Thursday, January 21, 2021

The Continuing Examination of Process


The writing process fascinates me, if only because everyone has their own. When I started out I read everything I could find on process because, frankly, I had no idea what I was doing. Outline or no outline? How detailed should the outline be? Detailed character sketches, or learn the characters as I went? How many drafts?


Now that I’ve been doing it for over twenty years and have published eleven books with another on the way (Leaving the Scene, available in May from Down and Out Books, just sayin’), I have learned two things for sure:

1.     There is no “correct” process.

2.     Find what works for you and run with it. Refine as needed.


My employment career taught me to be on the lookout for better ways to do things. Not for the sake of change, but to be alert for situations where change is necessary, if only because the conditions under which the current process was devised no longer exist. For a writer, that may mean you know more about writing than you used to.


I used to do a draft solely to refine descriptions. I eventually realized the books I liked to read didn’t spent a great deal of time on description things beyond what the reader had to know. So I cut this draft, along with the amount of description provided. If I make a point to say the character has striking blue eyes, there’s a reason for it. Even then, I’m not going to spend a page on it. James Lee Burke can do that. The more astute among have noticed I ain’t James Lee Burke.


I also used to invest a draft by going through each character’s dialog individually in an effort to prevent characters’ dialog from sounding all alike. Several years ago I decided I had reached a point where I don’t need to spend that kind of time and level of effort. This is now incorporated into the general revisions.


The end result is I now feel confident enough in my grasp of what’s required not to have to so actively search out discussions on process. That doesn’t mean I’m averse to learning what one of my favorites does. I’ve written before about stumbling over a series of lectures by David Milch and how they affected me; I’m sure you’ll hear about them again.


A few weeks ago Joe Lansdale made a series of Facebook posts describing his process. That would be worth reading even if I weren’t a writer—I suspect Lansdale’s grocery lists are entertaining—but these struck me for a couple of reasons.

1.     They showed a process similar to what I appear to be evolving toward.*

2.     They gave me ideas for what I might want to try next.

I’m not going to go into them now, as we’re already over 500 words and what I have in mind will be at least twice that long again. Consider this a teaser for what to expect the next couple of weeks. That will give me time to look them over more fully and hopefully be able to better distill my thoughts, which is why I blog in the first place: to distill my thoughts. Anything you take away is collateral damage.


*-- Alas, he did not transfer any talent in these posts. Such is life.

Thursday, January 14, 2021

Avoiding the Perils of Mission Creep


The inciting incident of the work-in-progress (working title: Officer Involved) is the shooting of a white man by a black officer. Within 24 hours we learn this wasn’t just any white guy; Richie Johnson was a white supremacist. The book spends most of its time dealing with the tightie whites, neo-Nazis, and fellow travelers who come to town to protest this latest example of “white genocide.”


The first draft is done. Right now I’m going through each chapter in Scrivener to make sure it all makes sense before retyping everything in Word. I had more to correct than usual due to a large number of moving parts and simultaneous actions. Nothing that couldn’t be surmounted.


Then Trump Nation stormed the Capitol.


Don’t worry. This post will not turn political. Those who took over the Capitol for a few hours last week are seditious traitors no matter why they did it. I’ll say no more about them. What rattled me as an author were parallels between what I saw and heard and things I already had in my story. Then I started thinking about the things that weren’t in the story but would fit quite well.


I kept plugging along, fixing what I had already decided needed it, letting the new ideas percolate in my subconscious. Over the weekend bits of writing advice I stole from Edith Wharton came to mind, several of which apply here.


·       Do less, better. I had this book refined pretty well. Mission creep could be a problem. This led directly to

·       Know you scope. I’ve read too many books and worked on too many projects (remember when I had a job?) that started out tight and right and concluded as bloated messes. John McNally taught me to beware of putting too much into the container. If I still feel a need to cover these other ideas, I can write another book.

·       Lead with your characters. Making the story too broad inevitably leads to either an unrealistic time frame or a population explosion. Adding more characters would dilute the impact of the those more principal to the story.

·       Dialog is where you learn most about characters. Dialog is what I do best, but if there are too many characters (see above) the book requires either more narrative or door-stop length.

·       Create peaks and valleys. Throwing too much into the stew could make the story run too hot for too long. There’s a reason I rarely watch superhero movies.

·       Have a point. The book has a point now; no book needs a point and a half. The next Penns River novel, taking shape as we speak, can accommodate the new ideas.

I need an outline to write a novel. Without one I tend to get off-track and risk throwing away large chunks of writing that don’t go anywhere. The outline is flexible, but I can more reliably take detours if I have the map handy. This has been a good object lesson, on two levels. The one I’ve been discussing here, and that no matter how long one has been doing something, occasional reminders of basic lessons are never bad thing.

