Thursday, February 25, 2021

New Twit on the Block


I took the plunge into Twitter when I retired. I try to post every day; most days I’m successful. (By “successful,” I mean I tweeted, not that tweet was well received, or received at all. Or even grammatical.) I’m getting more comfortable with it over time (one would hope so), but it’s still a little like trying to tie one’s shoes while wearing mittens.


There are things I like. Twitter is a good for random thoughts expressible in 280 characters or fewer. This forces me to write tight ,as I refuse to resort to Twitter shorthand unless I have no choice. (I will shorten URLs when necessary.)


As the Twitter account I’m keeping up with is my author account, virtually all posts are writing related, things that came to mind that didn’t seem to have blog potential. Sometimes they come in bunches, so I have a file on my desktop where I save them to post over time instead of dumping them all at once.


Twitter is also good for coming across people you might not encounter on Facebook. As far as I can tell, re-tweeting has far more potential for sending a post viral than anything in Facebook. It’s a personal thing, but I’m more willing to follow someone I don’t already know on Twitter than I am to send a friend request on Facebook. This provides me a field of vision less incestuous than what I have on Facebook, where I rarely send friend requests, though I also rarely refuse them unless they are obvious spam.


The downside of Twitter is the character count, which makes it almost impossible to have a serious discussion. Write as tight as you want, there are thoughts you cannot express in 280 characters. Stringing tweets together is fraught with awkward breaks that increase the chances of readers taking comments out of context.


I’m sure my activity will increase as the drop date for the new book approaches. I want to give Twitter at least a year of honest effort, which I have never done. There will be highs and lows as I move along my learning curve. Check this space (or my Twitter feed: @DanaKingAuthor) for progress reports and feel free to send suggestions, either here, via Twitter, or on Facebook.

Thursday, February 18, 2021

Abandoning Your Darlings

 I may have mentioned I now no longer edit first drafts; I re-write them. (I have so much going on right now I don’t remember what I told The Beloved Spouse™ ten minutes ago, so how am I going to remember what I might have written last month?)


Full disclosure: it’s not exactly a first draft I’m re-writing. It’s about a draft-and-a-half. Something like those 24 ouncers you get at some bars. I did an entire draft in Scrivener, which I like a lot because of how easily I can move things around. I let it sit a while, then read it through, making notes as I go. Another pass to address the notes, making additions and cuts as needed. Then I let it sit again.


Now I’m rewriting. (Or re-typing, depending on your opinion of my writing.) Scrivener is at the top of my screen, Word at the bottom. Some things come over verbatim. Nothing gets copied and pasted. Even if a large chunk comes over with no changes, I make myself retype it.


This is not because I’m super old school. This gives me every opportunity to make change. Typing can be a chore for me, so if I really don’t feel like transferring something, maybe that’s the Muse telling me that bit doesn’t belong. I rephrase a lot of things, and sometimes add several paragraphs if a new bit presents itself.


This is the second book I’ve done this way; the process is still under refinement. The downside is it’s far more time consuming than converting the Scrivener files to Word and doing a straight-up edit. (Scrivener is great for assembling stories, but shit for editing.) The upside is that it’s far more time consuming than converting the Scrivener files to Word and doing a straight-up edit, which forces me to think about everything.


As we all know, the most difficult, and important, aspect of writing is killing your darlings. You worked hard on them and it breaks your heart to hit the delete key. Re-doing the whole thing means that never happens. Now when I come across a darling and the realization strikes that it doesn’t belong, I just leave it out, as it’s far easier to leave your darlings by the side of the road than it is to kill them.

Thursday, February 11, 2021

Staying Fresh


Last week I wrote about the convergence of my writing process with Joe Lansdale’s description of his before I even knew what his was. This week I’ll conclude those thoughts; great rejoicing may ensue.


We left off with how much more free time retirement provides, which doesn’t mean I spend all that time with fingers on keyboard. I try to write at least three times a day, in bursts of 45 minutes to an hour. Longer than that and my ego starts to intrude, and, as Milch says, the ego is the enemy of creativity. Set it aside, do anything else for a while, come back. Worries about this process being more indicative of sloth than art were put to rest in Joe’s post: “I try to write only about three hours a day. I stay fresh that way, and don't get so tuckered out that next day I do nothing.” Staying fresh is a big deal. I now look forward to the next session, rather than feeling as though I have to get it in out of a sense of duty.


