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.