Thursday, January 7, 2021

Settling into Retirement


This will be brief. Retirement is busier than I expected.


I pushed back a lot of stuff because I knew time would free up. Now the accounting is due. I could do it all in a couple of weeks of concentrated effort, but the point of retiring is not to have to bust one’s ass. As the masthead says, eat the elephant one bite at a time.


All of this must be worked around my new “job”: writing. I do three sessions a day and the work in progress progresses nicely. I reserved one of those lots for projects other than the current Penns River novel, such as this blog post. I have three good ideas for novels backed up and a fourth taking shape, but my personality demands I focus on one at a time or I’ll never finish any. That doesn’t mean I have to start from scratch when a project works itself to the head of the queue. Not anymore.


I’d also like to become more active online. Not working nine hours a day should free me up for more posts to my Facebook author page. I may try Twitter. Some sort of podcast lingers at the back of my mind. Maybe a newsletter. I won’t have time for all of these, but I won’t know which I find most rewarding until I try them.


I will do more virtual events. So far I have been involved in exactly one, a Noir at the Bar Ed Aymar put together last May. (A shout out to the estimable Mr. Aymar. He remains tireless in his support of other authors and independent bookstores. Saying anything nice about Ed exhausts me. I’ll be back after a brief lie-down.) My reluctance to participate was in no way criticism of these events. I worked from home for the past ten years. I participated in five or more “virtual events” a week all that time; I found no recreation in them. Now that I don’t have to do them, I expect to want to do them.


This week I’ll tie off a loose end with my health insurance; straighten (read: shovel out) my office, aka The Entropy Garden; begin the process of disposing of coins left by my father that have lingered in the den for three years; and investigate selling my car. (We don’t need two cars with both of us retired. Since we we retired folks are (in)famous for squeezing a nickel till the buffalo screams, the extra car has to go.)


There’s more, but it’s all routine stuff. Household tasks put off while more urgent pre-retirement tasks took precedence. January is a settling in month, including getting past the constant feeling of “What is it I should be doing?” when the answer is no longer, “Going to work, asshole.” I’m sure I’ll catch on.

Thursday, December 31, 2020

My First Day of Retirement

 So I'm sleeping late. Leave me alone. I'll have something for you next week.

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Happy Holidays


While 2020 has been a large, runny turd in the punchbowl of life, it has not been uneventful here at Castle Schadenfreude. Alas, not all the goings on have been good.

I was diagnosed late last year with a form of macular degeneration in my right eye. Monthly treatments have kept my vision relatively stable. About the only thing I don’t do is drive on unfamiliar roads at night, though most everything else takes a little longer. It could be a lot worse, but we’re staying on top of it and I have a great doctor, so the outlook is as good as can be expected.

·       In February, Dr. Sole Heir’s mother gifted her a car with one catch: The Good Doctor had to pick it up in Maryland and get it to New Orleans. I volunteered to co-pilot, and it was a weekend well spent.

·       In the spring John A. Hoda was kind enough to have me as a guest on his fine podcast. Even better, I had the slot between two major forces in the business, Michael Koryta and Joseph Wambaugh.

·       The newest Penns River novel, Pushing Water, came out in May. Leaving the Scene comes out in the spring of 2021.

·       I read at a virtual Noir at the Bar in May. Kudos to Ed Aymar for keeping the flam going for these events in the DC area.

·       My mother died from the virus on August 13. If anyone wonders why I’ve been such a hard case about social distancing and staying safe, this is a large reason. Everyone has to die, and Mom had a 93-year run, but no one should have to die like that.

·       Public Service Announcement: When sump pump backup batteries die, they smell like a gas leak. So much so the fire company doesn’t even fuss about what amounts to a false alarm when they scramble to see what’s what. We’re more than grateful for their speedy and friendly response, though it will not prevent the cops in my books making fun of firefighters.

·       In a matter unrelated to the battery failure, the sump pump failed in October. The damage was minor, but it was a week spent moving things and drying to dry out The Beloved Spouse’s craft room, made even tougher due to the rising street value of Lysol and other disinfectants

·       One bit of unadulterated good news: I am retiring at the end of the year. I’ll likely keep my hand in part-time, but I’m using my brother as role model, appreciating that I now have the hammer and can choose when, how much, and on what to work.

 Corky has kept busy during her enforced confinement, as well:

·       She’s an active quilter. Each project gets a little more elaborate and challenging.

·       She still makes cards, though not as much as she used to, given the time taken up by quilting.

·       She spent a lot of time back in the early days of the virus making masks. We have a variety of colors and styles, as do some friend, relatives, and Zack’s entire class at flight school. (More on him later.)

·       We broke down and bought an air fryer, which keeps her busy keeping up with its features, as it also grills and does so many other things I can’t keep track. Last week it woke me up, made coffee, and emptied the dishwasher.

