Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Lone Seagull and Catalina

Misting the Orchids

I'm reading The Devil's Guide to Hollywood by Joe Eszsterhas, who wrote Basic Instinct and Flashdance and is considered a volatile Hollywood rebel.

He has what he calls ReelSpeak peppered throughout the book in little call-outs.

Here are a couple examples:

An Ambiance Chaser:
A director who uses smokepots in every scene

Parallel Creativity:
phrase used by someone who has plagiarized you

and then there was the one that struck me particularly in this phase of my rewriting

Don't Mist the Orchids:
Don't lay on the sentimentality too thickly

This is apropos for me because I'm writing a novel that has a large romance at the core of it and that happens, ironically, to have some orchid-like flowers skulking around in one scene.

In the stories I've written that I like best, the stories that seem to move people, I've never written with much direct sentimentality. The emotion has come, I think, from what a reader imagines the characters must be feeling, not from what the writer claims they are feeling. And the reader imagines that the characters must be feeling these things because I've proven it with dialog and description.

It's not an intellectual proof, of course. The reader doesn't rationalize that these feelings must be true. She simply feels them.

To a certain degree, I haven't found the right tone, the right approach, yet in several of the important scenes in this book. I've done, I think, too much misting of the orchids.

This aspect of the writing is tough. Finding the right balance, feeling the moment when a scene proves itself emotionally can be a slippery exercise. But in a book like the one I'm writing, it's an all-or-nothing affair. I either get this part right or I go home a loser.

I'm starting by excising nearly every direct reference to a character emoting. Losing sighs, exhalations and tears as fast as I can hunt them down. After that, it's a very painful matter of finding action and dialog that can evoke the intended emotions in the reader without directly begging for them with such ham-fisted tricks by my characters.

If I can manage to turn a failing scene around in an interesting way, I'll post the before and after for your 'enjoyment.'

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Thursday, March 25, 2010

A Gap-Filling Project

I’ve hit some resistance as I’m working on the last third of the book and rewriting, based on reader feedback, the first two-thirds. Not sure what it’s about, exactly, but I’ve found myself fiddling far too much the last several days.

So, rather than stare off into space, or at facebook, or at any of myriad photography sites, this morning I got to work on corralling a group of short stories and photos for the Smashwords book I’m going to post soon.

It’s fun gathering, making decisions about what should and shouldn’t be in there, and arranging.
For each of the photos and each of the short stories, I plan to write a very short sort of bio explaining its context. I’ve decided that I won’t edit any of them, even if I’d make different choices now than I did when I first wrote them.

Several of the formats produced by Smashwords (the Kindle, particularly, comes to mind) won’t do well with photos. But I still like the notion of including them and at least get a sense, for next time, if there’s any way to make it worth doing.

As I get into deeper into the flow of producing this ‘book,’ I’ll post about my experiences in case anyone else has any interest in giving it a go with their writing.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Moonshine

Listening to You Inner Nag

I've gotten feedback about the mid-section of my book from several readers now. While most of the responses are positive, a series of important questions came up in the critiques. More than questions, really. Too many were of the form I don't like when . . . , I don't believe it that . . . , I don't like this character when . . .

The first response when I read this kind of stuff is, naturally, Damn It. This comes from the conflicting urges that swirl around inside me. I want to be told that my writing is magnificent, perfect just the way it is. That it cures cancer, enhances women's bustlines and improves male performance. But the second urge, the one that has to win, needs to hear the truth.

So, after about three-second's-worth of depression, I sat down to consider the complaints.

It didn't take long for a very consistent theme to emerge. Nearly every one of the larger complaints related to something that I knew, at some level, was problematic. As I was writing, I had some niggling sense that I was stretching things, that I was asking for trouble.

Usually this happened because I knew I needed to get my character into a certain situation, didn't care much what the excuse was, and went with the first thing that came to mind. The situation causing a reader to complain wasn't the point of things, it was just a transport mechanism from some point that mattered to another point that mattered.

I wasn't exactly being lazy. Impatient is more the word. And in my impatience, I chose to ignore my Inner Nag.

