contributes to my creativity. I joke, but I have known people who swore by the "clean desk" or "catastrophically messy" desk principle, the former as an example of respect for the workspace and therefore the work, and latter as a necessary partner to a neat and tidy mind. I subscribe to neither view, by the way. The mess on my desk is usually related to the number of books I have piled up in order to finish an assignment, or whether or not I ate lunch in front of the computer. Now that I think about it, a good fight between Darth Maul and a quesadilla really gets the creative juices flowing.

January 16, 2013

Kama Sutra of Suburbia, and other competition

Today's Salon brings us the first in a series of articles by Go the F*ck to Sleep mastermind Adam Mansbach. He is on the book tour for his new novel. Book tours, it turns out, are stupid.

You start speaking loudly into the microphone, hoping to penetrate the browsers’ consciousness, which causes your mom’s friend to cover her ears with her fingers in the most respectful way possible.

What actually happens is, the fourth person gathers up his stuff and walks out after you’ve read two pages, nearly breaking your fool heart. Some other random bozo does indeed wander over and take his place, but only because he needs a place to read the real estate broker’s licensing handbook he’s been studying in here a few nights a week for the last three three months without buying it.

Amen. When I worked in book retail back after college I saw authors with much longer careers and great acclaim speak to audiences of this size/enthusiasm. Except the random bozo was there every night, and he read vampire lesbian erotica, or those bondage books Anne Rice wrote under a pseudonym, or The Suburban Kama Sutra, that glossy book with airbrushed and hairless white models unconvincingly simulating the Reclining Lotus. I am not criticizing, by the way. Just keep the hands--and only the hands--where we can see them.

I myself am unable to convince a store to allow me to badger four customers with my presentation. I won't say reading, since I doubt I would read more than a few paragraphs of The Constellations, and probably not even that.

As a longtime bookstore patron, and therefore almost by definition a person suffering from a social anxiety disorder, I always find it more interesting if an author either speaks on his/her area of expertise--especially with nonfiction--or just talks a bit and answers questions. Me, personally, I want to get a sense of them as a person--especially with fiction--or hear how their mind works.

Years ago I joined about 25 other people at an event by Richard Powers, a mindblowing novelist with a Nobel in his future. Powers is so brilliant I did not understand the questions others asked, let alone his answers. But I dug the event. I got a glimpse, if only a glimpse, of a writer I admired. It helped that he fulfilled my expectations by talking like a guy with an IQ that is a multiple of mine. Also that he did not sign books but had some astonishing intellectual reason for that choice.

Anyway, I have failed to convince a store to let me do an event. It's too bad. I have no illusions. I would not need awkward comforting by the bookstore employee, indeed, I could tell them stories from my own past in their shoes.

I simply want an opporunity to present my book, or rather my stories behind the book, in front of family and friends. I'd put out candy. I'd tell a few jokes. I'd answer a few polite questions. I'd hand out bookmarks I later found on the sidewalk outside.

Of course the store might like to sell a few books. What if I offered to buy them? Would that work?

January 01, 2013

Reading list

A new year. To my surprise, it's been a while since I wrote the Reading List. Ridiculous, as this is the only easy kind of post to write. Certainly easier than the one on catharsis I'm laboring over. Even after actual research and rewriting it reads about as clearly as a postmodern novel written in Esperanto.

Anyway, the books scattered around my house or in my bag:

HHhH, by Laurent Binet
A terrific, unorthodox historical novel. At the library I opened it to a random page, read, and that was that, I was in. At the core of the story is the Nazi takeover of Czechoslovakia, the rise of SS leader and "perfect Nazi" (there's a contradiction in terms) Reinhard Heydrich, and the plot to kill him undertaken by Czech parachutists Jan Kubis and Jozef Gabcik. Throughout Binet offers commentary on the plot and characters, on his research, on the massive absurdity of writing fiction, and on all the other stuff Milan Kundera or Italo Calvino might discuss if either was in the habit of writing kill-the-Nazi books.