Staying fresh is also forestalls burnout, as taking too many “maintenance” days can make it too easy to postpone writing altogether. Joe again: “I try to work five to seven days a week, and it takes something special to throw off that approach.” That’s exactly what I do. Paraphrasing Stephen King, “It’s true you do your best work when the Muse strikes. It’s helpful if the Muse knows when and where to look for you.”


All this cultivation of the subconscious is necessary and fruitful, but the subconscious is not the best arbiter of what’s good or we’d all get rich by transcribing dreams. Per Joe: “There's a lot of stuff there in the subconscious, and the disorganized materials have to be trained to line up, and this is a primary duty of the conscious mind, which for me works best after the subconscious has sorted things, and has in fact done a lot of secret plotting. The conscious mind scrapes off the edges, jettisons the useless, the materials that will not work in your story.” In other, less entertaining words, editing.


Two other great writers’ ideas come to mind:

Hemingway: Write drunk. Edit sober.

Milch: There are no mistakes, only things that need to be better.

How I think of it: The subconscious can create a baby but only the conscious can properly prepare the little bastard to go out into the world.


I could go on, but I won’t. As the philosopher Harry Callahan said, “A man has got to know his limitations.” Writing is not hard; it’s difficult. It’s not ditch digging, but it’s also not for the faint of heart. Understanding what we’re doing won’t necessarily make us better, but it will prevent us spending our free time learning to tie nooses and looking for open beams. If you have to take your medicine, it might as well come from someone like Joe Lansdale, who can make it go down so much easier.


(Thanks to Joe for allowing me to quote him in these posts.)

Thursday, February 4, 2021

De- and Re-fining Process

 Last week I wrote about Joe Lansdale’s thoughts on first readers and got tangential a few times. This week I have more from Joe’s Facebook posts on writing, dealing with the process itself.


Again, it’s gratifying and validating for someone with my level of accomplishment to see my method has evolved along the lines of one of the greats. I am comfortable with not having the same level of talent or success. What matters is, however good my writing may or may not be, it’s not because of things that are under my control. I’ve done my due diligence.


The topic of Joe’s post was, “How Many Drafts Should You Write?” Joe’s answer fits in with what my practice and research have shown me: there is no right answer. Joe writes: “Each writer finds their path. I do one, and then a polish. Now and again I end up doing more polish than expected, and each day I revise as I go, so how many drafts do I do daily? No idea.”


I’m a bit more OCD, so I have a pretty good idea, but the number of drafts has changed dramatically over the years. I used to keep hacking until I couldn’t bear to look at the manuscript anymore and was spending most of my time adding and removing the same commas. Then I started using each draft for specific things: one for descriptions, one for each character to get their voices right and unique, one for action and narrative, then the overall polishing. That took forever and require too much polishing, as the multiple drafts left me with a story that didn’t seem organic.


I winnowed that down by beginning each day by looking over and tidying up yesterday’s work. This probably saved a draft and had the added benefit of reminding me exactly where I was the day before.


Then I came across David Milch’s concept of “resting transparently.” (It’s actually Kierkegaard’s concept, but since Milch distilled it into something I can understand, I give him the credit.) My version is to think as little as possible about what needs to be written today because that’s the conscious mind looking for a logical continuation of what I wrote yesterday, which is not always where the story needs to go. Now I sit quietly, letting my mind wander until I know what I want to do. At first I’d often as not fall asleep. Now there are days where I sit for as little as thirty seconds before I’m virtually propelled out of the chair and off to the keyboard.


This isn’t much different from Joe’s advice, though arrived at from a different direction: “The most important thing I learned as a writer was to work from the subconscious. This sounds easy, and pretty much is once you are able to tap into it, but it takes practice.” Resting transparently is my way of releasing my subconscious. With practice I find I barely need the actual process. My subconscious now knows when to feed me what it’s been working right when I need it.


What stimulates my subconscious? Many of the same things Joe describes. “Reading novels, stories, comics, non-fiction and viewing films, TV shows, are fuel for the subconscious…” I used to feel like I was stealing when I took an idea from a previous work and adapted to my needs until I saw a d read enough to realize how many stories are adaptations of things that came before. Just because I first saw a scene by Author A doesn’t mean he hadn’t seen a variant of it elsewhere. I used to feel bashful about changing the ending of my first Nick Forte book to use a concept I saw in the movie Three Days of the Condor, especially after it received a Shamus nomination. Now I’m looking forward to thanking James Grady the next time I see him, less for “giving” me the idea, than for putting something out there I was able to adapt to my own purposes.