I can't tell you how many times this proves to be a bad idea. Readers have eyes like I do. Very likely they'll see the jangling shortcut and complain.

So now I'm going back to give these transitions the attention they really deserve. And I'm hoping to be a better listener the next time Nag has something to say.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

A Disruptive Brainstorm

I've had the feeling (and some feedback) that the main character in my novel is too damned wimpy. She's meant to be afraid of the world in some important respects--at least to open the story--but she can't project as a hopeless, boring wimp.

As I studied the first two scenes, I had a minor brainstorm and just did a little riffing, re-crafting the end of one of them, modifying the tone of the star to, I think, a meaningful degree.

Unfortunately, assuming I believe this tone change improves things, I've got to rework nearly every scene in which my star has anything to say. Some of the reworking will be trivial, some of it painful. But so far I believe the change is for the better, and that makes me very happy.

So my brainstorm was, at once, an 'aha!' and an 'ah, sh**!' moment. I'll let you know how my editorial readers and I take to the change.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Long Beach Dawning

Appoaching a Finish Line

I sent the second third of the book out to a group of readers yesterday. Today, I'll print all the pages up to that point for my first straight-run read. I look forward to hefting a stack of 230+ pages, to fanning them and sitting down for a careful read. There's something about the bulk of a stack like that that brings a book breathing to life in ways it doesn't when I'm just staring at it on a computer screen.

I'd hoped (actually had a stated goal) to be done with a solid draft by yesterday, but since I'm still making steady progress, still working in earnest, I'm happy enough with where I sit.

I'm going to give myself another three weeks to finish a full draft and get the final pages out. As soon as that's done, it will be time to lean into a query letter.

The only thing I can foresee possibly derailing my timetable is some bit of feedback requiring major surgery. I want that kind of feedback if it's necessary, of course. But I'm hoping it's not necessary.

It's been a long time since I chased an agent, chased publication for a novel. So it will be a huge moment to get myself back into that phase of the game. I can't wait to begin stalking both real-world mailbox and my gmail version, waiting for responses from the professionals.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Yes, Indeed, I'm a Flunky

On Friday night, I worked on a film based on a short story a friend of mine wrote. It's the first time in a long time that I've been on a real movie set, and it was a hell of a lot of fun.

The point of it, for me, was to prime the pump for the movie I'm planning to make, to get my head into the game again. On that count, it worked like a charm.

The work I did could have been handled by a precocious monkey, it's true--laying 'stingers' (extension cords to the uninitiated), hanging lights, trailing actors-in-motion with lights, packaging up gear when the night was done--but it was necessary and it gave me the chance to watch the flow of a movie again, to see the latest gear, and to watch things like a director's interaction with an actor.

Throughout the night, especially when I wasn't actively engaging in my flunky-hood, I watched and thought, how would I handle what's going on here?

In many cases, on topics ranging from lighting, to dialog, to the intensity of performance, to camera angle, I'd have made different choice than the director did. This is no insult to the director. Film-makers--even expat filmmakers like me--have egos and ideas. It's why, in the end, we want to direct.

So the process of thinking, What would I do here? really did awaken the director beast in me.

Very useful and great fun.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Random Blatherings

I've had some hard slogging in the last couple weeks, not performing--in most respects--the way I've been hoping too.

I'm working 'diligently' to edit what amounts to a little more than the central third of the book in order to get it into the hands of my group of readers. I'm finding a handful of sections that need a loving hand and repeatedly struggling to lean into the fixes the way I need to.

In the rewriting phase, goal-setting is a little bit more difficult than when I can simply say, "Today, I must produce a thousand words." Many days during this stretch, my novel has shrunk. Other days, I've simply made subtle changes that, I hope, improve small stretches of scenes.

Why some scenes prove more resistant to improvement than others, I'm not always sure. Often when I force work that doesn't feel like coming, even difficult fixes sorta melt away with just a handful of keystrokes. But for whatever reason, some fixes look daunting. And sometimes their resistance is enough to drive me away from those pages for good stretches of time.