Nancy Is Happy, by Ernie Bushmiller
Long scorned, now championed by graphic novelists and cartoonists of the hipoisie, Nancy had its origin in a 1920s comic strip about a flapper. Once the brillo haired niece in the strip took over, though, Nancy and Bushmiller were on an extremely slow 50-year ride to becoming icons. I share others' oft-stated befuddlement with the Nancy experience. I read and read and basically never crack a smile, while at the same time being utterly absorbed in what I'm looking at. Seriously, the book packs 1,000 or so strips between its attractive vinyl covers, and I have laughed out loud maybe five times, almost always when something hits Sluggo on the head (or, as he calls it, his "baldy bean"). Yet I reread the thing all the time. What does it all mean? No doubt I will go in search of the answer by purchasing volume two. If you wish to contemplate the barest fringe of one of our pop culture's strangest mysteries, Fantagraphics, the publisher, offers a free 20 page sample online.

Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea, by Charles Seife
The title says it all. Research for a contracted nonfiction book for high schoolers. I have some knowledge of the topic. But I had no idea the ancient Greek thinker Pythagoras was a crazy cult leader who executed a follower for undermining his theories.

December 23, 2012

Come in through the bathroom window

The news brings word that burglars stole silver coins from the house of baseball Hall of Famer Carlton Fisk. The thieves only took the coins. Fisk's baseball memorabilia and other valuables remained untouched. More weirdly, it appeared the thieves had kicked back in the 8,000 square foot domicile for a while, though details--raided refrigerator? disgusting bathroom?--were not disclosed.

An exterminator showed up to do some work and found a back door off the hinges. By the way, he said he knows Fisk but had no idea Pudge had played baseball.

As stolen coins figure in The Constellations, I had an interest. Way back when I conceived the crime subplot in the story I decided the burglary itself had to be plausible, small time. No grand plot, no novelty, because the details of the crime had no bearing on the plot. I just needed Dombey, an ex-con doing contracting work, to get his hands on the loot, in this case a stash of collectible coins belonging to a local rich man.

Like most people, I have no practical experience committing major felonies. And like most Americans, my "knowledge" of the criminal underworld comes from TV and the movies, sources shall we say even more dubious than Wikipedia. (I have at least known a couple of real coin collectors.) Rather than inadvertently steal burglary details from one of the Rockford Files reruns that play around here on weekday afternoons, I scoured the Internet to get a sense of what constituted a plausible burglary.

As I said, I did not want details, really. I wanted reassurance that what I had in mind did not set off a reader's bullshit detector by being too easy, too simple, that the crime didn't count too much on the unrealistic levels of human stupidity bad writers depend upon to contrive situations.

Ho, boy.

One would hope that glancing at the crime blotter on random days would reveal extraordinary examples of stupidity, greed, dishonesty, forgetfulness, and treachery too far-fetched for use in fiction. But it's all so small time. Busting in or forcing a window. Unlocked garages that lead to unlocked kitchen doors. Idiots fencing computers at flea markets. People ripping of trusting neighbors, or friends, or relatives, or their workplace, or the elderly person under their care.

Not your typical burglar, alas

Going in through drywall, as Dombey does in my story, seems if anything overly ambitious. But I knew I wanted it to be a contractor of some kind. I did have an example from real life there.

In college I worked at a large, affluent apartment complex. One spring-summer a rash of burglaries hit the place. The burglars got away with a fair amount of stuff. There was a lot of talk of how a ring or other pros periodically drove down from Gary, Indiana--about ten minutes away if you hit all the green lights--to make a score. The spree went on for weeks. At the same time, the local cable company had a crew out wiring up apartments with whatever new Eighties technology was happening at the time, and guess what? The cable guys used their visits to case people's homes and, later, found a reason to go back in to fix some technological mishap. It's very hard to watch two guys. And a lot of people said, Just have them come in while I'm at work.

Presumably they could have stopped and possibly gotten away with it. OK, I doubt it. Surely the cops had seen this scheme before. You never know, though, when lack of evidence will undo a case. But they kept it up and got caught. In my limited contact with the criminal element--many of them blood relatives--I have found that most felons have poor self-control, and do not have nice wardrobes, or British accents.