The subconscious is not as low maintenance as one might suppose, especially when you hope to get some benefit from it. Milch tries never to think about writing except when he’s doing it. Unsaid is that his subconscious, left to its own devices, is always churning away, whether he’s aware of it or not. He likes to operate on faith and I believe a lot of that faith is that his subconscious will not abandon him.


Lansdale has a similar attitude: “But, during the day, if I could learn to relax and think about anything but story, ideas would develop, and certainly at night a seed would be found.” I retired at the end of last year and now, a month or so down the road, I find I’m much more creative. More story ideas, more ideas on how to improve what’s in progress, more ideas about what I might want to revisit. I believe that’s because I’m no longer tied to thinking about workaday things half my waking hours, five days a week, with those concerns also intruding on my “free” time. Now I spend an hour or three most days taking care of household business, then my day is free.


(Next week I’ll conclude this series with a post on pacing yourself to stay fresh. Thank to Joe Lansdale for allowing me to quote from his posts.






Thursday, January 28, 2021

How Many Cooks do You Need?

Last week I mentioned coming across notes on the writing process from Joe Lansdale, which meant I read them immediately because anything Joe Lansdale says about writing is worth knowing. Imagine how gratified I was to learn my process has been evolving toward what he does.


That doesn’t mean I’ll reach Joe Lansdale levels of accomplishment, just as my appropriation of David Milch’s concept of “resting transparently” sets me up to approach HBO about rebooting Deadwood. It’s still nice to see, having already moved in this direction, what Joe might have to say I haven’t thought of.


On first readers, Joe writes*, “Frankly, I'm my first and second and third reader, and then the editor is the fourth, and finally the proof reader, and myself again.” I read each chapter of the first and last drafts to The Beloved Spouse™, then send it off to the publisher for editing and proofreading; in between it’s all me. I used to run books through a laborious process of reading damn near the whole thing to a writers’ group a chapter or two at a time, until I moved far enough away that getting back there twice a month was a chore. What I might be missing worried me until I noticed the books still received the same feedback as before, even though I invested a lot less agita in the writing.


That’s no rap on the group. I wouldn’t be half the writer I am now were it not for the two writers’ groups I worked with ten years ago and more. The things is, as Joe puts it, “I decide to have faith in myself and do. Sometimes my faith can let me down a little, but mostly it doesn't. I've learned the hard way in years past that I don't want to muddle up my thinking with someone else's, as I lose my power over the story, my feeling for it…Early on I showed manuscripts and even created a writer's group. There were enough opinions there to confuse and contradict, and frankly, in the end, all that mattered to me was if I liked it, and if the editors liked it, paid me and published it.”


Joe and I operate on entirely different levels of the industry; that’s fine. Talent, like water, finds its own level. This may be even truer for me than for Joe, as I’m not making a living from writing, so I have no concerns about a disruption of my income stream if my editor or published decides to give a book a pass. It’s like the man with a two-inch erection picking up a woman. She gets a look and says, “Who do you expect to satisfy with that?” He says, “Me.” I like to think my books are at least three-and-a-half-inch erections, but the point is still valid.


I’ve commented in the past on what I call “bestseller style” and why I read so few bestsellers for that reason. I suspect bestseller style is often a result of writing by committee, everyone feeling they need to make a “contribution” until there’s little to distinguish the writing of one author from another. Quoting Joe on waiting until he decides he’s finished: “By then the cake had been baked, and I'm willing to listen and see if they have some good ideas for the icing. Sometimes they do, but sometimes they aren't aware I don't like coconut in my icing, so I ignore certain things and demand my own brand of chocolate, but I don't mind listening to their advice about how to smooth it on with a cake knife.”


That kind of advice is always welcome, even if only two reasons would apply. (There are more, but these are the big ones.)

  • 1   I know what a specific sentence is supposed to mean but people not resident in my mind may not.
  •  I am not always the most elegant cake icer. Sometimes a little smoothing out is in order.

That’s said, not all cakes need to be white (read: vanilla), and I detest coconut in any part of mine.


My level of accomplishment may give pause to some about listening to my advice, but I have always believed the author has to remember whose name will be on the cover. Acknowledgements can share the credit, but the blame will all be yours. Well-meaning constructive criticism is not a synonym for improvement.


*-- All Joe Lansdale quotes used with his permission.


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.