I'd like to understand this problem and to be able to blast away at it with more gutty consistency, but I'm a work in progress this way (of course I'm a work in progress in every way, but you get the point).

Speaking of works in progress, I'm reading a book called Talent is Overrated.

The basic premise is that the idea of prodigy, of God-given-genius, is a fallacy. Instead, the author contends that there are essentially no shortcuts to brilliance in any given field. He traces the history of people like Mozart, Tiger Woods, Jerry Rice and others to build up a proof that a long history of what he calls deliberate practice is required to create a prodigy.

The definition of deliberate practice is vitally important:

Deliberate practice . . .
  • is designed specifically to improve performance
  • can be repeated a lot
  • allows for continual feedback on results
  • is highly demanding mentally
  • isn't much fun

The last will probably send a lot of people heading for the aisles, but this is an important point because, naturally, if it were fun everyone would do it.

The good thing about this line of thinking is that real achievement is possible to more people than might be imagined.

'So,' you might ask, 'Why should I give a rat's behind?'

Well, I'm not sure why you should care, but I care because I'm always hoping to figure out how to improve my chances of building the life I really want to live (and I always feel like there's vast room for improvement on that count).

This idea of deliberate practice erases a great deal of magical thinking that so often circles around great achievement. Since I'm not magic, I prefer workaday answers to the questions I have about how to get where I want to go.

Of course deliberate practice is easier to define and grade in an area like sports, so full of built-in measurements for success. For writers, it's not so cut and dried. But I really hope to figure out how to lay out a long-time stream of work that will qualify as deliberate practice. And I hope along the way to improve radically my ability to deliver the way I want to as a writer.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

'In a moment,' My Ass

Listening to the middle section section of my book (a little more than a third in terms of word count), I'm drowning in transitions that reflect some version of passing time. Most of them have the word 'moment' in them, and most of them need to be shown the door.

I know I've said it before, but I can't recommend listening to a reading of your story (even a lousy computer-generated reading) to guide the editing process strongly enough.

It's true that rewriting the old-fashioned way is helpful, but, at least for me, there's a snow-blindness that makes it far too easy to glide over all manner of problematic prose. Beyond improving the hunt for errors, I find myself having more 'brainstorms' about how to draw threads consistently through the story when I listen than I would otherwise.

The listening is especially good for giving you a sense of how well tension plays out in your story. Several times, I've realized that I've laid out some form of drama only to pay it off far to soon to allow for real tension to take hold. This tension (or lack of it) seems far more evident in the listen that in the read.

I'm not at all sure if this is due simply to the snow-blindness (I've read all the words 20 times for every listen), or if there's something more fundamental about a listen. But in the end, I don't suppose it matters. The out-loud version of editing is helpful in ways red-pen-to-paper isn't.

Another happy side effect of the out-loud edit is that it's fun. The story becomes more like a product you might have purchased someone than like the same words-on-paper crap you've been staring at for months on end.

If I haven't sold you by now on the concept of Out Loud Editing, I don't suppose I ever will. So I'll just say it one last time. Give it a try.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Limping Through the "I Stink" Phase

I've been working on a particularly important scene in my novel knowing that it has to have huge impact for the story to payoff well.

Reading what I've written so far--and the dreck that keeps flowing from my 'pen'--I'm worse that riddled with doubt. I hate what I see, in all its permutations. It's boring, trite, and maudlin. It has lumpy rhythms and it smells bad.

This is one of the moments in a project tailor-made to test how serious I am.

Every project with anything more than trifling ambitions has these kinds of moments sprinkled throughout. Crises of faith, I'll call them.

All I can do is grind away at it, determined not to let the struggle shake my confidence too seriously. I will undoubtedly come back to this scene several dozen times, trying surgeries both minor and major. I will likely have to let it sit and fester a while (to give bored and disgusted eyes a chance at renewal).

Eventually, I'll read it and feel like it has started to come around, like some change I've made has excised the cancer of ineptitude. And in that moment, I'll likely have a sense of what made it better, of what it needs to go from a scene that doesn't stink to one that sings.

Between now and then, I must persist. This is simply another permutation of the world asking me, "How Serious Are You?"