 Rachel (aka “Dr. Sole Heir”) is well into the second year of her internal medicine residency at Tulane. She doesn’t want too much made of it because she hasn’t seen many covid cases since the post-Mardi Gras surge, but things are picking up down there again, making all of us doubly happy to see she got her first vaccination on December 16.

 Zack (aka “The Sole Son-in-Law”) finished the basic portion of flight school for the Coast Guard and is currently on hiatus before starting rotary-wing training. Both he and Rachel are exactly where they are supposed to be, doing exactly what they want to do, and we couldn’t be prouder of them.

 Stay safe and patient, folks. The vaccines are at hand, even if they don’t roll out as quickly as we’d like. We hope to see you down the road a ways.


Happy Holidays.

Thursday, December 17, 2020

Go West, Old Man

 The Western novel lingers. I set it aside when I got stuck, then the current Penns River story took precedence. I thought to look west between Penns River drafts but was asked to contribute to an anthology, which was well worth the diversion. I have high hopes for the project.

 A couple of weekends ago The Beloved Spouse and I spent an evening with Clint Eastwood’s masterpiece, Unforgiven. The story bears no resemblance to mine except for the time period and general geographic are, but it put the bug in me. Every couple of days since then I find myself reaching for the journal or opening Scrivener to add notes. If nothing else, I figured out what was holding me up.

 A year or so ago I came across half a dozen writing tips from Edith Wharton that sum up what my problem had been.

1.     Know your scope. The original plan was to write a book about a town cobbled out of four ranches, and the frictions that ensued. This was too broad. The real story concerns the interactions of a town marshal, his protégé, and a federal who comes to town in pursuit of a fugitive.

2.     Do less, better. I’m narrowing the scope to sharpen the focus.

3.     Lead with your characters. Whatever goes on in town must support the three main characters in some way, which means I need to create fully realized settings and subordinate characters who help add depth to the big three.

4.     Dialog is where you learn most about your characters. This I already had pretty well under control.

5.     Create peaks and valleys. I had them, but they were random. Pushing the emphasis more toward the three major characters will help with this.

6.     Have a point. I had one when I started but it became diffused. Writing about a town can show certain qualities of the people, but focusing on the people allows a point to be made more relatable.

 I’m changing the name of the town, and the title. The town, formerly called “Necessity” because the founding ranchers desperately needed something to provide them with economies of scale on the Wyoming prairie, is now called “Savior Springs” after a wagon train that got lost was saved from dying of thirst by the source of water and decided they’d gone far enough. (I suspect in time I’ll come up with a reason for the town to prosper, at least enough to support the story.)

 The title, which was to be “Necessity, Wyoming Territory,” (about the town, right?) will now be “Lawmen.” That’s who it’s about now, with the added benefit of having more of a Western sound to it. I’m revved up to get the next draft of the WIP done so I can get back to this.

 Good thing I’ll be retired in a couple of weeks.

Thursday, December 10, 2020

Post-Retirement Writing

 Last week I talked about my retirement plans. Writing was mentioned only in passing. That doesn’t mean I don’t have plans along those lines.

 I’m already into the second draft of the “official” WIP, working title “Officer Involved.” It’s the seventh Penns River novel, about a Black cop shooting a white man. Not just any white man; a white supremacist. A bunch of Whitey’s buddies decide this can’t go unremarked upon and the local cops have their hands full.

 I also have a story that needs one or two more passes. It’s a Western based on the song “Seven Spanish Angels.”

 Queued up behind them are:

  • Another Penns River story about illegal high school football betting. Tentative title: “The Spread.”
  • A return to Nick Forte. Forte leaves Chicago to help Goose, who has gone to the hills to help his family. Tentative title: “The Bottom.”
  • A Penns River short story, “The Box,” that has been awaiting edits since the 35-day government shutdown a couple of years ago.

 The first few weeks, while practicing the Chinatown Principle*, I intend to watch a Western a day to whet my appetite for the Western novel I’ve picked up and set down several times. There are good bits there, but I haven’t found the narrative I want to tie them together. Maybe some immersion will help.

 After that? I have notes on a high-octane thriller I may write for the hell of it, just to see if I can do it. I suspect it will end up being a bit of a satire, but that’s okay, too.

 I also have an itch to write a straight-up comedy novel. Maybe even a caper. My mind doesn’t tend to plot as tightly as a caper requires, but this is how we learn, right?

 I suspect I’ll have other ideas as time goes. I’m going to be disappointed if I’m not retired for a long time.

 (*--Evelyn Mulwray: What were you doing [in Chinatown]?

Jake Gittes: Working for the District Attorney.

Evelyn Mulwray: Doing what?

Jake Gittes: As little as possible.)